Hazrat Shah Wali Ullah

Hazrat Shah Wali Ullah, the great Muslim reformer of eighteenth-century India, was born in 1702 into a family that had already produced many Muslim scholars, especially his father, Shah Abdur Rahim, who had founded the Rahimiyya Centre for religious learning in Delhi. Shah Wali Ullah’s father supervised his son’s Islamic education, and before his death in 1719, he appointed Shah Wali Ullah as the head of his religious school and initiated him into the Naqshbandi Order.

During his visit to Mecca on the pilgrimage in 1730, Shah Wali’ullah claims to have received a vision of Hazrat Muhammad (pbuh) in which his station as a divinely appointed reformer for his people was revealed to him. At this stage in the history of Islam, the lack of a vibrant, living Islam in India had contributed towards a situation in which the corrupt Mughal Empire was disintegrating amidst the growing power of the Hindus and the Sikhs and the increasing influence of the British East India Company. Shah Wali Ullah saw in the lives of the Holy Muhammad (bpuh) and his family and pious Companions the key to a correct code of behavior whereby a renaissance of Islam in his own country could be achieved. On his return to India in 1732, he directed his efforts towards re-establishing a simple Arab-style Islam, purified of the Turkish, Persian and Hindu cultural elements which had become prevalent amongst the Muslims in India at that time.

Shah Wali Ullah was a strong Sunni Muslim who was attracted to the teaching of Imam Malik in his Al-Muwatta. He displayed a critical anti-Shia stance, which may in part have arisen as a result of the distorted Shi’a practices which were prevalent in his time in the sub-Continent, and his lack of exposure to the original Shia teachings. He said that one of the books which would be the key to establishing Islam in the West would be Ash-Shifa of Qadi lyad.

Shah Wali Ullah expanded the work of his father by making the Rahimiyya Religious Centre not only a training ground for men of knowledge, but also a ‘think tank’ where the spiritually motivated could, under his guidance, plan the revival of Islam in India. He found nothing incompatible in combining the roles of Sufi and scholar of Islamic Law in his own life, and worked assiduously to bridge the gap which existed between some sufis and religious scholars. He counselled the would-be Sufi to learn fast to obey all the laws of Islam, and to avoid unnecessary dissipation of energy by selecting one school of Islamic Law and adhering to it. The sincere seeker should then progress to obeying his spiritual master. He should dedicate himself to a life of prayer, fasting, remembrance of God and the recitation of the Holy Quran, while continuing to observe and honour his obligations to the surrounding Muslim community. He was equally concerned with the existential behaviour of the Muslims in general. He considered a state of economic equilibrium necessary for the spiritual health of the nation, and publicly protested against the prevalent imbalance of wealth and crippling taxation which characterised the tail-end of Mughal rule.

After his death in 1762, Shah Wali Ullah’s work was continued both by the members of his family and by his close followers, the chief of whom was his son, Shah Abdul Aziz, who took over the running of the Rahimiyya religious school. Although more than two centuries have passed since his death, Shah Wali Ullah’s life is still the subject of much discussion and study.