Rethinking, Reconfiguring and Popularizing Islam: Religious Thought of a Contemporary Indian Shi‘ite Scholar; Syed Ali Naqi Naqvi [Naqan]

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Rethinking, Reconfiguring and Popularizing Islam: Religious Thought of a Contemporary Indian Shi‘ite Scholar; Syed Ali Naqi Naqvi [Naqan]

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Rethinking, Reconfiguring and Popularizing Islam: Religious Thought of a Contemporary Indian Shi‘ite Scholar; Syed Ali Naqi Naqvi [Naqan]
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Rethinking, Reconfiguring and Popularizing Islam: Religious Thought of a Contemporary Indian Shi‘ite Scholar; Syed Ali Naqi Naqvi [Naqan]

Rethinking, Reconfiguring and Popularizing Islam: Religious Thought of a Contemporary Indian Shi‘ite Scholar; Syed Ali Naqi Naqvi [Naqan]


This book is corrected and edited by Al-Hassanain (p) Institue for Islamic Heritage and Thought

The book name is "Syed Ali Naqvi" according to referent website but as we researched on the of
Syed Rizwan Zamir, it is "Rethinking, Reconfiguring and Popularizing Islam: Religious Thought of a Contemporary Indian Shi‘ite Scholar". However, we did not change the book name but mentioned the complete name in order to prevent from any misunderstanding.


Syed Rizwan Zamir


This work is puplished on behalf of

The typing errors are not corrected.





Biography of ‘Ali Naqvi 7

The Crisis of Religion and ‘Ali Naqvi’s Reconfiguring of Islamic Tradition 8

Outline of the Chapters 11

Literature in the Field 12


Introduction 15

India Going through Unprecedented Change 19

The Crisis of Religion (mazhab): 24

Missionaries, Religious Pluralism, and Attacks on Islam: 27

The Crisis of Religious Authority 29

Irreligiosity, Materialism and Westernization 31

The Problem of Muslim Disunity 36

Concluding Remarks 38

Chapter II: Hermeneutics of the Religio-Intellectual Project and the Relationship between Intellect and Revelation 40

Introduction: 40

Relationship between the Intellect and Mazhab (Religion) 42

The Indispensability of the Intellect: 42

Why Intellect, Whence its Centrality? 46

Limitations of the Intellect 54

Concluding Remarks on the Relationship between Religion and the Intellect 57

‘Ali Naqvi’s Hermeneutics: Some Concluding Remarks 61

Chapter III: Mapping Religion onto Life: Religion as Sagacious Ordering of Life 64

Introduction 64

PART I: Overcoming Dichotomies: ‘Ali Naqvi’s Islah of the Concept of Religion 66

Introduction 66

What Religion is not? Prevailing Misunderstandings about the Reality of Religion 66

The All-Encompassing Ambit of Religion: 70

Overcoming the Faith-Works Dichotomy 73

Argument I: Principles and Branches of Religion (Usul-furu‘) and the Complementarity of Faith and Works (‘aqida wa ‘amal) 73

Argument II: Widening the Meaning of Worship 77

Concluding Remarks: Toward a Renewed Understanding of Religion 79

PART II: Indispensability of Religion for Human Civilization: Religion as Sagacious Ordering of Life 82

PART I: Religion and the Order of Life: Mapping Religion onto Life 82

Hierarchy of Knowledge and Primacy of Religion 88

Part II: Question of Change 93

Concluding Remarks 96






The Historical Argument 108

The Religious Argument 109

The Relationship between the Two Arguments 111

The Karbala Paradigm and Sociopolitical Activism 112

The True Purpose of Karbala-Commemorations 113


CONCLUSION: The Relationship between ‘Ali Naqvi’s Reconfiguration of Islamic Theology and Praxis and the Husayni-islah Paradigm 120


