Current Affairs

Truncating History to Sell an Agenda? 

Written by Husain Al-Qadi

Anyone who saw the first of a new three-part BBC TWO series called “Clash of the Worlds” will have been given the impression that, prior to the arrival of Rev John Midgley Jennings in India in 1852, Indians had welcomed the British with “flowers and open arms” on account of pluralistic interpretations of their faiths.

Midgely Jennings spoilt it for all by attempting to proselytise Christianity in India, which sparked a violent “Wahhabi” Muslim reaction in the person of Sayyid Ahmad.

According to the author and co-presenter of the programme, Charles Allen, “Sayyid Ahmad’s Wahhabism” created Islamic terrorism not only in the 19th century against the British, in the form of the 1857 Mutiny, but it also has a direct connection with acts of violence in the 21st century – including 9/11, 7/7 and plots to blow up aeroplanes at Heathrow in 2006 – through the “Wahhabi” Deobandi tradition. It’s a fascinating story, but is it true?

Myth number one: Anglo-Indian relations were peaceful before Sayyid Ahmad

What the programme confidently omitted to mention was that, long before the arrival of Rev Midgley Jennings in 1852, the British East India Company had been fighting numerous devastating wars in India against Hindu and Muslim rulers including the Battle of Buxar, the Anglo-Maratha Wars (1777-1818), the Battle of Assaye, and the famous four Anglo-Mysore Wars that lasted over three decades.

These were hardly pluralistic or harmonious gestures of coexistence. Rather, they were the results of plain and simple brutal tension between the powers of domination and the dominated. For example, during the siege of Mysore in 1792 the British General, Lord Cornwallis, had forced the Sultan into a temporary treaty to hand over three million pounds and his young sons as hostages. Yet the BBC’s so-called “experts” told us, in order to justify their “global-Wahhabi-threat” theory, that in India the “idea of worlds clashing would not have made sense to anyone”.

Myth number two: Followers of Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab are all “anti-Western”

“Wahhabism” has become the convenient concept by which we can clump together all those aspects of Islam we wish to jettison from history. It is now the ultimate Room 101 for disposing of all that we find uncomfortable with Islam and wish to delete from Muslim consciousness. The problem is that history seldom allows the comprehensive destruction of records. If Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s (1703-1792) version of Islam was so puritanically toxic that it could inspire an anti-British mutiny across the seas in India, why did it not have the same effect on people much closer to him?

For example, his strongest supporters and most ardent followers were the House of Saud. In December 1915, the British government had made the lands of the House of Saud a British protectorate and since then, by and large, the Saudi regime has maintained a cordial relationship with the British, the latest example being King Abdullah’s state visit to Britain last week. There is certainly more to this picture than we have been led to remember. It was with a British stipend of £5000 a month and a steady supply of weapons that the founder of the Kingdom, Abd Al-Aziz ibn Saud, was able to defeat his opponents and galvanise his rule over Arabia.

Myth number three: Sayyid Ahmad was inspired by “Wahhabism”

Anger over the dismantling of historic Muslim monuments and relics in Saudi Arabia by some followers of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab had given rise to the coining of the term “Wahhabi” in India to describe anything undesirable. Being so, it aptly served those British academics of an imperialist mindset who wanted to undermine Sayyid Ahmad’s freedom fighter credentials to label him a “Wahhabi”. The famous historian W.W. Hunter wrote in his Our Indian Musalmans (1871) that Sayyid Ahmad was a follower of Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab and that he was expelled from the Holy city of Makkah during the Hajj.

These allegations have since been proven to be baseless by a number of researchers. Sayyid Ahmad had no contact whatsoever with ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. In fact, at the time of his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1822, there were no “Wahhabi” preachers in those areas for in 1818 the Ottomans had marched on their stronghold in Dariya and killed many members of the Abd al-Wahhab family. The chief of the area, Abdullah the son of Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, was deported to Constantinople and executed. In 1822, the Hijaz area of the Arabian peninsular was devoid of any “Wahhabi” influence.

More importantly, Sayyid Ahmad had launched his campaign for jihad several years before embarking on the pilgrimage. It was Shah Abd Al-Aziz, son of Shah Wali Ullah Dehlawi, who had advised Sayyid Ahmad to go on a country-wide tour in 1818 to raise awareness for his cause. That advice had absolutely nothing to do with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

Myth number four: Deobandis are all inspired by “Wahhabi” Islam

Charles Allen suggested in the programme that the seminary in Deoband was established by students under the “Wahhabi” influence brought from Arabia to India by Sayyid Ahmad in 1822. If there is one feature through which interpretive traditions in Islam can be identified, it is through their adopted schools of jurisprudence. Schools of jurisprudence in Islam determine the framework parameters within which any given interpreter may function. Principally, in Sunni Islam, there are four major schools of jurisprudence, known as the Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali schools.

These schools are distinguished from one another through their differing approaches to a vast number of issues (though not including basic tenets of creed), which range from methods of praying the daily five prayers to matters of divorce and complex government and financial issues. Rulings of one school are not automatically applicable for a follower of another school unless it is proven to satisfy the interpretive criteria of that specific school. In practice, followers of a particular school will only seek and follow rulings from within their school. The Deobandis are strict followers of the Hanafi school and Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab was a follower of the Hanbali school.

