Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Town Moves Against Islamic School

Don't you hate it when people say "We're (insert nationality here) you Muslims don't belong here." Read More...

Keeping busy

Today we got quite a bit of work done.

Free writing II

This is a free-writing exercise about spring and how it affects our surroundings. She was supposed to write something without any help.This is a part of the Saxon Math program.

3D fruits

We made 3D fruits(a watermelon and an apple courtesy of enchanted learning) today and yesterday and made a mini-mobile with them. Do you know how hard it was for me to find a wire hanger in the house?! We had one. Makes me think of this.

We're also exploring the different phases of the day, such as morning and afternoon.


Once noon comes in my daughter switches the clock. This is actually part of the Saxon Math program but we are also using it to talk about other parts of the day and night in relation to prayer times and the rising and setting of the sun.

Since the baby is on it's way, InshaALLAH, I've also got to keep busy studying Arabic in the evenings. I've taken three courses online through Shariah Program and Sunni Path. I have most of what I need to keep going on my own, InshaALLAH but I need to strengthen my vocabulary and focus on the ten forms of verbs. Arabic is not easy and takes lots of endurance.

I've also been busy getting sweaters, blankets and booties ready. I made this sweater using a pattern by Lorraine Major Quick Mystery Baby Sweater

and I started the Vintage Stripe Blanket via Bella Dia
by chaining 150 but it might still be a wee bit too big. It is made with odds and ends of yarns that I have. Oh well, this will be a warm baby, InshaALLAH.

Vintage Stripe Blanket

You can also check it out on ravelry and I shall also need to make Saartje's Bootees to go along with the sweater. Read More...

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Sufi Maulvi of Gandoh

Yoginder Sikand

The narrow road snaked its way through towering slopes, throwing up enormous clouds of dust. It passed by little hamlets, comprising a couple of houses built around pagoda-shaped mosques and box-like temples with sloping roofs made of corrugated iron. Tiny patches of wheat and mustard, like patchwork quilts, straddled the edge of the stream that rushed down from the snow-capped peaks in the distance with an irrepressible passion to merge into the Chenab beyond. Children played cricket on improvised pitches on patches of land left fallow or lazed around on conical haystacks. Weather-beaten Bakkarwal men, with their hennaed beards and loosely wound turbans, led flocks of hairy mountain goats. Their children and womenfolk followed after them, driving mules laden with pots, pans and bedding—their mobile homes. The perfect picture of serenity.

That picture is, however, frighteningly deceptive. Like the rest of Jammu and Kashmir's Doda district, the Gandoh tehsil has been wracked by fifteen or more years of ongoing conflict. Gandoh is one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Doda. Straddling the border with Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, it has a Muslim majority, with a Hindu minority of a little more than a third of the population. Historically, relations between Hindus and Muslims here have been fairly cordial. Many of Gandoh's Muslims are descendants of converts from various local castes, although a sizeable number are also ethnic Kashmiris. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to distinguish local Hindus from Muslims from their facial features, although sometimes it is possible through their dress, as in the case of Muslims associated with the Deobandi-inspired Tablighi Jamaat (a relatively new phenomenon in these parts), with their distinct way of wearing their shalwars above their ankles, their long, bushy beards and their shaven moustaches. In terms of economic conditions, too, Hindus and Muslims appear, on the whole, roughly equally poor, Gandoh being one of the most 'backward' parts of Doda. Most people here earn their livelihood through animal husbandry and tilling tiny patches of terraced land up in the mountains and in the narrow valleys between them.

It was a little after noon that we arrived in Bhatias, a settlement consisting of a row of houses and shops along the main road, some seven kilometers from Gandoh town. Exhausted and ravenous, we entered a tea-shop, whose amiable owner rustled up for us a sumptuous meal of rajma-chawal, standard fare in these parts.

We shared the single table with a friendly young Muslim man, a peasant from a village nearby. 'Times are bad', he said gravely. 'Just the other day, a young man was killed in a village in this area'. He went on to speak about how a group of militants had stopped the vehicle of a local BJP activist, demanded that the Special Police Officer accompanying the man hand them his weapon, and then fled into the forest on the other side of the river. In retaliation, he said, a Hindu member of the local Village Defence Committee (VDC) had shot dead a Muslim lad in the village, the only son of his parents. The boy, he stressed, had nothing to do with militancy. The enraged Muslims of the village demanded that the VDC member be arrested and his weapon, provided to him by the state, be seized. Consequently, he went on, several Hindu families had left the village and were camping in Gandoh in order to prevent this from happening.

'The situation in the village is still very tense', the man said, when we asked him if we could go there to see things for ourselves.

The man shortly left us, and a short while later we were joined at the table by an elderly Hindu, a shopkeeper. His version of the recent events was quite different. According to him, the boy had been killed in cross-firing between militants and the VDC team and had not been deliberately killed by the latter. Fearing retaliation by militants, he said, several Hindu families had fled the village and had taken refuge in Gandoh.

Although we could no verify whose claim was correct, the two very different accounts of the same event brought home to us the sharp communal divide in Gandoh, a result of the many years of unrelenting conflict and violence the area has witnessed. At the same time, what was equally striking was how, despite the walls of suspicion that have come up between local Hindus and Muslims, the two communities continue to live together in the same towns and villages in relative peace, barring occasional incidents. While sporadic killings of civilians lead to further polarisation and mistrust, there are other forces that are at work that help maintain centuries'-old bonds between Hindus and Muslims in this area. And one of these was a Sufi we had come all the way from Doda town to meet, Haji Sahib of Akhiyarpur.

A two-hour walk up a steep slope brought us to Akhiyarpur, to Haji Saheb's modestly furnished meeting chamber. We were accompanied half the way by two local Muslim youth, who, while they said they were the best of friends, were politically completely at odds. The older one was bitter about the militants, and insisted that most locals, Muslims, and, of course, Hindus, felt the same way. His cousin, he told us, had been kidnapped and killed by a group of militants because he had refused to pay them a certain sum that they had demanded or else provide them with one of his own sons as a recruit. 'Earlier, many militants were in the movement for purely ideological reasons and that is why they enjoyed considerable support', he stressed. 'But now', he said, 'unemployed and illiterate youth have joined the movement. Wielding a gun gives them a sense of power, which some of them don't hesitate to misuse to settle their own personal scores'.

The man's friend shrugged off his comments. 'Don't listen to him', he insisted. He made no effort to conceal his support for the militants and their cause. 'Muslims continue to be persecuted in India. See what happened in Gujarat', he said. 'So, how can we ever willingly agree to live in a country where Muslims have no place?', he wanted to know.

The men left us roughly half way up the mountain. For the rest of the strenuous walk ahead I juggled in my mind what they both had said, trying to imagine how I would have looked at the world if I were in their place. The thought was hardly comforting, for, clearly, like almost everyone else in the area, they had seen or else heard of death and destruction in their neighbourhood on an almost daily basis.

When we finally arrived at Akhiyarpur and entered Haji Sahib's room, he was sitting in a corner on a mattress with a crowd of supplicants in rows in front of him. Most of them were Muslims, but some, I later discovered, were Hindus, too. A few of them had come from so far as Poonch and Kathua in the hope of a miraculous cure to their woes. One by one they narrated their troubles to Haji Sahib in hushed tones. He listened to each of them patiently, advising them on what to do.

After the last of his other visitors had left, Haji Saheb turned towards us. His eyes were soft, yet sad, gentle and the same time firm and determined. He looked considerably younger than the roughly seventy that we were told he was.

Haji Sahib, we had been told, was a Sufi who was held in considerable respect and reverence by many local Muslims as well as Hindus. He went on, on our asking him, to tell us about himself.

He had, he told us, taught for over four decades in various government schools in Gandoh tehsil and was now running the one of the area's few private schools. In this relatively inaccessible and impoverished part of Doda, this was no mean achievement. The school is till the tenth grade and is affiliated to the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education. Most of the roughly 1000 students come from poor families, and the fees are relatively low. Numerous very poor children receive education free of cost. The school has a number of Hindu students, and almost a tenth of its teachers are Hindus, the rest being Muslims. In addition to the school, Haji Sahib has set up a madrasa, the Jamia Ganiatul Ulum, which has some fifty students training to become ulama or Islamic clerics. Most of these children are from impoverished families, and in the madrasa they receive free education, boarding and lodging as well as the possibility of a job as a religious specialist once they graduate.

Our conversation turned to the ongoing conflict in the region. Hindus and Muslims, Haji Sahib assured us, had traditionally lived harmoniously in the area, even in the tumultuous days of the Partition. Killing an innocent person, he referred to the Qur'an as saying, is tantamount to slaying the whole of humankind. That principle applied in every case, he stressed, when I asked him about the atrocities committed both by militants as well as Indian soldiers, which were not few in number. 'May God grant the world His blessings', he cryptically replied in response to my query about the possibility of a realistic resolution to the Kashmir conflict.

The Haji Saheb insisted we spend the night in the village. In any case, we had missed the last vehicle to Doda and it was simply too dangerous to trek back to the main road after sunset. And so we were directed to the house of a friend of the Haji Sahib, a steep ascent ahead.

An hour later we found ourselves snuggled under layers of thick cotton quilts, tucking into a sumptuous meal in the house of the principal of Haji Sahib's school. The principal and his son were impeccable hosts, and despite the fact that we were complete strangers and uninvited guests we were treated like some long-lost friends.

We talked late into the night, mostly on the ongoing conflict and the impact this had had on Hindu-Muslim relations. Before we finally retired for the night, the principal read out to us a letter written by him and recently published in a Jammu-based Urdu newspaper.

To protest the deadly massacre of more than two dozen Hindus in Kulhand, a hamlet near Doda, this May, the letter stated, Jammu town observed a complete shut-down. That very morning the principal's grandson, a student in Jammu University, had to appear for an important examination. He assumed that because of the strike the examination had been postponed. In the afternoon, he rang up a Hindu friend of his, who told him, to his shock, that the examination was actually on schedule and that he had just entered the examination hall. No vehicles were plying in the streets that day and the principal's son had no way out to reach the university. However, his friend magnanimously rushed out of the examination hall and sped on his motorcycle all the way to his house and picked him. They arrived in the examination hall just in time to write their paper.

'Such examples of Hindu-Muslim harmony and friendship must be regularly highlighted in the press', the letter stressed. It concluded with a line in which the principal revealed that he had sent an appeal to the Chief Minister to announce a reward to his grandson's Hindu friend for having 'served as a model of communal harmony'.

The next morning, after a heavy breakfast which we had to accept after much protest, we trudged down the mountain back to the main road to head back to Doda town. And as the principal hugged me in farewell, I promised him that I would, in my own modest way, do what he had advised in his letter: to highlight this instance of love and friendship beyond communal boundaries as a lesson that others could emulate.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Innovative NGO-Ulema Collaborative Effort for Muslim Education: The Jeevan Talim Project in Kutch

Yoginder Sikand

The Jeevan Talim project in rural Kutch in northern Gujarat represents a pioneering and innovative effort to bring Muslim ulema or religious scholars to work along with secular NGOs for Muslim community development. A joint project of the New Delhi based Jamiat-e Ulema-e Hind and the Ahmedabad-based Janvikas, through its initiative Udaan, a resource centre working on primary education, it started in 2004 with a grant from Misereor, a Germany-based Catholic relief and development agency.

Hitherto, the Jamiat focused mainly on providing religious education to Muslim children through a vast chain of madrasas and maktabs, and providing relief in the event of natural disasters and anti-Muslim violence. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Kutch in 2001, the Jamiat played a crucial role in relief and reconstruction efforts. This, says Ahmad Shaikh, a senior Jamiat leader based in Ahmedabad, marked a significant change in its policies and priorities, because its activities in the state had till then been restricted largely to providing religious education and constructing and maintaining mosques. It was for the first time, in the course of its relief work in Kutch, that the Jamiat had the chance to work with some secular NGOs.

The almost complete loss of faith in the system of the Muslims of Gujarat in the wake of the genocidal anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002 provided the context for the Jamiat, as well as a few other Muslim groups in Gujarat, that were earlier concerned almost wholly with issues of religious education and identity, to become more involved in practical efforts to address the pathetic educational, economic and social conditions of large sections of the Muslim population of the state. This set the ground for collaboration between the Jamiat and Janvikas to work together to devise and launch the Jeevan Talim project.

Janvikas has been working with marginalized communities in Gujarat, including Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, for several years now, mainly on issues of education, economic empowerment and human rights. In the wake of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, it played an active role in relief work, in highlighting widespread human rights abuses and in fighting legal cases on behalf of a number of innocent Muslims who had been arrested on false charges. The menacing rise of Hindutva fascist forces and the consequent escalating enforced ghettoisation of Muslims across Gujarat were viewed by Janvikas activists as a dangerous phenomenon that urgently needed to be tackled on various fronts. One of these fronts was the educational sector. In many cases, Muslims were barred from studying or working in private Hindu-owned schools, faced increased discrimination in government schools and continued to be neglected in government-funded educational programmes. To add to this was the tendency on the part of some Islamic groups who sought to promote insular tendencies among the community, particularly through the madrasas. Many of these Muslim groups and their educational institutions focused only on Islamic education, lacked inner democratic functioning, paid little or no attention to issues of Muslim girls’ education and had few or no links with non-Muslims, including even secular groups. Hence, Janvikas felt it imperative to work in the field of Muslim education and to interact closely with traditional Muslim religious and other community leaders in order to promote a new sort of Muslim leadership that would address the community’s economic and educational marginalization and work with secular, non-Muslim forces on issues of common concern, such as the struggle against communalism, fascism, and mounting social and economic inequalities and exclusion.

It was in 2002, in the wake of the state-sponsored campaign of horrific violence unleashed against Muslims in Gujarat, that activists from Janvikas and the Jamiat first met. This was in the course of seeking to provide relief to the victims of this unprecedented wave of anti-Muslim violence in the state. Working jointly on common issues and projects at this time, such as providing legal aid for Muslim youth indiscriminately arrested, mostly on false charges, and constructing houses for violence-effected families, activists of both organizations were able to cement a strong bond of trust and confidence. Building on this, the next year Janvikas and the Jamiat decided to work together in the field of Muslim education in the dry and relatively barren northern parts of Kutch district in Gujarat, home to a sizeable and largely poverty-stricken Muslim population characterized by very low literacy levels. This pilot project, christened Jeevan Talim or ‘Life Education’, was envisaged as a community initiative of the Jamiat undertaken with assistance from Janvikas through Udaan, which the local community would eventually manage on its own and sustain in the long-run in cooperation with the Jamiat.

The aim of the project was to provide access to remedial, pluralistic and inclusive education and basic numerical and literacy skills to Muslim children in the age group 4-10 years in selected parts of Kutch where no government-funded educational facilities exist. It was hoped that in this way these children would be enabled to later take admission in a government school at the fourth or fifth grade level. The project entailed using the Jamiat’s existing network of maktabs. The Jivan Talim classes would be organised in the maktab precincts, or, in villages and hamlets that did not have maktabs, in the porch of the local mosque, with the timings suitably adjusted so that the children’s Islamic education would not be interrupted or disturbed. In this way, the project was seen as helping to expand the scope of maktab education. Where possible, the maulvi or Islamic scholar teaching in the maktab would be engaged to take the Jeevan Talim classes as well, for which he would be paid an additional sum. If there was no maulvi available in the village or hamlet or nearby, then a local youth, male or female, would be engaged for this. Because the levels of education in rural Kutch, particularly among Muslims, are extremely low, provision was also made for providing suitable pedagogical training to the maulvis and the local youth selected as instructors in the Jeevan Talim centres. Subjects to be taught in the centres included basic literacy in Gujarati, the official state language, numerical skills, environmental awareness, as well as songs and theatre. It was expected that after finishing the Mahatam course, children would be able to join the nearest government school.

To begin with, a total of 14 villages in northern Kutch, many of them on the fringes of the Rann, a vast stony desert that spills across the border into nieghbouring Pakistan, were selected for purposes of the project. Most of them had no government schools, and in those few that did the teachers came very irregularly or not at all. Two villages had Hindu and Dalit inhabitants also, including one where the students who attended the Jeevan Talim centres were all Dalits. Today, the project runs 32 centres in different parts of rural Kutch, with a total of some 900 children, boys and girls, studying in them in all.

Despite various challenges that it has faced, the Jeevan Talim project has been able to make considerable headway, although not as much as was envisaged when the project was formulated. The number of centres has expanded, and a team of four supervisors and one coordinator regularly visits the centres, monitors and evaluates them, and, along with the instructors, sets periodic examinations for the children. The development of the curriculum remains an on-going project, and this is discussed at the monthly meetings of teachers and Udaan activists at the Jamiat’s office in Bhuj. In addition, instructors’ training and refresher programmes are organised every three months, where teachers also share their experiences and the problems that they and the children face.

Given the extremely harsh terrain in which the Jeevan Talim project functions, the pathetic economic conditions of the people, their lack of a culture of literacy, the poor communications, the inability to get trained teachers, the rapid turn-over of the teachers and so on, the project has been able to at least help galvanise people’s interest in educating their children. The fact that literally hundreds of Kutchi Muslim children, whose families do not know how to read and write at all, are now able to recognize letters and write them and solve basic mathematical calculations, a result of the project, is no mean achievement.

The project has also had a positive impact on people’s attitudes towards education. As Saleem, a resident of Umrani village, puts it, ‘Now only very few people, especially the elderly, will say that there is no use educating our children because in any case they will not get a government job and because they will, like their ancestors, grow to become cattle-grazers. Even the poorest families are now aware of the need for education, and in this the Jeevan Talim project has played a central role’. ‘It has’, he adds, ‘made us feel that the centre and its work are our own, that through the centre the children can receive education joyfully’.

