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Ahl al-Hadith (Arabic: أهل الحديث; The people of hadith) or (Aşḥāb al-ḥadīth; أصحاب الحديث), is a term that has been used to refer to many Islamic movements (both historical and modern) that emphasize the use of hadith in Islam. It refers to the adherent's belief that they are not bound by taqlid (as are Ahl al-Rai, literally "the people of rhetorical theology"), but consider themselves free to seek guidance in matters of religious faith and practices from the authentic hadith which, together with the Qur'an, are in their view the principal worthy guide for Muslims.
In the contemporary sense, it refers to a reformist movement. The term Ahl al-Hadith is often used interchangeably with the term Salafi or as a branch of the latter movement. The Ahl al-Hadith are often called Wahhabis by their adversaries, though the movement itself claims to be distinct from Wahhabism. The movement has the most adherents in the Indian subcontinent, where it possesses some notable distinctions from the Salafi movement, most of whose adherents are found in the Arab world and Indonesia. The combined number of adherents in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are estimated to range between 59-64 million. In the modern era, the movement draws both inspiration and financial support from Saudi Arabia.
Early Muslim history
Early proponents ascribe the authority of Ahl al-Hadith to specific hadith of Muhammad al-Bukhari. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani mentioned the people of hadith in his commentary of the hadith, "And this nation will continue, established upon Allah's Command, unharmed by those who oppose them until the arrival of Allah's Order." He stated that Muhammad al-Bukhari was adamant that those referred to in this hadith were the people with knowledge of the narrations, Ahl al-Athar, i.e. the people of hadith, and then quoted Ahmad ibn Hanbal as saying, "If they are not Ahl al-Hadith, then I do not know who they are." Qadi Ayyad explained that Ahmad was referring to Ahl al-Sunnah and those who share the beliefs of the people of hadith (Essentially, according to Fath al-Bari, it is the opinion of Imam Ahmad that the faithful Ahl al Sunnah and Ahl al Hadith are not separate) . The followers of the Ahl al-Hadith movement claim their beliefs and practices to be the same as those of early Muslims and, in particular, the Rashidun (rightly guided caliphs). The movement rose to prominence in the 9th century AD during the Abbasid era to counter the beliefs of Mutazilities.
Later Muslim history
They again drew attention in the post-Mongol era, when Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328) started a reformist movement to purge the Islamic community of deviant beliefs. Noting the academic prowess of the people of hadith, Al-Dhahabi remarked, "Where is the knowledge of hadith, and where are its people? I am on the verge of not seeing them except engrossed in a book or under the soil."
The modern day reformist movement was revived in the mid-nineteenth century in Northern India, drawing much of its membership from the educated upper-class. Syed Nazeer Husain from Delhi and Siddiq Hasan Khan of Bhopal drew primarily on the work of hadith scholars from Yemen in the early years of the movement, reintroducing the field into the Indian subcontinent. Their strong emphasis on education and book publishing has often attracted members of the social elite both in South Asia and overseas; University of Paris political scientist Antoine Sfeir has referred to the movement as having an elitist character which perhaps contributes to their status as a minority in South Asia. Folk Islam and Sufism, commonly popular with the poor and working class in the region, are anathema to Ahl al-Hadith beliefs and practices. This attitude toward Sufism has brought the movement into conflict with the rival Barelvi movement even more so than the Barelvis perennial rivals, the Deobandis.
In the 1920s, the Ahl al-Hadith opened a center for their movement in Srinagar. Followers of the Hanafi school of law, forming the overwhelming majority of Muslim in Jammu and Kashmir, socially boycotted and physically attacked Ahl al-Hadith followers, eventually declaring such followers to be apostates and banning them from praying in mainstream mosques. From the 1930s the group also began dabbling in the political realm of Pakistan, with Ehsan Elahi Zaheer leading the movement into a full foray in the 1970s, eventually gaining the movement a network of mosques and Islamic schools. Following other South Asian Islamic movements, the Ahl al-Hadith now also administer schools and mosques in the Anglosphere. In the modern era, the movement draws both inspiration and financial support from Saudi Arabia, now being favored over the rival Deobandi movement as a counterbalance to Iranian influence. During the rule of the British Raj, no accurate census was ever taken of the movement's exact number of followers. In the modern era, the number of followers of the movement in Pakistan constitute 4% of the Muslim population, 25-30 million followers in India, and 27.5 million in Bangladesh. In the 19th century, the Ahle Quran formed in reaction to the Ahle Hadith, whom they considered to be placing too much emphasis on hadith instead of Quran.
In the United Kingdom, the Ahl al-Hadith movement maintains 42 centers and boasts a membership which was estimated at 5,000 during the 1990s and 9,000 during the 2000s. Although the movement has been present in the UK since the 1960s, it has not been the subject of extensive academic research and sources on the movement are extremely limited and rare.
While the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba has recruited followers of the Ahl al-Hadith movement in the past, the organization's views on jihad are thought to alienate the mainstream of the movement.
Like other Islamic movements, the Ahl al-Hadith are distinguished by certain common features and beliefs. The men tend to have a particular style of untrimmed beard often considered a visual indicator. In regard to ritual acts of Muslim worship, the movement's practices are noticeably different from the Hanafi legal school which predominates in South Asia; the men hold their hands above the navel when lined up for congregational prayer, raise them to the level of their heads before bowing, and say "amen" out loud after the prayer leader. Due to their reliance on the Qur'an and Hadith only and their rejection of analogical reason in Islamic law, the modern-day Ahl al-Hadith are often compared to the older Zahirite school of Islamic law, with which the Ahl al-Hadith consciously identify themselves.
While their educational programs tend to include a diverse array of Muslim academic texts, few adherents of the movement ascribe themselves to one school of Muslim jurisprudence, placing a greater emphasis on personal responsibility to derive judgments and ritual practice. While the movement's figureheads have ascribed to the Zahirite legal school, with a great number of them preferring the works of Yemeni scholar Shawkani, the generality of the movement is described as respecting all Sunni schools of Islamic law while preferring to take directly from the Qur'an, prophetic tradition and consensus of the early generations of Muslims. While the movement has been compared to Salafist movement in Arab nations and been branded as Wahhabist by the opposing Barelwi movement, the Ahl al-Hadith remain similar to yet distinct from Salafists.
Adherents of the Ahl al-Hadith movement
- Jamiat Ahle Hadith: the religious-political party in the Indian Subcontinent.
- Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, by Olivier Roy, translated by Carol Volk, Harvard University Press, 1994, p.118-9
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- Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees
- PROBE NEWS
- Barry Rubin, Guide to Islamist Movements, Volume 1, pg. 349. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2010.
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