Who Taught You History?

By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī and translated by Dr. Abu Zayd

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The Importance of Studying History

They asked: Why do you always encourage us to study history?

I replied: Knowledge of history is a serious and hefty matter, and one of extreme importance. It represents the review of strategic elements and developmental factors in human societies, and the study of civilizational, political, economic and cultural conditions across time and space. No scholar or student of knowledge can afford to be oblivious to it. We learn from history, for example, the context in which Islam was revealed, the monumental changes witnessed by Islamic lands, and the political, cultural and civilizational fluctuations among human traditions. So history is no small or inconsequential discipline, for it concerns our religious and worldly affairs, and we simply cannot deny its rightful role among human sciences, disciplines and crafts.

They said: Some have designated history as being akin to salt in knowledge, which is resorted to only in order to enjoy themselves. What do you say?

I replied: They have adopted a repugnant practice and made a dreadful claim. Is there a science whose aim is only to realize mental relaxation, enjoyment or the mere fulfillment of desires? How can that be when all the sciences and disciplines in their totality represent the exercising of the mind and thought and the exertion of power and energy, with no room for laxity or relaxation? These are attained only by exhausting effort and draining struggle. Similarly, history is one such noble collective human discipline which contains the task of observation and collection of important matters.

They asked: Can you summarise for us the benefit of studying history?

I replied: The great philosopher Abū Naṣr al-Farābī summarised it in an amazing way when he said:

The most beneficial thing that a person gains from acquiring the knowledge of politics and other related disciplines, is the ability to deliberate over the states, actions and dispositions of human beings: what he sees among them and what is absent from them, from what he hears and what is brought to his knowledge; and that he should examine these closely in order to distinguish the good from the bad, the harmful from the beneficial, and endeavor to hold on to that which is good and beneficial in order to attain the same benefits, and to avoid the harms in order to protect himself from the same dangers and evils.

Abū Naṣr al-Farābī [Treatise on Politics, pg 52]

They asked: Why don’t the Islamic schools in South Asia teach history?

I replied: This is the most important and valid criticism of the Niẓāmī curriculum, which has left out or shunned certain important sciences and disciplines whose negligence is condemnable and blameworthy. We have surely witnessed through experience many graduates of those seminaries who have no knowledge of common and plain matters, or issues related to the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, his battles, or even Islamic history in general. Our shaykh Abū ʿAmmār Zāhid Rāshidī related to us that he has seen some graduates who could not state whether the battle of Badr or Uḥud came first.

Essential References in Islamic History

They said: Tell us about the most essential references in Islamic history.

I replied: They are the Noble Qurʾān, the books of ḥadīth and battles (maghāzī), the books of rankings and genealogy (biographical works), geographical works, personal travelogues and chronicles, books of literature and Arabic poetry.

They asked: What are the most important books in general Islamic history?

I replied:

  1. The History of Prophets and Kings of Imām Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr Ṭabarī (d. 310/923)
  2. The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, and The Book of Admonition and Revision of Masʿūdī (d. 346/956)
  3. The History of Islām of Dhahabī (d. 748/1348)
  4. The Beginning and the End of Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373)

I also said: You should know that the books of history are filled with defects and corruption so be wary of them, as the erudite scholar Ibn Khaldūn noted:

“The pioneering Muslim historians made exhaustive collections of historical events and wrote them down in book form. But, then, persons who had no right to occupy themselves with history introduced into those books untrue gossip which they had thought up or freely invented, as well as false, discredited reports which they had made up or embellished. Many of their successors followed in their steps and passed that information on to us as they had heard it. They did not look for, nor pay any attention to, the causes of events and conditions, nor did they eliminate or reject nonsensical stories.

Little effort is being made to get at the truth. The critical eye, as a rule, is not sharp. Errors and unfounded assumptions are closely allied and familiar elements in historical information. Blind trust in tradition is an inherited trait in human beings. Occupation with the (scholarly) disciplines on the part of those who have no right is widespread. But the pasture of stupidity is unwholesome for mankind. No one can stand up against the authority of truth, and the evil of falsehood is to be fought with enlightening speculation. The reporter merely dictates and passes on (the material). It takes critical insight to sort out the hidden truth: it takes knowledge to lay truth bare and polish it so that critical insight may be applied to it.”

Ibn Khaldun [al-Muqaddimah 1/82]

They asked: Which books help us to understand philosophy and history?

I replied: The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), without dispute, and then the writings of the erudite scholars Shiblī Nuʿmānī and Sayyid Sulaymān Nadwī, God have mercy on them both, in various places concerning general history, history of culture and civilization and the philosophy of history.

They asked: What are the most important books on the history of the Islamic sciences?

