In spite of his indifference to active politics he was persuaded by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to contest the assembly election from the Azamgarh constituency in Uttar Pradesh. He won the election, without any canvassing, in 1952 and shifted his resident to Lucknow. Taking advantage of his stay at Lucknow, the Rector of Dar al-Ulum Nadwat al-Ulama, Mawlana Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali Nadavi, requested Mawlana Habib al-Rahman to lecture on Hadith at Nadwah. He acceded to the request and taught the Sahih of Bukhari for one year without any remuneration.
Though Mawlana Habib al-Rahman was well-versed in all branches of Islamic learning, including Tafsir (commentary on the Quran), Fiqh (Islamic law), Sirah (biography of Prophet Muhammad) and Tarikh (historiography), he had a keen and special interest in Hadith literature. His interest in Hadith was initially kindled by his teacher Mawlana 'Abd al Ghaffar. He learnt and narrated Hadith from him, whose narration is traceable, through two successive generations, to Shah Muhammad Ishaq Dehlavi. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's inclination towards Hadith literature was further stimulated by the affectionate guidance of Mawlana Anwar Shah Kashmiri. His remarkable proficiency in Arabic language and literature, his phenomenal memory and his single-minded devotion to scholarly pursuits stood him in good stead in mastering Hadith and related disciplines and in making an enduring contribution in this field.
Mawlana Habib al-Rahman had a deep interest in rare manuscripts, especially those relating to collections of Hadith. During his extensive travels around the country, he would make it a point to visit libraries, institutes and museums in search of manuscripts. His scholarly career can be roughly divided into two phases. The first phase began during his twenties and lasted till he was about 60 years of age. During this formative phase, he concentrated on assimilating and mastering the extensive and formidable literature on Hadith and related disciplines. A keen and intense preoccupation with Hadith literature during this period led to the sharpening of his discerning faculties and helped in the development of insight as well as critical acumen. This phase played a catalytic role in ushering in the most productive and creative phase in Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's scholarly career which began after the age of sixty. Perhaps his most important contribution during the formative phase, which could be described as a forerunner of his mature scholarly output during the successive period, is in the form of critical comments and rejoinders on the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. The Musnad saw published from Cairo in 1895 with a generous grant from the then Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahbub Ali Khan. However, this edition was replete with printing and other errors. A renowned Egyptian scholar Shaykh Ahmad Muhammad Shakir took up an ambitious project on the publication of a corrected and critical edition of the Musnad. He compared and collated the available manuscripts, identified and corrected the errors, numbered the Ahadith, prepared a glossary of difficult words as well as biographical notices on the narrators, and provided a classified index. The first volume of this edition was published in 1365 A.H. and the remaining 16 volumes were brought out subsequently. This critical edition of the Musnad received universal acclaim and admiration from Muslim scholars from across the world.
Being a sincere and conscientious scholar, Shaykh Shakir invited suggestions and comments from scholars of Hadith from all over the world. However, he did not receive any rejoinders or suggestions from scholars or Orientalists academic circles for almost a decade. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman chanced to see 8 volumes of this monumental work nine years after their publication. He avidly went through the volumes, identified the errors of omission and commission and sent his detailed comments to the editor. Shaykh Ahmad was amazed at the erudition and critical discernment reflected in the rejoinders of Mawlana Habib al-Rahman. He made an open and grateful acknowledgement of his submissions and published them in the 15th volume of the Musnad. He wrote:
All your rejoinders and critical comments are excellent and of high
quality. I am sincerely grateful to you for this kindness. I hope you will
continue to favour me with your suggestions, motivated as they are
by a sense of service to Hadith. The impression that I have gathered
from your present writing is that you are one of the greatest scholars
of Hadith in this age.
The most productive and fruitful phase of Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's scholarly career commenced after the age of 60 when he was afflicted with failing health and multiple ailments. During this phase, which spanned three decades, he brought out critical editions of over half a dozen rare manuscripts of Hadith. What is remarkable is that this formidable output, comprising 30 volumes and over 10,000 printed pages, was accomplished almost single-handedly and with extremely meagre resources.
It will be no exaggeration to say that Mawlana Habib al-Rahman individually accomplished what an institute or academy could have done with abundant resources. This remarkable feat bears testimony to his scholarship as well as to his devotion to the cherished memory of the Prophet.
