Field Notes article

Allama Shibli Nomani: An Architect of Modern Islamic Education

Exterior of Nadwatul Ulama (Nadwa), which Allama Shibli Nomani helped establish in 1898. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Recently, the intellectual and social detachment of madrasa education has been maligned within countries in South Asia. In Europe and the U.S., post-9/11 narratives have constructed madrasas as breeding grounds for religious extremism. In response to these concerns, many South Asian governments have developed strategies for improving madrasa education so that it will be better integrated within secular and democratic societies. While there are no doubt problems with these narratives, they should nonetheless prompt us to reconsider what educational reforms might look like. To do so, we must begin by turning back to the colonial era.

The emergence of colonial powers spawned a plethora of new discourses in theology, religion, modernism, east-west contact, and so on among Muslim cultures throughout the world, and in South Asia in particular. Starting in the nineteenth century, British colonialism began to pose challenges to Muslim society’s pre-established educational institutions. This resulted in the separation of these institutions into two groups: traditionalists and modernists.

Although the primary goal of these two groups was to “reform” the Muslim community, the former sought just “conventional” reform within the religion only, while the latter sought “transformational” reform with a global view in mind. Because both, however, relied on conventional techniques, a period of isolation from socio-political and cultural concerns developed, and this trend continues today.

Such pressures upon Muslim intellectuals are thus not new. They were also clearly present almost a century ago during the time of Shibli Nomani (1857–1914), a prolific writer, scholar, historian, poet, traveller, and educational reformist from the Indian subcontinent. Shibli taught Persian and Arabic languages at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College (now, Aligarh Muslim University) in Aligarh and travelled widely. Amongst his many other contributions to Muslim intellectual life, he was an educational reformer. As an intellectual who was attuned to the changes in education during his time, he was quite conscious of the attempt by the British colonialists to stagnate the social and scientific development of madrasas. One way this was done was by splitting education into the religious sciences and the secular sciences. The ulama largely agreed to this, and promoted the former as Uloom e Din (the sciences of religion) and demoted the later one as Uloom e Duniya (the temporal/worldly sciences). This practice continues today.

This article explores Shibli’s ideas, philosophy, and initiatives to aid in the modernization of madrasa education.

Significance of Shibli’s efforts

Shibli grew up during a turbulent phase in the Islamic world in general, and the Indian Subcontinent in particular. The Ottoman Caliphate was in decline and finally defeated by a Western alliance in the first half of the twentieth century. Indian Muslims witnessed hitherto unseen hostilities from the British following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. During these times of upheaval, Shibli’s writings were like a lighthouse to Islamic world.

Shibli was well aware of the drawbacks of the research methodology of the traditionalist ulama and scholars of Muslim society during his time. He also understood the developing scientific and conceptual challenges that Newtonian laws and the Darwinian theory of evolution raised. Having understood the intellectual currents of his time, Shibli was committed to improving the method of reading and interpreting Islamic sources in order to enhance their credibility in the modern world. He embarked on a program to revive the dead spirit and enthusiasm of the Islamic world by reconceptualizing madrasa education according to the socio-political needs of the modern world. His aim was to create a new generation of dynamic scholars who were in tune with modern secular sciences, philosophy, etc. This, he believed, would help contribute to the spread of Islam in the modern world.

Shibili’s project was primarily focussed on the reinvigoration and modernization of the madrasa education. This essay will primarily focus on the reforms of the madrasa system at the Nadwatul Ulama (Nadwa), which Shibli helped establish in 1898.

Efforts at the Nadwa and their Contemporary Significance

The madrasa has been a central institution in the Muslim society since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its graduates have played a significant role in social, cultural, religious, and educational life of the urban, rural, and even tribal areas where Muslims lived. For this reason, Shibli paid special attention to madrasa educational reform, which he thought required educating students in the modern theories of knowledge along with critical approaches to the Qur’an and Hadith.

Shibli spent 14 years of his life in traditionalist seminaries among scholars and clerics, followed by almost 16 years of teaching at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Here he improved his critical thinking and analytical skills. It was also here where he met Professor Thomas Walker Arnold, a famous Orientalist who was also poet and politician and Allama Iqbal’s teacher. Shibli taught him Arabic in exchange for Arnold teaching him French, and it was Arnold’s company that brought Shibli into contact with Orientalist literature. Shibli observed that western scholars had done a great deal to expand our understanding of oriental literature in comparison to Islamic scholars, who had done little. As a result, he concentrated on creating a framework for reviving Muslims engagement with various forms of knowledge and for reconciling traditional wisdom with modern knowledge. In pursuit of this end, he began the popular journal Risala al-Nadwa.[1] Shibli describes the early achievements of Risala al-Nadwa in the following words:

