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!


Book Review: Instant History, A Memoir by Anil Maheshwari

In the introduction of this book MJ Akbar Sahab writes, ‘Every journalist has two sets of stories. They send the boring ones for publications in their newspapers in return for the pay cheque. The interesting ones they reserve for their memoirs that they will write after the powers have stopped paying salary, free from the inhibitions of propriety and proprietor.’ That in my view sums up this book by Anil Maheshwari Sir really well. I picked it up and could not let go of it till I had finished it, such a wonderful read this book is!

My main takeaways;

1. At the outset since I had taken issues with Anil sir about the title of his earlier book, let me commend him for the title here. It indeed is ‘Instant History’! The title gels perfectly with the contents of the book. It is said that journalists write the first draft of history and you do find enough references to oral and journalistic history in this book. Some very important and interesting examples for me were the confirmation that I got about the difference of opinion between Chacha Nehru and General Thimmaya, leading to the latter submitting his resignation as the army Chief. Nehru of course prevailed upon him to withdraw his resignation. He had resigned because he found Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon interfering too much in day to day military affairs. I have come across many who say this never happened and is a figment of the imagination of the opponents of Nehru ji, but Anil Sir details how the information got leaked in the press then and how Nehru ji tried to suppress it.

The chapter on Kashmir makes for some real interesting read wherein the oral history of Kashmir finds a reference with many still believing that Nehru and Sheikh Sahab stopped the Indian army from pushing ahead in Kashmir in 1947, lest the Bakarwals and the nomads become dominant in Kashmir to the detriment of Muslims of the valley.

2. Another topic which really caught my attention was the history of the invocation of contempt of court against the press. Anil Sir delves into the issue in some depth analysing it’s historicity right from the British days. He also highlights the remarkable courage shown by editors who preferred to face incarceration rather than letting down their reporters, Mahatma’s son being one such editor.

3. The book is a must read for aspiring journalists. It highlights the good and bad in the profession, stressing on the qualities needed to succeed in the profession. Some of these I would say are need for planning and implementing those plans, maintaining good relation with sources as well as the ability to think on ones feet. The book clearly brings out the empathy which Anil Sir feels for his acquaintances and sources. MJ Akbar rightly says in the introduction,’ His (Anil Sir’s) writing has the comfortable confidence of a writer who knows that journalism is an exchange of information between fallible human beings. This is a book of smiles, not scorn.’

Here is an example of thinking on his feet; Don cum politician DP Yadav’s sister and her husband are fired upon by the rival gang in which the latter loses his life and the former is critically wounded. Anil Sir is there to do a story and the hospital is teeming with Mr. Yadav’s henchmen who are most worried that Mr Yadav is distraught and is refusing to eat or drink. Anil Sir walks into his room, holds him by his hand and asks him to collect himself for his sister and his family. His concern and empathy has an impact on Mr. Yadav who not only eats something, but let’s Anil Sir photograph his injured sister for his story.

Similarly an anecdote about planning a story; In 1953, when Raj Kanwar, a rookie sub editor of Indian express wanted to get an interview with Sir Arnold J Toynbee, the famous historian, he realised that he will not get much time with him. So not only did he write his questions down but also researched about Tonybee in such great detail, that he wrote the answers to those questions himself. On meeting Tonybee, who was coming out of the house where he was staying to board his car for the airport, he introduced himself and asked for an interview. Tonybee said he had no time to spare, so he gave him the copy of the question as well as the answers he had written explaining that he had done both and to kindly check if these indeed would be his answers. So impressed was Tonybee with the answers that he said, yes, that they indeed would have been his answers, signed on the paper and said that Mr. Kanwar could use them as his interview.

4. Written in the style of ‘kissagoi’ the book has been arranged thematically and deals with stories related to journalism and journalists (and what interesting stories they are) but also with politicians, state institutions like bureaucracy, police, courts etc. – what ails them and what gives us hope. All these stories make for a wonderful read!

