Many in South Asia are more familiar with the term Barelwi than Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat and Barelwis are to be found today in Pakistan, India as well as Britain. The term Barelwi is, however, rejected by those who identify themselves with the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movement, and has therefore not been used. It may be useful to clarify at the outset what is at issue in this particular disagreement over nomenclature.
Imam Ahmad Raza Khans (may Allah be pleased with him) followers were called Barelwi simply because he was resident of the town Bareilly, in Rohilkhand (western portion of present-day Uttar Pradesh). It is common practice for Muslims in South Asia (as elsewhere) to identify themselves by place-name, or by profession, association with a Sufi Tariqa (example, Qadiri, Chishti, etc), or family lineage (such as Qureshi or Usmani), so as to distinguish between individuals with the same personal name. As Alahazrat Imam Raza (may Allah be pleased with him) was the central figure around which the movement sharing his views took shape, the name Barelwi has come to stand not simple for him but for the Ahle Sunna wa Jamaat movement itself.
The term 'central figure' is deliberately used rather than 'founder' to describe Imam Ahmad Razas (may Allah be pleased with him) relationship to the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movement, because followers consider the term misplaced. It is their belief that Imam Ahmad Raza (may Allah be pleased with him) was reviving the Prophetic Sunna (path, way) as embodied in the Holy Quran and the literature of the traditions (hadis). Because many Muslims had become forgetful (ghafil) of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) message and had fallen away from it, Imam Ahmad Raza had assumed the task of 'reminding' them and bringing them back to the ideal right path.
The Ahle Sunnat looked at this great saint, scholar and alim (scholar of Islamic jurisprudence and theology, on whom rests the interpretation of the sharia) as the Mujaddid or renewer of faith, a term with specific meaning in Islamic tradition. Since the purpose was to return to the Prophetic way and certainly not to found and form a 'new group', they simple called themselves the 'Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat' or people of the [Prophets] way, and the majority communities. Very simply stated, they regarded themselves as 'Sunnis', part of the worldwide Sunni community.
Thus it is not correct to call Imam Ahmad Razas (may Allah be pleased with him) followers 'Barelwis' because the movements central figure was the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), thus the term 'Ahle Sunnat was Jamaat' is more appropriate, and also to understand the internal logic of the positions taken by Imam Raza Khan (may Allah be pleased with him) on various issues as the consequence of his Prophetic-centered vision.
Dr. Ushsa Sanyal however comments that on the negative side, however, because the term 'Sunni' has a very wide application (standing in opposition to the other Major Muslim category of Shii and other sects), such usage has the disadvantage about possible confusion about its denotation. Followers of the movement use the term in reference to themselves and to those they consider faithful to the Prophetic sunna that is to say, those whose vision of Islam coincides with their own.
Because the self-proclaimed goal of the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat and several other 'ulema' led movements of this period was tajdid (renewal), the most appropriate way to describe them would seem to be as renewal movements. The term 'reform' (islah in Arabic and Urdu) is also used in literature rather in the context of the desire to improve worldly conditions of some sort, such as education or living standards, rather than to effect religious change. [For research the word 'reform' is used and is synonymous with 'renewal', as it is close in meaning to the intent of the word 'tajdid'.]
So the question remains, who were the Ahle Sunna wa Jamaat and how did they relate to the British colonial framework, and to the other renewal movements of the 19th century. To the extent that the Ahle Sunnat has been subject to scholarly investigation thus far, a certain amount of confusion exists about who they were and the social background they came from. They are generally said to have been influential in the rural areas (unlike the Deobandis, who said to have been urban-based). Hamza Alavi, for instance, writes:
Historically, the Deobandis have tended to be mainly urban and from middle and upper strata of society whereas Barelvi influence has been mainly in rural areas, with a populist appeal . Traditionally Barelwi influence has been weaker in the UP than in the Panjab and to some degree in Sind. On the other hand the main base of Deobandis was in UP especially among urban Muslims [Hamza Alavi, Pakistan and Islam: Ethnicity and Ideology]
Usha Sanyal states that it seems clear that the 'researcher' Hamza Alavi is talking of rural Sufi Pirs rather than the ulema who called themselves the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat in the late 19th century. While 'ulema' such as Imam Ahmad Raza (may Allah be pleased with him) were sympathetically inclined towards ritual worship centered around the tomb-shrine complexes (Khanqahs and dargahs) of Sufi Pirs, it is not the case, as suggested by Alavis account, that all Sufi Pirs necessarily regarded themselves as, or were regarded by Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat ulema as, members of the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movement. Only some self-consciously 'reformist' Pirs of the late 19th century and early 20th century was actively involved in the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movement as leaders.
Failure to make these internal distinctions creates the impression that all rural shrines were Barelwi in orientation and that the movement was therefore made up of a large, undifferentiated mass of Muslim peasants. In this view anyone not a Deobandi or a Nadwi or an Ahle Hadis (or a member of some other distinct movement) appears (by default) to be Barelwi. This is not far from the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaats claim that as 'Sunnis', they represent all South Asian (and other Sunni) Muslims, other than a small number of 'deviant' groups such as the Deobandi, Nadwi, and others, but it would be misleading nonetheless.
Usha Sanyal consequently confined her studies to the leadership of the movement centered on Imam Ahmad Raza (may Allah be pleased with him). Family histories and biographical dictionaries (tazkiras) of the ulema indicate that the core Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat leadership in the late 19th century consisted of ulema and Pirs from well-to-do, frequently landowning families, living in small agricultural towns (qasbas), or, as in Imam Ahmad Razas case, in larger urban centers. In some way another, they all had a very close intellectual relationship with Imam Ahle Sunnat Alahazrat Ahmad Raza Khan (may Allah be pleased with him).