Introduction 124


Continuities 126

The Qur’anic Commentary 129

Rethinking Islam’s Sacred History 131

Concluding Remarks (Part I) 135


Why Social Reform? 136

How to Carryout Social Reform? 138

Illustrating ‘Ali Naqvi’s Reform of Shi’i Culture: 139

The Issue of Governance 143

Concluding Remarks 149


Popularizing the Reconfigured Message 155

Reflections on ‘Ali Naqvi’s Religio-Intellectual Project 158

‘Ali Naqvi’s Legacy 163


Appendix I: Household of Ijtihad (Source: S.A.A. Rizvi [1986]) 169


Bibliography 174

Selected Writings of Ayatullah ‘Ali Naqi Naqvi 174

Secondary Sources 176




Chapter II: Hermeneutics of the Religio-Intellectual Project and the Relationship between Intellect and Revelation 191

Chapter III: Mapping Religion onto Life: Religion as Sagacious Ordering of Life 194






Ayatullah ‘Ali Naqi Naqvi (1905-1988) is arguably the single most important religious figure of the twentieth century Indian Shi’ite Islam. Emerging out of a very well-known family of traditional scholars and the seminaries of India and Iraq, his religious and intellectual career lasted several decades during which he remained prolific and continuously preached from the pulpit. During his life he wrote and spoke about a host of subjects: the reason-revelation divide, a defense of Islam from attacks on its core beliefs and practices, Qur’anic exegesis, theology, defense of Shi’ite theology and religious practices from sectarian polemics, Islamic history, Islamic political and social thought, explanation of the various rulings of Islamic law, and the theme of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husayn. Conscious of his role as the most learned juridical authority (marja‘ al-taqlid) to whom the community would turn in times of crisis, for ‘Ali Naqvi, in his life the greatest crisis facing the community was that of irreligiosty, of people losing confidence and conviction in the worth of religion for human civilization. The present study argues that ‘Ali Naqvi’s diverse intellectual endeavors were guided by a conscious and well-thought out unity of vision and purpose: efforts to restore to religion of Islam its privileged status within the Indian Shi’ite and the broader Muslim community. An overview of the intellectual career and religious thought of ‘Ali Naqvi, this study examines his efforts to preserve and revive Islam for his community.


I would like to express my gratitude to my advisors, Dr. Abdulaziz A. Sachedina and Dr. Peter W. Ochs and the committee members, Dr. Ahmed H. al-Rahim and Dr. Richard Barnett, for their guidance, patience and efforts that made possible completion of this dissertation. I would also like to thank my colleagues in the Department of Religion at Davidson College, especially Dr. William Mahony, Dr. Trent Foley, Dr. Karl Plank and Dr. Greg Snyder who were all immensely encouraging and supportive. Without the kind of support I received at Davidson College, completion of this project in a timely manner would not have been possible. I would also like to thank Dr. Zafar Ishaq Ansari, Director Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad, and Research scholars, especially Dr. Qaiser Shahzad who generously provided facilities at the Institute and access to the library during my stay there. The research conducted at the Institute was critical to the development of the dissertation. Special thanks to Maulana Syed Mustafa Hussain Aseef Jaisi of Noor-e-Hidayat Foundation (Lucknow) whose assistance in the collection of primary texts was indispensable. Insights of my colleagues at the University of Virginia, Matt Munson, Dr. Ron Bentley, Dr. Jacqueline Brinton and Dr. Robert Tappan provided countless inspirations and remained a constant source of motivation and encouragement. Numerous friends assisted me during different stages of this project, in editing, and in reading drafts and providing feedback. They include Fuad S. Naeem, Zachary Markwith, Betsy Mesard, Ali Galestan and most of all Reza Hemyari who went out of the way to help me. I thank them all. I owe my studies in the United States to the unwavering trust, prayers and confidence of my mother Mrs. Razia Zamir Syed and sister-friend Dr. Um-e-Salma Rizvi. Their support and encouragement was vital to the successful completion of my studies. Finally, I dedicate this dissertation to the living memory of my belated father Dr. Syed Zamir Hussain.


