Wali Allah, Shah

Wali Allah, Shah
   Qutb al-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Rahim, known more commonly by his honorific title Shah Wali Allah, was perhaps the greatest Muslim scholar in the Indian subcontinent. He benefited from a wide-ranging, sophisticated education in the traditional and rational sciences and later, after he went on his pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca and Medina, extensively studied reports of the Prophet’s deeds and sayings with traditionists there. He was a teacher and ultimately the principal of the prestigious Madrasa Rahimiyya, which his father had founded. Shah Wali Allah was also, it should be added, a Sufi, who recorded his numerous mystical visions. As a broadly educated man of many perspectives, living in a time of decline and disintegration for the Muslim (Mughal) empire in India, Shah Wali Allah’s chief concerns were two-fold. The first was the reestablishment and revivification of Islam through reform. Shah Wali Allah sought to return Islam to a purer, less corrupt and more rational form by directing Muslims back to the Qur’an, which he famously translated into Persian in order to further its accessibility. However, although he was a traditionist (i.e. a scholar of hadith), he was by no means a traditionalist; like a number of other modernist Muslim thinkers who sought to breathe new life into the Islam of their pious forebears, Shah Wali Allah’s approach to scripture and tradition was a thoroughly rational one. Second, in order to preserve the essential unity of Islam, he focused in particular on the reconciliation (tatbiq) of apparently conflicting claims wherever they arose. In religio-political terms, he endeavored to reconcile the Sunnis and Shi‘ites in their quarrel over the legitimacy of the caliphs. With regard to the interpretation and application of Islamic law, he attempted to reconcile the four major schools of jurisprudence, and was a staunch defender of the necessity and justifiability of independent judgement, which most schools had long since closed off. As can be seen by the specific nature of his return to the Qur’an, he sought to harmonize reason and revelation as well. But perhaps his most interesting and resourceful rapprochement was his attempt to defuse the long-standing tensions between mysticism and theology concerning the unity of God. Specifically, he was concerned with a dispute of sorts between two philosophical Sufis, Ibn al-‘Arabi and Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi. The former famously posited a fundamental unity of all beings in God insofar as they are manifestations of the divine names. This ontological model, which subsequent writers would name the ‘oneness of existence’ (wahdat al-wujud), was frequently interpreted as disturbingly monistic and even pantheistic by more traditionalist sensibilities. In response to this, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi acknowledged that existence is indeed one and that it is God, yet denied that God and creation are one and the same. On his account, creation is simply a shadow or reflection of the divine names and attributes in the mirrors of their opposite non-beings (a‘dam almutaqabila). This in effect is the doctrine of the ‘oneness of witnessing’ (wahdat al-shuhud). Shah Wali Allah’s peace-making intervention on the question of the unity of existence or witnessing showed that when the ambiguous metaphors and similes are stripped away from either position, it becomes clear that they are essentially saying the same thing. Beyond reconciling two rival metaphysical camps, this made the doctrine of the unity of existence more acceptable to the kalam theologians. Shah Wali Allah’s treatment of this issue can be found in his Metaphysical Instruction (Tafhimat al-ilahiyya). He composed numerous philosophical works, the greatest of which is The Conclusive Argument from God (Hujjat Allah al-baligha), ranging comprehensively over metaphysics, theology, the development of human society, the wisdom behind divine commands and prohibitions, ethics, politics, etc. Shah Wali Allah’s dim view of sectarianism and rejection of all systems (fakk kull nizam) can be seen clearly in this work. In terms of his sociopolitical ideas, Shah Wali Allah was a revolutionary thinker, although his ideas never really took root effectively in his particular historical-political context. Yet he would have a considerable influence upon various later reformist and revivalist movements.
   See Ibn al-‘Arabi; Iqbal, Muhammad; traditionalism
   Further reading: Rizvi 1980; Wali Allah 1980, 1982, 1995

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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