The Wise Healer of the Ummah: Life and Works of Mawlana Ashraf ʿAli Thanwi (Part II)

The Wise Healer of the Ummah: Life and Works of Mawlana Ashraf ʿAli Thanwi (Part II)

(This is the second part of The Wise Healer of the Ummah: Life and Works of Mawlana Ashraf ʿAli Thanwi series. If you haven’t read the first part, you can read it here.)

Mawlana Thanwi’s Relationship with Hazrat Haji Sahib

Similarly, Allah Ta`ala selected none other than the great Shaykh of the Mashayikh of that era, Hazrat Haji Shah Muhammad Imdadullah Sahib Thanwi, for refining and completing Mawlana Thanwi’s spiritual rectification. Allah Most High had bestowed Haji Imdadullah with great spiritual virtue and saintly qualities. Many of the Sufis, both Arab and non-Arab, along with many of the righteous scholars of the time were part of the spiritual circle of Haji Sahib; spiritual wayfarers from all walks of life, from east to west would come to quench their thirst for Divine love in his auspicious company. Beyond his own personal spiritual achievement, Allah Ta`ala granted Haji Sahib an insightful mastery over the science of tasawwuf and suluk and made him a means of its revitalization. 

As a precursor to the immense service he would render in reviving and reforming the Ummah, Allah the Exalted placed Mawlana Thanwi under the guiding eye of Haji Sahib—who was a walking manifestation of shariʿah & ṭariqah—to further develop his spiritual potential and capability. Looking deep into their life-accounts, it is clear that Haji Sahib had his attention upon Mawlana Thanwi from an early age, even before they had ever met. One time, Haji Sahib on his own accord wrote to Mawlana Thanwi’s father—Munshi Abd al-Haq Sahib, who was also from Haji Sahib’s hometown of Thanabhawan—to bring his son along if he came for the Hajj to Makkah Mukarramah. This is all the more extraordinary because Mawlana Thanwi was born after Haji Sahib had already migrated to Makkah Mukarramah and had never met nor seen him. 

In 1299AH/1881CE when Mawlana Rashid Ahmad al-Gangohi (may Allah sanctify his secret) was departing for the Hajj, Mawlana Thanwi gave him a letter to deliver to Haji Sahib. In the letter, Mawlana Thanwi requested Haji Sahib to encourage Mawlana Gangohi to accept his bay’ah. When Haji Sahib received the letter, he mentioned the request to Mawlana Gangohi, but then said, “I will then accept his bay’ah myself…” He replied to Mawlana Thanwi’s letter saying, “Be contented and at ease. I have accepted your bay’ah myself.”

In 1301AH/1884CE when Mawlana Thanwi completed his formal studies in the shar’i sciences there was a need for a teacher in the Kanpur madrasah, Fayz-e-‘Am. Mawlana Thanwi was offered the position and so he remained teaching there for some time. However, after a while he left the institute due to his disagreement with certain administrative matters. Soon after that he began teaching at the Jami’ Masjid in Kanpur. This eventually led to the formation of a properly developed institute that Mawlana named, “Madrasah Jami’ul-‘Ulum,” relating it to the name of the masjid. This institute continued to grow day-by-day, eventually reaching prominence that is recognized till this day. 

In Shawwal of 1301 AH, while Mawlana Thanwi was still in Kanpur, an avenue opened up for him to easily perform the pilgrimage with his father. He was honored with finally meeting Haji Sahib in person and was blessed with the opportunity to make the bay’ah with him hand-to-hand. Haji Sahib wanted to keep him longer to stay in his company; however, at that time Mawlana ’s father could not tolerate being separated from his beloved son and wanted him to return back to India with him. Haji Sahib urged Mawlana Thanwi to stay at least a few months the next time he was going to come for the Hajj. This next opportunity came in 1310 AH/1892 CE and with sincere intentions he fulfilled the wish of his Shaykh and remained in the auspicious company of Haji Sahib for six months.

Mawlana was blessed with the golden opportunity to remain in the blessed company of his spiritual guide free from distraction. This allowed him to fully absorb the instruction and spiritual nurturing that he received. He befittingly took advantage of every moment of his time, benefiting from the spiritual blessings of his shaykh. In addition, he remained engrossed in performing abundant optional prayers and devotions according to the guidance of his spiritual mentor, as is the habit of the noble Sufis. Haji Sahib was also waiting for this opportunity to train his sincere disciple with love, compassion, and his undivided attention—thereby observing Mawlana ’s God-given abilities and conferring upon him his own mastery of the intricacies of the spiritual path. This transfer of spiritual knowledge continued until, in a short span of time, it resulted in the disciple’s heart becoming a treasure trove of spiritual realities and a place where the divine manifestations of the love of Allah and His Messenger would overflow. 

Upon gauging the spiritual progress of his most fortunate disciple, Haji Sahib was very pleased with what he observed. At times he would ecstatically say, “…The inspirational knowledge which Allah has bestowed me with, now flows from his lips. And this is a great favor and bounty of Allah… soon this young disciple and wayfarer of the path will become a great spiritual mentor and a carrier of the banner of guidance & success for the Muslim nation.”

Finally, when Haji Imdadullah was fully satisfied with Mawlana Thanwi’s progress and found him in conformance with the practice of the spiritual path, he granted his disciple the mantle of spiritual khilafah, thereby—with hope in Allah—laying on his shoulders the responsibility of initiating and guiding others on the path. When the time for Mawlana Thanwi’s return to India came, with great love and affection Haji Sahib embraced his young disciple and said, “My beloved Ashraf Ali… I observe that in this era, Allah has given you special virtue over all your contemporaries; and this is but the grace of Allah which He gives to whom He wishes…”

He gave Mawlana Thanwi two parting pieces of advice at that time:

Look, when you return home such internal conditions will come over you that might seem emotionally severe, but do not worry, continue to inform me and stay connected. Secondly, when your heart becomes overwhelmed by the disagreeable conditions in the madrasah, then do not hesitate to return to our hometown and take care of our Khanqah and Madrasah—becoming a continuous resident there with reliance upon Allah. Insha’Allah, you will greatly benefit Allah’s creation from there.”

