Memories of My Mentor: Mawlānā Dr. ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm al-Nuʿmāni Chishtī

In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Most Mercy-Giving.

Upon the passing of my mentor and intellectual guide, Mawlānā ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Chishtī Ṣāḥib (al-Nuʿmānī), who his students affectionally call Ustādh Jī or just Haḍrat Chishtī Ṣāḥib, I find myself struggling to find the right way of expressing my grief and loss. It is, no doubt, the personal loss of my mentor and compassionate motivator, but also the general loss of the entire ummah, which has become orphaned of an intellectual parent whose value it did not fully appreciate.

My initial reaction to the news of Haḍrat’s passing has not been shock so much as a retreat into silence. Despite my innate desire to be alone when grieving, the many sincere condolences of family, well-wishers, students, and acquaintances, whose loving messages only demonstrate how much I was able to convey my appreciation for my teacher, have brought me comfort and reminded me of the need to further acquaint them with my mentor.

I am also reminded of Haḍrat’s constant encouragement to be productive, and to have the courage to write and research. As a result, I have decided to honor him in a way by putting some thoughts to paper (or screen in this case) in what I imagine is a positive way of respecting and continuing his legacy. After all, from all of my teachers, Chishtī Ṣāḥib was the strongest proponent of writing and research. Despite his dislike for poor, hasty, and undisciplined authorship, he didn’t let bad writing discourage him from constantly motivating students to their research to writing. He only asked that they do so with diligence, supervision, and the discipline of a meticulous and tireless researcher.

He encouraged his students to “get to work” and be productive, to avoid the laziness of some students who expect all the work and reading to be done by their instructors. I like to think that what gave him a positive impression of me was not only that I spent most of my time during those months I was with him scribbling away at my notepad or typing on my laptop (which apparently was the first time a student utilized a computer in the program and it started a positive trend afterwards), but that I never asked him a question without having looked into the issue first on my own. I didn’t ask him to spoon feed me answers or give me research ideas. Most of the time, when I came to him with a question it was a book or two in hand, or with some notes on which I had recorded my notes. It was either an interesting observation, an objection that came to mind, or a passage where I wasn’t sure if my understanding was accurate that brought me to him and interrupted his incessant muṭālaʿah. In fact, now that I think about it, I recall him mentioning on at least one occasion that he disliked when specialization-level students asked him questions that they could have looked up the answers to on their own.

I don’t know what it is that Ustādh Jī saw in me when he invited me to study with him back in 2005. I had just completed the Dawrat al-Ḥadīth program at Dār al-ʿUlūm Karachi when I met up with an old acquaintance from my days studying in Faisalabad, Mawlana Aḥmad Riẓā, who shared some of the same teachers and the same spiritual guide from our days studying in the Punjab. He let me know that he was studying in Karachi and had been enrolled in the specialization program in hadith studies with Shaykh al-Islām Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-Madanī’s student at the famed Jāmiʿat al-ʿUlūm al-Islāmiyyah, Binnori Town. At the time, it was the only specialization in hadith program in all of Pakistan (to my knowledge). My cousin was then studying iftāʿ at the Jāmiʿah and I had visited him many times, yet I had never been introduced to Chishti Sahib until then nor did I know much about his unique educational background. At my friend’s insistence and encouragement, I made a plan to visit Hadrat at his home one night and to request him for general ijāzāh in hadith.

When we arrived at his home, Haḍrat greeted us at the door in humble clothing, a simple white kurta and a lungi underneath. His living quarters were very humble, a few rooms built above the masjid for which he served as an imam. His wife was away that night, visiting one of his children I believe, so he welcomed us himself and guided us to his humble “sitting room”, which was, like all the other rooms I saw in his house, stacked from floor to ceiling with books and bookshelves. After some time, I finally found it in me to request ijāzāh in hadith from him. Hadrat was a direct student of Mawlana Shaykh al-Islam Ḥusayn Aḥmad Madanī, having graduated from Dār al-ʿUlūm Deoband in 1949, but I also learned that he despite his relative disinterest in running around the world collecting asānīd, he enjoyed ijāzāhs in hadith from great scholars, many who had passed away long ago. Amongst the many surprises I found on his list of teachers, before even the name of Shaykh ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah, was the words “our blood brother” next to the name of ʿAllāmah ʿAbd al-Rashīd al-Nuʿmānī. Haḍrat al-Nuʿmānī was a scholar who had fascinated me for some time and I read some of his works. Here I was sitting with his brother and student, the inheritor of his thought and the carefully-trained bearer of his intellectual legacy.

