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Religious Modernism And Barelvi Creed – OpEd


I assert that one of the many influences that modernity wrought on the Sufi ethos was the primacy accorded to the ‘text’. If that assertion is stretched a bit further, the conclusion that one may draw is that the interaction of Sufism with modernity culminated into the emergence of Barelvi creed. Chishtiyya and Qadiriyya Sufi Orders seemed to have subsumed into the Barelvi creed.


Ahmad Raza Khan from Bareilly (1856-1921), adherent of the Qadiriyya Order, laid the foundation of the Ahl-e Sunnat movement (I will use that terminology interchangeably with Barelvis). Strangely enough, in the objective situation obtaining in the second half of the 19thcentury, British colonialism had drawn various tools of rationality to the centre stage of the prevailing religious discourse. However, the intercessionary ritual practices remained the defining feature of the Ahl-e Sunnat movement.

For its opponents, usually representing the denominations like Deobandis and Ahl-e Hadith, shrine-centred devotion, demonstrated by Barelvi Sunnis, was in stark repudiation to its claim of being ‘reformist’, therefore rendering it ‘backward’, and ‘ignorant’. For Sunni (read Barelvi) luminaries, following the Prophet’s prescribed path (Sunna) with the help of saintly intermediaries, “provided a template for the behaviour in the modern world”. According to Usha Sanyal, “In its self-consciousness the movement was based on a sense of individual responsibility, not on attachment to ancient custom (Rawaj) as its detractors alleged”.

Two points are to be teased out from the whole debate around Barelvi denomination and its evolution over the years: the validation of shrine-based practices through text (or interpretation of the text) and the question of it being historically embedded.

In many ways, the last quarter of the 19th century saw a few important changes coming into play in the Muslim world, and the subcontinent was no exception. Emergence of text-centred approach to religion was the most significant development in religious epistemology. The obvious outcome of this development was the renewed importance of exegesis (Tafseer) of the Holy Quran and interpretation of Hadith according to the contemporary situation. The emphasis on Hadith in such seminaries like Dar ul Ulum Deoband enhanced the importance of ‘text’ even further. The ‘text’ came to be the standard bearer for ascertaining authenticity of any ritual or religious practice(s) prevalent in the contemporary era.

Thus shrine-centred practices became the subject of interrogation. Such practices not only connected Islam with the local cultural ethos underscoring ‘unity in diversity’ but they also made shrine a site for socio-religious inclusion, in which plurality could become possible. However, in the changed scenario, in the wake of colonial modernity and the advent of pan-Islamism (which too resulted from the phenomenon of modernity), the validity of ‘Sufi and Shrine’ became questionable. The specificity of Ahmad Raza Khan’s reformist zeal as opposed to that of Rashid Ahmad Gangohi or Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi is the former’s unflinching support to the time-honoured practice(s), performed at the shrine; instead of castigating them, he tried to bring them legitimacy through ‘text’. That was the reason that Ahmad Raza Khan remained in constant touch with the religious scholars in the Hijaz.


In simpler terms, in Ahmad Raza’s endeavours, we see Islam entwined with the local cultural moorings evolving through the historical process. What Ahmad Raza failed to guard against was the exclusion and Takfir. In his famous fatwa Husam al-Haramain ala Manhar al-Kufr wa’l Main (The Sword of the Harmain at the Throat of Kufr and Falsehood), which was written in 1902 but became public in 1906, Ahmed Raza denounced several individuals in the early twentieth-century India. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian was the first on Ahmad Raza’s lists of Kafirs (infidels). He was followed by some eminent Ulema from Deoband denomination like Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Khalil Ahmad Ambethwi whom he described as Wahhabis. Among the twelver Shias and the organisation of the Ulema known as the Nadwat al-Ulema, he accused some specific people of Kufr.

This is the situation right now when two Barelvi factions are trading Fatwas, calling each other Kafir. One shudders to think about the prevalent situation invested with the possible likelihood of sub-sectarian violence among the Sunnis.

Coming back to the historical analysis of Barelvis, in a bid to strike equilibrium between the ‘text’ and shrine-centric practices, Barelvi version of Islam appeared to have severed its link with the historical continuum. The practice of seeking authenticity of the rituals and religious practices from the Ulema of Arabia was the principal cause of that continuum having been snapped. As a consequence, Barelvi denomination got stuck in ambivalence with a culture entwined with religion on one hand and spawning puritanical tendencies punctuated with the primacy of text on the other.

These trends have riddled the Barelvi sect with contradictions. Thus, its constituency is facing steady erosion.

Another important aspect is about the role of Ahl-e Sunnat wal Jamaat movement under the British, which was conciliatory towards the later. In the Khilafat Movement (1919-22), members of the Ulema, influenced by Jamaluddin Afghani’s pan-Islamic message, forged an alliance with the Indian National Congress. M.K. Gandhi, top leader of Indian National Congress, lent support to the Ulema in their demand for British recognition of the Turkish Sultan as Caliph. Ulema in turn supported the Indian nationalist struggle against the British rule. These decisions were made after threadbare debate in the meetings of Jamiyyat al-Ulema-e Hind, the religio-political party comprising Deobandi clerics.

Ahmad Raza Khan who, by that time, was a well-established leader of Ahl-e Sunnat movement, balked at supporting the Khilafat Movement or the pan-Islamic idea. Ahmad Raza was anti-Hindu which was one of the main reasons that Barelvis threw in their lot with the All Indian Muslim League. The role of Barelwi organisation(s) and various Mashaikhs like Pir of Golra Sharif or Jama’at Ali Shah in the Pakistan is well-documented.

