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Syncretic Islam: A Captivating Book on the Thoughts of A’la Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi and His Paramount Relevance to the Modern day Islam

Reviewing Syncretic Islam - Life, Characters and Times of Ala Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan

By Ghulam Ghaus Siddiqi, New Age Islam

10 July 2021

Main Points discussed in the Review

*The book reports birth, noble family, several mystical events and command of ‘Ala Hazrat over several branches of knowledge and science

*This describes some popular beliefs and creeds of mainstream Indian Muslims that distinguish them from Wahhabism

* ‘Ala Hazrat’s stance on India being a Darul Islam, anti-Hijrat, and non-cooperation movement

*The collection of his Fatawa known as Fatawa Razviyya bears witness that ‘Ala Hazrat was an encyclopaedia of Islam.

*Syncretic Islam proved as a book available in the English language for the first time to discuss with objectivity the Life and Times of Imam Ahmad Raza.

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Syncretic Islam, Life and Times of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi

Authors: Anil Maheshwari and Richa Singh

Paperback: 272 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury India (2021)

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If you want to do a fascinating, brilliant, and objective study of the religious thought and career of one of the doyens of Muslim traditionalism and Syncretic Sunni-Sufi revivalism in South Asia called Imam Ahmad Raza and popularly known as ‘Ala Hazrat (1856-1921), Mr. Anil Maheshwari, and Ms. Richa Singh are your authors. Syncretic Islam Life and Times of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi is a masterful narration in this respect by the two authors unlike “most writers who have approached the subject from points of view that are not free from conscious prejudging”. The authors clarify it saying, “It [this book] is not a dissertation of Ahmad Raza Khan’s merits or demerits or those of his contemporaries. It is merely an attempt to see him in a human light, to understand the admiration he garnered from followers as well as the hostility his stance generated among his opponents. A humble attempt has been made to look at him in the context of his life and times and the [Syncretic Sunni-Sufi] legacy he has left behind.”

The authors beautifully overview the roots of several piercing questions surrounding the Ahle Sunnat or Barelvi and analyze the multiple facets constituting Imam Ahmad Raza Khan’s intellectual expansion, theological, mystical, and jurisprudential augmentation and, in extension, the foundation for a movement known to his followers as the Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jama’at (“the devotees of the Sunnah and the broad community) and to all others as “Barelvi” referring to a city in Uttar Pradesh, India where A’la Hazrat was born and where he went to glory.

“A Pathan by descent, Hanafi by religious mores, Qadiri by disposition and Barelvi by nativity”, Syncretic Islam captures the astounding contribution of Ahmad Raza Khan and attempts to explain how his highly intellectual and spiritual influence defended the syncretic version of Islam deeply rooted among mainstream Indian Muslims since the arrival of Islam in India. In other words, ‘Ala Hazrat defended the popular spirit of Indian Islam against the shackles of Wahhabism brought to India by Maulvi Ismael Dehlvi and others who returned to India after learning the Wahhabi theology under the patronage of those Arabs who had lost the mainstream Islam and adopted the theological narratives propounded by Ibn Abdul Wahhab Najdi.

In its first chapter, Syncretic Islam presents readers with the birth, home, and noble family of ‘Ala Hazrat, a staunch Hanafi jurist with impeccable credentials as a Sufi master in the Qadiri order, who “left an ineradicable mark on the minds and hearts of the people through his piety, sagacity, wisdom, prolific pen and eloquent tongue” and emerged as the most prolific and charismatic personality of his era.

Under the chapter “Baptism”, the book reports several mystical events of ‘Ala Hazrat that attracted the great Sufi Masters of his era. His spiritual Murshid and pir Sayyid Ale Rasul Marehrawi clarified why he gave Ahmad Raza both ijazat (spiritual permission to enlist murids) and khilafat (spiritual ‘right to be a successor and inheritor to the illustrious order of pirs) so early and said to his other disciples, “you don’t know Ahmad Raza. The others who come here need to be prepared and primed before gaining ijazat and khilafat. But Ahmad Raza has come prepared from the home of the Almighty and through His grace. All he needed was a link, and that is why I made him a murid immediately”. His spiritual master Sayyid Ale Rasul “went on to explain that, like all other men, he too would have to answer to God on the Day of Judgment, and when God would ask him what he brought in His service, he could reply with a clean conscience, ‘Lord, I have brought you, Ahmad Raza’. ‘Ala Hazrat was so humble towards his spiritual master that after the death of his master, ‘whenever Ala Hazrat went to Marehra to meet his murshid, he would take off his shoes as soon as he got off the train and walk bare-feet to Shah Ale Rasul’s abode’. This account is appealing to the readers, and as for the writing style of the authors in this respect, this is expository and based on accepted facts.   