Upon request, Haḍrat granted me ijāzah without hesitation and had a student bring an ijāzāh certificate brought for us. He signed the ijāzāh (with words of praise that I am too embarrassed to include here), but also insisted that we stay for dinner. Now, being the age of my grandfather (in fact, he shared nisbah with my paternal grandfather’s shaykh Mawlānā ʿAbd al-Qādir Raipūrī as well as my grandfather’s passionate admiration for Haḍrat Madanī), I was embarrassed to stay too long and cause Haḍrat inconvenience. In my mind, I was sure that I would be overstaying my welcome. Moreover, at Haḍrat’s age, and him being alone at home, he would have to prepare and bring the food and set it all up for us himself.

Yet, despite trying to politely decline twice, Ustādh Jī insisted and we ended up staying, embarrassingly watch this giant of a scholar and a man the age of my grandfather take trip after trip from the sitting room to the kitchen to grab dishes, the dastarkhān, pitchers of water, etc… Finally, he told us to get up and go next door to the neighboring room to wash our hands. When we stood to gather our sandals, I was shocked to find that Haḍrat had straightened our sandals for us!

Haḍrat’s humility and undeserved kindness was not only unexpected but now making me uncomfortable. The only appropriate reciprocation that came to mind was to pay him back in kind, so the next opportunity I found, I straightened his own sandals, to which he gave a stern frown and exclaimed, “This is the right of the host, to honor his guests! You must not do this as long as you are my guest!”

Suffice it to say that I although I had observed the kindness and humility of many ‘ulama up to this point, this level of humility and attention from someone so senior just annihilated me. I was both perplexed but completely enamored. My heart filled with love for him. I just wanted to spend more time with this remnant of a more pious past. I decided in my head to now try to stretch the visit out a bit. After dinner, I happily sat with Haḍrat and entertained his questions about my education and background. I told him where I was from and complained about how the current government in Pakistan was making it difficult for foreigners to stay in the country.

He candidly asked, “What are you planning on doing now that you have graduated?” I told him that since I didn’t know if the government was going to force us out of the country or not, I was hoping to go back to the states and find some scholars to study with at a specialization level, perhaps in the field of tafsīr or Arabic. He smiled at me and stated, “Look, as long as you can stay here, you can study with me and leave whenever you like.” He instructed my companion, Mawlana Aḥmad Riẓā (to whom I am eternally indebted for connecting me to Chishtī Ṣāḥib and countless other favors), to help make arrangements for me.

I was, of course, speechless. I’d never received the attention and interest of someone like him before. The specialization in hadith program used to be very small in numbers only some years ago, with four or five students at most in the program. However, things were beginning to change and up to twelve students were going to be given admission this year. There would be an admissions process, assessments, etc… and not everyone who applied would get a seat. Yet, Haḍrat had just given me a ticket into the program, no questions asked. He even told me that if I had trouble getting formal permission to stay on campus and enroll as a student that he would make accommodations for me himself.

This was the humility of our shaykh. Despite his seniority, he made his students feel like they were important and worth his attention. During the months I had the opportunity to be in his company, I felt like I was more dear to him than his own children. In fact, I never knew how many children he had until many years later after I read about all of them in his autobiographical introduction to another work.

