A brief biography of Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi

Albert Hourani writes that the eighteenth century may be considered Islam’s Indian century. This was the century that produced Shāh Walī Allāh, who was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest intellectual giants of that era. Born on the 4th of Shawwāl 1214 A.H. or February 21st 1703, his father, Shāh Abdur Rahīm (d.1719) was a man of profound knowledge and a mystic of the Naqhsbandiyya, Chistiyya and Qādriyya orders. Shāh Abdur Rahīm managed his own madrassa in Delhi and was, for a short time, involved with the compilation of the famous Fatāwā Ālamgīrī, though there is the impression that this venture, at least for him, was not a wholly happy one.

The ancestry of Shāh Walī Allāh can be traced back to the thirteenth century to the town of Rohtak, near Delhi. On his father’s side his ancestry can be traced back to the second Caliph Umar and on his mother’s side to Ali, the fourth caliph. [1]

A man with great expectations, Shāh Abdur Rahīm devoted considerable time to upbringing and education of his, which he commenced at the age of five. By the age of seven Shāh Walī Allāh was praying and fasting, and completed his first reading of the Qur’ān alongside being able to read Persian works. He was able to study and read independently by the age of ten. He studied works of major hadith works such as the Mishkāt al-Masābīh and Sahīh al-Bukhāri, and other works on tafsīr (Qurānic exegesis), fiqh (jusrisprudence) and kalām (theology) with his father. [2]

Shāh Walī Allāh married at the age of fourteen. His father accepted him as a disciple of the Naqhsbandiyya order at the age of fifteen, the same age when he completed his Islamic studies. On his deathbed, Shāh Abdur Rahīm granted his son permission to initiate others into the order and to provide spiritual guidance. Shāh Walī Allāh continued teaching and providing spiritual guidance for twelve years. In 1731, he performed the pilgrimage and remained at the holy sites for around fourteen months, before returning to India.

His time at the Hijaz had a major influence on this thought. He studied various sciences with a number of eminent scholars of the time who exposed him to a cosmopolitan approach to hadith studies, which was emerging due to North African, Hijazi and Indian traditions. [3] This is where his particular interest in the works of Imām Malik’s muwattā was nurtured, on which he produced two commentaries, Musawwā and Musaffā. In a work entitled Fuyūd al-Haramain (The emanations of the two holy cities), Shāh Walī Allāh describes his mystical experiences, dreams and visions of the Prophet Muhammad. [4]

On his return, Shāh Walī Allāh commenced his writing career, where he produced his magnam opus; the Hujjat Allāh al-Bāligha (The conclusive argument from God). This composed in the decade following his return. He mentions the cause for writing this text in that he saw a vision of grandson of the Prophet, Hasan and Hussain, holding a broken pen out to him, then putting it together, and later bestowing upon him the robe of the Prophet. From this he understood his role in revitalising the study of hadith in order to bring about social and moral reconstruction of eighteenth century Islam. Eventually, it was the promptings of one of his disciples, Muhammad Āshiq of Phulat (1773), which led him to embark on this ambitious project.[5]

After Shāh Walī Allāh’s death in 1762, his teachings continued with his descendants, including his two sons: Shāh Abd al-Azīz (d.1823) and Shāh Rafī al-Dīn (d.1818), and his grandson Shāh Ismaīl Shahīd (d.1831). Sadly, the real extent of Shāh Walī Allāh’s influence and intellectual positions among his descendants is still unclear. The same could be said about many of those who claim to follow his legacy.

And only God knows best.

[1] See Jalbani (1978), Baljon (1986) and M. Hermansen (1995).

[2] In addition, he was exposed to works of Sufism such as Ibn Arabi’s school of wahdat al-wujūd (the concept of divine existential unity of God and the world, and hence man) and Fakhruddin Irāqi. He also studied Astronomy, Mathematics and Medicine (tibb), subjects whose influence can be sensed in his works.

[3] Among the great Scholars were: Shaikh Tāhir al-Kurdi al-Madani, Shaikh Wafd Allāh al-Makki, and Shaikh Tāj al-Dīn al-Qala’i al-Hanafi.

[4] This vision is recounted in his Fuyūd al-Haramain and in the introduction to Hujjat Allāh al-Bāligha.

[5] See M. K. Hermansen (2005).

References

Baljon, J. M. S. (1986). Religion and Thought of Shāh Walī Allāh Dihlawī: 1703-1762 (Vol. 48): Brill.

Hermansen, M. (1995). The Conclusive Argument from God: Shah Wali Allah of Delhi’s Hujjat Allah al-Baligha: Leiden-New York-Koln: EJ Brill.

Hermansen, M. K. (2005). Shah Waliullah (1703-1762): His Religious and Political Thought. Shah Waliullah (1703-1762): His Religious and Political Thought, 11.

Jalbani, G. H. (1978). Life of Shāh Walīyullāh: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf.

 

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One thought on “A brief biography of Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi

  1. Salam

    Any Idea what the pedagogy of both him and his teachers was, in explaining ahadith, in terms of riwayah and dirayah? Was it just sard, in order to give sanad& ijazah, or was a fair bit of sharh also common in his lessons (as well as his hijazi and indian teachers’ lessons)? in order to Also, any good resources on his teachers in hijaz with regards to how much of each book he read with them? I’ve read that he did Bukhari completely by Sh Kurdi, and only read the atraaf of the other five with him. Most places I read of him, his Hijaz phase is glossed over very briefly, without much info, except for that his main teacher was Sh Abu Tahir al Kurdi. Any book(s), in english, arabic or urdu where this is dealt with well?

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