Al Nadwa’s greatest advantage is that it introduced a revolutionary change in the minds of the revered ulama. Inevitably, they were forced to read these articles no matter how much pain they went through in pouring an eye on its content. This journal opens up the doors of many modern discourses, it explores the range of latest methods in Islamic studies, and it introduces ulama to the variety of manners of language and expression. Those who liked it started writing for the journal, and its opponents began to follow it as well.[2]

But publication of a journal to restore the shaky educational and economic situation of Indian Muslims was not enough. This was because imperial politics since the mutiny in 1857 had led Muslims to lose legislative sovereignty in politics, culture, and industry. During Shibli’s time, this political power was still not restored and the conservative methods of the ulama were unable to respond to the challenges of western modernity. The Aligarh movement headed by Islamic modernist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan emerged as a result of a number of reformist movements that were attempting to address this issue. The movement was entirely influenced by western society, politics, expertise, and science, and was opposed by a major pro-traditionalist movement called the Deoband movement (which then ran the largest Islamic seminary in Southern Asia). The pro-Deoband agitators doubted the credibility and legitimacy of western science and technology.

The central idea of Shibli’s educational reform was bridging the gap between the education that a madrasa like Deoband and a modern institution like Aligarh University imparted. But the traditionalist clerics and scholars virulently opposed that idea on a large scale. As he expresses in following words:

Today, the entire Muslim community has split into two groups: the traditionalist scholars think that they are engaged in celestial affairs so they gain nothing in the materialistic world; that’s why they concentrate solely in religion. On the other hand, the modern literates assume that they have acquired a modern education and therefore cannot grow in the religion at all. In the meantime, both of them are not adherents of the Sirat-e Mustaqeem (The straight path) that has been expounded by Islam.[3]

Somehow, Nadwatul Ulama—the renowned Islamic Seminary of South Asia and first Islamic Seminary to teach orthodox science along with modern methodology and academic courses—turned Shibli’s dream into reality and filled the vacuum between Muslim traditionalism and modernism. Shibli as a founding member of the Nadwatul Ulama prepared its educational model and curricula.[4] He writes, “Dar al-Uloom‘s primary aim is to create such religious scholars or clerics who are capable of maintaining the values of Arabic and religious studies and encouraging people to study modern education.” Then Shibli cited a couplet of great Iranian poet Sheikh Saadi:

Dar Kafi Jam-e Shariyat Dar Kafi Sandan-e Ishq
Har Hawasnaki Nadand Jam-o Sindan Bakhtan[5]

In one hand, the cup of Shariya, in another the anvil of love
Everyone, does not know how to stake a cup against an anvil

Nadwa attempted to reorganize the traditional South Asian Islamic Seminary curriculum. The old curriculum did an adequate job of training students in the study of logic and theory, but was not adequate in its training of students to critically appraise Qur’anic exegesis and Hadith literature. So Nadwa put more emphasis on learning analytical and critical skills to analyze the canonical Islamic texts (i.e. the Qur’an and Hadith) rather than formal logic and philosophy. Conventionally, Arabic literature had been taught only for understanding large Arabic treatises, but Nadwa changed this practice and taught Arabic with the aim of creating a scholar who could also lead the Arabic-speaking world.

An image of Shibli Nomani. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Nadwa also concentrated on improving students’ religious and ethical values so that they could lead the following generations in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community. When Shibli joined Nadwatul Ulama as its president and one of its founders in 1905, he was aware of the madrasas that were built and created during Muslim rule in South Asia, and we can consider him the last glimmer of that previous glory. Shibli had a keen eye on all the contemporary academic institutions and their curricula, ranging from western universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, to Dar al-Ulum[6] (now it is a faculty of Cairo University called Faculty of Dar al-Ulum) and Aligarh Muslim University. He studied their syllabi and compared them with the curricula of the madrasas. Then he proposed an advanced curriculum for Dar al-Uloom Nadwatul Ulama which could equip madrasas with training in modern languages like English and Hindi. He also sought to counter the phobia of the subcontinent’s Muslim society regarding English-language education.

Shibli Nomani faced extreme criticism in the Muslim community over his modernization efforts. He wanted to create a new enlightened and civilized society that could thrive among the Indian subcontinent’s pluralistic and multi-ethnic community. This, he believed, was impossible with an obsolete system of traditional religious education. He desired the reformation of conventional Islamic education and the establishment of a sustainable pluralistic society with equal involvement of both men and women. Ultimately, he persuaded women to leave their homes and to study the same way as men:

Women should obtain as much education as men, I have to disagree with the concept of dividing the academic curriculum on the basis of gender. In my opinion men and women should receive the same syllabus. I stand firmly for women’s rights and today. The practice of women working at home as maids should be stopped. At the same time I strongly support the system of the veil.[7]