When I began the specialization program in hadith studies, I was given special permission to live on campus while not be formally enrolled as a student. Knowing that I had only six or seven months to stay, I committed my day and night to serving Haḍrat and learning from him and his more senior students. I read all his writings that I could access and prepared the morning lessons in hope to be able to be chosen to read the texts myself. After a few weeks of allowing every student a turn to read, Haḍrat then chose me to be the primary reader for the texts, starting with Nuzhat al-Naẓar, then Muqaddimat Ibn al-Ṣalāḥ, then al-Rafʿ wa al-Takmīl, etc… He paid attention to how the student read the text. If a student didn’t stop where there should be a pause due to the end of a sentence or paragraph, for example, he would kindly ask the next person to read. Speed wasn’t his objective in reading the text, comprehension was. I quickly understood that Haḍrat was not interested in translating or explaining the text to graduate students. He wanted them to be able to read the text in a way that demonstrated that they understood the intent of the author, and then he wanted to build on that understanding to allow them to critically engage with the content of the book.

Hadrat heavily emphasized developing critical thinking faculties. He was not amused by students who were only able to regurgitate what they studied. Rather, he was interested in students who were able to analyze, appreciate, and then critique ideas and claims. He wanted students to be curious about the claims and references enough to check those claims with the original sources, and he would be delighted when students brought their curiosity-motivated findings to him to verification their thoughts or hunches.

Chishtī Ṣāḥib didn’t appreciate students who wanted knowledge served to them on a silver platter. He wanted to see students work, to be lost in reading for hours, to be taking notes, comparing texts, exploring the library, familiarizing themselves with authors and works. If a student insisted on having Chishtī Ṣāḥib answer all their questions without researching the issue themselves, he quickly lost interest in that student and devoted more attention to others.

Of the many lessons I learned from Haḍrat was to appreciate knowledge for knowledge. He didn’t discriminate when it came to the source and was willing to acknowledge that even champions of heterodoxy could be appreciated for true knowledge when they espoused it while not accepting their errors. He was firmly against emotional approaches to challenging heterodoxy. Scream all you want, he would remark. You won’t get rid of a thousand plus years of an ideology by simply shouting slogans. You must read, understand, investigate, and then intellectually challenge the heterodox idea. Hundreds of years of scholarship and thousands of volumes won’t be simply discarded simply because of an emotionally charged rally in which young men scream at the top of their lungs that their opponent is a kāfir, he once remarked in frustration.

Haḍrat was amazingly balanced as a critic. As hadith criticism was his field of speciality, it came as no surprise that he was able to offer a precise and fair critique on nearly any figure or work that I brought up in a discussion, even if he didn’t offer it. His mind was highly trained to look at all claims for their weight despite the person behind it.

Yet, he was not hypercritical or blinded by his intellectual and spiritual associations. His firm devotion to the Ḥanafī school and its legal methodology allowed him to engage sharply with its critics and to expose the prejudices of some non-adherents to the school. In the same gathering, he would be able to identify a passage in a work we were reading as evidence of the inconsistency of the author or evidence of the author’s antagonism against the Ḥanafīs, while in the same gathering he would praise the enormity of that same scholar’s knowledge and tear up in admiration for their intellectual contributions.

That was the pure and sincere heart of a critical hadith scholar that had been tempered by the careful tarbiyah of spiritual giants. His heart was incredibly soft. I observed him tear up several times in the months I sat with him, sometimes when the name of Hadrat Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī was mentioned, or at the mention of Shaykh al-Ḥadīth Mawlānā Zakariyyā, or even the somewhat partial Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī.

There are so many statements that Ustādh Jī mentioned in class that I would only properly understand years later. As I read more and more of the works that he drew from in his own life, I have these moments of sudden realization: “Aha! That is what Chishtī Ṣāḥib was talking about when he said x, y, and z!” I hope that at some point, I will be able to get past those moments and become a true representative of his knowledge and thoughts.

Like al-Kawthari, al-Kashmīrī, and his older brother Mawlanā ʿAbd al-Rashīd al-Nuʿmānī before him, Ustādh Jī often spoke at a level above his students’ intellects and readings. I know that I must not be the only one student of his who is still continuously appreciating his teachings more and more as we slowly catch up to his level of understanding and to the expansiveness of his research.

