Shibli Nomani was one of the greatest luminaries who glittered on the literary firmament of Urdu literature and the brilliance of whose achievements outshone those of his contemporaries as well as predecessors in diverse branches of knowledge. Few writers in the 19th century could achieve the versatility of the genius of Shibli.
The impact of Western civilization brought about a reorientation in the outlook of Urdu writers which culminated in the creation of the same atmosphere for Urdu literature in India, as the Renaissance in the 16th century and the zeal for Romance in the 18th century had developed for English literature. Azad, Hali, and Shibli were the torch-bearers who heralded this revolution and paved the way for later writers. Azad left behind him some good specimen of natural poetry, while Hali introduced the revolutionary changes in Urdu literature, especially in Urdu Poetry. Shibli, though not destined to be as great a poet, yet he outmatched his two rivals as a critic, historian, biographer, and philosopher.
Shibli was born in a conservative family of Azamgarh district (U.P.), India, in the stormy year of 1857 and got his education from the learned teacher Maulana Muhammad Farooq Chirayyakoti. He was later employed as a Professor of Arabic in the Anglo-Muhammadan College, Aligarh. He was an associate of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He devoted himself to the service of Urdu literature and had the distinction of being the founder of Darul Musannafeen (The House of Authors) at Azamgarh which is still functioning and which had drawn within its portals a galaxy of talented scholars, such as Maulanas Sulaiman Nadvi, Abdus Salaam Nadvi and Masood Nadvi who enriched Urdu literature by their invaluable contributions. Maulana Shibli died in 1914. He was a prolific writer and has dozens of high-class books to his credit.
The Maulana had cultivated a unique style for the conveyance of his ideas which embodied the elegance of Azad, the colloquialism of Nazir Ahmad, and the simplicity of Hali. He believed in moderation and his style with slight modification could successfully be employed in scientific, poetic, critical, historical, and philosophical themes. He elevated Urdu literature to an eminence so that it may easily compete with the advanced literature of the world. He initiated the spirit of research in Urdu; some of his outstanding works are distinguished for thorough research on those subjects and may be classed with the best works of the world. Hardly any other Urdu writer had been so popular and beneficial to the educated class. His style is characterized by clarity, simplicity, lucidity and amplification of points. A logical sequence pervades his writings, which never suffer from the complexities of expression, and are distinguished for the vigor and spontaneity of expressions. Complimenting him on his immaculate style, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan once said, “Both Delhi and Lucknow should be proud of you”.
The Maulana was one of the leading figures of his time. One hardly comes across a person with a greater range of ideas and diversities of taste. He embodied in himself the attributes of a remarkable historian, a successful critic, a high-class biographer and an efficient reformer. He occupies a high position as a litterateur, historian, and scholar of literary research. His principal historical contributions are Al-Farooq, Al-Mamun, Al-Ghazali, Al-Noman and Aurangzeb Alamgir. In Al-Farooq, he deals with the life and achievements of the redoubtable Farooq-i-Azam, the Second Caliph of Islam who was known for his piety, justice, simplicity, and indomitable will. Few books on Caliph Umar in oriental literature may reach the authenticity and fluency of Shibli’s book. Al-Mamun narrates the achievements of Mamun, the Great, whose reign is known as the golden age of Islamic culture. Mamun was a great patron of learning and during his reign, Muslims made an invaluable contribution to the advancement of knowledge and various sciences and arts registered phenomenal progress. According to a European writer, “To the Islamic world, Christians had conceded and that grudgingly-only a military superiority. Now they realized with shame that it was also the intellectually superior”. Al-Ghazali deals with the life and teachings of Imam Ghazali, the greatest religious teacher that Islam has produced and who is better known as “Hujjat-ul-Islam”. Shibli has clearly brought out the different phases of the philosophy and mysticism of the great teacher, which ultimately revolutionized the Islamic religious thought in more than one way. The Maulana has excellently portrayed the brilliant reign of the greatest of the Mughal Emperors, Aurangzeb Alamgir, who passed a truly Islamic life. The example set by the pious Emperor would serve as a beacon light to those who want to build their state on the foundations of Islamic polity. Shibli, undoubtedly is the greatest historian in Urdu language and his historical works are distinguished for their authentic research and lucidity of expression. He has clothed the past grandeur of Islam in modern attire.
