:: Muwaṭṭaʾ Roundtable :: Journey of the Muwaṭṭaʾ in different periods of the history of South Asia: Shāh Walīyullāh’s Pursuit of Mālik

By Ebrahim Moosa (University of Notre Dame) 

It is one of those twists of history that in a region famed for hosting the largest number of followers of the Ḥanafī school, and large numbers of the Shāfiʿī, Ahl al-Ḥadīth (salafī), Jaʿfarī, and Ismāʿīlī schools, South Asia can also boast a healthy interest in the Muwaṭṭaʾ of Mālik b. Anas (93/711-179/795). For about three centuries scholars on the Indian subcontinent produced at least ten commentaries large and small on the text of this eighth century scholar. This is a remarkable feat and evidence of a vibrant Muslim Republic of Letters that crisscrossed the globe. The publication of the translation of a new critical edition of the Muwaṭṭaʾ is a good pretext to explore the reception and importance of this classic text of Islamic civilization in what today are the lands of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The sixteenth century was a watershed moment for the revitalization of ḥadīth studies in South Asia. The standard story is relatively straightforward. With the arrival of the first Muslims in Sindh (contemporary Pakistan) under the Umayyad Muḥammad bin al-Qāsim al-Thaqafī (d.715), scholars of ḥadīth began to arrive to the shores of Sindh and later to the region known as India. The next eight centuries saw a steady ebb and flow of ḥadīth scholarship until the sixteenth century, when ḥadīth scholarship gained a new prominence in South Asian Muslim scholarship that continues to flourish until this day.

The sixteenth-century Indian ḥadīth renaissance produced scholars whose renown and influence even reached the study circles of Arabia. They include luminaries such as Ḥusām al-Dīn ʿAlī al-Muttaqī al-Hindī (d. 975/1567), as well as his student, Muḥammad Ṭāhir bin ʿAlī al-Fatanī (Patanī) (d. 986/1578). Some Indian scholars like ʿAbdullāh b. Saʿdullāh al-Sindī (d. 984/1577) and Raḥmatullāh b. ʿAbdullāh b. Ibrāhīm al-Sindī (d. 994/1585) left India and settled in the shrine cities of Mecca and Medina during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the Hejaz, both taught large numbers of students from around the world and gained renown for their diligent scholarship in ḥadīth. This coterie of scholars would make frequent return visits to India and their presence stimulated the study of prophetic reports in the land of their birth.[1]  But credit goes to ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq al-Dihlawī (d.1052/1642) for setting the stage for subsequent ḥadīth studies after that era.

The most relevant South Asian scholar to the study and commentary of the Muwaṭṭaʾ is Aḥmad b. Shāh ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Dihlawī, better known as Shāh Walīyullāh (1114-1176/1703-1762) of Delhi. Walīyullāh was a virtuoso scholar who was deeply invested in Islamic mysticism, well-versed in Islamic law, ḥadīth, and Qurʾān studies. He is the author of a remarkable classic on the inner meanings and virtues of faith practices titled, God’s Conclusive Argument, Ḥujjatullāh al-Bāligha.[2]

Walīyullāh wrote two commentaries on the Muwaṭṭaʾ of Mālik, the al-Muṣaffā in Persian and the al-Musawwāin Arabic. In the introduction to Muṣaffā he reveals an interesting account of how he found his way to the Muwaṭṭaʾ. “I was anguished as I agonized about the causes that accounted for the differences among the various schools of law (madhāhib) and the innumerable groups among the learned, each vying with the other,” he wrote. “The reason for my anguish was this. It is imperative to know the specific mode of practice that the faith requires.  But specifying a practice without the support of preponderant proof (murajjiḥ) is mere sophistry. Clearly, there are numerous ways to assemble evidence in order to support an aspect of interpretation. And surely, the learned rigorously disagree among themselves in interpretative matters, in both summary and detailed fashion. And so, in futility I clung to the right and then to the left and fruitlessly sought the help of everyone.”[3] Finally, he explains that his prayers to God for guidance resulted in a divine gesture directing him to seek intellectual solace and guidance from the Muwaṭṭaʾ. Over time, he explains, that passion and commitment to the multiple features of this book became part of his intellectual persona.

