Shah Wali Allah on Knowledge and Causation in Islam

Considered one of the greatest 18th century philosophers to write from the Indian subcontinent, Shah Wali Allah lived and thought in a time of intense fluctuation for political Islam. In his own lands, the once great Mughal Empire was losing fast ground to the expansionist Europeans, and across the Muslim region there was much division and sectarianism. Wali Allah wrote to save the Muslim peoples from domination, to find unity and reason where theology and politics had plagued faith. He is thus often placed in a trend of Islamic scholarship labelled ‘revivalism’, although scholars such as Ahmad Dallal have highlighted his unique visions and question Wali Allah’s place in such a current. Born in New Delhi in 1703, Wali Allah travelled to modern Saudi Arabia, to study under renowned Islamic scholars, and thus came into contact with many of the divisions in his religion that he would later lament. This article analyses three strands of his philosophical thought: firstly, the political-social distinction and how the corruption of society through politics could be rectified by true knowledge; secondly, how divine knowledge can lead to the understanding of causation; and thirdly, how divine knowledge can lead to the accommodation of division within Islam as a whole.

This latter point is a theme that permeates much of Wali Allah’s scholarship, that of unity through ‘accommodation’. In his view, Islam could be rejuvenated through social renaissance, given that society was taken as the most important political-philosophical unit, more so than the individual or the state. Wali Allah’s works are therefore pacifist; they aim to reconcile internal conflicts more complicated than this article can portray.

Politics, Society and Knowledge

To Wali Allah, there existed a fundamental distinction between the political and the social, the negligence of which had contributed to Islamic ‘decline’ (given that, in Islamic history, the ideal Islamic society existed under Muhammad himself and his immediate followers, and thus most history since has been a spiral of decline). In his theory, the political represented outward order, or superficial order, and was controlled by the Caliphate, or the institutional representation of God on Earth. The social represented, interestingly, inward order, and was controlled by the ulema, the recognised intellectual-religious elite who, throughout Islamic history, have generally maintained authority on the relationship between theology, politics and society. Wali Allah argued that the ulema, historically, had failed to separate politics and society, meaning that they had become somewhat connected; from this assertion, on an elite level, he concluded that political corruption stemmed from the failure of the ulema to responsibly govern Islamic society in the interests of all. Some aspects of this neglect included, but were not limited to, extreme intellectualism, opportunism, and the claiming of authority over truth.

By holding the ulema responsible for the lack of dissemination of intellectual power among the members of society, Wali Allah created an intellectual-social duality. This duality, he argued, was key to the revival of the Islamic faith, and the unity that was so crucial to its health. In effect, Wali Allah preached a revival through intellectual synthesis. Within this synthesis, he recognised two forms of knowledge, the balance, or imbalance, of which had endangered the livelihood of Islam. Firstly, there was core and specific knowledge, which derived its truth through Shari’a law, and was ‘transmitted’ through logic, which was itself the product of well defined ‘rules’. Secondly, there was general and unspecified logic, which was based on human interest and not logic, and in general sought the ‘amelioration of society’. Wali Allah considered that the aforementioned failure of the ulema had been to allow an imbalance in the deriving of knowledge in favour of the former, which was cancelling out the theological and philosophical developments made in the latter, unspecified knowledge.

Divine Causation

That is not to discern that Wali Allah did not advocate a return to the Qur’an. Quite contrarily, he simply disagreed with the ‘consesnsus’ of the time, that true knowledge could be exclusively derived from scripture because that was the only source of divinity available to Muslims. Wali Allah developed a theory of ‘causation’ that removed the antagonism this doctrine caused, by accepting the notion of causation as the manifestation of the ‘intention of an agent which is itself, together with soul, created and sustained by God’. This idea provides a reconciliation between divine laws, or knowledge through legal logic, and causation, which results in general knowledge. In effect, Wali Allah postulates that to argue on the basis of divergence from divine scripture is no vice, as all causation is the product of divinity anyway.

His example of this is called irtifaqat, translated loosely as the ‘stages of human development’. Wali Allah discusses human development as an art, that of ‘searching for ease and beneficial acts’, equivalent to his notion of the deriving of knowledge through human interest for the ‘amelioration of society’. These stages begin with the development of knowledge specific to human survival, specifically related to language, cultivation and family relations. They progress to more advanced experimental traits, such as customs knowledge, manifesting in interaction for the sake of interaction. Thirdly, as such knowledge colonies what can loosely be called ‘society’, it must be administered, which can be labelled a distinct form of knowledge itself. Finally, once this knowledge is universalised, it creates a world order signifying the culmination of human development. Islamic scholars throughout history have criticised society for this development, arguing that knowledge derived from human interest is false as humans are by nature sinful. Wali Allah instead retorts that all knowledge is divine, as causation is divine.

Difference and Dissent

If all knowledge, or knowledge by causation, is therefore divine, where does that leave the arguments of those who object to certain Islamic principles on the basis that they are divergent from the Qur’an? Sufism has been the target of such arguments throughout Islamic history, as the belief in the mystical parts of Islam that retain aspects of divinity and contact with God, which is more widely regarded as absent from human experience since the death of Muhammad. Wali Allah defend Sufism on his philosophical basis, given that all knowledge can be considered divine, and therefore grants Sufis the right to claim experiences of divine interaction where others might accuse them of heresy. By the accommodating attitude derived from his theory of knowledge, itself the very knowledge as contained within the theory, one can see how Wali Allah preaches unity within Islam regardless of theological difference.

His theory can be developed through ijtihad, which is Islam is the decision making process in Shari’a law where interpretation is allowed for. A mujtahid, therefore, is a scholar recognised as competent and learned enough to interpret Shari’a law through the process of ijtihad. If, as discussed, Shari’a law is truth derived from divinity, it is the task of the mujtahid to disseminate divine knowledge through society. Wali Allah argues, somewhat metaphorically, that this process has been monopolised by that very same intellectual class, the ulema, that blurred the necessary distinction between politics and society. He therefore prescribes the inclusion of more opinion, which will inevitably result in more dissent and more difference of opinion, only instead of rejecting such differences, Wali Allah argues that their inevitability should be foreseen through his theory of causation and the divine knowledge from which it derives. By this idea, Islam should not exclude schools of thought from intellectual and, by extension, social spheres; more, choices between thought should be made on the strength of evidence behind each opinion.


Ironically, there is an awful lot for Western politics and philosophy to learn from Wali Allah. The idea that the derivative of knowledge can be divine, whether that be in a theological or secular sense, would at least defuse many of the theoretical disagreements that have plagued global politics over the last millennium. There is as much relevance in Wali Allah’s philosophy to the ideas in the communism-capitalism, liberalism-authoritarianism etc. debates as there is to divisions in Islam, whether that be fundamentalism-pragmatism, or Sunnism-Shi’ism. Perhaps, then, Wali Allah adds more to a debate on how to save humanity than he does on how to save Islam at a particular point in geopolitics or time.


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