This study examines the religious thought of Ayatullah ‘Ali Naqi Naqvi (1905–88), arguably the most prolific, influential, and popular Indian Shi’i traditional scholar of the twentieth century. ‘Ali Naqvi hailed from Lucknow, the provincial capital of Uttar Pradesh and a hugely important historical and cultural center of northern India. He belonged to arguably the single most prominent family of traditional Shi’i scholars (‘ulama’) of the Indian subcontinent, popularly known as the Khandan-i Ijtihad (Household of Ijtihad1 , 1752 to present). Generation after generation, scholars of this family have played a crucial role in shaping the religious and political landscape of the Awadh Dynasty (1722–1858) and beyond.2 Their contributions were even greater in fashioning the Shi’i tradition of the Indian subcontinent as it exists today.3 For the twentieth century ‘Ali Naqvi is the most prominent representative of this family; from the point of view of communal fame, among the greatest.

Yet even within this family of eminent scholars ‘Ali Naqvi is unique. First, it was during his lifetime the Indian subcontinent went through unprecedented sociopolitical and religious transformations. Second, while training as a scholar in the seminaries of Iraq, for thirteen years he also taught at Aligarh University, the hub of Islamic modernism in India. Third, rarely has a Shi’i scholar of his stature spoken directly to the masses as he did, making use of the pulpit and public lecturing. This dual engagement with Islamic traditionalist (the ‘ulama’ scholarly tradition) and modernist circles (the new intellectual elite) seems to have profoundly shaped the thought of ‘Ali Naqvi, making him particularly relevant in understanding the relationship between Shi’i traditionalism and modernism. The varying subjects that he wrote or spoke about include Qur’anic exegesis, theology, history, jurisprudence, political thought (including treatises on war and martyrdom), intra-faith debates (for example critiques of Wahhabism, Babiyah, and Ahmadiyah), defense of Muslim (and Shi’i) personal law (including topics such as gender roles, veiling, and temporary marriage), and numerous social issues such as the relationship between religion and culture. These writings and sermons constitute over two hundred titles (mostly in Urdu but also in Arabic and Persian). This study of ‘Ali Naqvi’s life and his theological thought is the first on any scholar of the “Household of Ijtihad,” and for that matter, of any Shi’i scholar of the Indian subcontinent.4 The study seeks to introduce ‘Ali Naqvi to the scholarly world by way of a systematic textual study of his key ideas in the domain of Islamic theology and sociopolitical thought and his efforts to popularize his message.

Biography of ‘Ali Naqvi


‘Ali Naqvi was born on December 26, 1905 in Lucknow in the family of esteemed religious scholars of the Household of Ijtihad (See Appendix A). Between the age of 3 and 4, to complete his studies in Islamic religious sciences, his father Sayyid Abu al- Hasan (Mumtaz al-‘ulama’) took him and his family to Iraq. In Iraq at the age of 7, ‘Ali Naqvi’s formal education began with Arabic and Persian grammar and basic learning of the Qur’an. In 1914, the family returned to India and he continued his religious education under the supervision of his father and later at the Sultan al-Madaris seminary. He also studied Arabic literature with Mufti Muhammad ‘Ali. In 1923 he passed the exam for certification of religious scholar (‘alim) from Allahabad University and soon also gained certification from Nazamiyyah College and Sultan al-Madaris. In 1925 he was awarded a degree in literature (Fazil-i adab). In 1927, ‘Ali Naqvi departed for the seminaries of Iraq, then the most prestigious place for religious training in the Twelver Shi’i world. During his stay there, he studied Islamic jurisprudence with Ayatullah Na’ini, Ayatollah Abu Hasan Isfahani and Ayatullah Sayyid Diya’ Iraqi, Hadith with Shakyh ‘Abbas Qummi and Sayyid Husayn Sadr and Islamic theology (Kalam) with Sayyid Sharf al-Din, Shaykh Muhammad Husayn Kashif al-Ghita’, Shaykh Jawad Balaghi, Sayyid Muhsin Amin Amli. As it will be noted later, while studying in Iraq ‘Ali Naqvi also wrote a few works in Arabic. After completing his seminary education and receiving certification (ijaza’) for ijtihad, in 1932 ‘Ali Naqvi returned to India. Immediately upon his return he began preaching regularly on Fridays.