Haḍrat’s reading and research was unparalleled. In all my life, I have never seen anyone so engrossed in reading for so long and without being overcome with fatigue. There were several books about which we would have conversations and about which he would remark that he had read those works cover to cover several times while researching for his doctoral thesis, including encyclopedic works such as al-Dhahabī’s al-Tārīkh al-Kabīr and al-Qalqashandī’s al-Ṣubḥ al-Aʿshā. Other students would tell me that they heard him make similar claims about other books and that he had read them four or five times from beginning to end.

I don’t know if it was due to his extensive reading, but he had three operations on his eyes during his lifetime and yet never seemed to let them rest. He never made an excuse for himself to stop reading despite poor eyesight or old age (his glasses were incredibly thick and I can’t imagine how difficult it was for him in general to see without straining). Near the end of his life, he would use a magnifying lens for mutālaʿah and students told me he would hold it for hours over his books without moving an inch.

I don’t remember how I discovered this, whether it was through observing his actions or from a fellow student, but Haḍrat would always remain in a state of wuḍū. He was consistent and regular with his aʿmāl. He was always respectful with his books and instruments of learning. He sat still for incredibly long periods of time. Where I sat in the library, his sitting area was slightly behind the pillar where I had stationed myself and placed my desks. Every ten minutes or so, I would look back at him, for hours sometimes. He wouldn’t seem to notice me or anyone else or what they were doing. He would just remain in the same position reading his books, the only noticeable movement coming from him being his kurta moving slightly from the wind of the fan and the occasional page turn using his long, slender finger.

Ustādh Jī’s affection for his students was sometimes very subtle and sometimes it was very obvious. When I was finally feeling the pressure to leave the country and told Haḍrat about my intentions to leave Pakistan to return home, he insisted that I spend the next month or two finishing the first year curriculum with him, even if it meant coming to his home and studying in private. When I eventually had to leave, I remember that last meeting at the footsteps of the research library. We hugged. Ustādḥ Jī looked at me with concern in his eyes and longing for me to stay. His love and affection was obvious. I held back tears and told him that I regretted leaving. I had so much still to learn from him, I complained. His kind and reassuring reply was simply, “You have dried out my well.” And then I vaguely recall him saying something like, “Now go, get your PhD, get to work. Allah will give you tawfīq”. I’m still trying to fulfill his desire to get that doctorate, but I’ve generally understood from his many advices to me that he wanted me to do what I could with whatever I had and simply be productive with my life. “Kām karo”, is how I imagine he would have put it. Now, go, keep studying, and do some real work. I still remember that scene clearly. I don’t know if I imagined it or not, but I recall seeing slight tears in his eyes when he said that last farewell. Like most acts of kindness and praise, I didn’t know how to respond to it. I simply kept it in my heart and let it motivate me over the years. If this giant of a sage has a good impression of you, don’t let him down, is what I tell myself even now.

For much of my time in Pakistan, I struggled with the huge impasse that seemed to exist between the “secularly” and “religiously” educated, between the class of the gentleman and the maulvi. It bothered me that there was such a distance between educated Muslims and that such strong prejudices existed across these imaginary aisles. I realize that many students of the madrasahs feel the same way. The resolution of this tension for me was not in speeches or writings, but in the examples of my teachers. Mufti Taqi Sahib had a doctorate and a masters. Chishtī Ṣāḥib not only held a doctorate in Library and Information Sciences, but he also participated in both academic worlds and was admired by both.

He was appreciated by Urdu poets, Arab hadith scholars, English-speaking librarians, historians, and muftīs, and yet never appreciated enough or to the degree that we as his students believed that he should be. He never sought the spotlight and so perhaps that is why he was mostly able to avoid it. He didn’t seek to occupy the highest seats in institutions, to become the head lecturer, to have large following, or to be a celebrated author. He was interested in real intellectual and academic contribution regardless of how popular his work would or could become. He despised writing for the sake of popularity. He openly critiqued people who presented their books to him which he felt provided no new contribution to Islamic literature.

