Shibli Nomani’s Educational Legacy: A Special Tribute on His Birthday


Dr. Omair Manzar

Allama Shibli Nomani was born in Bindol Azamgarh village on June 4, 1857, and passed away on November 18, 1914. He possessed a multifaceted personality and held an esteemed position in various fields. Considering his contributions to knowledge and literature from different perspectives, it is hard to believe that it was the work of a single individual. Besides his contributions to poetry and literature, Allama Shibli Nomani put his indelible mark on history and biography, research and criticism, and education and preaching.

The main focus of Shibli’s academic endeavours was education and religion showing a deep interest in education and educational philosophies. His life was dedicated to the educational activities of his time. From Aligarh Muslim University to Nadwatul Ulama, his sacrifices in the field of education were immense. His vision extended beyond India, encompassing the educational activities and needs of the Islamic world as well.

While he valued traditional education, he was also a proponent of modern sciences. At Nadwatul Ulama, when he was entrusted with educational responsibilities, he included “Al-Durus al-Awliyyah fi al-Falsafah al-Tabi’ah” in the curriculum. This book, written by Christian scholar Allen Jackson and published in Beirut in 1882, was an illustrated text on the basic sciences of its time, covering practical topics such as matter, motion, gravity, liquids, optics, heat, and electricity. Shibli appointed Allama Muhammad Hameed-ud-Deen Farahi and Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa to teach it. This information is derived from Shibli’s letters.

Additionally, in 1901, Shibli hired an English teacher at Nadwatul Ulama with a monthly salary of 15 rupees. This decision led Maulana Abdul Bari Nadvi to translate several modern books on philosophy. The inclusion of English and modern philosophy in the curriculum was a revolutionary step by Shibli. However, after Shibli stepped down in 1913, these subjects were dropped from the curriculum.

Shibli spent his entire life cultivating knowledge and literature. He wrote books, encouraged others to study, and was devoted to the national spirit. Not only did he inspire the youth of the nation towards education, but also guided them in their educational pursuits. The openness of Shibli’s educational ideas is evident from his belief in higher education for women and his support for a curriculum that was equal for both boys and girls. In a letter to Atiya Faizi, he expressed his wish for her to become a speaker and lecturer like other famous women.

In a letter to Maulana Habib-ur-Rehman Khan Sharvani, he wrote about the impressive patterns of women’s education he observed in Bombay. Similarly, during his visits to Italy, Egypt, and Syria, he admired the women’s education and training system in Turkey, spontaneously writing words of praise for the Turks. Shibli tirelessly worked for the education and social awareness of Muslim women.

In 1908, when Nawab Bahawalpur’s grandmother donated 50,000 rupees for the construction of Nadwa, Allama Shibli wrote an enthusiastic article in Al-Nadwa. He referred to her as a “Living Zubaida Khatun,” comparing her generosity to that of Zubaida Khatun, Baramakka, and Taimoor. He wrote:

“The generosity of this lady has not only strengthened the foundation of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama but has also paved the way for its future advancements.”

Extraordinary Passion

“O Subah Allahabad, O Oudh, you are a vast and distinguished region, but the truth is that now you must admit that it is not Punjab, but a part of it, that has earned your enduring respect through one of its revered women. You may have produced Burhan-ul-Mulk and Asif-ud-Daulah, but you cannot claim a Zubeda among your ranks.” (Maqalate Shibli, Vol. 8, p. 80)

Shibli’s travelogue “Safarnama-e-Room-o-Misr-o-Sham [Travelogue of Rome and Egypt, Syria] is essentially an educational report. Shibli’s writings reflect the deep passion he had for education and the kind of education he envisioned. His interest was not confined to India; he also kept a keen eye on the educational landscape of the Islamic world. The core of Shibli’s educational mission was the openness and spread of thought. While he respected ancient academic traditions, he was not averse to embracing new knowledge and wisdom. This excerpt from his travelogue is a significant reflection on the integration of modern and ancient educational ideas:

“Education among the Turks began with the Empire, which is what we now remember as ancient education… But the current state of education has declined so much that, in comparison, our education in India seems deteriorated. The realisation of this in the travelogue shattered all my joy and satisfaction — the fallacy of this ancient teaching… The grief and sorrow expressed by the newly educated in our country over the old education is not genuine sorrow, but rather arrogance and disdain. Although I appreciate new education, I am a strong advocate of old education. I believe that old education is necessary and very important for the survival of Muslim nationality.” (Safarnama-e-Room-o-Misr-o-Sham p. 56)

Due to his constant stress on education, Shibli concluded that it would be beneficial to reduce the gap between ancient and modern education and educational institutions, fostering a mutual exchange of benefits. Shibli believed that English education alone cannot address our current challenges, nor can the old style of education fully support us in the present era. In his opinion:

“We have said this again and again, and now we say it once more: it is not enough for us Muslims to only have English madrasas or ancient Arabic madrasas. The remedy for our pain is a combination of Eastern and Western education.” (Maqalate Shibli, Vol. III, P 57)