In 1311AH/1893CE when Mawlana Thanwi returned to Kanpur and resumed teaching, he became all the more firmly established and well-grounded in his knowledge of the shariʿah and progressed therein. On the other side he continued to remain busy with his spiritual devotions and worship due to which his spiritual condition also progressed. During that time Mawlana would give many public lectures which were transcribed and published thereafter. He would also have his dhikr gatherings, which many seekers of Allah would eagerly attend to benefit from his spiritual guidance. Many enthusiasts would transcribe Mawlana’s words of wisdom and publish them frequently, thereby preserving them. Over time, Mawlana became well-known for his in-depth spiritual and academic discourses, eventually becoming beloved to both the general public and the religious elite. 

Despite all of this, when he returned from the auspicious company of his Shaykh, severe melancholy and depression began to overtake him until he was overwhelmed. He himself described his state saying:

“Severe depression and anxiety had become so overwhelming upon me that at times I wished that I could die.” 

Mawlana Thanwi wrote to his spiritual mentor regarding his severe restlessness saying, “You are so far and I am so severely overwhelmed by this state of depression…what shall I do?” 

Reading the letter, Haji Sahib became very emotional and replied, “As long as this faqir is alive then you have nothing to worry about...I am constantly praying for your betterment…be at ease.”

These heartfelt words of consolation had a profound effect on Mawlana Thanwi regarding which he said, “As soon as I received the letter and read these words, I felt immediate relief...and all my spiritual activities gradually fell back into place…” 

Mawlana Thanwi remained in Kanpur as a teacher and educator for over 14 years. In this period, Allah blessed Mawlana with tremendous growth in both his spiritual and academic progress. This only fortified the God-given abilities he already had in the internal and external sciences of Islam. It was also in this stage of his life that Mawlana became inspired with his concern for reviving and awakening the Muslim common-folk to rectify, improve, and increase their belief and practice. Due to this deep concern, he required peace of mind and complete focus, which was necessary to dedicate himself to this noble cause wholeheartedly. Thus, needing to relieve himself from the overwhelming responsibility of teaching, Mawlana Thanwi finally resigned from his teaching position in 1315 AH/1897CE and returned to his native city of Thanabhawan. 

When he informed his shaykh about his decision, the answer that he received was, “You have done well to return to our hometown…you will benefit the people in all aspects of their Din, and you will establish our madrasah and khanqah once again…I am supplicating for you at all times and you are always in my heart.”

Re-establishing the Khanqah in Thanabhawan

The village of Thanabhawan, located in the Muzaffarnagar district of UP, India, is far from any of the major cities, such as Saharanpur and Delhi. In those days, due to a lack of paved roads, travel and transportation was all the more difficult. Situated in the corner of the village, distant from the main town of Thanabhawan, were the khanqah and madrasah. This very khanqah was once the home of three prominent, awe-inspiring individuals who chose to lead lives of austerity and solitude: Hafiz Muhammad Damin Shahid, Mawlana Muhammad, and the aforementioned, Haji Imdadullah (may Allah have mercy upon them). These three distinguished shaykhs of tasawwuf—who were authorized in teaching the spiritual path by the Great Shaykh Mianji Nur Muhammad Sahib Jhanjanwi—were engrossed in serving the Ummah through spirituality and academics. However, when the 1857 revolt against the British colonialists occurred, Hafiz Muhammad Damin was martyred; soon thereafter Mawlana Muhammad also passed away and Haji Imdadullah migrated to Makkah Mukarramah. The khanqah become vacant and was left in this desolate state for quite some time. However, Allah did not allow the efforts of His noble awliya (friends) to be wasted, nor their memory forgotten; by the will of Allah, the Khanqah of Thanabhawan was meant to remain a hub for disseminating both the internal and external sciences of the shariʿah and a means of attaining all-encompassing guidance and success. 

It was only appropriate, that one of the disciples and eminent representatives of Haji Imdadullah should take the reins of this khanqah that was once the residence of the great shaykh. Hence, the one selected for the essential task of reviving this blessed khanqah, was none other than the Great Sage of the Ummah, the Reviver of the Nation, the Establisher of the Sunnah, Mawlana Shah Muhammad Ashraf ʿAli Thanwi. 

Upon returning to his hometown, Mawlana Thanwi fulfilled the wish and request of his mentor and took permanent residence at Khanqah Imdadiyyah. Though there was great difficulty in migrating and resettling from a place of establishment, by taking the position of his elders and continuing their work from where they left off, great things were intended for Mawlana Thanwi; but above all, the hope and expectation of his shaykh was fulfilled. 

As soon as Mawlana Thanwi settled into the khanqah, he mapped out a distinct agenda for serving the Din. Mawlana Thanwi was approximately 35 years old at the time and he had developed a natural penchant for time management. Each day was carefully planned and set on a stringent schedule. Consequently, all his affairs—from his personal daily needs, to his instructing students, and authoring works—would easily be fulfilled in such a smooth and organized manner that even until his last days, one would not notice anything lacking from his schedule.

(This introduction to the life of Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanwi (RA) was originally written in Urdu by Hadrat Dr. Abdul-Hayy Arifi (RA) in Basaʾir-e-Hakim al-Ummah, the English translation of which can be found in our Hidden Blessings book by Shaykh Tameem Ahmadi.)

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