‘Wahhabism’ in India

The term ‘Wahhabi’ is a deeply contested and much debated one. It is derived from the name of the eighteenth century Najdi Hanbali Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, although, interestingly enough, Abdul Wahhab was not his name but that of his father. That itself clearly indicates that the term is rather loosely used and is often employed to refer to different, sometimes mutually contradictory phenomena. It is instructive to note here that the term is not used by any Muslim group to define itself. Rather, it is used in a derogatory sense by critics of some Muslim groups that uphold a different, indeed opposed, understanding of Islam from theirs. Incidentally, not all these forms of Islam are associated with the particular vision of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab. More…

In the Indian context, broadly speaking, the term ‘Wahhabi’ is loosely used by a group of Muslims known as the Barelvis and other defendants of the cults of the shrines of the Sufi saints, to refer to two other groups who also claim to be Sunnis: the Deobandis and the Ahl-e Hadith (henceforth AH). Many Deobandis also refer to the AH as Wahhabis. It is thus important to clarify how both the Barelvis and the Deobandis respectively use the term and what they mean by it.

The Barelvis are a group among the Indian Sunnis who are defined by their association with the thought and teachings of the nineteenth century Ahmad Reza Khan of Bareilly, a town in north India. He upheld a certain reformed sort of Sufism while at the same time also defending many practices associated with the shrines of the Sufis, many of which were critiqued by other Muslim groups as biddat (‘innovation’ ) and shirk (polytheism) , and also as being of Hindu or Shia origin. He also defended certain popular practices such as the observation of the birth and death anniversaries of the Prophet and the Sufi saints, the belief in the intercessionary powers of the Prophet and the buried Sufi saints, and the belief that the Prophet was present in all places and that he had knowledge of the Unseen.

Along with the Barelvis, or followers of Ahmad Reza Khan, are many other Indian Sunni Muslims who also adhere to similar practices and beliefs although not identifying themselves as Barelvis. For both of these groups, who, together might account for a majority of the Indian Sunni Muslim population, the Sunni critics of their practices and beliefs are very loosely and erroneously branded as ‘Wahhabis’, be they Deobandis, AH or those who subscribe to the ideology of the Jamaat-e Islami, despite the fact that these three groups have serious differences with each other on theological grounds.

For many Indian Deobandis, it is the AH who are ‘Wahhabis’, owing to the latter’s opposition to even reformed sort of Sufism in line with the shariah that the Deobandis uphold and to the tradition of taqlid or ‘imitation’ of one of the four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence (in the case of the Deobandis it is the Hanafi school).
What unites the Barelvi, popular Sufi and Deobandi definitions of the term ‘Wahhabi’ is the ‘Wahhabi’s’ total opposition to anything that is seen as ‘innovation’ , including Sufism and taqlid, coupled with a sternly literalist approach to the corpus of Sunni Hadith or traditions attributed to the Prophet.

The term ‘Ahl-e Hadith’ literally means ‘people of the Hadith’, signifying the claim of this group to be the sole Muslim group that strictly abides by the Prophet’s Sunnah or practice, as reflected in the Hadith tradition. AH writings often invoke what is said to be a Prophetic tradition that the Muslims would be divided into 73 sects, of which 72 would go to hell, and only one, the ‘saved sect’ ( firqa al-najiyya) would be saved. They claim to be that one sect, implying therefore, that all the other Muslim sects, whether Shia or Sunni, have gone astray from the Prophet’s path and hence would merit Divine punishment. In addition to the term Ahl-e Hadith, they refer to themselves, as do the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, as Salafis, or those who follow the Salaf-e Saleh or the ‘pious predecessors’ and as Muwahhidun or ‘monotheists’ , implying, therefore, that the other Muslim groups are not among these.

Key Beliefs of the Ahl-e Hadith

In contrast to many Sufis, the AH’s understanding of monotheism borders on anthropomorphism, being based on a strictly literalist reading of the Quran, reflecting the group’s fierce opposition to tawil or allegorical interpretation. It regards the Sufi belief in the intercessionary powers of the Prophet and the Sufi saints (wasilah, zariya) as akin to polytheism, arguing that these figures were mere mortals who are no longer alive. In contrast, Sufis believe that the Prophets and the saints are still alive, although not physically present in the world, and that they can be approached to communicate God on one’s behalf.

