Hazrat Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi (Rahmatullah Aleih), popularly known as “Hakeemul Ummah” (Spiritual Physician of Muslim Ummah) in the Indian subcontinent, was a prominent and celebrated Islamic scholar for his all qualities, Allah had bestowed him. He was a distinguished graduate of Islamic University, Darul Uloom, Deoband, India. He was a wise preacher, well-versed teacher, famous Sufi, prolific writer and dynamic orator. In brief, at a time he was preacher, teacher, Sufi, writer and lecturer; all in one. He used the most part of his living without wasting an hour, for reformation, rectification and betterment of the Muslim community. In this write-up, I would make an effort to highlight his life as well as his services rendered to the Muslim community.
Birth & Place of Birth:
Thanwi (RA) was born in a dignified family of a village, “Thana Bhawan” to Abdul Haqq Al-Hanafi on 5th Rabi Al-Thani, 1280 (19th August, 1863). His noble lineage goes back to the second caliph of Islam, Umar Bin Khattab (RaziAllah Anhu). “Thana Bhawan” in North West India, is a small town of district, “Shamli” of “Uttar Pradesh” in India. It is situated at the distance of 180 kms from India’s capital city, New Delhi and 28 kms from Muzaffarnagar district under which “Thana Bhawan” fell previously. Though it’s a small town, but known in India thanks to the knowledge, piety, mysticism, patriotism, martyrdom and freedom struggle of its towering personalities. A famous martyr and scholar, Sheikh Dhamin Al-Shaheed (RA) belonged to the very town.
Learning & Education:
Thanwi (RA) acquired his basic and primary education in his birth place “Thana Bhawan” from Sheikh Fath Muhammad Thanwi (1322 AH), one of the Darul Uloom, Deoband’s graduates and Sheikh Manfat Ali Deobandi (1322 AH). In 1295 AH (1880 AC) when he was 15 years old, got admission in Darul Uloom, Deoband, for the secondary and higher Islamic education. He remained as a learner there in Darul Uloom, Deoband, for five years and was taught all the Islamic subjects of “Darse Nizaami” by the towering figures and outstanding scholars of the time, like Sheikhul Hind Mahmood Hasan Deobandi (1268-1339 (1851-1920), Sheikh Sayyad Ahmad Dehlvi (1322 AH), Sheikh Yaqoob Nanautavi (1249-1302 AH) and Imam Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi (1833-1880). Thus, he completed his graduation in Islamic Studies from the prestigious Islamic University, Darul Uloom, Deoband, India in 1299 (1884).
At the end of the final year of Thanwi (RA) and his calss-fellows, the convocation ceremony was held and Maulana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi (Rahmatullahi Aleih) (1244-1323=1828-1905), Patron of Darul Uloom, Doeband, was invited to bless the occasion with his presence. He arrived for the ceremony. Sheikhul Hind (RA) informed him about Thanwi’s intelligence and calibre. Gangohi (RA) wanted to test him by asking the most difficult questions that he could think of. Thanwi’s answers utterly amazed and pleased Gangohi (RA), who himself tied the graduation turban (that marks the completion of the course) to Thanwi’s head.
While learning in Darul Uloom, Deoband, he had many relatives in the town. They used to invite him for having lunch or supper with them frequently, but he never accepted their invitations saying, “I have come here just for learning”. So, he spent five years in Deoband, but never visited any of his relatives’ houses.
Following his graduation, when Thanwi (RA) went for Hajj, he received the science of Tajweed and Qiraat from an Indian scholar, Sheikh Muhammd Abdullah, who had migrated to Makkah and was teaching in “Madrasa Sawltiyyah” (Established in 1292 (1875) by an Indian Islamic scholar, Sheikh Rahmatullah Usmani Kairanvi [1818-1891]) in Makkah Mukarramah.
An Admonitory Story:
A story of Thanwi (RA) which Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani (HafizahuAllah) has quoted in his “Foreword of Ilaaus Sunan” will be an admonitory one for the readers, particularly for the students in today’s scenario and for educational standard. When Thanwi (RA) came to know that Darul Uloom is going to hold a convocation for them, he got stunned and along with his some classmates went to the then Head-Teacher, Sheikh Yaqoob Nanautavi (RA) and said, “We hear that Madrasa is going to grant us graduation certificate and turban will be tied to our heads. But the fact is that we don’t deserve this certificate and the turban. We fear that the people may doubt the Madrasa quality that it produces like us students who have no knowledge.” Sheikh Yaqoob Nanautavi (RA) replied, “You think so, because you are amongst your teachers, so you consider your knowledge nothing in front of them. I bear witness that once you are graduated and step out of this institution, you will realize your worth and importance, InshaAllah. You will be superior in the field of knowledge and you will be incomparable.”
First Journey for Hajj:
Following his graduation, Thanwi (RA) left for Makkah Mukarramah accompanying his father in Shawwal 1300 AH to perform Hajj. In the same journey, he took the oath of allegiance to Sheikh Al-Hajj Imdadullah Rahmatullahi Aleih (1233-1317=1818-1899), an Allah-fearing person of Thanwi’s birth place, who had migrated to Makkah Mukarramah. Taking oath of allegiance, he accompanied Sheikh Imdadullah (RA) in Makkah Mukarramah for a short period of time.