Shibli was skilled as an educator, historian, biographer, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and cleric. However, his major form of expression was through poetry. His poetry preserves the glorious history of the Muslim world, the lamentation over its humiliation, and a consideration of the bitter fate of contemporary Muslims. In addressing socio-political issues and awakening to modern education and social reformation, Shibli is equal to Altaf Hussain Hali and Allama Iqbal. He raised his voice against intellectual stagnation, backwardness, and the disadvantages of the outdated Arabic syllabus and promoted modern science, philosophy, and technical skills as an essential part of the education system. His Subh-e Ummid, which takes the form of a Mathnawi (a particular genre of Urdu poetry), clarifies these points:

Ghaflat ne Dobo diya tha Hamko
Taqleed ne Kho diya tha Hamko

Negligence has drowned us
The imitation has vanished us

Daulat se haath Dho chuke the
Ham Ilm-o Hunar bhi Kho Chuke the[8]

Not only did we lose the wealth,
But all the knowledge and skill

Then in the following couplets he sees an opportunity at Aligarh Muslim University:

Alqissa yeh bat ki thi TasleemYani ke Uloom No ki Taleem
Yani ke Uloom No ki Taleem

Finally, the matter was settled on the curriculum of modern sciences

Sikhein who Matalib no Aiin
Europe main jo ho rahe hain Talqeen

We need to learn those new concepts that are inculcated in Europe today.

Kepler ki who Noqta Aafrini
Newton ke Masail e Yaqini[9]

We need to look at Kepler’s creativity and the accuracy of Newton’s questions.

Shibli expressed the same views in his Persian poetry as well:

Uloom o Btazeh ra ba Shar’e o Hikmat ba ham Amezim
Ilaahi, ba Riyaz o Tabi’e Ashnaa Bashad[10]

We must blend modern science with poetry and wisdom.
Oh, my God, one must be conscious of mathematics and nature

Unfortunately, the contemporary ulama virulently opposed his reformist initiatives. Those who preferred to cling to the conventional structure did not tolerate any changes in the status-quo. Neither were they prepared to deal with the socio-political problems of that time or care for the community’s future. They even compelled Shibli to resign from the headship of Nadwatul Ulama.[11]

But others who were deeply concerned with the future of Muslim society became Allama Shibli’s companions. One such person was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He met Shibli in 1905 in Mumbai, and Shibli took him to Nadwa, where Maulana Azad held scholastic and scientific discussions with Shibli. Here he also met Maulana Hamid Uddin, a leading expert on Qur’anic exegesis. Historian Sulaiman Nadvi argues that Azad’s meeting with Shibli had a big impact on Maulana Azad’s life, and led him to start his journal, Al Hilal.[12]

In 1913, Shibli resigned from Nadwatul Ulama and then travelled to Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Azamgarh. In Azamgarh, he laid the foundation stone of the last part of his dream, a library known as Dar al-Musannefin (The House of Writers). He demonstrated his immense vision in a report that he drafted for Delhi Session in March 1910. Shibli writes:

As colleges, madrasas and universities play a key role in a community’s development; a large library is also a critical necessity in a society. If we wish to keep alive the Muslim’s religious, scientific and intellectual heritage, then a large library should be constructed which has a vast collection of books from both scientific and scholastic streams. This library should be built in the name of the whole community. Then everyone, particularly writers, researchers, and authors from all over the subcontinent could freely access it.[13]

In his life full of ups and downs, Shibli successfully achieved his goals. He initiated reforms that equipped Islamic society to face the social, political, religious, and economic challenges of his times.

Shibli acknowledged the limitations of the conventional Islamic system. But he also tried to protect Muslim civilization from the unexpected onslaughts of contemporary western culture by strongly supporting certain practices, such as the veiling of Muslim women, as noted earlier. He sought a middle solution to reconcile conventionalism and modernity. On the one hand, the traditional structure had done little to change the cultural and social plight of Muslims. On the other hand, modern Muslim public leaders of the era were unable to fully understand modernity or contribute to Muslim society.

In this context, Shibli selected a community of preachers and speakers who had direct access to a large number of Muslims on the subcontinent. He educated them with modern education and expertise to train a modern generation from Nadwa and Darul Musannefin.

Shibli’s attempt to modernize madrasa education provided a durable impetus for social and educational reform within religious society, the impact of which is felt even today. Around a century ago, the seeds he planted still bear fruit. Amongst them is educational reformist Professor Ebrahim Moosa, who has resurrected Shibli Nomani’s buried dream of equipping educators and students in madrasas with modern science and philosophy. Madrasa Discourse’s curriculum is the forum for reconceptualizing studies in the madrasa in our time.

[1] Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Hayat-e-Shibli (Azamgarh: Dar ul Musannefin, 1993), 441.

[2] Ibid., 441. Own Translation.