Walīyullāh found the Muwaṭṭaʾ, compared to other ḥadīth compilations, compelling in several distinctive ways.  Its excellence in authorship, trustworthy content, the great acclaim the book received in the eyes of the generality of Muslims, its exceptional organizational and pedagogical structure were all features that rendered it “superior to all the existing books [in ḥadīth] on the face of the earth,” Walīyullāh extolled.[4]

Mālik’s status as a member of the third generation of Muslims after the Prophet Muḥammad was one significant factor in Walīyullāh’s lauding attitude toward the scholar of Medina. Mālik’s genealogy was also auspicious: his grandfather Abū ʿĀmir played a significant role as a Companion of the Prophet Muḥammad during the latter’s ministry in Medina. Proximity to the Prophet and the founding first two generations of Islamdom was for Walīyullāh clear evidence of virtue, merit, and piety that in turn produced unblemished learning. Finally, Mālik’s contemporaries universally recognized his rigor, credibility, and scrupulousness, ranking him far above his rivals.

Walīyullāh writes about Mālik in prose brimming with admiration. And this might be why: Mālik’s scholarly genealogy might have intersected with Walīyullāh’s biological genealogy and was perhaps the emotional factor that sealed the bond between two figures across the centuries. Here is how I think of it. Mālik’s most well-regarded chain of authority connects him to the caliph ʿUmar through ʿUmar’s son, ʿAbdullāh. The chain of transmission goes like this: Mālik from Nāfīʿ from the son (ibn) of ʿUmar from the Prophet. Sometimes ʿUmar himself is included in the line of transmission. Walīyullāh traced his own descent to ʿUmar, the second caliph and Companion of the Prophet Muḥammad. For a man like Walīyullāh this ancestry to a preeminent Islamic figure was a source of immense distinction and badge of honor.

Another feature Walīyullāh valued in Mālik was that he reconciled two approaches to the production of scholarly opinions (fatāwā) that were often taken to be at loggerheads. The approach of the ḥadīth experts (known as the muḥaddithūn) combined the teachings of the Qurʾān, ḥadith, and the opinions of the Companions. We might today identify them as folk who identified their proof-texts along with their scriptural hermeneutics. The second group – sometimes known as the partisans of opinion (aṣḥāb al-raʾy) – developed a set of well-tested and refined juridical axioms and principles (al-qawāʿid al-kullīya). Though drawn from the source texts, they were articulated as a set of abstract interpretative rules. This latter group felt no compulsion to state to their source teachings, relying instead on their intra-textual hermeneutic. Mālik, in Walīyullāh’s view, combined the best of both methods: he could effortlessly articulate the prophetic norm, the Sunna, in light of the axioms and principles adopted by the people of Medina. And, he could also point to a store of authoritative sayings and sources for his interpretations.

More interestingly, Walīyullāh repeatedly points out that Mālik and the Iraqi scholar Abū Ḥanīfa, founder of the Ḥanafī school, were men of the same generation: they were both successors to the Successor generation, making them comparable in stature, virtue, and piety. But Walīyullāh had to be careful in his admiration of Mālik: in his region of South Asia, the Ḥanafī school not only carried great authority, but zealous adherence to it against all rival schools was rigorously demanded. This required that he walk a fine line between praise of Mālik and loyalty to his own local law school, especially if he wanted to keep his credentials intact among his Indian peers. As a result, he lamented the fact that no major compiler of ḥadīth transmitted a single ḥadīth from Abū Ḥanīfa, nor did any major ḥadīth scholar even deign to acknowledge Abū Ḥanīfa as a prominent authority in ḥadīth.[5]  Perhaps it was Abū Ḥanīfa’s distance from the shrine cities that put him at a disadvantage relative to Mālik, but in any case, any report that Mālik transmitted implicitly gained an emblem of credibility and validation. Walīyullāh thereby acknowledged that acceptance of one’s collection of ḥadīth among the learned was a sign of divine benefaction. As such, Mālik could be content that his collection not only gained a high level of approval, but his book also set a standard for others to emulate. This latter element convinced Walīyullāh that the Muwaṭṭaʾ could serve as a resource for his efforts to rejuvenate the concept of ijtihād, the scholarly effort to interpret and reinterpret the rules and principles of interpretation within a given law school.