An unputdownable book! Buy it and read it. You will surely enjoy it.

Book Review: Ramayana Revisited, An epic through a legal prism by Anil Maheshwari and Vipul Maheshwari

Anil Maheshwari  Sir and Vipul Maheshwari Sir write an excellent book where they seek to interpret Ramayana subjecting the events, characters and their actions in the framework of modern jurisprudence i.e. with reference to precepts of law as we understand today. However, during this interpretation the soul and spirit of the epic is kept intact.

My main takeaways;

1. While concepts like natural justice, Roman Jurisprudence, Common Law, Rule of Law, Social Contract etc. are all touted as modern concepts and of western origin, it should be noted that many religious usages, customs, traditions of India carried the essence of these laws if not their legalese. For example, In the Ramayana the king has an obligation to uphold Dharma. He is responsible for the welfare of his subjects. In case he fails to protect his subjects, he should be ‘executed like a wild dog.’ This provides evidence to the fact that theories like ‘social contract’ was a part of the custom/traditions of ancient India.

2. While we might think of jurisprudence as a modern concept, we need to understand that all societies since time immemorial had developed rules, usages, customs, traditions etc to regulate human activity. Thus law as a concept is evolutionary and continues to grow and refine itself to fulfill the the needs of the changing society. Laws in their evolution are not informed only by ‘rationality’ and ‘logic’ but also myths, practices and customs. Even today’s formal laws have many fictions such as juristic personality of corporations.

3. Though the book reinterprets Ramayana through modern juridical concepts like IPC, it also clearly brings out the relationship that exists between modern laws and the ancient Indian tradition of Dharma. Dharm is the highest ideal of human life and provides the foundation on which the Indian civilizational ethos rests. In India, jurisprudence is fundamentally designed to further the concept of Dharma. No wonder the ध्येयवाक्य of the Supreme Court of India is, “यतो धर्मः ततो जयः” (“जहाँ धर्म है वहाँ जय (जीत) है”. The Hindi translation of the word secular in the Preamble of India has been written as ‘पंथनिरपेक्ष’ and not धर्मनिरपेक्ष as many people erroneously point out. Indian as a civilizational state cannot be ‘Dharm-nirpeksh’. Unlike the Abrahamic religious traditions, in the Indian Sanatani concept, the word ‘dharm’ does not mean religion. In fact there is no corresponding word for religion in either Sanskrit or Hindi. The word “dharm’ rooted in ‘dhri’ (based upon) is defined as “धार्यते इति धर्म:” (अर्थात जो धारण किया जाये वह धर्म हैं). It is the basis of all things, including human actions.The Manusmriti defines Dharma as, “धृति: क्षमा दमोअस्तेयं शोचं इन्द्रिय निग्रह:
धीर्विद्या सत्यमक्रोधो दशकं धर्म लक्षणं”
which means (धृति (धैर्य), क्षमा (दूसरों के द्वारा किये गये अपराध को माफ कर देना, क्षमाशील होना), दम (अपनी वासनाओं पर नियन्त्रण करना), अस्तेय (चोरी न करना), शौच (अन्तरङ्ग और बाह्य शुचिता), इन्द्रिय निग्रहः (इन्द्रियों को वश मे रखना), धी (बुद्धिमत्ता का प्रयोग), विद्या (अधिक से अधिक ज्ञान की पिपासा), सत्य (मन वचन कर्म से सत्य का पालन) और अक्रोध (क्रोध न करना) ; ये दस धर्म के लक्षण हैं।). At other place it defines Dharma as, “आचार:परमो धर्म” (सदाचार परम धर्म हैं).

The book was basically nostalgia redux for me. Its simplistic and easy to read writing style took me back to my childhood days, where our elders recounted these stories in the same simplistic style to us. The references to various provisions of IPC, deposition by the characters of Ramayana and by ‘defense’ lawyers were icing in the cake.
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