Book Review: Syncretic Islam, Life and Times of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi by Anil Maheshwari & Richa Singh

At the outset a million thanks are due to Anil Maheshwari Sir, who gifted this lovely book to me which he has co-authored with Richa Singh. The book is a brilliant study of the life and socio-religious thought of one of the doyens of Muslim theology in the Indian subcontinent, Al’a Hazrat Ahmed Raza Khan, the founder of the Barelvi school of Islamic theology. The Barelvis constitute the majority amongst the Hanafi Sunni Muslims in the subcontinent.

My main takeaways from the book are;

1. Born on 14 June 1856, Al’a Hazrat was a precocious and gifted child who amazed people by speaking in chaste Arabic at the age of four, even though he had never learnt the language before. He could recite Naat at the age of six and by eight wrote a treatise on the obligatory beliefs and practices enjoined by Islam upon Muslims. He finished his education in the dars-i-Nizami curriculum at the age of 13 and by the age of 24 he had positioned himself as one of the foremost jurist in the country, receiving nearly 500 requests for juridical opinion every day, not only from India but from all over the Islamic world. When he was 22, he became the ‘murid’ of Shah Ale Rasul, (from whom he received both ‘ijazat’ and ‘khilafat’), a highly regarded Barkatiyya Sayyid Pir from the Qadri order of saints at Marehara.

2. Al’a Hazrat called himself Ashiq-e-Rasool (lover of the Prophet), he enunciated the main principles which define the Barelvi belief today, ie the primacy accorded to the Prophet, considering him as a Noor and one who possessed Ilm-e-Gaib and that he could be present simultaneously at several places. The hierarchical notion of respect was clear to him; Allah, the Prophet, the other Prophets, the Saints and finally the living Pirs. The Prophet and the Pirs possessed the power to intercede on behalf of the people. Such beliefs obviously raised the heckles of the Deobandis, Wahabis and Ahl-e-Hadith who argued that they compromised the unity of God, the fundamental principle of Islam.

3. I would however very humbly disagree with the authors on the title of the book. Whatever little I have read of Al’a Hazrat’s writings, I find that there was nothing ‘syncretic’ in his beliefs. This belief gets further reinforced by reading this book. Frankly he was both communal and sectarian. Not only was he opposed to the other sects of Islam like Shias, Ahmadiyas, Deobandis, Wahabis and Ahl-e-Hadith, whom he argued were not true Muslims, he was equally opposed to Hindus. He argued against any social or political collaboration/cooperation with the Hindus lest the Muslim way of life got corrupted under their influence. He opposed the Ali brothers and Maulana Azad when they cooperated with Gandhi. He also condemned those Muslims who argued that the Muslims should give up on cow slaughter in deference to the sensitivity of their Hindu brethren. It was probably under his influence that during the national movement we witnessed that the Barelvi Ulema and Pirs formed the bedrock of support for the Muslim League and Jinnah being at the forefront of the Pakistan movement, unlike the Deobandi Ulema many of whom opposed Partition.

4. He was socially conservative who supported the caste system amongst the Muslims (argued that upper caste Muslims, especially women, should not marry Indian lower caste converts) and supported Purdah for womenfolk. He had special regard for the Sayyed’s being the descendants of the Prophet, treating them with utmost reverence. In fact he could never say ‘no’ to a Sayyed for anything. He also opposed music in any form including Qawalli.

5. Many scholars in today’s world argue that Sufi Islam as represented by the Barelvi’s is a folkish variety of Islam, opposed to the Sharia and thus qualifies as syncretic and tolerant Islam. Nothing however can be further from truth. The reality is that even for the Barelvis ‘tassawuf’ (spiritualism) does not override the fundamental principles of the Shariat. As Sher Ali Tareen had shown in his excellent book, ‘Defending Muhammad in Modernity’ (which I had reviewed in my earlier post…/book-review…/ ), this understanding of Sufi Islam being anti Sharia and stressing ‘only’ on local traditions is incorrect. This idea was propounded by the American think tanks after 9/11 who had little understanding of Islamic theology. Surprisingly, even the Pakistanis caught on to the idea with Gen Musharraf supporting the Barelvis as the tolerant ones. How wrong he was is now being seen with the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer and the rise of Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Party, which was banned by the Pakistani govt day before yesterday.

All in all a great read. This book is a must read for anyone interested not only in the life of Al’a Hazrat but also Barelvi sect of Islam.

I need to thank Anil Sir again for the gift. I do need to get his signature on the book when we meet though!


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