Devotional Islam & Politics in British India - Ahmed Riza Khan and his Movement 1870 - 1920


  • Title: Devotional Islam & Politics in British India - Ahmed Riza Khan and his Movement 1870 - 1920
  • Author: By Usha Sanyal
  • Publisher: OUP Delhi, 1996
  • Reviewer: M A Sherif

    An appreciation of the historical roots and early development of the Barelwi movement - more formally known as the Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jama'at - is particularly appropriate for British Muslims. Barelwi associations and networks of ulema command a significant following amongst Muslims with links with the sub-continent. The Barelwi ulema were perhaps the most vocal during the 'Satanic Verses' protest in the early 1990s. It is estimated that about 50-60 per cent of mosques today are Barelwi-controlled. For example Philip Lewis's study of Bradford (in his book 'Islamic Britain' 1994) estimated that eleven of the 30 mosques in the City were Barelwi.

    Usha Sanyal provides a non-polemical and non-judgemental account of the emergence of the Ahl-e Sunnat movement in British India, and the instrumental role of Ahmed Riza Khan. The author conducted her research while affiliated with Columbia University. Muslim scholars in India offered her unfettered access to unpublished documents such as Maulana Ahmed Riza's letters. In Bareilli, the heartland of the Ahl-e Sunnat, she was able to refer to a private collection of Ahmed Reza's fatawa that was "the richest source of its kind in the subcontinent". Valuable source material was also provided by staff at the Manzar al-Islam, Bareilli and the librarian of the Raza Library, Rampur. The author places on record the help received from Barbara Metcalfe, the orientalist doyenne on the history of the Deoband. It is a reflection of Muslim openness and encouragement of scholarship that two non-Muslim women - Sanyal and Metcalfe - have been able to carry out such studies and field work.

    Maulana Ahmed Riza is a central figure of the Barelwi movement. He was born in Bareilli in Northern-Central India, or UP, in 1855 and died in 1921. The town of Bareilli was a centre of Muslim power in the UP. He lived his whole life in this town, except for two pilgrimages for Hajj. Usha Sanyal's work does not provide much biographical details, and focuses on his fatawa and the doctrinal differences between the Barelwi school and other Muslim reform movements of the period, in particular the Deobandis.

    Maulana Ahmed Riza's formative years were in post-Insurrection India - that is after the so-called Mutiny of 1857. There is no evidence that his family was involved in this event on either side. His grandfather was a faqih and member of the Qadiria order. His father, Maulana Naqi Ali was also a religious scholar who wrote in defence of the practice of milad (birth anniversary of the Prophet, peace be on him) and qiyam (standing up at a designated moment during the milad). Ahmed Riza undertook the traditional dars-e nizami course under his father's supervision and thereafter was largely self-taught, not proceeding for a formal course at a dar al-ulum.

    An important landmark in Ahmed Riza's early life was the assumption of responsibility from his father for writing fatawa in 1869, when he was fourteen. Fatwa-writing was to be his primary occupation for the rest of his life. Before going to his first Hajj in 1878, Maulana Ahmed Riza was accepted as a disciple of the Qadiri pir Shah Al-e Rasul. In 1900 Maulana Ahmed Riza was proclaimed a mujaddid (renewer) of the fourteenth century Hijri by like-minded ulema meeting in Patan. In 1904 he founded a school, the Madrasa Manzar al-Islam. The position of chief administrator of this school was later to become a hereditary one within the Riza family for the next four generations. Although the Ahl-e Sunnat failed to develop a dar al-ulum at Bareilly comparable to either the Deobandi institution or to the one established by the Nadwat al-Ulema in Lucknow, a number of madrasas were started in different parts of north India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This difference of emphasis on formal higher education is reflected in the religious ethos of the two groups: the Deobandi and Nadwa ulema today are heirs to an extensive corpus of seerah and tafsir literature. If the Deobandi approach to religion is analytical and 'rational'; the Barelwis draw on a more performative and 'ecstatic' strand of Islam in the sub-continent.

