Who are the Indian Muslims (and what is their 'brand' of Islam)?

[Book extract] The Islamic Connection, edited by Christophe Jaffrrelot and Laurence Louer, explores the eclectic Indo-Persianate world.

 |  14-minute read |   24-01-2018
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Revisiting the old notion of "acculturation" from the point of view of the "connected history" school of thought, Sanjay Subrahmanyam argues that when civilisations meet, "Time and again, then, we are forced to come to terms with a situation that is not one of mutual indifference, or of a turning of backs, or of a deep-rooted incomprehension, but of shifting vocabularies, and changes that are wrought over time by improvisations that eventually come to be part of a received tradition."

In South Asia, Muslims have invented their own "brand" of Islam soon after their arrival in the region, following their encounter with the dominant civilisation, Hinduism. Certainly, the Caliphate played a role in the initial conquest of South Asian territories by Arabs in the 8th century. It was the Khalifah al-Walid bin Abdul Malik, who, hearing that Arab traders had been captured by the ruler of Sind, asked the governor of Baghdad to send an army to liberate them in 711. The soldiers of Muhammad bin Qasim did more than that and conquered the whole of Sind.

The social structure of the Muslims of South Asia, who became dominant in spite of their remaining a minority, reflects their attachment to the Arabian peninsula: the upper strata was made of those (the Syed) who claimed that they descended from the Prophet.

Another source of prestige came from the accomplishment of the Mecca pilgrimage (the Hajj), the title "Hajji" being affixed to the name of those who had done it. However, the Muslims who brought Islam to South Asia in a sustainable manner were not those who used the sword to conquer the region and/or who looked back, but the Sufis who made India a sacred land for Muslims, as mentioned in the introduction of this volume, after the establishment of khanqahs (buildings designed for the gathering of Sufis saints’ disciples) and dargahs (tombs of saints) which became major pilgrimage centres.

Not only did Muslims of medieval India distance themselves from the holy cities of Arabia and develop sacred sites across "their" land, they also initiated spiritual relations with the Hindus. While orthodox scholars developed forms of Islamic proselytisation in order to convert these "infidels" (kafirs),  some Sufis and several Muslim rulers promoted a very substantial spiritual dialogue with Hindus.

islamic_012318064717.jpgThe Islamic Connection; Penguin; Rs 699

The encounter of Sufis and Yogis resulted in rich spiritual exchanges. For making possible this dialogue, which reached its culminating point during the Mughal empire under Akbar, spiritual treaties were translated from Sanskrit to Persian and Arabic. Besides, after 1579, Akbar appeared as a competitor for the Caliph himself as suggested by Sanjay Subrahmanyam: In early September 1579, a group of theologians, including the Shaikh ul-Islam, were pressurised into signing a text claiming for Akbar a special status of Padshah-i Islam, beyond that even of a Sultan-i Adil. […] one of the epithets used for him was now Mujtahid, as also Imam-i Adil, the latter startlingly close to the usages favoured at one time by Süleyman.

Indeed, the challenges was directed in good measures at the Ottomans, who had claimed superior status as the Khalifas of the east, with their conquest of Egypt. These words and the spiritual innovations of Akbar reflected the great autonomy of the Indo-Islamic civilisation vis-à-vis West Asia, including the holy cities of the Arabian peninsula and Istanbul, the seat of the Caliphate. But the fact that Akbar claimed that he was a kind of Caliph also shows that the Indian Muslims were deeply attached to the idea of the Caliphate, that they somewhat tried to replicate. And when the Mughal Empire started to wane, the attitude of the Muslim Indians towards the Ottomans changed.

Local Muslim rulers threatened by the Europeans turned to the Ottoman Sultan for help and recognition in the 18th century, including those of the Malabar coast and Tipu Sultan, the warlord of southern India who put up the most successful resistance to the British.

Tipu Sultan sent an ambassador to Constantinople in 1785 requesting that he bring back a letter of investiture from the Ottoman Sultan and military support. He got the former, but not the latter.

