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Islam and Politics ( 22 Sept 2022, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How Nationalist Were the Indian Ulama?

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

23 September 2022

They Never Compromised Of Religious And Cultural Exclusivity Of Muslims

Main Points:

1.    The Ulama like Fazle Haqq Khairabadi and Shah Abdul Aziz were not anti-British, rather they cooperated with them and maintained cordial relations.

2.    Founding Deobandis like Qasim Nanotwi and Rashid Gangohi played no role in the rebellion of 1857, as it is made out to be.

3.    The Ulama became anti-British during the 1920s and that’s why they established the Khilafat Conference.

4.    They came together with the Congress and advocated for one nation policy as opposed to Muslim League’s two nation policy.

5.    However, they continued to advocate religious and cultural separatism of Muslims, which ultimately strengthened the idea of Pakistan.


The contemporary Indian Ulama are extremely fond of reminding the world that they have made immense sacrifices for the freedom of the country. Deobandi organizations like the Jamiat Ulama e Hind have even organized conferences to highlight their role in the freedom struggle. In particular, they point out the role of the Khilafat movement and how it brought Hindus and Muslims under the same umbrella aided by the Congress party. They point out, and rightly so, that Husain Ahmad Madani, a Deobandi Alim, had given the formulation of composite nationalism in opposition to the two-nation theory proposed by Muslim League.

Not to be outdone, the Barelwis argue that their sacrifices for the country go even further. They point out the central role of the Ulama during the first war of independence in 1857. In particular they hail Fazle Haq Khairabadi as their hero and tell us that he was jailed for life in the Andamans for his anti-British activities during 1857. They also remind us that it was Shah Abdul Aziz, who declared in his famous fatwa that India had become Dar al Harb, making it incumbent on all Muslims to resist the British.

But are such assertions backed by any facts on the ground or are they mere rhetorical flourishes? Let us first take the example of Shah Abdul Aziz’s oft cited fatwa. The fatwas definitely declared that India had ceased to be a Dar al Islam as it was now ruled and governed by the English. Yet nowhere in the fatwa, Abdul Aziz is remotely suggesting that Muslims should now take up arms or even other forms of resistance against the British. In fact, the true import of the fatwa needs to be understood in the backdrop of the question on which the said fatwa was requested. The question was that if India had become a Dar al Harb, then was it now allowed for Muslims to practice usury? The intent of the questioner is not whether Muslims should take up arms against the British but whether they can benefit financially from the new political situation. We know that Abdul Aziz, in at least one other fatwa, had said that it was permitted for Muslims to practice usury if they were living in Dar al Harb. Far from being anti British, Shah Abdul Aziz appears as a pragmatic Alim, making sense of the altered political fortunes of Muslims. Throughout his life, he maintained cordial relations with the English, with some of these gentlemen even visiting his house, and debating with him on religious issues. Some of his fatwas plainly state that there is no religious harm if Muslims work under the new masters, the English.

Fazle Haqq Khairabadi was jailed for life in the Andamans. But despite the gloss on his “anti-British activities during 1857”, there is nothing to prove that he actually participated in the revolt. In fact, like his father, he remained in the judicial service of the East India Company for long periods of time. As the chief judicial officer in Lucknow, he even gave a fatwa that Muslims should not rebel as they were in a minority situation. It appears that he came to Delhi during the revolt of 1857, but as he himself writes in his memoirs, he came to the city only to tell the Mughal ruler that the rebellion should be stopped. He was convicted but may be it was a case of mistaken identity or may be he was one of the many innocents who became fair game for the British rage during this time. At any rate, the available evidence does not indicate that he was active against the British during the 1857 revolt. His fame seems to be the result of his conviction and being sent to Andamans, not because of his anti-British activities.

The historian Mushirul Haqq, who was felled by the bullets of Kashmiri terrorists, conclusively proves that founders of the Deoband madrasa, like Qasim Nanotwi and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, took no part whatsoever in the rebellion of 1857. Rashid Ahmad was arrested for six months but later released as the British could not find any evidence against him. Their spiritual leader, Imdadullah Makki, left for Mecca and eventually settled there as he feared getting arrested by the British in the wake of 1857 crackdown. However, that might be due to a certain perception, rather than being actually complicit in the rebellion. In fact, their pre-1857 life is pretty obscure, and there is nothing to suggest that they were politically active against the East India Company. To make it worse, the available records in the archives do not name even one of them as being active during the 1857 rebellion.  

The Ulama probably became part of the political action for the first time during the 1920s with the launch of the Khilafat movement. This is the time when the Ulama emerged as a class of their own, and developed a consciousness of being leaders of the Muslim community. The historian Gail Minault argues that through the Khilafat movement, the Ulama were able to make long lasting networks, which they could use, much after the movement was over. Thanks to Gandhi, the Ulama got a new and unique legitimation in society, which they did not have earlier. Thanks also to Gandhi, while the Hindus were obligated to boycott the British; the Muslims were expected to campaign for the restoration of the Khilafat.

By the time the Ulama joined the national movement, their perception of the British had changed. They came to regard the British as an evil sovereign under whom Muslims could not live a Sharia compliant life. Of course, the Ulama joined the national movement, but we need to ask what was their outlook while participating in Congress led campaigns and advocating for composite nationalism. Husain Ahmad Madani, the architect of composite nationalism, himself conceded that religion is more important than the nation when he stated that “unfurling the flag of Islam is ultimate purpose” of their political activism. To paraphrase him, he argued that Hindu Muslim entente is required only till the time the British are around. In other words, when they are gone, they will wrestle with the Hindus for religious supremacy. How does this understanding even qualify as nationalism? And if the protection or establishment of the Sharia was the ultimate end, then it could be very well done by the formation of Pakistan. It is true that the nationalist Ulama opposed Pakistan, but their opposition was not convincing to many tall Muslims of the time, including a section of the Ulama.

It also seems that the advocates of one nation theory did not have a clear-cut understanding of how to balance religious diversity with claims of belonging to the same nation. There were clear religious differences between Hindus and Muslims. One way to contain this would have been to focus on other, more secular or cultural aspects of both communities and bring out the commonalities between the two. However, we find the exact opposite strategy adopted by the nationalist Ulama. They not only said that Hindus and Muslims belonged to different religions but also argued they belonged to two very different cultural traditions. The Jamiat Ulama e Hind criticized even those Muslims who had started to wear a Gandhi cap. For the Jamiat, this was an example of going away from one’s own cultural tradition. Most of them insisted on wearing what they called the Hamid/Turkish cap. We should also not forget that the Jamiat opposed Gandhi’s basic education scheme. They argued that ideas like non-violence were un-Islamic and hence should not be forced on Muslim students.

The only person who sought to promote broader non-religious solidarities between Hindus and Muslims was Maulana Azad. But then this Maulana was not recognized as a legitimate Alim by the majority of the Ulama. On their part, they were so overwhelmed by the category of religion, that they wanted to see its suzerainty over each and every aspect of Muslim life. But this is the same reason why Pakistan was being created in the first place. So, although opposed to the creation of Pakistan, the ideological confusion of the nationalist Ulama in actuality helped its creation by popularizing the religious and cultural separateness of Muslims.


A regular contributor to, Arshad Alam is a writer and researcher on Islam and Muslims in South Asia.   


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