‘Wahhabism’ in India

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Nov 28, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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‘Wahhabism’ in India

Yoginder Sikand

The term ‘Wahhabi’ is a deeply contested and much
debated one. It is derived from the name of the
eighteenth century Najdi Hanbali Muhammd ibn Abdul
Wahhab, although, interestingly enough, Abdul Wahhab
was not his name but that of his father. That itself
clearly indicates that the term is rather loosely used
and is often employed to refer to different, sometimes
mutually contradictory phenomena. It is instructive to
note here that the term is not used by any Muslim
group to define itself. Rather, it is used in a
derogatory sense by critics of some Muslim groups that
uphold a different, indeed opposed, understanding of
Islam from theirs. Incidentally, not all these forms
of Islam are associated with the particular vision of
Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab.

In the Indian context, broadly speaking, the term
‘Wahhabi’ is loosely used by a group of Muslims known
as the Barelvis and other defendants of the cults of
the shrines of the Sufi saints, to refer to two other
groups who also claim to be Sunnis: the Deobandis and
the Ahl-e Hadith (henceforth AH). Many Deobandis also
refer to the AH as Wahhabis. It is thus important to
clarify how both the Barelvis and the Deobandis
respectively use the term and what they mean by it.


The Barelvis are a group among the Indian Sunnis who
are defined by their association with the thought and
teachings of the nineteenth century Ahmad Reza Khan of
Bareilly, a town in north India. He upheld a certain
reformed sort of Sufism while at the same time also
defending many practices associated with the shrines
of the Sufis, many of which were critiqued by other
Muslim groups as biddat (‘innovation’) and shirk
(polytheism), and also as being of Hindu or Shia
origin. He also defended certain poplar practices such
as the observation of the birth and death
anniversaries of the Prophet and the Sufi saints, the
belief in the intercessionary powers of the Prophet
and the buried Sufi saints, and the belief that the
Prophet was present in all places and that he had
knowledge of the Unseen.


Along with the Barelvis, or followers of Ahmad Reza
Khan, are many other Indian Sunni Muslims who also
adhere to similar practices and beliefs although not
identifying themselves as Barelvis. For both of these
groups, who, together might account for a majority of
the Indian Sunni Muslim population, the Sunni critics
of their practices and beliefs are very loosely and
erroneously branded as ‘Wahhabis’, be they Deobandis,
AH or those who subscribe to the ideology of the
Jamaat-e Islami, despite the fact that these three
groups have serious differences with each other on
theological grounds.


For many Indian Deobandis, it is the AH who are
‘Wahhabis’, owing to the latter’s opposition to even
reformed sort of Sufism in line with the shariah that
the Deobandis uphold and to the tradition of taqlid or
‘imitation’ of one of the four major schools of Sunni
jurisprudence (in the case of the Deobandis it is the
Hanafi school).


What unites the Barelvi, popular Sufi and Deobandi
definitions of the term ‘Wahhabi’ is the ‘Wahhabi’s’
total opposition to anything that is seen as
‘innovation’, including Sufism and taqlid, coupled
with a sternly literalist approach to the corpus of
Sunni Hadith or traditions attributed to the Prophet.
Due to paucity of time and space, this paper focuses
mainly on the AH, who may be taken as representing a
form of Islam that closely corresponds, on many
counts, with what is popularly perceived of as




The term ‘Ahl-e Hadith’ literally means ‘people of the
Hadith’, signifying the claim of this group to be the
sole Muslim group that strictly abides by the
Prophet’s Sunnah or practice, as reflected in the
Hadith tradition. AH writings often invoke what is
said to be a Prophetic tradition that the Muslims
would be divided into 73 sects, of which 72 would go
to hell, and only one, the ‘saved sect’ ( firqa
al-najiyya) would be saved. They claim to be that one
sect, implying therefore, that all the other Muslim
sects, whether Shia or Sunni, have gone astray from
the Prophet’s path and hence would merit Divine
punishment. In addition to the term Ahl-e Hadith, they
refer to themselves, as do the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, as
Salafis, or those who follow the Salaf-e Saleh or the
‘pious predecessors’ and as Muwahhidun or
‘monotheists’, implying, therefore, that the other
Muslim groups are not among these.


Key Beliefs of the Ahl-e Hadith


In contrast to many Sufis, the AH’s understanding of
monotheism borders on anthropomorphism, being based on
a strictly literalist reading of the Quran, reflecting
the group’s fierce opposition to tawil or allegorical
interpretation. It regards the Sufi belief in the
intercessionary powers of the Prophet and the Sufi
saints (wasilah, zariya) as akin to polytheism,
arguing that these figures were mere mortals who are
no longer alive. In contrast, Sufis believe that the
Prophets and the saints are still alive, although not
physically present in the world, and that they can be
approached to communicate God on one’s behalf.