Another positive outcome of the project has been to undermine the process that was leading to the enforced ghettoisation of Muslim education, a result primarily of discrimination practiced by the state and large sections of the Hindu community. Although the vast majority of the children, teachers and supervisors associated with the project are Muslims, a substantial number of Hindus and Dalits are also closely involved in the project in different capacities, including as teachers, students and project support staff.

This gives the children, their parents and the ulema of the maktabs as well as Jamiat leaders opportunities to interact with people of other faiths in the course of the work of the Jeevan Talim centres, a process that helps undermine prejudices on both sides. As Maulana Hakimuddin Qasmi, in-charge of the Jamiat’s Children’s Village in Anjar, and closely involved in the Jeevan Talim project, says, ‘In the Quran, Allah says that we should help each other in good deeds. This also means that people of goodwill of all faiths should work together for serving the needy. That’s what the Jeevan Talim project is all about. Likewise, the Jamiat has built houses for some needy Hindus, whose houses were destroyed in the riots.’

‘Some people might ask us why we are working with non-Muslims for educating our children’, he goes on. ‘My reply to them is that after the Battle of Badr, the Prophet Muhammad agreed to release the prisoners of war if they would teach a certain number of Muslims to read and write. So, if he could ask the enemies of the Muslims to educate his people, why cannot we seek the help of those non-Muslims who are certainly not our enemies, people like the Udaan staff who are our friends, to help us educate our children? We all can, and must, learn from each other’.

Maulana Hakimudin also explains that although the Jamiat is associated with the Deobandi school of thought, several villages where the Jeevan Talim centres are located are associated with another sect, the Ahl-e Hadith, and one centre is located in a Dalit settlement. ‘As this illustrates, true religion means that one should work for the welfare of all needy people, irrespective of caste and religion’, he insists.

The Jeevan Talim project has also had an impact on several Jamiat leaders in terms of the vision that they have set for their organisation. ‘Experiments like the Jamiat’s Children School and the Jeevan Talim project have convinced us of the need for more ulema and ulema-led organizations to work on issues related to modern, including girls’, education and economic empowerment, in addition to religious education’, says Maulana Hakimudin. He reveals that the Jamiat now plans to set up two colleges in Kutch, having already launched some training courses for women at its centre in Bhuj. ‘All these years’, he notes, ‘because of persistent anti-Muslim violence and threats to Muslim identity, Muslim organizations have been forced to focus almost wholly on relief and rehabilitation and provision of religious education. But now we must expand the scope of our work.’

‘We need to get more professional’, he admits. ‘As of now, we can run only madrasas properly, and so we recognize the continuing need for working with NGOs like Udaan for the educational projects that we have in mind. I think that there is a lot of good that can come about if non-Muslim or secular NGOs work together with Muslim organizations, including those led by ulema, for the benefit of the marginalized. The ulema and other Muslim leaders must give this more serious thought’, he stresses.

Likewise, the impact of the project on local understandings of appropriate gender-related behaviour and notions concerning gender-relations cannot be discounted. For many families, their girl children are able to study for the first time because the centres are located in the village itself and because the instructors are from the local community. Besides, the female instructors in some villages and the female members of the Udaan support staff who regularly visit the various centres might, through their very presence, impact in a positive manner on local people’s ideas about the roles of girls and women. The same is true in the case of the ulema whom these women interact with, including both the maktab teachers as well as the maulvis of the Jamiat.

Thus, for instance, Maulvi Ghulam Muhammad Qasmi, rector of the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia, the large Deobandi madrasa in Bhuj which is associated with the Jamiat, who is also associated, through the Jamiat, with the Jeevan Talim project, says, ‘Initially, we did have some hesitations and misconceptions about working with a non-Muslim NGO, especially since many of its activists with whom we had to interact are women. But after several meetings with Udaan activists all our fears were put to rest. I have observed these girls, they are so respectful. They are now like my own children. Now, we regularly meet them and give them whatever help they want because we trust them. We believe that the work we want must be done properly, no matter by whom.’

The teachers and the villagers recognize the fact that the work that the Jeevan Talim project aims to do is actually the responsibility of the government, which is bound by the Constitution of the country to provide free and accessible education to every child. Thus, Hakim Bhai, a village elder from Tanka village remarks, ‘Our conditions can only change if the government is pressurized to do something’. ‘Till then’, he grimly adds, ‘the efforts of groups like the Jamiat and Udaan are welcome, but of course they can hardly suffice on their own.’


Studying the Night Skies


I apologize for my absence it has been a little while. I've suffered from iron deficiency anemia in all of my previous pregnancies and this one is no exception. I am tired quite often and usually succumb to a nap in the late afternoon.

So we've been going right along with our school work as usual and everything is going fine. We had a bit of a mysterious disappearance the other day. We planted our sunflower seeds in some empty egg cartons and the next day, they were gone! My daughter was very disappointed so I guess we will have to try it again.

One observation that I made about my daughter is that she hates to fail. She hasn't failed anything yet but she did miss a few questions on one of her assessments and I thought she was going to have a fit. She has to learn sight words and for a while she had particular trouble with the word "where". We went over it and over it but she could not recall it. She missed it on the assessment and her eyes quickly filled with tears. Needless to say, she remembers it now! She's doing very well and we are working on building sentences and compound words.

I Can't Go Swimming In the Cold

She's also reading aloud in her Grade 1 Science book(which I think is excellent because there are words in there that we haven't covered yet, like words that end in "ght"). We are studying the phases of the moon and the night sky so I think it's time to invest in this:
We talked about using the moon for the sake of calendars and to determine Ramadan and both Eid days. Who knows? We might get a lap book out of this!

We've also been talking about akhlaaq and ironically my husband "discovered" this book which we are already using.


AlhamduLILLAH that he makes an effort to supply the children with Islamic knowledge. Read More...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Madrasa With a Difference: An Educational Oasis in the Kutch Desert

Pictures: (from top to bottom, left to right): 1. Handwritten Islamic manuscript in the madrasa library. 2. Girls at a Jeevan Talim centre. 3. The madrasa's main building. 4. Children and teachers at a Jeevan talim centre. 5. Maulvi Qasmi. 6. Boys at a Jeevan Talim centre

Yoginder Sikand

Kutch, in northern Gujarat, on the border with Pakistan’s Sindh province, is, in terms of area, India’s largest district. Much of it is uninhabited, consisting of vast stony, sandy and uncultivable plains that stretch till the horizon, interspersed with low-lying rocky outcrops. More than a third of Kutch’s population is Muslim, comprising of over three dozen endogamous caste-like groups. Muslims are concentrated more in the northern tehsils of Kutch, particularly on the fringes of the Great Rann, a vast desert, much of which turns into a massive inaccessible swamp during the monsoons.

The Muslims of rural Kutch are, by and large, small peasants and impoverished cattle-grazers. Their literacy rate is no more than 15 per cent, and even among those who are officially classified as ‘literate’, many can only read and write their names. The female literacy rate among rural Kutchi Muslims is estimated to be less than 3 per cent.

It is in this context that the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia, the only large madrasa associated with the Deobandi school of thought in Kutch, is engaged in pioneering educational work. It is located on the outskirts of Bhuj, the largest town in the district. It was founded in 1986 by the now aged Muhammad Ilyas of Surat, a graduate of the famed Mazahir ul-Ulum madrasa in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. He first visited the interiors of Kutch on a tour with activists of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim reformist movement. The stark poverty and the pervasive illiteracy that he saw led him to want to establish a school in Kutch, which would provide both Islamic as well as modern education to children from poor Kutchi Muslim families. In 1986, he started the madrasa in Bhuj, with just five children. Today, it has almost 300 boys on its rolls from different parts of Kutch, mainly from very impoverished families.

The amiable Maulvi Ghulam Muhammad Qasmi, a wonderful host, is the rector of the madrasa. He insists that we—myself and four other friends—spend the nights in his madrasa during our week-long visit to Kutch. Originally from Barmer, a district in the western Rajasthan desert bordering Kutch, he graduated from the Deoband madrasa in 1984. He has been associated with the Bhuj madrasa for almost two decades now.

The course of study in the madrasa consists of both traditional Islamic as well as modern subjects. The madrasa provides Islamic education till the fourth grade, or Arabi Chaharum, after which students, if they wish to carry on with the subject, can transfer to a higher-level madrasa outside Kutch, elsewhere in Gujarat or beyond. At the same time as the students study the traditional Islamic subjects (Quran, Hadith, Fiqh, Arabic Grammar and so on) in the madrasa, they also enroll in the Madani Primary School, located in the same campus, which provides modern education from the first to the seventh grade. The government-approved curriculum is employed in the school. The timings of the madrasa are suitably adjusted to enable the children to study in the school as well.

‘By structuring our course in this way’, Maulvi Qasmi explains, ‘we have left the choice open to our students to decide what sort of education they want to pursue after they finish the fourth year Arabic course and the seventh year regular school course. They can choose to carry on in a higher-level madrasa or else join the eighth standard in a regular school’. Several students of the madrasa have selected the latter option, and some of them have gone on to complete high school, and fifteen, an impressive figure by rural Kutchi standards, have graduated from colleges.

‘Many people have a wrong impression that the ulema are all opposed to modern education. If that was the case, obviously we would not have a regular school in the same campus as the madrasa. Nor would we make it compulsory for our students to attend it’, says Maulvi Qasmi. He adds that the opposition to the school initially came, not from his fellow maulvis, but from the concerned government authorities. They tried to create all sorts of hurdles to begin with, refusing the necessary permission, even by going so far as to say that the school was not needed at all! Finally, in 2003, after considerable effort, the madrasa authorities managed to get government recognition for the school.

In contrast to most other madrasas, the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia has both madrasa-trained maulvis and college-trained lecturers on the rolls of its staff. Its seventeen teachers of Islamic subjects have at least an alimiyat, if not fazilat, degree. The six teachers in the school attached to the madrasa have mostly done their B.A.s, and some also have a bachelor’s degree in Education. So far, the madrasa has produced 47 certified ulema, who, after finishing the fourth grade here, went on to complete their alimiyat or fazilat degrees from madrasas outside Kutch. Almost all of them are now teaching in madrasas and schools in different parts of Kutch, thus playing an important role in educational progress in this educationally deprived district.

The madrasa has a vast collection of almost 60,000 Islamic texts in its library, probably the largest in Kutch. It also has some 70 delicately crafted hand-written Arabic and Persian manuscripts, some several centuries old, including Quranic texts, which Maulvi Qasmi proudly displays to me. Some of these were recovered from an ancient dry well in Bhuj, and others were procured from the custodian of a local Sufi shrine.

The madrasa is unique in another sense: it is actively associated with a secular NGO, the Ahmedabad-Jan Vikas, headed by the noted human rights activist Gagan Sethi. Jan Vikas, which, in collaboration with the Jamiat-e Ulema-e Hind, runs a network of non-formal schools, called Jeevan Talim centres, in more than thirty Muslim settlements across Kutch. Many of these centres are located in the premises of Jamiat-run village maktabs, and several of their teachers for subjects such as Gujarati and Mathematics are also maulvis who teach in these maktabs. The joint-secretary of the Jamiat’s Gujarat unit, Noor Muhammad Raima, is also the secretary of the Jamiat Arabia Ulum ul-Islamia madrasa, and he is one of the overseers of this educational project.

Interestingly, girls and boys study in the Jeevan Talim centres. Some centres also have Hindu and Dalit students as well as women instructors are women including some non-Muslims. There are also several women in the Jan Vikas team who work with Jamiat leaders in supervising the activities of the centres. Students from several of these centres have taken admission in the Bhuj madrasa to carry on with Islamic and modern education.

I ask Maulvi Qasmi what he feels about working with a non-Muslim NGO, especially since many of its volunteers, who regularly interact with the ulema involved in the project, are women.

‘That’s no problem at all’, he tells me, to my pleasant surprise. ‘We believe that the work we want must be done properly, no matter by whom.’ ‘Initially’, he adds, ‘we did have some hesitations and misconceptions about working with a non-Muslim NGO as we did not have the experience of this before. But, after several meetings with Jan Vikas activists all our fears were put to rest. Now, we regularly meet them and give them whatever help they want because we trust them.’


Monday, May 19, 2008

Ulema Rivalries and the Saudi Connection

Yoginder Sikand


Its claim of representing Islamic ‘orthodoxy’ is the Saudi regime’s principal tool of seeking ideological legitimacy. Saudi Arabia prides itself on being, as it calls itself, the only ‘truly’ Islamic state in the world, although this claim is stiffly disputed by many Muslims. Official Saudi Islam, or what is commonly referred to as ‘Wahhabism’ by its opponents, is the outcome of the movement led by the eighteenth century puritan Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab (1703-91), who, along with Muhmmad ibn Saud, was the chief architect of the Saudi state. Exporting ‘Wahhabi’ Islam to Muslims elsewhere in the world emerged, particularly from the 1970s onwards, as a major preoccupation of the Saudi regime. This was seen as a vital resource in order to gain legitimacy for the Saudi Arabia monarchy. Transnational linkages are thus crucial in the project of contemporary global ‘Wahhabism’. Since ‘Wahhabism’ is seen by its proponents as the single, ‘authentic’ and ‘normative’ form of Islam, it has an inherent tendency of expansionism, seeking to impose itself on or replace other ways of understanding and practising Islam.

As home to a Muslim population of over 150 million, India has been an important target of Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ propaganda. Private as well as semi-official Saudi Arabian assistance has made its way to numerous Indian Muslim individuals and organisations. This paper examines the impact of official and unofficial Saudi assistance to Sunni Muslim groups in India.

Intra-Sunni Rivalry and the Emergence of the Ahl-i Hadith

The establishment of British rule in India had momentous consequences for notions of Muslim and Islamic identity. The widely shared perception of Islam being under threat helped promote a feeling of Muslim unity transcending sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Yet, at the same time, British rule opened up new spaces for intra-Muslim rivalry. It was in this period that serious differences emerged within the broader Sunni Muslim fold, leading to the development of neatly-defined, and, on numerous issues, mutually opposed, sect-like groups, the principal being the Deobandis, the Barelvis and the Ahl-i Hadith. Each of these groups claimed a monopoly of representing the ‘authentic’ Sunni tradition, or the Ahl al- Sunnah wa‘l Jama‘ah, branding rival claimants as aberrant and, in some cases, even as apostates. This brought to the fore the deeply fractured and fiercely contested nature of Sunni ‘orthodoxy’.

The pioneers of the Ahl-i Hadith saw themselves as struggling to promote what they believed to be the ‘true’ Islam of Muhammad and his companions. Like most other Sunni ‘ulama, they considered the Shi‘as to be outside the pale of Islam, and, therefore, kafirs. In addition, they believed that the other Sunni groups, too, had strayed from the path of the ‘pious predecessors’ (salaf). They argued, through their writings and fatwas, that the Hanafis, the dominant section among the Indian Sunnis, erred in blind conformity (taqlid) of the ‘ulama of the Hanafi school even when their prescriptions went against the express commandments of the Qur’an and the Hadith. They bitterly castigated this as akin to shirk or the sin of ‘associationism’. They fiercely opposed popular customs and beliefs, widely shared among the Indian Muslims, such as Sufism and the cults of the saints, insisting that these had no sanction in the sunnah or the practice of the Prophet, and were, therefore, wrongful innovations or bida‘ah. They decried certain customs widely practised by many Indian Muslims, such as prostrating before graves or praying without uttering the word amin aloud or with the hands folded on the belly instead of on the chest, which they saw as against the practice of the Prophet. They insisted that Muslims must rely solely on the Qur’an and the Hadith for guidance, offering an extremely literalist understanding of these two primary sources of Islamic law. Overall, they saw their mission as rescuing Muslims from what they saw as the sin of shrik and guiding them to the ‘pure monotheism’ (khalis tauhid) of the Prophet and his companions. Most of them were inspired by the example of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his companions, particularly appreciating the ‘Wahhabi’’s criticism of popular custom. Yet, they did not identify themselves as such, refusing the label of ‘Wahhabi’ that their detractors used to dismiss them. Instead, they insisted that they alone represented the Islam of the Prophet, and that, far from setting up a new sect, they were simply reviving what they believed to be ‘true’ Islam. Hence, they claimed to be muwahhids, or ‘true monotheists’, or Ahl-i Hadith or ‘People of the Tradition of the Prophet’.

Despite their differences with the Hanafis, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Indian Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama did not go so far as to openly denounce them as infidels, although this seems to have been implied in the writings of some of their scholars who accused their rivals of shirk. On the face of it, they seem to have considered them, in a restricted sense, fellow Muslims, albeit having been allegedly led astray and hence in urgent need of reform. Some Ahl-i Hadith pioneers, such as Maulana Sanaullah Amritsari (1870-1943), even cooperated with the Deobandi ‘ulama in the formation of the Jami‘at ul-‘Ulama-i Hind (‘The Union of the ‘Ulama of India’), while still bitterly critiquing certain Hanafi practices and beliefs. While most early Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama admired the efforts of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, not all of them agreed entirely with his views. Thus, not all of them approved of his reported claim that Muslims who did not share his beliefs were kafirs and fit to be killed. Some of them also appear to have held certain views commonly attributed to the Ithna ‘Ashari Shi‘as, whom Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab had, in no uncertain terms, branded as apostates. In marked opposition to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab’s position on Sufism as wholly ‘un-Islamic’, some late nineteenth century pioneers among the Indian Ahl-i Hadith, such as Nazir Ahmad Dehlvi, Siddiq Hasan Khan Bhopali and Daud Ghaznavi, were Sufis in their own right. An early Ahl-i Hadith scholar, Wahidduzaman Hyderabadi, is said to have believed in the intercession of holy men, both living as well as dead, as well as in the capacity of dead saints to listen to people’s requests. The doyen of the early Ahl-i Hadith, Siddiq Hasan Khan Bhopali, is said to have been convinced of a mystical light (nur) constantly emanating from his father’s grave.[1] He is even said to have opposed Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab in some of his writings, a charge that later Ahl-i Hadith scholars were quick to deny.[2] This, however, was an exception, for the majority of the early Indian Ahl-i Hadith appear to have warmly supported Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, although this did not mean that some of them did not have differences with him on certain contentious issues.

