Non-sectarian Islamic Scholar Leads Movement for Unity in Pakistan

Developing Just Leadership

Salina Khan

Muharram 23, 1443 2021-09-01

News & Analysis

by Salina Khan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 7, Muharram, 1443)

About a dozen years ago when I first started listening to Islamic lectures online, I would tuck my kids in bed, grab my laptop and a cup of tea and tune in to my favorite scholar. He would be sitting in a simple room somewhere in Pakistan. The video would be fuzzy and his Urdu fancy for an American-born like me. I would have to pause frequently and ask my husband to translate.

I didn’t care, though. The gift of knowledge, understanding, practical guidance, and political analysis I got from Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi’s Islamic lectures—which covered everything from instructing wives to dress up for their husbands only, to urging Muslims to decolonize their minds—I could not find cohesively anywhere else. Above all, his solutions-oriented approach to understanding Islam—stripped of the corrupting forces of dynastic, cultural, and sectarian influences—was invigorating. And his emphasis on collective awakening, self-determination, and Shia-Sunni unity to transform Pakistan into a prosperous Islamic country reminded me of Imam Khomeini and gave me hope.

Pakistan needs a leader like this, I would think to myself but laugh at the notion because few in my circle knew him, and I didn’t either, other than that he had inspiring ideas and enlightening talks. I didn’t know then that Ustad was an Ayatollah specializing in philosophy, sociology, and fiqh nor that he had studied and taught in Qum, Iran, for three decades before moving back to Pakistan. Moreover, I had no clue I would become the first American journalist to interview him and spend time with his family in Lahore, Pakistan.

“I’ve realized that while I made many plans for myself throughout my life, those plans didn’t pan out,” Ustad told me in our interview. “Whatever happened seems to be Allah’s planning.”

Indeed, since those early days of transiency, Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi has demonstrated that he can also walk the walk, both in his personal life and public endeavors. In 2010, with the help of a few local donors, he built from ground up a university campus on 22 acres in Lahore. It houses 1700 students in the Jamia Urwat ul Wusqa boys and Jamia Ummul Kittab girls Islamic seminaries where students receive both Islamic and secular education from grades six through twelve.

“The root of Pakistan’s problems is a lack of shaoor (conscious awakening),” Ustad explained, that stems from a corrupted and commercialized education system which has spoiled all aspects of Pakistani society. He aims to revolutionize that education system so it raises students’ consciousness and produces human values that eventually manifest in their everyday behavior. Only then will Pakistan progress as a country, he said.

The Jamia complex is almost a city within a city with its own 40,000 capacity Masjid Bait ul Ateeq, brand new four-floor research library comprising 500,000 books, a 50-bed hospital, poly-technical school teaching plumbing, electrical work, and art, Bethat television channel, Deen ul Qayyim virtual school, organic dairy farm, and a multi-story residential building for teachers (where Agha lives with his family in an apartment on the basement floor).

I know where Ustad lives because his wife and daughter, both also educated in Qum and overseeing the girls seminary, pointed out his place while giving me a tour on a blistering afternoon in July. Interestingly, there’s neither an air conditioner nor a servant at Ustad’s residence because he says if he gets them, then all the students should, too.

I loved collecting such tidbits about Ustad’s life from his family, mostly over lunch, which they insisted my three daughters and I stay for. Both were hospitable and humble, with his wife bending over to pour water from a jug so we could wash our hands and his daughter comfortably sitting on the floor while we ate on sofas. What I really wanted to know about was the Ustad’s early life. How had he become who he was? I learned the answer to that question and many more during our interview in one of three professional studios there. For over an hour, I pried and poked into his personal life and he happily complied, though Ustad did quip at the end that I got him to divulge information that no one there knew!

It was a surreal experience to finally come face-to-face with the person who has been such a strong influence in my life day in and day out, from personal worship to family matters to political perspectives. But once I sat down, introduced myself, and apologized in advance for my so-so Urdu (according to Ustad, my Urdu was fine but my accent was off!), I felt right at home with him. Partly, I’m sure, because I virtually spend every morning with him, lugging my laptop from room to room listening to his lectures as I do my housework. But more so because he listened intently to my queries and answered them honestly and completely, being careful to pause when he sensed I had a follow up question. Though we were under studio lights and in front of cameras, I felt like I was chatting with a family member or old friend, where the conversation just flowed.