Maulana Shibli has earned for himself an immortal reputation by writing the “Seerut-un-Nabi” (The Life of the Holy Prophet) (PBUH) which is one of the best achievements on the subject in oriental languages. It runs into several volumes. At places, the description of events is too graphic and one comes across good specimens of poetic prose, reminiscent of the passages of the celebrated Aab-i-Hayat of Azad; The chapter dealing with the philosophy of sacrifice and the story of Hazrat Ismail is vivid in description and superb in presentation. Besides the above, he also wrote the “Sawaneh Maulana Rum” (The Biography of Maulana Rum) who was a great mystic poet of Persia and was the spiritual mentor of the late Allama Iqbal. His work Hayat-i-Khusrou (The Life of Khusrou) deals with the many-sided personality and poetical achievements of this celebrated Indian savant. Khusrou was a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and is supposed to be one of the greatest lyrists of Persian literature and the pioneer of Urdu poetry.
The real fame of Shibli rests on his role as an outstanding literary critic. His “Sherul Ajam” (The poetry of the Orient) dealing with the principles of criticism and the brilliant criticism of Persian Poetry may be ranked as one of the best works on literary criticism in any language. According to the famous British orientalist Professor Browne, Sherul Ajam is undoubtedly the best literary estimate of Persian poetry written up to the present day. It is in this book that the Maulana has displayed his masterly hold over the literary study of literature and his depth of knowledge. It combines high-class research with the fluency and lucidity of expression. The fifth chapter of the book elaborately deals with the principles of criticism, on which he has based the poetical estimate of Persian poets. “Moazina Anis-o-Dabir” (The Comparison between Anis and Dabir) is another standard book of literary criticism in which he has compared the achievements of the two greatest elegists of Urdu poetry. Anis, no doubt, was greater of the two; the Maulana has fully proved with examples the superiority of Anis, both in thought and expression. The poetry of Anis was known for its purity of language, simplicity of diction, novelty, and originality of ideas and graphic descriptions. Dabir, on the other hand, believed in the verbosity of language and excessive flights of imagination.
The Maulana wrote some excellent essays in “Makalat Shibli” (The Essays of Shibli) on various topics. His book Philosophy of Islam and Al-Kalaam are valuable contributions to Islamic philosophy and religion.
Shibli belongs to the modern school of Urdu Poetry. Had he exclusively devoted himself to the service of the Muse, he would have been the second Iqbal. Hali simply lamented the decline of the Muslim power, but could not seriously contemplate the remedies for saving Islam from falling into the abyss. Shibli’s poetical career may be divided into two parts. During the first period, when he was employed at Aligarh, he was a close associate of Hali and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. His outstanding achievement of this period is his well-known poem “Subh-i-Ummeed” (The Morn of Hope) in which he has chosen the theme of Mosaddas Holi. The only difference between the two is that Hali’s poem bristles with pessimistic ideas, while a sort of optimism pervades the poem of Shibli which concludes with a forecast of the bright future for Islam. But the poem of Hali is superior of the two, as it maintains uniformity in the standard which Shibli’s poem so badly lacks. This poem of Shibli comes very close to the healthy optimism preached by Iqbal in a later period. The second part of his poetical career starts from the time, when, due to ideological differences, Shibli had to sever his connection with the Aligarh Muhammadan College and henceforward he devoted himself solely to the betterment of Muslim India. He was not an opponent of Aligarh College, but he did not like the principles of its Education for its excessive liberalism. Wordsworth, the celebrated English poet, was at one time a great supporter of the French Revolution, but when he awarded its unhealthy developments he became its great opponent. The deep insight of Shibli helped him cultivate his point of view regarding Western civilization, which was ultimately adopted by Akbar and Iqbal. Unlike the blind imitation of the West as propagated by the Hali group, Shibli adopted a via media and his clear insight enabled him to shun the harmful influences of Western culture and adopt the beneficial objects found in it. Hali and Shibli both lamented the decline of Muslim power-but Hali ascribed it to their dissociation from the materialism of the West, while Shibli attributed it to their estrangement from Islamic principles. Shibli has given a graphic description of events in his poem “Adl-i-Jahangir” (The Justice of Jahangir) and “Hamari Tarz-i-Hukoomat” (Our System of Government). He wrote a pathetic poem lamenting the premature death of his younger brother Ishaq, which fulfills all the conditions of modern elegy.
Shibli devoted the major part of his life to literary pursuits. He is, undoubtedly, one of the main pillars on which the grand edifice of Urdu literature, rests. He, on the whole, was a versatile genius, who occupies a prominent place amongst the men of letters in this subcontinent.