The crystallisation of the Ahl-i Hadith in India as a separate sect (maslak) was a gradual process, given fillip by the setting up of separate mosques and madrasas from the late nineteenth century onwards, which gave the movement the shape of a community separate from the Hanafi majority. This owed, in part, to the fierce opposition that the Ahl-i Hadith encountered from the Hanafis. Many Hanafi ‘ulama saw the Ahl-i Hadith as a hidden front of the ‘Wahhabis’, whom they regarded as ‘enemies’ of Islam for their fierce opposition to the adoration of the Prophet and the saints, their opposition to popular custom and to taqlid, rigid conformity to one or the other of the four generally accepted schools of Sunni jurisprudence. Further, they also saw the Ahl-i Hadith as directly challenging their own claims of representing normative Islam. Numerous Hanafi ‘ulama issued fatwas branding the Al-i Hadith as virtual heretics, contemptuously referring to them as ghair muqallids for their opposition to taqlid, which they believed to be integral to established Sunni tradition. Hanafi opposition to the Ahl-i Hadith was fierce. In many places Hanafis refused them admittance to their mosques, schools and graveyards. Marital ties with them were forbidden, and in some places followers of the Ahl-i Hadith even faced physical assault.

The notion of a separate Ahl-i Hadith identity was given a further boost with the establishment of the All-India Ahl-i Hadith Conference in 1906 which brought together ‘ulama from different parts of India who shared a common commitment to the Ahl-i Hadith vision. From then on much scholarly effort was expended by Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama on seeking to prove rival Muslim groups, Sunni as well as, of course, Shi‘a, as aberrant, stressing points of differences between them and the Ahl-i Hadith in order to argue their own claim of representing the single ‘authentic’ Islamic tradition and to further fortify the notion of a separate Ahl-i Hadith identity. This was reciprocated by their rivals, who took upon themselves the task of fiercely denouncing the Ahl- i Hadith. Yet, despite the bitter relations between the Ahl-i Hadith and others the early Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama did not go so far as to explicitly brand other Sunni groups as apostates. To have done so would have been dangerous, for the Ahl-i Hadith, at that time, as now, formed only a miniscule minority among the Sunnis. The situation began to change, however, from the 1970s onwards, after access to Saudi funds and links with prestigious Saudi patrons gave numerous Ahl-i Hadith leaders a new aggressive confidence to take on their Hanafi rivals despite their continued minority status among the region’s Muslims. This period also saw a marked transformation in Ahl-i Hadith self-identity. While some pioneers among the Ahl-i Hadith did not conceal their differences with the ‘Wahhabis’ of Saudi Arabia on some points, access to Saudi funds led to a gradual erasure of these differences, so much so that the Ahl-i Hadith came to present itself as a carbon copy of Saudi-style ‘Wahhabism’, with nothing to distinguish itself from it and upholding this form of Islam as normative. As their Muslim critics saw it, this had only a single explanation: It was simply a clever means to win the favour of generous Saudi benefactors.

The Saudi-Ahl-i Hadith Connection: Wahhabism as An External Policy Tool

Close links between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Saudi state and ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama go back to the early decades of the twentieth century. The early Ahl-i Hadith, although not a complete replica of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, did not conceal its support for the Saudi state, which it saw as leading a crusade for what it regarded as a ‘truly’ Islamic polity. When, in the early 1920s, ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal al-Saud, or Ibn Saud for short, conquered the Hijaz with British help and declared the founding of the second Saudi state, many Muslims in India and elsewhere were incensed, fearing that the fiercely iconoclastic ‘Wahhabis’ would destroy the tomb of Muhammad and other holy sites in Arabia. Predictably, the conquest of the Hijaz led to heightened acrimony between the Ahl-i Hadith and other, including rival Sunni, Muslim groups in India. Indian Hanafi leaders set up an organisation, the Hizb ul-Ahnaf (‘The Hanafi Army’) to oppose the Saudi rulers and the Ahl-i Hadith, who were seen as their agents. A Muslim Hijaz Conference was organised in Lucknow by the Khuddam al-Haramayn (‘Servants of the Two Holy Cities’) Society in 1926, which passed a resolution calling for the liberation of the Hijaz from Saudi control and suggesting that Muslims refrain from the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina till the ‘Wahhabis’ had been overthrown. Massive anti-‘Wahhabi’ demonstrations took place in different parts of India, denouncing the Saudi rulers as ‘anti-Muslim’.

At this time, when the Saudi rulers were faced with stiff opposition from many Muslim quarters, the Indian Ahl-i Hadith were quick to rush to their defence. They insisted that the Saudi rulers were ‘genuinely’ Islamic, and hence argued that they must be defended at all costs. In 1927 some Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars even travelled to Najd to meet Ibn Saud and to attend the Hijaz Conference that he had organised to galvanise worldwide Muslim support for himself. The All-India Ahl-i Hadith Conference organised a number of rallies to galvanise support for Ibn Saud and to oppose his detractors among the Indian Muslims. Numerous leading Ahl-i Hadith scholars also penned tracts and books defending the Saudi ruler and ‘Wahhabism’, claiming that Ibn Saud’s destruction of tombs over graves was fully in accordance with the injunctions of Islam. Echoing the views of many of his fellow Ahl-i Hadith, the founder and president of the All-India Ahl-i Hadith Conference, Muhammad bin Ibrahim Junagadhi (d.1942), in a pamphlet defending Ibn Saud declared that ‘From every angle, religious as well as political, Ibn Saud most well suited to be the servant [ruler] of the Hijaz’. For his part, Ibn Saud dispatched a number of letters to Indian Ahl-i Hadith leaders acknowledging his gratitude for their help and expressing his support for their mission. These letters were later published in several Ahl-i Hadith newspapers.[1] The ties that were cemented between the Indian Ahl-i Hadith and the Saudi state and its official ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama in the 1920s were to become even closer in the decades that followed.


The 1970s witnessed a growing involvement of certain Arab states, institutions and private donors in sponsoring a number of Islamic organisations and institutions in India. This was a direct outcome of the boom in oil revenues, particularly following the hike in oil prices by OPEC members in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Although the precise magnitude of Arab assistance to Indian Muslim organisations cannot be ascertained, it was certainly significant, although the Indian press routinely exaggerated it, leading to a scare of petrodollars flooding the country as part of an alleged grand conspiracy to convert poor, particularly ‘low’ caste, Hindus to Islam. In actual fact, few Muslim organisations actually engaged in missionary work among Hindus received such money. Instead, most Arab, including Saudi, financial assistance went to Muslim organisations to establish mosques, madrasas and publishing houses. To a lesser extent, money was channelled to Muslim organisations to set up schools and hospitals in Muslim localities and to provide scholarships to needy Muslim students.

Saudi funds for Muslim institutions in India have come through a range of sources, including the Saudi state, various Saudi-sponsored Islamic organisations such as the Mecca-based Rabita al-‘Alami al-Islami (World Muslim League) and the Dar ul-‘Ifta wa‘l Da‘wat ul-Irshad, as well as private donors, mostly rich shaikhs, some with close links to the Saudi ruling family. Several Indian Muslims working in Saudi Arabia in various capacities also send back money to fund Islamic institutions, mostly based in towns and villages where their families live. In addition, the Saudi embassy in New Delhi is said to be closely linked to a number of Islamic religious scholars, Muslim journalists and managers of Muslim institutions in the country. Although this could not be verified, it is claimed that requests for financial aid are often made to the Embassy from these individuals and institutions, and the Embassy, in turn, forwards these requests to the appropriate authorities in Saudi Arabia itself. It is also claimed that a number of newspapers, Muslim-owned as well as others, receive money from Saudi sources to publish articles in support of the Saudi regime. Furthermore, the Saudi authorities are said to pay the salaries of a number of teachers, known as mabuth, employed in various Indian madrasas, almost all of these being graduates of Saudi universities and mostly associated with the Ahl-i Hadith.

Monetary assistance to selected Islamic institutions is only one method through which the Saudis have sought to patronise and influence key Muslim leaders and opinion makers in India. Other forms of assistance include sponsored haj pilgrimages for Muslim leaders, including ‘ulama, patronising of selected publishing houses, scholarships for madrasa students to study in Saudi Islamic universities and jobs for such graduates in both the private as well as public sector within Saudi Arabia. The largest beneficiary of this largesse is believed to be the Ahl-i Hadith, although the Jama‘at-i Islami and the Deobandis are also said to have benefited to some extent. The Barelvis and the Shi‘as, both of whom regard ‘Wahhabism’ as wholly heretical, have received little or no financial support at all from Saudi sources.[2] This itself suggests that Saudi finance to Muslim institutions in India is intended to serve and promote a particular ideological vision of Islam, one that ties in with the interests of the Saudi regime and its official ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama.

Saudi Arabia emerged as a significant sponsor of Islamic institutions internationally, including in India, only in the 1970s. This was a period of intense ideological struggle in the Arab world. Arab socialism and pan-Arab nationalism under Nasser in Egypt and the Ba‘athists in Syria and Iraq and various communist parties active in numerous Arab states all called for the overthrow of monarchical regimes in the region, which they saw as lackeys of the United States and as helping the Zionist occupation of Palestine. Within Saudi Arabia itself voices of dissent and protest emerged, including from those who had been influenced by socialist trends elsewhere in the region. Then came the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which led to fears of an export of revolutionary, anti-monarchical Islam to the Arab world, including to Saudi Arabia. Ayatollah Khomeini vehemently denounced the Saudi kingdom, insisting that Islam had no place for monarchical rule. He also bitterly attacked the Saudis for being American stooges and for willingly acquiescing in American support for Israel. In his will, made public in 1989, he denounced the Saudi regime as ‘anti-Islamic’, claiming that it was in league with ‘Satanic powers’. He argued that ‘Wahhabism’ represented ‘anti-Qur’anic ideas’ and a ‘baseless, superstitious cult’, and was aimed at destroying Islam from within.[3] Radical appeals emanating from Tehran, including anti-‘Wahhabi’ and anti-Saudi sentiments, soon caught the imagination of Muslims all over the world.

The Iranian Revolution played the role of a major catalyst in moulding Saudi foreign policy, in which the export of its official ‘Wahhabi’ form of Islam emerged as a key instrument. The anti-monarchical thrust of the Revolution was seen by the Saudi regime as a menacing threat. If the Shah of Iran, America’s closest and strongest ally in the region, could be overthrown as a result of the passionate appeals of a charismatic Imam, the Saudi rulers, it was painfully realised, could well meet the same fate. Consequently, the Saudis, backed by the Americans, began investing heavily in promoting ‘Wahhabi’ Islam abroad in order to counter the appeal of the Iranian Revolution, both within Saudi Arabia itself and abroad. Stressing the regime’s ‘Islamic’ credentials now came to be relied upon as the principal tool to strengthen it and to stave of challenges from internal as well as external opponents, from Muslims opposed to the regime’s corrupt and dictatorial ways and its close alliance with the imperialist powers, principally the United States. Saudi export of ‘Wahhabism’ was given a further boost with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Saudis, supported by the Americans, pumped in millions of dollars to fund ‘Wahhabi’-style schools and organisations in Pakistan in order to train guerrillas to fight the Russians. While such assistance, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, was presented as a sign of Saudi Arabia’s professed commitment to ‘true’ Islam, it also functioned as a thinly veiled guise for promoting the interests of the Saudi regime. In exporting this brand of Islam abroad, India, home to the second largest Muslim community in the world, received particular importance.

The sort of Islam that the Saudis began aggressively promoting abroad, including in India, in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, had a number of characteristic features. It was extremely literalist; it was rigidly and narrowly defined, being concerned particularly with issues of ‘correct’ ritual and belief, rather than with wider social and political issues; it was viciously sectarian, branding dissenting groups, such as Shi‘as and followers of the Sufis as ‘enemies’ of Islam; and, finally, it was explicitly and fiercely critical of ideologies and groups, Muslim as well as other, that were regarded as political threats to the Saudi regime. Accordingly, these were routinely castigated as ploys of the ‘enemies of Islam’.[4]

Saudi Patronage and the Indian Ahl-i Hadith

A hugely disproportionate amount of Saudi aid to Indian Muslim groups in the decades after the Iranian Revolution is said to have gone to institutions run by the Ahl-i Hadith. This is hardly surprising, given the shared ideological tradition and vision of the Ahl-i Hadith and the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’. One result of the generous Saudi patronage of the Indian Ahl-i Hadith has been that there has been a growing convergence between the latter and the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama so much so that today there is hardly any difference between the two groups. A revealing indication of the effort on the part of the Indian Ahl-i Hadith to identify themselves with their Saudi patrons, a Deobandi critic writes, is the fact that the Ahl-i Hadith now prefer to refer to themselves as ‘Salafis’, a term that the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ commonly use for themselves.[5] As pointed out earlier, most Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did hail Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab as a great ‘reformer’ and as a pioneer in reviving ‘true’ Islam and ‘authentic’ monotheism, but, despite this, some of them were critical of his extremism and that of his followers. Today, this sort of criticism is completely absent in Indian Ahl-i Hadith circles, and Indian Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama now routinely hail the Wahhabi ‘ulama of Najd as representing the only single ‘saved sect’ (firqa al-najiya), and the Saudi regime as the only genuinely ‘Islamic’ regime in the world.

Saudi finance to Indian Ahl-i Hadith institutions has heavily influenced the contents of the vast amount of literature that they produce and distribute. In the last two decades there has been a mushroom growth in the number of Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India. Several of them are said to receive Saudi funds, directly or otherwise. Many of them produce low-priced books, and, now, audiotapes, videocassettes and compact disks, and some even operate their own websites. Most of the authors whose works they publish are Indian, and to a lesser extent, Pakistani, Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama whom have received higher education in various Saudi universities. Several of them are presently working in various official as well as private Islamic organisations in Saudi Arabia itself. Their vision and understanding of Islam is indelibly shaped by their own experiences in Saudi Arabia. They see the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ version of Islam as normative, and other forms of Islam as deviant. In addition to the works of these writers, Indian Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses are now churning out Urdu and, to a lesser extent, Hindi and English, translations of works, including fatwas, by leading Saudi Wahhabi ‘ulama, the most prominent of whom being the late Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah bin Baz (d. 1999), chief mufti of Saudi Arabia, and the late Shaikh Nasiruddin Albani (d. 1999) professor at the Islamic University of Medina. This clearly reflects the understanding that local forms of Islam in India need to be stamped out and replaced by the puritanical, literalist Islam of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’.

Much of the literature produced by Indian Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses focuses on the minutiae of ritual practises and beliefs. This is a reflection, in part, of the overwhelmingly literalist understanding of Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ Islam. Scores of books penned by Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama are devoted to intricate discussion of what they regard as the ‘correct’ methods of praying, performing ablutions and offering supplications, as well as rules and regulations related to food, dress, marriage, divorce and so on. A principle purpose of these publications is to attack rival Muslim, including Sunni, groups, and to sternly condemn them as ‘aberrant’ on account of differences in their methods of performing rituals and their rules governing a range of issues related to normative personal and collective behaviour. These elaborate discussions also serve to critique the Hanafi insistence on taqlid, which several Ahl-i Hadith scholars condemn as akin to shirk or ‘associationism’, arguing that it logically leads to setting up an authority that rivals God.[6] These and related debates are used to reinforce the claim of the Ahl-i Hadith, as well as the Saudi Wahhabi ‘ulama, being the only group that faithfully abides by the sunnah of the Prophet and to declare all other Muslim groups as deviant. Sometimes, this is taken to the extent of denouncing their rivals as being effectively outside the pale of the Ahl al- Sunnah wa‘l Jama‘ah, and, hence, for all practical purposes, non-Muslims.

Another interesting feature of the literature produced by Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India, and one that is directly linked to the close association between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, is a fierce hostility to local beliefs and practices. This hostility, while having been a defining feature of the early Ahl-i Hadith, has been further exacerbated with the growing Saudi-Ahl-i Hadith nexus. In recent years Ahl-i Hadith scholars have penned scores of books and tracts sternly denouncing customs that many Indian Muslims share with their Hindu neighbours, a legacy of their pre-Islamic past. These also includes customs, such as those associated with popular Sufism and the cults of the saints, which enabled Islam to take root in India and to adjust to the Indian cultural context. As Ahl-i Hadith writers see it, these are all ‘wrongful innovations’, having no sanction in the Prophet’s sunnah, and hence must be rooted out. In their place they advocate an adoption of a range of Arab cultural norms and practices which are seen as genuinely ‘Islamic’. The publication of Urdu translations of the compendia of fatwas of leading Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama by Indian Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses is a reflection of this cultural alternative that they seek to provide to take the place of what they see as ‘un-Islamic’ practices widely prevalent among many Indian Muslims. This has added to the conflict with other Muslim groups, most particularly with the Barelvis, who are associated with the cults of the Sufis. The ‘Saudi Arabisation’ of Islam and Indian Muslim culture that the Ahl-i Hadith seeks to promote also inevitably further widens the cultural chasm between Muslims and Hindus. As many Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama see it, and this is reflected in their writings as well, Hinduism is hardly different from the pagan religion of the Arabs of the pre-Islamic jahiliya period. Although most of them do not advocate conflict with Hindus, some Ahl-i Hadith scholars insist on the need for Muslims to have as little to do with the Hindus as possible, for fear of the ‘deleterious’ consequences this might have for the Muslims’ own commitment to and practice of Islam.

