Resuscitating the Sharīʿa in South Asia

By Ovamir Anjum

“The divine laws primarily and essentially consider [human] conventions [rusūm], and they are what is discussed and referred to in the heavenly injunctions. There are causes due to which they arise, such as their being discovered by wise men, and such as the inspiration of God.”[1]


As the exhaustion of the sharīʿa became an actual possibility in the wake of the dwindling fortunes of the Muslim empires, the focus of the debate paradoxically shifted from the sharīʿa’s extinction to its reinvigoration, and the mood shifted from theoretical explorations to pragmatic concerns. The two oceans, the medieval and the modern, so to speak, met in the figure of Shāh Walī Allāh, the towering 18th-century scholar who formulated his ambitious synthesis of Islamic knowledge in the context of a collapsing Mughal Empire. By “modern” I mean the mood of Muslim reformism, not the response to Western colonialism, since there is no indication that Walī Allāh was moved by the new threat or even knew of it. Yet, he was among the earliest seers of the times to come, a master observer of the past millennium of Islamic history, and an adept of all its key disciplines. As such, his work is one more argument against seeing modern Islamic history as a footnote to that of the West. We detect in him the concern with the reinvigoration of the sharīʿa motivated not by millennium-old theoretical concerns about the right methodology with which to approach revelation or the corrupting influence of foreign bodies of ideas, but by internal threats to the sharīʿa’s survivability and rational cogency.

As the epigraph suggests, Walī Allāh differs from Juwaynī in key respects. The sharīʿa is not sui generis, sent from on high without any involvement of human reason and historical experience, a code whose knowledge is limited to those who master the revealed text in certain madhhab traditions. The passage goes on to explain that good norms, in accordance with human nature (fiṭra), become known, established, and defended by a number of factors besides divine revelation. These include their discovery by wise men, promulgation by powerful kings, and then inner attestations of people through the ages. In this scheme, neither can knowledge of the sharīʿa nor the scholars capable of ijtihād go entirely extinct; the testimonies of human nature, wisdom, and experience provide additional guarantee to the divinely promised preservation of the final revelation.

Key to Walī Allāh’s integrative project was the re-centering of adīth in Islamic law and religious practice in general. This entailed the idea, often associated with the Ḥanbalī and Shāfiʿī schools, that the sunna of the Prophet should serve as the basis of all Islamic law. Walī Allāh’s intervention could be taken to mean that the legal conclusions of the four Sunnī schools of law were open to revision based on their conformity (or lack thereof) with the Prophetic traditions. However, given the aforementioned understanding of the revelation as a conversation with human nature and history rather than an isolable body of dicta, this idea of returning to the sources could also be read in a far more complex manner. This dialogical understanding of revelation and human reality is encapsulated in Walī Allāh’s key term, irtifāq, glossed by Marcia Hermansen variously as “social function,” “benefit,” or “support of civilization.” Other scholars’ translations include “useful management of human affairs,” any given social institution, a stage of growth in the evolution of human societies, “civilization and its devices” and “a theory of natural law.”[2] Referring, in short, to those practices and arrangements that accord with human flourishing in different stages of social evolution, the irtifāq is a remarkably innovative and complex idea that straddles both descriptive and normative elements.  As this range of quite divergent attempts at translation suggests, Walī Allāh did not define the term precisely.

Walī Allāh further veered from the dominant strand in late medieval traditionalism by making room for talfīq, the seeking of rulings from different schools of law rather than strictly adhering to only one, and going even further by allowing the lay Muslim discretion to decide which legal rulings to follow on any given issue. This amounted to supporting a limited ijtihād for the commoners,[3] in contrast to the strict taqlīd insisted upon by Juwaynī and most scholars all the way down to his contemporaries. Walī Allāh defended his position in part by historicizing the madhhabs, going so far as to author a text, al-Inṣāf fī bayān sabab al-ikhtilāf (A Rational Explanation of Difference of Opinion in Fiqh), which reconstructed the early history of the sharīʿa’s development and thus highlighted the contingency of its legal schools.