In 1933 he was appointed as professor in the Oriental College Department of Lucknow University, where he then taught Arabic and Persian for over two decades. In 1959, Aligarh Muslim University invited ‘Ali Naqvi to take up the position of Reader in the theology (diniyat) department - which as yet did not have teaching faculty. The department also created two parallel streams of Sunni and Shi’i theology and ‘Ali Naqvi began to oversee the affairs of the Shi’i branch. Between 1967 and 1969, ‘Ali Naqvi became the dean of Shi’i theology eventually retiring from the university in 1972.Postretirement, from 1972-1975 ‘Ali Naqvi was given a research professorship through the University Grants Commission (UGC) and he decided to permanently stay in Aligarh.

He died on May 18, 1988 in Lucknow and was buried at Husayniyah Jannat Ma’ab.

The Crisis of Religion and ‘Ali Naqvi’sReconfiguring of Islamic Tradition

Writing about ‘ulama’ Qasim Zaman (2002) notes:

The ‘ulama have not only continued to respond -- admittedly, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success -- to the challenges of changing times; they have also been successful in enhancing their influence in a number of contemporary Muslim societies, in broadening their audiences, in making significant contributions to public discourse, and even in setting the terms of such discourses. In many cases, they have also come to play significant religiopolitical activist roles in contemporary Islam…[The ‘ulama]are hardly frozen in the mode of the Islamic religious tradition, but this tradition nevertheless remains a fundamental frame of reference, the bases of their identity and authority…What makes the ‘ulama of the modern world worth studying is not merely that they have continued to cling to lay claim to and self-consciously represent a millennium-old tradition of Islamic learning… Their larger claim on our attention lies in the ways in which they have mobilized this tradition to define issues of religious identity and authority in the public sphere to articulate changing roles for themselves in contemporary Muslim politics. The ‘ulamas tradition is not a mere inheritance from the past, even though they often argue that that is precisely what it is. It is the tradition that has to be constantly imagined, reconstructed, argued over, defended and modified.6

Zaman goes on to show how ‘ulama’ have not been completely aloof to the challenge of modernity and have adapted in numerous ways to reassert their authority through their legal thought, and by reconfiguring their institutions. Building on Zaman’s seminal work on ‘ulama’ legal and institutional reforms as a response to changing circumstances, Brinton shows how preacher-‘alim such as Shaykh Sha‘rawi have posited a theological renewal.7 While the issue of ‘ulama’s authority is central to both studies, Zaman’s work examines the role of ‘ulama’ as legal scholars, Brinton of a popular preacher-‘alim as a religious intermediary and a teacher. The present study not only corroborates the claim of Zaman and Brinton that the ‘ulama’ are still relevant and have adjusted their discourse to the changing circumstances, it also seeks to show by way of illustration that in isolated cases (like that of ‘Ali Naqvi) the adjustment from the ‘ulama’ has been of enormous proportions. ‘Ali Naqvi’s life and writings display an “adjustment” similar to what has been described for Thanvi by Zaman (2008) or Sha‘rawi by Brinton (2009); yet the uniqueness of ‘Ali Naqvi lies in the ambitiousness of his intellectual project. This is to say that his writings and sermons on disparate subjects ranging from Qur’anic exegesis to Islamic history, from Islamic law to Islamic theology, from Shi’i apologetics to Indian sociopolitical issues are rather unified in purpose, geared towards a comprehensive rethinking and reconfiguring, not only of Islamic theology but of Islamic social and political order as well. His efforts to publish his writings in over twelve languages, establishment of the Imamia Mission to oversee these publications and many other activities, and extensive public lecturing during Muharram and beyond (a rare phenomenon for a scholar of his religious stature) are in turn illustrative of his labors to popularize this reconfigured Islamic tradition. This study illustrates that underlying the immense diversity of subjects that ‘Ali Naqvi chose to write or speak about is a unity of intent and purpose, an attempt to comprehensively rehabilitate the status of religion in the Islamic society. Through a closer reading of ‘Ali Naqvi’s multifaceted life, activities, writings, and sermons, this study hopes to elicit this underlying unity of his religio-intellectual project.