A related point is the stern opposition of the AH to the popular customs associated with the shrines of the Sufi saints, which number in their thousands in India, and which attract people from different religious backgrounds, and not just Muslims alone. These practices are regarded as promoting polytheism. The AH insists that the buried saints are not alive and cannot hear one’s requests, and that, hence, the cults and practices associated with their shrines are meaningless. Furthermore, it argues that the practice of building tombs is itself un-Islamic, and although because they are a small minority in India they cannot demolish the tombs of the Sufis, as the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ have done, there is no doubt that this is something that they would fully support.

The rich tradition of Sufism in India, as many scholars have noted, was responsible, in large measure, for the peaceful spread of Islam in the region. The Sufis spoke of God’s love for all His creatures, insisting that the shariah could not be separated from the tariqa or mystical path. Their love and concern for the poor and downtrodden attracted many Hindus to accept Islam. Many of these were from the ‘low’ castes, who were crushed under the tyranny of the so-called ‘high’ caste Hindus. In order to make their message more easily understandable to the masses among whom they worked and preached, they adopted many local practices, motifs and idioms, and even spoke and wrote in the local languages, in contrast to both the court ulema, who wrote and spoke in Arabic and Persian, and to the Hindu Brahmins, who disdained the local dialects in favour of Sanskrit. Some Sufis were among the pioneers of literature in various local Indian languages. Their shrines attracted, as they continue to do today, large numbers of non-Muslims, too, who considered them as attained souls and close to God.

This rich pluralist popular Indian Sufi tradition is dismissed by the AH as largely ‘un-Islamic’ . Much of it is considered to be what it calls biddat or ‘innovation’ , branded as borrowings from the Hindus, or, as in the case of mourning rituals for Imam Hussain during the month of Muharram, from the Shias, whom it considers as heretics. It disregards the claim, made by defendants of the cults of the Sufis, that many, though not all, of these practices can be regarded as ‘praiseworthy innovations’ ( biddat-e hasana), and argues that the shariah does not recognize such a category. Admittedly, some of these practices are indeed exploitative (such, as, for instance, donating money to shrines which is often used by a class of professional shrine-keepers as a source of livelihood), and some of the associated beliefs may be regarded as superstitious and indeed un-Islamic, a point that numerous Sufis will themselves make. But to consider every local customary practice as a biddat which will lead to hell, as the AH does, is itself said to be un-Islamic by those who defend some of these practices.

In line with its opposition to what it sees as biddat, the AH advocates a very sternly literalist approach to what it sees as its opposite, the Sunnah. In the process, it advocates numerous Arab cultural norms and practices to replace their local equivalents, thus tending to equate Arab culture with Islamic culture, and, in this process, undermining, as critics see it, the universality of Islam which transcends local cultural forms. This reflects the AH’s opposition to ijma or analogical reasoning, which enabled Islamic jurisprudence to accommodate many local practices and institutions in the form of what were termed as urf or adat.

In other respects, too, the AH is distinct from many other Muslim groups, both Sunni and Shia. As mentioned earlier, it opposes the practice of taqlid, and even goes to the extent of arguing that this, too, is a form of idolatry and polytheism. This explains why the AH’s critics also refer to the group as ghair muqallid (literally, ‘those who deny taqlid). Furthermore, as noted above, its sternly literalist understanding of Hadith differs is significant respect from that of the muqallids, whom it accuses of preferring the views of the Imams of their own respective schools of fiqh over confirmed Hadith reports, a charge that the muqallids deny. In response, muqallid critics of the AH, in India manily Hanafi Sunnis, argue that AH lack proper knowledge of the ‘principles of Hadith’ ( usul al-hadith), the ‘principles of fiqh’ (usul al-fiqh) and the skills of distinguishing what are considered to be ‘abrogated’ (mansukh) Hadith reports. They also accuse them of being selective in their use of what are considered genuine ( sahih) Hadith reports.

