Who was Shah Walliullah?

 The Role Reviver of Islam in the Subcontinent


SHAH WALLIULLAH (1703-1762) was born at a period which was transitional for the Mughal Empire. His forefathers were among the Mughal elite who played an active role in the state’s court and military. His grandfather, Shaykh Wajih al-Din, was a military officer under emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. However, he was not just a military officer known for his bravery but also a pious and god-fearing Muslim, and this piety and Godfearingness was the hallmark of generations of his family. Wajih al-Din had two sons, the elder Shaykh Abu’l-Rida Muhammad and the younger Shah Abd al- Rahim. Both brothers distanced themselves from the court and military and pursued the Islamic sciences instead. The younger of the two brothers who had studied under his elder brother as well as other teachers, such as the philosopher Mir Muhammad Zahir Hiravi, was acknowledged throughout Delhi as a learned scholar of the highest calibre. He participated in the compilation of al-Fatawa al-Alamgiriyyah, a comprehensive legal manual to help run the affairs of the state according to the rulings of the Shari’ah.

This compilation served as the central legal code during Emperor Aurangzheb’s reign. Shah Abd al- Rahim went on to found Delhi’s centre for the Qur’an and Hadith, al-Madrasah al-Rahimiyyah, where he spent his time teaching and leading a relatively secluded life. Shah Waliullah was born in 1114 AH/ 1703 CE in a village called Phulat outside the city of Muzaffaranagar in Uttar Pradesh, India. His educational achievements were remarkable such that he memorized the Holy Qur’an, gained proficiency in both Arabic and Persian and formally graduated from al-Madrasah al Rahimiyyah by the time he was fourteen years old. Following his graduation from this madrasah, he sought further knowledge and specialization in the Islamic sciences. At the age of fifteen, he was initiated into the Naqshbandi Order under the supervision of Shah [Abd al-Rahim. The following year, his father passed away and the leadership of al-Madrasah al Rahimiyyah fell to him.

Shah Waliullah dedicated the following twelve years of his life crafting his own methodology in a world where Islam was in a state of transition. He dedicated a significant amount of time to contemplating and reading along with teaching. Ultimately, he had to face up to the same constraints and methodological flaws in Subcontinental scholarship that his father before him had confronted. The teaching of the Qur’an and Hadith were not given priority in the curriculum. Both Shah Waliullah and his father felt that the decline of Islam and scholarly tradition in the subcontinent was due to a lack of connection to the main sources of legislation: The Qur’an and Hadith. The study of the Qur’an was relegated to old textbooks and super commentaries which weakened the student’s connection with the Qur’an itself.

Furthermore, the study of Hadith was very weak in the Subcontinent. Until that point, Indian scholars gave precedence to the study of theology and jurisprudence. In order to complete his understanding of the Islamic sciences, Shah Waliullah travelled to the Hejaz in 1143 AH/1731 CE. His objective was to gain authorizations (ijazah) in the transmission of Hadith from reputable Hadith masters and broaden his intellectual horizons. In the Hejaz, Shah Waliullah focused on the study of Hadith and spirituality (Sufism). In the year and a half, he spent in the Hejaz, Shah Waliullah, who was twenty-eight, also gained an extensive understanding of fiqh. His most eminent teacher there was Shaykh Abu Tahir al- Kurdi who was a strong influence on Shah Waliullah in all the aforementioned fields. This Shaykh also initiated his disciple into several orders of Sufism. He also obtained ijazahs from Shaykh Taj al-Din al-Qala’i who taught all the six classical collections of Hadith as well as the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik


On his return from the Hejaz in 1145 AH/1732 CE, Shah Waliullah proceeded to improve his father’s curriculum at al-Madrasah al-Rahimiyyah. His new curriculum no longer relied on old super commentaries and textbooks but focused on an intimate understanding of Islam’s primary sources, the Qur’an and Hadith. Before changing the curriculum, students were generally taught how to recite and memorize the Book of Allah and, in their advanced studies, they studied a commentary of the Qur’an which is specific to their field of study such as scholastic theology or fiqh. Shah Waliullah stressed the centrality of the Qur’an in his new curriculum.

Thus, before specializing in a given field, students had to study the Qur’an in depth and only after an exhaustive understanding of the Qur’an did the students move to the study of other academic fields. Shah Waliullah also continued his father’s study circle in which he provided his own commentary on the Qur’an to ulema with nothing in front of him except a copy of the Qur’an. In Hadith studies, Shah Waliullah integrated the classical Hadith collections into the curriculum of his madrasah and replaced one of the textbooks with Imam Malik’s Muwatta’. One of his main reform in India was to refocus Islamic scholarship on Hadith studies. Today, schools throughout the Subcontinent still adopt in their curriculum, the reform introduced by Shah Waliullah. After the reform he introduced and the initial reorganizing of his institution, Shah Waliullah delegated the day-to-day management of the school to his faculty while he turned his attention to writing and addressing the complex problems of the role of Islam in India at the turn of the eighteenth century. The Mughal Empire was an imperial force from approximately 1526 CE to 1720 CE. From the mid-18th-century, the empire witnessed a rapid decline and was eventually dissolved by the British Raj following the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Following the death of Emperor Aurangzheb, who is considered the last independent and effective ruler of the dynasty, in 1707, six emperors ascended to the throne in just thirty-one years. The quick succession of different emperors ended with Muhammad Shah who ruled for about twenty-eight years. Nevertheless, his administration marked the empire’s fall, politically, economically and socially.

