The spiritual effects of the great north Indian Sufi of the Chishti tariqah, Sayyid al-Ta’ifah Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki (1814-1896), continues to manifest today across the globe. Though Haji Imdadullah did not complete his formal Islamic studies, he was definitely someone who had studied hadith, knew the rudiments of his faith and possessed an acute insight into Qur’anic texts and hadiths that continue to benefit leading scholars today. These are facts that are accessible to anyone who reads the biographical works on Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki or some of his acclaimed students in tariqah.
In spite of the above, Dr Akram Nadwi, during a one-day course on Sufism in Leeds in April 2014, made comments about Haji Imdadullah, the inaccuracy of which is clear to anyone who has some sort of awareness of Indian Muslim hagiographies. What is worse is that these claims are void of evidence, presented as fact and subsequently swallowed lock, stock and barrel by his admirers. In a course specifically on the topic of Sufism, it is only reasonable to expect the bulk of points will be accurately presented after being thoroughly researched. What was disseminated on the day, unfortunately, did not live up to that expectation.
During the course, Dr Akram said:
“Haji Imdadullah, he was not an ‘alim and the tradition in Chishti Silsilah has been that they do not give khilafah unless the man is ‘alim. If somebody is not an ‘alim, they will train him but they will never give khilafah because the khilafah means you can follow, if the person does not know Qur’an and Sunnah, how can you follow him? That has been the tradition…”
He further commented:
“But first time you see Sheikh Imdadullah Muhajir Makki, who was not an ‘alim, he knew Persian, Farsi, he studied some Arabic, up to Kafiya, but he never studied Hadith and fiqh, never. No doubt he was spiritually a strong person and he became a khalifah of his shaykh…”
While acknowledging Haji Imdadullah’s spirituality, what Dr Akram mentioned regarding his Islamic education and the further inference he made are both clear blunders.
The Legacy of Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki
The acclaimed Indian historian renowned for his writings on the Chishti tariqah of India, Professor Khaliq Ahmed Nizami (1925-1997) (father of Farhan Nizami, Oxford), writes in his excellent Tarikh-i-Mashayikh-i-Chisht (not to be confused with its namesake authored by our beloved and highly respected Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalwi) that the impact of Haji Imdadullah did not remain confined to India but reached well beyond to other countries and that he was, through his khalifahs, the fountainhead of three notable movements: the establishing of a network of Islamic madrasahs that began with Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband, the spiritual reform of the masses in the form of khanqahs (such as the one in Thanabhawan) and the Tablighi Jama‘ah, and the struggle to secure Indian independence. This brief and insightful summary highlights the spiritual powerhouse that Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki was, a man whose impact still reverberates till today. It is no wonder then that he is often referred to within the Subcontinent as the “Sayyid al-Ta’ifah” or “Master of the Group.”
Haji Imdadullah’s Studies
Details of Haji Imdadullah’s studies are well recorded in books written about him and his khalifahs, particularly Imam Rabbani Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905) and Hakim al-Ummah Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi (1863-1943). Though Haji Imdadullah was not a scholar or ‘alim in the conventional sense, in that he did not complete a formal course of Islamic studies in a madrasah or at the hands of a teacher, he had undertaken study under erudite teachers and remained for an extensive period in the company of a number of pious scholars, which is why Shaykh Abdul Hayy al-Hasani (the father of Shaykh Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi) in his Nuzhat al-Khawatir said: “Allah had opened the doors of cognisance (ma’rifah) upon him and made him from those firmly-grounded (rasikhun) in knowledge.”
Shaykh al-Hadith Mawlana Muhammad Zakariyya Kandhalwi (1898-1982) in his Tarikh-i-Mashayikh-i-Chisht mentions that Haji Imdadullah, having completed the memorisation of the Qur’an, travelled to Delhi with Ustadh al-Kull Mawlana Mamluk ‘Ali (1789-1851), head lecturer at the famous Delhi College and teacher of many scholars who in their own right became renowned for their knowledge, such as Hujjat al-Islam Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi (1833-1880), Imam Rabbani Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi and and Munazir-i-Islam Mawlana Rahmatullah Kairanwi (1818-1891). While in Delhi, Haji Imdadullah embarked on a study of rudimentary Persian and Arabic until he became attracted to Tasawwuf and was initiated into the Naqshbandi tariqah. It was during his time as a Nashbandi dervish that he studied Imam al-Tabrizi’s Mishkat al-Masabih under a famous hadith scholar of that time, Mawlana Muhammad Qalandar Muhaddith Jalalabadi, and Hisn al-Hasin and Fiqh al-Akbar under Mawlana ‘Abdur-Rahim Nanotwi, both of whom were the senior students of Mufti Ilahi Bakhsh Kandhalwi. With spirituality at his core, he further studied Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi Ma‘nawi with Shah ‘Abdur-Razzaq who studied it under Mawlana Abul-Hasan Kandhalwi who in turn had studied it under his father Mufti Ilahi-Bakhsh. According to Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi (as mentioned in his Imdad al-Mushtaq ila Ashraf al-Akhlaq), Haji Imdadullah also studied Shaykh ‘Abdul Haqq Dehlawi’s book on creed, Takmil al-Iman, under Mawlana Rahmat ‘Ali Thanawi.
