Mawlana Amin Ahsan Islahi (1904-97)

Author: Saleem Kiyani

The eminent Islamic scholar, Mawlana Amin Ahsan Islahi, 93, who died in Lahore, Pakistan, on 15 December 1997, will long be remembered for his lasting contribution to Qur’anic studies, especially for his approach based and evolved around the concept of order and coherence in the contents of the divine book. Historically, the idea of coherence in the Qur’an has always been present in the writings of various scholars, both old and new, but in modern times, it was Farahi, the renowned scholar and teacher of Islahi, who first made it the focus of his scholarly research, and wrote systematically on this subject.

Amin Ahsan Islahi, a most prominent pupil of Farahi, and later a principal of Madrasah Al-Islah, the educational institution associated with Shibli Nu‘mani and Farahi, learned and mastered Farahi’s concept of internal order and coherence in the Qur’an and became the most important proponent of this school. Where as the teacher had left a few isolated writings – mostly in Arabic and beyond the access of common readers – his illustrious pupil developed, elucidated and explained the subject through his monumental nine volume Urdu tafsir, Tadabbur-i-Qur’an (Reflecting on the Qur’an).

Mawlana Islahi was born in 1904 at Bhamhur, a village in Azamgarh, UP, India, and completed his scholastic Islamic education under the prevalent religious system covering the Qur’an and Hadith and Arabic language and literature. Like many of his scholarly contemporaries, he was also influenced by the Indian freedom movement and, for some time, he acted as the president of the local Congress party.
Freedom of India, and by implication of the Muslims, from the British imperialism, was of paramount importance to him, as it indeed was in the eyes of other ‘ulama. In the early 1930s, Mawlana Mawdudi developed a critique of ‘nationalist’ politics represented by the Congress and the Muslim League and called for the formation of an Islamic party dedicated to presenting and projecting Islam as a complete way of life. This led to the formation of Jama‘at-e Islami in 1941 and Islahi was one of its founding members. When some people left the Jama‘at over some minor differences, Islahi reportedly remarked: “I am not fanatical enough to jeopardize the future of Islam over the length of Mawdudi’s beard.”

In the Jama‘at, Islahi occupied a position, second only to Mawdudi; and he was generally regarded as the successor to Mawdudi. An eloquent orator, Islahi actively worked in the election campaigns of the Jama‘at, but his heart was never in politics. Even during his most active days, he never enjoyed politics. He left the Jama‘at in 1958 over some policy differences.
He considered electioneering a useless exercise for the purposes of bringing about an Islamic change. According to him the politicians cannot establish Islam: their sole aim is to gain power, by whatsoever means possible. And if some people use the name of Islam, they do so to achieve their political aims.
Islamic da‘wah (message), Islahi wrote, relies on tabligh (propagation of the message) and shahadah (testimony—by observing what one preaches to others), whereas the main tool of the political parties is propaganda to achieve their aims.

The difference in the word propaganda and tabligh is not merely of semantics, but they are also world apart in their spirit: The purpose of tabligh is to disseminate the message of Allah faithfully in its true form fully and completely, while propaganda is aimed at making the movement succeed by all possible means, right or wrong. Propaganda is an art developed by modern political movements, and one of its prominent features is its indifference to all the moral obligations which the Prophets of Allah have always regarded as an imperative and a necessary condition for establishing Islam and the Islamic way of life.
Though Mr Goebbels alone is notorious in history for his propaganda skills, to be fair and just, we find that in the political arena almost everyone has to follow in his footsteps, and it makes little difference whether one does so under the banner of politics or uses the name of religion or recites the kalimah of Islam while entering the arena.

Those who would like to work for the cause of Islam and its revival, he suggested, should work among people selflessly, without any desire for power, gaining votes or indulging in political manoeuvres. They should approach the people solely in order to serve them, to educate them, and to help them reform their lives morally and Islamically.

In his view, the Pakistani society was a broken and disintegrated one, afflicted with a most dangerous malaise: hypocrisy. As such he differed with the view that if free and fair elections were held the masses would vote for Islam and Islamic parties.

Soon after the establishment of Pakistan, when its leaders seemed to be going back on their promises of making it a model Islamic state, Islahi wrote: “Hypocrisy is a deadly disease, and there have been in every age and society some people who were afflicted with it, but we do not find in history a single nation whose leaders have chosen it as a national policy, taking it to be the key to the resolution of all their problems. In history there seems to be only one such nation, and that is unfortunately our nation (Pakistani).”