The declining Mughal dynasty also turned towards the Ottoman Sultan. In fact, the less power the dynasty retained, the more Indian Muslims turned to the Caliph as their protector. In the first half of the 19th century, "the name of the Ottoman sultan definitely came to be mentioned in the Friday khutba in some Indian mosques".

Gradually, Indian ulama recognised the Ottoman sultans as the holder of the universal caliphate. This trend reached its logical conclusion after the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II (1775-1862) was deposed and exiled to Rangoon in the wake of the 1857 mutiny which marked the final phase of the Mughal decline.

Interactions between Indian Islamic scholars and their alter egos based in Arabia definitely intensified after 1857, as we will see in the first section of this chapter. Yet these exchanges were never univocal. In fact, both groups of scholars influenced one another. This phase set a pattern that persisted during the Khilafat movement and peaked during the Pakistan movement whose intellectual in chief, Muhammad Iqbal, cultivated an independent view of Islam.

After 1947, Pakistan itself tried to invent a distinctive trajectory. But its relation to Islam was more and more influenced by the Saudi "doxa" from the 1970s onwards.

Mutual influences in the ‘Muslim cosmopolis’: ‘the spirit of 1857’ pattern

Historians have characterised "the spirit of 1857" which developed among Indian Islamic scholars on the basis of a complex set of features. Seema Alavi argues that the repression of the mutiny and the subsequent decline of the Indian Muslims "generated not simply a widespread anti-British mood but also a public debate on the interpretation of religious scriptures and tradition and discussions on individual authorship, literary styles, appropriation of scientific inquiry, public service, and definitions of loyal subjecthood".

We will focus here only on the dialogue that the proponents of this "spirit" maintained with other scholars of Mecca and Medina. At the time, these cities were vibrant loci of intellectual exchanges where Indian Muslim thinkers migrated in the wake of the Mutiny. These émigrés were often disciples of Shah WaliuIlah, the Delhi-based theologian who had visited these two places more than a century before. They had inherited from him an attempt at combining "the Sufi doctrine with the monist doctrine". This "India-specific Arabic tradition" mixed two dimensions generally held as mutually exclusive: the belief in one Allah and his Prophet (as taught by the Naqshbandi shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi) on the one hand and the role of intermediaries between men and god (as taught by the Sufi saint Ibn-i-Arabi).

Hence a compromise of "the Sufi Ibn-i-Arabi’s wahdat-ul-wajud (unity of being) and Sirhindi’s conservative wahdat-um-shahud (unity of existence)".

This typically Indian legacy was popular beyond the subcontinent. Indeed, it is as a Sufi of the Naqshbandiya order - probably the Sufi order with the most resilient transnational network - that Shah WaliuIlah had visited the Arabian peninsula and started a conversation that never stopped afterwards. In 1802, for instance, Khalid Naqshbandi had come from Iraq to Delhi to study with Shah WaliuIlah’s son, Shah Abd-al Aziz.

Similarly, Islamic scholars from the subcontinent influenced the locals after 1857 when Ottoman caliph Abd-al Aziz and his successor Abd-al Hamiod II "hosted Indian émigrés and energised their networks", because of their sense of religious solidarity, but also to get to know better their British rivals.

Among them, Rahmatullah Kairanwi (1818-92) played a pioneering role. One of the rebel leaders of Kairana (Muzzafarnagar district) in 1857, Kairanwi - who had established a madrasa teaching Shah WaliuIlah’s ideas - fled to the Arabian peninsula after the post-Mutiny repression. He attended the lectures of a specialist of the Shafi jurisprudence in Mecca and then "set up his own study circle at the Kaaba in Mecca, and had his name included in the list of the ulema of the sanctum sanctorum of Mecca".

The influence of Kairanwi is worth describing in the words of Seema Alavi: "He exported to Mecca this Mughal gentlemanly practice of cultural tolerance and accommodation."