In his reference to Constantinople, Shibli emphasises that freedom of thought cannot thrive under government control. He also mentions educational institutes in Europe, where the people, rather than the government, play a significant role. He writes:

“What’s even more regrettable is that all the colleges and darul ulooms in Constantinople that I have mentioned are run by the government. The nation has not paid any attention to this yet. That is, there is not a single national college in such a big capital. No government, no matter how powerful and wealthy, can support the educational needs of the entire country. Even if it could, it wouldn’t be useful. The mental and spiritual powers of a nation whose needs are fulfilled by the government become dead and useless.” (P 40)

Shibli writes in his report on the School of Harbiya in Constantinople, after mentioning the happiness of the students, the ethics of the teachers, and the many branches of education:

“In fact, there is no better college in all of Constantinople in terms of building, supply of equipment, knowledge, education, and good management. However, it is regrettable that most of the people studying in its classes are Christians and the number of Muslims is very small.” (P 59)

Shibli’s analysis needs no further comment after mentioning the academic condition of Turkey, its authors, libraries, newspapers, magazines, and the writings of the masters of various arts:

“The fact is that the method of education in the Islamic world has become so degraded that people are not interested in any kind of modern information except for a few textbooks. As a result, the spirit of innovation and invention is lost to the nation, and there is no hope for it as long as this situation remains.” (P 69)

Shibli writes about the ethics of the students of Al-Azhar University:

“Throughout my journey, I was not as disheartened by the plight of Muslims as I was by the conditions at Al-Azhar University… But sadly, it has destroyed millions of Muslims instead of benefiting them… The condition of the students is such that when they buy goods in the market, they swear by ‘Bras Sayyidina al-Husayn,’ meaning they swear by the price of Imam Hussain’s head. Can such trained people be expected to enhance the glory of Islam?” (P 70)

Regarding the curriculum, Shibli writes:

“There is a continuous and basic teaching of fiqh and syntax, each for eight years. Logic, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences are not included in the teachings. The principles of fiqh, tafsir, hadith, literature, semantics, and narration are taught, but it is done at such a low level that such a large Darul Uloom does not hold any honour in any way.” (P 85)

About the teachers, he writes:

“Sheikh Taban has recently passed away. One of his works has been considered so significant that its annotations and commentaries are included in the curriculum. It is considered a great achievement to understand and memorize this entire series. I asked the students if Sheikh Azhar, who is regarded as a teacher, had done any original work. They proudly said yes, the annotations on Saban’s work are written by him.” (90)

Shibli was constantly active in the educational development of Muslims and did whatever was necessary to achieve this goal. The year 1913 was particularly challenging for him. After Aligarh, Nadwatul Ulama was the only centre of his aspirations, but he had to resign from there. He then dedicated himself to writing biographies. Meanwhile, in the April 15, 1913 issue of the Daily Zamindar Lahore, a proposal by Allama Shibli Nomani regarding the establishment of an Islamic university in Makkah was published. This proposal received many reactions, but Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and some other scholars supported it. Allama Shibli wrote:

“For me, the most important proposal is to establish a university of Islam in Makkah with a high level of education in all religious and worldly sciences (including modern sciences). It is obvious that today all kinds of power are based on knowledge, and in fact, knowledge is the real power. Therefore, nowadays the survival of every nation depends on being proficient in the sciences and arts.” (Ma’arif: November 2013, P 384)

Shibli provided several reasons for the establishment of a university in Makkah. The holy city is a centre of Muslims worldwide, and every Muslim could study there with enthusiasm. He also argued that no other place has as much financial resources as Makkah. If the pilgrims who visit every year were to contribute ten rupees individually to this university, the total amount could reach millions. Shibli also mentioned the presence of a very good library in Makkah. Additionally, he highlighted its pleasant weather conditions; favorable for both teachers and students. Moreover, he pointed out that all the tribes of Arabia, who have been “ignorant for thousands of years,” would benefit from education, with branches of the university being established in their major regions. They would be drawn to knowledge through consistent effort. Shibli concluded by expressing his conviction:

“All I can do is travel all over India for this and then migrate to Makkah and serve this blessed university.” (Zamindar/ April 15, 1913)

Allama Shibli holds a prominent position as a great writer and scholar, with a well-established reputation in this regard. However, less attention has been given to his educational efforts. The reality is that Shibli led a highly active life dedicated to education and educational activities. From his journey from Aligarh to Nadwa, he endured numerous challenges solely for the cause of education. He also faced adverse life circumstances in pursuit of education. If his curriculum reforms had been accepted at that time, the educational landscape today would be completely different. If Nadwatul Ulama had embraced his curriculum a hundred years ago, the madrasas in India today would have a distinct history and glory.

— Dr. Omair Manzar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urdu at Maulana Azad National Urdu University.

This article has been translated from Urdu to English by Mohammad Alamullah with the author’s permission.

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