If Deoband Madrasa (seminary) was an institution inspired principally by the mythical “Wahhabism” that requires its follows to denounce all others in an accept-Islam-or-die cult, then it is hard to understand why such an institution would produce the likes of the late Moulana Husayn Ahmad Madani (d.1957), who was Shaikh al-Hadith of Darul Ulum Deoband (the highest professorial position in the seminary) and who declared, very forcefully, in the 1930s:

“The view that Islam is an inflexible religion is beyond my comprehension. To the extent that I can understand its laws, [Islam] can live together with non-Muslims in the same country; it can be at peace with them; it can enter into treaties with them; as well as into commercial transactions, partnerships, tenancy, the exchange of gifts, loans, trusts, etc. Muslims can interact with them, participate in matters of joy and grief, and dine with them…” (Madani, Muttahida Qawmiyyat, p.51).

Another historical fact that demolishes the “Deobandi-Wahhabism” myth of its followers being on the constant prowl to grab swathes of land and colonise them with puritanical regimes, is that Moulana Madani and his fellow Deobandi followers, and including a vast number of other ulama (religious scholars), opposed the creation of the state of Pakistan. Large numbers of Deobandi scholars demanded to live in an undivided, free India.

If these facts are also part of the legacy of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid and the founders of the Deobandi school, which of course they are, then we certainly need to take a more informed look at recent history before trying to join isolated dots from pages in paperbacks and fictional accounts masquerading as historical narrative.


The real question is why are academics, orientalists, policy makers and TV producers fanning the flames of war with 18th and 19th century trickery? Why is the role of the CIA in the Afghan-Soviet war and the role of the Neocon policy makers in the current wars not acknowledged in this flood of rhetoric we hear on Wahhabism and Deobandism? The answer, I suspect, is that somehow they hope to not only win these wars with a decisive victory but also to dispose along with them all those aspects of Islam they find difficult to accept.

By truncating chunks of history and bundling them together with unpleasant realities of the day, it may allow for some Western designed “reformationist” theories to be superficially buttressed and problematic inconveniences to be disposed of in a “Grand Room 101” of history. Unfortunately however, history has a habit of remaining persistently uncooperative with those who try to exploit it.


Murdoch’s Neocon Attack on a Quarter Billion Muslims

By Husain Al-Qadi

Ramadan arrived in Britain this year in a week when the Murdoch media empire intensified its attacks on Muslims in general and on those who follow the Deobandi school of thought in particular.

Murdoch’s Times newspaper ran a series of scaremongering articles which attempted to paint a picture of Islam as a “suicide cult” and the Deobandis as an obscure “sect” that got lucky by taking control of mosques in Britain “away from the Barelwis”.

So who is Murdoch and who is this “dangerous sect” of Deobandis and these “nice guy” Barelwis?

Rupert Murdoch

Most people know about Murdoch’s satellites, which deliver TV programmes in five continents, his 175 newspapers (including the New York Post and the London Times), his Twentieth Century Fox studio, Fox Network, and its 35 TV stations (his cable channels include Fox News and 19 regional sports channels). But what many seem to forget is that he is also a hard-core Neocon supporter of Israel, who played a major role in turning public opinion in favour of invading Iraq.

Mr Murdoch was unequivocal about war with Iraq:

We can’t back down now. I think Bush is acting very morally, very correctly, and I think he is going to go on with it.

He said the price of oil would be one of the war’s main benefits.

The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in any country.

 Mr Murdoch’s comments come just a week after he told US Fortune magazine that war could fuel an economic boom.

Who knows what the future holds? I have a pretty optimistic medium and long-term view but things are going to be pretty sticky until we get Iraq behind us. But once it’s behind us, the whole world will benefit from cheaper oil which will be a bigger stimulus than anything else”

he told Fortune. (The Guardian, 12.02.03).

The attacks by his Times newspaper is not the first on Muslim scholars of the Deobandi school of thought. Last year, Murdoch’s Star TV Network tried to entrap Muslim scholars in India with gifts and accusations of bribery. Later it was discovered that his reporter had misled the scholars under false pretences and then misrepresented conversations in his reports.

Deobandis and Barelwis

In the Times articles there were repeated, disparaging references to Deobandis, contrasted with highly-favourable statements about Barelwis. So who are the Deobandis?

A conservative estimate on the number of Deobandis around the world today puts it somewhere between 200 and 270 million. Although the name is taken from a village where a seminary was established in 1867 to protect traditional Muslim learning from interference by the British Raj, the term “Deobandi”, as a name for a school of thought, emerged much later in response to the polemics of the theologian Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi in the 1890s and early twentieth century.