Many of his works open with remarks about a characteristically new religious crisis for Muslims and various challenges to the Islamic tradition and its theological, legal and sociopolitical teachings. In the introduction to his seven-volume Qur’anic commentary he writes:

The new ideas that reach this land by sailing from the shores of Europe seize over the hearts and minds of many [here]. In their hearts these ideas insinuate the kind of doubts (shubhat) about every facet of religion (mazhab) the resolution of which, if not presented in accordance with their mindset (zahniyat) and their taste, would result in them becoming captivated by the doubt, which will then turn into belief (‘aqidah) and [be the cause of] their turning away from religion (3).

Much of what he wrote or spoke about, therefore, displays an awareness of ‘this new crisis’ to the Islamic tradition and a conscious attempt to recast the message of Islam in a way that would speak to this new mindset. His response to this crisis displays a rethinking and reorienting of tradition in which reason ('aql) plays a central role. ‘Ali Naqvi clearly hints at this project quite early in his career. Writing in 1941 on the relationship between reason and religion he noted:

Since there are hundreds of religions in the world and each one of these calls all others misguided, it is a duty upon one who is a seeker of truth to weigh all these [religions] with reason, and to whatever extent the length of one’s life permits, continue taking steps forward until he understands one [religion] fully. Turning away from research and helplessly saying goodbye to all [religions] because of the anxiety caused by the multiplicity of paths is intellectual laziness, whose consequence could never be satisfactory. In the order of existence [nizam-i hasti] there is wisdom which is perceived by the eye, understood by the reason and assented to by the heart. There is a Being which is the nucleus of this wisdom and which is directly related to this cosmic order. That the mind assents to Him is its grasp of reality…Beliefs are guarded by reason…on this basis ‘Religion and Reason” (Mazhab aur ‘aql) is presented in a book form so that the reality of the divorce between reason and religion, about which so much fuss is made, may be unveiled, the mirror [of it] be cleansed and one could see the true face of reality.8

His writings, therefore, are aimed at teaching his Shi’i community ‘one religion fully’, in this case, Shi’i Islam. Yet this teaching is not a straightforward reiteration of his learning but a thorough reworking of it along rationalist lines. It appears to be his assumed premise that the teachings of Islam in the wake of this crisis had to be presented in rational terms, and to be spoken of in these terms alone. Thus a rational presentation of Islamic theology and sociopolitical thought is central to his rethinking and reconfiguring of the Shi’i Islamic tradition. This rational reconfiguring is a result of his assessment of the intellectual, structural, and communal resources at hand (such as his usuli intellectual background and the powerful symbolism of Karbala and martyrdom of Husayn which he appropriates quite extensively), and the challenge of modernity which beside insinuating a religious crisis, also presented new opportunities for him to reach out to the masses (through, for example, the print-medium). It is refashioning, reconstructing, or reconfiguring of this tradition because his attempts to respond to modern circumstances pushed him towards a certain selective endorsement of particular aspects of tradition,9 for example rationality, over and above others, such as intracommunal discords, and also led him to reach out to the Muslim masses directly. As a religious authority towhom the Shi’i community would turn for guidance in times of crisis, he saw this rethinking and reconfiguring of Islamic teachings as central to his role.

In all of this ‘Ali Naqvi also stands apart from the broader ‘ulama’ scholarly tradition for which the encounter with modernity has usually resulted in uncompromising reactionary intellectualism.10 Although a strong sense of crisis looms large in ‘Ali Naqvi’s religio-intellectual project (consciously informing most of his works and sermons) his response to its various challenges is rational, calculated, and a result of his rethinking. In his thought and efforts is witnessed a confluence of the need to respond to modernity both as a philosophical and theological challenge to the Islamic worldview, and to its legal and sociopolitical teachings. Needless to say the categories of rethinking, reconfiguring, and popularizing are drawn to help a clearer understanding of his intellectual project. In actuality, there is an overlap and confluence of all these elements in his writings and sermons, which resist this clear-cut classification.

Since the study deals with the intellectual and religious thought of a contemporary religious scholar through his writings and sermons, the method of study is, first and foremost, textual. Through textual study, extensive translations from his numerous writings, contextualization of information (technical terms, ideas, and historical data), and careful analysis it presents a well thought-out reading of ‘Ali Naqvi’s intellectual project. The publication of Shi’i literature in the Indian subcontinent tends to be on the margins of the mainstream publishing houses. For this reason and also because much of what ‘Ali Naqvi wrote is now out of print, or still in manuscript form, the textual study and research involved extensive archival work, accessing manuscripts from libraries, and personal collections of his family and disciples and the broader Shi’i community of India and Pakistan.

