In terms of religious authority in Imam Ahmad Raza’s (may Alla be pleased with him) life, particular in reference to the role of a ‘Pir’, it is clear that he exercised considerable personal religious authority over his followers, as did his Pir and other saintly scholarly men over him. What were the possible sources of this authority?
Simon Digby dealt with this question in relation to the Chishti sheikhs in the Sultanate period (12th and 13th centuries) [Digby, ‘The Sufi Shaikh as a source of Authority’ in Marc Gaborieau, Islam and Society in South Asia.]
Digby looked at a range of personal attributes, which, as sources of prestige, enhanced the reputation, and standing of a Pir (Murshid) at that time. These could include ‘learning and accepted view in conjunction with descent (or ancestry) from the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and. …Rank as a Sufi Shaikh’, ‘poetic sensibility’, and ‘the ability to construct, extend and organize a Khanqah (Sufi hospice); to feed, accommodate and attend to the material and spiritual needs of disciples and often numerous dependants; and to accommodate travelers according to Muslim precept and the expectations of hospitality. Most of these personal attributes (qualities) [and Digby mentions others], with the exception of Sayyid ancestry, accurately describe Imam Ahmad Raza as Pir. [Imam Ahmad Raza's qualifications]
[Sayyid - descendant of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) through his daughter Fatima (Radhiya Allah ta'ala anhu), his cousin and son-in-law Hazrat Imam Ali (may Allah ennoble his face) ancestry and their sons Imam Hassan (Radhiya Allah ta'ala anhu) and Imam Hussain (Radhiya Allah ta'ala anhu), a group highly respected by the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movement]
Maulana Zafaruddin Bihari, Imam Ahmad Raza’s biographer, itemized his qualities in the Hayat-e Alahazrat, including amongst others, Islamic equality, kindness to the poor, generosity towards others, depth of learning, and vigilance in the observance of din (faith, opposite of ‘dunya’).
However these values applied in the particular context of Imam Ahmad Raza’s (may Allah be pleased with him) vision of right belief and proper conduct. Zafaruddin, his biographer sees no contradiction between ‘Islamic equality’ by which he mean that Imam Ahmad Raza treated people of low social status at par with those of high social standing, and he had a recognizable and well-known respect for Sayyids, whom he treated with a difference accorded to no one else on account of their lineage to the noble and beloved Prophet Muhammad (sallal laahu alaihi wasallam).
One small example of this was that ‘Sayyids’ were given twice as much food at a Milad-un-Nabi (sallal laahu alaihi wasallam) as other guests at his household. Likewise his refusal to have anything to do with Shia’s (Shi’is) is interpreted as a sign of his uncompromising attitude in matters related to ‘mazhab’. Maulana Zafauddin comments that people ignorant of din and sharia mistook Imam Ahmad Raza’s (radi Allahu anhu) ‘mazhabi’ firmness for rudeness or harshness. Wahhabis of various description and ‘flavors’, whose views he devoted a lifetime rebutting, were also understood to be outside the circle of those whom he extended a courteous welcome. In all that Imam Ahmad Raza (radi Allahu anhu) said, lived and did, he drew a clear line between right and wrong belief and action. This unambiguity, backed by his unquestioned erudition (sophistication, learning, scholar), was perhaps his greatest source of prestige and authority in his follower’s eyes. [Katherine P. Ewing, "Ambiguity and Shariat – A Perspective on the Problem of Moral Principles in Tension."