By Ali Usman Qasmi
The author investigates the religious teachings of one Maulvi Abdullah Chakralavi, a 19th century reformer who rejected every source of religious guidance other than the Quran and was hounded for his radical ideas by the clergy of British India
25 Jan, 2013
Near Rang Mehal in Lahore's Shah Alami Gate is situated the Mohalla Chabak Sawaran. This is where Ghazi Ilam Din was born. The famous Chiniyan Wali Masjid is also located here. This mosque was built by one of Aurengzeb's nobles, Nawab Sarfraz Khan. In the recent past, its old structure was demolished in order to erect a new one in its place. From the late nineteenth century onwards, the Chiniyan Wali Masjid has remained an important centre of Ahl-e-Hadith scholars in Lahore. One such Ahl-e-Hadith scholar, who was also the prayer leader at this mosque at the turn of the twentieth century, was Maulvi Abdullah Chakralavi (d. 1916). Maulvi Abdullah later "opened" his own mosque in the adjacent Syrian Wala Bazar.
Maulvi Abdullah was born in a small village named Chakrala near Mianwali district. Not a lot is known about his origins. His real name was Qazi Ghulam Nabi. His father, Qazi Nur Alam, was a disciple of the famous saint Allah Bakhsh Taunsvi (1826-1901). This suggests that Maulvi Abdullah was raised in an environment where belief in intercessional authority of the spiritual guide and other custom-specific features of Barelvi Islam were practiced. At some later stage in his life he came under the influence of the Ahl-e-Hadith teachings. So profound was the overhauling of his religious worldview that he found fault with each of his previous dogmas and practices, even with his own name. He considered the name Ghulam Nabi - which literally means slave of the Prophet - polytheistic and changed his own name to Abdullah, the worshipper of Allah. During his stint as the Imam at the Chinian Wali Masjid in Lahore, Maulvi Abdullah Chakralvi came to the conclusion that the Quran alone is sufficient as a source of guidance for Muslims and that seeking any other source for that purpose amounts to associating partners with god, i.e. shirk - the worst of all sins.
Hundreds of Muslim scholars across India denounced Maulvi Abdullah Chakralavi as an apostate
As a result, at the turn of the twentieth century, Maulvi Abdullah Chakralavi floated the idea of supremacy of Quran as the only comprehensive and divine source of guidance for Muslims in their religious beliefs and practices. He denounced Hadith and the practices of the Prophet (PBUH) ritualized in the form of Sunnah - the second most important source of religious guidance according to the consensus of Muslim scholars for many centuries - as irrelevant. His denunciation of Hadith and Sunnah was premised on two arguments: firstly, he was sceptical of the historicity of the Prophet's (PBUH) recorded words. Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, such scholars as Alois Sprenger, William Muir and, most importantly, Ignaz Goldziher had critiqued Hadith on the grounds that the "authentic books of Hadith collections" were compiled and published hundreds of years after the Prophet's (PBUH) death. In their opinion, Ahadith remained in oral circulation for two to three hundred years and during this period thousands of unauthenticated traditions were added to its stock. The orality of the record of the Prophet's (PBUH) word was employed to discredit the compilations which were based on these traditions. Among South Asia's Muslim scholars, Sayyid Ahmad Khan came close to sharing such an opinion. But instead of discarding all the traditions, he opted to set a "rational criteria" on the basis of which individual traditions could be scrutinized and their merits or demerits evaluated. His proposed criteria was so strict that only a small portion of the vast corpus of Hadith literature could qualify as absolutely binding.
He considered the name Ghulam Nabi polytheistic, so he changed his own name to Abdullah
Between Maulvi Abdullah's first public denunciation of major portions of Hadith in 1900-01 and his ostracisation from the rest of the Muslim groups in 1902-3, he was engaged in written polemics with leading scholars of Ahl-e-Hadith. The most important of these scholars who challenged Maulvi Abdullah's ideas on the Quran and Hadith was Muhammad Husayn Batalavi - the editor of the influential Ahl-e-Hadith journal Ishat us-Sunnat. He even collected a consensual religious decree from hundreds of Muslim scholars across India denouncing Maulvi Abdullah Chakralavi as an apostate. However, Batalvi was prudent enough to add a footnote to the fatwa saying that only an Islamic government can punish an apostate to death and no individual has a right to do that in British India.