There is one respect in which Juwaynī and Walī Allāh are quite alike. Against late medieval Islam’s frequent neglect of the political, Walī Allāh reinvigorated what became a key feature of all subsequent revivalist thinking: attention to power and politics. Political theology is near the heart of Walī Allāh’s concerns, as he offers, like Ibn Khaldūn, “quasi-sociological explanations of the working of human societies, their rise and decline.”[4] He parts ways with modern authors in a key respect, however. In Walī Allāh’s telling, the prophets and their successors, the axis of human history, guide human communities by giving or reforming law and custom. Like authors in the Hellenistic philosophical and Indo-Persian advice traditions, and unlike the early Sunnī tradition’s conception of the ruler as communal agent (imam-as-wakīl), Walī Allāh’s social world is starkly divided between the commoners, to whom the true rationale for legal rulings is and ought to be inaccessible, and the spiritual and intellectual elite, to whom it may become evident.[5] Like the philosophers, he justifies the actions of the prophet or a deputy (caliph) through a rational schematization in which the commoners need to be skillfully managed. Walī Allāh departs from both the early Sunnī tradition, in which the ruler’s conduct is subject to the watchful eyes of the community or the scholar, and from modern Muslim thought, in which constitutionalist or democratic concerns constrain the rulers’ conduct. For Walī Allāh, a ruler’s status places him above normal rules, so much so that he is justified in insisting that a policy he knows to be erroneous is in fact correct if it serves his political aims.

Walī Allāh influenced nearly every religious trend South Asia has since witnessed, including the Hanafi Deobandis, the Barelvis, and the Ahl-i-Hadith.[6]  His emphasis on ijtihād, along with his historicization of the sharīʿa, furnished a theoretical justification, but by no means causal inevitability, to the religious ideas of modernists like Sayyid Ahmad Khan and, more recently, Fazlur Rahman.[7] The latter, like many others, regarded Walī Allāh as an intellectual forefather, and it was his student Marcia K. Hermansen who first translated Ḥujjat Allāh al-Bāligha (The Conclusive Argument from God) into English. Rahman praised Walī Allāh as the “founder of Muslim modernism,” an innovative reformer who structured his project around the principles of “historical progress and the destiny of the individual.”[8] Inspired by Walī Allāh’s reimagining of history as “a dynamic evolutionary process” in which the human “can acquire the status of a creative force within the constitution of Reality,” Fazlur Rahman attempted to develop a program of legal reform grounded in the insights of Western hermeneutics.[9] The Islamic tradition itself was to be more or less set aside in favor of a return to its foundational sources with an interpretative strategy befitting the needs and benefitting from the insights of modern Western knowledge. This is how Fazlur Rahman sought, in spirit, to carry on the Waliullahian project of legal reform via a historically-grounded ijtihād.

Fazlur Rahman’s project spotlights the promises and perils of a Waliullahian reimagination of sharīʿa. How hard can one push before breaking with, rather than advancing, the tradition? How far can one stretch before inflicting the violence of rupture, such that the meanings of inherited concepts can no longer survive? And more importantly, how does one separate recruiting the insights of the dominant foreign, and presumably more vibrant, tradition for the purpose of revitalizing one’s own tradition, as Fazlur Rahman sought to do, on the one hand, and importing its substance and prejudices, in the process mistaking its historical particularities for universal truths?

Rahman may be seen as the forerunner of a new class of observant Muslim intellectuals concerned with rejuvenating or reforming Islam. The ranks of this class have only expanded since Rahman’s passing in 1988, increasingly blurring the epistemological and methodological boundaries dividing the Islamic studies of the secular Western academy and the Islamic sciences of traditional madrasas, and in the process destabilizing classical understandings of what qualifies one to be an ‘ālim (religious scholar). Megan Abbas, taking Rahman and his peers as a case study, has shown how the Western university, in the late twentieth century, emerged as an active producer of Islamic knowledge and arbiter of religious authority in Indonesia, where Rahman and other academics who had studied Islam in secular universities abroad attained significant political and religious influence domestically.[10] Yet, almost nowhere else in the Muslim world have Islamic modernists like Rahman gained the upper hand. As in the more typical example of Egypt, the middle-of-the-road reformists have been relatively more successful in shaping Muslim societies.[11]  Indeed, South Asian modernists’ influence has been far more limited than that of their great inspiration Walī Allāh, despite reaching for an arguably similarly radical reorientation of sharīʿa. Even with Walī Allāh, the bold eclecticism that made his thought so remarkably generative may have also impeded the formation of any coherent Waliullahian school of thought. Walī Allāh’s mantle has been claimed by virtually every modern Islamic school in India, yet in the final analysis, each has selectively and strategically appropriated from his mammoth corpus.

