Barelvis and Deobandhis: “Birds of the Same Feather”

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By R. Upadhyay

Like Deobandi Ulema, Ahmad Riza Barelvi (1856-1921) a prominent Islamic cleric of brilliance who was born in Barelli of present Uttar Pradesh launched another institutionalised Islamic revival movement of Sunni Islam in 1880 which is more formally known as the Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jama’at. It is popularly known as Barelvi movement.

A general perception is prevailing among some section of intellectuals that the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam belongs to a tolerant and moderate version of Islamic faith because it follows the unreformed Sufi tradition of tomb worship and other rituals which are strongly opposed by the radical Deobandis.

However, a close observation of Barelvi movement suggests that it is not so. Both the Barelvi & Deoband movements started in the second half of nineteenth century after the end of Muslim rule in 1857. They have always taken extreme positions so as not allow each other the religio-political and social space in the Muslim society. The recent murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in Pakistan by a guard belonging to the Barelvi sect and over 500 Islamic scholars belonging to the same sect supporting his crime and urging the Muslims across the country to boycott his funeral has proved that like Deobandis, Barelvis are equally intolerant. Although, both the Deobandi and Barelvi scholars condemned the slain governor of Punjab for terming the blasphemy law as black law, the latter took a more hardened stand on this issue.

The myth of tolerance among the Barelvis was exposed long ago when Ahmad Reza Barelvi, the founder of this sect and his supporters did not participate in non-co-operation movement against the British on the plea that it was led by a Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi. Pronouncing a fatwa he not only denounced the Deobandis as Kafirs and condemned them for accepting the leadership of a Hindu leader during freedom movement but also criticised those Muslims who joined hands with Kafirs (non-believers) even if it was for attaining Islamic objectives. His fatwa warned the Muslims neither to attend to the ailing non-Muslims nor to participate in their funerals. Difference of opinion between Deobandi and Barelvi was so bitter that during a fatwa-war over the shrine-associated rituals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, “Ahmad Riza went to the extent of writing a fatwa accusing leading figures at Deoband – including Rashid Ahmed Gangohi, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Ashraf Ali Thanvi – of being leaders of heresy and kafir”. His aversion with Deobandis is reflected in Fatwa-i-Rizvia, which “declares Deobandis as Kafirs and he who doubts that they are Kafirs are also Kafir” (The World of Fatawas by Arun Shourie, 1995, Page 646). “He objected to collaboration with Hindus in preference to ‘People of the Book’.” (Pakistan: Punjab Governor assassinated by “non-violent” Islamic group by Kal El on January 7, 2011).

During the period of Khilafat Movement, Mahatma Gandhi was advised to meet Ahmed Riza but when the latter was told that Gandhi wished to meet and speak to him- he said, “What would he speak about? Religion or worldly affairs? If it is worldly affairs, what can I partake in, for I have abstained from the world and have no interest in it?” (Al Mizaan, p. 335/ Islamic Encyclopedia). His fatwa also declared that the books and belief of Deobandis are worse than those of Hindus. As a foremost campaigner of Sufism, Ahmad Reza was also responsible for bringing the Indian Muslims into conflict with the Hindus by providing the theoretical basis for asserting a separate national identity in support of two-nation theory. It was the joint effort of the Barelvis and the Muslim Leaguers who spearheaded a movement for creation of a separate state of Pakistan for the Muslims.

A fact not to be missed is that except Deobandis, all the other Islamic sects in Indian sub-continent like Barelvis, Shias, Ismilis and Ahmadias joined the Muslim League and strongly supported Pakistan movement. It is also alleged that the Deobandis opposed the partition as they wanted to Islamise entire India. Another myth against Barelvis was created by Deobandis propagating that the followers of Ahmad Reza were only the backward section of Muslim community. But a review of the history of Pakistan movement suggests that majority of the All India Muslim League leaders from Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and the erstwhile undivided Bombay state who were from elite section of the community belonged to the Barelvi Sect. After partition they migrated to Karachi, the then capital of Pakistan and Barelvis still constitute the single ethnic majority in this city. It is a fact that the Barelvi sect became popular among the rural peasantry and urban proletariat but it was equally found visible among a sizeable section of the petty-bourgeoisie. Barelvis may have antipathy against the radical Deobandis but it does not mean that it is a sect of liberal Muslims. It equally represents religious orthodoxy and share most of the perspectives of terrorism and want to establish Islamic political order as articulated by them.

As far as Islamic orthodoxy was concerned all the sects of Sunni Islam are birds of the same feather. The Islamic priestly class who either accompanied the Islamist conquerors or migrated to India for their career always believed in the pristine purity of Islam. However, being loyal to the Muslim power, they never dared to interfere even in the latter’s un-Islamic deeds. Thus, so long India was under Islamic rule the Ulema hardly had any internal difference. The problem arose only after the collapse of Muslim rule when the religious debate started among them for saving the Muslim identity in a non-Muslim government and bringing the community in action for restoration of Islamic rule which gradually led to various movements of Sunni Islam like Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle Hadith, Nadwa, Tabliqh Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami. All these Islamic revival movements launched in India in the second half of nineteenth century following the end of Muslim rule had a common programme to radicalise the native Muslims of the sub-continent with the common objective for Islamisation of India.

The history of Islamic revival movement is rooted to the defeat of Muslim power in the battle of Plassey in1757 AD. The Islamic clerics saw this defeat as a danger signal not for Islam but for their respectable career under Islamic government. By the middle of nineteenth century the central authority of Islamic power in Delhi became weak and a sizeable section of Ulema took advantage of the Sepoy Revolt of 1857 and tried to turn it into Jihad which was crushed by the British. Another section of Ulema particularly the parental family of Ahmad Riza Khan and their clan remained aloof from this Jihad. Since then internal rivalry cropped up within the Islamic priestly class. In fact Ahmad Riza Khan was not sent to the Madrasa founded by Deobandi Ulema. Thus, the Deobandi –Barelvi divide was rooted more in their personal rivalry than in doctrinal schism which is secondary. The British exploited the situation and remained soft towards the followers of Ahmad Riza Khan.