    > The Barelwis have an unrelenting antipathy to the Deobandis and Deobandi-aligned movements such as the Nadwat al-Ulema and the Tablighi Jamaat. This is notwithstanding their similarities. The Dar al Ulum in Deoband too was in the UP and also belonged to the Hanafi sunni school. Both observed the sharia and both were united in viewing British India as Dar al Islam and not Dar al Harb. However the Deoband's leading lights were former students of the Delhi madrassa started by Shah Waliullah and destroyed by the British in 1857, and themselves survivors from the battlefields of the Mutiny. The founding fathers of Deoband saw themselves as heirs to the Shah Waliullah tradition, in particular its emphasis on regeneration and cleansing of the Islamic social order. The doctrinal difference was that Barelwis encouraged visits to the tombs of saintly persons, while the Deobandis condemned such practices and the belief in the intercession of saints. There were also doctrinal differences on the nature of the prophethood.

    The difference of opinion on the issue of shrine-associated rituals provided a basis for the fatwa war in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1906, Ahmed Riza wrote 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. They were also termed wahhabis. The Deobandi's countered Ahmed Riza's fatwa with one of their own, testifying that the Deobandis were Hanafi sunnis.

    > Were there particular reasons for the appearance of such a fault line in Indian Muslim society at this period? Usha Sanyal refers to Sandria Freitag for an explanation:

    "… in late nineteenth century British India, religious and cultural activity carried out by Indians in public spaces (such as festival processions, Muharram mourning rituals, voluntary organisations, and the like) became an alternative world to that structured by the imperial regime [i.e. British rule of India, reviewer's note], providing legitimacy and recognition to a range of actors and values denied place in the imperial order."

    The author adds

    "... part of the explanation for the urgency and volume of anti-Deobandi writing on the part of the Ahl-e Sunnat 'ulama' (matched on the Deobandi side with equally fierce verbal and written attacks on the 'Barelwis') was not that they were really so different, but that they were so similar. It became important for both sides to play up their differences in order to grow organisationally, for if they seemed too similar their separate existence would make no sense".

    This analysis contends that the religious movements were necessarily confrontational because of a sense of institutional insecurity. While there is no doubt that Indian Muslim society in the late 19th & early 20th centuries responded to the colonial challenge by entering a frenetic phase of institutional-building, the author's analysis overlooks a number of other factors at work.

    For example, an interesting aspect is the role and influence of different sufi orders: the Barelwis's allegiance to the Qadiri order; the Deobandis to the Naqshbandis. The Tabligh Jamaat, the da'wa movement affiliated with Deoband and founded by Maulana Muhammad Ilays (1885 - 1944) also had, and has, Naqshbandi associations During the Mughal period, the Naqshbandi sought influence via the nobility, while the Qadiria and Chistia worked in a more populist manner. In the British period, the Deobandi school tended to be mainly urban, while Barelwi influence was mainly amongst the land-owning families and the rural areas. The Barelwi-Deobandi rivalry may be an expression of an older rivalry.

    Moreover ideological differences between the Barelwis and Deobandis are likely to have been exacerbated and exploited by the Raj, in keeping with a policy of divide and rule.

    The term 'wahhabi' was originally applied by the British to the armed struggle of Sayyid Ahmed Shahid, who had declared a jihad (initially against the oppressive Sikh rulers of the Punjab) and was killed by British forces in 1831. The British in India then labelled every subsequent movement for Muslim freedom and regeneration as a wahhabi conspiracy, including the disturbances in the Bengal forty years later!

    By the end of the century, in Ahmed Reza's time, it had become a convenient label to demonise Muslim groups and to conjure images of fanaticism and political unrest. The man behind its use may well have been the shrewd senior Indian Civil Servant, Sir James Meston, who was quick to stamp out dissidents and wage campaigns of disinformation. Caught up in the Kanpur Mosque incident in 1913, he did not accept a municipality had erred in demolishing a wudhu and toilets area to make way for a road, and instead accused Muslim protestors of 'pan-Islamism'. He also described Jauhar as "an unforgiving religious bigot" for his part in leading Muslim agitation in Kanpur. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Meston's protégé in the ICS, made an observation in 1906 that must reflect 'official' thinking':

    "It [Wahhabism] could justly be called the extreme evangelical school in Islam, and has many characteristics of evangelical schools and revivals elsewhere. The spirit in which it preached was that of hostility and an uncompromising attack on the existing order of things, and therefore the majority of Indian Muhammedans have always rejected it not only with scorn, but with something of bitter rancour."