Although an explanation of ‘Ali Naqvi communal fame is not central to this study, it was still of concern and relevance. To explore this dimension and his legacy in the Indian subcontinent interviews were also conducted with his disciples, students and the broader Shi’i community.

Outline of the Chapters

It is the central claim of this study that as a religious scholar and a communal leader in his writings, thought, and sermons, ‘Ali Naqvi was consciously responding to a deep sense of crisis within his community which lead him to rethink, reconfigure, and popularize Islamic (more precisely Shi’i) theology and sociopolitical thought. It argues that ‘Ali Naqvi’s rethinking of the problem involved a careful assessment of the intellectual, social, and institutional resources at hand, and lead him to take a decisively rationalist stance in his thought whereby response to the intellectual problems (theological or sociopolitical) or the refashioning of the Islamic universe could only be carried out along rational lines. In addition to the centrality of the intellect, ‘Ali Naqvi consciously saw his Shi’i community’s love for the family of the Prophet and the Karbala narrative as major resources which he employs in the service of this reconfiguration, and even more so in popularizing the reconfigured Islamic tradition. In addition, he sees his usuli intellectual training as a crucial resource for his religiointellectual project.

With this general outline of the main argument in mind, the study opens with an overview of the underlying concerns and worries that led ‘Ali Naqvi to embark upon this religio-intellectual project. Without a clear understanding of ‘Ali Naqvi’s reception of the religious crisis, his writings and other intellectual and social activities could not be properly contextualized. Chapter 1 therefore examines how ‘Ali Naqvi articulated this strong sense of religious crisis within the Indian milieu, and measures he sought urgent for his Shi’i community.

Chapter 2 through 5 look at ‘Ali Naqvi’s response to the crisis of religion. In this regard, chapter 2 discusses the hermeneutic of the religio-intellectual project which was crucial to his project and was consistently employed to the task of rethinking and reconfiguring. Since in ‘Ali Naqvi’s intellectual milieu the question about the relationship between reason and revelation was of critical import, his solution to this debate played a vital role in his rethinking and reconfiguring of the Islamic tradition.

My discussion of the hermeneutics of the religio-intellectual project therefore revolves primarily around this subject. Chapter 3 then turns to ‘Ali Naqvi’s thought and the content of his writings and speeches. Here, I examine ‘Ali Naqvi’s reconfiguration of Islamic theology and praxis in view of the crisis of religion. This chapter shows how ‘Ali Naqvi effected his rethinking in his theological works, systematized the Shi’i creed, and refashioned Islamic theology and praxis based on his awareness of the crisis of religion and appraisal of the way out of it.

Throughout his life Karbala and martyrdom remained a key motif in ‘Ali Naqvi’s thought and he wrote numerous books and essays on this subject. Chapter 4 examines these writings and shows how these writings not only complemented his reconfiguration of Islamic theology and praxis, but also supplemented it. Finally, Chapter 5 discusses ‘Ali Naqvi’s sociopolitical thought and his social reform of the Indian Shi’i society. It also illustrates the interconnectedness of this aspect of his thought to his reconfiguration of Islamic theology and praxis.

Although the main claim of this study - the underlying unity of ‘Ali Naqvi’s thought and activism - were observed on numerous occasions throughout, it is in the conclusion that I return to discuss it in comprehensive terms. The conclusion also analyzes ‘Ali Naqvi’s attempts to popularize his message and his legacy and influence in Shi’i South Asia.

Literature in the Field

This study contributes to the growing literature on the ‘ulama’, contemporary Islamic intellectual history, Shi‘ism, and Islam in South Asia.