In his book Pakistani Awrat do Rahay Par (Pakistani Woman at the Cross-roads), he explains the dangers inherent in such bifurcated social policies of the Pakistani leadership, as manifest in its attitude towards women and Muslim institution of family—perhaps the best example of their hypocrisy. “In our view, for healthy national life it is essential that the leaders should invite their people resolutely and single-mindedly to the policies that they want to follow and pursue, but to follow one path in practice, while portraying beauties of a completely opposite path, is a most stupid policy from which nothing but only harm can result.”
In the light of his social analysis, Islahi believed fervently that no superficial efforts at reform would succeed in transforming the present Pakistani society into a vibrant dynamic progressive Islamic polity. Like Mawdudi before him, he held that an Islamic intellectual transformation in the light and guidance of the Qur’anic teachings was an essential pre-requisite to make changes.

Islahi had himself witnessed how Mawdudi the Jama‘at—despite their initial, clear long-term plan for a total intellectual transformation touching on all disciplines and branches of knowledge as a necessary condition for any genuine Islamic change—were soon sucked into Pakistani politics.

He was wary of this danger, and shortly after leaving the Jama‘at, he embarked with a single-minded dedication on his final intellectual journey from where Mawdudi and Jama‘at had left. All his time and energies were focused on studying, teaching a group of students, and completing his masterpiece, Tadabbur-i-Qur’an, the exegesis of the Qur’an which he considered pivotal as a reference work for any future work for Islam.

Leaving the Jama‘at after devoting 16 years was a painful experience. But he was steadfast in his commitment to Islamic ideals that had initially taken him into the Jama‘at. Now he had a fresh opportunity to re-assess his own position and talents, and needs of the society, concentrating on what he considered to be the most important task of his life: to explain and to elucidate coherently the message of the Qur’an in order to pave the way for the true Islamic renaissance world-wide. The success in recent years of his approach and thought in attracting attention and interest of the educated classes within his own country and outside, including the West, shows his assessment was not wrong.

When this writer joined Islahi’s study circle at Lahore in 1963, he seemed to be in a hurry, not sure how much time was left for the work, and concerned lest the intellectual trust that he carried from his great teacher should be lost for ever. He would often say: ‘Listen attentively, you will have ample time to ruminate and ponder.’

Mawlana Islahi was totally engrossed in the study of the Qur’an. His pupils were the beneficiaries of his painstaking efforts. His advice was: “Study a surah over and over again, until when you close your eye you are able to see it clearly in your mind’s eye, its full splendour from top to toe, from the beginning to the end.”

During my seven years of studying under him, I found Mawlana Islahi very sensitive, courteous and caring, frank yet very reasonable, warm and loving. Anyone who came to see him felt important, a focus of his undivided attention; he would not intimidate people or make them feel insignificant. His grasp and sweep of knowledge of literature, poetry, social sciences and human psychology turned any encounter or even a seemingly meaningless question into a major learning experience, the taste of which would remain long after the event.

In 1925, Islahi came under the tutelage of the renowned Qur’anic scholar, Hamiduddin Farahi which changed the course of his life. During the next five years, he imbibed from his teacher his theme about the internal order in the Qur’an and mastered his technique and methodology for understanding the Qur’an and the wisdom enshrined therein, the crux of which, according to Farahi, was its unique consistence and coherence.

The presence of order in the Qur’an and its parts is nothing new. The tradition goes back to the Prophet (sws) who was visited every Ramadan by the angel Gabriel and recited the entire Qur’an with him. Similarly, when any revelation was received, the Prophet (sws) would advise his companions where to place it in the book. As such, the idea of the Qur’an being a book that is well arranged and has a definite internal order was fairly known and accepted.
However, to explore and explain it to every age, is a difficult and arduous task. And both Farahi and Islahi believe that earlier people did not pay enough attention to this aspect of the Qur’an, which is, in their understanding, the most important of its intrinsic wisdom and message. Once they realized its importance, Farahi and Islahi dedicated their lives to studying and explaining the marvels of the Qur’an.

Hamiduddin Farahi first became interested in this particular aspect during his student days at the Aligarh Muslim University. He has written about it in Arabic and also written the exegeses of some short surahs in the light of these principles. Some of these were later translated by Islahi into Urdu and were published under the title of Majmu‘ah Tafasir Farahi.

Farahi’s writings were however, aimed at the Islamic scholars, and were couched in scholarly language beyond the access of most readers. It was Islahi who completed the unfinished work of his great teacher by writing an exegesis of the entire Qur’an based on his methodology and principles. He started his Urdu tafsir Tadabbur-i-Qur’an in 1958, completing it in 1980. His 23 year work contains some six thousand pages.