Interestingly, the same allegations are leveled by the AH against their Hanafi detractors. A marked aspect of AH propaganda, as is clearly evident from their literature, is their stress on external (zahiri) markers of identity, which they use both to critique the claims of other Muslim groups as well as to stress their own claims to being the sole ‘saved sect’. This leaves them open to the accusation of being hardened ‘externalists’ , zahir parast (literally, ‘worshippers of external [rules]‘) and of mistaking the letter for the spirit of the shariah.

These external attributes also serve the crucial function of creating a separate AH community identity, which is further reinforced by the fact that the AH, all other Sunni and Shia sects in India, have their own separate mosques and madrasas. AH literature is replete with intricate arguments about detailed aspects of Islamic ritual, on which they differ from the other Muslim sects, marshalling and selectively using or interpreting Hadith traditions to back their claim that their particular way of performing these rituals is the only correct way, or the way of the Prophet, implying, thereby, that the practice of the other Muslim sects is wrong, and that, therefore, their prayers and worship and not fully in accordance with God’s Will. Thus, for instance, they make much of their claim that their practice of placing their hands across the chest, rather than around the stomach, as the Hanafis do, reciting the word ameen aloud, rather than silently, and so on, are precisely what the Prophet used to do. They then use this to claim that they alone recite the namaz in the right fashion, employing this to bolster their sense of separate identity and to argue that they alone are the only group to follow the Prophet’s practice. Their denunciation of other Muslim groups, both Sunni and Shia, is often much more vitriolic, and sometimes these groups are explicitly accused of being apostates, heretics and even ‘enemies of Islam’. In turn, many of these groups level the same sort of accusations against the AH, some going to the extent of branmding the AH, and the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ in general, as creations of the British and as stooges for the decadent Saudi monarchy and for American imperialism. AH propaganda and the counter-responses that it has invited have thus emerged as a major challenge to intra-Muslim unity, dialogue and ecumenism in India.

The Origins and Development of Indian ‘Wahhabism’

The AH claims that they represent the tradition of the companions of the Prophet and to have been present in India since India’s earliest contact with Islam, and that, therefore, they are not a new sect. However, their Muslim critics deny their claims of Islamic ‘authenticity’. As a broader movement, as opposed to individual scholars who championed views similar to those of today’s AH, the roots of Indian ‘Wahhabism’ go back to the Islamic reformism championed by the late eighteenth century Shah Waliullah of Delhi, who most other Indian Sunni groups, including the Barelvis and Deobandis, also consider as a major source of inspiration. It was Shah Waliullah’s grandson, Shah Ismail, who actually departed from his grandfather’ s tradition to most forcefully champion numerous views that represented a radical break from popular Indian Hanafi Muslim tradition and which today’s AH champions, most particularly in his denunciation of the cults of the Sufi saints and their shrines. His major book Taqwiat ul-Iman reads like an Urdu version of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab’s Kitab ul-Tauhid, and the question of whether he was directly or indirectly influenced by the latter is still hotly debated by historians.

Shah Ismail gathered a large band of disciples and then headed for the Pushtun areas in what is today Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, where he established what he described as an Islamic state, claiming to be amir ul-mumineen or the ‘leader of the faithful’. However, he failed to gain much local popularity, probably because he was an outsider and because he sought to forcibly impose the shariah and extirpate popular Pushtun customary practices. He and his army led what they styled as a jihad against the Sikhs, who, at that time, where ruling the Punjab, and under whose rule Muslims were subjected to considerable oppression. In 1831, Shah Ismail and his men were routed by the Sikhs at Balakot and the short-lived ‘Mujahdeen’ state was crushed.