The prolific works of Mawlana Habib al-Rahman may be divided under three heads: (a) editing of rare manuscripts of Hadith, (b) original and independent works, (c) Urdu works. His most important contribution lies in the publication of rare and valuable manuscripts of Hadith, which conform with the highest standards of scholarship. The works which fall into this category include Kitab al-Zuhd wa'l-Raqa'iq of 'Abd-Allah ibn Mubarak (d.181 A.H.), the Sunan of Sa'id ibn Mansur (d. 227 A.H.), the Musnad of Imam Humaydi (d. 219 A.H.), the Musannaf of 'Abd al-Razzaq (d. 211 A.H.), the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 A.H.), al-Matalib al'Aliyah of Ibn Hajar Al-'Asqalani (d.752 A.H.) and Majma 'Bihar-al-Anwar of Tahir Patni (d. 986 A.H.). It is appropriate to dwell a little on the works mentioned above.
Kitab al-Zuhd wa'l-Raqa'iq
'Abd-Allah ibn Mubarak was among the front-ranking traditionists of the second century. The manuscripts of his book Kitab al-Zuhd wa'l-Raqa'iq are found in Cairo and Istanbul. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman published the text of the manuscripts with critical notes and annotations in 1966. The printed text reflects the editor's painstaking efforts. He has prepared an exhaustive list of the narrators, identified the Ahadith from well-known sources, and provided a glossary of difficult words. In addition, he has pointed out the variants in the existing manuscripts.
Sunan of Sa'id ibn Mansur
The term Sunan refers to a collection of Hadith which is related to legal matters and leaves out historical and biographical details. The well-known collections of Sunan include the works of Abu Dawud, Nasa'i, Ibn Majah, Daraqutni and Bayhaqi. One of the earliest works of Sunan was compiled by Abu 'Uthman Sa'id ibn Mansur (d. 227 A.H.). He was a pupil of Imam Malik, Hammad and Abu 'Awanah. His students include such well-known traditionists as Muslim, Abu Dawud and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. An old manuscript of the Sunan of Sa'id ibn Mansur was discovered by Professor Muhamamd Hamidullah in the famous Koprelo library in Turkey. The text of the manuscript, with critical notes and annotations, was published by Mawlana Habib al-Rahman in 1967.
Musnad of Imam Humaydi
The term Musnad refers to a collection of Hadith in which the traditions are narrated by an uninterrupted chain of narrators (isnad), going back to the Companions of the Prophet. The well-known Musnad works include the compilations of Abu Dawud Tayalisi (d. 204 A.H.) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 233 A.H.). One of the oldest Musnad works is that of Imam Abu Bakr 'Abd-Allah ibn Zubayr al-Humaydi (d. 219 A.H.). He was a pupil of Sufyan ibn 'Uyaynah and one of the teachers of Imam Bukhari. Four manuscripts of this work are found in Damascus, Hyderabad and Deoband. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman published the text in 1963. One of the main features of the edited text is the thematic arrangement of Hadith.
Musannaf of 'Abd al-Razzaq
The term Musannaf is applied to a collection of Hadith in which the traditions are arranged according to thematic order in chapters or books. One of the earliest Musannaf works is the work of 'Abd al-Razzaq ibn Hammam al-Himyari (d. 211 A.H.). 'Abd al-Razzaq was a pupil of Ma'mar ibn Rashid (d. 153 A.H.) and Ibn Jurayj (d. 149 A.H.). Some of the celebrated traditionists such as Yahya ibn Ma'in and Ahmad ibn Hanbal sat at his feet and learnt Hadith from him. The Musannaf of 'Abd al-Razzaq contains 21,000 Ahadith. The manuscripts of this monumental work are preserved in Edirne, Istanbul, Madinah, Rabat, San'a, Tonk and Hyderabad. The text of the manuscript was published by Mawlana Habib al-Rahman in 11 volumes from Beirut in 1970. This work can be regarded as the magnum opus of Mawlana Habib al-Rahman and the crowning achievement of his scholarly career. In addition to identifying the Hadith contained in the Musannaf, the editor has added explanatory notes on difficult words. He has also provided an exhaustive index of names and places.
Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah
The Musannaf of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn 'Abd-Allah ibn Abi Shaybah (d. 235 A.H) is among the earliest collections of Hadith. The manuscripts of the book are found in Egypt and Istanbul. Five volumes of the Musannaf were published by 'Abd al-Khaliq Afghani from Hyderabad. A reproduction of the published volumes together with the remaining six volumes were brought out from Bombay and Karachi. However, these contained scores of errors of omission and commission.
The ruler of Qatar sent a microfilm of the manuscript of the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah to Mawlana Habib al-Rahman. He spent a few years in editing the text of the manuscript. Five volumes of the edited text have been published from Makkah and the rest, which have been duly edited, have yet to see the light of day. The editor has taken considerable pains to identify 18 books which belong to the genre of Musannaf, provided a comprehensive introduction, and identified the Ahadith in the six canonical sources (al-Sihah al-Sittah). He has also appended an exhaustive index of narrators.
Al-Matalib al-'Aliyah of Ibn Hajar
Al-Matalib al-'Aliyah by the celebrated scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (d. 752 A.H.) is a collection of zawa'id in the eight Musnad works of Abu Dawud Tayalisi, Humaydi, Ibn 'Umar, Musaddad, Ibn Mani, Ibn Abi Shaybah, Ibn Hamid and Ibn Abi Usamah. The term zawa'id refers to those Ahadith which are not found in the six canonical collections of Hadith (al-Sihah al-Sittah). Ibn Hajar has arranged the zawa'id in a thematic order. The manuscripts of this important work are found in Madinah, Istanbul and Hyderabad. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman edited the manuscript and published it in four volumes from Kuwait.
In addition to the above-mentioned works, Mawlana Habib al-Rahman edited and published a shorter and compact version of al-Targhib wat-Tarhib by Mundhiri (d. 656 A.H.). The original work was voluminous and the compiler had not been very careful about ascertaining the authenticity of Hadith. Ibn Hajar made a summary of this work and rectified its weaknesses. The manuscripts of Ibn Hajar's work are found in Lucknow, Deoband and Bahraich. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman compared and collated the MSS and edited the text with critical notes and comments. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman also edited Haythami's Kashf al-astar 'an Zawa'id Musnad al-Bazzar, which was published in four volumes from Damascus in 1399. Two works of Tahir Patni, Majma' Bihar al-Anwar, which is a monumental glossary of Hadith, and Khawatim Jami'al-Usul, which is a biographical inventory, also deserve mention. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman edited and published them in 1395 A.H. Ibn Shahin's Kitab al-Thiqat, which has also been edited by Mawlana Habib al-Rahman, remains unpublished.
Two of Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's original and early works deserve a mention here. One of them is al-Hawi li Rijal al-Tahawi, which contains biographical notices and researches on the narrators mentioned in Sharh Ma'ani al-Athar and Sharh Mushkil al-Athar of Imam abu Ja'far al-Tahawi (d. 321 A.H.). The other work al-Ithaf al Saniyah bi Dhikr Muhaddithial-Hanafiyah, which deals with the biographies of Hanafi scholars of Hadith.
As regards his Urdu works, which reflect his erudition and vast learning, mention may be made of Raka'at al-Tarawih, al- A'lam al- Marfu'ah and Shari' Haqiqi. His Urdu book A'yan al-Hujjaj, in two volumes, provides crisp and insightful accounts of scholar-pilgrims. His last Urdu book Dastakar Ahl-i Sharaf (published in 1406 A.H.) deals with the biographies of men of eminence and distinction who were weavers by profession.
