Life and Travel Experiences of Shibli Nu’mani

Known for his founding of the Shibli National College in 1883 and the Darul Mussanifin (House of Writers) in Azamgarh, in the Uttar Pradesh territory of the British Raj in India, Maulana Shibli Nu’mani was a versatile scholar in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. Also an accomplished poet, he collected much material on the life of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (saws), but could produce only the first two volumes of the planned work: the Sirat-un-Nabi. It was his student, Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, who then added to this material and also wrote the further five volumes of the work after the death of his mentor. The following account by DR. SYED AZAM and PROF. SAYEEDA BEGUM of the K. M. Farid Institute of Islamic Studies and Research in Hoskotte, Bangalore, is a brief synopsis on the life and times of this great savant of Islam.


Maulana Mohammed ShibliNaumani was born in May 1857 at Bindawal, a small village about eight miles from the city of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, where his Rajput ancestors had been living as land lords for about 300 years.

Shibli was educated in a traditional Muslim manner. He memorized the Qur’an and Persian language at home. Later, he was admitted to a school in Jaunpur. Then he was sent by his father to Maulana Mohamed Farooq Chiryakoti at Gazipur, under whom he learned Ma’qulat (rational sciences).

After completing his education at Azamgarh, Shibli left for his further studies to Lucknow under Maulana Abdul Haiyy of Farangi Mahal. There, he specialized in Arabic language and literature under Maulana Fayad al Hussain Saharanpuri, a Professor at Oriental college.

While he was staying with his younger brother, who was a student of Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College, he was introduced to Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan, who was impressed by his knowledge and education. He applied for the post of Assistant Professor of Arabic and Persian at college with the recommendation of his teacher, Maulana Faidul Hassan who had also taught Sir Syed Ahmed.[i]

On 1st February 1883, at the age of 25, Maulana Shibli took up the charge as Professor of Arabic and Persian.As a colleague of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, propagator of the Aligarh movement, Shibli had benefitted immensely for sixteen years. His access to the rich library of Sir Syed opened before him a new world of knowledge which played a pivotal role in building his career as a prolific writer and thinker.[ii]

His Travels and Adventures

A renowned Professor at Aligarh, Professor Arnold, persuaded Shibli to join his company on his journey to the cities of the Ottoman Empire. As decided, Shibli took leave of six months from Aligarh and set off on his trip. In 1892, the two men merrily sailed through coastal cities of Aden, Beirut and Cyprus reached Port Sa’id and parted away.

The main purpose of his visit was to collect source material for the proposed writing of Al-Farooq and to observe the life and educational system of the Arabs and the Turks. Moreover, Shibli was keen to develop the Aligarh College through his observations abroad.[iii]

The most striking phenomena while picturing Shibli’s sojourn to the Ottoman Empire was his keen observation of the life of the common people and their ways of spending leisure hour. He found them to be religious in observance of the rituals and external formalities of the religion as Muslims, but found them empty. They were fond of meeting friends and acquaintance in coffee houses which were countless and lived a luxurious lifestyle. Each resembled a palace and excelled the other. He even comments on how the Mediterranean Sea had become a park for their recreational activities.[iv]

As a researcher, Shibli found the city of Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, a very wonderful place with its grand mosques, madrasas, bathrooms, guest houses, schools and colleges which were, though not large, were impressive with their libraries, monasteries, printing presses, business establishments and a high degree of traffic movement comprising of trams, small ships and cruises and trains running almost every half an hour in underground tunnels and so on. On the basis of his observation, the capital city was in two parts, the European part with Glata Bridge bifurcating the oriental part of the capital.

The question emerged in Shibli was, as to why life in two parts of the city so radically different and made enquiries with the police commissioner of the place, Hussain Habib Effendi who became his friend too. Shibli observed that the taxes collected from the people were very low and with that money, it was difficult to maintain cleanliness in the old city, but the Glata Bridge was full of European merchants with their shops and businesses and their standard of living was high. They collected more taxes and generated more resources and hence that part of Constantinople looked clean and tidy. This comparison speaks of the great disparity in income and economic stability of the Turkish Muslim population.[v]

In the context of India, what mattered most was Shibli’s concern for the educational system prevailing there so that he could adopt that model which suits the best for his countrymen, especially the backward-looking landed aristocracy in British India. He was aware that as early as 1857, the colonial power had established three universities at Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras.

The main objective of these institutions was spread such education among the Indians who would serve the British loyalty and sing songs in praise of the British rule. Incidentally, numerous Indians had remarkable achievement in the field of law, educational awakening, and emancipation of women such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Dada Bhai Nauroji, Feroze Shah Mehta, BadruddinTayyabji, SurendranathBannerji, G.K Gokale, BalagangadharTilak and so on.

Maulana Shibli lived through this phase and saw the drama of Turkey being enacted on a different stage in the Indian subcontinent. His inquisitive mind understood this, but it was not in favor of the mission he had undertaken viz., spreading literacy and awareness among Muslims. He felt active participation of Muslims in the radical anti-colonial movement as not suited to them at this preparatory stage.

It was from that period onwards that it became the habit of Maulana Shibli to ask every one of his sharp and intelligent associates and students to collect books by famous authors and translate them into Urdu and other oriental languages for the benefit of the new generations which were emerging despite shortcomings and some brickbats thrown at him.

Maulana Shibli proceeded with his work in establishing educational and research institutions and he found very solid minds like Syed SulaimanNadvi to take forward his message. Indeed, one can have a glimpse into his broad vision for nation and community in his coining of the name, ‘National College,’ for the educational center he established in Azamgarh.

His death, in 1914, was, in fact, the irreparable loss of a luminary for the Indian community, in general, and for the Muslims, in particular, struggling as the latter miserably were as a backward and ignorant lot.

* Dr. Syed Azam is an Honorary Professor at Al Ameen, K.M.Farid Institute of Islamic Studies and Research, Hoskote, affiliated to Tumkur University

** Prof. Sayeeda Begum is Research scholar, Al Ameen, K. M. Farid Institute of Islamic Studies and Research, Hoskote, affiliated to Tumkur University



[i]       Badr Azeem Abadi- Great personalities in Islam(p. 391)

[ii]     Badr Azeem Abadi-Great personalities in Islam(p. 393)

[iii]   Javed Ali Khan-Mohammed Shibli Naumani(p. 9)

[iv]   Safar nama Rum O Misar O Shaam-Shibli Naumani Maktaba Al Maarif Azamgarh (p. 44-48)

[v]    Safar nama Rum O Misar O Shaam-Shibli Naumani Maktaba Al Maarif Azamgarh (p. 77)

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