Like other Muslim groups, Indian Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses have also paid particular attention to combating their Muslim rivals. This, as shall be later argued, cannot be understood without taking into account the Saudi connection. Scores of books have been penned by Indian Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama, branding Sufis, Shi‘as and Deobandis as heretical [7]. Sometimes, this charge is stated openly. On other occasions it is articulated indirectly, but in a manner that the reader is driven to the conclusion that other groups who claim to be Sunni are not genuinely so or might not be even Muslim at all.[8] This concern to combat other Muslim groups has been particularly exacerbated as a result of links established with Saudi patrons. This campaign is led by high profile Indian and Pakistani Ahl-i Hadith scholars, who have generally trained in Saudi universities or are based in Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia itself. Heated polemical attacks on other Muslim groups are a means for them to stress the separate identity of the Ahl-i Hadith and to press its claim of representing ‘authentic’ Islam. It also provides them with positions of authority as spokesmen of ‘true’ Islam. Moderates among the Ahl-i Hadith do exist, who seek to lessen tensions with other Muslim groups, but they seem to be relatively powerless in the face of leaders who have access to Saudi funds and have a vested interest in stressing and reinforcing differences with other Muslim communities. Tirelessly claiming in their writings to being the sole representatives of ‘normative’ Islam and, in the process, identifying themselves with the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama, enables the Indian Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama to present themselves as faithful allies of the Saudis, which, in turn, helps earn for them recognition as well as monetary assistance from Saudi sponsors. In addition, such publications also serve the purpose of presenting the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ version of Islam as normative, and in putting forward the claim of the Saudi regime being the only one in the world sincerely and seriously committed to ‘genuine’ Islam.

Access to Saudi funds has, therefore, led to heightened conflict between various Muslim sectarian groups in India, as Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses produce and distribute literature on a large scale bitterly attacking their rivals of being Muslim only in name. While earlier Ahl-i Hadith scholars did critique other Muslim groups, this criticism was relatively mild and did not go to the extent of denouncing fellow Sunnis as apostates. This was probably a tactical move, for the Ahl-i Hadith were a small and beleaguered minority. Now, however, access to new patrons and sources of funds has provided the Ahl-i Hadith with an aggressive confidence to denounce their Muslim rivals, going even beyond the somewhat limited critique of their predecessors. According to Mohammed Zeyaul Haque, an Indian Muslim journalist, while earlier Ahl-i Hadith criticism of Hanafi practices was limited largely to ‘matters of insignificant detail’, such as ‘proper’ ritual practices during prayers, the method of divorce and so on, of late ‘a vicious campaign of slander’ has been launched by ‘mischief-makers sitting in countries of the Middle East’ (by which he seems to refer to Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars based in Saudi Arabia) carefully ‘targeting Hanafis of all kinds, and going to the extent of denouncing them as kafirs’. Among their targets have been the widely respected and Hanafi-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and the leaders of the Deobandi-related Tablighi Jama‘at, the largest Islamic movement in the world, which has its global headquarters in India. Haque claims that recently a number of books, originating from South Asian Ahl-i Hadith scholars based in the Middle East and fiercely denouncing the Hanafis (besides the Shi‘as) as disbelievers, have ‘flooded the subcontinent’.[9]

Heightened intra-Muslim polemics within India are not unrelated to the interests of the Saudi regime. Thus, the virulently anti-Shi‘a and anti-Sufi propaganda material churned out by various Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India, some of this said to be sponsored by Saudi patrons, serves the purpose of denouncing as outside the pale of Islam Muslim groups who are opposed to ‘Wahhabism’ and the Saudi state, these often being branded as ‘enemies’ of Islam. In this way the literature produced by several Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India helps promote a version and vision of Islam that is almost identical to that of the ‘Wahhabis’ of Saudi Arabia, and hence one that fits in with the interests of both the Saudi Wahhabi ‘ulama as well as the Saudi state. This function is served more directly through forms of literature that raise political, as opposed to simply theological, issues. As mentioned earlier, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 appeared to the Saudi regime as a major threat to its own survival as its claims for championing Islam were dismissed as hypocritical. Consequently, some Indian Ahl-i Hadith (as well as Deobandi) ‘ulama penned tracts and books—paid for this by Saudi patrons, their critics allege—to brand the Revolution as a Shi‘a, and, therefore, ‘anti-Islamic’, insurrection, Khomeini as an ‘enemy of Islam’, and the Shi‘a faith as a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ to destroy Islam from within. Predictably, the Revolution was painted in the lurid colours. It was explained simply as an ‘anti-Islamic’ conspiracy hatched by the Shi‘a ‘ulama in order to export Shi‘ism and establish Shi‘a political rule over the Sunnis. In this way, the appeal of the Revolution, its anti-monarchical thrust and its bitter critique of Western imperialism that had led to considerable support for Khomeini among many Sunnis, including in India, was sought to be countered. The attack on the Revolution was deliberately couched in an ‘Islamic’ form in order to dismiss the Khomeini’s legitimacy. This also served as a means to defend the Saudi regime in ‘Islamic’ terms, it being routinely described in Ahl-i Hadith literature as the only ‘truly’ Islamic regime in the world.

This claim of the Saudi monarchy as representing the sole ‘authentic’ Islamic regime in the world is repeatedly stressed in several Ahl-i Hadith writings, and reflects the close links, ideological as well as financial, between several Indian Ahl-i Hadith leaders and the Saudi state and its official ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama. Numerous books penned by Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars discuss in detail the ‘great’ contributions of the present rulers of Saudi Arabia to the ‘Islamic cause’, inevitably concluding with the claim that Saudi Arabia under its present masters represents the only ‘truly’ Islamic state in the world today. They also make it a point to call on God to bless the Saudi king and pray for his continued rule. The Saudi monarch is invariably presented as a pious, fully committed Muslim, whose sole concern is, so it is sought to be argued, the protection and promotion of ‘authentic’ Islam. Support for this ‘authentic’ Islam and for the Saudi rulers are presented as indivisible. Interestingly, there is no reference at all in Ahl-i Hadith writings to the widespread dissatisfaction within Saudi Arabia itself with the ruling family. Nor is there any reference to the rampant corruption in the country, the lavish lifestyles of the princes, and to Saudi Arabia’s close links with the United States. Nor, still, is there ever any mention of the claim, put forward by many Muslims, that monarchy is ‘un-Islamic’, particularly one like the despotic and corrupt Saudi regime. This is added evidence of the fact that Saudi-sponsored propaganda abroad is tailor-made to suit the interests of its ruling family.

A case in point is a book financed by a Saudi professor, published by the apex Ahl-i Hadith madrasa in India and authored by an Indian Ahl-i Hadith writer based in Saudi Arabia, ‘Abul Mukarram ‘Abdul Jalil. The author insists that because the message of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab is based on ‘true’ (sahih) Islamic beliefs, every Muslim must accept and follow it. At the same time, because the present Saudi regime, allegedly, continues to follow faithfully in the footsteps of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, it is, the author writes, imperative on all Muslims to support the Saudi rulers.[10] Similarly, a booklet penned by the late Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah bin Baz, chief mufti of Saudi Arabia, and translated into Urdu and published in India by an Ahl-i Hadith publishing company, hails the Saudi ruling family for allegedly working for the victory of ‘true’ Islam. The pamphlet ends with a prayer to God to keep the Saudi ruling family on the ‘straight path’.[11]

A particularly interesting text in this regard is a recent Urdu translation of a voluminous book, running into almost 400 pages, penned by a Saudi scholar devoted to extolling the praises of the Saudi regime for what its title refers to as its impressive ‘Islamic missionary and educational services’. The author of the book, Saleh bin Ghanim al-Sadlan, is a professor at the Jami‘a Imam Muhammad bin Saud University, Riyadh, and is associated with a number official Saudi Islamic organisations and institutions. The book is an expanded version of a paper presented by the author at a conference organised by the Department of Religious Affairs and Endowments, Riyadh. The book has been translated into Urdu and published by an Indian Ahl-i Hadith student of his, ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Abdul Jabbar Farewai, who runs an Islamic institution in New Delhi.[12]

The book provides details of various Islamic organisations set up and funded by the Saudi regime, both inside as well as outside the Kingdom. These institutions, so its author claims, are engaged in what he calls ‘amazing’ contributions to the cause of Islam, ‘providing peace and satisfaction to the hearts and minds of the followers of Islam’. All these efforts are said to be a reflection of the commitment of the Saudi rulers to the Islamic cause. As al-Sadlan tells his readers, this shows that ‘In this period of the decline of the Muslims the existence of Saudi Arabia is a great blessing for the Islamic world’.[13] Expectedly, the book reads as a crude piece of undisguised propaganda for the Saudi monarchy. The author claims that Saudi Arabia is the ‘only’ state in the world that is governed according to the Qur’an. The rulers and the ‘ulama of Saudi Arabia, he writes, ‘have created a model Islamic government’ which has ‘raised high the flag of Islam’, ‘worked for the spread of true Islam all over the world’, and has made ‘immense contributions in the field of Islamic unity and service of humanity’. The Saudi government, he says, ‘has always supported human and moral values’ and is a ‘model of justice, peace, security, love and unity’.[14] ‘All its revenue, trade and economic institutions’, he claims, ‘are based on the shari‘ah’. He describes it newly established, but toothless, consultative committee (nizam-i shur‘a) as having been set up ‘only in order that the country should firmly and strictly follow the path of the shari‘ah and Muhammad, peace be upon him’.[15] Predictably, there is no mention at all about Saudi Arabia’s key role in the Western-dominated global capitalist economy, and of its close financial and political relations with the United States and other Western imperialist powers.

For his part, the Saudi king is described by al-Sadlan as the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Cities’ (khadim al-harimayn al-sharifayn), and is portrayed as having been appointed by God Himself to serve the cause of Islam. He is described as performing this onerous responsibility with diligence and fervour. He is said to have ‘full faith in the fact that his government must work for the prosperity of Islam’. He is said to ‘firmly believe in the supremacy of the Qur’an and the sunnah’[16], and is quoted as declaring that ‘The Constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the Qur’an itself, which falsehood cannot touch, from front or from behind’.[17] Concluding his book, the author prays that God should protect the ‘Islamic Sultanate’ of Saudi Arabia ‘in this age of terrorism’ so that it can ‘carry on in the service of Islam’.[18]

Ahl-i Hadith-Deobandi Polemics and the Saudi Nexus

Central to ‘Wahhabism’ is the understanding that it alone represents ‘normative’ Islam, and that other understandings of the faith are, by definition, ‘false’. One might argue that the ‘Wahhabis’ are not unique in this, and that, in fact, all Muslim sectarian groups do share this conviction. While that may well be true, ‘Wahhabi’ attitudes towards other Muslim groups have historically been characterised by a fierce extremism quite unparalleled in the case of other contemporary Muslim sects. This is another feature that Saudi-style ‘Wahhabism’ shares with the Ahl-i Hadith.

As a claimant to Sunni ‘orthodoxy’, the Ahl-i Hadith is not alone in denouncing the Shi‘as as heretics, and, therefore, outside the pale of Islam. In fact, many Deobandi and Barelvi ‘ulama share the same opinion. Hence, the virulent opposition to the Shi‘as on the part of the Ahl-i Hadith is hardly surprising. Given its commitment to what it sees as ‘pure’ monotheism and its fierce opposition to ‘wrongful innovations’, its denunciation of the Barelvis, who are associated with the cults of the Sufis, is also understandable. What seems particularly intriguing, however, is the fact that, of late, Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India have been devoting particular attention to denouncing the Deobandis, who, while being muqallids as well as proponents of a reformed Sufism, share with the Ahl-i Hadith a commitment to strict compliance with the shari‘ah and the extirpation of what they describe as bida‘ah. In that sense, the Ahl-i Hadith are closer in doctrinal terms to the Deobandis than to any other Indian Sunni group. Despite this, it appears that in recent years Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars have been focussing considerably more attention to combating the Deobandis than to critiquing their Barelvi and Shi‘a rivals. This seemingly puzzling development begs an explanation.

One possible reason for this is that the Deobandis in India are far more organised and influential than the Barelvis. The Deobandis manage a number of influential organisations, madrasas and publishing houses all over India. Consequently, they have probably been more effective in critiquing the Ahl-i Hadith than their other rivals, which, in turn, has forced the Ahl-i Hadith to pay particular attention to the challenge they face from the Deobandi front. In addition to this factor are other developments, related to struggles over money, influence and authority, which have made for a sharp intensification of rivalries between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in recent years. The Saudi connection seems to have played a major role in abetting these conflicts.

Relations between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in India have, since their inception, been strained. Seeing the Ahl-i Hadith as a potent challenge to their own authority, early Deobandi ‘ulama bitterly critiqued and denounced them. Some even wrote boldly against Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, arguing that his movement had nothing at all to do with Islam. Husain Ahmad Madani (1879-1957), rector of the Deoband madrasa, penned a polemical tract, al-Shahab al-Shaqab, where he claimed that Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab preached ‘patent falsehood’ (‘aqa‘id-i batila), killed numerous Sunni Muslims and forced many others to accept his ‘false’ creed (‘aqa‘id-i fasida). He referred to him as a ‘tyrant’ (zalim), ‘traitor’ (baghi), and ‘despicable’ (khabis), and labelled him and his followers as the ‘despicable Wahhabis’ (wahhabiya khabisia).[19] He wrote that Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab had declared the wealth of all Muslims, including Sunnis, who did not follow him as property that could be rightfully looted (mal-i ghanimat), and their slaughter as a cause of merit (sawab), considering all but his own followers as apostates. This is why, he claimed, the Arabs ‘detested’ Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his followers, their hatred for them ‘exceeding their hatred for Jews, Christians, Magians and Hindus’. ‘Undoubtedly’, Madani asserted, Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab had committed such heinous crimes that ‘such hatred for him is a must’.[20]

Other Deobandis seem to have displayed similar views on the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, although there were exceptions. A leading Deobandi scholar, Anwar Shah Kashmiri, insisted that Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab was ‘stupid’ (bewaquf) and had ‘little knowledge’ (kam ‘ilm), because of which he was ‘quick to declare other Muslims as kafirs’. On the other hand, Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, teacher and spiritual master of Husain Ahmad Madani, issued a fatwa laying down that the ‘Wahhabis’ beliefs were ‘good’ (‘umdah) and that they were ‘good’ people, although he added that Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab’s views were ‘extreme’ (shiddat) and that when his followers transcended the ‘limits’ it lead to considerable strife (fasad).[21] Gangohi’s views were contradicted by some of his own students. Thus, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri considered the ‘Wahhabis’ as deviant, and claimed, referring to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, that ‘neither he nor any of his followers and clan are among our teachers in any of our chains of transmission in Islamic knowledge, whether in jurisprudence, Hadith, Qur’anic commentary or Sufism’.[22] Likewise, Husain Ahmad Madani, also a student of Gangohi, dissented from his teacher’s opinion. Gangohi, he said, did not have a proper, complete and first-hand knowledge of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab’s beliefs.[23]

The opposition of the early Deobandis to the Ahl-i Hadith and to the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ stemmed, in part, from the ‘Wahhabi’ critique of rigid taqlid and Sufism, which the Deobandis upheld but which the ‘Wahhabis’ branded as heretical. Deobandi opposition to the ‘Wahhabi label might also have been motivated, in large measure, by fear of British reprisal. ‘Wahhabis’, as the British Indian authorities saw them, were Muslim groups who sought to challenge colonial rule, and who were, therefore, regarded as deadly enemies of the Raj. Furthermore, it appears that Deobandi efforts to clearly distance themselves from the ‘Wahhabis’ had also to do with Deobandi-Barelvi rivalries. Thus, for instance, Husain Ahmad Madani undertook to write his al-Shahab al-Shaqab against the ‘Wahhabis’ as a response to a book, Husam al-Harmayn, written by Ahmad Raza Khan, leader of the Barelvis. In his book Khan culled out statements from the writings of numerous Deobandi elders which ‘proved’, so he argued, that the Deobandis were ‘Wahhabis’ and, therefore, kafirs, adding that those who doubted their being kafirs were kafirs themselves. In order to gain support for his stand he travelled to the Hijaz and had his claims against the Deobandis endorsed by several anti-‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama of Mecca and Medina, whose statements he reproduced in his book. Alarmed that the book would turn Indian Muslim opinion against the Deobandis, Madani, it is said, was forced to pen his polemical tract, wherein he claimed that the Deobandis had nothing at all to do with the ‘Wahhabis’ at all, effectively declaring Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his followers as outside the Sunni fold.[24]

Although several early Deobandi leaders sought to distance themselves from the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, on the whole a distinct ambiguity seems to have characterised their response to the charge of being ‘Wahhabis’ themselves. This owed to the ambiguity of the term ‘Wahhabi’ as it was commonly understood and used in India. While the Deobandis were careful to insist that they were not ‘Wahhabis’ in the sense of being followers of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, some Deobandis, recognising the commitment that they shared with the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ to the extirpation of what they regarded as bida‘ah, accepted the label ‘Wahhabi’ in that limited sense. Thus, for instance, Muhammad Zakariya, chief ideologue of the Deobandi-related Tablighi Jama‘at, is said to have proudly announced before his followers, ‘I am a more staunch Wahhabi than all of you’. Likewise, Yusuf Kandhalavi, son and successor of the founder of the Tablighi Jama‘at, Ilyas Kandhalavi, declared, ‘We are staunch Wahhabis’. Given the shared vision, albeit limited in extent, of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ and the Deobandis, it was possible for the two groups to seek to work together for common purposes. Thus, Ilyas Kandhalavi and a group of his followers met the Saudi ruler in 1938, and discussed with him and the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama plans for allowing the Tablighi Jama‘at to function in the country.[25] Yet, although it is claimed that the Saudi monarch and several of his ‘ulama welcomed the prospect, the movement was not allowed to establish a presence in Saudi Arabia. The situation remains the same today. It appears that the fact that the movement’s Deobandi links were a major cause for concern on the part of numerous Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama, who regarded the Deobandi tradition as bida‘ah and as promoting shirk. Further, it might also be that the Saudi authorities viewed with concern the possibility of any independent, particularly foreign-based, Islamic movement, such as the Tablighi Jama‘at, being active in their own country, fearing that it might work to undermine their own legitimacy.

