Who Taught You How to Think? An Introduction to Maulānā Shahbāz Iṣlāḥī

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

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They asked: What is critical thinking?

I replied: The faculty of critical thinking is basically the process of analogical deduction, which consists of drawing order and connection between things and matters, linking the known with the unknown, and that which is understood with that which is less understood. Sound critical thinking emanates from the correct ordering and precise linking between different issues, such as causes with their effects; results with their reasons or rationale; starting premises with their end results; and fundamental principles with their subsidiary, peripheral issues. This must be done such that the path and link through these components and parts becomes explicitly clear and firmly established.

If that path lacks clarity or precision, this will indicate an endeavor lacking in discovering the true linkages between parts and elements. Rather, it can be proof of deficient and foolish composition, or a corrupt and imagined arrangement of concepts and issues. This type of thinking can often resemble the associations found in one’s dreams—specious and chaotic as they often are—which rarely lead to a complete and harmonious meaning upon awakening. Sound and harmonious meaning can only arise by resorting to persistent and exhaustive efforts in thinking and observation

They asked: Is all critical thinking the same type?

I replied: No. There are two basic types of critical thinking: the first being the general thinking and observation of the intellectual and wise ones; and the second being the observations of the specialists of various secondary disciplines and arts, like philosophers, theologians and jurists.

They asked: What is the difference between them?

I replied: Both of them are essential and important. We need the first type of thinking in all of life’s endeavors and all that affects us from our various states, matters and organizations. We must rely on the second type when we study specific advanced disciplines, so that we don’t wind up muddling scattered and opposite ideas or separating equivalent or similar concepts.

They asked: From whom did you learn this type of thinking?

I replied: I have learned it from many teachers of mine, but perhaps I am most indebted to our teacher Shaykh Shahbāz Iṣlāḥī, may God have mercy on him. I have not met a thinker of his likes, not in the East nor in the West, not from the Muslims nor from others.

They asked: We find you never tiring of mentioning his grace upon you. We wish you would present to us a glimpse from his life.

I replied: He is the great erudite scholar, noble commentator of the Qurʾān, the solitary researcher Shabāz Iṣlāḥī son of Muḥammad Ḥabīb son of Alṭāf Ḥusayn son of Niʿmat Miān. He was a brilliant and insightful scholar, of penetrating and profound insight. Some of his ancestors worked as judges in Jawnpūr during the days of the righteous ruler Aurangzeb. His father Muḥammad Ḥabīb was from the wealthy people of his time, loved by the Muslim as well as the Hindū residents of his village. He loved the pious, was a follower of Shaykh Āsī Ghāzīpūrī1 and established a school concerned about the educational and religious needs of the Muslims.

Shaykh Shahbāz was born in India in the village of Bijehata in the district of Sīwān in the state of Biḥār, in the year 1348/1930, approximately. He began his studies under his brother and local scholars of his village. His brother participated in the Indian freedom movement, being involved at a secondary level.

He studied the works of the author Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī and was greatly influenced and impressed by them. He left his secular studies at the official schools for the religious school at Kānpūr, and, after a year, enrolled in the Iṣlāḥī seminary in Serāʾī Mīr in Azamgarh, on the 5th of Dhū al-Qiʿdah in 1366/1947. He graduated from there on the 24th of Shaʿbān 1370/May 30, 1951. He had studied under Ṣadr al-Dīn Iṣlāḥī, Jalīl Aḥsan Nadwī, Muṣṭafā Nadwī, ʿUbaydullah Raḥmānī and others. He also spent time under the particular tutelage of Akhtar Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī, student of the Imām Ḥamīd al-Dīn Farāhī, gaining from him the thought and methodology of Farāhī in tafsīr. He also narrated from the reciter Muḥammad Ṭayyib Qāsimī, Shaykh Abū al- Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī and Shaykh ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah, all of whom granted him a general Ijāzah (license).

He became renowned and preeminent in language, including Arabic, Persian and Urdu, as well as English. He was known for his mastery in tafsīr (Qurʾānic exegesis) and the rest of the Qurʾānic sciences, ḥadīth and its sciences, fiqh and its principles, mathematics, economics, politics, poetry, prosody and literary criticism. He had committed to memory hundreds of verses of Urdu and Persian poetry, and was a renowned poet of Urdu himself.