Following this defeat, the followers of Shah Ismail who remained traveled to various parts of India to spread their master’s teachings. They seem to have played a key role in the uprising of 1857 against the British, or what is considered to be India’s first battle for independence. Following the failure of the uprising, some of Shah Ismail’s followers kept up the struggle against the British, leading uprisings in the Pushtun borderlands, which were, by the 1870s, brutally put down by the colonial authorities. It would be wrong to see these so-called Wahhabi-led uprisings as simply a religious phenomenon, as the British then saw them and as the AH today also describe them. They were also anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements. There was also a crucial class element involved in the spread of so-called Wahhabi ideas, which then took the form of local movements of resistance. For instance, in Bengal, the movements led by Tutu Mir and Haji Shariatullah, who, like the followers of Shah Ismail, spoke out against a range of customary practices among the Bengali Muslims, which they denounced as un-Islamic. These two popular preachers were also denounced by their critics as ‘Wahhabis’, although it is likely that they had no contact with the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’. Vast numbers of Bengali Muslim peasants, heavily indebted to and oppressed by ‘upper’ caste Hindu landlords and moneylenders, readily joined these movements, inspired not just by their particular religious appeal but also because they represented a revolt against the oppressive ‘upper’ caste Hindu-dominated system that they laboured under. In other parts of India, numerous ‘low’ caste Muslims joined similar movements, inspired also by the access to the resources of the Islamic scripturalist tradition which they afforded them, hitherto largely a preserve of ‘upper’ caste or so-called ashraf Mulims, thus acting as a form of upward social mobility. In a sense this also represented a form of social protest against the entrenched ashraf and their culture, some of which was seen by puritans as decadent and un-Islamic. At the same time it allowed the upwardly mobile ‘low’ caste groups joining these movements to appropriate aspects of ashraf culture that were inextricably linked to the forms in which Islam was expressed by the reformists’ for instance, the stress on Persian, Arabic and Urdu facilitating a process that sociologists have termed as ‘Ashrafisation’.

The reformist or, if you like, puritanical Islamic movements that began emerging from the early nineteenth century or so represented a range of political stances. Some of them were clearly anti-colonial, such as those in the Pukhtun areas. The British colonial authorities readily branded many such anti-colonial Islamic movements as ‘Wahhabi’ only to justify their brutal suppression and to win the support of Muslims who were opposed to the version of Islam that these movements represented. Some other such reformists, who shared what is very loosely termed as a ‘Wahhabi’ orientation towards local cultures, were pro-British, the most notable of these being Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Aligarh movement. Those who were branded by their critics as ‘Wahhabis’ did not form a single identifiable group. Often there was little or no communication between them. This explains the fact of the diverse political stances that they represented. Interestingly, not all of them had heard of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, and not all those who had actually supported him.

A major event in the direction of bringing together some like-minded scholars and activists who openly supported the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ and the Saudi state, then heavily criticized by many Indian Muslims for its attacks on the holy shrines of the Hijaz and its compact with Britian against the Ottomans Khilafat, was the formation of the All-India Jamiat e Ahl-e Hadith in 1906, thus giving these individuals a corporate identity. Over the years, the Jamiat established its own network of madrasas, mosques as well as publishing houses. The Jamiat, the apex body of the Ahl-e Hadith, reveled in controversy, attacking the Hanafi Sunnis, besides other Muslim groups, for allegedly straying from the path of Islam. Yet, the Jamiat did not represent a single political stance, and right up till the Partition of India in 1947 AH leaders were divided among themselves, some supporting the Muslim League, others supporting the Congress, and yet others supporting the British.

The AH remained, as it still does, a small minority among the Indian Muslims. Yet, from the mid-1970s, it saw a major boost in terms of infrastructural development and propaganda networks. This owed, in large measure, to liberal funding by Saudi and other Gulf sources, keen to export their conservative, literalist, pro-Saudi monarchical version of Islam across the world. As a result, AH madrasas sprang up even in some areas with a very small Ahl-e Hadith population; a large number of Saudi funded publishing houses were founded in India that specialized in producing literature attacking the Hanafis and Shias and translating works by Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ writers; graduates of AH madrasas in India began receiving scholarships to study in Saudi universities some of them stayed behind in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, working in various government and private organizations, others returned to India to set up madrasas with Saudi support or teach in established madrasas, their salaries often being paid for by Saudi sources; some Muslim magazines (and not all of them AH) began receiving funds from Saudi sources in order to promote support for the Saudi monarchy, heavily criticised for its un-Islamic ways and its close alliance with the United States.

