By Tahir Kamran
December 10, 2017
The general perception about the Barelvi denomination is that it’s pluralistic and inclusive vis a vis other sects. However, the Barelvis’ antagonism towards Hindus and other Muslim sects is irrefutable. Similarly, the contention of their support for the Pakistan movement, too, is not that straightforward. As it is noted in the following lines, until 1946, the All-India Sunni Conference had no unequivocal stance in favour of Pakistan.
Having said all this, I pick up from last week’s column so that the politics of Sunnis can be put in perspective.
When Ahmed Raza Khan passed away in 1921, the mantle to lead Ahl-e-Sunnat fell on Naeemud Din Muradabadi when he started a monthly journal Al Sawad E Azam (literally the great, that is to say the Sunni majority). Before proceeding further on the subject, a brief introduction of Naeemud Din Muradabadi will not be out of place. Born in 1882 in Muradabad, UP, he got early religious instruction along with Persian Arabic and Unani medicine along with good part of Dars-i-Nizami syllabus from his father. At the age of 14, he joined Muradabad Madrasa-e-Imdadiyya where he learned, logic, philosophy and Hadith from Syed Gul Muhammad Shah. He graduated from the same madrasa at the age of 20 and took an oath of allegiance at the hand of his erstwhile teacher Syed Gul Muhammad.
The details of his intellectual development point to the fact that his loyalty to the Ahl-e-Sunnat cause developed only gradually. Strangely his father Moeenud Din has been a disciple of Muhammad Qasim Nanutawi, one of the founders of Dar ul Uloom Deoband. Gradually, however, Naeemud Din exhibited his prominence as a debater; he entered into Manazara with Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadith, Shias, Christians and Arya Samajis, and emerged victorious in these disputations. In these debates, his proclivity smacked of the influences drawn from the Barelvi denomination.
It was then that he caught Ahmed Raza Khan’s eye and became a close companion of the former. Attendant on his skill as a persuader and debater were his organisational abilities. He indeed excelled in establishing and managing institutions. The foremost contribution of him was the establishment of the Jammiyya Naemiyya around 1920.
In 1925, he also put together a new body by the name of Ahl-e-Sunnat by the name of All India Sunni Conference. The very name of the new organisation indicates that it was intended to reach Ahl-e-Sunnat nationwide. It was supposedly the answer to the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and the Khilafat Committee, then the main Ulema organisations at the national level. The biographical account of Naeemud Din (Hayat I Sadr Al Afazil) reveals that All India Sunni Conference emanated from his awareness of “an increasing anti Muslim attitude among Hindus”, exemplified not only in the Arya Samaj-led Shuddi movement but also Hindu assertiveness over the issue of cow slaughter.
All India Sunni Conference, from the very outset, rejected the principle of the Hindu Muslim unity as means of achieving freedom. In the welcome address of that meeting, Ahmed Raza’s eldest son Hamid Raza Khan rejected the goal of freedom itself, asserting that Swaraj would amount to Hindu Raj; therefore, lending support to that cause would not be of any use to Muslims at large. He along with other speakers emphasised on the need to work for the educational and economic amelioration of the Muslim of the subcontinent. Hamid Raza in his address outlined a range of activities which the conference would undertake; Tabligh against the Shuddi movement being the foremost of all. He also outlined a detailed hierarchy of madrasas to be established throughout India, from the national level going all the way down to the villages.
The All India Sunni conference attained great success in a relatively short period of time. The 1925 meeting of the All India Sunni Conference was attended by over 250 Ulema from all over India. One of the most important supporters of the organisation from Punjab was Pir Jamaat Ali Shah (1841-1951). In his Khutbat, he lent unequivocal support for the anti-Hindu, anti Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind stance of the Sunni Ulema. Here, I feel it important to furnish a brief biographical account of Pir Jamaat Ali Shah because of his preeminent role not only for propagating Ahl-e-Sunnat’s cause but his support for All India Muslim League’s bid for independence.
David Gilmratin in his book Empire and Islam states that he came from a line of Qadri Pirs in Sialkot district, but was active in the reformist Naqshbandia Order; his foremost religious concern was with respect to Tabligh. He undertook extensive tours of Punjab and much of India, stressing the importance of the performance of religious duties according to the Shariat and establishes mosques and madrasas in towns and villages. This greatly expanded his influence and led to contacts with powerful Muslims with wealth that he tapped for religious causes.
By the start of the 20th century, Pir Jamaat Ali Shah could claim an extensive following, both in rural Northern Punjab and among powerful Muslims elsewhere, which made his political influence comparable to that of any Chishti revival Pirs. He donated hundreds of rupees to the Madrasas Nomaniyya and Anjuman-e-Hizabul Ahnaf, so that these pure religious institutions might expand and prosper to serve Islam.
Reverting to Pir Jamaat Ali Shah’s Khutbat that he delivered at the All India Sunni Conference in 1925, he said that unity should not be sort with Hindus, or with free thinking Muslims. Unity already existed among the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamat, who represented a vast majority of Muslims in India. The task before them was to carry out internal reforms — to strengthen Iman, root out social evils like smoking and drinking, build more madrasas and continue the work of Tabligh.
Fast forwarding the evolution of All India Sunni Conference by 10 years, in 1935, the conference met in Badayun and for a third time in April 1946 at Banaras which was the last conference before Pakistan’s establishment. Usha Sanyal notes that the meeting was attended by 500 Sufi sheikhs, 7000 Ulema including Naeemud Din Muradabadi, Mustafa Raza Khan (Ahmed Raza Khan’s younger son), Zafar ud Din Behari and Syed Muhammad Asharafi Jeelani of Kachhochha.
Ironically, in that conference, Pakistan was tangentially mentioned and that too not in political terms. Barelvis as a domination started supporting the Pakistan Movement almost at the same time as some of Deobandi Ulema started espousing it. It must be clarified, however, that the number of Mashaikhs from Western Punjab and also from other provinces threw in their lot behind the All India Muslim League.
To Be Continued
Tahir Kamran is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.