Syncretic Islam goes on to describe some popular beliefs and creeds of mainstream Indian Muslims that distinguish them from Wahhabism and how ‘Ala Hazrat defended those beliefs that still binds millions of people in the Indian subcontinent.

In the chapter “Hands of Pulse of Politics and Yet…”, the authors discuss ‘Ala Hazrat’s stance on India being a Darul Islam, anti-Hijrat, and non-cooperation movement. They say, “In his wisdom and judgment, the fact that Muslims had the freedom to fulfill their religious duties and obligations, and were free to conduct their personal lives in accordance with Islamic precepts and law, made India a virtual Darul Islam”. ‘Ala Hazrat “did not agree with other ulama that India under the British had become a Darul Harb or abode of war”. On this subject, he wrote a book titled in Arabic, “E’laam-ul-A’alam bi Anna Hindustan Dar-ul-Islam (declaration of the Ulama that India is an ‘abode of peace)”. Referring to the theological reasons mentioned in the book, the followers of ‘Ala Hazrat still maintain that India is Darul Islam and therefore Hijrat is not mandatory from here.

The book presents that in ‘Ala Hazrat’s opinion, “The Hijrat Movement, closeness with the Congress, formation of militant Muslim organizations and other similar activities would only result in the creation of a volatile and potentially harmful situation for Muslims”. His stance was pure of religious significance and he never took interest in misusing the Religion for dubious political interests. In the political scenario, “He stayed aloof both from the British and Hindus.”  His opponents thereby accused him of being pro-British and anti-Hindu. The authors report that ‘Ala Hazrat “did not look at the world that he lived in with a political perspective. He concentrated mainly on religious beliefs and practices. About the Hindus, he had aversion only when forced into a situation of conflict, such as the cow slaughter issue, the communal riots, the shuddhi movement, etc.”

This should also be known that, unlike his opponents, ‘Ala Hazrat was not interested in binding the Hindu-Muslim relationship on the political friendship and enmity or nefarious unity and disunity. His theological stance was clear that Hindus are Hindus and Muslims are Muslims and that ‘there could be no blurring of identities of the two. The Hindus worship cows, Muslims eat them. Hindus worship stones and idols’, Muslims do not do so.

In one of my articles published on newageislam.com I said that in ‘Ala Hazrat’s opinion If there could be any relationship between the Muslims and non-Muslims, it could be that of peaceful coexistence that could be referred to as ‘Mu’aamalat’. In his book titled “Al-Mahajjah al-Mu’taminah fi Ayat al-Mumtahinah, (The Safe haven: in the verse of Mumtahinah)”, ‘Ala Hazrat theologically outlined a middle path between Muwalat and Muaamalat and said:

Muwaalat (bearing Love and affection) is entirely different from Muaamalat (giving consideration and conducting transactions with someone). The difference between the two is like the distance between the sky and the earth. It is permissible to conduct transactions and have dealings with anyone, except with apostates like Wahhabis and Deobandis, in worldly matters, and [matters] in which there is no harm for religious obligations.” The Dhimmi is similar to a Muslim in all such dealings. “They shall have the same rights and obligations as us”- (لهم ما لنا وعليهم ما علينا). It is permissible to conduct transactions even with non-dhimmis. Transactions like buying and selling, leasing and renting, giving and accepting gifts (upon the condition that these gifts are permitted by the Shariah); and to purchase anything from them when such goods are of benefit for Muslims; and to sell them anything except weapons or such things that may be (mis)used to insult Islam. "So also, it is permitted to employ them to do things that are not contrary to the Shariah, and to accept employment of non-Muslims in permissible activities that are not humiliating [to Muslims]; so also is hiring them and getting hired by them. It is permissible to give them gifts as goodwill (Maslehat-e-Shariah) as long as such gifts do not honour the rituals and religious customs of infidels, and to accept their gifts as long as such gifts do not contravene or criticize Islam. It is even permissible to marry a Christian or Jewish woman. As long as they make peace with us, we shall be inclined towards them [in amity] – as long as such treaties do not force us to make Halal (the permissible) as Haram (the forbidden) and vice versa. So also, [it is allowed] to have contracts with them, and have peace-treaties with them to a certain extent and when such a permissible covenant is made, it is obligatory to fulfill it and it is forbidden to betray or renege from such promises.”-- (Al-Mahajjah al-Mu’taminah fi Ayat al-Mumtahinah, -The Safe haven: in the verse of Mumtahinah)