A related point is the stern opposition of the AH to
the popular customs associated with the shrines of the
Sufi saints, which number in their thousands in India ,
and which attract people from different religious
backgrounds, and not just Muslims alone. These
practices are regarded as promoting polytheism. The AH
insists that the buried saints are not alive and
cannot hear one’s requests, and that, hence, the cults
and practices associated with their shrines are
meaningless. Furthermore, it argues that the practice
of building tombs is itself un-Islamic, and although
because they are a small minority in India they cannot
demolish the tombs of the Sufis, as the Saudi
‘Wahhabis’ have done, there is no doubt that this is
something that they would fully support.


The rich tradition of Sufism in India, as many
scholars have noted, was responsible, in large
measure, for the peaceful spread of Islam in the
region. The Sufis spoke of God’s love for all His
creatures, insisting that the shariah could not be
separated from the tariqa or mystical path. Their love
and concern for the poor and downtrodden attracted
many Hindus to accept Islam. Many of these were from
the ‘low’ castes, who were crushed under the tyranny
of the so-called ‘high’ caste Hindus. In order to make
their message more easily understandable to the masses
among whom they worked and preached, they adopted many
local practices, motifs and idioms, and even spoke and
wrote in the local languages, in contrast to both the
court ulema, who wrote and spoke in Arabic and
Persian, and to the Hindu Brahmins, who disdained the
local dialects in favour of Sanskrit. Some Sufis were
among the pioneers of literature in various local
Indian languages. Their shrines attracted, as they
continue to do today, large numbers of non-Muslims,
too, who considered them as attained souls and close
to God.


This rich pluralist popular Indian Sufi tradition is
dismissed by the AH as largely ‘un-Islamic’. Much of
it is considered to be what it calls biddat or
‘innovation’, branded as borrowings from the Hindus,
or, as in the case of mourning rituals for Imam
Hussain during the month of Muharram, from the Shias,
whom it considers as heretics. It disregards the
claim, made by defendants of the cults of the Sufis,
that many, though not all, of these practices can be
regarded as ‘praiseworthy innovations’ ( biddat-e
hasana), and argues that the shariah does not
recognize such a category. Admittedly, some of these
practices are indeed exploitative (such, as, for
instance, donating money to shrines which is often
used by a class of professional shrine-keepers as a
source of livelihood), and some of the associated
beliefs may be regarded as superstitious and indeed
un-Islamic, a point that numerous Sufis will
themselves make. But to consider every local customary
practice as a biddat which will lead to hell, as the
AH does, is itself said to be un-Islamic by those who
defend some of these practices.


In line with its opposition to what it sees as biddat,
the AH advocates a very sternly literalist approach to
what it sees as its opposite, the Sunnah. In the
process, it advocates numerous Arab cultural norms and
practices to replace their local equivalents, thus
tending to equate Arab culture with Islamic culture,
and, in this process, undermining, as critics see it,
the universality of Islam which transcends local
cultural forms. This reflects the AH’s opposition to
ijma or analogical reasoning, which enabled Islamic
jurisprudence to accommodate many local practices and
institutions in the form of what were termed as urf or


In other respects, too, the AH is distinct from many
other Muslim groups, both Sunni and Shia. As mentioned
earlier, it opposes the practice of taqlid, and even
goes to the extent of arguing that this, too, is a
form of idolatry and polytheism. This explains why the
AH’s critics also refer to the group as ghair muqallid
(literally, ‘those who deny taqlid). Furthermore, as
noted above, its sternly literalist understanding of
Hadith differs is significant respect from that of the
muqallids, whom it accuses of preferring the views of
the Imams of their own respective schools of fiqh over
confirmed Hadith reports, a charge that the muqallids
deny. In response, muqallid critics of the AH, in
India manily Hanafi Sunnis, argue that AH lack proper
knowledge of the ‘principles of Hadith’ ( usul
al-hadith), the ‘principles of fiqh’ (usul al-fiqh)
and the skills of distinguishing what are considered
to be ‘abrogated’ (mansukh) Hadith reports. They also
accuse them of being selective in their use of what
are considered genuine ( sahih) Hadith reports.
Interestingly, the same allegations are leveled by the
AH against their Hanafi detractors.