Due to this Saudi connection, the significant differences that had distinguished many Indian AH pioneers from the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ (such as their opposition to taqlid, as opposed to the Saudi Wahhabi taqlid of the Hanbali school, the fact that some of these pioneers were also associated with some or the other form of Sufism, etc.) were sought to be done away with. Saudi finance meant that efforts had to be made to emulate as closely as possible the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ form of Islam. In political terms, it also meant propaganda on behalf of the Saudi ruling family, for Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the United States and against the Iranian Revolution, which was branded as Shia, ‘heretical’ and, therefore, ‘un-Islamic’ in AH propaganda.

In post-Partition India, in contrast to its Pakistani counterparts, it is important to note, the Indian AH have not engaged in any sort of explicit political activism, and hence the spectre that some media persons draw of a so-called Indian ‘Wahhabi’ conspiracy is far-fetched. Like other Indian Muslim groups, the Indian Ahl-e Hadith have routinely renounced terrorism and have stressed the need for harmonious relations between Hindus and Muslims. The only exception to this is the Pakistan-sponsored Lashkar-e Tayyeba, which is related to one faction of the Pakistani AH and is active in Kashmir. Numerous Indian AH leaders have gone on record to condemn the killings of innocent people in Kashmir, whether by the Indian Army or by self-styled Islamist militants such as the Lashkar. Some AH leaders I have met in Kashmir have also expressed their opposition to the Lashkar’s tactics, arguing that these are indeed ‘un-Islamic’, although they cannot openly condemn the group for fear of their lives. This shows that despite their roots in a common sectarian milieu, different groups that claim the Ahl-e Hadith label do not have a common political agenda or orientation. Notably, in Kerala, the Kerala Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, the local counterpart of the north Indian AH, is very actively engaged in inter-faith dialogue. One of its branches actively works with Hindus in critiquing communalism and extremism, both Hindu and Muslim, and is also close to the Communist Party.

In recent years, a number of bomb blasts have occurred in different parts of India, which the Indian media have quickly attributed to a ‘Wahhabi’ conspiracy, generally without any proof at all. The most recent such case was a blast at the most popular Sufi shrine in all of South Asia, the dargah of Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. The Indian media and intelligence sources claimed a radical anti-Sufi ‘Wahhabi’ hand in this, although they failed to offer any evidence. Who is behind this and other such blasts in the recent past is still unclear and could be any one’s guess. Hence, the tendency to automatically blame a so-called radical Muslim hand behind these must be guarded against. Theories doing the rounds attribute the Ajmer blast, as well as several other such blasts, to various sources, including Hindu chauvinist groups, the state authorities themselves, the CIA and the Mossad and sundry ‘Wahhabi’ groups based in Pakistan and/or Bangladesh. Prudence demands that the media and state authorities desist from jumping onto the American bandwagon of the so-called ‘war on terror’ by quickly attributing every such incident to a ‘Muslim extremist’ or so-called ‘Wahhabi’ hand.

As I have sought to argue, the simplistic notion that equates ‘Wahhabism’ with ‘terrorism’ is flawed. As the case of the Indian ‘Wahhabis’ clearly shows, the political response of any religious movement does not flow only from its theology but, equally, if not more, importantly, reflects the particular social and political context in which it finds itself, which can, of course, change over time. By and large, and despite the grave challenges that the Indian Muslims, the AH in general included, have faced, their response has been to steer away from counter-violence, recognising this as counter-productive, and insisting on the need for better relations between Hindus and Muslims. A few fringe extremist groups do exist, but then extremism is not a Muslim monopoly, and in India, where Muslims are a minority, the challenge from Hindu extremism is much more threatening. Indeed, a purusal of AH literature reveals that its diatribes are almost exclusivly focussed on other Muslim groups, seeking to rebut them as ‘un-Islamic’ , while generally ignoring the Hindus or other communities living in India. Intra-Muslim, rather than Hindu-Muslim, differences and conflicts are of more concern to the AH. However, even this should not be exaggerated, as these conflicts, although fanned by AH ulema, have had only a limited impact on relations between ‘lay’ Muslims belonging to different Muslim groups, and has rarely taken the form of actual phyical violence.