I replied: Fajr al-Islām, Ḍuḥā al-Islām, and Ẓahr al-Islām of Aḥmad Amīn, duly noting the shortcomings and defects in them, which I will not stir up here.

Biography of Shaykh Abū al-ʿIrfān Nadwī

They asked: From whom did you learn history?

I replied: From more than one person, but the best of them in my estimation is our Shaykh Abū al-ʿIrfān Nadwī, may God have mercy upon him.

They asked: Benefit us with his biography.

I replied: He is the Shaykh, scholar, great philosopher, writer, historian Abū al-ʿIrfān Nadwī, son of the Shaykh and scholar Dīn Muḥammad of Jawnpūr, who was one of the rare intelligent people. Shaykh Abū al-ʿIrfān learned from his father and attended the circles of the godly scholar and great preacher Shaykh Abūbakr Muḥammad Shīth of Jawnpūr. He benefited from the latter greatly. He also studied philosophy and logic with some of the specialists of rational sciences in the city of Allahabad. He attended the Dār al-ʿUlūm seminary of Deoband and then that of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ, graduating from there. His teachers here were the erudite scholar Sayyid Sulaymān Nadwī, with whom he spent prolonged time and exerted particular devotion. He was widely read and delved into nooks of philosophy and kalām (scholastic theology). He fell in love with the books of Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah and the doctor of Islām Shāh Walīullah of Delhi.

He taught at Dār al-ʿUlūm Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ for a very long time (probably about 45 years), working as its vice principal as well as principal. He was known for teaching the book Ḥujjatullāh al-Bālighah. He surpassed his peers in Urdu, Persian and Arabic literature, history, philosophy, scholastic theology (kalām), the ways of the early Muslims. He knew the views of various sects and religions with great recall. He had memorized many texts and verses in various languages. He had abundant information, awareness of various cultures, rare intelligence and the ability to speak with unrivaled eloquence. He used to represent Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ in the largest academic conferences and forums. He had no rival in India in the grasp of the history of Islamic sciences, ranks of the scholars, and educational methodologies. He translated the book Islamic Culture in India of the erudite scholar ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Ḥasanī into Urdu.

He died on the 7th of Rabīʿ al-Thānī 1409 at the age of 65. I was among those who accompanied his funeral procession from Lucknow to Jawnpūr, where he was buried. His funeral was attended by a large group of people from various parts of the land. His death greatly affected me, and the fear of death nearly killed me. I was not able to sleep at night for some time.
I learned from him clear rhetoric and some portions of logic and philosophy. I also learned from him the first volume of the tafsīr (Qurʾānic commentary) of Bayḍāwī and the history of Islamic sciences. I benefited greatly from his assemblies.

They asked: What was his methodology of teaching?

I replied: His knowledge was in his memory and he had command and mastery over it. He never taught us logic, philosophy or the history of Islamic sciences from a book or notes. Rather, he would dictate all of that to us, with complete recall of information, events and history. He was also excellent at derivation and extraction [of lessons], with a strange ability to connect effects and occurrences with their causes and rationale.

They asked: Did he treat you in any special way while you were with him?

I replied: I did not find him treating me in any special way. I learned from him many things outside of the classroom. I transcribed a treatise of Shāh Walīullah from Persian to Arabic on the principles of learning and education, which he reviewed with me and corrected some mistakes. He treated all of his students alike, but perhaps our colleague Muḥammad Ḥashmatullāh Nadwī had a stronger connection with him on account of being his neighbor in residence. Or perhaps the closest to him was our other colleague Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥayy Nadwī, to whom he would dictate his lengthy articles which he would present in various scholarly forums and conferences. ʿAbd al-Ḥayy would write them in his beautiful handwriting and memorize them.

They asked: Please mention some of the virtues of his piety or character.

I replied: I will not blame him except for his laxity with respect to prayer, may God forgive him and have mercy on him. Perhaps that was from the influence of philosophy upon him. But he was pure and protected from the motives of the hearts, without being affected by envy or jealousy. He was kind and mild-mannered, pleasant towards his companions and students, and had good qualities.

He was the director of the kitchen at Dār al-ʿUlūm and loved to eat. His love for tasty foods was the cause of his health problems, including diabetes and heart attacks. Despite that, he was prone to sitting with people and telling jokes and witty anecdotes.

They asked: Tell us some of his funny moments.

I replied: They are numerous, but I do remember once when he was sitting in the company of our Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī, God have mercy upon him, when some fine drink was brought to the assembly. Our Shaykh Abū al-ʿIrfān took two glasses, whereas everyone else took one. When some of the attendees rebukingly asked him why, he simply replied, “To the man is a portion equal to that of two females.”

Disclaimer: Translations have not been checked by the author and represent the work of the translator