The Annual Convocation of Nadrat-ul-Uloom was being held in a packed Hall at Lucknow in 1907. The conferring of degrees in this well-known institution of religious education was to be followed by Dastar Bandi (Investiture of academic gowns and turbans) ceremony, which was being presided over by Khwaja Ghulam-us-Saqlain, a renowned scholar and son-in-law of Maulana Altaf Husain Hali and was attended by Mohsinul Mulk and other intellectual luminaries of the time.
Meanwhile, someone got up from amongst the audience and addressing Maulana Shibli Nomani, questioned the scholarship of the students who had graduated from the Institution and their proficiency in modern Arabic. The Maulana, being a celebrated historian, accustomed to confront his adversaries with incontrovertible facts, asked a young graduate to deliver a speech on any given topic. The student got up and delivered a masterly speech in chaste Arabic on certain aspects of modern philosophy. His comınand over the language, the sublimity of his ideas and his excellent delivery, astounded the President and all those present there. The speaker was the young Sulaiman, who was destined to become one of the greatest historians and the greatest biographers of the Prophet of Islam during his time.
Syed Sulaiman was born in 1885 in a well-known Syed family of Desna, a village in the district of Patna (Bihar, India). His father, Hakim Syed Abul Hasan, known for his learning and piety was highly respected in the locality.
The young Sulaiman received his early education from his elder brother. Then he joined the Arabic Madrassa at Phulwari Sharif and later he enrolled himself in the Madrassa-e-Imdadia, Darbhanga.
In 1901 he joined the Darul-Uloom of Nadva, Lucknow, which was recognized as the foremost institution of religious and Arabic education in the subcontinent. Here he completed his seven years Arabic course and came in contact with such eminent scholars as Maulana Farooq Chirayyakoti, Syed Muhammad Ali of Monghyr, Maulana Hafizullah, and Allama Shibli Nomani who were much impressed by his talent, intelligence, and diligence.
In 1904, when Allama Shibli Nomani joined the staff of Nadva, Syed Sulaiman came under his direct tutorship, a relationship which turned into a lifelong companionship between the two great scholars of modern India.
In 1906, he joined the staff of An-Nadva, a magazine brought out by the Darul-Uloom. In 1908, he was appointed a lecturer in the Darul-Uloom, and for two years worked as an Assistant to Allama Shibli Nomani, who was engaged in the preparation of his well-known work, Seerat-un-Nabi (Life of the Holy Prophet), the major part of which, in fact, was completed in six volumes by Syed Sulaiman himself after the death of his illustrious teacher.
The international political situation was becoming extremely explosive at this time. The European powers were conspiring for dividing the Turkish Empire and wanted to finish this “Sickman of Europe”. In 1911, when Italy launched an unprovoked attack on Tripoli, a port of the Turkish Empire, young Sulaiman gave up his literary and educational pursuits and joined Al Hilal, Calcutta, edited by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, another pupil of Shibli Nomani. Together with Azad, Syed Sulaiman made “Al-Hilal” a powerful organ of young Muslims which ultimately played a dominant role in the awakening of Muslim India.
The association of Syed Sulaiman with Al-Hilal could not last long. In 1912, Allama Shibli Nomani got him appointed as Assistant Professor of Persian at the famous Deccan College, Poona. Here, too, he could not stay for long. The death of his illustrious teacher, Shibli Nomani, two years later, obliged him to return to Azamgarh and take up the unfinished literary work of his master.
Syed Sulaiman Nadvi hereafter settled down at Azamgarh to a peaceful life of research and study, which later won for him an immortal place as a historian and scholar.
Sulaiman Nadvi, whose life had been an un-interrupted devotion to scholarship and literary pursuits, was called upon to devote his energies to the service of Islam and his country. The first quarter of the present century was a period of trials and tribulations for the Indian Muslims in particular. The political scene was tense, surcharged with revolution. The Caliphate held by the Turkish Sultan was at stake. The Western powers were conspiring to do away with this “Sickman of Europe”. The wars in the Balkans and Tripoli and ultimately World War I, were all pointing to this end. In India, too, the Indian National Congress and especially the All-India Khilafat Committee, under the dynamic and inspiring leadership of Maulana Muhammad Ali, had created a stir throughout the length and breadth of the Subcontinent which led to an unprecedented awakening of the masses. Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, too, could not resist responding to the national call. In 1920, he joined a Khilafat Delegation, headed by Maulana Muhammad Ali, to London, for securing equitable and just treatment to Turkey at the hands of the victorious Allies.
In 1924, when the Sharif of Makkah and King Ibn Saud of Najd were at war, Sultan ibn Saud sought the help of the Khilafat Committee to settle the dispute. A delegation, headed by Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, which included Maulana Muhammad Ali and Shoaib Qureshi went to Hejaz in 1926 and fearlessly placed the views of Indian Muslims before Sultan ibn Saud for establishing a truly democratic rule in the Holy land. In 1926, Syed Sulaiman presided over the memorable annual session of Jamiat-ul-Ulema at Calcutta, which considered the deteriorating Hindu-Muslim relations in the subcontinent due to the Shuddhi-Sanghattan Movement started by the Shardhanand-Malaviya Group. The same year, the Maulana at the invitation of King Ibn Saud headed a delegation of celebrated Muslim leaders including Maulana Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali to Makkah to participate in the Motamar-i-Alam-i-Islami. Delegations of almost all Muslim countries had participated in the conference and Syed Sulaiman Nadvi had been elected the Vice-President of the Conference (Motamar). On his return from Makkah, he retired from active politics and decided to devote his heart and soul to literary pursuits only.