He was preoccupied with daʿwah and reform, writing and teaching. In the end he stopped all activities except for teaching. He never stopped helping and benefiting students, never tiring from that. He taught at the Falāḥ Seminary in Azamgarh, later at the Islamic seminary in Bhatkal, and finally the Dār al-ʿUlūm of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ, where he began teaching in 1397/1977. He never took a vacation or break except for the days he became ill.

He had pledged2 to the devout scholar Waṣiyyullāh Fataḥpūrī and later to Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī. He also became a companion of Shaykh Saʿīd Aḥmad Khān of Azamgarh, the devout scholar Abrār al-Ḥaqq, and the devout scholar Muḥammad Ṣiddīq Bāndwī.

Maulānā Shahbāz was otherworldly and greatly humble, a lover of knowledge and its seekers. He was sincere and far from seeking fame for his own self or desiring any position of leadership. He preferred instead an austere life, opting to serve students and others.

I read to him Uṣūl al-Shāshī3 , the tafsīr of Sūrah al-Fātiḥah, the Book of Fasting and Iʿtikāf from the Muwaṭṭaʾ of Imām Mālik, the Book of Zakāh and the Muqaddimah of Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, and the Book of Etiquette from the Sunan of Abū Dāwūd. I attended his circles and accompanied him for a long period of time. I discussed with him many academic, literary, intellectual and political matters, and wound up adopting many of his views. I was honored by many letters he wrote to me personally, in which he answered many of my questions. He inspired me to learn and research. In my personal study and training, I owe a massive debt to him which I can never forget. May Allah give him the best reward.

He granted me Ijāzah4 in all of his transmissions on the 24th of Rabīʿ al- Awwal in the year 1419/1998, in a letter he sent to me. I don’t think that he ever granted anyone else Ijāzah. He passed on to the mercy of God on the 3rd of Ramaḍān in the year 1423/2002, leaving behind no one like him.

They asked: What was the extent of his observation and thinking?

I replied: He reached the heights of intellectual thinking. He never followed another person in any science or thought, but researched matters for himself, especially in tafsīr. Perhaps India itself has not seen one of his likes in understanding the Book of God the Exalted after Imām Ḥamīd al-Dīn Farāhī.

They asked: What is his methodology in thinking?

I replied: It was thorough investigation, full examination of suppositions, probing and proper division and ordering. He used to gather various parts and elements together, isolate their characteristics, and then analyze them academically and precisely, presenting every feature, rationale or dimension in its true balance, and assigning the most appropriate feature, the most harmonious rationale and the most suitable dimension. He was the farthest from muddled thinking, able to bring together congruous and homogeneous elements, and separate incongruous and contradictory elements.

They asked: What was his way of teaching you correct thinking?

I replied: He followed two ways, both of them benefiting us in ways whose extents cannot be described.

They asked: What were they?

I replied:The first was by revealing some of the faults in the positions held by previous scholars, philosophers and wise men. He would pose a question to us about the meaning of a verse, ḥadīth, subsidiary fiqh matter, opinion, thought, issue or case; and then commission us to come up with proof for one particular view over others. He would then proceed to expose for us the flaws and defects in our argument. We would then substitute those with other views which we would then defend, and he in turn would deconstruct and nullify those. Whatever view or statement we presented, whether it was borrowed from previous scholars or arrived at independently, he would scrutinize in an academic and persuasive way. The second way was by presenting what he considered to be the right position and proving it through texts and rational evidences, relying on the brightest proofs and most brilliant evidences. Whenever we encountered a question or came across a problem or objection to any of his views, he would explain them clearly starting from their foundations, and establish them clearly, thereby removing our problems and objections completely.

They asked: Could he be characterized by any of the flaws that so commonly affect those who debate and argue?

I replied: Absolutely not, for his arguments were academic and tranquil, delivered in a manner that was always courteous and mature, patient and tolerant. He never obliged us to follow any single view of his. He was free of fanaticism towards any juristic, theological or intellectual school, and far above the need to quarrel, argue or be obstinate.

I concluded: Reflect over what I have described to you from the Shaykh’s manner, train yourself in academic thinking and devote yourself to it completely.

1 A revered and pious Muslim scholar and poet, who died in Ghāzīpūrī in 1917.

2 This refers to the religious pledge known as bayʿah which is expressed by students and followers at the hands of their spiritual guides.

3 A primer in Ḥanafī fiqh authored by Imām Niẓām al-Dīn al-Shāshī.

4 Ijāzah is a license, or formal authorization of a teacher allowing a student to teach or transmit various texts on the teacher’s authority.

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