Contrary to popular belief, Walīyullāh did not call for unrestricted ijtihād but rather insisted it had to be exercised within the existing paradigm of the law schools. But even such a cautious approach to ijtihād was a tough sell to his fellow Indian Ḥanafī scholars who refused to loosen their adherence to the decisions and interpretations of the ancient authorities, and who generally would brook no departure from the conventional positions of their school and were in no mood to revisit their positions. For these scholars, ijtihād was likely to disturb some of their methods of interpretation; and those methods were intertwined in their very tangible investments and interests in moral and material power.

In the light of these prevailing attitudes of Indian Ḥanafīs in the eighteenth century it took an act of enormous courage on the part of Walīyullāh to write so boldly about his admiration for the Muwaṭṭaʾ and that it could serve as a pathway to rejuvenate Indian Ḥanafism by adopting the practice of ijtihād in their deliberations. He writes:

“I am convinced that the Muwaṭṭaʾ is the most authentic book on the face of the earth after the book of God. I am equally convinced that the method of ijtihād and the talent to discern (fiqh), (in the sense of knowing the revealed rules from the detailed sources) have all been shut, (especially for those who wish to pursue scholarly inquiry and verification-taḥqīq), but there is one exception: if only the attention of scholarly inquiry would be exclusively directed at the Muwaṭṭā …”[6]

Walīyullāh goes on to explain his preferences for linguistic and methodological approaches which would take into account the critical lines of inquiry (taʿaqqubāt) offered by al-Shāfiʿī, a student of Mālik and the founder of his own law school, as well as inquiries offered by Muḥammad al-Shaybānī (d. 804), a disciple of Abū Ḥanīfa who not only studied with Mālik but also compiled his own recension of the Muwaṭṭaʾ.

In 1731 Walīyullāh travelled to the Hejaz where he spent somewhere between fourteen months to two years, and in that period also performed two pilgrimages. But his major goal was to engage and learn from the renowned scholars of the two holy cities in Mecca and Medina. In Mecca, Walīyullāh studied the Muwaṭṭaʾwith Shaykh Wafdullāh b. Muḥammad b. Sulaymān al-Maghribī al-Radānī al-Makkī, using the famous recension of the Andalusian scholar Yaḥyā b. Yaḥyā (d. 234/848). Wafdullāh was the leading Mālikī authority on ḥadith at that time, and Walīyullāh clearly profited immensely from his time with him.

It is now a well-established fact that Walīyullāh played a decisive role in advancing the cause of the study of ḥadīth on the subcontinent.  The famous Abūʾl-Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī (d. 1999) could triumphantly proclaim that thanks to Walīyullāh’s efforts “the study of ḥadīth became a precondition for intellectual excellence (kamāl), a symbol for the pious as well as for the votaries of sound dogma, to the extent that a scholar of religion was not deemed ‘learned’ unless he demonstrated excellence in ḥadīth studies.”[7] The founders of the Deoband seminary glowingly endorsed Walīyullāh’s legacy with pronouncements of loyalty to his intellectual and spiritual outlook. Therefore, Walīyullāh’s view on the centrality of ḥadīth in the Muslim juristic-moral discourse inspired by Mālik is fervently promoted by a large segment of the Deoband school. Yet, their strict loyalty to the Ḥanafī tradition remains unchallenged.  The inclusion of the six canonical Sunnī books on ḥadīth in the revamped Nizāmī madrasa curriculum in the Deoband and Barelwī networks of madrasas is a direct outcome of the campaigns mounted by Walīyullāh and his disciples in promoting ḥadīth. In a paradoxical manner, Mālikī traditionalism and Sunna-inspired Ḥanafī rationalism find a confluence in some of the most important strands of South Asian Islam.