As we attempt to think beyond the sharīʿa’s alleged demise, Walī Allāh and his South Asian disciples offer an instructive case study. His concerns and those of contemporary reformers mark precolonial concerns and dynamics of Muslim tradition, and allow us to see the continuity as well as ruptures through the centuries of colonialism. On the empirical surface, at least, the old sharīʿa society, with its elites and institutions (which, in South Asia, was at best only part of a syncretic whole), have disappeared. All around, Muslims have lost political dominance and face grave existential threats. Yet, notwithstanding one’s qualms about the quality of sharīʿa education or the coherence of its institutions, there are reasons for optimism. Consider the dual rise of the middle class (the literate and skilled masses that have constituted the modern society’s engine) and the mass Muslim movements championing various aspects of the tradition, religious politics, religious schools and colleges, and religious media. Both developments have arguably driven Islamic religious participation higher, at least in respect to sheer numbers of adherents and dedicated students, than at any point in South Asian history. It is not clear whether Walī Allāh would look at this new irtifāq entirely disapprovingly.

Rather than writing forensic reports or obituaries, then, those scholars of Islamic law who advance a narrative of decline may more fruitfully concern themselves with exploring the ways in which the sharīʿa might have become weaker but also healthier. Equally worthy of attention is the world-making that the agency of living adherents and scholars of the law has accomplished even against colossal ruptures. No account of Islamic law—no narrative arc of its destiny and no conceptual account of its deep conceptual transformations and ruptures—can be complete without taking into account the continued will of living Muslims to live by it.


[1] Walī Allāh, The Conclusive Argument from God = Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi’s Hujjat Allāh Al-Bāligha, trans. Marcia K Hermansen (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 142.

[2] Walī Allāh, The Conclusive Argument from God, xix.

[3] Ibid., 23

[4] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “Political Power, Religious Authority, and the Caliphate in Eighteenth-Century Indian Islamic Thought,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 30, no. 2 (2020): 316.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Deoband seminary was founded in India in 1867, in the wake of the failed 1857 war of independence, to preserve Islamic (Ḥanafī) orthodoxy under colonial rule. Though an ostensibly traditional madrasah, the Deoband seminary imitated the bureaucratic educational model of British colleges. See Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982); and Ingram Brannon, Revival from Below: The Deoband Movement and Global Islam (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018). The Ahl-i-Hadith emerged as a distinct group at roughly the same time as the Deoband seminary’s founding. They advocated for the unmediated interpretation of scripture and downplayed the authority of the four Sunnī schools of jurisprudence, and they, like the Deoband, claimed Walī Allāh as their own—see Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan (1857-1964) (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 114, 198. See also M. Ikram Chaghati, ed., Shah Waliullah: His Religious and Political Thought (1703-1762) (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2005), 546.

[7] See Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 40–41, and Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 205.  Several of Khan’s modernist contemporaries—Chiragh Ali, Muhsin al-Mulk, Mumtaz Ali, Amir Ali—also drew upon Walī Allāh’s ideas to innovate in areas as varied as jurisprudence, gender equality, and historiography. See Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 59, 70, 96.

[8] Fazlur Rahman, “Thinker of Crisis: Shah Waliy-Ullah,” Pakistan Quarterly 6, no. 2 (1956): 44.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Megan Abbas, Whose Islam? The Western University and Modern Islamic Thought in Indonesia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021).

[11] See Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Ovamir Anjum, Resuscitating the Sharīʿa in South Asia, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 18, 2024),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Ovamir Anjum, “Resuscitating the Sharīʿa in South Asia,” Islamic Law Blog, January 18, 2024,

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