The Deobandis, by and large, seem to have maintained the somewhat ambiguous attitude of their elders towards the Ahl-i Hadith and the ‘Wahhabis’ till at least the late 1970s, when the situation began to change with new access to Saudi funding. In the course of the Afghan war against the Soviets the Saudis recognised that the Deobandis were far more influential and had a far larger presence than the Ahl-i Hadith, in both Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Consequently, much Saudi funding began making its way to Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan in order to train guerrilla fighters armed with a passion for jihad against the Russians. A shared commitment to a shari‘ah-centric Islam made such assistance acceptable to both parties. The Pakistani Deobandis were, on the whole, not reluctant to accept such assistance, despite the views of their own elders about the ‘Wahhabis’. Over time, in India, too, several Deobandi ‘ulama are said to have begun receiving Saudi aid, in some form or the other, for their madrasas and other religious institutions. It is said that several Deobandi leaders sort to court prospective Saudi patrons by claiming to be fellow defenders of ‘authentic’ monotheism, adducing their fierce and unremitting critiques of the Barelvis as evidence. Naturally, the newly established links with Saudi patrons forced them to reconsider their own position on ‘Wahhabism’ and the Saudi state.

A clear indication of the flexibility that the Deobandis were willing to display in their relations with the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ was the publication in 1978 of a book revealingly titled Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab Ke Khilaf Propaganda Aur Hindustan Ke ‘Ulama-i Haq Par Uske Asrat (‘The Propaganda Against Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and Its Impact on the True ‘Ulama’).[26] The timing of the publication was significant. It came at a time when the Deobandis, in both India and Pakistan, were increasingly turning to Saudi patrons, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This necessitated a thorough revision of the Deobandi understanding and presentation of Saudi ‘Wahhabism’ and of its founder. As earlier pointed out, several Deobandi elders had bitterly critiqued Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, going so far as to declare him, for all practical terms, as ‘anti-Muslim’. Now, however, the increasingly close relations between certain Deobandis and Saudi patrons called for both an apology and an explanation for the bitter critique of the founding-father of ‘Wahhabism’ by the elders of Deoband. This is precisely what this book set out to do.

The author of the book, the late Manzur Nu‘mani (d.1997), was one of the leading Indian Deobandi ‘ulama, having served as member of the governing council (majlis-i shur‘a) of the Deoband madrasa for many years. He had dozens of books to his credit and was the founder and editor of the widely circulated Urdu magazine al-Furqan. A fiercely committed Deobandi, he wrote extensively against the Barelvis and the Shi‘as and in defence of Deobandi doctrines. His book in praise of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab has gone into numerous editions, a sign of its considerable popularity in Deobandi circles. He described the book as the outcome of a dream of the then rector of the Deoband madrasa, the late Qari Muhammad Tayyeb, who, he wrote, had repeatedly requested him to write a full-fledged book to bridge the gulf and remove the ‘misunderstandings’ between the Deobandis and the followers of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, both of whom he is said to have regarded as ‘servants of the faith’ and as ‘upholders of monotheism and the sunnah’. The book appears to have received the official approval of several leading Deobandi ‘ulama, concerned as they were about improving relations with the Saudis, including, probably, prospective Saudi patrons. In fact, in the concluding section Nu‘mani explicitly stated that the book laid out the position of the ‘ulama of Deoband. He backed this claim by including the testimonies of two leading Deobandi ‘ulama, the late Muhammad Zakariya Kandhalavi, chief ideologue of the Deobandi-related Tablighi Jama‘at movement, and Qari Muhammad Tayyeb. Zakariya’s statement declared the book to be ‘very good’.[27] For his part, Tayyeb heaped praises on the book, and claimed that it finally ‘proved’ that there is actually no ‘difference of principle’ (‘usuli ikhtilaf) between the Deobandis and the ‘Wahhabis’, and that ‘to a very great extent they ‘are united’. He also advised that the book be translated into Arabic as soon as possible.[28] The book was later rendered into Arabic in order to convince Arab readers, including possible patrons, that the Deobandis were not opposed to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his followers.

Nu‘mani begins his book by claiming that because of the wave of virulent propaganda unleashed by the ‘religious and political enemies’ of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, numerous ‘true ‘ulama’ (‘ulama-i haq) (by which Nu‘mani probably means the ‘ulama of Deoband) unwittingly opposed his message. He stresses the point that the Deobandi elders were not alone in this. Numerous Indian Ahl-i Hadith leaders, he points out, also shared the same opinion, and one of them, Siddiq Hasan Khan, even penned a tract condemning him. He seeks to suggest that the initial opposition to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab on the part of some Deobandi elders might have stemmed, in part, from the influence of Khan’s writings. This point is crucial, for it enables him to counter the Ahl-i Hadith claim of always and unanimously having being supportive of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his mission, an argument which the Ahl-i Hadith generally use in order to gain Saudi support. He then hastens to add that when the ‘truth’ of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab’s mission and message dawned on them the Deobandi elders did not hesitate to retract their statements against him and to express support for him and his mission.[29]

Nu‘mani takes, as a case in point, the views of the rector of the Deoband madrasa, Husain Ahmad Madani, who, as noted earlier, penned a book bitterly attacking Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab. As a child, Nu‘mani writes, Madani was brought up to understand that Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and the ‘Wahhabis’ generally were fierce ‘enemies’ of Islam. This was, he says, a result of a massive propaganda campaign conducted in India and elsewhere against the ‘Wahhabis’ by their ‘enemies’, who regarded the ‘Wahhabi’ movement as a major challenge to their own authority and privileges as custodians of Sufi shrines. Nu‘mani probably makes this point deliberately to stress the Barelvi opposition to ‘Wahhabism’ and to deny any Deobandi involvement in the matter. Because in his early years Madani did not have access to the ‘truth’ about the ‘Wahhabis’, and because of the influence of the anti-‘Wahhabi’ campaign, Madani, Nu‘mani admits, did write against Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab. In 1910 he penned a tract, al-Shahab al-Shaqib, fiercely denouncing him and his followers. However, later on, when he read the books of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab for himself, he is said to have realised that his message was actually one of ‘pure’ monotheism and a bitter, and, therefore, legitimate, critique of bida‘ah. After this apparent change of views, he is said to have heaped praises on Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab for ‘launching a jihad against those who bow before graves, ask the dead for help, construct domes over graves and engage in other such polytheistic practices’.[30] The reference here is to groups like the Barelvi opponents of the Deobandis. The point is probably deliberately made in order to stress the common commitment of both the Deobandis and the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ to the extirpation of what they regard as bida‘ah. In order to argue the case for a radical change in Madani’s views about ‘Wahhabism’ Nu‘mani argues that after recognising the ‘reality’ and alleged legitimacy of ‘Wahhabism’ Madani worked closely with several ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama, particularly in the governing council of the Saudi-based World Muslim League, of which he was appointed a member in 1965. His involvement in the work of the League is said to have brought him in close touch with two prominent Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ scholars, Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah bin Baz, chief mufti of Saudi Arabia, and Shaikh ‘Abdullah bin Humid, a senior official Saudi religious leader. Nu‘mani hastens to add that these two scholars were ‘very pious’ Muslims and ‘good models’ of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab’s message and movement.[31]

The same radical change of views, Nu‘mani claims, occurred in the case of another leading Deobandi scholar, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri. Under the influence of the anti-‘Wahhabi’ propaganda, Saharanpuri declared the ‘Wahhabis’ to be outside the Sunni fold. In his al-Tasdiqat he went so far as to brand Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his followers as kafirs and ‘traitors’ (baghi). However, like Madani, after he read the books of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab for himself he is said to have realised the ‘error’ of his earlier views. He then recanted from them and wrote in favour of the ‘Wahhabi’ movement, and even went to the extent of claiming that ‘there was not even a grain of difference’ between the ‘Wahhabis’ and the other Sunnis. Further, he is said to have come out in support of the Saudi government at a time when it was being fiercely criticised by the Barelvis and Shi‘as, by claiming that it was ‘truly religious’.[32]

After struggling to defend his Deobandi elders from the charge of being anti-‘Wahhabi’, Nu‘mani shifts to discussing the present Saudi regime and the question of its ‘Islamic’ legitimacy. Since the underlying aim of his book seems to be to ‘prove’ the similarities between the Deobandism and ‘Wahhabism’ and to encourage greater cooperation between the Deobandis and the Saudis, it is hardly surprising that Nu‘mani presents the Saudi regime in glowing terms. Thus, he proclaims that the Saudi state is based on ‘Islam, obedience of the shari‘ah and the sunnah’, and is the ‘true heir’ of the ‘pure Islamic state’ established by Ibn Saud. He even goes so far as to declare that, as far as he is aware, Saudi Arabia is the only state in the world that is governed strictly according to the prescriptions of the Qur’an and the sunnah. In support of this claim he cites the fact that in Saudi Arabia thieves are punished with their hands being chopped off, unmarried adulteresses are whipped and male adulterers are stoned to death, all in accordance with Islamic law. Added evidence for this assertion is the alleged piety of Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Nu‘mani describes the Saudi king as a model Muslim monarch. The Saudi ruler is, he says, ‘praise be to God, strictly observant of the fasts, prayers and religious duties’, and insists that his subjects follow in the same path. This, Nu‘mani says, is the result of the great ‘blessings’ of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab’s movement. Aware of the enormous influence of the al-Shaikh family, descendants of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, Nu‘mani also refers to them in laudable terms. The family, he says, has produced numerous illustrious Islamic scholars, and this, Nu‘mani claims, is ‘undoubtedly an immense blessing from God’. [33]

Nu‘mani’s presentation of the ‘Wahhabi’ doctrine and the Saudi state appears to have been carefully calculated to minimise points of difference between ‘Wahhabism’ and the Deobandi understanding of Islam and to focus only on issues on which they are agreed, in order to argue that there were no fundamental differences between the two, particularly on the question of ‘pure monotheism’ and opposition to bida‘ah. Thus, the fact that, in contrast to the ‘Wahhabis’, the Deobandis believe in the legitimacy of Sufism, although of a shari‘ah-minded sort, and that they insist on the need for taqlid of one of the four generally accepted schools of Sunni jurisprudence, was conveniently ignored. This can be said to be a reflection of a growing ‘Wahhabisation’ of Deobandism under Arab influence. This explanation is only partially valid, however. It appears that Nu‘mani was, in fact, deliberately seeking to conceal the major differences between the Deobandis and the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’. Critics accused Nu‘mani of doing so simply in order to win the favour of prospective Arab donors. This charge was levelled by several Ahl-i Hadith scholars, probably angered at the prospect of growing links between their Deobandi rivals and patrons in Saudi Arabia.

Nu‘mani’s book was met with a swift rebuttal by numerous Ahl-i Hadith scholars, who accused him of deliberately distorting the reality of Husain Ahmad Madani’s views, and that of the Deobandis generally, on Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab in order to win Saudi support. In 1986, the Jami‘a Salafiya, Varanasi, the main Ahl-i Hadith madrasa in India, published a lengthy diatribe against Nu‘mani’s book penned by an Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholar, Mahfuz ur-Rahman Faizi.[34] In his preface to the book, Safi ur-Rahman Mubarakpuri, a leading Indian Ahl-i Hadith ‘alim, quoted at length from Madani’s al-Shahab al-Shaqib, pointing out that Madani had fiercely condemned Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, reserving the choicest epithets for him. He claimed that Madani had ‘left no stone unturned ‘ to vilify the Saudi rulers. He added that even at the present time the Deobandis were secretly carrying on in that tradition, while cunningly seeking to brand the Saudi government’s ‘true well-wishers’ (by which he meant the Ahl-i Hadith) as its enemies. Nu‘mani’s book, he claimed, was part of this sinister plot.[35]

Developing this argument further, Faizi claimed that Nu‘mani had unfairly accused certain pioneers of the Ahl-i Hadith in India, most notably Siddiq Hasan Khan, of having been opposed to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab. He had gone so far as to ‘wrongly’ claim that Madani’s initial opposition to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab owed to the influence of Khan’s alleged anti-‘Wahhabi’ writings. Faizi stoutly defended Khan from the charge of having been opposed to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab. He quoted profusely from Khan’s various writings to show that he considered Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab to have been a true Sunni and a staunch and passionate defender of the Qur’an and the sunnah. He admitted that in some ‘minor’ matters Khan and certain other earlier Ahl-i Hadith had differences with the ‘Wahhabis’ but this did not mean, he said, that, as Nu‘mani had tried to argue, they were opposed to them. Nu‘mani had, he claimed, deliberately ignored the praise that Khan and other early Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholars had showered on Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab in order to ‘prove’ that the early Deobandis were not alone in opposing him, and that, like them, some Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama had also expressed their hostility towards his movement. If Madani had been influenced by the alleged writings of Khan against the ‘Wahhabis’, how was it, Faizi asked, that he had completely ignored Khan’s other writings that portrayed them in glowing terms? This itself ‘proved’, Faizi insisted, that Madani’s opposition to the ‘Wahhabis’ was not a result of the influence of Khan’s writings.

Faizi also dismissed Nu‘mani’s argument that Madani was simply an innocent victim of the massive anti-‘Wahhabi’ propaganda that the ‘enemies’ of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab had unleashed. He pointed out that Madani had spent more than a dozen years in the Hijaz, where he could have gained a ‘true’ understanding of ‘Wahhabism’ if he had cared to. Further, at the time of writing his book against Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, a considerable deal of pro-‘Wahhabi’ literature, purporting to present a ‘true’ image of the movement, was available in India and Arabia, in both Urdu and Arabic. Given this, how was it, Faizi asked, that Madani did not care to consult these ‘authentic’ sources while writing his book? The fact that Madani did not refer to these books itself showed that he was not simply an innocent victim of anti-‘Wahhabi’ propaganda, contrary to what Nu‘mani had claimed, Faizi insisted.

Nu‘mani’s claim that Madani later retracted his anti-‘Wahhabi’ views was also dismissed by Faizi, who argued that his note disclaiming his earlier stance was published in the columns of an anti-Deobandi newspaper, and was not widely known among the Deobandis themselves. If Madani had genuinely changed his position on Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his followers, Faizi asked, how was it that this clarificatory note did not appear in subsequent editions of his al-Shahab al-Shaqib, which, he claimed, continued to be published un-amended? As further evidence of his claim that Madani had not actually changed his views on the ‘Wahhabis’, Faizi quoted from Madani’s autobiography, published almost three decades after he wrote al-Shahab al-Shaqib, where he is said to have repeated the same charges against the ‘Wahhabis’ that he made in his earlier work, branding them as ‘extremists’ (sakht ghali), and as having given ‘immense trouble’ to their opponents, because of which, Madani wrote, ‘the people of Mecca and Medina hate them and the Hijazis detest Wahhabism more than Christianity and Judaism’. In his autobiography Madani also allegedly charged the ‘Wahhabis’ with ‘blasphemy’ (gustakhana kalimat) against the Prophet, and claimed that the Deobandis had ‘not even the remotest relations’ with ‘Wahhabi beliefs’. As further confirmation of the ‘fact’ that Madani had never changed his anti-‘Wahhabi’ views, Faizi quoted Madani has having written in an article published in the Deobandi journal al-Jami‘at in 1952 that Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his followers had ‘gone astray’ (gumrah) and, hence, were to be counted among the Kharijites, implying, therefore, that they could not be considered part of the Sunni fold.[36]

The controversy that erupted in the 1980s over Nu’mani’s book illustrated the fact that Saudi assistance to selected Deobandi ‘ulama and their schools in India and Pakistan was seen by Ahl-i Hadith scholars and leaders as a major challenge, fearing, critics claim, that this would mean a diminution in their own earnings from generous Arab patrons. This, at least, is how several Deobandis explain the fierce diatribe mounted by some Ahl-i Hadith scholars against them in recent years. In addition to this, Saudi pressure is said to have been behind the escalation of Ahl-i Hadith polemical attacks on the Deobandis. Thus, a leading Indian Barelvi scholar, Yasin Akhtar Misbahi, writes that although some early Deobandis were vehemently opposed to Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and his movement, later, in order to ingratiate themselves with oil-rich Saudis, the Deobandis sought to come closer to the ‘Wahhabis’ and even to identify with them. This, he says, continued till 1991, that is till the outbreak of the first Gulf War, when the Saudis, fearing an Iraqi invasion, called in American troops and allowed them to be stationed in the country. ‘Not a single Muslim’ in India and Pakistan, Misbahi writes, approved of this step, not even the Deobandis who had earlier received considerable financial assistance from the Saudis. This is why, he argues, relations between the Deobandis and the Saudis began to sharply deteriorate, resulting in a massive propaganda campaign conducted by the ‘Najdis’ against the Deobandis of South Asia.[37]

