The global currents of reformism inspired the political leadership of Aurangzeb Alamghir to reorganize and reorder the Mughal Empire along modern lines in the latter part of the 17th century. The bureaucratic make-up was revamped, the economic policies were revisited, military was streamlined, religious hierarchy was rearranged, and fresh intellectual endeavors were undertaken to develop a common juridical architecture. To this end, scores of scholars were invited from Mecca, Medina, and India to the royal court. Under the auspices of Aurangzeb, a committee of these scholars was instituted with a task to prepare a manual of legal codes for the juridical arbitrations. The digest of legal codes was later on designated as the “Fatawa-e-Alamghiri”.

Shah Abdur Raheem was one of the prestigious members of the committee. Articulating his dissent on a wide range of legal postulates, Shah Abdur Raheem voluntarily distanced himself from the committee. Aurangzeb Alamghir personally entreated him to show up, and offered him an entitlement to a vast swath of estate. Adamant on his refusal, Shah Abdur Raheem established a college of law in Delhi and called it “Madrasa-e-Rahimiya”. The college was founded with an aim to prepare a class of scholars who would master the “rational sciences” and the “traditional sciences” of Islam. After the death of Shah Abdur Raheem, his eldest son Shah Wali-ullah rose to the occasion and continued his legacy.

Qutbuddin Shah Wali-ullah Muhadith Dehlevi was a lone genius of his age and time. He mastered at an early age the rational sciences(called Aqli ulum) of logical syllogism, Iranian gnosticism, dialectics, Greek philosophy, Iranian illumination, speculative reasoning, and arithmetic, and the traditional sciences(called Deeni ulum) of Quranic exegesis, scriptural hermeneutics, Hadith literature, legal formalism, mysticism, and textual genealogy. His eclecticism aimed at demonstrating affinity between the schools of Hanafite and Shafite rites, amongst the different orders of mystical strands, and amongst the guilds of Aasharism, Maturidism, and Mutalizism.

He insisted on the need to trace the common denominators that characterize the intellectual landscape of speculative Sufism and scriptural Salafism. His informed ecumenicalism rested on the urgency to wed the philosophic vision of Shii Islam to the rationalist project of Sunni Islam. His originality expressed itself in his theories on natural laws, governance models, aesthetics, ontology, and social evolution. Shah Wali-ullah also expressed his own commitment to the mystical guilds. He himself was a Sufi of high calibre and had acquired a rank of excellence in his expression of devotion to it. Apart from his own his participation in the organization of the piety-minded community of scholars in the India, he acted as an intellectual arbitrator to reconcile the two apparently opposing theories of Islamic mystical tradition-- the two being the Unity of Being and the Unity of Witness. He arrested the widening chasm that was ripping apart the fabric of Islamic mysticism and declared in one of his letters a complete harmony between these two theories; the difference being that of a nuanced interpretation. Thus, an impending rivalry came to an end with both of the theories falling in line with the normative set of doctrines attributable to the early Islamic scholarship or traceable to the practices and the religious consciousness of early Islamic community.

In his calculus of Islamic thought, the scriptural content of the Quran and the righteous conduct of the Prophet and his earlier companions are the touchstone that establishes the validity of any intellectual pursuit. Emanates from this proposition the urge for the repudiation of any form of knowledge that lacks the credentials in need for the Islamic authentication. Lies in it the dynamism of his thought-apparatus, for Wali-ullah prepares legitimate ground even for the strains of knowledge acquired from a multitude of means through tracking its origins back to a divine nature. In other words, any shade of knowledge or a form of reality acquired after a thorough investigation of its substance can embody the constituents of quasi-Islam, for every being in all its manifestations is a direct descent from the actual being of God. Thus, only the corrosion and the corruption that contributed to its defilement requires a redressal for its return back to the pristine nature.

Muhammad Iqbal admitted in one of his correspondences that Shah Wali-ullah was the first Muslim scholar of our modern intellectual history to have conceptualized the idea of modernity. Jonathan AC. Brown in his tome “Misquoting Muhammad”, Charles Khurzman in “Liberal Islam”, Anthony Black in “History of Islamic Political Thought”, and Ahmad Dallal in “Islam without Europe” contended that Shah Wali-ullah emerged as the first Muslim Philosopher to have laid the foundations of modernism in the Islamic World. His interpretive system of reasoning continued to inform the discourse on modernism and modernity.

Shah Wali-ullah emerged as the precursor to all the intellectual movements of India in the 19th century. His traditionalist legacy expressed itself in Deoband, Ahl-e-Hadith, Berelvi movements. Similarly his conciliatory tendencies were continued in Nadwa-tul-ulama, Jamaat-e-Islami, and Farahi School. His project of his modernism was carried ahead by the Aligarh University and the philosophical school of Dr Fazlur Rehman. His authority was invoked by every reformist, his oeuvre was tapped into by every intellectual, his legalism was pressed into service by every legalist, and his comprehensive vision was summoned into use by every modernist.

The rigor of his intellectual work was on par with the scholarship of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. The modern intellectual canvas of Muslim India is defined by the noetic ingenuity of Shah Wali-ullah: the lone genius of the 18th century. The currents of modern Islamic discourse in India trace their pedigree back to Shah Wali-ullah of Delhi. In the words of Aziz Ahmad, “Shah Wali-ullah is a bridge to modernity in India”.