Peaceful Coexistence in Islam: A Middle Path Between Al-Wala And Al-Bara?

‘Ala Hazrat maintained that “by joining the Khilafat movement, the Muslims would have to suffer religious, political, social, cultural, and economic degradation. He did not participate in the Khilafat Movement primarily for these reasons”. Moreover, in his book on the subject of the Islamic caliphate (Khilafat), Dawam ul Aaish fi Aai’matil Quraish, ‘Ala Hazrat laid out rigorous conditions for an Islamic caliph to be appointed.

In the words of the authors, “A jurist of eminence, Ahmad Raza’s intellect was penetrating and his rulings commanded respect. His ‘diatribes’ against other scholars stemmed from the fact that he was far more erudite besides being blessed with an uncann foresight compared to his contemporaries. His influence upon his followers was greater than that of other contemporary theologians in the subcontinent.” However there was a time when ‘Ala Hazrat had to tolerate “the emotionally outrageous fatwa that pronounced anyone, including him, a kafir if they did not consider the Turkey Sultanate as Khilafat-e-Sharia and the Turkish Sultan as Khalifat-ul-Momineen, or the leader of the believers.” The authors say, “It seems that whatever stance Ahmad Raza took regarding political issues dominating the minds of most Indian Muslims, in the long run, he proved to be right. He opposed the Khilafat Movement and time proved him right. The movement failed badly. When Ahmad Raza opposed the Hijrat Movement, people assailed him as pro-British but, with time, he was proven correct. The Hijrat Movement failed as it had few takers. Ahmad Raza’s strident opposition to the idea of Hindu—Muslim unity too later found a champion in Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the same political figure who shifted drastically from his former stance and advanced the two-nation theory. All in all, Ahmad Raza seems to come across as a man who had the intuitive sense to know how the cookie would crumble. In this, he genuinely proved to a chip off the old block”.

The authors acquaint the readers with some noble traits of ‘Ala Hazrat in a separate chapter. They stress that “A’la Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi was the virtual founder of Ahl-e-Sunnat, meaning true adherers of the Prophet’s Sunnat. Ahmad Raza was always preoccupied with issues related to faith, writing and issuing fatwas to resolve contentious matters and offering theological teachings and insight to his large number of followers and admirers……….In defining right and wrong and applying the principles of religious correctness, he neither favoured nor spared anyone. Anyone who came to him for help was never disappointed. As for attending to the needs of those who depended on him, he made it a point to send them regular financial help. This aid was not confined to residents of Bareilly; many people living elsewhere also received financial help from him on a regular monthly basis. To meet these expenses, he delved into his family resources and also drew from the contributions offered by followers”.

Other traits were also characteristic of him. For instance, Ahmad Raza never burst into loud laughter and hated it if anybody did so. While yawning, he always covered his mouth with his hand so that no sound came out………In ablutions and taking baths, he was a stickler for detail. He took extreme care not to spit or stretch his feet towards the direction of the Kabah and used his right hand for doing most things. If anyone offered him anything with the left hand, Ahmad Raza would decline…………A’la Hazrat’s another characteristic trait was his refusal to seek concessions for himself or his family.” He bought the things only when the sellers “accepted the usual market rate price from him”. The authors narrate a story in which Ala Hazrat said to one of his murids, “Instead of thinking of punishing anyone, we must think of rewarding. And, if we do not or cannot reward those who please us, we must not think of punishing those who may have displeased us”. Syncretic Islam aspires to provide many other noble traits of Ala Hazrat that must be a matter of great interest for the readers.