A turning point in Ahl-i Hadith-Deobandi relations was the publication in the late 1990s of a book titled ad-Deobandiyah, penned by a certain Sayyed Talib ur-Rahman, a Pakistani Ahl-i Hadith scholar based in Saudi Arabia who is said to work for an official Saudi Islamic organisation. The book was published by a Pakistani Ahl-i Hadith institution, the Dar ul-Kitab wa‘l Sunnah in Karachi, and, a critic alleges, was ‘delivered, in a well planned manner, to the shaikhs of the Hijaz and Najd and to [Saudi] government offices’. Probably deliberately, the book was written in Arabic and widely distributed in Saudi Arabia itself, in order to turn Saudi opinion, including that of the Saudi state and rich Saudi patrons, against the Deobandis. The book is said to have openly declared the Deobandis as apostates and mushriks (polytheists), and to have even argued that many Deobandis ‘had gone even further [in their infidelity] than the polytheists of Mecca’. It was alleged that the book claimed that the Deobandi ‘ulama ‘were totally bereft of faith in monotheism’, and that some leading Deobandis ‘attributed lies to God’, tampered with the Qur’an and entertained ‘stern hatred’ for the ‘upholders of monotheism and the sunnah of the Prophet’.[38] Along with their fellow Barelvi Hanafis they were described as quburin (grave worshippers) for their veneration of prophets and saints and for their practice of offering fatiha (the opening verse of the Qur’an) at the graves of the dead.[39]

Shortly after the publication of ad-Deobandiyah, a series of similar books, making somewhat the same sort of arguments, began to appear in Arabic and Urdu in India and Pakistan, as well as in Saudi Arabia itself. Several of these, it is alleged, were sponsored, directly or otherwise, by rich Saudi patrons. Most of them were authored by Indian and Pakistani Ahl-i Hadith scholars, although a few were penned by Saudi shaikhs. One such book, published in both Arabic and Urdu by the Riyadh-based Maktab al-Ta‘wuni al-Da‘wah wa’l-Irshad, and distributed in large quantities to Muslim pilgrims during the Haj season, allegedly declared the Deobandis to be effectively outside the Sunni fold, and, hence, implicitly, outside the pale of Islam itself. A second book, written in Arabic by a Saudi mufti, Shaikh Hamud bin ‘Abdullah, referred to the Deobandis and the Tablighi Jama‘at as ‘wrongful innovators’ (bida‘ati) and as having ‘gone astray’ (gumrah) and even as being a ‘Satanic sect’ (shaitani jama‘at). It claimed that the ‘foremost effort’ of the Tablighis was to ‘spread innovations in God’s religion and to oppose the sunnah of the Prophet’.[40] Another similar book, penned by a certain Shamsuddin Salafi, a South Asian graduate of the Mecca-based Islamic University, referred to the Deobandis as ‘the sect of grave worshippers’ (firqa al-quburiya), and hence, for all practical purposes, as outside the pale of Islam.[41]Salafi is said to have described the Hanafi ‘ulama as ‘polytheists’ and ‘dwellers of hell’.[42] A third book, published in 2001, bore the provocative title of ‘Are the ‘Ulama of Deoband Sunnis?’. Its cover flap proudly proclaimed that ‘thousands’ of copies of the book had been published in Saudi Arabia. The book consisted of a virulent diatribe against the Deobandis, accusing them of all manner of ‘un-Islamic’ beliefs and practices. As evidence for this claim, the author argued that the Deobandis’ alleged insistence on taqlid even if the prescriptions of the schools of fiqh violate the Qur’an and Hadith went against the practice of Muhammad’s companions.[43] The Deobandis, he claimed, like their fellow Hanafi Barelvis, follow various Sufi practices and enrol in different Sufi orders, whereas this was unknown at the time of the Prophet. Unlike Muhammad’s companions, the Deobandis, as well as the Barelvis, believe that the Prophet is still alive. Hence, the author concluded, many Deobandi ‘ulama cannot be considered to be Sunnis or Muslims at all.[44] The assumption, as well as conclusion, probably is that the Ahl-i Hadith, who are presented as identical with the ‘Wahhabis’ of Saudi Arabia, alone can claim to represent genuine Sunnism, the single ‘saved’ sect. An even more hard-hitting attack on the Deobandis, and on the Hanafis generally, was a book which appeared in 1999, authored by an Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholar, Abu Iqbal Salafi. It bore the provocative title Mazhab-i Hanafi Ka Mazhab-i Islam Se Ikhtliaf (‘The Opposition of the Hanafi Religion to the Religion of Islam’), thus clearly announcing the author’s conviction that the Hanafis, including both Deobandis as well as Barelvis, were not Muslims at all. The book went on to declare in no uncertain terms that the ‘Hanafi religion’ had no relation whatsoever with Islam, which, the author argued, was synonymous with the Ahl-i Hadith. Thus, the author claimed that the Hanafis regarded Imam Abu Hanifa, and not Allah, as their deity (rab), and that they ‘worshipped’ him.[45] The ‘Hanafi religion’, he argued, was ‘totally opposed to Islam’ and ‘fully against the Qur’an and the Hadith’, and was, in fact, invented by Islam’s ‘enemies’ to undermine it. The Hanafis were, he said, identical to the Jews, who, he claimed, were inveterate ‘enemies’ of Islam. Because of this, he went on, the Hanafis ‘did not recognise the Qur’an and the Hadith’, and in fact, ‘bore enmity’ against the Islamic scriptures. He also charged the Hanafis with ‘abusing’ the companions of the Prophet and for allegedly giving a higher status to their Imam than to Muhammad.[46] He made no exceptions in this regard, effectively branding all Hanafis as infidels. Thus, he insisted, ‘All Hanafis follow the Hanafi religion (mazhab-i hanafi) and not the religion of Islam (mazhab-i islam)’, claiming that the two were completely different.[47]
As part of their campaign against the Deobandis, South Asian Ahl-i Hadith scholars appear to have paid considerable attention to conveying to various Arab ‘Wahhabi’ shaikhs, mostly resident in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, information about the ‘false’ and ‘un-Islamic’ beliefs of their Deobandi rivals. This is illustrated in the number of articles penned and fatwas delivered by leading Arab ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama against the Deobandis in recent years, a fairly new development. These writings and pronouncements have been given considerable publicity by Ahl-i Hadith websites and publishing houses, aware as they are of the prestige and authority that the views and statements of Arab ‘ulama carry among many South Asian Muslims. An interesting case in point is an Ahl-i Hadith website, probably based in India, www. This site hosts numerous fatwas against the Deobandis and the Tablighi Jama‘at (in addition to groups like the Barelvis, Shi‘as and the Jama‘at-i Islami) delivered by important Arab ‘Wahhabi’ scholars. One of the fatwas, delivered by Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah bin Baz, declares the Tablighi Jama‘at as containing ‘many deviations’, including ‘aspects of bida‘ah and shirk’. Accordingly, bin Baz argues that it is not permissible for a Muslim to join the movement unless ‘he has knowledge’ and accompanies the Tablighis simply to ‘disapprove’ of them and in order to ‘teach them [the truth]’ so that ‘they leave their falsehood and embrace the way of the Ahl us-Sunnah wa‘l-Jama‘ah’.[48] The implicit message contained in this statement is, therefore, that the Tablighis cannot be said to follow the Sunni ‘way’. In a second fatwa hosted on the website bin Baz is quoted as having explicitly declared the Tablighis outside the Sunni fold.[49] The website carries yet another fatwa, issued by the late Saudi-based ‘Wahhabi’ scholar Shaikh Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani, condemning the Tablighis for not ‘uphold[ing] the manjah (method) of the Book of Allah and the sunnah of His Messenger’ and for being association with Sufism. al-Albani then go on to declare it impermissible for ‘true’ Muslims to join the movement.[50] The website hosts several similar articles and fatwas against the Tablighis by other leading Arab ‘Wahhabi’ scholars, including Shaikh Abu ‘Abd ur-Rahman Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi, Shaikh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali, Shaikh Salih bin Fouzan al-Fouzan, Shaikh Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Shaikh and Shaikh ‘Abdur Razzaq Afifi.[51] The website also carries several articles by both Arab and South Asian ‘Wahhabi’ scholars against the Deobandis in general, accusing them of shirk and bida‘ah, and, hence, implying that they cannot be considered to be genuine Sunnis or even as proper Muslims at all.[52]
Efforts by the Ahl-i Hadith to win support among the Arab ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama for their campaign against the Deobandis seem to have met with considerable success. A clear indication of this is the fact that leading South Asian Ahl-i Hadith scholars have managed to prevail upon the Saudi-managed Islamic University of Medina to ban the publication of the Tafsir-i ‘Usmani, an Urdu translation of the Qur’an by Mahmud ul-Hasan (d.1920), for many years the rector of the Deoband madrasa, and a commentary on it by another leading Deobandi, Shabbir Ahmad ‘Usmani. This book had reportedly been published for many years by an official Saudi publishing house, the Medina-based King Fahd Complex for Printing the Holy Qur’an, for mass distribution. Its publication is said to have been stopped after Ahl-i Hadith activists claimed that it propagated ‘anti-Islamic’ beliefs such as appealing to ‘the people of the grave’ (ahl-i qubur) for help. By arguing that the Deobandis were not true or full Muslims, the Ahl-i Hadith managed to convince the Saudi authorities to replace Mahmud ul-Hasan’s translation of the Qur’an by one written by a leading Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholar, Maulana Muhammad Junagadhi.[53]
The success of the Ahl-i Hadith in their campaign against the Deobandis was not limited to winning the support of key Saudi ‘ulama. Some Deobandis themselves, so Ahl-i Hadith soures claim, are also said to have been won over to the Ahl-i Hadith fold in the wake of the heated polemical exchanges between the two groups. The most dramatic such ‘conversion’ was that of Muhammad Anas, proprietor of the Idara-i Isha‘at-i Diniyat, a New Delhi-based Islamic publishing house associated with the Deobandi-related Tablighi Jama‘at. This story was widely touted about by the Ahl-i Hadith as ‘proof’ of the falsity of Deobandi beliefs and of the claim of the Ahl-i Hadith as being the sole ‘genuine’ Sunni sect. The interview was reproduced in full, in Urdu and in English translation, in the form of a booklet, on audio cassettes and on Ahl-i Hadith websites.[54] Muhammad ‘Aqil, the Saudi-based editor of the booklet, termed Anas’ decision to join the Ahl-i Hadith as ‘repentance’ (tauba) and claimed that by abandoning the Tablighi Jama‘at Anas had turned his back on ‘polytheism’ and ‘wrongful innovation’ and had entered the fold of ‘monotheism’, thereby suggesting that the Deobandis and Tablighis were not monotheists or Muslims themselves.[55] He attacked the Tablighi Jama‘at, and the Deobandis in general, for allegedly being ‘a group devoted to spreading polytheistic beliefs and wrongful practices’, for ‘tampering with (tahrif) the Qur’an and Hadith’, and for allegedly ‘stopping their followers from reading the Qur’an and Hadith’ and thus of wrongly claiming to be genuine Sunnis.[56] The Tablighi message, he declared, was an open ‘invitation to distortion in the true religion’. For his part, Anas announced that following his ‘conversion’ he had decided to stop the publishing and sale of several dozen books, mainly texts penned by revered Deobandi elders, which, he claimed, contained numerous ‘wrong’ beliefs that were clearly against the Qur’an and Hadith. He also revealed that he was replacing numerous books by Deobandi scholars by texts prepared by Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama.[57] It was urgent, Anas argued, that the ‘truth’ of the Ahl-i Hadith position be put forward against the claims of the Deobandis, because, he insisted, the Deobandis did not properly follow the Qur’an and the Hadith. Referring to the Tablighis, he said, ‘Very few of their practices are in accordance with the Qur’an and sunnah’. ‘Even their prayers are not in conformity with the Prophetic practice’, he claimed, referring to the Deobandi method of praying that differs in some ways from that of the Ahl-i Hadith.[58] ‘Prayers are the most important thing’, he stressed, probably suggesting that if the Deobandi, or Hanafi more generally, method of worship was ‘wrong’, it was hardly surprising that in other respects, too, they had gone far ‘astray’ from the practice of the Prophet.

The publication of ad-Deobandiyah and similar literature and the banning of Mahmud ul-Hasan’s translation of the Qur’an came as a summons for battle for the Deobandis. Being branded as ‘polytheists’, and, therefore, effectively as apostates, was taken as a major insult. It was also probably feared that such virulent anti-Deobandi propaganda, particularly when conducted inside Saudi Arabia itself, could lead to a complete loss of valuable Saudi as well as other Arab patronage, besides greatly tarnishing the image of the Deobandis throughout the Muslim world. The Deobandis were, therefore, not slow in reacting. They responded with a powerful counter-attack, churning out massive quantities of literature to prove that the Ahl-i Hadith had, in actual fact, no liking at all for the ‘Wahhabis’ of Saudi Arabia and that their profession of being followers of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab was just a clever ruse to attract Saudi money, thus repeating the Ahl-i Hadith charges against them. In addition to claiming to represent the ‘Wahhabi’ tradition themselves and denying the claims of the Ahl-i Hadith in this regard, some Deobandi scholars penned tracts branding the Ahl-i Hadith as being fiercely ‘anti-Islamic’. Thus, for instance, a Deobandi ‘alim from Ghazipur prepared a set of five books to denounce the Ahl-i Hadith and even launched a new journal, Zam-Zam, devoted solely to rebutting Ahl-i Hadith doctrines. In order probably to curry favour with the Saudis, he published a book in Arabic, possibly meant for prospective Arab patrons, arguing that the Ahl-i Hadith were actually ‘enemies’ of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab but falsely claimed to be his followers simply in order to attract Arab funds.[59] Numerous other Deobandis followed with their own tracts and books fiercely opposing the Ahl-i Hadith. Many of these books were penned in Arabic, directed at an Arab, particularly Saudi, audience, damning the Ahl-i Hadith as ‘anti-Islamic’. They were condemned for allegedly abusing the companions of the Prophet, the revered Imams of the four generally accepted schools of Sunni jurisprudence, and the Sufis and other ‘pious elders’, and for defying the ‘ijma or jurisprudential consensus of the ‘ulama.[60] Consequently, numerous Deobandi scholars sought to argue, the Ahl-i Hadith could hardly be regarded as proper Sunnis or Muslims at all. Muhammad Jamal Bulandshahri, a teacher at the Deoband madrasa, argued, expressing the views of many of his fellow Deobandis, that, given their ‘false’ beliefs, the Ahl-i Hadith could not be considered to be true Sunnis. Their claim to the contrary, and their assertion that they represented true ‘Salafism’, was, he insisted, simply a ruse to ‘cheat the Saudis and garner their wealth’.[61]

Commenting on the bitter wrangling between the two groups, a leading Indian Barelvi scholar, Mufti Muhammad Akhtar Yasin Qadri, caustically wrote:

Today here is great strife between the ghair muqallids (Ahl-i Hadith) and the Deobandis, both of them lusting for the oil wealth of Arabia. Hence, both are now fighting to claim before the Arabs that each of them alone represents the true Wahhabi tradition and that the other is wrong. [62]

Matters came to a head in mid-2001, when heightened polemics between the Deobandis and the Ahl-i Hadith and the efforts of Ahl-i Hadith leaders to discredit the Deobandis in Saudi Arabia as ‘polytheists’ led the Deobandi-dominated Jami‘at ul-‘Ulama-i Hind to organise a mammoth two-day convention in Delhi. The convention was widely advertised as the ‘Save the Sunnah’ (tahaffuz-i sunnah) Conference, and was addressed by leading Indian Deobandi ‘ulama. The message that was sought to be conveyed, as the title of the conference itself suggested, was that it was the Deobandis alone who represented the authentic sunnah or practice of the Prophet, and that, therefore, they had the right and the duty of ‘protecting’ it. The focus of the impassioned speeches delivered at the conference was the denunciation of the Ahl-i Hadith, which, speaker after speaker claimed, had emerged as the single major threat to the sunnah of the Prophet.

