Maulana Ashraf Thanvi on the Culture of Feeding the Ego

Maulana Ashraf Thanvi was born in 1863 and died in 1943, having lived a life steeped in scholarship and wisdom. He was one of the most prolific and intelligent scholars from the sub-continent, and his teachings continue to inspire many earnest students of the religion. For all his efforts, he came to be known as Hakim al-Ummat, or Sage of the Muslim Community.

Here is a sermon he delivered to a group of college students1:

Today we do not propose to speak on a particular theme, but to make a brief survey of the causes which have not so far allowed you to profit from the sermons of Ulema, and which, if not indicated and remedied now, would render such sermons unprofitable in future too. The causes spring from certain deficiencies in you your selves.

The first of these deficiencies that although religious doubts are spiritual ailments, you do not regard them as ailments. That is why you have never dealt with them in the manner you deal with physical ailments. May Allah protect you from all harm, but whenever it so happens that you fall ill, you never wait for the official physician of the college to come down to your room for himself in order to examine you and to treat you. When you were ill, you would have gone to his residence yourself and spoken to him about your illness. And if his treatment did you no good, you must have gone beyond the boundary of the college to to the town, and seen the civil surgeon at the hospital. And, in case even his treatment did not prove effective, you must have left even the town and made a journey to other cities, and must have spent quite a good sum of money in bearing expenses of the journey, in paying the doctors and in buying medicines. In short, you had no peace of body or mind until you had fully regained your health. This being so, how is it that when you are afflicted with religious doubts, you just expect that the Ulema themselves should attend you? Why do you not turn to them yourselves? And if, during this quest, one ‘Alim fails to restore your health, why do you not seek other Ulema? Why do you jump to the conclusion that your problem is insoluble?

The second deficiency is that you too often have an absolute confidence in your own opinion and judgment, and assume that nothing can be wrong with your way of thinking. This is another reason why you never turn to any religious scholar. This in itself is a great error. If you seek a verification of your opinion from the Ulema, you would soon be aware of the errors you commit.

The third deficiency is that, in religious matters, you are habitually reluctant to follow any one. That is why you do not accept the authority of any expert in any religious matters, but always pry into the explanations, reasons and arguments of everything. While the truth is that one who is not an expert cannot at all do without accepting the authority of an expert. This does not mean that the scholars of the Shariah do not posses any reasons or arguments. They do possess all that. But many things are beyond your understanding. Just as it is very difficult to explain a theorem of Euclid to a man who is ignorant of the first principles, definitions and other preliminaries necessary for a proper study of geometry, in the same way there are certain sciences which serve as a instruments and elementary principles for a study of the injunctions of the Shariah. Any one who wishes to understand them fully must necessarily acquire a knowledge of these sciences to begin with…

The third deficiency that Maulana Ashraf Thanvi spoke about is especially relevant for Salafis who insist that adhering to Maddhabs, or the traditional schools of jurisprudence, is patently wrong. That’s patently crazy, as a matter of fact. The breaking of tradition, and its moderating influence, is the precise reason why the religion has been dragged into extremist directions. In this, Maulana Ashraf Thanvi was absolutely correct.

  1. Ashraf Ali Thanvi, al-Intibahat al-Mufeedah (Answer to Modernism), trans. Modhamed Hasan Askari and Karrar Husain, 2004

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