In his tafsir, Islahi repeatedly pays tribute to his teacher for the exegesis, saying it is all based on what he learned form him, and that all the credit goes to Farahi. The fact, however, is that Islahi added greatly to what he had inherited. Farahi had given some rudimentary ideas and principles but did not have the opportunity to elucidate his philosophy in tangible terms.

Islahi’s great achievement lies in the language and form that is both scholarly and easily accessible to an educated reader. Considering the complexity of the task this is not small accomplishment. His frequent references to his teacher show not only his enormous love and reverence for him, but his own forthright sincerity and humility.

Islahi’s tafsir, in his works, comprehends a century’s thinking and work on the Qur’an by him and his teacher. Starting his critical study at Aligarh, Farahi carried on for the next 30-35 years until his death. Similarly, Islahi tells us that the Qur’an has been at the centre of his own thought and study for the last 55 years. Thus, the book covers an entire century of hard work by both.

Islahi’s methodology is based on a direct approach to the Qur’an. Both Farahi and Islahi seek to explain the Qur’anic message by focusing on the Qur’an itself. They stress the importance of understanding the Qur’an in the context of its language, Arabic idiom (classical Arabic literature) as used and understood at the time of its revelation, supported with internal evidence found in the Book, and the fact that the Qur’an explains and elucidates its own meaning in diverse forms and contexts:

This is a book with verses basic or fundamental [of established meaning] – further explained in detail from One Who is Wise and Well-Acquainted [with all things]. (Hud 11:1)Above all, this methodology revolves around the Qur’an’s internal order and the core idea of the entire tafsir is to elucidate it.

According to Islahi’s concept of the Qur’anic coherence, all the surahs are found in pairs just as there are pairs in life. Every surah is a well-knit unit, has a definite theme, an introduction, leading to an exposition of its message and arguments, and ending on a suitable epilogue. Just as there is coherence within a surah and all its verses are inter-related and bear remarkable relationship to each other, so also there is coherence between surahs of the Qur’an. Islahi points out seven distinct groups of surahs in the Qur’an, each of which has a definite theme and a distinct flavour of its own, with a most eloquent exposition of its respective theme.

Islahi holds that the division of the Qur’an into seven distinct groups is based on clear evidence from the Qur’an. He cites the famous Qur’anic verse (al-Hijr 15:87) as evidence to prove the presence of these seven distinct Qur’anic groups. According to him, this verse refers to these seven groups, rather than to ‘seven-oft-repeated (verses)’ (or Surah al-Fatihah, as it is generally understood). Thus being the most important element of his methodology of study of the Qur’an, Islahi gives prime importance to the elucidation of coherence in the Qur’an throughout his masterly work. Every surah is preceded by an explanation of its special theme, and an analysis of its contents.

Islahi believes that the principles elaborated by him in his tafsir are scientific, rational, and based on common sense, without which the true message and beauty of the Qur’an cannot be understood or appreciated. In the preface to the ninth volume, he says that he has written this exegesis not out of any desire of authoring a book, but purely and solely in response to a call of duty.

“Although we have the Qur’an with us, its true knowledge is non-existent. The Qur’an has rather been reduced to a means of earning reward or supplications for others; it has been turned into a commercial object. Those who talk about it most vociferously are that much ignorant of its knowledge and are remote from it … But if this ummah is to survive and exist as a living community, mere, repetition of the need for unity will not be enough, nor will the repetition of the name of the Qur’an will be of any use. Instead, the most important thing to achieve these goals is to explain and propagate the true understanding and knowledge of the Qur’an. Those who have its true knowledge will be able to act rightly, and only through their efforts will this ummah find the cure for all its ills.”

In the light of experience of those who have regularly followed his methodology in studying the Qur’an, including the writer of these lines, it can be said without hesitation that Islahi has given us in explaining the coherence and the intrinsic order of the Qur’an the master key to unravel its inexhaustible treasures. He has provided us with a set of rules and principles to study and understand the Book of Allah, and to explore and imbibe its wisdom. Islahi was a prolific writer; he has to his credit more than 16 titles.

During the anti-Qadiyani movement in the Punjab in 1951, Mawlana Islahi together with Mawlana Mawdudi and Mian Tufail Muhammad was imprisoned in Rawalpindi and Multan jails. In 1956, when the government of Pakistan set up the Islamic Law Commission, Mawlana Islahi – also an eminent expert on Islamic law – served as a member until the commission was abolished in 1958 by the martial law regime of General Ayub Khan.
Mawlana Amin Ahsan Islahi is survived by two sons and two daughters. He has also left behind a group of dedicated pupils determined to carry on his noble mission.

(Courtsey “The Impact International”)