Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī b. Muḥammad Muʿīn Naqvī Naṣīrābādī (1753-1820), better known after his death as Ghufrān-maʾāb and as the progenitor of a leading family of Shiʿi ʿulamāʾ of Lucknow known as the khāndān-i ijtihād, was a leading figure in the Shiʿi learned culture of North India in the post-Mughal period. As the new Shiʿi state in Avadh developed a distinct identity of its own, Naṣīrābādī was responsible for the production of a new religious dispensation, a theology to rival that of the prevalent Sunnī, rationalist culture of the dars-i niẓāmī in which he had been trained. Coming from a family of prominent Naqvī sayyids in the qaṣbah of Naṣīrābād, he studied in Faizabad and in Shahjahanpur (then still in the control of the Rohillas ruled by Ḥāfiẓ Raḥmat Khān until his defeat by Avadh and the British in April 1774) with prominent (mainly Sunnī) teachers of the scriptural and intellectual humanities such as:
i) Tafażżul Ḥusayn Khān (d. 1800), a leading Shiʿi intellectual and scientist whose forbears came from Iṣfahān though he himself was born in Sialkot and later studied in Benaras with the great literary figure Ḥazīn Lāhījī
ii) Sayyid Ghulām Ḥusayn Dakkanī Ilāhābādī;
iii) Shaykh Bābullāh Jawnpūrī;
iv) Mullā Ḥaydar ʿAlī Sandīlvī (Sunni son of the Shiʿi philosopher Mullā Ḥamdullāh);
v) and Mullā ʿAbd ʿAlī Baḥr al-ʿUlūm of Farangī-Maḥall (d. 1801), son of the famous Mullā Niẓāmuddīn who established the curriculum balancing the scriptural and intellectual humanities named after him.
He later moved to Lucknow in 1775 where he found a generous patron in the person of Ḥasan Riżā Khān (served 1776-98), the vizier of Āṣaf al-dawla (r. 1775-97). He sent him to study in the shrine cities of Iraq (1779-82) where he gained licenses from leading uṣūlī jurists of the time including:
i) Sayyid Muḥammad Mahdī b. Murtaḍā Ṭabāṭabāʾī Baḥr al-ʿUlūm (1155-1212/1742-1797),
ii) Sayyid Mahdī Shahristānī (1130-1216/1718-1801)
iii) Mīrzā Mahdī Iṣfahānī (1152-1218/1739-1803)
iv) and Āqā Bāqir Bihbahānī (1116-1205/1704-1790), the person most responsible for eradicating the Akhbārī presence from the shrine cities.
Although it is often said that Akhbārīs dominated Shiʿi India and that Naṣīrābādi was himself Akhbārī before he returned to India as the first mujtahid of a new uṣūlī era and helped to establish uṣūlī hegemony in India through his actions and his writings, there is little actual evidence for Akhbārī thought in North India (unlike the Deccan where the Quṭb-Shāhīs seemed to patronise figures such as the famous ‘reviver’ of the Akhbārī school, Muḥammad Amīn Astarābādī (d. 1626) who wrote the Dānishnāma-yi Shāhī for his patrons). His contribution in theology lay in three areas of dispute:
i) displacing the theology of the shaykhzādas in the qaṣbahs which was rational, Sufi and Sunni – ultimately the Farangī Maḥall family of scholars in Lucknow (ʿAbd ʿAlī Muḥammad Baḥr al-ʿUlūm and Mullā Ḥasan) and the school of Shāh Walīallāh in Delhi (Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz) epitomised their approach and hence he disputed with them, debated and wrote refutations of their works;
ii) displacing the akhbārī tendency of traditionalists – which to a large extent concerned the import of a dispute from the shrine cities of Iraq into North India;
iii) and moving from a Shiʿi theology of the margins to the heart of empire – establishing a Shiʿi kingship through building institutions of judiciary, establishing the Friday and Eid congregational prayers, centres of learning, an office of religious, jurisprudential guidance and dissemination through the network of his students not least his sons.
He established the new theological dispensation by advocating these methods:
First, importing a controversy from the shrine cities of Iraq, he argued for establishing the uṣūlī method and the use of reason in law and theology. He wrote a number of works attacking Akhbārīs including the main text Asās al-uṣūl and was pivotal in inaugurating the institution of congregational Friday prayers, which were not the norm among the Shiʿa in North India before him. The first such congregation took place in 1200/1786 and a collection of his sermons from that first year was published as an expression of the new public theology entitled Favāʾid-i Āṣafīya. Further such congregations were established in the realm eventually reaching his hometown of Naṣīrābād where a Friday mosque was inaugurated in 1812. He also wrote a Risāla dar vujūb-i namāz-i jumʿa. In Asās al-uṣūl, a work written in Arabic for a scholarly audience (it was lithographed twice in the 1890s and 1900s in Lucknow), his main target was al-Fawāʾid al-madanīya of Muḥammad Amīn Astarābādī (d. 1626); however, he did not rely on the ad hominem and weak arguments deployed by Nūr al-Din al-ʿĀmilī or Bihbahānī in his al-Fawāʾid al-Makkīya. The work is divided into four sections (maqāṣid): the first on the probative force of Qurʾanic verses, the second (and the longest section) on the probative force (ḥujjīya) of ḥadīth – this is in fact the longest section of the text - , the third section on scholarly consensus (ijmāʿ) which was a major point of contention with Akhbārīs, and the fourth on rational instruments for discerning jurisprudence. This last section reveals the theological origins of some debates in uṣūl and includes sections on the status of acts before revelation and on the rational ability to discern good and evil independently. An office was opened in Lucknow to deal with questions of the faithful and a gradual process of Shiʿification of the judiciary initiated. His own informal circle of learning became a formal institution under his son with the name of Madrasa-yi Sulṭānīya, which is a later iteration became the Sulṭān al-madāris established after the annexation much later in 1892.