We are indebted to the chronicler Ḥakīm Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Ḥasanī (1869-1923) for providing some names for this preliminary list of authors who wrote commentaries on the Muwaṭṭaʾ at different stages of the subcontinent’s history, they include:

  1. Yaʿqūb Abū Yūsuf al-Bayānī al-Lāhūrī—al-Muṣaffā
  2. Walīyullāh b. ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-ʿUmarī al-Dihlawī (d.1176/1762)—al-Musawwā
  3. Walīyullāh b. ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-ʿUmarī al-Dihlawī (d.1176/1762)—al-Muṣaffā (Persian), further edited and refined by his student Muḥammad Amīn al-Walīyullāhī who completed this task around 1766.
  4. Salām Allāh b. Shaykh al-Islām al-Bukhārī al-Dihlawī. (d.1233/1818) —al-Muḥallā Sharḥ al-Muwaṭṭaʾ
  5. Ṣibghat Allāh b. Muḥammad Ghawth al-Shāfiʿī al-Madrāsī (d.1280/1863)—Hidāyat al-Sālik ilā Muwaṭṭaʾ al-Imām Mālik.
  6. Bashīr al-Dīn al-ʿUthmānī al-Qannawjī ( 1290/1874)—Sharḥ Juzʾ min Ajzāʾ al-Muwaṭṭaʾ
  7. Abū ʾl-Ḥasanāt ʿAbd al-Ḥayy b. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm al-Anṣārī al-Laknawī. (d.1304/1886)—al-Taʿlīq al-Mumajjad ʿalā Muwaṭṭaʾ al-Imām Muḥammad
  8. Waḥīd al-Zamān al-Laknawī al-Ḥaydarābādī who earned the honorific Nawāb Waqār Jang Bahādur (d. 1338/1920) as a minister in the princely state of Hyderabad —Kashf al-Muwattāʾ (Urdu)
  9. Muḥammad Zakarīyā al-Kāndhlawī (1406/1982)—Awjaz al-Masālik ilā Muwaṭṭaʾ Mālik
  10. Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī (d. 1418/1997)—Durūs Muwaṭṭaʾ (Urdu)

©Ebrahim Moosa


[1] Sayyid ʿAbd al-Ḥayy-al-Ḥasanī, Al-Thaqāfa Al-Islamīya Fī Al-Hind,: “Maʿārif Al-ʿawārif Fī Anwāʿ Al-ʿulūm Wa Al-Maʿrif” (Damascus; Cairo: Maṭbūʿāt al-majmaʿ al-ʿilmī al-ʿarabī; Muʾassasa Hindāwī, 1958/1388 & 2015) 127.

[2] See Shāh Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī, The Conclusive Argument of God: Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi’s Ḥujjat Allāh Al-Bāligha, trans. Marcia K. Hermansen (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2003).

[3] ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Dihlawī has helpfully translated the Persian introduction to the Muṣaffā which was published together with the edition of the Musawwā in a section titled “Tashīl dirāya al-Muwaṭṭaʾ” as Muqaddima al-Muṣaffā, in al-Imām Walīyullāh al-Dihlawī, Al-Musawwā Sharḥ Al-Muwaṭṭā, 2 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmīya, 1403/1983), 1:17.

[4] Ibid., 1:18.

[5] al-Dihlawī, Al-Musawwā, 1:23.

[6] Ibid., 1: 29.

[7] Abū ʾl-Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Ḥasanī al-Nadwī and compiled by Muḥammad Muntaẓar ʿAbd al-Ḥafīz, Muqaddimāt Al-Imām Al-ʿallāma Al-Dāʿiya Al-Mufakkir Al-Islāmī Al-Shaykh Abī ʾl-Ḥasan ʿalī Al-Ḥasanī Al-Nadwī (Beirut: Muʾassasa al-Risāla, 1425/2004), 31.

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