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Ahmad Riza Khan and the Question of Religious Pluralism

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

17 February 2016

Barelwi Islam, not just in India but the whole of South Asia has been understood as the best antidote to radical/Deobandi Islam. This is not just true of policy level interventions but also at the level of popular consciousness. Barelwis, thought of as the Sufi shrine-going population of Muslims, are said to be tolerant or moderate as compared to other Muslims such as the Deobandis or the Ahl-e-Hadis who shun going to shrines. The shrine, and rightly so, is considered as a more inclusive space where distinctions between religions and sometimes even gender is blurred. Thus we have shrines where both the Muslims and Hindus make it a point to visit and hold them in high esteem. Sociologically, it is definitely a space which has the potential of blurring many boundaries.

Despite this potential, the praxis of the Barelwis has been in complete contrast to their popular image. Whether it is the murder of Salman Taseer in Pakistan, the militant burning of Salman Rushdie’s book or the many anti-blasphemy marches in India, Barelwis have always been at the forefront. We might ask a legitimate question: whether some of this intense anti-moderate praxis has something to do with the writings of Ahmad Riza, the ideologue of the Barelwis in South Asia.     

It is interesting to note that the ideologue of the Barelwi Islam, Ahmad Riza Khan, despite defending the traditional and customary practices amongst Muslims as part of Islamic tradition, did not have very kind words to say about the Hindus, as perhaps would be expected from him. If we are looking for a possibility to tease out the prospects of pluralism in South Asia through the writings of Ahmad Riza, then perhaps one would be a little disappointed.

In his writings during the Khilafat movement (around 1920), a movement which brought the Congress and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind on a common platform to resist the British, Ahmad Riza argued that it was not permissible for a Muslim to cooperate with a Kafir (Hindus). According to him, this Hindu-Muslim entente was unacceptable when the common enemy was the Christian, whom Islam regards as people of the Book! At one level, this might indicate a tactical understanding of the Khilafat movement as well as his visceral dislike of the Deobandis, but Ahmad Riza’s use of the word harbi (those with whom one is at war) to describe the Hindus of his day, suggests that his objection to any form of Hindu-Muslim cooperation went much deeper.

Thus even a political alliance between Hindus and Muslims is not acceptable to Ahmad Riza, rather he would see everything through the prism of Islam. And within his understanding of Islamic theology, he could see no justification for such an alliance. In a fatwa he wrote in 1920 (al muhajjat al mutamana), he argued that the Jamiat Ulama (which was arguing for a Congress and Khlifat pact) was making what was haram (forbidden) (read co-operation with Hindus) as the farz qati (absolute duty). Describing the Hindus of his day as katilin, zalimin, kafirin (killers, oppressors and infidels), he warned the Muslims that the Hindus were even trying to tamper with Muslim religious observances. In this fatwa, Ahmad Riza maintained that a vital distinction must be made between two completely different sorts of relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims: those of mere human relations (mujjarad muamalat) which were permitted with all non-Muslims under the Sharia and those of friendship and intimacy (muwalat) which Muslims may enter into only with other Muslims. Thus although at loggerheads with each other, Ahmad Riza would agree with Husain Ahmad Madani that the millat, comprising the pure religious self of the Muslims, should remain static and free from any intermingling with other religious communities.

Ahmad Riza would in fact go a step further. A passage from his own writings gives us a glimpse of his deep rooted sense of distance from the Hindus amidst whom he lived. According to Ahmad Riza, they were kafirs and were to be regarded with enmity for that very reason. Moreover, the Hindu (a Brahmin no less!) was unclean for him and he felt a deep sense of revulsion even with slightest physical contact with a Hindu. In a longish passage of his Malfuzat the writer recalls that once Ahmad Riza had a severe bout of colic attack and was reeling under tremendous pain when a Brahmin happened to pass by and came near his cot. The Brahmin placed his palm on Ahmad Riza’s stomach and asked him: is this where it hurts? Hearing this Ahmad Riza is said to have remarked: ‘feeling his impure hand touching my body, I felt such revulsion that I forgot my pain. And I began to experience a pain even greater than this, knowing that a kafir’s hand was on my stomach. This is the kind of enmity that one should cultivate towards the Kafirs’.

Ahmad Riza would not only caution Muslims against forming any alliance with Hindus but even within the South Asian Muslim society, he was vehemently opposed to other interpretations of Islam. Thus he refused to be on the board of the madrasa at Nadwa because there were Shias on this Board. And his famous polemical war against the Deobandis would make it difficult for a Muslim to offer his prayers behind a Deobandi imam. Not only this, he would openly be vitriolic against the Deobandis whom he regarded as kafirs: a tradition which continues to the present day at various Barelwi madrasas in India. At various places, he also cautions Muslim women that they should not visit shrines as it will attract unwanted attention. The mediated experience of Islam therefore was to be solely a Muslim male preserve according to him. Moreover, his famous or infamous outpourings against Muslim low caste, particularly the Ansaris as being lesser Muslims or better still as lesser humans are well documented in his collected works.

Thus we find that Ahmad Riza can hardly be the harbinger of pluralism in South Asia: not only that his writings inhibit pluralism at an inter-religious level, but he also does not lend himself to any construction of internal pluralism even within the Muslims themselves. 


A columnist, Arshad Alam is a New Delhi based writer.