Syed Sulaiman Nadvi had started his career as the Sub-Editor of An Nadva, a well-known magazine devoted to religious research. In 1910 he joined as an Assistant Editor and leader writer of the celebrated ‘Al-Hilal’ of Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad. He wrote some of its best editorials, including one on Cawnpur Mosque incident which electrified the Indian Muslims. But his association with Al Hilal lasted two years only. In 1914, when the Shibli Academy was established and its official organ, the ‘Maarif’ started publication, he became its founder Editor. This magazine, during the last 44 years of its existence has maintained an enviable record of high-class articles. It introduced in Urdu journalism short notes and second leaders on important men and matters, called “Shazrat”.
The greatest achievement of Syed Sulaiman Nadvi was the establishment of Darul Mosannafeen (House of Writers) also known as the Shibli Academy at Azamgarh which became the pioneer in the field of literary and historical research in the subcontinent. He attracted around him a large number of talented scholars who carried on the literary mission of his illustrious teacher, Shibli Nomani, with unabated zeal. This institution of learning founded in 1914 continues to spread its luster throughout the subcontinent and during the last 48 years of its existence has published some outstanding works on diverse branches of knowledge. Maulana Sulaiman Nadvi dedicated his life to the service of learning and kept his uninterrupted association with the Shibli Academy, Azamgarh. During this period he spent an austere life at Azamgarh, busy in writing books which inspired an entire generation.
Syed Sulaiman Nadvi was a prolific writer who wrote books on history, biography, literature, and travel. His greatest work is the Seerat-un-Nabi (Life of the Prophet of Islam) in six volumes which has hardly any parallel in any language of the world. This outstanding work on the life of the Holy Prophet of Islam was started by Shibli Nomani, but the major part of it was completed by his pupil, Syed Sulaiman. This has since been translated into several languages and is the most widely read book on the life and teachings of the Great Prophet of Islam. He has made ‘Seerat’ a new and separate subject in Islamic studies.
His first book was Durus-ul-Adab, an Arabic reader in two parts. In 1912 he compiled a Dictionary of New Arabic Words. In 1915 he brought out the first volume and in 1918 the second volume of Arzul Quran (the lands of Quran) which is a priceless piece of historical research. This is the only book of its kind in Urdu which has made great impression of his scholarship on the orientalists.
In 1910, he wrote another very important biographical work, Seerut-e-Aisha which is the most authentic book on the life of Hazrat Aisha, wife of the Prophet of Islam.
His other widely read book is Arbon ki Jahazrani (Arab Navigation) dealing with the great voyages undertaken by the Arab navigators during the medieval times who, with the help of Mariners the compass, which they invented, roamed about in open seas reaching as far as the Bering Strait, East and West Indies, and even touched the New World.
The Khayyam, which appeared in 1933 deals with the life and work of Umar Khayyam. It is yet another popular work of his. Dissipating a popular misconception about Khayyam being a dreamer, steeped in wine, he brought out Khayyam’s great contribution to mathematics, astronomy, and science.
His Khutbaat-e-Madras is a collection of his lectures delivered at the invitation of the Muslim Educational Conference at Madras on the life of the Holy Prophet of Islam. This has been translated into English and has since been published into several editions.
In 1939, he published a collection of his essays on diverse subjects, known as Naqoosh-e-Sulaiman. These essays known for the sublimity of thought and lucidity of diction are a living testimony to his scholarship and mastery over the language.
His yet another monumental work Hayat-e-Shibli was published in 1943. It deals not only with the life and works of his teacher, Allama Shibli Nomani, but, in fact, is a detailed history of literary and educational activities of Muslim India during the last 100 years.
Syed Sulaiman Nadvi had developed a style which was sober and lucid but at the same time convincing and impressive. It was essentially suitable for his historical writings. He is scholarly and objective in his treatment of history which appeals more to the head than to the heart.
The brutal persecution of Muslims in India by the Hindu majority community compelled him to migrate to Pakistan in 1950. The pleadings of the Prime Minister of India not to leave India could not dissuade him from going to Pakistan where he was immensely needed for guiding the framing of a truly Islamic constitution. On arrival in Karachi, he was made President of the Islamic Talimaat Board, attached to the Constituent Assembly. He had come to Pakistan with an ambitious plan in his mind of establishing an Academy of Islamic Studies in Karachi which could rival the Shibli Academy of Azamgarh (U.P.). But he was not destined to live here long and died three years after, in 1953. His death was mourned throughout the world of Islam and the loss of this great scholar, historian, and religious writer was universally acknowledged. His death has created a void in the literary life of the subcontinent which cannot be easily filled.
Syed Sulaiman Nadvi was a great scholar, historian, religious writer but above all, he was a great man. Like all truly great scholars, he was the embodiment of humility and simplicity. He was unostentatious and never took pride in his greatness.
The services of Syed Sulaiman Nadvi were recognized and his greatness as a great scholar was acknowledged during his lifetime. The Muslim University, Aligarh, conferred on him the degree of D. Litt, in 1941. A number of Universities and institutions, including the Aligarh Muslim University, the Hindustani Academy of Allahabad, the Jamia Millia, Delhi, the Nadvat-ul-Ulema, Lucknow, and the Hindustani Committee of the Government of Bihar, had associated him with their work.