A marked aspect of AH propaganda, as is clearly
evident from their literature, is their stress on
external (zahiri) markers of identity, which they use
both to critique the claims of other Muslim groups as
well as to stress their own claims to being the sole
‘saved sect’. This leaves them open to the accusation
of being hardened ‘externalists’, zahir parsat
(literally, ‘worshippers of external [rules]’) and of
mistaking the letter for the spirit of the shariah.
These external attributes also serve the crucial
function of creating a separate AH community identity,
which is further reinforced by the fact that the AH,
like all other Sunni and Shia sects in India, have
their own separate mosques and madrasas. AH literature
is replete with intricate arguments about detailed
aspects of Islamic ritual, on which they differ from
the other Muslim sects, marshalling and selectively
using or interpreting Hadith traditions to back their
claim that their particular way of performing these
rituals is the only correct way, or the way of the
Prophet, implying, thereby, that the practice of the
other Muslim sects is wrong, and that, therefore,
their prayers and worship and not fully in accordance
with God’s Will. Thus, for instance, they make much of
their claim that their practice of placing their hands
across the chest, rather than around the stomach, as
the Hanafis do, reciting the word ameen aloud, rather
than silently, and so on, are precisely what the
Prophet used to do. They then use this to claim that
they alone recite the namaz in the right fashion,
employing this to bolster their sense of separate
identity and to argue that they alone are the only
group to follow the Prophet’s practice. Their
denunciation of other Muslim groups, both Sunni and
Shia, is often much more vitriolic, and sometimes
these groups are explicitly accused of being
apostates, heretics and even ‘enemies of Islam’. In
turn, many of these groups level the same sort of
accusations against the AH, some going to the extent
of branmding the AH, and the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ in
general, as creations of the British and as stooges
for the decadent Saudi monarchy and for American
imperialism. AH propaganda and the counter-responses
that it has invited have thus emerged as a major
challenge to intra-Muslim unity, dialogue and
ecumenism in India.




The Origins and Development of Indian ‘Wahhabism’


The AH claims that they represent the tradition of the
companions of the Prophet and to have been present in
India since India’s earliest contact with Islam, and
that, therefore, they are not a new sect. However,
their Muslim critics deny their claims of Islamic
‘authenticity’. As a broader movement, as opposed to
individual scholars who championed views similar to
those of today’s AH, the roots of Indian ‘Wahhabism’
go back to the Islamic reformism championed by the
late eighteenth century Shah Waliullah of Delhi, who
most other Indian Sunni groups, including the Barelvis
and Deobandis, also consider as a major source of
inspiration. It was Shah Waliullah’s grandson, Shah
Ismail, who actually departed from his grandfather’s
tradition to most forcefully champion numerous views
that represented a radical break from popular Indian
Hanafi Muslim tradition and which today’s AH
champions, most particularly in his denunciation of
the cults of the Sufi saints and their shrines. His
major book Taqwiat ul-Iman reads like an Urdu version
of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab’s Kitab ul-Tauhid, and
the question of whether he was directly or indirectly
influenced by the latter is still hotly debated by


Shah Ismail gathered a large band of disciples and
then headed for the Pushtun areas in what is today
Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, where he
established what he described as an Islamic state,
claiming to be amir ul-mumineen or the ‘leader of the
faithful’. However, he failed to gain much local
popularity, probably because he was an outsider and
because he sought to forcibly impose the shariah and
extirpate popular Pushtun customary practices. He and
his army led what they styled as a jihad against the
Sikhs, who, at that time, where ruling the Punjab, and
under whose rule Muslims were subjected to
considerable oppression. In 1831, Shah Ismail and his
men were routed by the Sikhs at Balakot and the
short-lived ‘Mujahdeen’ state was crushed.


Following this defeat, the followers of Shah Ismail
who remained traveled to various parts of India to
spread their master’s teachings. They seem to have
played a key role in the uprising of 1857 against the
British, or what is considered to be India’s first
battle for independence. Following the failure of the
uprising, some of Shah Ismail’s followers kept up the
struggle against the British, leading uprisings in the
Pushtun borderlands, which were, by the 1870s,
brutally put down by the colonial authorities.