Under the chapter “Intellectual Impulse”, the book draws attention to some events denoting ‘Ala Hazrat’s highly intellectual and God-gifted capability. After his first visit to the Kabah, ‘Ala Hazrat became quite famous in the Arab world and when he embarked upon his next pilgrimage to Makkah, “the Ulama from Hijaz in Arabia were keen on interacting with him”.  In the words of the authors, “After he [‘Ala Hazrat] completed the haj, and was busy meeting various ulama of the Haramain, Shaikh Saleh Kamal, a leading theologian of Mecca, approached him with a set of five questions regarding Ilm-ul-Ghaib, or the knowledge of the unknown, with which Ahmad Raza thought the Prophet was blessed with. These questions were posed on behalf of the Wahhabi ulama of Arabia. Shaikh Kamal gave A’la Hazrat two days to frame his answers. Although reeling under high fever, caused by his chronic kidney ailment, and the exertions suffered through the hajj, Ahmad Raza took the challenge head-on. His answers were so detailed, comprehensive, irrefutable and convincing, that they left the Meccan ulama quite dazed. The answers ran into 400 pages and when the ulama learnt he had written them in the short span of eight hours, they were dumbstruck by his prolific pen. Ahmad Raza’s interaction with the ulama of Hijaz was marked by the wiles of the wiles of the Wahhabis’ intent of discrediting him. They tried to win over Muhammad Ratib Pasha, the governor of Mecca, and convince him that an Indian alim was in their midst to corrupt the faith of the Muslims. But the Hijaz ulama were convinced of Ahmad Raza’s piety, sincerity, and deep knowledge. Yet, shortly afterwards, Khalil Ahmad Ambethi, a Deobandi alim, tried to appease Ahmad Raza by offering him a tray full of gold coins. Offering gold coins as a token of respect is a custom among Muslims in several countries. By doing this, Khalil Ahmad tried to kill two birds with one stone. His idea, on one hand, was to soften Ahmad Raza’s stand towards Deobandis and, on the other hand, he wanted to prove to all and sundry that he had been accepted by Ahmad Raza as a supporter. But Khalil Ahmad’s plan boomeranged. Ahmad Raza rejected the offering.”

The opponents of ‘Ala Hazrat Ahmad Raza made several failed efforts to degrade him. The authors refer to this fact saying:

“The campaign against Ahmad Raza did not, however, end there. The Wahhabi group had its supporters among the Meccan and Medinan ulama too. Having failed in their repeated attempts to denigrate and deter Ahmad Raza, they resorted to spreading canards. Ahmad Raza had decided to spend a month in Mecca after the hajj was over. Hence, he sent the women of his family ahead of him to India. His absence from the return party was publicized by the Deobandis and Wahhabis as proof that the Meccan authorities had arrested him and put him in jail. Their rumours got further credence among the people when a short stay in Bombay after returning to India prolonged Ahmad Raza’s return to Bareilly further. The Deobandis jeered at him by spreading rumours of him being sentenced to prison and arguing that he would never return to India alive. The Barelvis’ worries were, however, set to rest when their anxious queries were answered by Shaikh Abdul Haque Muhajiri who told them that Ahmad Raza was safe and he had left Mecca for Bombay.”

Ala Hazrat Imam “Ahmad Raza was accomplished in various disciplines and was initiated into most of them by his father. These included translation of the Koran, Hadith, and principles of Hadith; Islamic fiqh of all the four schools—Maliki, Hanbali, Hanafi and Shafai; principles of fiqh; dialectics; commentaries on Koran; principles of belief, debate, and rhetoric; Arabic syntax; rhetoric devices; sciences dealing with rhetoric; language and usage of metaphors; logic; philosophy; politics; physics; mathematics and physical engineering. From other ulamas, he studied Islamic ethics, mysticism, Quranic recitation, Islamic history, Arabic language, and literature....... Like his understanding of the Koran and mastery over fiqh, Ahmad Raza’s command over the rational sciences was unique. In 1911, the newspaper Dabdabae- Sikandari carried a mathematical problem relating to quadrangular geometry along with an appeal from Dr. Ziauddin, a renowned mathematician who was later to become the vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, to mathematicians to solve it. A’la Hazrat not only solved the problem, but he set another question and published it along with his answer. Dr Ziauddin was surprised that a maulvi had solved his problem and sent another question. In the meantime, Dr. Ziauddin solved the question sent by Ahmad Raza but was even more surprised when the latter pointed out some flaws in the vice-chancellor’s answer”, the authors say.