On the political front, the Mughals were territorially suffocated by emerging empires such as the Marathas, the Sikhs, and the Jats. The court of the emperor also suffered from internal divisions, particularly attributed to cunning powerbrokers within the court. Emperor Muhammad Shah removed these elements from his court but he was prone to complacency. He was nicknamed Rangila (i.e. pleasure-loving or ever joyous) for his excessive lifestyle. He is notable for failing to repel the Persian invasion of Nader Shah in 1739 CE. Nader Shah appropriated the empire’s north-western borders and positioned himself around one-hundred miles from the capital Delhi. Nader Shah eventually proceeded to massacre and loot Delhi and reinstalled Muhammad Shah as a subservient ruler. He also gained huge support from the Mughal government and annexed key territories in the Sindh and Punjab.

In the economic sphere, Emperor Aurangzheb and his predecessors witnessed an exponential increase in their empire’s role in the global economy. The linchpin of its wealth was centralized in Bengal, modern-day Bangladesh. Emperor Bahadur Shah dismissed Aurangzheb’s appointed administrator of Bengal and the region was annexed by the governor of Bihar, Ali Vardi Khan, in 1725. Meanwhile, the British East Asia Company was looking to secure a share in Bengal’s wealth. In 1697, the British established a trading port and developed it in 1911 into the capital of British India which they called Calcutta. They increasingly appropriated the wealth and assets of Bengal until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 between the company and Vardi Khan’s successor, Siraj al-Dawlah. With the British occupying Bengal and the Mughal Empire still suffering from the residual effects of Nader Shah’s conquest in the North, the state was on its last leg. The social condition of the Mughals with its eventual distancing of Islam in everyday life was introduced under the administrations of Emperors Akbar and Jahangir. Akbar gradually shifted his views on religion and philosophy to heterodox ideas.

He encouraged religious pluralism to such an extent that he founded his own syncretic and perennials school of thought known as the Din-e Ilahi. Jahangir was also indifferent vis-à-vis religion. And even when Emperor Aurangzheb emphasised the role of Islam in his realm, he could not mitigate the widespread disinterest in Islamic rituals and principles. In contrast to Akbar and Jahangir, the emperors between 1707 and 1738 exhibited poor judgement and leadership which only exacerbated the social decay of Muslims. Many citizens sought excessive luxury and had a lax attitude to moral responsibility. Moreover, Innovative practices, such as the extensive spread of musical instruments, took hold of Muslim communities.

Shah Waliullah’s involvement in the scholarly, political, economic and social activities of Indian society instigated a revival of Islam. In fact, major scholarly schools today claim to be the intellectual heirs of Waliullah. Shah Waliullah authored a number of works which laid out a vision of orthodox Islam in India that is admired by both scholars and laymen. Two of his primary works in the field of Qur’anic studies are: al-Fawz al-Kabir and Fath al-Rahman fi Tarjamat al-Qur’an. In al-Fawz al-Kabir (The Great Victory), Waliullah outlined what he sees as the principles of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir). The book’s conciseness made it a key reference for numerous institutions that focus on the study of Qur’anic sciences. Fath al-Rahman fi Tarjamat al- Qur’an is Waliullah’s translation of the Qur’an into Persian. Persian was still the official language of the court during the Mughal era.

The Subcontinent benefited immensely from this simple translation which reinforced Waliullah’s close affinity with the original message of the Qur’an. His main work is undoubtedly Hujjatullah al-Balighah (God’s Conclusive Proof). This book is a multidisciplinary proof, for the authenticity of Islam gleamed from Islamic sources. The work is regarded as one of the most brilliant synthesis of Islamic scholarship and is taught in prestigious seminaries across the Muslim world.

Shah Waliullah was also immensely concerned with preserving the morality of Islam among the Muslims of India. As the Maratha Empire suffocated Delhi, Shah Waliullah wrote to Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Sultan of Afghanistan, soliciting his help and emphasising the unity of all Muslims and the Sultan obliged. Durrani’s forces defeated the Marathas at the third Battle of Panipat in 1761, ending their capture of Muslim lands. However, Waliullah continuously pointed out throughout his life that Islam was a minority religion in India and Muslims needed educational reform more than political safeguards. He propagated a vision of Islam in India that was anchored in educating the masses, for in his view “Muslim” was not just a religious classification but also an ethno-nationalist one. This meant a total revamp of society’s economic structure which targeted illicit and unjust policies. Shah Waliullah also preached about the conflict between home life and professional life, arguing for a practical recommitment to integrating Islamic morality in all spheres of life.


Shah Waliullah passed away in 1176 AH/1762 CE at the age of 63. His life and works served as a role model–due to his incredible intellectual acumen which laid the foundation for subsequent Islamic rebellions in India against colonial powers in the 1900s and also for revivalist movements from that period onward. His work is admired across the Muslim world and is highly praised for its depth and analysis of Islamic sources and modernity.

This Excerpt is from 'Our Legends'