The general perception about the Barelvi denomination is that it’s pluralistic and inclusive vis a vis other sects. However, the Barelvis’ antagonism towards Hindus and other Muslim sects is irrefutable. Similarly, the contention of their support for the Pakistan movement, too, is not that straightforward. As it is noted in the following lines, until 1946, the All-India Sunni Conference had no unequivocal stance in favour of Pakistan.

When Ahmed Raza Khan passed away in 1921, the mantle to lead Ahl-e-Sunnat fell on Naeemud Din Muradabadi when he started a monthly journal Al Sawad E Azam (literally the great, that is to say the Sunni majority). Before proceeding further on the subject, a brief introduction of Naeemud Din Muradabadi will not be out of place. Born in 1882 in Muradabad, UP, he got early religious instruction along with Persian Arabic and Unani medicine along with good part of Dars-i-Nizami syllabus from his father. At the age of 14, he joined Muradabad Madrasa-e-Imdadiyya where he learned, logic, philosophy and Hadith from Syed Gul Muhammad Shah. He graduated from the same madrasa at the age of 20 and took an oath of allegiance at the hand of his erstwhile teacher Syed Gul Muhammad.

The details of his intellectual development point to the fact that his loyalty to the Ahl-e-Sunnat cause developed only gradually. Strangely his father Moeenud Din has been a disciple of Muhammad Qasim Nanutawi, one of the founders of Dar ul Uloom Deoband. Gradually, however, Naeemud Din exhibited his prominence as a debater; he entered into Manazara with Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadith, Shias, Christians and Arya Samajis, and emerged victorious in these disputations. In these debates, his proclivity smacked of the influences drawn from the Barelvi denomination.

It was then that he caught Ahmed Raza Khan’s eye and became a close companion of the former. Attendant on his skill as a persuader and debater were his organisational abilities. He indeed excelled in establishing and managing institutions. The foremost contribution of him was the establishment of the Jammiyya Naemiyya around 1920.

In 1925, he also put together a new body by the name of Ahl-e-Sunnat by the name of All India Sunni Conference. The very name of the new organisation indicates that it was intended to reach Ahl-e-Sunnat nationwide. It was supposedly the answer to the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and the Khilafat Committee, then the main Ulema organisations at the national level. The biographical account of Naeemud Din (Hayat I Sadr Al Afazil) reveals that All India Sunni Conference emanated from his awareness of “an increasing anti Muslim attitude among Hindus”, exemplified not only in the Arya Samaj-led Shuddi movement but also Hindu assertiveness over the issue of cow slaughter.

All India Sunni Conference, from the very outset, rejected the principle of the Hindu Muslim unity as means of achieving freedom. In the welcome address of that meeting, Ahmed Raza’s eldest son Hamid Raza Khan rejected the goal of freedom itself, asserting that Swaraj would amount to Hindu Raj; therefore, lending support to that cause would not be of any use to Muslims at large. He along with other speakers emphasised on the need to work for the educational and economic amelioration of the Muslim of the subcontinent. Hamid Raza in his address outlined a range of activities which the conference would undertake; Tabligh against the Shuddi movement being the foremost of all. He also outlined a detailed hierarchy of madrasas to be established throughout India, from the national level going all the way down to the villages.

The All India Sunni conference attained great success in a relatively short period of time. The 1925 meeting of the All India Sunni Conference was attended by over 250 Ulema from all over India. One of the most important supporters of the organisation from Punjab was Pir Jamaat Ali Shah (1841-1951). In his Khutbat, he lent unequivocal support for the anti-Hindu, anti Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind stance of the Sunni Ulema. Here, I feel it important to furnish a brief biographical account of Pir Jamaat Ali Shah because of his preeminent role not only for propagating Ahl-e-Sunnat’s cause but his support for All India Muslim League’s bid for independence.

David Gilmratin in his book Empire and Islam states that he came from a line of Qadri Pirs in Sialkot district, but was active in the reformist Naqshbandia Order; his foremost religious concern was with respect to Tabligh. He undertook extensive tours of Punjab and much of India, stressing the importance of the performance of religious duties according to the Shariat and establishes mosques and madrasas in towns and villages. This greatly expanded his influence and led to contacts with powerful Muslims with wealth that he tapped for religious causes.

By the start of the 20th century, Pir Jamaat Ali Shah could claim an extensive following, both in rural Northern Punjab and among powerful Muslims elsewhere, which made his political influence comparable to that of any Chishti revival Pirs. He donated hundreds of rupees to the Madrasas Nomaniyya and Anjuman-e-Hizabul Ahnaf, so that these pure religious institutions might expand and prosper to serve Islam.

Reverting to Pir Jamaat Ali Shah’s Khutbat that he delivered at the All India Sunni Conference in 1925, he said that unity should not be sort with Hindus, or with free thinking Muslims. Unity already existed among the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamat, who represented a vast majority of Muslims in India. The task before them was to carry out internal reforms — to strengthen Iman, root out social evils like smoking and drinking, build more madrasas and continue the work of Tabligh.

Fast forwarding the evolution of All India Sunni Conference by 10 years, in 1935, the conference met in Badayun and for a third time in April 1946 at Banaras which was the last conference before Pakistan’s establishment. Usha Sanyal notes that the meeting was attended by 500 Sufi sheikhs, 7000 Ulema including Naeemud Din Muradabadi, Mustafa Raza Khan (Ahmed Raza Khan’s younger son), Zafar ud Din Behari and Syed Muhammad Asharafi Jeelani of Kachhochha.

Ironically, in that conference, Pakistan was tangentially mentioned and that too not in political terms. Barelvis as a domination started supporting the Pakistan Movement almost at the same time as some of Deobandi Ulema started espousing it. It must be clarified, however, that the number of Mashaikhs from Western Punjab and also from other provinces threw in their lot behind the All India Muslim League.

About the author:
*Tahir Kamran
is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

This article was published by New Age Islam in part one and part two.

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