I was surprised to hear what a humble background Ustad came from. He was born in 1962 in Thipra (a village of mostly descendants of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)), in the Haripur district of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, Pakistan. He was the only son of his mother, a simple woman with no formal education. He lost his father at the age of four after which his mother struggled to provide for him and his siblings in their one-bedroom house. Ustad said she served the role of mother and father, tending crops in the small family plot and taking up whatever odd job she could find like scrubbing dishes or washing clothes to fulfill the needs of her four children.

“Her love for me was intense and known throughout the village,” Ustad said. “Whenever it rained and our roof started dripping, she would run and grab me, protecting me in case the roof collapsed.”

Though there was no major religious influence in his life, Ustad yearned for a formal Islamic education from a young age. His doting mother was reluctant at first but finally gave him permission to move to Islamabad for religious training after he finished tenth grade. Ustad took his mother with him when he moved later to Qum, Iran, for further studies. That’s where he married and had four children, two sons and two daughters.

Since returning to Pakistan in 2010, Ustad has given more than 10,000 hours of lectures and attracted millions of Sunni and Shia Urdu-speaking followers in Pakistan, India, and Kashmir as well as around the world through numerous channels on social media, including Islamimarkaz. Some of his overseas supporters have even returned to Pakistan to help with Ustad’s movement.

But where there is love, there is also apprehension. Ustad’s support for Iran’s Supreme Leader Imam Ali Khamanei and the wilayat-e faqih system (governance of the jurist) as well as his independent-minded political analysis of global affairs, aired every Friday during his Halaat e Hazira (Current Affairs) discussion, have brought him under the global spotlight. Indeed, Ustad has no qualms calling out those he considers saboteurs of the Muslim ummah, whether world leaders, Western-style feminists, or the global vaccine rollout. American strategic think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, publications like Foreign Policy, and graduate students at universities like Tufts and Clemson keep a critical eye on Ustad’s movement.

True to his words, Ustad has kept Muslim unity and inclusion front and center in all his endeavors, from selecting nonpartisan names for his institutions to hiring Sunni and Shia teachers, to providing students books from all Islamic schools of thought. He routinely brings together top Shia and Sunni scholars, thinkers, and academicians at Wahdat e Ummat (Muslim Unity) conferences to not only fend off sectarian tension but also to find Islamic solutions to Pakistan’s political, educational, and socio-economic problems. Many participating Sunni organizations, such as Jamaat-e Islami and Minhaj ul Quran, have been involved in unity efforts for decades and have recently invited Ustad to speak at their events. The mutual respect is heartwarming.

“I consider (Ustad) my imam but today he made me his imam,” said Maulana Manzar ul Haq Thanvi, grandson of esteemed Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi of the Deobandi school of thought. Ustad had asked him to lead congressional prayers at a recent Wahdat conference held at Jamia Urwat ul Wusqa.

The relationships fostered at these conferences have already germinated in joint projects beneficial to all Pakistanis. The following are some examples and, hopefully, there will be many more to come.

  • Federation Boards. Allama Syed Zia Ullah Shah Bukhari of Jamiat Ahle Hadith helped Jamia Urwatul Wusqa and several other seminaries obtain government status of federation board this past February, thus allowing them to help improve the standards of madrassas around the country who wish to affiliate with them.
  • Covid Quarantine Center. A diverse medical team assembled last spring to convert empty dorm rooms at Jamia Urwat ul Wusqa into a temporary 100-bed Covid quarantine center that achieved a one hundred percent recovery rate. “I see Riyasat e Medina (State of Medina under Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)) here,” proclaimed Pakistani politician Musarrat Jamshed Cheema at the inauguration of the quarantine center.
  • Guest Speakers. This Muharram Sunni scholars, such as Jamaat-e Islami’s Dr. Farid Ahmad Paracha, Jamia Bait ul Quran’s Mufti Syed Ashiq Hussain, and Sufi Majlis-e-Amal’s Pir Ghulam Rasool Owaisi, addressed crowds at majlises held at Masjid Bait Ul Ateeq to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Ironically, it is some of Ustad’s fellow Shia scholars in Pakistan and India who most strongly censure him, often through videos posted on social media. Some simply object to his calling out Shia practices that he says go against Islam, such as charging exorbitant prices for recitations or insulting Sunni religious figures. Others seem threatened by his growing popularity and straight up urge people to not make him their religious or political leader.

“After Iqbal, God has once again given us a blessing [in the form of Ustad Syed Jawad Naqvi],” according to Syed Arif Rizvi, who recently moved back to Pakistan from the United Kingdom to supervise Jamia’s hospital, media and IT. “If we don't respect and value him while he is among us, who knows how many centuries we will suffer that loss.”

“One thing is for sure,” Rizvi added. “God will bring forth a nation that will appreciate him.”

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