This ethos found expression in an attempt "to unite diverse Muslim sects and ideologues", including Sufi silsilas. Kairanwi showed the way by being initiated into both the Naqshbandiyya and the Suhrawardiyya orders, displaying the "very Indic practice of multiple initiations into diverse Sufi brotherhoods". Besides, Kairanwi - who had had debates with missionaries in India - "encouraged a dialogue between Muslims and the Christian world".

In one of his books he also "demystifies the Koran by highlighting its exceptionality in terms of its poetic meter and rhythm, rather than its mere revealed nature". All these ideas were debated in Kairanwi’s madrasa, Saulatiyya - today one of the fountainheads of Wahhabism - which was then a symbol of Mecca’s cosmopolitanism.

Another proponent of "the spirit of 1857" who had left Muzzafarnagar and fled to Mecca, Haji Imdadullah Makki, made a similar impact on this cosmopolite city. His khanqah "earned its authority by establishing a middle ground for the four different Sufi families of the Naqshbandiyyas, Qadrariyyas, Chistiyyas, and Suhrawardiyyas".

He combined sufi practices and an emphasis on the Koran, the Hadith and the Prophet who became "a model to be emulated", in the vein of Imdadullah’s mentor, Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi - who was himself a disciple of Shah WaliuIlah. This "eclectic" overtone, typical of the Indic tradition, prepared the ground for Imdadullah’s attempt at uniting the Muslims who, according to him were divided by the way they celebrated the birth of the Prophet, prayed for the dead, celebrated the cult of the Saints, sung in praise of God, among other things. For each of these bones of contention, Imdadullah tried to find a compromise. His strongest critiques came from the Wahhabis.

Imdadullah challenged them "on their rigid stand against the rituals of faith", dismissed their claims that some of the Sufi practices came from Hinduism and defended the "urs" as an opportunity for Muslims "to congregate and meet likeminded people".

Seema Alavi concludes her fascinating portrait of Imdadullah by emphasising that through his "plea to his readers to be tolerant", he "transferred to Mecca the Indian brand of Sufi spirituality" that harked back to Shah WaliuIlah. She explains that "this Indic tradition flowered in Mecca because […] the city had been home to the Delhi Naqshbandiyya mujahids since the late eighteenth century".

Imdadullah "desired to create a form of standardised conduct that could weld the South Asian and Middle-Eastern Muslim worlds together".

He delivered lectures at the Madrasa Saulatiya to Rahmatulla’s students who came in large numbers from Deoband. He "hoped that they would become the conduit by which the Meccan reformist spirit of the Rahmatullah brand and his cosmopolitanism based on standardised forms of public conduct would reach Hindustan and transform its reformist seminaries".

While Indian scholars influenced their peers in Mecca along pluralist lines, other kinds of interactions resulted in variants of Salafism.

Indeed, the Ahl-i-Hadith movement of India and Wahhabism showed "strong similarities" in the 1860s. While they developed separately first, drawing their inspiration from Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the medieval jurist, "the two groups discovered how close their thinking was when their paths crossed during the pilgrimage to Mecca".

The princely state of Bhopal played a key role in this intellectual convergence. Indeed, as the British conquest sealed the fate of the Mughal Empire, some of its successor states related assiduously to the Arabian Peninsula as the "new" epicentre of Islam. The state of Bhopal - the second largest Muslim-ruled state after Hyderabad - was a case in point. During her pilgrimage to Mecca in 1863, Sikander Begum had met a Yemenite scholar, zain al-Abidin and invited him to become the qadi al-qudat (chief judge) of her state. This man and his brother, Husain bin Muhsin al-Hudaidi, who was appointed by the Begum as a teacher of the local dar ul-hadith (house of the teaching of the prophetic traditions), propagated, in India, the teaching of the Yemenite scholar and qadi, Muhammad bin Ali ash-Shaukani (died 1834) who had become famous because of his rejection of the taqlid (the strict adherence to one school of law). He insisted, on the contrary, on the necessity to base any legal opinion on the Quran and the Sunna.