    So in the coded loyalist language of the day, the term wahhabism applied to challenges to British hegemony in India. It bore little connection to the followers of Ibn Abd al Wahhab (died 1792). In any case these muwahidoon (unitarians) were a small raiding party in the Nejd at the turn of the nineteenth century with more immediate concerns than the possibility of exporting their revolution. Maulana Ahmed Riza's confrontational fatwa of 1906 unwittingly or wittingly adopted a vocabulary favoured by the British for the advancement of their own divide and rule policy.

    The Deobandis must have warranted official displeasure, perhaps because they did not seek government patronage for their institution. Deobandi ulema of the period also discouraged Muslims from using British-run courts. There is no evidence of any direct or substantive link between the Deobandi ulema and the muwahidoon of Nejd. In 1915, the Deobandi alim Maulana Mahmud Al-Hasan peformed Hajj, and in the so-called Silken Letters Conspiracy, he was accused by the British of seeking Ottoman aid for a Muslim insurrection in Afghanistan. The Deobandi contacts in the Arabian peninsular - if the Silken Letters allegation made by British Intelligence is true - were in the Hejaz with the Turks, and certainly not with the muwahidoon in Nejd.

    The Barelwi-Deobandi fatwa war can therefore be viewed against a backdrop of politically-inspired disinformation. In this scenario, a doctrinal schism - over issues such as shrine visits and prophetology - was exploited by the British to neutralise the emerging political threat posed by the Deobandis and entrap the Barelwis in the loyalist camp. A new dynamic took over, in which two groups sharing the same credo (Hanafi sunnism), could resort to political rather than doctrinal grounds to justify their separateness. For example, at the outbreak of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in the Hejaz in 1916, Jauhar and the Indian Khilafatists - including Deobandi and Nadwat ulema - branded Sherif Hussein as a traitor for accepting British arms and advisors.

    The Barelwis could not see the issue in such black-and-white terms, given Sherif Hussein's Hashemite ancestory and hence blood tie to the Prophet, peace be on him. Britain seized on this disagreement as a propaganda coup, because the loyalty of Indian Muslim troops deployed in the Somme, Gallipoli and other theatres of war was crucial to the Allied war effort. The real beneficiaries were of course not the Muslims. The Khilafatists were caught unawares when the Ottoman Caliph was rejected by the Turks themselves, and Barelwi expectations of a Hashemite king for the Hejaz were dashed when the British decided to back Abdul Aziz and his muwahidoon.

    When the Non-Cooperation Movement was launched in 1920 by an alliance of the Khilafatists and Gandhi, Maulana Ahmed Riza remained predictably aloof. He objected to collaboration with Hindus in preference to 'People of the Book'.

    Two principals of Deoband, Maulana Mahmud al-hassan and Husain Ahmed Madni, on the other hand, supported this anti-British movement, and the latter in particular emerged as a 'nationalist' Indian Muslim. Ahmed Riza's fatwa, Al-Mahajjat al-Mu'tamana, written in 1920, a year before he died, made a strong argument for the view that the Muslim leadership had lost its sense of balance between relations with the British, which it wanted to cut off completely, and those with the Hindus, which it wanted to be of the closest. The non-cooperators too based their position on the Qur'an, citing the verses in which Muslims are told that they might enter into friendly relations with non-Muslims so long as the latter were not warring against them (9:73).

    The British Muslim community today is faced with the challenge of establishing unity and consensus within its ranks. The early history of the Barelwi-Deobandi confrontation offers some insights to the factors that affect unity and disintegration in Muslim communities.

    London, May 2000
  •