The Indian subcontinent boasts a lush history of Islamic revival, scholarship, and activism, and one of its leading figures is Muhammad Ism??l of Delhi, more popularly known as Sh?h Ism??l Shah?d.
Born on 1193/1779, he was the grandson of the celebrated revivalist Sh?h Wal?ullah and heir to the rich intellectual, spiritual and religious heritage of this scholarly family. He memorized the Qur?n by the age of eight, and studied under his father Sh?h Abdu’l-Ghan? until he died when he was ten, and then under his paternal uncles, the other three sons of Sh?h Wal?ullah. In this way,he had inherited the scholarly legacy of his entire family, including attaining proficiency in all religious texts and in the science of Had?th by the age of fifteen.
He was a prodigal student with extraordinary intelligence. He frequently moved beyond lesson plans, was observed to recall texts from memory as if he was reading from them, and engaged in hearty debates with his senior teachers. It was also said that he had 30,000 Had?th on the tip of his tongue!
He also possessed a profound sense of mission and vision of reform-much like his grandfather- which precluded his involvement in more mundane endeavors like teaching and leading prayers like the rest of his family. He travelled the lands in search of purpose. Destiny led him to a meeting of minds that transformed his life forever-as well as that of the Indian subcontinent.
He met the celebrated reformer and fellow student of the family, Sayyid Ahmad Shah?d of Bareill? in 1234/1819. Sayyid Ahmad had the same reformist vision coupled with a charismatic personality, leadership and military skills. He had formally raised the banner of revival and invited others to join the cause. Sh?h Ism??l pledged allegiance to the new leader, who was 7 years younger than he. With this charismatic leader and Sh?h Ism??l the scholar, together they sought to transform India. They took village after village by storm, filling the once empty masajid, organizing the communities and gaining new recruits.
Sh?h Ism??l had a huge impact. His sermons attracted large crowds and were compared to Eid gatherings. He spoke the language of the people, focused on practical reforms and easy-to-follow guidelines. He wrote numerous works and pamphlets and maintained public access for guidance and counseling.
One example of his broad vision and vigor was his approach to the much neglected institution of the Hajj. Due to the extreme hardships of the journey and the lax fatwas issued by religious authorities, this obligation had fallen by the wayside and become a religious relic. Sh?h Ism??l raised awareness of its obligatory nature and denounced the lassie faire attitude of the Muslims. To demonstrate their own commitment to what they preached, he along with his leader resolved to undertake the pilgrimage in a very visible and public way, and offered to pay the expenses of anyone who could not afford the journey. They took with them close to one thousand Muslims, on ten rented ships, with Ameers appointed for each ship. They embarked from Calcutta and returned almost a year later, having successfully revived an essential pillar of Islam.
The piety and personal example of Sh?h Ism??l left an unforgettable impression on all. An official of the British East India Company once came to visit him in Calcutta and was pointed by Sayyid Ahmad to a man in dirt-filled clothes. Annoyed, the official insisted, “The person I am inquiring about is Sh?h Ism??l the nephew of Sh?h Abdu’l-Az?z!” When he realized it was indeed him, he was moved to tears. Sh?h Ism??l was often seen walking while his colleagues were mounted on his horse. Another associate reported that he was led in a prayer of two rakahs by Sh?h Ism??l in which he recited S?rah al-Isr? in its entirety in such an emotional manner that he would never forget that prayer his entire life.
He wrote numerous works in Persian and Urdu of varying sizes but his most famous work is undoubtedly a book called Taqwiyat al-?m?n (“Strengthening of the Faith”). First published in 1242/1826 in his own lifetime, it is an exposition of the doctrine of tawh?d in the context of the social and religious life of the Muslims of the region. Written during the arrival of the printing press, it was one of the first Islamic works published in mass quantities and distributed widely, making it one of the most read Urdu works in the region.
The backdrop of Sh?h Ism??l was the 18th century global Islamic revival, which took place in the face of deteriorating Muslim political power. In 1241/1826, the movement of Sayyid Ahmad and Sh?h Ism??l formally launched a campaign against the injustices of the Sikh rulers in Punj?b. During one such campaign in the town of B?lakot on May 6, 1831, Sh?h Ism??l , Sayyid Ahmad Shahid and most of their followers lost their lives.
Although their campaign was short-lived, their movement and sacrifices gave new life to their far-reaching work of Islamic revival which continues to inspire great number of people to this day. The late poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqb?l remarked, “India has so far produced one really great scholar and his name is Ism??l.”