Shibli No’mani (1857-1914) lived for about 57 years. But his books and his philosophy live on, over a hundred years after his death.
A lifespan of just 57 years does not seem quite enough to leave a legacy behind, but Shibli’s impact is still felt, as is evident from the works published and symposia organised to mark his 100th death anniversary, commemorated both in India and Pakistan.
Shibli was a researcher, Islamic scholar, historian, biographer, editor, poet and — above all — a visionary. Initially, he shared Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s views and taught at Aligarh College. Sir Syed believed that to make Muslims survive in a different environment, where they were no more rulers of India and were reeling from the aftermath of the failed 1857 war of freedom against the British, there was a need to cultivate a sense of their glorious past which would work as a catalyst for working to restore some pride, if not regain the lost glory. Sir Syed thought that creating awareness among Muslims and following the western cultural and educational ways was the only way out.
Later, Shibli felt that neither the traditional Islamic ways of imparting knowledge and religious learning nor blindly following the western education and culture alone could solve problems of the Muslims. So he left Aligarh and tried to establish new standards for Islamic learning and modern education in the subcontinent. His vision was a Muslim revival through an educational environment where the would-be scholars could study modern and traditional, eastern and western branches of knowledge. Nadvat-ul-Ulema and Dar-ul-Musannifeen were two institutions where he tried to realise this dream. What Shibli did was blending both the western and eastern sources of knowledge. That is why he is often dubbed as one of the earliest proponents of Islamic modernism in the subcontinent, alongside Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Religious elements did not trust him and modernists also rejected him.
But what we often forget is that Shibli was not only a scholar. He was a poet, too. Shibli’s Persian poetry is indeed something to reckon with, but his scholarly works and his Persian poetry sort of pushed his Urdu poetry to backstage. Shibli was a poet of considerable merit when it comes to modern Urdu ‘nazm’ (poem) (Shibli composed only seven ghazals in Urdu and his almost entire Urdu poetry is in the form of ‘nazm’ or other poetic genres). Aside from different compilations of Shibli’s Urdu poetry published during his lifetime, a collection of Shibli’s Urdu poems, titled Kalam-i-Shibli, was published in 1918 by Zafar-ul-Mulk Alavi. In 1925, Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Shibli’s disciple and a scholar in his own right, compiled and published an up-to-date version of Shibli’s Urdu poetry and named it ‘Kulliyaat-i-Shibli (Urdu)’. In addition to an introduction, Nadvi sahib wrote some explanatory notes to go with many verses, explaining the social, political or religious backdrop against which these poems were written. Though Shibli never considered his poetry anything more than a pastime, as put by Nadvi sahib, his poetry does include some beautiful pieces of Urdu poetry. Especially his poems such as ‘Subh-i-Ummeed’ and ‘Adl-i-Jahangeeri’ are good examples of Shibli’s poetic talent.
But Kulliyaat-i-Shibli soon went out of print. Urdu Academy Sindh, a publisher from Karachi, published it in 1985 and though it contained certain calligraphic errors, it was a much-needed reprint. A new, complete and edited version of Shibli’s Urdu poetry was badly needed, which came out from India in 2012. Similarly, a selection of Shibli’s Urdu poetry had been missing for too long. Luckily, Prof Dr Tanzeem-ul-Firdous has come up with a selection of Shibli’s Urdu poems. Just published by Oxford University Press under their Urdu Varsa Series, Intikhab-i-Kalam: Shibli offers a good selection of Shibli’s Urdu poetry. Dr Tanzeem teaches Urdu at Karachi University and she has penned a number of books before.
Another book that coincides with Shibli’s centennial is Prof Dr Abdul Haq’s Shibli aur Muaasireen (Shibli and his contemporaries). Published from Delhi, the book is a collection of research and critical articles and juxtaposes Shibli’s thoughts with those of his contemporaries — Allama Iqbal, Altaf Hussain Hali, Muhammad Hussain Azad, Nazeer Ahmed Dehlvi, and Abul Kalam Azad. Dr Abdul Haq is professor emeritus at Delhi University’s Urdu department and adjunct professor at Srinagar’s Islamic University of Science and Technology.
Seerat-un-Nabi, an authentic work on the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), is, perhaps, the greatest feat that Shibli achieved, though he could not complete it and Sulaiman Nadvi finished it. But his disciples, his books and a great institution such as Dar-ul-Musannifeen are not the only legacy that Shibli left behind. Shibli’s legacy includes the idea of a new interpretation of Islam in a changing world — something that Allama Iqbal wanted to do and Iqbal’s book Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam is but one manifestation of it. Dr Abdul Haq has rightly pointed out in his new book that there were so many traits common in Iqbal and Shibli that one is surprised. Iqbal not only benefitted from Shibli’s works, writes Prof Abdul Haq, but he had asked Shibli to review and suggest any changes in the parlance of his first book, Ilm-ul-iqtisaad, a book on political economy, published form Lahore’s Paisa Akhbaar Press in 1904. Iqbal thanked Shibli in the preface to the book for his guidance. Shibli later appreciated Iqbal, much for his poetic works, and this appreciation was reciprocal. On Shibli’s death Iqbal called him ‘Imam-ul-Hind’. As Dr Abdul Haq has mentioned, Iqbal wanted Shibli to settle in Lahore and carry out a grand plan for scholarly works. After Shibli’s death, Iqbal wrote a letter to Sulaiman Nadvi and lamented that despite his efforts Shibli did not agree to move to Punjab.
Shibli died on Nov 18, 1914.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2015