Syncretic Islam quotes some renowned scholars including the ideological opponents of Ala Hazrat, who appreciated his intellectual impulse:

Dr. Barbara Metcalf, historian and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that ‘Ahmad Raza was outstanding from the very beginning on account of his extraordinary intelligence … was a towering figure revered for his extraordinary memory, mental agility and intellectual capacity, and honoured as a Mujaddid and Sheikh … he sought, above all, to guard what he saw as correct practice and make religion vital in the personal life of Muslims of his day.’

“When it came to subjects like Hadith and principles of Hadith, Ahmad Raza was an authority who knew the names and even the backgrounds of almost all Hadith narrators. He was able to explain the type of Hadith, its benefits, and the reasons behind that Hadith.

“Maulana Abul ala Maududi said, ‘I have great respect in my heart for the knowledge and status of Imam Ahmad Raza Khan. He has great foresight over the knowledge of din and even his opponents are forced to accept this.’

“Ashraf Ali Thanvi, a noted Deobandi scholar, said, ‘We have great respect for Ahmad Raza Khan. He calls us kafirs, but he says this only on the basis of his love for the Prophet and not out of any other reason.’

Another scholar, Moinuddin Nadwai, said that Ahmad Raza Khan in his time was the ‘person of knowledge’. His every fatwa, be it in support or refutation of anyone, is worthy of being studied.”

The collection of his Fatawa known as Fatawa Razviyya bears witness that ‘Ala Hazrat was an encyclopaedia of Islam. “Syncretic Islam discloses many accounts of Ala Hazrat’s intellectual impulse and his irrefutable narratives against his opponents, notably Wahabis and Deobandis.

Other chapters of the book titled “Ahle Sunnat: Energising Faith in Tough Times”,  “Barelvis’s Bitter Battle for Identity”, “Born to write and rule through fatwa”, “The Azan Debate”, “Paeans of lord and prophet’s glory” and “The crushing weight of history”—all provide the readers with the interesting facts about the roles of Imam Ahmad Raza that largely influenced the Muslims in South Asia and even inspired the scholars of Arabia. The authors say, “Ahmad Raza was indeed a great scholar. Even the scholars of Arabia wrote to A’la Hazrat regarding religious verdicts and received outstanding answers. The Quran, Tafseer (commentary of the Quran), Hadith and fiqh were his main fields but it is said that he was an expert in 105 subjects. It was for these reasons that the ulama of India, for the first time in the year 1900, began to write mujaddid (revivalist) alongside the name of A’la Hazrat.”

The followers of ‘Ala Hazrat today have issued several fatwas against those groups which are committing terrorism and defaming Islam and Muslims around the world. Referring to one of the fatwas in this respect, the authors say:

“Faced with modern-day challenges, the seminary of the Barelvi sect issued a fatwa in August 2016 against Mumbai terror attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed declaring him anti-Islamic. The fatwa was issued against the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief by Mufti Mohammed Saleem Barelvi, a maulana with Manzar-e- Islam Saudagaran, the seminary that is associated with Dargah A’la Hazrat, in a reply to a question asked by Mohammed Moinuddin of Jaipur. It said Saeed has no connection with Islam.

“According to the fatwa, Saeed was a man with terrorist ideology, who with his acts has brought infamy to Islam and Muslims across the world. Therefore, it was compulsory for every Muslim to not follow him and keep away from his ideology.”

From the beginning till the end, Syncretic Islam proved as a book available in the English language for the first time  to discuss with objectivity the Life and Times of Imam Ahmad Raza. The finest thing about the book is that the authors have made an honest and objective approach to reproduce the history of A’la Hazrat while maintaining its paramount relevance to the modern day Islam.  It would be a matter of great interest for the readers to go through the entire book.

Related Article:

Islam and Takfirism: Ideological Basis for Peace, Non-Violence, Tolerance and Human Rights in the Writings of Imam Ahmed Raza

URL: https://www.newageislam.com/books-documents/syncretic-islam-raza-khan-barelvi/d/125072


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