On April 2nd, Dr. Tareen focused his talk on the life of Ubaydullah Sindhi, a Deobandi scholar who lived from 1872 till 1944. He was born into a Sikh family and converted to Islam in 1887. He joined the Deoband Madrasa in 1888 where he mastered Arabic and became a scholar of Islam. He went on to become an arch anti-colonialist who was charged with sedition for leading a transnational conspiracy movement to overthrow colonial India. At the time, he was in Kabul where he was imprisoned for four years.
After gaining his freedom, he went on to live in Moscow, Istanbul, and Mecca, before finally returning to India in 1939 once the charges were dropped. Dr. Tareen explained that during his stay abroad, Ubaydullah Sindhi’s thinking underwent great transformation. From being an arch anti-colonialist, he eventually began espousing a “pro-Socialist revolution inspired by the Qur’an.” His ideas were inspired by Shah Waliullah, whose teachings he found most relevant to his mandate for change.
Sindhi considered the Qur’an to be a manifesto of revolution (“inqilab” in Arabic), whose content he saw as centered around annihilating the unjust and elevating the dispossessed. To him, class struggle was at the core of the Qur’anic teachings and it derided extravagance, monopolization of money and power, in favor of a just and egalitarian world order. Sindhi has taken ten chapters of the Qur’an and elaborated on this revolutionary theme in great detail; these chapters include Surah Muzammil and Surah Muddaththir, from which Dr. Tareen gave examples.
While some saw Ubaydullah Sindhi as a visionary scholar, remarked Dr. Tareen, others viewed him as eccentric. Regardless, he devoted his life to advancing this manifesto of revolution in the Qur’an, inspired by its “promise of egalitarian and emancipatory ethos of social justice.” In doing so, he was “reimagining the traditional and the canonical” given the new political conditions contemporary Muslims were faced with.
Sindhi’s exposure to the revolutionary currents in Europe influenced him greatly and yet, he remained “very grounded in Islam,” enabling him to disrupt the binary and be “both modernist and traditionalist” at the same time. Just as he recognized that the Qur’an was moral and political at the same time, he understood that the modern European revolutionary spirit lacked comprehensiveness due to their irreligiosity.
To Ubaydullah Sindhi, revolution must be rooted in theology and salvation. Indeed, he considered the Qur’anic concept of revolution to be “morally superior to European revolutionary currents because of its moral and religious foundations,” Dr. Tareen commented.
Sindhi was opposed to both the focus on the minutiae of Deobandi scholarship which neglected the larger, more political issues, as well as the “unbridled replication of Western modernity of Aligarh,” said Dr. Tareen during the Question and Answer session which followed his talk. As a result, Sindhi can be seen as someone striking a balance between Deoband and Aligarh.
Dr. Tareen also stressed that if we go back and study the original works of the elders of the reformist movements that have sprouted in South Asia, such as Ashraf 'Ali Thanvi (d.1944) and Ahmad Raza Khan (d.1921), we will find much complexity of thought and a more nuanced picture, and not at all the reactionary and abrasive differences we see today.
In a very short time, Dr. Tareen successfully schooled his audience in the life of Ubaydullah Sindhi, his passionate conviction in the importance of revolution and his perception of the Qur’an as a revolutionary text, and the contemporary milieu in which Sindhi lived. The audience thoroughly benefited from his lecture and engaged him animatedly after his talk.