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Tasawwuf and Reform in the Late 19th Century India: The Significance of Ahmad Riza Khan’s (1856-1921) Role in the Defence of Sufism

Ahmad Riza Khan (d.1921), conventionally known as the leader of the twentieth century Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jama’at (people of the Sunna and the majority) to its followers and to others as the Barewli Movement[1], was an alim and sufi in British India. He was born a year before the civil and military revolt of 1857 and was traditionally educated by his father, Mufti Naqi Ali Khan (d.1880) at home in Bareilly, under whom he completed the Dars-e Nizami syllabus (Sufi 1941) studying a range of twenty-one Islamic sciences by the age of thirteen (Riza 2003: 54). In his licenses and Isnad certificates to the scholars of Makka and Madina in 1905, he claimed to have pursued an extensive spectrum of twenty eight sciences alone (Riza 2003: 58). He authored works in more or less everything he studied[2] some of which received compliments from leading Sunni scholars of Hijaz, Yemen, Syria and Egypt.[3]

Fatwa writing had become a major occupation of the Ulama at this period of time (Metcalfe 2006: 63). Ahmad Riza occupied most of his time in writing responses to people seeking guidance in religious, social, moral and political affairs which absorbed him to the very end of his life producing a bulky fatawa compendium in the Hanafi Law, now fully edited and indexed in thirty-three over sized volumes (Riza April 2006).[4]

Ahmad Riza was an authoritative author, gifted scholar of classical Islamic sciences both the rational (ma’qulat) and transmitted sciences (manqulat)[5] offering original contributions in nearly every field he studied, phenomenal Arabist, distinguished Mufti, and a genius in the pantheon of great thinkers and makers of the Muslim world[6] living in a period when Sufism was being rejected or rethought by reform movements both at home and abroad[7]. He never wavered from supporting what he believed to be Traditional Islam and remained mindful of the positions of his elders as he was not just a scholar of Law but also a committed student of a Sufi father and devout murid of the Barakatiyya Sayyids of Marahra[8], who followed the Qadiri path[9].

Ahmad Riza plays an imperative role as a Sufi in a particularly interesting juncture since from the late 18th century, not just Sufism but Islam as a whole was caught within the challenges of colonialism and modernity[10]. In this essay, I will seek to argue that, in the wake of religious reform in British India; Ahmad Riza’s works in defence of Sufism created the hallmark of Sunni identity, by bringing to light the importance of his understudied writings. In order to build upon this hypothesis, I will discuss the various tendencies towards Sufism[11] and shall present Ahmad Riza’s work on the issue of saintly intercession (tawassul) and practices affiliated with it, a prime example of debate at that time in the Subcontinent.


[1] Sanyal (1998: 635) notes that the differences of the names reflect an important point. By referring to themselves as the Ahl-e Sunnat wa Jama’at they place themselves within the mainstream of Sunni Muslim thought. However opponents from other movements called it Barelwi thereby that it is merely a local import, and by extension, deviant.

[2] A number of bibliographical surveys of Ahmad Riza’s books reveal that he authored somewhat a thousand books in some fifty sciences (Ahmad 1997: 39; Jabir 2007:51-73; Amjadi 1999: 3-4).

[3] For testimonials to al-Dawlah al-Makkiyyah, Ahmad Riza’s monograph on the Prophet’s knowledge of the unseen, see Riza (2001: 137-239). An example includes the chief Imam of the Mekkan Haram, Abul Khayr Mirdad who referred to Ahmad Riza as “the chief author of this era and by agreement of his contemporaries, the leader of writers” (Riza 2001: 149), a sign that Ahmad Riza’s writings had been circulating in the Hijaz during his life.

[4] For details on Ahmad Riza’s Fatwa writing see Sanyal (2005: 66-77) & Sanyal (1998: 643) in which she mentions that “the fatawa he wrote exceeded the work of ten muftis” and at anytime “there could be up to five hundred queries to be answered through mail”.

[5] The ma’qulat sciences are those based on human reasoning such as mathematics and logic, are contrasted with the manqulat such as those relating to the Quran and Hadith.  The former was the hallmark of the scholars of Khairabad in particular and the latter was the specialty of the Delhi-based scholars particularly those affiliated with Madrasa-e Rahimiyya of Shah Wali Ullah (d.1762) (Sanyal 1998: 637).

[6] Oxford Oneworld series called “Makers of the Muslim world” includes Usha Sanyal’s comprehensive biography of Ahmad Riza Khan published in 2005 paying special tribute to his work and thought.

[7] Discussions on this area will follow with references.

[8] A town in the Etah district southwest of Bareilly.

[9] The family had settled in Marahra in the seventeenth century around the hospice (dargah) of Shah Barkat Ullah (1660-1729). (Sanyal 1998: 644, 647: 2005; 62) Qadiri documented a history of the family in his Khandan-e Barakat (1927).

[10] For discussions on Colonialism in India, see Metcalfe (2006).

[11] Sirriyeh develops this area well in Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World (1999).

Coming Soon!

Filed under: History, Tasawwuf

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