Born in Bāngar, Mao, the Indian district of Annow on 19 Shawwāl 1296 AH (5 October 1879 CE), Shaykh al-Islām Mawlānā Sayyid Ḥusayn Aḥmad Madanī began his primary Islāmic education in Faizābād. At the age of twelve he travelled to the Dār al-ʿUlūm at Deoband where he studied the intermediate and higher level books of the traditional Dars-e-Niẓāmī course. During his seven and a half years at the Dār al-ʿUlūm the Shaykh al-Islām studied about sixty books, twenty four of which were taught by the legendary imām of undivided India, Shaykh al-Hind Mawlānā Maḥmūd al-Ḥasan Deobandī (1268-1339 AH/1851-1920 CE). He describes in his two-volume Urdu autobiography (Naqsh-e-Ḥayāt – A Sketch of My Life) how, as a young student at the Dār al-ʿUlūm, he was very close to Imām Shaykh al-Hind and had free access to the latter’s home. Similar affection was shown by all his illustrious teachers at the Dār al-ʿUlūm.
As a young ʿālim, the Shaykh al-Islām offered his allegiance of taṣawwuf (bayʿah) at the blessed hands of the imām of his age, dubbed ‘the Abū Ḥanīfah of the era’, Shaykh al-Mashāyikh Mawlānā Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī (1244-1323 AH/1829-1905 CE). In 1316 AH (1898 CE) he travelled with his parents and siblings to the radiant city of Madīnah al-Munawwarah, where his father, Sayyid Ḥabībullāh, settled permanently in fulfilment of his yearning to undertake hijrah. On their way to Madīnah al-Munawwarah, the family spent some days in the blessed company of the master of all the Indian mashāyikh of his age, the shaykh of Shaykh al-Mashāyikh Mawlānā Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī, Ḥājī Imdādullāh Muhājir Makkī (1233-1317 AH/1817-1899 CE) in the Holy city of Makkah al-Mukarramah, who prescribed the litany (wird/waẓīfah) of Pās anfās to the Shaykh al-Islām. In 1318 AH (1900 CE) the Shaykh al-Islām and his eldest brother, Mawlānā Sayyid Muḥammad Ṣiddīq (1288-1331 AH/1871-1913 CE), were summoned to India by Shaykh al-Mashāyikh Mawlānā Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī. Shortly after arrival, Imām Gangohī wrapped ʿimāmahs (turbans) around their heads and granted them formal khilāfah (or ijāzah) in taṣawwuf. They both remained in India for two years before returning to Madīnah al-Munawwarah with a group of ḥājis.
When the Shaykh al-Islām and his family embarked on their very long and perilous journey to Madīnah al-Munawwarah, his beloved teacher, Shaykh al-Hind Mawlānā Maḥmūd al-Ḥasan, walked with them to the train station. He advised the Shaykh al-Islām never to give up teaching the Islāmic sciences, wherever he may be and whatever the circumstances. He held fast to this advice. Once settled in Madīnah al-Munawwarah, despite the severe tribulations that he and his family underwent, the Shaykh al-Islām began teaching some books of the Islāmic sciences in the Masjid of the Beloved Messenger of Allāh (may the peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). In the sections of his autobiography detailing his academic pursuits in Madīnah al-Munawwarah, he describes his surprise at the relatively poor academic abilities of those who were lecturing in the Holy Masjid at the time, compared with what he had been accustomed to in India. No sooner had he commenced his lectures on the various Islāmic sciences that his fame spread far and wide. Students began to desert the other lecturers and flocked to his lectures. They would marvel at the depth and richness of his oceanic knowledge of all the Islāmic sciences and his grounding in the fiqh of all four schools of sacred law. Consequently, he found himself the target of much envy and malice. Students – many of them of Madīnan, Turkish, Bukhārī, Qāzānī, Kazakhī, Egyptian and Afghānī origins – would find themselves mesmerized by his lectures on a wide spectrum of texts, many of which he himself had not studied previously, including in ʿilm al-Naḥw (grammar) the Ājrūmiyyah, Ḥallān, Kafrāwī, Alfiyyah, Sharḥ Ibn ʿAqīl, Sharḥ Alfiyyah Ibn Hishām; in ʿilm al-Maʿānī wa’l-Bayān (the science of Arabic eloquence) Sharḥ ʿUqūd al-Jumān, Risālah Istiʿārāt, Risālah Waḍʿiyyah li ‘l-Qāḍī, ʿAḍud etc; in ʿilm al-Badīʿ (another branch of Arabic eloquence) Badīʿyyat Ibn Ḥajar; in Ḥanafī fiqh Nūr al-Ῑḍāḥ, Multaqa ‘l-Abḥur, Durar etc; in the jurisprudence of the Shāfiʿī and Mālikī schools Sharḥ Jamʿ al-Jawāmiʿ li ‘l-Subkī, Sharḥ Muṣṭafā ‘l-Uṣūl, Waraqāt, Sharḥ Muntahā ‘l-Uṣūl etc; in ʿaqāʾid (Islāmic creed) Musāmarah Sharḥ Musāyarah, Sharḥ Ṭawāliʿ al-Anwār, Jawharah etc; in muṣṭalaḥ al-ḥadīth (principles and technicalities of ḥadīth) Alfiyyah Uṣūl al-Ḥadīth, Bayqūniyyah etc and many other texts in the sciences of farāʾiḍ (law of inheritance), mantiq (logic), tafsīr (exegesis of the Holy Qurʾān), ḥadīth (Prophetic traditions) and kalām (theology). Due to the ever increasing insistence of students, he would deliver fourteen lectures a day – five in the morning, three or four after Ẓuhr prayers, two after ʿAṣr prayers, two after Maghrib prayers and one after ʿIshāʾ prayers. He would only sleep for three to three and a half hours, sometimes suspending all lectures and sleeping for six to seven hours, thereby refreshing himself for a full week. All this he did without any form of remuneration, upon the guidance of his spiritual mentor, Shaykh al-Mashāyikh Mawlānā Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī.