India’s future and prosperity critically depends on better relations between the different religious communities that have lived here together for centuries. This calls for the promotion of new understandings of each religion that can help promote genuine inter-faith dialogue and which at the same time critique theological formulations that promote inter-sectarian and inter-community strife and hatred. In this regard, it is obvious that the AH and similar Muslim groups, like their counterparts among the Hindus, would need to engage in considerable soul-searching.

About Yoginder Sikand

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He has authored various books on Indian Muslims and allied issues and has done his research work on Tablighi Jamaat. Sikand holds a Master's Degree in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and a PhD in history from the University of London.
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27 Responses to ‘Wahhabism’ in India

  1. MUSLIMA says:

    Muslims are Muslims…….. maybe there r different categories underlying but no doubt we all follow the HOLY QURAN and the SUNNA of OUR DEAR PROPHET MOHAMMED (PEACE BE UPON HIM)……. anyone who after reading this repeats PEACE BE UPON HIM is a real muslim …. and one more thing faith is in d heart not in the words………
    ALLAH AKBAR…………..

  2. M Naqqaad says:

    Well a necomer to IM, am late to read. I too read Mr Sikand and he deserves praises (many times) so if one says that he missed on some facts, we should take it in human spirit. We need many more Yoginders so that we Indians know each other. I read it fully, including comments, coz, Yoginder Sikand was writing (had written). What we need is humanism and mind it, all the politics of extremism, yes, even extremism of democracy (as defined in west) creates problems, so humanism is the only hope. Being muslim, I must say that atleast Muslims practice Islamic Humanism which I claim to be Islamic as well as Humanism. Please do not waste material, though it means that we are materialistic, we need to have it in unspoilt form. The easy money especially in software professions is creating a lot of people who don’t know beyond their cubilces and are swayed by a single writing. We need to educate people in all round way and not specifics of a job or career. Are we willing to learn Urdu, English or Marathi, Gujarati just to read those books and not for a job?

  3. abdulhaque says:

    Good Article from a non muslim.Strange that HE/SHE is still a non AH.Pray ALLAH for the guidance.
    AHLEHADITH means one who strictly adheres to Quran and sahih hadith,the only way to salvation.All other terms used do describe them are to prevent others from accepting the pure uncompromised ISLAM.

  4. S. Strauch says:

    Yoginder: For your information, the Taliban are not “Wahhabis” as you call them. They are Deoband Sufis and they intensely dislike Salafis (the correct name for those you erroneously refer to as “Wahhabis”).

  5. Muslim says:

    Even though the article was somewhat balanced, a mistake I found was:

    “In contrast to many Sufis, the AH’s understanding of monotheism borders on anthropomorphism, being based on a strictly literalist reading of the Quran, reflecting the group’s fierce opposition to tawil or allegorical interpretation.”

    The Ahl-e-Hadith movement is strongly against anthroporphism. This can be seen from the link below

    http://allaahuakbar.in/article_read.asp?id=918
    http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=245&category=27
    http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=248&category=27

    Most of the references of the great scholars are provided with the name of their books. Check it out for yourself if their beliefs are different from that of AH.

  6. Milind Kher says:

    Sectarian sentiments always act against the interests of the people. It is the same Allah, the same Prophet and the same Quran.

    It is a fardh of silah rehmi that we observe kindness towards all, beginning with our relatives. Those who observe kata rehmi lose the favor of God. It is a known fact that only if we are at peace with ourselves can we be at peace with the world.

  7. dr mohammad iqbal says:

    to understand any religion in real one must have the sound knowledge of the original language of that religion along with the study of literature of that religion in that language, knowledge of geographical and historical status of that religion, not just to see what the followers are practicing.

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