Ashraf 'Alī Thanwī was born as 'Abdul Ghanī in the village of Thāna Bhāwan within the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, India on August 19, 1863. He was named Ashraf 'Alī by Hāfiz Ghulām Murtazā Pānīpatī, a maternal relative. He belonged to the Shaikhzada community, and his family was well-respected and held a high position in Thāna Bhāwan. His father, 'Abdul Haqq, was a wealthy landowner, devout Muslim, and respected citizen. Ashraf 'Alī Thanwī’s lineage can be traced back to the second Caliph of Islam, 'Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb.
EducationAshraf 'Alī Thānwī graduated from the Darul Uloom Deoband in 1884. When Rashīd Ahmad Gangohī, one of the founders of the institution, arrived for the graduation ceremony, Shaikhul Hind Mahmūd-ul Hasan informed him that an especially intelligent student was about to graduate. Gangohī wanted to test this student by asking the most difficult questions that he could think of. Ashraf 'Alī's answers amazed and pleased Gangohī, who himself conducted the Dastārbandī Jalsa, the turban-tying ceremony marking graduation.
Spiritual trainingDuring his studies at Dār-ul 'Ulūm Deoband, Ashraf 'Alī Thānwī asked Gangohī to train him in the spiritual sciences as well. Gangohī, however, advised him to wait until the completion of his traditional studies. Ashraf 'Alī Thānwī remained restless and looked for a way to ask Hājī Imdādullāh, the spiritual guide of Gangohī, to recommend him to his student. When Gangohī departed for Hajj, Ashraf 'Alī Thānwī sent a letter with him to Hājī Imdādullāh, requesting him to persuade Gangohī to initiate him into his spiritual order (Tariqah|Ṭarīqah).
CareerAfter his graduation, Ashraf 'Alī Thānwī taught religious sciences in Kanpur for fourteen years. Over a short period of time, he acquired a reputable position as a religious scholar, of Sufism among other subjects. His teaching attracted numerous students and his research and publications became well-known in Islamic institutions. During these years, he traveled to various cities and villages, delivering lectures in the hope of reforming people. Printed versions of his lectures and discourses would usually become available shortly after these tours. Until then, few Islamic scholars had had their lectures printed and widely circulated in their own lifetimes. The desire to reform the masses intensified in him during his stay at Kanpur.
Eventually, Ashraf Ali Thanwi retired from teaching and devoted himself to reestablishing the spiritual centre (khānqāh) of his shaikh in Thāna Bhāwan. Upon this transition, Hājī Imdādullāh remarked, "It is good that you have arrived in Thāna Bhāwan. It is hoped that people will benefit from you spiritually and physically. You should engage yourself in revitalizing our madrasah and khānqāh once more in Thāna Bhāwan. As for myself, I am always praying for you and attentive towards you."
Students and disciplesThanwi’s students and disciples constitute a generation of leading scholars of South Asia. Ashraf Ali Thanwi's disciples settled in all parts of South Asia. Among his disciples are:
- Abdul Hai Arifi
- Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasimi, grandson of the founder of Dar al- ‘Ulum Deoband, Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi, and head principal of Dar al- ‘Ulum Deoband for over 50 years, from the early 1930s to the early 1980s
- Muhammad Maseehullah Khan Sherwani (founder of Madrasa Miftah al- ‘Ulum in Jalalabad, India, and a leading spiritual figure of the past century)
- Mufti Muhammad Shafi, head mufti of Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband and later founder of Dar al-‘Ulum Karachi
- Abdul Bari Nadvi (renowned theologian and philosopher in India who taught modern philosophy at Osmania University in Hyderabad and translated the books of Western philosophers such as Descartes, into Urdu and left behind many literary tracts)
- Allamah Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, researcher and student of Shibli Nu ‘mani who turned to Thanwi for spiritual reformation
- Molana Faqir Muhammed, Peshawar, Pakistan
- Muhammad Ilyas al-Kandhlawi Rehmatullahialai (founder of the Great Tablighi Jammat Movement)
- Qazi abdusalam of nowshera
- Hafiz Tanweer Ahmed Khan Khalifa Majaz Molana Muhammed Masihulah Khan, Hyderabad, Pakistan
- Mulana Abraruhaq Hardoi, last and youngest caliph of Ashraf Ali Thanvi who founded Ashraful Madaris Hardoi and lead the movement of Dawatul Haq, founded by Ashraf Ali Thanvi
Literary contributionAshraf 'Alī Thānwī was a prolific author. His literary contributions are in the order of eight hundred to one thousand in number, including sermons, discussions, discourses, treatises, and books. Sayyid Sulaimān Nadwī said, "Hazrat [Ashraf 'Alī Thānwī] was a translator and exegete (mufassir) of the Quran; he explained its injunctions and wisdoms. He removed doubts and answered questions pertaining to it." Thānwī was a scholar of hadīth (muhaddith) as well, and expounded its intricacies and subtleties. He was a jurist (faqīh) who issued thousands of legal rulings (fatwā) and addressed numerous legal problems in contemporary issues in Islamic law (fiqh). He was described as a moving orator (khaṭīb) and hundreds of his speeches have been published and widely circulated.
Quran recitationWhile teaching in Kanpur, Ashraf 'Alī Thānwī was reported to have seen 'Abdullāh bin 'Abbās, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, in a dream. In this dream, he indicated to him that tafsir should become his primary task. Sayyid Sulaimān Nadwī said:
He not only memorized the words of the Qur’aan but also memorized the deeper significance of these words. He was an exceptional reciter (qārī) of the Quran, who had mastered the art of recitation. The uniqueness of his recitation of the Quran was such that each letter was uttered from its proper place of pronunciation (makhraj). There was no imitation or overly exertive effort to make his voice melodious. He would rather recite in his normal voice, which was full of inspiration and absorbed in reflection.