Circumstances of the Muslims of India compelled the Shaykh al-Islām to return to India. There, under the leadership of his illustrious teacher, Shaykh al-Hind Mawlānā Maḥmūd al-Ḥasan, he dedicated himself to the nationwide movement for freedom from the British Raj. In 1335 AH (1917 CE) he and Shaykh al-Hind were arrested in the Ḥijāz (in modern day Saudi Arabia) and incarcerated by the British in Malta. After his release in 1338 AH (1920 CE), he became even more dedicated to the fight for India’s freedom from colonialism. When Shaykh al-Hind passed away that same year, the Shaykh al-Islām continued his illustrious teacher’s struggle for India’s independence and in 1360 AH (1941 CE) was appointed president of the Jamʿiyyat al-ʿUlamāʾ of India, a role in which he served until his demise in 1377 AH (1957 CE).
Upon the final instruction of his beloved teacher, Shaykh al-Hind, the Shaykh al-Islām taught ḥadīth at a madrasah in Calcutta for a short period before moving to Sylhet (in modern day Bangladesh), where, during the six years that he lived there, he taught ḥadīth, served as the prime and unparalleled spiritual mentor of the Muslims of the region and carried on his mission to see an independent India. In 1346 AH (1927 CE), he accepted the post of grand shaykh of the Dār al-ʿUlūm at Deoband – Shaykh al-Ḥadīth. An estimated 3,856 students studied ḥadīth under him. Many thousands of Muslims pledged the allegiance of taṣawwuf (bayʿah) at his hands, from whom a total of 166 were granted formal khilāfah (or ijāzah) in taṣawwuf by the Shaykh al-Islām.
After the independence of India, the Shaykh al-Islām distanced himself from politics and devoted all his time and energy on the teaching of ḥadīth, spiritually reforming the Muslims and daʿwah. In recognition of his sacrifices for India, in 1373 AH (1954 CE) the government wished to confer the Shaykh al-Islām an honorary official title. He declined, saying that the acceptance of such an award was contrary to the way of his pious predecessors (the Salaf and Akābir).
His sacrifices and selflessness for the people of India generally, and for the Muslims of India specifically, remain till this day unparalleled. His legacy remains alive today throughout the breadth and width of not just south Asia, but the world.
This legendary master passed away in 1377 AH (1957 CE) at his home in Deoband. His funeral prayer was led by the great Shaykh al-Ḥadīth Mawlānā Muḥammad Zakariyyā Kāndhlawī (1315-1402 AH/1898-1982 CE). He was laid to rest beside his teacher Shaykh al-Hind Mawlānā Maḥmūd al-Ḥasan and Imām Ḥujjat al-Islām Mawlānā Muḥammad Qāsim Nānotwī (1248-1297 AH/1833-1880 CE), the founder of the Dār al-ʿUlūm, within its precincts in Deoband.
(References: Shaykh al-IslāmMawlānā Sayyid Ḥusayn Aḥmad Madanī, Naqsh-e-Ḥayāt – A Sketch of my Life; ʿAllāmah ʿAbd al-Ḥayy ibn Fakhr al-Dīn al-Ḥasanī and Imām Sayyid Abu ‘l-Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Nadwī, Al-Iʿlām bi man fī Tārīkh al-Hind min al-Aʿlām; MawlānāBāyazīd Maḥmūd Shahīd, Akhlāq-e-Ḥusaynī.)