Mawlana Habib al-Rahman’s students, who have spread far and wide, remember him with affection, reverence and gratitude. Though he was a hard task-master, he had a genuine concern for the welfare of his students. He never hesitated in recommending intelligent and industrious students for jobs and promotions. Scores of scholars, many of them eminent in their own fields, take pride in sitting at his feet and learning and relating Hadith from him. Mention may be made of Mawlana Manzur Nu'mani, Mufti Zafir al-Din Miftahi and several others. A large number of scholars from the Arab world as well as from Africa, Afghanistan and Europe considered him as their teacher and related Hadith from him. These include the late Shaykh 'Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah of Syria, Shaykh Isma'il al-Ansari of Riyad, Shaykh Hammad al-Ansari of Madinah, Shaykh Subhi Samarrai of Baghdad, Dr. 'Abd al-Sattar Abu Ghuddah of Kuwait, Dr. Bashshar 'Awd Ma'ruf of Baghdad, Shaykh 'Abd al-Halim Mahmud (former Rector of Azhar University in Cairo), Shaykh Bahjah al-Baytar, Shaykh 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Baz, Muhammad Amin al-Kutubi, Shaykh Amin al-Husayni of Palestine, Shaykh Sa'di Hashimi of Madinah, 'Abd al-'Aziz Abu 'Uyun of Hims, Shaykh Zahir al-Shadish of Beirut, Shaykh 'Abd al-Rahman of Yaman, Khayr al-Din Zarkali, Sa'id Afghani, Shaykh Muhammad Harkan and Shaykh Hasan Khalid, the Mufti of Lebanon.
Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's works were enthusiastically received and appreciated by scholars of Hadith from all over the Islamic world. He was invited to deliver lectures and participate in conferences in various parts of the world. About twenty years ago while Mawlana Habib al-Rahman was in Makkah to perform Hajj, he was visited by Dr. 'Abd al-Halim Mahmud, the then Rector of al-Azhar. Mawlana Abu'l-Hasan 'Ali Nadavi and Mawlana Manzur Nu'mani as well as several other scholars were present on the occasion. Dr. Mahmud addressed the gathering and remarked that in his considered opinion Mawlana Habib al-Rahman was the greatest living authority on Hadith.
Some years later, Mawlana Habib al-Rahman again happened to be in Makkah. This time he was accompanied by Mawlana As'ad Madani, who wished to meet the famous Saudi scholar Shaykh 'Abd-Allah ibn Baz. Everybody who would call on the Shaykh had to introduce himself since he was blind. When Mawlana Madani and Mawlana Habib al-Rahman called on him and the latter introduced himself according to custom, the Shaykh got up from his chair and apologised, saying that had he known about Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's arrival in Makkah, he would have personally visited him. He then gave his own seat to Mawlana Habib al-Rahman.
Like the savants and scholars of the classical period, Mawlana Habib al-Rahman led a simple and unostentatious life. He was free from conceit, jealousy and petty-mindedness, which are often the bane of scholars. He was unassuming to the core. This was largely due to his selflessness as well as the influence of the Sufi tradition. Quite early in life he was formally initiated into the Chishtiyah order of Sufism by Mawlana Ashraf 'Ali Thanavi, who also authorised him to initiate and enrol others into the fold.
Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's life-long preoccupation with Hadith literature was motivated solely by a sincere devotion to the life and precepts of the Prophet Muhammad. Shah 'Abd al-Aziz Dehlavi has written that a scholar's preoccupation with Hadith produces in him qualities similar to those of the Companions of the Prophet. Mawlana Habib al-Rahman's character and personality bear out the truth of this perceptive observation. He never sought any pecuniary benefits from his works. Several institutes and academies invited him to head centres for the study of Hadith on attractive remuneration, but he refused these offers. Dar al-'Ulum Deoband invited him to serve as Chief Mufti. He declined the offer. About 35 years ago, he was invited to take charge as Rector of the newly-established Madinah University on a salary of 20,000 Saudi Riyals with accommodation and other facilities. He declined the offer without even consulting or informing his family members. As mentioned earlier, Mawlana Habib al-Rahman taught Hadith for one year at Nadwat al-'Ulama in Lucknow in 1952. He had agreed to teach Hadith on condition that he would not accept any remuneration. Shortly after his membership of the assembly came to an end, he was faced with financial difficulties. The managing board of Nadwat al-'Ulama came to know of it and decided to offer one year's salary to him. The draft was sent to Mawlana Habib al-Rahman, but he declined to accept it, saying that he could not go back on his commitment.
Mawlana Habib al-Rahman breathed his last at the age of 91 on March 17, 1992, in his hometown. His funeral, which was taken out in the blazing summer heat of Ramadan, stretched over a mile and was attended by two hundred thousand people. It can be said without any fear of contradiction that the funeral of no other scholar in India has been attended by such a large number of people in the 20th century.
Discerning men for years will with their foreheads honour
The spot that bears the imprint of thy foot.
(Published in Islamic Culture, Hyderabad in 1994)