All of this study and suhbah (company of scholars) was undertaken before Haji Imdadullah had even entered the Chishti tariqah and demonstrate that he was definitely not ignorant of the Islamic sciences. Of particular interest is that he studied Mishkat al-Masabih under a leading hadith scholar of that era. The norm is that this major classical collection of hadith, taken from the Six Authentic Books of Hadith, is usually taught with individual hadiths read aloud followed by the teacher providing useful commentary, fiqh analysis, an exploration of the different mathhabs and explanation of the terminology of hadith. Clearly, the study of this major hadith work must have significantly expanded his knowledge.
It is little wonder then that, as a result of his company of scholars and studies, Haji Imdadullah was widely acclaimed by leading scholars of that time. Mawlana Qasim Nanotwi, the founder of Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband and khalifah of Haji Imdadullah was once asked whether his mentor was an ‘alim, he replied: “What is the meaning of an ‘alim, Allah made his pure self a maker of ‘alims (‘alim gar)?” Hakim al-Ummah Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi has also mentioned similar words in one of his speeches (mawa‘iz). In fact, the mawa‘iz of Hakim al-Ummah are saturated with beneficial and unique anecdotes of Haji Imdadullah explaining Qur’anic texts and hadiths, something that underscores his deep understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah and belies claims to the contrary. And the mawa‘iz of Hakim al-Ummah are no trivial matter; the respected Mufti Taqi Usmani often advises scholars to read the sermons of Hakim al-Ummah and reads them himself each night, something that has been his habit for decades.
In light of the above, it beggars belief that Dr Akram emphatically negated Haji Imdadullah’s having studied hadith and fiqh and also insinuated he did not know Quran and Sunnah. “If the person does not know Qur’an and Sunnah, how can you follow him?”
Giving khilafah to non-scholars
Dr Akram also stated that the Chishtis would not give khilafah to non-scholars and that Haji Imdadullah was the first non-scholar to be deputised in this tariqah. This is also an obvious error on the part of Dr Akram. There have been other leading Chishti Sufis who, though non-scholars, were deputised. Haji Imdadullah’s own shaykh in the Chishti-Sabri tariqah, Miyanji Nur Muhammad Jahnjanwi, had also not completed his formal Islamic studies.
To truly understand the issue of whether a non-scholar could receive khilafah in the Chishti tariqah, it would be apt to visit some of the writings on this subject by leading Chishti scholars such as Imam Rabbani Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi and Hakim al-Ummah Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi, whose mode of Tasawwuf Dr Akram has at least verbally expressed “admiration” for.
In his primer on Tasawwuf, Imdad al-Suluk (also known as Irshad al-Muluk), Mawlana Gangohi lists the traits that a prospective shaykh should possess; this includes that he should have remained in the company of a perfect (kamil) shaykh and received khilafah.
Under the section heading “It is not necessary that the shaykh is a conventional (istilahi) scholar (‘alim),” Mawlana Gangohi writes: “Additionally, it should be known that it is not a condition that the shaykh has grasp of all of the sciences rather it is enough to have the knowledge of the fara’id, sunnats and nafl in the actions of worship, the different types of haram and actions that are forbidden, and the distinguishing traits of that which is permissible and impermissible. It is also imperative that he is aware of how to treat all of the [spiritual] illnesses of the saliks in the Path and [have knowledge of] the way of striving (mujahadah) and spiritual exercises (riyadat) in that he is able to provide instructions that are appropriate to the individual according to his ability; it is also important that the shaykh is wise…”
Mawlana Thanawi, another scion of the Chishti tariqah, also expresses the same sentiment in his Ta‘lim al-Din in a section on the conditions of the shaykh-i-kamil: “Firstly, he should have knowledge of the science of Shari‘ah according to need (bi-qadr-i-darurat), regardless of whether this is gained through formal study (tahsil) or through the company of the scholars, so that he may be safeguarded from the corruption of beliefs and actions and is also able to safeguard seekers…”
Elsewhere, in his al-Takashshuf, Mawlana Thanawi writes: “[He should be such that] the people of knowledge should consider him (the shaykh) positively and refer back to him (ruju‘)…”
Other leading scholars have also expressed the same. Shah Waliullah Muhaddith Dehlawi (1703-1762) is a non-Chishti Sufi scholar from a period earlier to Mawlana Gangohi who lists the conditions of a prospective shaykh in his beautiful book on Tasawwuf Al-Qawl al-Jamil. After mentioning that the shaykh should have remained in the company of a kamil and received authority to transmit the tariqah, he writes: “The words of the shaykhs are agreed that only the person who has written hadith and read the Qur’an lectures people; however, if he is such a person that has remained in the company of the god-fearing scholars for a lengthy time, learned adab from them, searches out what is halal and haram, and adheres to the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet, then it is hoped that this will suffice him, and Allah is the most knowledgeable.”