Though, Thanwi (RA) had taken the oath of allegiance to Sheikh Imdadullah (RA), but he was attached to Sheikh Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (RA) spiritually. Once he said, “Among my teachers, I was spiritually attached to Maulana Gangohi more than anyone else, with the exception of Sheikh Imdadullah Muhajir Makki. I have never witnessed such a unique personage, one in whom external and internal goodness merged so cohesively, like Hazrat Gangohi (RA).”
Career & Teaching:
After his return from Hajj, Thanwi (RA) was sent by his teachers to Madrasah, “Faize Aam”, in Kanpur on the request from the Madrasa’s management committee as a teacher in Safar, 1300 AH. He worked in the Madrasa as a teacher and head for few years. Later, he established another Madrasa in the same city of Kanpur namely “Jamiul Uloom” and started heading and teaching in that Madrasa. His teaching attracted many students. He got sound position as a teacher and mentor among the learners and the students became fond of his teaching.
Second Journey for Hajj:
When Thanwi (RA) was in Kanpur in 1310 AH, he planned for the second Hajj and went to Makkah Mukarramah. Having performed Hajj, he stayed there in Makkah Mukarramah for six months in the company of his Sheikh, Al-Haajj Imdadullah (RA) for spiritual guidance and soul rectification. Reflection of being in the Sheikh’s company was apparent in Thanwi’s life and developed in piety, righteousness and morality very soon.
Coming back to India, he continued in Kanpur’s Madrasa about 4 years. In Safar 1315, he retired from the Madrasa and made one of his students, Sheikh Muhammad Ishaq Bardawani its Principal. Within 14-year of his teaching, he produced some such students who became the world’s renowned scholars for their works. Some of his noteworthy students include: Sheikh Muhammad Ishaaq Bardawani (1283-1357 AH), who had memorised the whole Bukhari Shareef, his nephew Sheikh Zafar Ahmad Usmani Thanwi (1310-1394 AH), who compiled the famous book of Hanafi school of thought: إعلاء السنن, in 22 volumes published by “Idartul Quran Wal Uloomil Islamia”, Karachi, Pakistan, Sheikh Abdul Hai Al-Hasani (1286-1341=1869-1923), father of Sayyad Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi (RA) and author of الإعلام بمن في تاريخ الهند من الأعلام المسمى بـ (نزهة الخواطر وبهجة المسامع والنواظر) in 8 volumes published by “Daar Ibne Hazm”, Beirut, Lebanon and rector of Nadwatul Ulama, Lucknow, India and Sheikh Hakeem Muhammad Mustafa Bijnori (Deceased 1941 AC).
Back in Thana Bhawan:
Having retired from teaching, finally, he came back to his birth place, Thana Bhawan. In Thana Bhawan, he devoted himself to re-establish the “Khanqaah Imdadiyah” (spiritual centre) of his Sheikh Al-Hajj Imdadullah Muhajir Makki (RA) on his Sheikh’s behest. Re-establishing the Khanqaah over a short period of time, he acquired a reputable position as a Sheikh of mysticism. The people, with the intention of manners’ reformation and soul rectification, from the different parts of India (India-Pakistan-Bangladesh), started visiting the Khanqaah. Not to speak of Ulamaa, even the secular educated people took the oath of allegiance to him. This continued, until he breathed his last in Thana Bhawan.
Disciples of Thanwi (RA), who took the oath of allegiance to him, settled in different parts of India and engaged themselves in rectification of the Muslim community like Thanwi (RA) did. Some of his well-known disciples are: Sheikh Muhammad Abdul Ghani Phulpuri (1876-1963), Mufti Muhammad Hasan Amritsari (1880-1961), Allamah Sayyad Sulaiman Nadvi (1884-1953), Khwaja Azizul Hasan Majdhub (1884-1944), Sheikh Muhammad Ilyas Kandhlawi (1885/86-1944), Sheikh Abdul Bari Nadvi (1886-1976), Sheikh Wasiullah Fatehpuri (Deceased 1976), Sheikh Zafar Ahmad Uthmani (1310-1394 AH), Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasmi (1897-1983), Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani (1897-1976), Dr. Abdul Hai Arifi (1898-1986), Sheikh Muhammad Idris Kandhlawi (1899-1974), Sheikh Muhammad Yusuf Binnori (1908-1977), Sheikh Maseehullah Khan (1911/12-1992) and Sheikh Abrarul Haq Haqqi Hardoi (1920-2005) (Rahmatullahi Aleihim Ajmaeen).
Speeches & Public Talks:
Thanks to his sincere practice for speech and elocution while learning in Deoband, Thanwi (RA) became one of the most famous speakers and orators of his time. He had command over oratory and public talks. He had an eloquent and fluent language to present his inner feelings. The desire to reform the masses intensified in him during his stay in Kanpur. So, being in Madrasa, he didn’t restrict himself to only teaching books, but he engaged in delivering public talks, uprooting the spread innovations, strengthening the true beliefs, compiling the precious books and reforming and rectifying the worst conditions of the masses. During these years, he travelled to various cities and villages delivering public talks in the hope of reforming the Muslim community.