Her research confirms the crucial role of the written and printed word played in the crystallization of the Ahle Sunnat movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Imam Ahmad Rizas writings, chiefly fatawa/fatwa (legal jurisprudential rulings), said to number a thousand, were made available to followers in a variety of formats: sometimes hand written, they were also published in newspapers, pamphlets (risalas), and as book treatises. They constituted a good proportion of the literature published by the printing houses of the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat in Bareilly and elsewhere in North India. Through the dissemination of these writings, other Muslims in far-flung places of British India were able to read Ahmad Razas judgments on a variety of issues. Those who agreed with him were able to signal their support by participating in a range of collective activities and thus the movement was gradually transformed from a local one to a one with following in many parts of South Asia.
In the late 19th century early 20th centuries, a whole range of institutional structures furthered the ongoing process of community formation among the Ahle Sunnat which included seminaries (madrasa), periodic journals, and oral debates with ulema of competing movements. Voluntary organizations followed, focusing on specific causes such as aid for the Ottoman Turkish Muslims in the early decades of the 20th century.
Like Imam Ahmad Razas published writings, these activities were instrumental in creating a sense of community between members, and in enlarging the audience, thus from a relatively small circle of religious scholars, this audience fanned out to include a larger educated Muslim public.
Controversy and contestation among the ulema, in verbal from and in print, was particularly strong when it came to Ahle Sunnat ritual practices which included the observance of death anniversaries (urs) of dead Sufi preceptors (Pirs) venerated by members of the movement. In particular, veneration of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and occasions such as his birth (milad-un-nabi), were definitive to the self-image of the movement.
The intercessionary ritual practices of the Ahle Sunnat movement appeared to its opponents to invalidate its claims to being reformist, rendering it backward, and ignorant. This continues to be the image of the Ahle Sunnat movement among adversarial groups in the subcontinent today. To the Ahle Sunnat themselves, however, the following of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) path (sunna) with the help of saintly intermediaries, provided a template for behavior in the modern world. Shrine-centered devotion, carried out in the spirit of reform, was a conscious choice. 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.
The historical context of British Indian colonialism was crucial to the emergence of the Ahle Sunnat movement, as were events in the wider Muslim world which shaped this and other Sunni Muslim movements in the subcontinent. The annual pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), sometimes followed by extended periods of study in centers of learning such as the al-Azhar in Cairo, was the most important avenue for the exchange of ideas between Muslims of different parts of the world. Imam Ahmad Raza (may Allah be pleased with him) performed the hajj twice, at a twenty-year interval, and both occasions were important for his stature as the leading alim of the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movement. Moreover he corresponded with several ulema in Mecca and Medina over the years, sometimes to ask their opinion on controversial issues at home, but sometimes also to offer an opinion of his own. The ulema of other contemporary movements in British India likewise had sustained contacts with the Haramain and such contacts were powerful source of validation in contestations amongst the Indian ulema.
The north Indian ulema were consequently aware of intellectual currents in other parts of the Muslim world, and, to varying degrees was influenced by them. In the 18th and 19th centuries, participation in study circles at Mecca may have acquainted some Indian ulems with the reformist ideologies of the Arabian Muwahhidun movement, popularly known as Wahahbi.
The Khilafat movement of the early 20th century, in which a number of ulema played leading roles, was notable in this regard. In the late 19th century Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), the Iranian scholar and activist, had traveled around the Muslim world (visiting India in 1850s and 1860s) exhorting Muslims of all nationalities to unite under the spiritual leadership of the Turkish sultan in order to free themselves of Western colonial rule. The enduring hatred of the British, which Afghani imbibed during his Indian stay, led him to attack Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) as a tool of British imperialism. In the Khilafat movement of 1919-22, members of the ulema, influenced by Afghanis pan-Islamic message, entered into alliance with the Indian National Congress. While M.K. Gandhi, representing the Congress leadership, supported the ulema in their demand for British recognition of the Turkish sultan as Caliph, the ulema in turn lent their support to the Indian nationalist struggle against British rule.
These decisions were made after extensive debate in meetings held by Jamiyyat al-Ulema e-Hind, the political party formed by several Indian ulema in 1919. Imam Ahmad Raza (may Allah be pleased with him), then a well-known public figure in ulema circles a leader of the Ahle Sunnat wa Jamaat movements refused to support the Khilafat movement or the Pan-Islamic idea.
Emerging in this political context, the Ahl-e Sunnat fashioned a movement centered on one 'alim in particular', Imam Ahamd Raza Khan (may Allah be pleased with him). The litany of titles with which his biographer, Zafaruddin Bihari, introduced Ahmad Raza in his 1938 Hayat-e Alahazrat illustrates the reverence (respect) in which his followers held him:
[His] exalted presence, Imam of the Ahle Sunnat, Renewer of the present [fourteenth Hijri] century, Strengthener....(mu'aiyid) of the pure millat (community of believers), Maulana Maulawi Hajji, Reciter (qari) and Memorizer (hafiz) of the Quran, Shah Muhammad Ahmad Riza Khan Sahib Qadiri Barkati Barelwi, May his grave be hallowed....
Although the Ahl-e Sunnat self-perception denies the role of founder to Imam Ahmad Raza Khan Qadiri (may Allah be pleased with him), the sources make clear the centrality of his life and work in the formulation by the Ahl-e Sunnat of a particular interpretation of the din [the faith, opposite of dunya, 'the world'] - seen within the Ahl-e Sunnat movement as a restatement of an original, pristine 'Islam' going back to the beloved Prophet Muhammad's (Allah bless him and give him peace) day.