If someone brought him a book they had written, he wasn’t afraid to ask that person as to why they wrote on that topic, whether they had done a literature review to gauge if that work had already been done, and what new contribution they have provided to the field. Why write something new when you could have worked to edit and uncover the works of the scholars of the past, he would ask? Is the point to draw attention to yourself or to the beautiful literary tradition of our intellectual forefathers?

He was equally bold when exposing plagiarism, copy-and-paste works that were quick best-sellers but were basically shallow and stolen content. He was critical of scholars who sold ijāzahs of hadith, who made wild claims and were comfortable using absolutes in public discourses.

Crucially, he was a strong advocate for maintaining a systematic and orderly conceptualization of our history and tradition, to keep every historical figure and intellectual contribution in its proper place, to respect each scholar for who they were and to neither elevate them beyond their true status nor to denigrate them below the status they rightfully deserved. To do otherwise was to invite intellectual chaos. He was thus critical when the personalities of later scholars like al-Bukhārī or al-Tirmidhī were inflated over those of Abū Ḥanīfah and Mālik, just as he was uncomfortable with conflating scholars of the relative ranks and varying fields of al-Suyūṭī with, say, al-Dhahabī. When he was willing to accept that scholars of the Ahl al-Hadith persuasion in the early centuries held prejudices against Ḥanafīs because they were considered Ahl al-Raʾy, he desired for Muslim academics to come to terms with reality and not build fantastical castles in the sky that would not hold up to the test of rigorous criticism.

He was also incredibly phsycially active for his age. When we would implore him to use a taxi to travel and avoid the many harms of public transportation, he would simply exclaim, “Mian! If I don’t walk, my legs will stiffen up.” He walked whenever he could and never asked for help. Once a classmate went to see Haḍrat off at the bus stop where many buses converge quickly and you have to board them almost immediately, since some buses don’t even come to a full stop before heading onward. The student (Mawlānā Aḥmad Riẓā) came back to the library after seeing Haḍrat off and I could see tears flowing from his eyes. He told me that as Ustādh Jī was climbing up one of the buses, another came in too close and knocked him off as he was climbing. Seeing such an elderly man have to undergo such careless treatment, I was infuriated and frustrated. I implored my friend that we encourage Haḍrat to take a taxi to the madrasah that he usually traveled to on that day (a girls’ madrasah where he taught hadith because he would not refuse a request to teach hadith). When we proposed it to Haḍrat, he gave the same reply, “Mian! If I don’t walk a little every day, my legs will stiffen up!” Eventually, my colleague was able to convince someone from the girls’ madrasah to send a tiny rikshah to drive him across the city, since that was the only level of expense that Haḍrat was willing to tolerate imposing on the school.

He was, no doubt, a man of simplicity and sincerity. When someone asked Ustādh Jī for advice, his typical response was also to inculcate ikhlāṣ in life and in one’s work. He would, of course, ask for Allah to give tawfīq and for Allah to grant a long and productive life, but he always implored that “in whatever it is that you do, do it with sincerity”.

There is much more I wish to write about Haḍrat at this time, but I will have to stop for now for the sake of brevity and continue at a later time. Most importantly, however, I do want to share with my readers that it was in Chishtī Ṣāḥib that I found my model, a model I had been searching for for so many years. I felt a perfect munāsabah with Haḍrat almost immediately upon meeting him. Despite benefitting from so many shaykhs before him, it wasn’t until I met Ustādh Jī that I knew in my heart who I wanted to emulate in my academic life. Like Khwājā Khān Ṣāḥib had been my prize acquisition as a guide in taṣawwwuf, Chishtī Ṣāḥib was the intellectual source of treasure that I had been searching for my whole life. With both of these paragons now having left this world, as well as so many of my teachers and guides (my mother at the top of the list), I can not help feeling hopelessly lost.

أولئك آبائي فجئني بمثلهم **** إذا جمعتنا ياجرير المجامع

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