In Bhopal, the two Yemeni brothers also publicised the teachings of Ibn Taimiyyah who had already influenced Shah WaliuIlah, who, interestingly, had apparently "studied under the same Medinese hadith scholar Muhammad Haya al-Sindi (died 1750)" as Abd al-Wahhabin in Mecca.

In Bhopal, a key role was played by Siddiq Hasan Khan (1832-90), whose father had taken part in Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi’s jihad and who had migrated from Rae Bareli to Bhopal, where he had been asked to write the history of the state. He was exposed to the teaching of the two Yemeni brothers, but influenced them in return. In 1869, he went to Mecca for his first pilgrimage. Upon his return to Bhopal, he followed a kind of middle way. On the one hand he critiqued "the idea that the Wahhabis had stamped Islamic universalism with territorial localism" and on the other he attacked "those who believe[d] in pir and fakir worship".

Siddiq started a conversation with the Wahhabis which intensified in the course of time, as evident from the correspondence between the Wahhabi shaykh Hamad Ibn Atiq and Siddiq Hasan Khan, who, then, played a major role in the making of the Ahl-i-Hadith. While the founder of the Ahl-i-Hadith movement, in 1864, Nazir Husayn (1805-1902), was based in Delhi, his main patron was indeed Siddiq Hasan Khan, who after becoming the first secretary of the Diwan (prime minister) at the court of Bhopal, married the Begum in 1871.

In his letters to Siddiq Hasan Khan, Ibn Atiq not only complimented him for his exegesis of the Quran but complained that Najdi scholars did not have enough copies of classical works. Hasan Khan sent books to him and one year later, in 1881, the elder son of Ibn Atiq, Sad bin Atiq (1850-1930), travelled to India where he was to spend nine years, mostly in Bhopal. He was to be followed by many others, including one of his brothers.

In the early 1880s, Muhammad bin Ibrahim Alkusaiyar, visited him in Bhopal, bringing many books about Salafism. After coming back from India, Sad bin Atiq was appointed by Ibn Saud as a judge (qadi) in Riyadh and imam of the city’s grand mosque, an office that gave him great influence over the education of the young generation of Wahhabi "ulama".

Among his students was Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, who was to become the vice-president and then the head of Islamic University of Medina, an institution we will return to. This connection suggests that, if Wahhabis have influenced Indian Muslims, the Ahl-i-Hadith movement has also played some role in the development of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Besides exchanging ideas and sending money, Hasan Khan established diplomatic ties between the state of Bhopal - ruled by his wife, the Begum Shah Jahan - and the Sharif of Mecca. This transnational networking was perceived by the British as a manifestation of pan-Islamism, all the more so as Hasan Khan also corresponded with Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II. Hasan Khan was deposed in 1885 for sedition, but also because of his "Wahhabism" - a label abhorred by the British due to the Saudi challenge to the domination of their Empire.

However, the Ahl-i-Hadith movement acquired "a corporate identity" in 1906, with the creation of the All India Jamiat-i-Ahl-i-Hadith.

To sum up: While the medieval era had seen the formation of an Indo-Islamic civilisation based on Sufism and the Mughal Indo-Persianate culture mentioned in the introduction of this volume, Indian Muslims, after losing their own variant of the Caliph, the Mughal emperor, turned to the cradles of Islam, including Mecca and Constantinople.

However, the proponents of "the spirit of 1857" tried to export their version of Islam in Arabia, in the framework of what Seema Alavi called "Muslim cosmopolitanism". These were years of intense debates between the Indo-Persianate tradition and "an aggressive Arabicist prescriptive Islam".

This encounter resulted, inter alia, in the emergence of the Ahl-i-Hadith school, that was partly indigenous and partly shaped by Wahhabi influence. The intellectual interactions described above offer a good illustration of the point that Stéphane Lacroix made in his book, even though he refers mostly there to non-South Asian influences: "although Saudi Arabia is often considered solely as a power that exports Islam, it also has to be seen as a recipient of influences emanating from most currents of 19th and 20th century Islamic revivalism".

(Reprinted with the publisher's permission) 

Also read: Understanding Israel as an Indian Muslim


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