During the establishment of the Indian seminary Nadwatul Ulama, which was set up to reform the madrasa curriculum and unite the various Muslim factions in India, a dispute developed which led to this division. Initially, Ahmad Riza Khan supported the idea of Nadwatul Ulama, and wrote hopefully that

in the era full of misfortune, in which the affliction of bad-mazhabi surrounds us and the plague of freedom has conquered the world, the Nadwatul Ulama…would strengthen the Ahl-e-Sunnat, and dispel turmoil”

(Muhammad Hasan Riza Khan (1895), Sawalat Haqaiq Numa ba Ruasa Nadwatul Ulama, Badayn; Victoria Press. p.2)

As the movement developed, Ahmad Riza Khan tried to convince those involved to restrict membership to his particular school of thought (Matubat-e-Imam Ahmad Riza Barelwi, 1986, p. 88-102) and he wrote private letters to the leader of the project, Moulana Mohammad Ali Mongeri, to this effect.

Eventually, he found the Nadwa movement too liberal in its approach to Muslim unity and decided to launch a campaign against the movement and all those involved with a series of theological and personal attacks. His campaign involved, for the first time in the history of Islam, a concept of “automatic takfir” or “default apostasy”, which was declared on anyone who doubted (man shakka) the kufr (apostasy) of the long list of Muslim scholars with whom he disagreed.

His 1903 fatwa compilation entitled Husam al-Haramyn (The Sword of the Two Holy Places) declared that, among others, all of the scholars of Deoband (the institution which had by then served the Muslims of India for almost four decades as one of the most distinguished and vibrant places of Islamic scholarship in the subcontinent), all of the scholars of the Nadwatul Ulama movement, all of the scholars of the Ahl-e-hadith movement, and the Nechiriyya (Sir Sayyid Ahmad and all those in his Alighar Muslim University movement) were apostates without doubt.

These scholars and their followers were to be excommunicated from the fold of Islam in the absolute sense.

Ahmad Riza Khan declared:

It is fard (obligatory) on everyone to stay away from such a person. He must be despised and scoffed at and refuted. Any respect shown to him is not only haram (prohibited) but will amount to the demolition of the foundation of Islam. It is haram to greet him, to sit or eat and drink with him. The conclusion of any marriage contracts is also haram: it will amount to pure adultery. Such a person should not be visited even if he is sick. Participation in the funeral of such a person, washing him according to the shari’ah law, to shoulder his dead body, to bury him in a Muslim burial place, to stand alongside his grave and make supplication for his salvation or the offering of the Fatihah to the departed soul – all are not merely haram – but acts of (kufr) apostasy.

(Irfan-e-Shariyat, p.39)

The prayers of such people were also null and void

since their prayer is not real prayer, no prayer is allowed behind them. On occasions like Friday and Eid, if there is no Imam available other than these apostates, it is obligatory on every Muslim to forsake and abandon the Friday and Eid prayers.”

(Ahkam-e-Shariyat, Vol.1, p.129)

In responding to these serious charges, the scholars of Deoband were distinguished from the Barelwis (Ahmad Riza Khan and his followers) and hence the naming of these two camps as “Deobandis” and “Barelwis”. In recent times, however, scholars from both sides have tried to bridge the gap of misunderstanding, especially in the Muslim diaspora.

Neocons and 21st Century Barelwis

So why are Murdoch and his Neocon friends so keen to promote the Barelwis and target the Deobandis? There are several reasons for this, the first being historic. The Deobandis always maintained their independence from the state during the British Raj in India. Unlike the Barelwis, the Deobandis were also at the forefront of the freedom movement for Indian independence. The calculation is that, given this history, the Deobandis would be less likely to accept any Neocon programmes of interference in Muslim social affairs.

The second reason is strategic. By reviving and promoting a school of thought that excommunicates almost all other streams of Islamic scholarship with the charge of apostasy, they would be able reduce the chances of unity among Muslims in defiance of their programmes of interference. If Muslims are united against their interventions, which are designed to undermine faith in Islam, then the task will be much more difficult. So it is better to promote people who can exclude large swathes of the community through doctrinal edicts.

The third reason is the enthusiasm nowadays of people like Haras Rafiq (who claim to speak for the Barelwis) to accept and promote, on the one hand, Neocon inspired “advice” such as, “instead of speaking out against atrocities in Palestine and Iraq, Muslims in the UK should occupy themselves only with ‘lifestyle discussions'” and, on the other hand, their willingness to exhume a century-old, rancorous pronouncement by Ahmad Riza Khan of apostasy against the Deobandis for political gain.

Waking Up to Pie in Sky

For those who may be inclined to take the pronouncements and editorial dictates of Mr Murdoch as gospel, it would be useful to bear in mind that this is the man who constructed public opinion through his newspapers and the Fox News Network for the war on Iraq with promises of a $20 barrel of oil. Yesterday, the price of oil closed at a record-high of more than $80 a barrel and the world economy continues to jitter on a knife edge while the death toll on all sides continues to spiral in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deobandis and Barelwis may have their differences, but for Mr Murdoch to assume that he can exploit these to excommunicate or simply “wish into non-existence” a quarter of a billion (Deobandi) Muslims through biased media speculation, or even by force of war, is as much pie in the sky as a $20 barrel of oil today.

The sooner the world wakes up to these realities, the better it would be for all concerned. If not, we are likely to be faced with a future of even more catastrophic wars based on wishful thinking with dire consequences for all of us.

Ramadan Mubarak