Building upon the pioneering studies of Metcalf (1982 and 1984) on Muslim traditional scholarship (‘ulama’), Robinson’s and Zaman’s works (2001 and 2002 respectively) have affected a renewed interest in the ‘ulama’ and their institutions. This study is a contribution to this growing literature on ‘ulama’. Although these works did prompt article-length studies of Sunni‘ulama’ such as Thanvi (Naeem 2005), ‘Ali Nadwi (Reixinger 2009), Taqi Uthmani (2008 and 2009), edited volumes such as by Hatta (2009), and in the case of Shi’i Islam of ‘ulama’ such as Allameh Tabataba’i (Algar 2007), Mutahhari (2008) and Misbah Yazdi (Siavoshi 2010), this revival of interest still brings to light only aspects of the writings of an ‘alim; rarely has the thought of these figures been studied comprehensively (for exceptions see Zebiri 1993 and Brinton 2009).

Furthermore, it is their seminary institution and the transformation of their religious authority that has received the most attention: Jamal Malik’s study of madrassas (2008), Qasim Zaman’s numerous recent essays on the ‘ulama’ (e.g., in Krämer 2006 and Salvatore and Masud 2009) and his study of Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi (2008) are a case in point.Yet since ‘ulama’s authority over the Muslim masses derives primarily from their perceived knowledge of the Islamic sources, their role as interpreters of religious faith and ritual deserves close attention. In view of this, the current project gives central attention to this role of ‘ulama’ as religious interpreters for their communities. As has already been noted the study of Shi’i ‘ulama’ is rare in the field and that of the Indian origin, non-existent.

Regarding literature on Islam and modernity, scholarship has mostly dealt with Islam’s encounter with modernity as a civilizational and sociopolitical challenge (e.g., Hunter [2008], Tibi [2009], Bennett [2005] and Masud and Salvatore [2009]). Yet, for many Muslim intellectuals, the primary example being Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), modernity was first and foremost a theological and philosophical challenge. As the example of ‘Ali Naqvi shows, modernity for Muslim intellectuals was a comprehensive challenge which had both a theological and sociopolitical dimensions. His example not only expands our knowledge of the subject of the encounter of Islam with modernity but also suggests the kind of revision needed in its scholarly narrative.

The study of contemporary Shi’ism has mostly been restricted to the Iranian revolution and how it has led to the politicization of Shi’i Islam (Arjomand 1989) and vice versa, as well as with the devotional practices (e.g., Pinault 1992 and 2000, Aghaei 2004 and 2005, Howarth 2005, and Hyder 2006) and political thought of figures such as Khomeini (Algar 1981), Shari‘ati (Rahnema 2000) and Mutahhari (Davari 2005).

Studies dealing with religious thought, theology (kalam), philosophy (falsafah) and mysticism (‘irfan) are still rare. Abdulaziz Sachedina’s translation of Ayatullah Khu’i’s Prolegomena to the Qur’an (1998) and Reza Shah-Kazemi’s translation ofJa‘far Subhani’s introduction to Shi’ite theology (2001) are still exceptions in the field. This project helps to fill this gap in scholarship by studying the religious thought of a contemporary Shi’i scholar comprehensively. The method of study employed also rectifies the scholarly oversight of the important intersection between the intellectual thought of ‘ulama’ such as ‘Ali Naqvi and the lived experience of the Shi’i community.

Finally, although Shi’ites are a significant minority in the Indian subcontinent, estimates varying from 5 to 15% of the Muslim population, their intellectual tradition is mostly absent from the scholarship. Except for S. A. A. Rizvi’s works (1982 and 1984), all the studies of Indian Shi’ism pertains to the devotional life and mourning culture and practices (for example Schubel 1993 and Pinault 2000). Furthermore, there is yet to be written an account of how modernity has shaped the Shi’i tradition of the Indian subcontinent; Rizvi 1984’s discussion of the subject does not include the Shi’i ‘ulama’ and is far from comprehensive.This study, the first one of any major Indian Shi’i ‘alim, responds to this need for studying the Shi’i intellectual life of the Indian subcontinent and especially the Shi’i response to modernity. In that the study, on the one hand, augments the recent publications on Shi’i modernism (Brunner 2001 and Sabahi 2007), and on the other, complements Hatta, Metcalf, Zaman, and Robinson’s study of the transformations within Sunni Islam in modern India.