In his inaugural address to the conference, the head of the Jami‘at and influential Deobandi leader, Sayyed ‘Asad Madani (styled by himself and his followers as imam al-hind or the ‘Imam of India’), denounced the Ahl-i Hadith as the product of a sinister ‘imperialist conspiracy’ to ‘divide’ Muslims. He bitterly harangued the Ahl-i Hadith for their belief that they alone were true Muslims and for allegedly considering all other Muslims as kafirs and polytheists. He accused them of falsely interpreting the Qur’an and the Hadith in order to stress their own claims of representing ‘authentic’ Islam, and for insulting the Sufis and learned elders and even the companions of the Prophet. He described the anti-Deobandi propaganda unleashed by the Ahl-i Hadith as the result of a sinister ‘anti-Islamic’ plot, stemming from an acute realisation that the Deobandi ‘ulama had made ‘great sacrifices’ for and ‘immense contributions’ to Islam. Consequently, he said, as the case of the controversial book ad-Deobandiyah suggested, some Ahl-i Hadith leaders had gone so far as to declare the Deobandis outside the Sunni fold and had even claimed that Deoband ‘was an institution that had declared war on the Prophet and had thrown aside his method (tariqa)’. They had also falsely alleged that the ‘very foundations’ of Deoband were ‘based on disobedience of the Prophet’.[63]
Interestingly, Madani did not mince words in critiquing the Saudi government for what he saw as its role in fanning anti-Deobandi sentiments through the Ahl-i Hadith. This represented a major shift in Deobandi strategy, an indication that many Deobandis were now seeking to consciously distance themselves from their earlier efforts of appeasing the Saudi regime. Noting that many anti-Deobandi books had been penned by Ahl-i Hadith scholars who had studied in Saudi universities, some of these books having been brought out by leading Saudi Islamic publishing houses, he exclaimed, ‘It is a matter of great sorrow that these institutions that had been established to promote the Qur’an and Hadith and other Islamic sciences are today working to lead Muslims outside the path of the true faith’. He even went so far as to charge the Saudi regime of abetting the Ahl-I Hadith in their campaign against the Deobandis, stating that he suspected that ‘consciously or otherwise it appears that the Saudi kingdom was engaged, or even leading, the baseless campaign against the ‘ulama of Deoband’.[64] Concluding his speech, Madani warned Muslims to stay away from the ‘strife’ (fitna) of the ‘ghayr muqallids’, reiterating his assertion that the Ahl-i Hadith had mounted a concerted campaign against the Muslims’ ‘faith and ‘ulama’. The hidden message contained in that statement, probably, was that the Ahl-i Hadith could not be considered as genuine Muslims at all. Madani also advised his followers to reduce, as far as possible, their relations with the ‘ghair muqallids’, so as to remain protected from what he called as their ‘evil influence’.[65]

The speeches and papers delivered at the conference were later published in the form of low-priced pamphlets meant for mass distribution. The basic intention of all these pamphlets was to argue the case that the Ahl-i Hadith did not represent Islam at all, despite their claims to do so. Thus, the author of one pamphlet, Maulana Sayyed Mahdi Hasan Shahjahanpuri, former chief mufti of the Deoband madrasa, produced a list of fifty points on which, he argued, the Ahl-i Hadith violated the Qur’an and the Hadith. Hence, he insisted, the claim of the Ahl-i Hadith of following the Qur’an and the Hadith, and thus of being ‘true’ Muslims, was bogus.[66] A second pamphlet, penned by Mahmud ul-Hasan Bulandshahri, mufti at the Deoband madrasa, went so far as to claim the existence of a ‘global conspiracy’ hatched by ‘anti-Islamic forces’ to attack the ‘protectors of the forts of Islam’, insisting that the Ahl-i Hadith were deliberately or otherwise part of this sinister plot by denouncing all other Muslim groups as outside the pale of Islam.[67] Another pamphlet, written by Muhammad Jamal Bulandshahri, teacher at the Deoband madrasa, argued that the Ahl-i Hadith were identical, in several respects, with the Shi‘as, whom he branded as the product of what he described as a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ to destroy Islam from within by creating dissensions among Muslims. He claimed that the British had sponsored the emergence and growth of the Ahl-i Hadith to set Muslims against each other.[68] In other words, he appeared to argue that the Ahl-i Hadith could not be considered part of the Sunni, that is, Muslim, fold, despite their claims to the contrary. Yet another pamphlet, authored by Mufti Sayyed Muhammad Salman Mansurpuri, a leading Deobandi and a teacher at the Madrasa Shahi, Moradabad, went so far as to declare the ‘ghair muqallidin’ as ‘the most dangerous threat’ to Muslim unity and as a dangerous source of ‘chaos’ (fitna), suggesting that it was a major player in a grand ‘conspiracy’ hatched by the ‘enemies’ of Islam to set Muslims against each other by projecting ‘minor’ issues of difference between Muslim groups as ‘questions of faith versus infidelity’. Significantly, he directly and explicitly accused the government of Saudi Arabia and leading Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama of providing ‘moral’ and ‘material’ help to the Ahl-i Hadith in their campaign against the muqallids, followers of one or the other of the four generally accepted schools of Sunni jurisprudence. He pointed out with concern that the Ahl-i Hadith had established a strong presence in various official Islamic organisations in Saudi Arabia, singling out the Department of Religious Preaching in Mecca and Medina in particular, which, he said, Ahl-i Hadith scholars were using to ‘heap abuses’ on the ‘pious ‘ulama’ and the Imams of the schools of Sunni jurisprudence. If the ‘ghair muqallids’ were to go unchallenged, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they might even ‘threaten the peace and security’ of Mecca and Medina, he warned. Mansurpuri left his readers in no doubt about his actual opinion on the Ahl-i Hadith. Thus, he appealed to the ‘ulama to rise up and oppose them in the same way as they had responded to the challenge of ‘the Qadiani religion and other such false (batil) forces’, thus seeming to suggest that he considered them as, in a sense, akin to the Ahmadiyyas or Qadianis, whom most Muslims regard as heretics and apostates.[69]

Impact of Recent Developments on Saudi Links with Indian Muslim Groups

The 1990s were characterised by fierce polemical battles between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in India, with each group charging the other of being ‘anti-Islamic’ and as hidden fronts of the ‘enemies’ of Islam. Although the two groups continue to regard each other as fierce rivals, the sharp polemical exchanges between them now seem to have dampened somewhat. One factor for this is probably the strong need that many Muslims feel to present a united front to combat the challenge of aggressive Hindu groups in the country. In addition to this is the widespread feeling among many Indian Muslims that the Deobandi-Ahl-i Hadith rivalry was simply yet another case of the ‘ulama squabbling among themselves to promote their own vested interests, and hence of not pressing relevance to the community at large.

Another important factor for the apparent decline in overt strife between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis in recent years is what seems to be a significant shift in Saudi strategy. Following the attacks by events of September, 2001, Saudi Arabia came under tremendous pressure from the United States to clamp down on ‘Wahhabi’ militants at home and abroad. The Saudi strategy of sponsoring radical ‘Wahhabism’ seemed to have boomeranged, as a new generation of Islamist radicals emerged within Saudi Arabia itself, critiquing the Saudi regime for its corruption and for its close links with the United States. Conseqeuntly, the Saudis Arabia was forced to take action against their own internal radical Islamist opponents, realising the major challenge that they posed to the Saudi monarchy. Simultaneously, and because of these developments, Saudi aid to ‘Wahhabi’ groups abroad, including India, is said to have declined somewhat. This will naturally have a major impact on relations between different Muslim groups in India, and will most notably impact on the expansion of the Ahl-i Hadith, who have been the major recipient of Saudi assistance in recent years. An indication of the impact of the American as well as domestic pressure on the Saudi regime today is the claim that Saudi authorities are now advising their Ahl-i Hadith contacts in India to exercise restraint in their bitter polemical war against the Deobandis. This might well be happening, being further promoted by considerable disenchantment among many Muslims, including ‘moderate’ Deobandis and Ahl-i Hadith, with intra-Muslim rivalries at a time when Muslims in India see themselves faced with the growing challenge of Hindu militancy.

Another possible indication of the shift in Saudi strategy is the fact that of late certain Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in India have brought out books praising the Saudi state and critiquing what they describe as the ‘terrorists’ who wish to weaken it. These books argue that the ‘correct’ method of the political ‘reform’ that Islamist opponents of the regime seek is not through violence, but, rather, through ‘guiding’ the political authorities to follow the path of God by providing them with ‘Islamic’ advice. As before, this sort of propaganda is carefully crafted to suit the interests of the increasingly beleaguered Saudi regime, which today finds itself faced by the challenge of radical Islamism, which, for several years, it had so heavily invested in.

A good illustration of the political direction in which the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ want to steer their Indian Ahl-i Hadith counterparts is the recent publication of a lengthy diatribe by two leading official Saudi ‘ulama against Islamist groups inside and outside Saudi Arabia that are allegedly plotting to overthrow the present Saudi regime, principally because of its close nexus with the United States. The book consists of two essays, one by the late Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah bin Baz and the other by Shaikh Saleh bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz al-Shaikh, the Saudi Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments. The book has been rendered into Urdu and published in India by ‘Abdur Rahim bin ‘Abdul Jabbar Farewai, an Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholar who teaches at the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.[70] That the book is intended to propagate the official Saudi line in order to defend Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States is evident from the sub-title that appears inside the book, ‘The Path to Salvation From Chaos: The Gulf Crisis and Lessons From the Iraqi Strife’ (Fitno se Nijat ka Rasta: Khaliji Bahran Aur Iraqi Fitna se Ibrat-o-Mu‘azat ke Pehlu).

In his introduction, Farewai explains the background of the book and the reasons for publishing it, clearly indicating its political import. He writes that in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1990-91, when passions were aroused all over the Muslim world (the reference here is probably to the anger felt by many Muslims against the Saudi regime for supporting America against Iraq and for allowing American troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia), it was felt by the two authors that Muslims, including those living in South Asia, were in ‘urgent need of guidance’. In short, the book was intended to present before the Muslims of the world what the official Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama felt should be their appropriate reaction to the political developments in which Saudi Arabia had emerged as a key player, and about which there was considerable resentment among many Muslims.[71]

In his essay, bin Baz writes that ‘strife’ or ‘chaos’ (fitna)’ can only be countered by following the Qur’an and the sunnah. In turn, this requires Muslims to follow the guidance and instruction of what he describes as the ‘true ‘ulama’. After thus warning Muslims not to react to the presence of ‘strife’ on their own, but, instead, to do as they are told by the ‘true ‘ulama’ (by which is probably meant Bin Baz and ‘ulama of his own persuasion), he writes that those who wreck violence on innocent people in the name of Islam and Islamic jihad cannot be considered to be true, practising Muslims. In fact, such actions reflect ‘hypocrisy (nifaq), open infidelity (kufr-i sarih), evil (dajl) and deceit (fareb)’. Presumably, bin Baz is here referring to Islamist groups responsible for a wave of violent attacks within Saudi Arabia in order to destabilise the Saudi regime. The reference also seems to be to Saddam Husain, who, ironically, was earlier heavily backed as the ‘sword of Islam’ by the Saudis in his war against Iran.

In times of ‘strife’, such as these, bin Baz continues, it is legitimate for Muslim rulers to seek the help of non-Muslims in order to ‘eliminate the tyrant (zalim)’. This statement probably refers to the assistance sought by the Saudis from the Americans in the wake of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Such help can be procured, bin Baz says, if the non-Muslim power has the capacity to end the ‘strife’ of the ‘tyrant’. There is no religious bar involved here. Assistance can be taken from any quarter, from Jews, Christians and even from ‘idolators’. To back his argument, bin Baz refers to the Prophet having received the help of ‘pagan’ Arabs on certain occasions when there was no other course open to him. It is thus permissible, bin Baz says, for Muslims to seek the help of ‘lesser enemies’ in order to fight a ‘greater enemy’. He ends his article by seeking God’s protection from the ‘strife’ of Saddam Husain, whom he names explicitly. Not once in his long diatribe does he critique the United States for its war on Iraq, for its killing of thousands of Iraqi innocent civilians through its sanctions against the country and through its invasion of the country. Also absent is even a hint of criticism of the Saudi regime. Likewise, there is no mention of Saudi Arabia’s own earlier passionate support for Saddam Husain for his invasion of and war against Iran.[72]

The article by Shaikh Saleh bin ‘Abdul ‘Aziz al-Shaikh, follows, predictably enough, on identical lines, but is argued in considerably more detail. al-Shaikh begins by referring to the Gulf War, which, he says, led to ‘immense divisions’ among Muslims worldwide. Hence, he writes, he deems it is duty to state the ‘correct Islamic perspective’ on the matter. The ‘correct Islamic perspective’ that he proceeds to set out, is, not surprisingly, the official Saudi line. ‘Praise be to God’, he exclaims, ‘in Saudi Arabia we are witness to true Islamic awakening and are spreading the true message, while the missionaries of this true message are not visible elsewhere’. His advice to the Muslims of the world is, to put it bluntly, to simply follow and acquiesce in official Saudi policy. In the face of ‘strife’, he explains, Muslims must exercise ‘patient restraint’ (sabr) and ‘tolerance’ (tahammul), following strictly the commandments of the Qur’an and the sunnah as understood and interpreted by what he calls as the ‘accepted Sunni ‘ulama’. These ‘ulama, he tells his readers, have laid down that in times of ‘strife’ Muslims must refrain from ‘impulsiveness’ (jald bazi), and should, instead, display ‘gentleness’ (naram ravi) and must carefully examine matters in their entirety and complexity before taking any action. He quotes two statements attributed to the Prophet to argue that in ‘every matter’ and for ‘every decision’ Muslims must act in this manner, refrain from impulsive actions and stay away from those who act contrarily.[73]

Tolerance, a virtue that is otherwise generally missing in ‘Wahhabi’ propaganda, is repeatedly stressed by al-Shaikh in his appeal to opponents of the Saudi regime. ‘Tolerance is a very praiseworthy virtue and no praise is sufficient to express its loftiness’, he writes, recommending that it must be displayed even at times of great ‘strife’. In the face of ‘strife’ one should remain composed and not react in a hurry, he advises, quoting a hadith to press the argument. Adducing Qur’anic support for this claim, he says that in such situations Muslims must ‘not even talk about matters related to strife’, but, instead, must simply do as they are told by the ‘pious Muslim ruler’ and the doctors of Islamic law. To talk about the prevailing ‘strife’ might threaten to make the problem even more intractable, he cautions. No action must be taken that would lead to divisions among the Muslims, he warns, probably suggesting that opposing the Saudi rulers would be tantamount to setting Muslims against each other. ‘All forms of dissensions’, he announces, ‘be it because of difference of views, words or deeds’, are a ‘curse’ (azab) that would be punished by God, and would inevitably lead one to ‘stray from the Sunni fold’ and from the ‘truth’ itself. Hence, on all occasions, particularly in times of ‘strife’, Muslims must seek to preserve Muslim unity, refrain from acting on their own, and, instead, must follow the ‘true ‘ulama’, who are said to possess proper knowledge of Islam, in contrast to others. al-Shaikh here refers explicitly to the Saudi case, claiming that since a ‘genuine’ Islamic judicial system exists in the country, Muslims there must abide strictly by the opinions of the judges appointed by the state, whose views on the current situation of ‘strife’ al-Shaikh presumably represents.[74]

In contrast to bin Baz, al-Shaikh appears to admit, albeit indirectly, the existence of certain legitimate grounds for disaffection with the Saudi regime. Yet, like bin Baz, he rules out the legitimacy any form of vocal or effective opposition to the regime. True Sunnis, he argues, ‘always stress the unity of the community’, and are ‘well wishers of their rulers and constantly pray to God for them’, even if they witness in their rulers ‘things that they find distasteful’. ‘If this point sits firm in our hearts’, he adds, ‘we will be counted among the Sunnis’. This assertion probably is probably intended to suggest the illegitimacy, on ‘Islamic’ grounds, of opposition to the Saudi regime despite the regime’s possible ‘distasteful’ deeds. Suitable ‘Islamic’ arguments are marshalled for this claim. Muhammad is said to have insisted that rulers and the ruled relate to each other in a spirit of ‘compassion’ (khair khwahi), and the ‘true’ Sunni ‘ulama are said to have insisted on the ‘unity of rulers and their subjects’. al-Shaikh admits that subjects can advise their rulers, but insists that in this they must follow the rules laid down by the Qur’an and sunnah and explained by the ‘true’ Sunni ‘ulama. He quotes a hadith to the effect that such advice must not be done ‘openly’ or ‘explicitly’ (khullam khulla). Rather, it must be done in private. Further, the ruler is not bound to accept the advice rendered to him. If Muslims do not act in this manner in relating to their rulers, al-Shaikh warns, they will be counted among the ‘sinners’ for ‘going against the method’ of the Sunnis.[75]

Direct opposition to established rulers is a gross violation of God’s will, al-Shaikh writes, for God is said to have appointed the rulers in their place. It is thus, he says, a right that the ruler has over his subjects that they should pray for him. In this regard al-Shaikh quotes an unnamed source, whom he describes as a ‘learned, pious Sunni scholar’, as saying, ‘When you see someone praying for his ruler then you should know that his beliefs are correct. If you see someone cursing his ruler then know that he is an innovator (bida‘ati)’. It is incumbent on subjects to pray for their rulers even if the latter are impious, al-Shaikh adds, to further buttress his argument. This statement is perhaps directed at the Islamist opposition to the Saudi regime angered at the corruption and licentiousness of the Saudi rulers and for their alliance with the United States. Opposition to the rulers is thus equated with ‘strife’, even if such opposition is seen by its proponents as a means to counter ‘strife’. Hence, ‘revolt’ (baghawat) against rulers is presented as wholly ‘un-Islamic’. al-Shaikh here approvingly refers to Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, who is said to have declared that ‘ there is no benefit in opposing established rulers’.[76]

In al-Shaikh’s scheme of things the monarch appears as all-powerful, although in some sense he is dependent on the ‘true’ ‘ulama for ‘advice’. This advisory role is said to be the prerogative of these ‘ulama because they alone are allegedly qualified to decide on issues in the light of Islamic teachings, given their own training. They are, because of their knowledge, the ‘heirs of the Prophet’. No one else, al-Shaikh says, has the right of marjiyat, of deciding between ‘faith and infidelity’, ‘Islam and non-Islam’, in relation to any matter. ‘Explaining the truth’ (haq ka bayan) is, he asserts, a right that belongs to these ‘ulama alone. Independent action against the rulers is thus ruled out. Ordinary Muslims can only convey their views (in this context, about ‘strife’) to these ‘ulama, and it is up to them to accept or to reject them. In short, al-Shaikh appears to argue that any vocal opposition to the Saudi regime is ‘un-Islamic’ and that, therefore, opponents of the Saudi regime who seek its overthrow have deviated from ‘true’ Islam.[77]

Recognising the fact that the Saudi regime’s close links with the United States, particularly its support for the American-led war on Iraq, has incensed many Muslims, al-Shaikh seeks to provide suitable ‘Islamic’ legitimacy for the Saudi-American alliance. He quotes the Qur’anic verse, regularly invoked by many radical Islamists, that forbids Muslims from befriending Jews and Christians on the grounds that they are friends of each other. If a Muslim were to befriend them, al-Shaikh says, he would be counted among them and would be considered an ‘oppressor’. He also warns that Muslims must not have ‘excessive’ (bhar pur) love for kafirs, and nor must they help kafirs against Muslims. Yet, in the same breath, in order to argue that the Saudi regime has not violated the Qur’an in this regard in its alliance with the United States, he says that it is permissible in Islam for Muslims to work along with kafirs for ‘worldly advancement’.[78]

al-Shaikh’s lengthy and convoluted essay, which in its Urdu translation runs into more than forty pages, is thus carefully crafted to deny the legitimacy of internal opponents, Islamist as well as other, to the Saudi regime. There is, as in bin Baz’s presentation, no explicit recognition at all of the real grievances of the opponents of the Saudi regime and nor any sign of critique of the regime for its internal and external policies, in particular for its role in abetting the American invasion of a fellow Muslim country. Like several other such books and tracts that have been brought out and disseminated by Indian Ahl-i Hadith publishing houses in recent years, it is intended as an apology for and defence of the Saudi regime. Its translation into Urdu and its publication and distribution in India is a clear indication of the importance that the Saudi regime and its client ‘ulama place on the urgent need to counter opposition to the regime’s policies among Muslim communities abroad. It highlights the fact that several Ahl-i Hadith institutions in India have been willing to work along with the Saudis in pursuance of this agenda. It also indicates how Islam is conveniently marshalled, and interpreted in often diametrically opposing ways, by the Saudi regime to suit its own strategic and ideological purposes abroad. Saudi Arabia is said to have been the largest financer of radical Islamist groups abroad, some of whom, as in the Philippines, Chechenya, Bosnia and Kashmir, have taken to armed struggle and terrorism against non-Muslim states. Saudi-funded literature routinely extols such groups as mujahids engaged in a legitimate Islamic jihad. Yet, faced now with its own internal and increasingly vocal Islamist opposition, it considers similar movements within Saudi Arabia as major sources of ‘strife’ and as clearly ‘un-Islamic’. Whether, as a result of increasing international pressure, the Saudis will be willing to extend the same logic to Islamist groups abroad whom they have been patronising for many years is a moot point.