The above clearly demonstrates the methodology of Shah Waliullah that the prospective Sufi shaykh does not necessarily need to be a formal scholar, but has to be someone who exercises care and diligence in understanding and following the requirements of sacred Islamic law which can be gained through the company of god-fearing scholars, opportunities that Haji Imdadullah, as mentioned above, took full advantage of. His first shaykh in the Naqshbandi tariqah, for example, was Mawlana Nasir al-Din Naqshbandi who was the khalifah of Shaykh Shah Muhammad Afaq, the student and son-in-law of the renowned hadith scholar Shah Muhammad Ishaq Dehlawi and also student of another renowned hadith scholar, Shah ‘Abdul-‘Aziz Dehlawi. Both of the two latter mentioned were from a household renowned for its erudition and where the study of the Islamic sciences was inherent. Likewise, he also studied Mishkat al-Masabih under Mawlana Muhammad Qalandar Muhaddith Jalalabadi and Hisn al-Hasin and Fiqh al-Akbar under Mawlana ‘Abdur-Rahim Nanotwi, both of whom were the senior students of Mufti Ilahi Bakhsh. The study of Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi Ma‘nawi was undertaken with Shah ‘Abdur-Razzaq who studied it from Mawlana Abul-Hasan who studied it under his father Mufti Ilahi-Bakhsh.
Mufti Ilahi-Bakhsh himself was a giant in knowledge and piety. During his teens, he studied three years in Delhi under Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Muhaddith Dehlawi and then, having completed his studies, was asked by Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz to teach at his madrasah. During this period he also studied the art of ifta under Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz who also instructed him in writing fatwas. The hagiographies also mention that Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz would often observe Mufti Ilahi Bakhsh as he taught. He was further initiated in the Qadri tariqah at Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz’s hands and, later on in life after the demise of his mentor, became a murid of Shah Sayyid Ahmad Shahid of Rai Bareli receiving khilafah from him. Throughout his life, he remained involved in studying, teaching, lecturing, delivering speeches and guiding the masses. In fact, one of his notable students was the famous hadith scholar Mawlana Ahmad ‘Ali Saharanpuri who wrote a commentary on Imam al-Bukhari’s sahih which till today is published around the main text of the Subcontinental editions of Sahih al-Bukhari (see Sawanih ‘Umri by Mufti ‘Ashiq Ilahi Bulandshehri Madani). Shaykh Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali Nadwi also writes regarding him in Life and Mission of Maulana Mohammad Ilyas: “Mufti Ilahi Bakhsh was among the most outstanding pupils of Shah ‘Abdul ‘Aziz. Besides being a distinguished teacher, author and legist, he was, also, a Unani physician of a high order, and possessed a thorough knowledge of both the rational and traditional sciences. He had a great command over Arabic, Persian and Urdu poetry as well… he left behind about 40 books in Arabic and Persian.”
It is from this spiritual powerhouse and mountain of knowledge that Mufti Ilahi Bakhsh was that many of Haji Imdadullah’s teachers gained their tarbiyah and subsequently passed on that learning and spirituality to their students.
In conclusion, it is evident Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki had studied the Islamic sciences, albeit not to a level which would qualify him officially as an ‘alim, but to a depth that is required of an accomplished shaykh in any tariqah. Therefore, Dr Akram’s claims that Haji Imdadullah had “never” studied hadith and fiqh and was unqualified to be followed as he did not know the Qur’an and Sunnah, alongside citing Haji Imdadullah being deputised to be a case of breaking the tradition of only deputising ‘alims, are all proven wrong without any evidence in support of them.
 Maulana Muhammad Ali Mongeri, founder of Nadwat al-Ulama, was also granted khilafah by Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki.