The Renewal Movements

To understand the religious perspectives and distinctive features of renewal movements that arose in North India after 1857, one has to go back to the eighteenth century for numerous and diverse as these movements were, many saw themselves in one way or another as heirs and followers of the teachings of the famous 18th century theologian of Delhi, Shah Wali Ullah (may Allah be pleased with him) . The range of those who have claimed to be his intellectual followers indicates the eclecticism and originality of his thought. Among the ulema led renewal movements, the Deobandis and the Ahle Hadis advanced a particularly strong claim. At the end of the spectrum, modernist intellectuals such as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98), founder of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in 1875, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) acknowledged their debt to him.

What men like Sir Sayyid and Azad imbibed from Shah Wali Ullah’s thought has naturally been very different from that which the ‘ulema’ have incorporated. The former interpreted Shah Wali Ullah’s rejection of taqlid (legal conformism, following one of the major Sunni law schools) in favor of ijtihad (the exercise of individual reasoning or deduction) and tafliq (jurisprudential eclectism) for instance, in the light for their own modernist inclinations. The ‘ulema’, for the most part, took from Shah Wali Ullah different aspects of his legacy, such as a renewed emphasis on hadis scholarship. The Deobandis who were in Sufi terms primarily Chishtis but shared Shah Wali Ullah’s affiliation to the Naqshbandi order, also saw him and his successors as a ‘source of spiritual blessing’. Finally the ‘ulema’ followed Shah Wali Ullah’s lead in their efforts to provide moral guidance to the Muslim community.

The Tariqa-e Muhammadiyya, the early 19th century movement led by Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi, was closely linked to Shah Wali Ullah’s successors in Delhi and Sayyid Ahmad himself became a disciple of Shah Abdul Aziz in 1806, later, Muhammad Ismail (1781-1831) and Abdul Hayy (d.1828), two of Shah Wali Ullah’s descendants, became Sayyid Ahmad’s disciples and close associates. Aziz Ahmad describes the Tariqa-e Muhammadiyya in glowing terms as:

The practical culmination of the religio-political thought of Sha Wali Ullah….[a] movement of religious purification and political revolution...[The movement marker] the progress of his Shah Wali Ullah’s program from theory to practice, from life contemplative to active, from instruction of the elite to the emancipation of the masses, and from individual salvation to social organization. (Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment)

The program of 'religious purification' was spelt out in detail in Muhammad Ismail’s Taqwiyat al-Iman (Strengthening of Faith), written in Urdu in 1820s and dealt with the centrality of the concept of tauhid (Allah’s transcendental unity), and denounced popular devotional ritual at shrines and other beliefs or practices regarded as shirk (polytheistic). As the name ‘Tariqa-e Muhammadiyya’ indicates, its leaders took as their model the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). The term ‘tariqa’ (sufi way of path) did not mean, however, that this was a new sufi order; rather, the leaders preached faithfulness to the prophetic sunna.

The Deobandi renewal movement was centered on the Darul-Ulum in Deoband, Saharanpur district and was dominated in its early years by Maulanas Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi (1829-1905) and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905). These two men were united by a friendship that went back to the 1840s when they had both been private pupils at Delhi College and both became disciples of Hajji Imdad Ullah Makki (1817-99) in the Chishti order (and secondarily in the Qadiri, Naqshbandi, and other orders).Their common commitment to the reform of customary ritual practice, and to an emphasis on hadis scholarship in the Shah Wali Ullah tradition, further cemented the relationship.

In 1867, following the Revolt and the subsequent desolation of Delhi, both joined in founding the Darul-Ulum in Deoband. As muftis (jurisconsults, one who issues fatawa), the ‘Deobandi’ ulema attached great importance to the writing of fatawa as a means of providing moral guidance and instruction at the personal level. According to Barbara Metcalf, the fatawa reflected the Deobandi’s concern for religious reform in the following important ways:

The Fatawa in general reflected three underlying principles: to revive lapsed practices such as undertaking the hajj and permitting widows to remarry, second, to avoid fixed holidays like the maulud/milad-un-nabi [birth anniversary] of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the urs (death anniversary) of the saints… and the elaborate celebration of Id [a Shia] practice; and, third to prevent optional practices being made obligatory – for example, the reading of certain passages in supererogatory prayers or the distribution of sweets upon the completion of the reading of the Quran. On this foundation the reformers built, point by point, to convey to their followers the conviction that they conformed to the sunnat.

As had Shah Wali Ullah, the Deobandi ulema also integrated Sufism into their lives. In their role as Sufi guides and masters, they sought ‘to influence people to conform to the sunnat’, and emphasized aspects of sufi belief and practice that reinforced the reformist message they sent out. The Deobandi’s insistence that the prophetic sunna be the measure of approved belief and action indicates that, as for the Tariqa-e Muhammadiyya of the early 19th century, so for them the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) was the ultimate model and exemplar of human conduct. He was also the object of spiritual devotion, approached through the experience of discipleship to a personal Pir. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) intervened directly in the lives of the Deobandi ‘ulema’, appearing to the in dreams, giving guidance, and sanctioning their educational work at school.

The centrality of the prophetic model was expressed rather differently by the followers of the renewal movement of the Ahle Hadis, initially calling themselves ‘Muhammadi’ to emphasize the importance they attached to the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and give him peace) example, they later used the name Ahle Hadis in response to criticism that they were exalting their relationship with the Prophet over that with Allah. They believed that Muslims should act in accordance with the injunctions of the Quran and the prophetic sunna recorded in hadis, bypassing the opinions of the four Sunni law schools as embodied in fiqh (jurisprudential) scholarship. It is better to study the sources directly in light of the application of qiyas (analogy) and ijma (consensus), as the founders of the law schools had themselves once done, they argued, than to depend on commentaries, etc.

This approach to the religious tradition, as Barbara Metcalf notes, could hardly have come been advocated for the uneducated. The Ahle Hadis leadership consisted overwhelmingly of the well-to-do and the well-connected people who had the necessary learning to interpret the texts unaided. The Ahle Hadis preference for direct access to the sources of religious authority was also transparent in their disapproval for Sufism, believed to be a ‘danger to true religion’.

In this respect, as in their rejection of taqlid (authority of the Sunni law schools), they differed dramatically from the Deobandis who, like the majority of Indian Sunni Muslims, were followers of the Hanafi School. Yet these two groups to some extent had common intellectual roots in their affiliation to the Delhi reformists of the Shah Wali Ullahi family, in their disapproval of ritual practices such as Urs and other shrine-related practices. The Ahle Hadis also had friendly relations with certain Arab Muslims, which were followers of the reform movement of Muhammad ibn Abdal Wahhab of Arabia (Wahhabi’s).

In the 1870s and 1880s the Ahle Sunnat movement emerged strong under Imam Ahle Sunnat Ahmad Raza Khan Qadiri (may Allah sanctify his soul) leadership in opposition to the movements. Like the others, they also centered their vision of Islam on the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), and traced their intellectual heritage to the Shah Wali Ullahi tradition. Because the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat ‘ulema’ were actively engaged in a network of relationships with certain Sufi families, readers must turn to the intellectual developments in north Indian Sufi circles in the period of the Ahle Sunnat wa Jammat influence. Imam Ahmad Raza (may Allah sanctify his soul) had close ties with the Barkatiyya Sayyids of Marahra, Etah district, and with the 'Usmani' Pirs of Badayun, both considered themselves reformist.


Today the World of Islam is passing through a strange state of affairs. It has become a victim of confusion and disturbance, agitation and violence, affliction and harassment, all prevailing in the hearts, minds, houses, madrasa [religious schools], mosques, markets, streets, and there is no other place where peace and order rules and relieves.