It would be wrong to see these so-called Wahhabi-led
uprisings as simply a religious phenomenon, as the
British then saw them and as the AH today also
describe them. They were also anti-colonial and
anti-imperialist movements. There was also a crucial
class element involved in the spread of so-called
Wahhabi ideas, which then took the form of local
movements of resistance. For instance, in Bengal, the
movements led by Tutu Mir and Haji Shariatullah, who,
like the followers of Shah Ismail, spoke out against a
range of customary practices among the Bengali
Muslims, which they denounced as un-Islamic. These two
popular preachers were also denounced by their critics
as ‘Wahhabis’, although it is likely that they had no
contact with the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’. Vast numbers of
Bengali Muslim peasants, heavily indebted to and
oppressed by ‘upper’ caste Hindu landlords and
moneylenders, readily joined these movements, inspired
not just by their particular religious appeal but also
because they represented a revolt against the
oppressive ‘upper’ caste Hindu-dominated system that
they laboured under. In other parts of India , numerous
‘low’ caste Muslims joined similar movements, inspired
also by the access to the resources of the Islamic
scripturalist tradition which they afforded them,
hitherto largely a preserve of ‘upper’ caste or
so-called ashraf Mulims, thus acting as a form of
upward social mobility. In a sense this also
represented a form of social protest against the
entrenched ashraf and their culture, some of which was
seen by puritans as decadent and un-Islamic. At the
same time it allowed the upwardly mobile ‘low’ caste
groups joining these movements to appropriate aspects
of ashraf culture that were inextricably linked to the
forms in which Islam was expressed by the
reformists–for instance, the stress on Persian,
Arabic and Urdu–facilitating a process that
sociologists have termed as ‘Ashrafisation’.


The reformist or, if you like, puritanical Islamic
movements that began emerging from the early
nineteenth century or so represented a range of
political stances. Some of them were clearly
anti-colonial, such as those in the Pukhtun areas. The
British colonial authorities readily branded many such
anti-colonial Islamic movements as ‘Wahhabi’ only to
justify their brutal suppression and to win the
support of Muslims who were opposed to the version of
Islam that these movements represented. Some other
such reformists, who shared what is very loosely
termed as a ‘Wahhabi’ orientation towards local
cultures, were pro-British, the most notable of these
being Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan, the founder of the
Aligarh movement. Those who were branded by their
critics as ‘Wahhabis’ did not form a single
identifiable group. Often there was little or no
communication between them. This explains the fact of
the diverse political stances that they represented.
Interestingly, not all of them had heard of Muhammad
bin Abdul Wahhab, and not all those who had actually
supported him.


A major event in the direction of bringing together
some like-minded scholars and activists who openly
supported the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ and the Saudi state,
then heavily criticized by many Indian Muslims for its
attacks on the holy shrines of the Hijaz and its
compact with Britian against the Ottomans Khilafat,
was the formation of the All-India Jamiat e Ahl-e
Hadith in 1906, thus giving these individuals a
corporate identity. Over the years, the Jamiat
established its own network of madrasas, mosques as
well as publishing houses. The Jamiat, the apex body
of the Ahl-e Hadith, reveled in controversy, attacking
the Hanafi Sunnis, besides other Muslim groups, for
allegedly straying from the path of Islam. Yet, the
Jamiat did not represent a single political stance,
and right up till the Partition of India in 1947 AH
leaders were divided among themselves, some supporting
the Muslim League, others supporting the Congress, and
yet others supporting the British.


The AH remained, as it still does, a small minority
among the Indian Muslims. Yet, from the mid-1970s, it
saw a major boost in terms of infrastructural
development and propaganda networks. This owed, in
large measure, to liberal funding by Saudi and other
Gulf sources, keen to export their conservative,
literalist, pro-Saudi monarchical version of Islam
across the world. As a result, AH madrasas sprang up
even in some areas with a very small Ahl-e Hadith
population; a large number of Saudi funded publishing
houses were founded in India that specialized in
producing literature attacking the Hanafis and Shias
and translating works by Saudi ‘Wahhabi’ writers;
graduates of AH madrasas in India began receiving
scholarships to study in Saudi universities–some of
them stayed behind in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
states, working in various government and private
organizations, others returned to India to set up
madrasas with Saudi support or teach in established
madrasas, their salaries often being paid for by Saudi
sources; some Muslim magazines (and not all of them
AH) began receiving funds from Saudi sources in order
to promote support for the Saudi monarchy, heavily
criticised for its un-Islamic ways and its close
alliance with the United States.


Due to this Saudi connection, the significant
differences that had distinguished many Indian AH
pioneers from the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ (such as their
opposition to taqlid, as opposed to the Saudi Wahhabi
taqlid of the Hanbali school, the fact that some of
these pioneers were also associated with some or the
other form of Sufism, etc.) were sought to be done
away with. Saudi finance meant that efforts had to be
made to emulate as closely as possible the Saudi
‘Wahhabi’ form of Islam. In political terms, it also
meant propaganda on behalf of the Saudi ruling family,
for Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the United
States and against the Iranian Revolution, which was
branded as Shia, ‘heretical’ and, therefore,
‘un-Islamic’ in AH propaganda.


