Understanding Islam is a translation of Ijtihad (Striving) written in Urdu by Nazir Ahmad (1836-1912). The original work grew out of a response to the question, 'Why am I a Muslim?' which had obsessed the author. Marked by clear thinking, a commonsensical approach, erudition and social awareness, Ijtihad was written in a conversational style. In this volume Nazir Ahmad also critically examined questions that he felt had perhaps been inadequately understood by his co-religionists, and suggested areas where a change in their outlook might be conducive to the true spirit of Islam.
Written in the form of a dialogue between a student and a teacher, this .book is a valuable introduction and guide to the essence of one of the 'world's' major religions. It will appeal to the faithful through its clear and lucid explanations. For those of other faiths wishing to learn more about Islam, it imparts information on such questions as the oneness of God, prophethood, the twelve imams, the aim of the revelation in the Qur'an, and the role and duties of maulvis.
A succinct introduction to Islam, Mohammed Zakir's translation ably retains the flavour of the original. It will find a place in courses of theology and philosophy, as well as Islamic history. If we agree with Eliot that religion is a cornerstone of culture, this book should also find its way into cultural discourses, especially on Islam and Islamic cultures.
Nazir Ahmad (1830-1912) was a leading Urdu writer who was also a social and religious reformer, and a prominent scholar. He was a pioneer of Urdu literature and published books in varied genres. His Mirat-ul-Uroos, published in 1869, is considered to be the first novel in Urdu. Ahmad came from a distinguished family of religious scholars, maulavis and muftis of Bijnor and Delhi.
Mohammed Zakir was born in Delhi and educated at St. Stephen's College, Sri Ram College of Commerce and Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi. He retired as Professor of Urdu after four decades of service in the Jamia Millia lslamia, Delhi. His main interests have been translation, literary criticism and Urdu linguistics.
Another book on Islam? Yes, why not? Particularly when it is being branded as rigid, mindless conformism, non-compromising and not peace-loving, breeding fanaticism and violence. I am told that many books on understanding Islam have appeared after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the symbol of United States economic power, on 11 September 2001 in New York City. Engaged as I am in my fruitful/unfruitful, academic/non-academic pursuits, which remind me of the poet Bedil (d. 1721) who said.
O Bedil, our lust for means of living
That we think we need
Does not let us be content
Otherwise these are often not required!
I am not familiar with most of those publications. This work is a translation of Ijtihad (which means 'striving' and 'individual reasoning and judgement on religious matters') written in Urdu and published in 1907. A copy of it was given to me by a grandson of its author some time ago. I find it useful and I hope it will give a fairly good introduction to Islam. In the fast-changing politico-economic scenario in the world with its repercussions on human relationships, it is advisable to go to the basics, to affirm some standard or basic values on which to regulate relationships individually and collectively. By basic values I mean values which purport to show 'what it means to be human'. Brief introductory remarks by the author of this work tell us that it grew as a response to a question 'Why am I a Muslim?' recurring in his mind and which obsessed him until he felt relieved by putting into words what he felt and thought about it.
The author of Ijtihad, Nazir Ahmad (1836-1912), was born in a family of maulvis (learned Muslim divines), in Bijnor, U.P. Besides his traditional education, he had the opportunity of acquainting himself with the new world of learning at the Delhi College, rejuvenated by the British in the third decade of the nineteenth century. To him there was no inherent contradiction between modernisation and rationalism on the one hand and social organisation on the basis of religious values on the other. He stood for a firm belief in the dogmas of religion so much so that traditional faith seems to have found a discerning spokesman in him. But then he could be intellectually independent, sifting the traditional for its virtues and disapproving of what he found non-conducive to individual salvation and social welfare. Ennobling 'man in society' amidst changing material conditions remained his primary concern. As an advocate of rationalism he could even hold that 'it is reason which is the moving spirit of religion: In fact, he is all for Ijtihad, but he was not prepared to allow the intellect to speculate about the nature of God or about the metaphysical concepts of religion. With a feeling of lack of man's power of comprehension, instead of insisting on the metaphysical content of the Revealed Book, the Qur'an, and interpreting it in a particular way, he lays emphasis on man's doings in this world. But he does not at all mean that 'the transcendent is not real'. He knows that Islam is in essence an individualist religion. Each individual is responsible for his deeds. But its vision is global. Each Muslim is expected to take care of those among whom he lives. He is expected not only to practise what he believes but also to propagate it. Nazir Ahmad holds man's activities towards social welfare to be more important than individual salvation. One may recall the following couplets from the poet Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273 AD):
The Ka'bah was founded by Abraham,
Son of Azar the idol-maker;
While the heart of man is the pathway of God;
One single heart is worth more
Than a thousand Ka'bahs:
comfort a heart;
That is the pilgrimage great!
To him religion and social ethics go together. Time and again he emphasises that Islam is basically more concerned with 'man in society' than with 'man and God'. That is why 'he readily collaborated with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), the great Muslim reformer, to verily make his Aligarh Movement a symbol of new consciousness, at once cultural, educational and social?
In his various writings, in spite of the pain he felt for the innocent Indians who suffered and lost their lives in the ghadr, the Mutiny of 1857, Nazir Ahmad speaks of the newly established British administration in a commending way. Apart from seeking legitimacy for loyalty to the British Government by interpreting the Qur'anic verse: 'Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you; (4:59) (in his al Huquq va'l Fara'iz, vol. II, 128-31), which shows his spirit of 'striving' and competence for taking an independent judgement, this aspect of his thinking may be more properly appreciated if we remember that the British had been firmly establishing themselves in India since their victory in the Battle of Plassey (1757). By the end of the eighteenth century, the Mughal emperor had become a pensioner of the British East India Company. The lihad or the Holy War of Syed Ahmad Barelvi (d. 1831) and Shah Ismail Shaheed (d. 1831) against the Sikh regime in the north-west, purported to be ultimately a war against the British, had failed. And not long afterwards, the Mutiny/First War of Indian Independence in 1857 had shown the supremacy of British power.
Nazir Ahmad never forgets to remind his community that it is living and has to live with another community (Hindus) in India in spite of the latter's rigid non-commensality (i.e., avoiding the practice of eating together) and that its entire economic interests have to be in common with that community.
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