Thanwi (RA) wasn’t famous only in giving public talks among masses, but he was also the most welcomed speaker in colleges and Universities. His book, Al-Intibaahaa Al-Mufeedah Anil- Ishtibaahaat Al-Jadeedah was actually written following his speech delivered in Aligarh Muslim University (Established 1875) at the invitation of the management in November 1909.
His public talks were full with positive aspects and comprehensive messages. The sole purpose of his talks was to benefit the audience, and non else. He wasn’t in the habit of touching a disputed topic in his talks. If it was required, he used to bring it up in details and in the best of manners with wisdom, insight and good counsel, so that none gets hurt. He never targeted his opponents. He never tried to humiliate his rival in public talk. He was a reputed orator, but never cashed his reputation for personal gain. He never accepted a penny for his public talks.
Generally the printed versions of his lectures and discourses would usually become available shortly after the tours. Until then, just few Islamic scholars had had their lectures printed and widely circulated in their own lifetimes. Al-Hamdulillah, today, his published discourses are a lamp for the young generation.
Works & Compilations:
The Almighty Allah blessed Thanwi (RA) with writing skill along with expertise in the arts of oratory and teaching; therefore, he compiled about eight hundred books touching to the crying needs of Muslim community of the Indian subcontinent. Wherever he felt a call for a book or booklet for the reformation of the Muslim community, he compiled and produced one, be it small or big, but he didn’t leave the people go unguided. His works and compilations are well known in Islamic institutions and well-received by Islamic scholars. None from his contemporary could surpass him in this field. His prestigious work is in form of Bayaanul Quraan, in Urdu Language, a commentary of the Glorious Quraan in 4 volumes. Some of his books are:
Bayaanul Quraan, 4 volumes, At-Taqseer Fit-Tafseer, Jamiul Aathaar, Imdadul Fataawaa, 6 volumes, Bahisthti Zewar, Tahdheerul Ikhwaan Anir Ribaa Fil-Hindustaan, Raafiu Al-Dhank An Manaaf Al-Bank, Al-Iqtisaad Fit-Taqleed Wal-Ijtihaad, Al-Heelah Al-Naajizah Lil-Heelah Al-Aajizah, Al-Intibaahaa Al-Mufeedah Ani- Ishtibaahaat Al-Jadeedah, Al-Masaalih Al-Aqliyyah Lil-Ahkaam Al-Naqliyyah, Shahadatul Aqwaam Al’a Sidqil Islam, Masaailis Sulook Min Kalaami Malikil Mulook, At-Tasharruf Bi Marifati Ahaadeeth Al-Tasawwuf, Hayaatul Muslimeen, Taleemud Deen, Huququl Islam, Huququl Waalidain, Huququl Ilm, Islaahun Nisaa, Islaahur Rusoom, Aghlaatul Awaam, Nashrut Teeb Fi Zikri Al-Nabi Al-Habeeb, Jazaaul Aamaal, Anwaarul Wujud Fee Atwaar Al-Shuhud, Tahzeer Al-Ikhwaan An Tazweer Al-Shaytaan and Al-Qaul Al-Faasil Bein Al-Haq Al-Baatil.
Thanwi (RA) knew that “The time is more precious than the gold”. He was very much punctual of his timetable. He never wasted the time. He used to follow the time according to the schedule. No excuse could disturb his daily schedule, except in some emergency cases. Even this exception was rarest of the rare. After performing Fajr, he used to take a pew separating from the people. In this time, he used to get busy with his activities, like reading and compiling books. Then he used to have lunch. Following lunch, he had siesta, thereafter he used to go for Zuhr Salaah. No one was allowed to bother him from Fajr until he offers Zuhr Salaah. After Zuhr Salaah, his Majlis (Gathering/Assembly) with his disciples was held. In this Majlis, he used to sit with them. One person used to read a certain book and he used to explain some scholarly points of the read text, which weren’t boring and tedious, rather a food for thought for them. This Majlis used to continue up to Asr. Between Zuhr and Asr, he also used to reply the received letters. After Asr, he used to get busy with his day-to-day family affairs until he offers Ishaa Salaah. No one could disturb him in this time as well.
Benefiting the people with his knowledge, lectures and spiritual guidance in the “Khanqaah Imdadiyah” for 48 years, Thanwi (RA) breathed his last in Thana Bhawan on July 4, 1943 AC = Safar, 1362 AH; while he was 82-year old. His funeral prayer was led by his nephew, Sheikh Zafar Ahmad Usmani Thanwi (RA). He was buried in the graveyard of Ishq-e-Bazan that is actually his garden. Thanwi (RA) is no more now, but he will be remembered for his inspiring, lucid, rational writings, balanced approach and reformative teachings for a long period of time. May Allah accept his services and shower His blessing and mercy at his grave! Aameen!
(The author is a Darul Uloom, Deoband alumnus and presently teacher of Moon Rays Trust School, Zambia, Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)