Shāh Walī Allāh, an Islamic intellectual of the eighteenth century, answers the question “What is Sunnism?”

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:50

What is Sunnism? Rather than proposing just another summary of the handbooks of Islamic Studies, we have chosen to answer the question (an essential one for this edition of Oasis) by giving the floor to Shāh Walī Allāh, probably the greatest Islamic intellectual of the eighteenth century.


Born in Delhi in 1703 into a well-known family of scholars, Walī Allāh[1] received a rigorous training both in Islamic religious sciences and Hanafi law. After being initiated into the Naqshbandi Sufi order, he went on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1731. He returned home the following year and devoted himself chiefly to teaching and the renewal of Indian Islam. Alarmed by the decline of the Moghul Empire, he was amongst the promoters of the Afghan intervention that, with the third battle of Panipat (1761), prevented the Hindu Maratha Confederacy from further expansion northwards. He died shortly afterwards, in August 1762.


Partially translated in the pages that follow, his short treatise entitled An Even-handed Exposition of the Causes of Disagreement sets out to explain how, with the passing of time (the era of the Companions or first generation, that of the Successors or second generation and so on), Muhammad’s unitary experience gave birth to multiple traditions and law schools (madhhab), which are all called to mutual recognition. Thus Walī Allāh retraces the main phases in Muslim intellectual history, sketching a picture that is all the more valuable for the geographically and temporally decentralized perspective it adopts. The author in fact writes in Arabic, but from distant India, and he is personally experiencing the decline of the Moghul Empire, a bridging era that brought the classical age of Islam to a close while heralding the sudden outbreak of modernity.


At the centre of Walī Allāh’s thought there is, in keeping with Sunnism’s deep aspiration, a quest for compromise. A compromise between the different law schools in this treatise and a compromise between the essential monism of the Andalusian mystic Ibn ‘Arabī (1165-1240) and the existential monism of orthodoxy in Walī Allāh’s own masterpiece, Hujjat Allāh al-bāligha (“The Conclusive Argument from God”). Precisely on account of his talent in mediation, Walī Allāh was to be taken as a model by nearly all the Indian currents of Islam: the modernists, like Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), who were fascinated by his political stances and his choice to translate the Qur’an into Persian, but also the revivalists such as the Deobandi and Barelvi movements and even the Ahlul Hadīth, advocating the exclusive study of the tradition.


One of Walī Allāh’s constant concerns was to define, as precisely as possible, the authentic Sunna, i.e. the behaviour of the Prophet of Islam, which has a normative value for all Muslims, Sunnis and Shi‘ites alike. In fact, the difference between the two confessions lies not (as is often stated) in acceptance or rejection of the Sunna’s normativity but rather in its definition. In the author’s opinion, Muslims can attain the Sunna through a double process known as takhrīj or “derivation”. Takhrīj of the hadīth (i.e. of the brief records about the Prophet of Islam), in order to distinguish the authentic traditions from the interpolated or invented ones, and takhrīj of the legal rules, starting with their textual and methodological “roots” (usūl) before passing to the concrete cases (the Law’s “branches” or furū‘).


According to Walī Allāh, who actively promoted a renewal in the hadīth studies in India, these two processes are mutually complementary. He therefore militates against a blind, unilateral imitation of the law schools, recalling that there exists a legitimate variety of opinions and practices within Islam. At the same time, however, and almost foreseeing the advent of the contemporary Salafi movement, the author warns against the danger of a textualism that remains hostage to a literal memorization, without seeking to penetrate the intimate meaning of the traditions. For him, as for al-Shaybānī, one of the founders of the Hanafi law school in Iraq during the eighth century, “hadīth only holds true with reasoning and reasoning only with hadith.”


In his account of the rise of Muslim law, Walī Allāh thus touches on a crucial point, namely, the place of hadīth in the Islamic religious edifice. Having studied Mālik’s Muwatta’ (the oldest Islamic legal handbook) during his stay in Mecca, he is fully aware of the difference between the community-based practice of the first jurists and the hadīth-based law that triumphed later, chiefly thanks to al-Shāfi‘ī. His response is, once again, an attempt to reconcile community praxis with textual anchoring and this, as Sohaira Siddiqui explains in her article, is Sunnism. In the alternative, one can call for the absolute pre-eminence of hadīth and this is Salafism. Or one can challenge the whole hadīth as a late, artificial construct, and this is reformism in its progressive version. Since Walī Allāh’s time, Islamic religious discourse has swung between these two extremes. It is still trying to find its balance.

[1] The name is sometimes transcribed as Walīullāh, following the pronunciation used in the Indian subcontinent.