[3] Akhtarul Wasey and Farhat Ahsas, Shibli Nomani (New Delhi: Al-Blagh Publication 2009), 10–11. Own translation.

[4] See “Dar al-Uloom Nadwa Ki Ek Aur Khususiyat,” in Maqalat e Shibli, Volume 8, ed. Masood Ali Nadvi (Azamgarh, Matba e Maarif  1937), 142. Own translation.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Hayat-e-Shibli, 213.

[7] Akhtarul Wasey and Farhatullah Khan, Shibli Nomani (New Delhi: Al-Blagh Publication, 2009), 13. Own translation.

[8] Shibli Nomani, “Masnavi Subh e Ummid,” Kulliyat e Shibli (Azamgarh: Matba e Maarif, 1954), 3. Own translation.

[9] Ibid., 13. Own translation.

[10] Shibli Nomani, “Nazm Muslim University Musalmano ki Khwab e Tabeer,” Kulliyat e Shibli, 90. Own translation.

[11] Aal Ahmad Suror, Tanqeed Kiya Hai  (Aligarh: Maktaba e Jamiya, 1972), 81. See also Ahmad Zafar Siddiqui, Shibli Muaserin ki Nazar Main (Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy, 2005), 201.

[12] Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Hayat-e-Shibli (Azamgarh, Dar ul Musannefin 1993), 444.

[13] Ibid., 690. Own translation.


Further Reading:

Nomani, Shibli. Kulliyat e Shibli. Azamgarh: Matba e Maarif, 1954.

Nadvi, Ali Masood. Maqalat e Shibli. Azamgarh: Matba e Maarif, 1937.

Nadvi, Syed Sulaiman. Hayat e Shibli. Azamgarh: Dar ul Musannefin, 1993.

Siddiqui, Zafar Ahmad. Shibli Muaserin ki Nazar Main. Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh Urdu Academy, 2005.

Suror, Aal Ahmad. Tanqeed Kiya Hai. Aligarh: Maktaba e Jamiya, 1972.

Wasey, Akhtarul and Fathullah Khan. Shibli Nomani. New Delhi: Al-Blagh Publication,  2009.

Syed Hasan Sardar
Dr. Syed Hasan Sardar earned his Ph.D. from the Center of Persian and Central Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His research interests include Medieval Islamic Intellectual History with a focus on the philosophical and scientific developments in Muslim society, Qur’anic exegesis, Islamic Astronomy during medieval period, and influence of Arabic and Persian languages on Indian society and culture. He has published articles and reviews on Islamic astronomy, the role of the Persian language in the development of the Islamic intellectual tradition in India, and the contribution of Shiite Ulama in the promotion of Muslim Intellectual thought in India.

11 thoughts on “Allama Shibli Nomani: An Architect of Modern Islamic Education

  1. The article awesomely summarises Shiblis’s efforts towards modernism in islamic education system. It was a great read ☺️

  2. I used to think about these two attempts at knowledge promotion in the Muslim world. You elaborated this in a good manner. Thanks

  3. The traditional concept of Islamic education needs to be equipped with modern ideas. This article is good to motivate these thoughts

  4. You write: “It was also here [AMU] where he [Shibli] met Professor Matthew Arnold, a famous Orientalist who was also poet and politician and Allama Iqbal’s teacher.”

    Matthew Arnold, who was not an Orientalist, died in 1888. The person who taught at Aligarah and later at Lahore Governmet College was Thomas. W. Arnold, who joined AMU in 1888, and thanked Shibli in the first edition (1896) of his “The Preaching of Islam”, but not in the second edition (1913). Thomas Arnold went on to become a famous Orientalist, was knighted in 1921, and died in (1930). You will find him in Sulaiman Nadvi’s “Yad-i Raftagan”.

  5. However, the traditional uluma always opposed the idea of modernisation in Islamic studies, this article successfully finds many authentic ways to support this concept.
    I will try to read more about shibli

  6. This article opens many doors of discussion in context as well as concept of Islamic education particularly in Madrasa with modernity. The most remarkable specification of this piece is that the author tried to investigate in colonial causes.

  7. A scholarly and insightful piece on a forgotten chapter of intellectual and cultural history of modern India. Syed Hasan Sardar deserves all praise for his sensitive and valuable analysis of Shibli Nomani’s profound engagement with modern Islamic thought .

  8. Shibli js known for his mutable and flexible endeavours no matter whether it would be religion or literature. The former one is addressed in this article while the later one could be explored with a sound study of Mawazena e Anees o Dabeer and Sheruk Ajam.

  9. The Madarsa tradition needs a change. A change that could meet the modern educational norms as well as techniques. Therefore, the ideas to modernize the traditional Islamic seminaries must be promoted. Although Shibli’s thoughts are almost a century old, they still entail the potential to reform the madarsa.

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