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The Nadwat al-ulama: As a Project of Ecumenism in the Early Modern Period

By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford


Among the problems that Muslims faced in late nineteenth-centuryIndia, and which greatly hampered their unity, were the differences in theological and legal doctrines among the various schools and sects. Sometimes these differences led to severe disputes that the Muslims could not resolve themselves and sothey sued each other in the British-administered courts.
Another major problem was the colonial power’s introduction and imple-mentation of its own educational system. As a result the ummah was torn between two groups that came to be labelled ‘the modern’ and ‘the orthodox’.
It is in this context that Nadwat al-ulama was established in1893 (1311AH). Its founders’ aims were to bridge the differences among Muslims. They set out to do this by encouraging an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance as a firm basis for co-operation among Muslims; and by bringing about suitable changes and improvements in the old syllabuses of the Islamic madrasas so as to equip Muslims with the knowledge needed to cope with the realities of the time.
Among the main policies that Nadwat al-ulama pursued were:
1. To turn away from the old kalam/theology discussions to put the focus of study on the sirah of the Prophet and the history of Islam. At that time Western orientalist scholars and missionaries were systematically challenging the foundational texts and narratives of the Muslims and stirring up doubts and uncertainties about them. Accordingly, Muslims had to focus on these topics, and to abandon the old and sterile contentions about theological and legal details.
2. To be flexible about differences between and within the legal schools,to teach tolerance of the judgements and practice of others, and to allow healthy discussion in the classrooms so that the reasons for the differences were properly understood. Tolerance can only be sustained on the basis of knowledge and understanding of the reasoning that leads others to judgements different from one’s own.
3. To reform the old curriculum and make room for the study of whatever, in the modern sciences,could be beneficial to Muslims individually and collectively.

Nadwat al-lama tried to produce broad-minded, broadly-educated scholars who would discharge their duty of explaining and practising Islam in the modern world; who would expound the eternal and universal elements of the Divine Message, the distinguishing features of the Sharia and the way of life envisaged and enjoined by Islam; and who would do this in a peaceable and persuasive manner with direct appeal to the modern mind. In some respects, the whole programme of the Nadwat al-ulama was designed to serve as a sort of confluence of the old and the new, where the new would be guided by the old, and the old refreshed and strengthened by the new.