Second, and most importantly given the rivalry at court, he opened an attack on Sufis to discredit the possibility of considering Shiʿism and Sufism as compatible. He wrote a scholarly work in Arabic al-Shihāb al-thāqib and a more accessible risāla in Persian (Risāla-yi radd-i madhhab-i ṣūfīya), both written for his patron Sarfarāz al-Dawla Ḥasan Riżā Khān, the vizier of Āṣaf al-Dawla, and the patron also of two major Sufi figures Shāh ʿAlī Akbar Mawdūdī Chishtī (d. 1795) who led own jumʿa and Shāh Khayrullāh Naqshbandī. Unlike other anti-Sufi tracts, his polemics did not concern practices on the whole (expect for the use of music in ritual), but rather given the dominance of the Ibn ʿArabī school and the ḥadīth-based scholarship of the rational Sunnī dars-i niẓāmī tradition in Avadh, his attack centred upon the idea of waḥdat al-wujūd and the proofs often adduced from the Qurʾan and from ḥadīth in its favour. This monism dominated Sufism in Avadh through figures at court (and Mawdūdī’s own al-Fawāʾid al-Mawdūdīya – there is a manuscript copy in the British Library – demonstrates his adherence to this tendency), the tradition of Shāh ʿAbd al-Razzāq (d. 1724) of Bānsa patronised by the Sunni theologians of Farangī-Maḥall, and the tradition associated with Shah Mīna (d. 1467) and his shrine in Lucknow – a leading figure of this tradition was Dildār ʿAlī’s contemporary Irtiżā ʿAlī Khān Gopāmāwī (d. 1836), a Sufi and philosopher of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā, who wrote a prominent devotional work Favāʾid-i Saʿdīya.
Third, he defended Shiʿi theology against the famous polemic of Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz, the Tuḥfa-yi isnāʿasharīya, and took on the Sunni rational tradition in a major work of theology entitled Mirʾāt al-ʿuqūl fī ʿilm al-uṣūl better known as ʿImād al-Islām, a scholarly work in Arabic that was lithographed at the turn of the 20th century through the efforts of his descendent Sayyid Āqā Ḥasan who also arranged for an Urdu translation which was also published. His responses to Shāh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz’s Tuḥfa-yi isnāʿasharīya included Ṣawārim-i ilāhīyāt on chapter 5 on philosophical theology, Ḥusām al-islām on chapter 6 on prophecy, Iḥyāʾ-yi sunnat on chapter 8 on resurrection, Risāla-yi Dhū-l-fiqār on chapter 12 on tabarra and walāya, Khātima-yi ṣawārim on imāma and ghaybat. His son Sulṭān al-ʿUlamāʾ later added Bawāriq-i mūbaqa on chapter 7 on imāma, Ṭaʿn al-rimāḥ and Bāriqa-yi dayghamīya on chapter 10 on indictments, Ṭard al-muʿānidīn on chapter 12 on walāya and tabarra. Although the polemics set off a chain of refutations and counter-refutations, these were the best Shiʿi reponses alongside Sayyid Ḥāmid Ḥusayn’s more voluminous ʿAbaqāt al-anwār. ʿImād al-Islām was an altogether more ambitious work taking as its target Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl, the mature work of philosophical theology of the great medieval Sunni theologian Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1209). It is perhaps the greatest achievement in kalām of the Shiʿi scholarly tradition of India.
Sayyid Dildār ʿAlī’s legacy lay primarily in the network of his students and his sons and descendants who dominated the intellectual scene in Avadh prior to the annexation and continued to do so in the present. He had five sons:
1) Sayyid Muḥammad who was born 1199/1784 in Lucknow. He became known as mujtahid al-ʿaṣr, a quasi-official post of the leading cleric (title of ṣadr al-ṣudūr), and was given the title of Sulṭān al-ʿulamāʾ. He died in 1284/1867, and was posthumously known as Riżvān-maʾāb. He wrote works against Akhbārīs and also al-ʿUjāla al-nāfiʿa on Shiʿi kalām. He formalised his father’s teaching circle, establishing the Madrasa-yi Sulṭānīya whose post-annexation avatar became the Sulṭān al-madāris, which still exists and was founded in 1892.
2) Sayyid ʿAlī was born in Lucknow in 1200/1786. He travelled to Karbalāʾ often, lived and studied and died there in 1259/1843. There is evidence that he associated with Sayyid Kāẓim Rashtī (d. 1843) in Karbalāʾ which accounts for a primary link between the Shaykhīs and Avadh [although for obvious reasons the family biographers omit this]. He wrote a two volume exegesis entitled Tawḍīḥ al-majīd fī kalām allāh al-ḥamīd and hence was given the title of Sayyid al-mufassirīn.
3) Sayyid Ḥasan was born in 1205/1791 and died 1260/1844, having written some theological works.
4) Sayyid Mahdī was born Lucknow 1208/1793 and died young in 1231/1816. His son Sayyid Muḥammad Hādī 1813-1858 was a significant jurist of the family.
5) Sayyid Ḥusayn was born in 1211/1796. He was important and became a mujtahid and died in 1273/1856. He was known as Sayyid al-ʿulamāʾ and posthumously titled ʿIllīyīn-maʾāb. His sons were an important branch of the family: Sayyid ʿAlī Naqī d. 1893, titled Zubdat al-ʿulamāʾ; Sayyid Muḥammad Taqī known as Mumtāz al-ʿulamāʾ 1818-72, and Sayyid ʿAlī. The recent famous scholar Sayyid ʿAlī Naqī Naqqan ṣāḥab, who was Dean of the Department of Shia Theology at Aligarh University, was a scion of this branch.