In 1903-04, Maulvi Abdullah embarked upon organizing the limited number of his followers into a distinct religious sect under the banner of Ahl al-Quran (The People of the Quran). He started broadcasting his maverick interpretations through a journal titled Ishaat ul-Quran along with tracts and monographs on various aspects of Islam. Among these works, his book Burhan ul Furqan ala Salat ul Quran is perhaps the most important. In this book (which has recently been reprinted after almost 100 years by Maktaba Akkhuwwat of Machli Mandi, Urdu Bazar Lahore), Abdullah Chakralavi has made an attempt to "extract" a Namaz based purely on the Quran. Maulvi Abdullah obstinately stuck to this new form of Namaz which, according to him, was the only way of saying prayers. His prescribed "Quranic" prayer differed from other sects in terms of the number of Rakats to be offered, some postures to be adopted and verses or salutations to be read during its rituals.
Chakralavi attempted to "extract" a Namaz based purely on the Quran
Such a prayer could not have been allowed in any mosque anywhere in India. This problem was soon overcome. Sheikh Muhammad Chittoo, the main benefactor of Maulvi Abdullah and the one who had been sponsoring the publication of his journal Ishaat ul-Quran as well as his books, came forward to write a Waqf Naama in favour of Anjuman Ahl uz-Zikr wal Quran. Hence, a mosque came into existence in Sirriyan Wala Bazar in the vicinity of Chinyan Wali Masjid.
Sheikh Chittoo died in 1911 (followed by Abdullah Chakralvi in 1916). A few years after his death, Chittoo's family filed a suit in the Lahore High Court to the effect that the waqf established by Chittoo was never executed. The claim was entered; it appears, at the behest of the opponents of the Ahl al-Quran in order to deprive the Chakralawis (a term with a rather negative connotation) of a platform from where they could carry out their propaganda. In its decision, however, the High Court in 1920 gave legitimacy to the Ahl al-Quran as a Muslim sect and hence the Waqf created by Chittoo was acknowledged to be in accordance with Muhammadan Law.
The Siryan Wala Bazar Masjid Is Now Run By Deobandis
This verdict did not desist the opponents of Ahl al-Quran from stepping up their efforts to wrest the control of the mosque. Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, editor of Zamindar, led the charge. A new strategy was adopted. As Ahl al-Quran had been accorded legitimacy by the High Court, it was requested that other Muslims too should be allowed to become part of the management of this mosque. Since the case was put before the district court, it is not possible to find the actual copy of the verdict. However, selected portions of the verdict were published in Ishaat ul-Quran in September 1925. It shows that Maulana Zafir Ali Khan and others were asked to submit security deposits of Rs. 1000 in order to avoid any unpleasant incident while the mosque was left under the control of the Anjuman.
Soon afterwards, there developed serious differences among the Ahl al-Quran followers themselves. Maulvi Hashamt Ali Khan Lahori - the leading missionary of the Ahl al-Quran after Chakralavi's death - was "excommunicated" in a rather ignominious way after being accused of abducting a woman. His rivals put in his place Mian Ahmad ud-Din as the editor of the magazine while Omar ud-Din became General Secretary of the group. With the change of guards in 1932, the Ahl al-Quran group of Maulvi Abdullah Chakralavi gradually lost all its momentum and virtually ceased to exist in Lahore. Another group with similar ideas remained strong in Amritsar (albeit under the different banner of Ummat-e-Muslima), and though it did not have organizational strength outside Punjab, individuals like Aslam Jairajpuri in Delhi continued to give strength to its ideas. But it should be made clear that Aslam Jairajpuri, or his most worthy disciple Ghulam Ahmad Pervaiz, never described themselves as Ahl al-Quran, nor did they explicitly associate themselves with Abdullah Chakralavi.
The Syrian wala bazar Masjid, along with Masjid Shaheed Ganj and Masjid Shab Bhar, can be regarded as important relics of British Punjab as all these mosques were involved in some religious controversy or the other. The Siryan wala bazar Masjid exists even today. It has been taken over by Deobandis. Qari Ahmad ud-Din, the present Mutawalli of this mosque, claims that the mosque was acquired in 1958 after making proper legal arrangements. Before that, he says, the mosque was non-functional. Rather it had become a den of criminals and drug addicts. Its present owners have compensated Abdullah Chakralvi and his followers in one way: the madrasa associated with the mosque is reserved exclusively for the teaching and memorization of the Holy Quran!
Ali Usman Qasmi holds a doctorate on Modern South Asian History from the University of Heidelberg.