Theoretically Islam regards Muslims as one nation, regardless of their origin, colour, tongue or homeland but Deobandi-Barelvi rivalry is also known to be rooted to their ethnic rivalry. Apart from their different ethnic roots, they also belonged to different Sufi orders particularly Naqshbandi and Qadiria and propagated Islam among the native people according to their own traditions. Even though, they immigrated to India from Arab, Gulf countries and Central Asia under the patronage of Muslim rulers and mostly settled around Delhi and adjoining regions of present Uttar Pradesh, those of Arabian lineage were proud of their origin from the land of Islam and therefore tried to impose their superiority over the non-Arabs. Maintaining a safe distance from the non-Arab Ulema they did not like to have any intellectual or social affinity with the latter. They quoted Hadith mentioning the superiority of Arabs. The Ulema of Arabian lineage who were the former leading students of madrasa founded by Shah waliullah also of Arab origin and a Sufi Islamist reformer of Naqshbandi order founded a Madrasa at Deoband in 1866 and launched Islamic revival movement. On the other hand Ahmad Reza, with his elite Pathan ancestry which migrated from Kabul during Muslim rule and settled in Bareli, he got his Islamic teachings from his grand father and father who were followers of Qadiria order of Sufism – was a devout believer of the traditional tomb worship of Sufi saints. He was a disciple of Qadiri Sufi Pir Shah Al-e-Rasul and founded Madrasa Manzar al-Islam in 1904 in Bareli. Since he did not accept the superiority of any Arab- rooted Muslim except Prophet Mohammad and his first four Caliphs, he was subject to intense intellectual rivalry and ego clashes with Deobandi Ulema.

Despite the fact that both the movements had their origin from the western part of Uttar Pradesh, Barelvis have an unrelenting aversion to the Deobandis and Deobandi-aligned movements such as the Nadwat al-Ulema, the Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami. Other opponents of Barelvis are Ahle Hadith in India and Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.

Beside the socio-political issues, both the groups also differed over some religious rituals and interpretation of Islamic scriptures. Opposed to the reformist Deobandis who believe in Islamic Puritanism and consider the tomb worship as a form of idolatry and other belief connected with the cult of Sufi saints as superstition, Ahmad Riza defended the traditional shrine worship of Sufi saints and many practices and also believed in their intercession with the Divine Grace through their unbroken chain ultimately reaching to Prophet Mohammad who intercedes on their behalf with Allah. Emphasizing the primacy of Islamic law over adherence to Sufi practices, the doctrine of Ahmad Riza considered the Prophet Muhammad as a super human being and a part of the divine light of Allah. It also suggested that the Prophet was provided by Allah the knowledge of the unseen and the deeds of each and every Muslim as well as of all the creation of Allah. His personal devotion to the Prophet was viewed by Deobandis as un-Islamic. To be more specific the Barelvi doctrine is though based on Quran, Sunnah (Tradition of Prophet) and monotheism its unique devotion to the Prophet is the main issue of difference with other Muslims. Some of the features relating to the Prophet and Sufi saints opposed by other sects of Sunni Islam are as under:

  • The prophet Muhammad is made out of noor (light), and can be present at all places and at all times with the will of Allah, despite his physical death.
  • Muslim saints (the Sufi aulias or, in Farsi pīrs ) are able to intercede to Allah on behalf of the living
  • The praise of Muhammad in poetry, especially during Milad.
  • The recitation of Urdu and Arabic poems in praise of the Prophet.
  • The celebration of the death and birth anniversaries of various Sufi saints.

The Deobandi critics of Ahmad Reza often accused the latter as an agent for his non-participation against the non-cooperation movement against the British. Despite such accusation and criticism of his doctrine as superstition, the networks of Barelvi Ulema still hold a commanding influence among the larger majority of South Asian Muslims. In the absence of any official data on sectarian identity of Muslims in Indian sub-continent it may not be possible to give the actual strength of the respective sects but according to a rough estimate Sunnis who constitute between 75 to 80 percent are broadly divided into four sub-sects namely Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahle Hadith and Jamaat-e Islami. Of them Barelvis are estimated to constitute between 80 to 85 % against 15 to 20 % Deobandis, 4% Ahle Hadith and Jamaat-e-Islami.

Although, all the groups prefer to paint a picture of religious homogeneity of Muslims, their internal feud is so deep that it often results in violent fights. In fact most of the terror attacks in Pakistan are on Barevis by the Deobandi terrorists like Taliban and others. Even the Shia-Sunni conflict is primarily a Deobandi-Shia conflict which is also supported by Ahle Hadith. Both Deobandi and Barelvi follow Hanafi school of Sunni Jurisprudence they radically differ in its interpretation. “Barelvis represent oral orthodoxy cushioned by devotional practices; Deobandis represent literate orthodoxy with a strict adherence to the classical texts of Islam” (The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan- Crisis Group Asia Report No. 95, 18 April 2005).

Ahmad Riza in his last will to his followers said, “I do not know how long I shall live among you. You are the naive sheep of Mustafa and the wolves have encompassed you from all sides. They want to lead you astray and create schism and dissent among you. They wish to carry you to the hell-fire. So keep away from them, especially the Deobandi’s” (Al-Bastawi in his al-Bareilawi, p. 105).

(The author can be reached at e-mail [email protected])


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