Transnational links and support, as this paper has sought to show, have been central to the Saudi strategy of gaining legitimacy, both at home and abroad. This has taken the form of aggressive promotion of the Saudi form of ‘Wahhabi’ Islam, which is presented as the sole form of ‘authentic’ Islam. Inherent in this claim is the assumption that all other forms of Islam are, by definition, aberrant or even ‘anti-Islamic’. The propagation of ‘Wahhabism’ has been a key instrument for promoting the image of the Saudi regime at home and abroad, for ‘Wahhabi’ propaganda is inextricably linked with the claim of Saudi Arabia under its present rulers being the only state in the world allegedly firmly committed to ‘implementing’ Islam.

As part of the global expansion of ‘Wahhabism’, numerous Indian Muslim organisations and individuals have been the recipient of different forms of Saudi assistance, from both unofficial and official sources. Sharing much in common with the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, the Ahl-i Hadith, although a small minority among the country’s Muslims, have been the largest beneficiary of this largesse. This has promoted an increasing aggressiveness on the part of the Ahl-i Hadith, who have been led to take on their Sunni, particularly Deobandi, rivals with a new sense of aggression. This clearly illustrates the fact that Sunni ‘orthodoxy’, to which different Muslim groups lay claim, is a deeply fractured as well as a fiercely contested notion. Ahl-i Hadith attacks on the Deobandis, virtually dismissing them from the Sunni fold, have been reciprocated from the Deobandi side with equal passion and vigour, resulting in heated polemical debates, with each side claiming to represent the single ‘authentic’ and ‘normative’ Islamic tradition, branding the other as aberrant or worse. Interestingly, Saudi funding has also made for the narrowing down and, indeed, eclipsing of differences between the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ and the Ahl-i Hadith as the latter seek to present themselves as identical with the former. This has, although to a limited extent, also been the case with the Deobandis, who have sought to present an alternate reading of the legacy of their elders in order to win crucial Saudi support. Thus, while at one level the Saudi connection has helped to promote intra-Sunni differences, at another level it has also worked to promote and reinforce the image of Saudi Arabia and of its official form of ‘Wahhabi’ Islam as the ultimate arbiter of the ‘Islamicity’ of diverse understandings of the faith and of Sunni ‘orthodoxy’. As this paper has tried to show, as a result of the Saudi connection, both the Ahl- Hadith and the Deobandis have attempted, in their own ways and to varying degrees, to present themselves as synonymous with (in the case of the former) or to a great extent similar to (in the case of the latter) the ‘Wahhabis’ of Saudi Arabia. This competitive ‘Wahhabisation’ of both traditions has occurred in a sharply charged polemical context and over access to generous Saudi patronage. In turn, and perhaps unwittingly, this has led to the emergence of a broad convergence between the two rival groups on the content and contours of ‘normative’ Islam, as defined by Saudi ‘Wahhabism’, and a common commitment, despite their other differences, to opposing forms of Islam that both see as ‘aberrant’.

In these complex ways, links with Saudi patrons and institutions have worked to promote the image and influence of the Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama and the Saudi regime. Competition between the Deobandis and the Ahl- i Hadith for Saudi patronage has resulted in both these groups seeking to stress their closeness to Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ Islam and to the Saudi regime. Consequently, completely absent in the ongoing Deobandi-Ahl-i Hadith polemical war and in the writings and speeches of Ahl-i Hadith and Deobandi ‘ulama has been any critique of the policies of the Saudi regime, despite widespread dissatisfaction among Muslims over its close nexus with the United States. The lure of Saudi aid has meant that neither the Ahl-i Hadith nor the Deobandis have been willing, at least publicly, to express any criticism of the Saudis. This explains why Saudi policies, particularly Saudi Arabia’s association with the United States, are never mentioned in the heated polemical debates between the Ahl-i Hadith and the Deobandis, which remain restricted simply to issuing charges and counter-charges of ‘disbelief’, often over minor points of ritual practice. The contrast with the Indian Barelvis and Shi‘as in this regard is remarkable. Not receiving any Saudi assistance, they have been vocal in their opposition to Saudi Arabia, particularly for its alliance with the United States, which they regard as pursuing policies inimical to Muslim interests.

Recent events, particularly the attacks of September 2001, have resulted in growing pressure on the Saudis to reign in radical Islamist groups radicals whom it has generously patronised for several decades. To add to this is the fact that within Saudi Arabia itself a growing Islamist movement threatens to challenge the regime on its own terms, critiquing it for not being ‘Islamic’ enough and for its nexus with imperialist powers. This twin challenge, from within and without, is bound to impact on Saudi Arabia’s relations with various Muslim groups in India and elsewhere, although what direction this will take remains to be seen.

[1] For details, see Abul Mukarram ‘Abdul Jalil, Imam Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab Ki Da‘wat Aur ‘Ulama-i Ahl-i Hadith Ki Masa‘i, Varanasi: Idara al-Bahuth al-Islamiya, 2001, pp.37-159.
[2] For an Indian Shi‘a critique of ‘Wahhabism’, see Farogh Kazmi, Fitna-i Wahhabiyat, Lucknow: Idara-i Tahzib-i Adab, 1998.
[3] Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role in Terrorism, New York: Anchor Books, p.179.
[4] For an interesting discussion of the political economy of Saudi foreign aid and the promotion of Saudi ‘Wahhabism’ abroad, see ‘Abdul Qayyum, Amriki Khalij-i Fars Palisi Aur Saudi Arab, published by the author, Hyderabad, 2004.
[5] Muhammad Jamal Bulandshahri, op.cit., p.10.
[6] For details, see ‘Abdullah Bahawalpuri, Ikhtilafi Masa‘il Mai Haq-o-Insaf Ki Rah, Delhi: Dar ul-Kutub al-Salafiyah, 2004.
[7] For Ahl-i Hadith attacks against these groups, see various articles on This is a Mumbai-based Ahl-i Hadith website, which has clear Saudi connections, and carries numerous articles penned by contemporary Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama.

[8] Thus, for instance, Shakil Ahmad Meeruthi, a Delhi-based Ahl-i Hadith scholar, claims that the muqallids, who advocate strict compliance with one of the four generally accepted schools of Sunni fiqh, concoct statements which they wrongly attribute to the Prophet, and insists that the punishment for this crime is punishment in hell (Shakil Ahmad Meeruthi, ‘Introduction’, in Salahuddin Yusuf, Tehrik-i Jihad: Jama‘at-i Ahl-i Hadith Aur ‘Ulama-i Ahnaf, Delhi: Dar ul-Kitab al-Islamiya, 2000, p.3).
[9] Mohammed Zeyaul Haque, ‘The Dangerous Divide’, htttp://

[10] Abul Mukarram ‘Abdul Jalil, op.cit., p.37. The author mentions that his Saudi teacher. ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Abdul Latif al-Shaikh was instrumental in getting him to write the book, and paid the Jami‘a Salafiya, Varanasi, the apex madrasa of the Indian Ahl-i Hadith to publish ten thousand copies of the book (p.12).
[11] ‘Abdul ‘Aziz bin ‘Abdullah bin Baz, Sirat-i Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab, al-Kitab International, New Delhi, n.d., pp.47-48.
[12] Saleh bin Ghanim al-Sadlan, Saudi Arabia Ki Da‘wati-o-Ta‘limi Sargarmiyan Aur Unke Nata‘ij (translated by ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Abdul Jabbar Farewai), New Delhi: Farewai Academy, 2004.
[13] Ibid., pp.13-14.
[14] Ibid., p.17. Also, p.82.
[15] ibid., p.81.
[16] Ibid., p.46.
[17] Ibid., p.81.
[18] Ibid., p.17.
[19] Cited in Mahfuz ur-Rahman Faizi, Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab Ke Bare Mai Do Mutazid Nazren, Varanasi: Jami‘a Salafiya, 1986, p.i.
[20] Cited in Qadri, op.cit., p.136.
[21] Cited in Faizi, op.cit., p.20.
[22] ‘Gangohi Fatwas on Wahhabism’,

[23] Faizi, op.cit., 43.
[24] Faizi, p.37.
[25] ‘Gangohi Fatwas on Wahhabism’,
[26] Numani, op.cit..
[27] Interestingly enough, despite Zakariya’s approval here of the ‘Wahhabis’, his Faza‘il-i ‘Amal, a compilation of stories widely used in the Tablighi Jama‘at, is banned in Saudi Arabia. So, too, are the activities of the Tablighi Jama‘at, which is officially not allowed to function in the Kingdom.
[28] Nu‘mani, op.cit., pp.141-43.
[29] Nu‘mani, op.cit., pp.5-17.
[30] Nu‘mani, op.cit., p.34.
[31] Nu‘mani, op.cit., pp.73-102
[32] Nu‘mani, op.cit., pp.37-47.
[33] Nu‘mani, op.cit., pp.104-07.
[34] Faizi, op.cit.
[35] Faizi, op.cit., pp.i-ii.
[36] Faizi, op.cit., pp.10-39.
[37] Yasin Akhtar Misbahi, in ‘Abdul Sattar Rizvi, Tablighi Jama‘at Saudi Mufti Ki Nazar Mai, Delhi: Maktaba Na‘imiya, n.d., pp.5-6.
[38] Sayyed ‘Asad Madani, Khutba-i Sadarat, New Delhi: Farid Book Depot, 2001, pp.6-20.
[39] Mohammed Zeyaul Haque, op.cit.. An abridged Urdu version of the book was later published in India and Pakistan, making somewhat the same arguments. Quoting from the books of numerous Deobandi elders, the author claimed that the Deobandis held numerous beliefs that were clearly ‘un-Islamic’. These included belief in pantheism (wahdat al-wujud), faith in the intercessionary powers of the dead, and several other Sufistic beliefs that, the author argued, made the Deobandis ‘go even further [in their disbelief] than the polytheists of Mecca’ (Sayyed Talib ur-Rahman, Deobandi Aqa‘id Ka Tahqiqi Ja‘iza: Qur’an-o-Hadith Ki Roshni Mai, Delhi: al-Hamd Publications, 1997). The author is said to have also written a book in Arabic against the Deobandi-related Tablighi Jama‘at movement.
[40] ‘Abdul Sattar Rizvi, op.cit., pp.8-10.
[41] Sayyed Husain Ahmad Madani, op.cit., p.18. Salafi’s book appeared in the form of three volumes, and was based on the author’s doctoral thesis submitted to the Islamic University of Medina.
[42] Ahmad Irfani, ‘Muslim Scholars Battle Over Qur’an’,
[43] In his introduction, Shakil Ahmad Meeruthi, the owner of the Delhi-based publishing house which published the Indian edition of the book, writes that the book was first issued by the Maktab al-Da‘wah wa‘l Irshad wa Ta‘wiya al-Jaliyat, the Saudi ‘Office for the Invitation and Guidance of Expatriates’, as a response to alleged ‘wrong’ propaganda by the Deobandis against the Ahl-i Hadith.
[44] Sayyed Yusuf ur-Rahman Rashid, Kya ‘Ulama Ahl-i Sunnat Wa‘l Jama‘at Hai?, Delhi: Dar ul-Kutub al-Islamiya, 2001. As a cautionary note the author adds that he does not claim that all Deobandis are kafirs and polytheists. Yet, he says, they need to be ‘rescued from their ignorance’, but advises that the temptation to issue fatwas against them must be resisted. However, he adds that Muslims should not pray behind Deobandi ‘ulama who hold ‘false’ beliefs (p.95). He also declares that ‘worshippers of the saints’) (pir pujari) and followers of pantheism (wahdat al-wujud) are apostates (murtads) and, therefore, fit to be killed (wajib ul-qatl) (p.97).
[45] Abu Iqbal Salafi, Mazhab-i Hanafi Ka Mazhab-i Islam Se Ikhtilaf, Mumbai: Idara Da‘wat ul-Islam, 1999, pp.6-7.
[46] Ibid., pp.16-20.
[47] Ibid., p.78.
[51] These articles can be accessed on
[53] Ahmad Irfani, op.cit.
[54] The interview can be read and listened to on, an Indian Ahl-I Hadith website probably based in Mumbai, which seems to have strong Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ connections.
[55] Muhammad ‘Aqil, Faza‘il-i ‘Amal Ke Nashir Ki Tauba, Delhi: Dar ul-Kutub al-Islamiya, n.d., p.35.
[56] Ibid., pp.4-10.
[57] Among the books by Deobandi ‘ulama that Anas’ publishing house has now ceased publishing is the second volume of the Faza‘il-i ‘Amal, an immensely popular book among the Tablighis penned by the chief ideologue of the movement, Muhammad Zakariya. It was Anas’ father, the founder of the Idara-i Isha‘at-i Diniyat, who had given the book its name and who had first published it. In fact, the publishing house raked in immense profits from this book, bringing it out in four languages, Urdu, Arabic, English and French. Anas added that he planned to cease publishing the first volume of the book shortly, confessing that he could do not do so immediately as that might badly affect the profits of his publishing house.
[58] Ibid., pp.20-35.
[59] Muhammad Ishaq Zahid, Masla-i Taqlid, Fatiha Khalf al-Imam, Talaq-i Thalitha, Namaz-i Tarawih Ke Mutaliq Ahl-i Hadith Aur ‘Ulama-i Harimain Ka Ittifaqi Rai, Delhi: Dar ul-Kutub al-Islamia, n.d., p.13.
[60] See, for instance, Muhammad Jamal Bulandshahri, op.cit..
[61] Muhammad Jamal Bulandshahri, op.cit., p.40.
[62] Muhammad Akhtar Yasin Qadri, op.cit., p.119.
[63] Sayyed ‘Asad Madani, op.cit., pp.16-17.
[64] Sayyed ‘Asad Madani, op.cit., pp.16-17.
[65] Sayyed ‘Asad Madani, op.cit., p.20.
[66] Sayyed Mahdi Hasan Shahjahanpuri, Qur’an-o-Hadith Ke Khilaf Ghayr Muqallidin Ke Pachas Masa’il, New Delhi: Farid Book Depot, n.d.
[67] Mahmud Hasan Bulandshahri, Tawassul-o-Isteghasiya Baghayr Allah Aur Ghayr Muqallidin Ka Mazhab, New Delhi: Farid Book Depot, n.d., p.2.
[68] Muhammad Jamal Bulandshahri, op.cit., pp.1-5.
[69] Sayyed Muhammad Salman Mansurpuri, Tehrik-i La Mazhabiyat, New Delhi: Farid Book Depot, pp.1-15.
[70] ‘Abdur Rahman bin ‘Abdul Jabbar Farewai (ed.), Fitna Se Nijat, Delhi: Dar ul-Kitab al-Islamiya, 2004.
[71] Ibid., pp.1-10.
[72] Ibid., pp.10-26.
[73] Ibid., pp.35-45.
[74] Ibid., pp.50-57.
[75] Ibid., pp.50-65.
[76] Ibid., pp. 62-67.
[77] Ibid., pp.61-63.
[78] Ibid., pp.68-79.
[1] Muhammad Akhtar Yasin Qadri, Izala-i Fareb: Ba Jawab Taqlid-i Shaksi Ke Asib, Delhi: Kutub Khana Amjadiya, 2001, pp.82-118.
[2] Manzur Nu‘mani, Shaikh Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab Ke Khilaf Propaganda Aur Hindustan Ke ‘Ulama-i Haq Par Uske Asrat, Lucknow: al-Furqan Book Depot, 1998, p.19. Read More...