In post-Partition India, in contrast to its Pakistani
counterparts, it is important to note, the Indian AH
have not engaged in any sort of explicit political
activism, and hence the spectre that some media
persons draw of a so-called Indian ‘Wahhabi’
conspiracy is far-fetched. Like other Indian Muslim
groups, the Indian Ahl-e Hadith have routinely
denounced terrorism and have stressed the need for
harmonious relations between Hindus and Muslims. The
only exception to this is the Pakistan-sponsored
Lashkar-e Tayyeba, which is related to one faction of
the Pakistani AH and is active in Kashmir. Numerous
Indian AH leaders have gone on record to condemn the
killings of innocent people in Kashmir, whether by the
Indian Army or by self-styled Islamist militants such
as the Lashkar. Some AH leaders I have met in Kashmir
have also expressed their opposition to the Lashkar’s
tactics, arguing that these are indeed ‘un-Islamic’,
although they cannot openly condemn the group for fear
of their lives. This shows that despite their roots in
a common sectarian milieu, different groups that claim
the Ahl-e Hadith label do not have a common political
agenda or orientation. Notably, in Kerala, the Kerala
Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, the local counterpart of the
north Indian AH, is very actively engaged in
inter-faith dialogue. One of its branches actively
works with Hindus in critiquing communalism and
extremism, both Hindu and Muslim, and is also close to
the Communist Party.


In recent years, a number of bomb blasts have occurred
in different parts of India, which the Indian media
have quickly attributed to a ‘Wahhabi’ conspiracy,
generally without any proof at all. The most recent
such case was a blast at the most popular Sufi shrine
in all of South Asia, the dargah of Hazrat Moinuddin
Chishti in Ajmer. The Indian media and intelligence
sources claimed a radical anti-Sufi ‘Wahhabi’ hand in
this, although they failed to offer any evidence. Who
is behind this and other such blasts in the recent
past is still unclear and could be any one’s guess.
Hence, the tendency to automatically blame a so-called
radical Muslim hand behind these must be guarded
against. Theories doing the rounds attribute the Ajmer
blast, as well as several other such blasts, to
various sources, including Hindu chauvinist groups,
the state authorities themselves, the CIA and the
Mossad and sundry ‘Wahhabi’ groups based in Pakistan
and/or Bangladesh. Prudence demands that the media and
state authorities desist from jumping onto the
American bandwagon of the so-called ‘war on terror’ by
quickly attributing every such incident to a ‘Muslim
extremist’ or so-called ‘Wahhabi’ hand.


As I have sought to argue, the simplistic notion that
equates ‘Wahhabism’ with ‘terrorism’ is flawed. As the
case of the Indian ‘Wahhabis’ clearly shows, the
political response of any religious movement does not
flow only from its theology but, equally, if not more,
importantly, reflects the particular social and
political context in which it finds itself, which can,
of course, change over time. By and large, and despite
the grave challenges that the Indian Muslims, the AH
in general included, have faced, their response has
been to steer away from counter-violence, recognising
this as counter-productive, and insisting on the need
for better relations between Hindus and Muslims. A few
fringe extremist groups do exist, but then extremism
is not a Muslim monopoly, and in India, where Muslims
are a minority, the challenge from Hindu extremism is
much more threatening. Indeed, a purusal of AH
literature reveals that its diatribes are almost
exclusivly focussed on other Muslim groups, seeking to
rebut them as ‘un-Islamic’, while generally ignoring
the Hindus or other communities living in India .
Intra-Muslim, rather than Hindu-Muslim, differences
and conflicts are of more concern to the AH. However,
even this should not be exaggerated, as these
conflicts, although fanned by AH ulema, have had only
a limited impact on relations between ‘lay’ Muslims
belonging to different Muslim groups, and has rarely
taken the form of actual phyical violence.


India’s future and prosperity critically depends on
better relations between the different religious
communities that have lived here together for
centuries. This calls for the promotion of new
understandings of each religion that can help promote
genuine inter-faith dialogue and which at the same
time critique theological formulations that promote
inter-sectarian and inter-community strife and hatred.
In this regard, it is obvious that the AH and similar
Muslim groups, like their counterparts among the
Hindus, would need to engage in considerable

This paper was presented by the author at a conference
on Indo-Iranian Relations, recently organised at the
Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran, Iran.