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Ahl-i Hadith or Ahl-e-Hadith (Persian: اهل حدیث, Urdu: اہل حدیث, people of hadith) is a Sunni Salafi reform movement that emerged in North India in the mid-nineteenth century from the teachings of Syed Ahmad Barelvi, Syed Nazeer Husain and Siddiq Hasan Khan. It is an offshoot of the 19th-century Indian Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya movement tied to the 18th-century traditions of Shah Waliullah Dehlawi and the Wahhabi movement.
The movement professes to hold the same views as those of the early Ahl al-Hadith school. They reject taqlid (following legal precedent) and favour ijtihad (independent legal reasoning) based on the scriptures. The terms "Salafi" and "Ahl-i Hadith" are often used interchangeably, the movement shares doctrinal tendencies with the Hanbali school prevalent in the Arabian Peninsula, and many of its members have identified themselves with the Zahiri school of thought.
The movement has been compared to Saudi Wahhabism, or a variation on the Wahhabi movement, But the movement itself claims to be distinct from Wahhabism, and some believe it possesses some notable distinctions from the mainly Arab Salafis. In recent decades the movement has expanded its presence in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
Imam Shah Waliullah Dehlawi (1703-1762) is considered as the intellectual fore-forefather of the Ahl-i-Hadith. After his Pilgrimage to Mecca, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi spent 14 months in Medina, studying Qur'an, Hadith and works of Ibn Taymiyya under the hadith scholar Muhammaad Tahir al-Kurani, the son of Ibrahim al-Kurani. Upon return to India, he preached Tawhid and a return to the Sunnah, and claimed Ijtihad just like Ibn Taymiyya. When the British captured Delhi in 1803, Shah Waliullah's eldest son, Shah Abdul Aziz declared India as Dar-al-Harb, urging Muslims to strive to restore India back to Islamic rule. This would influence his student Syed Ahmed Barelvi.
After the death of his father, Shah Abdul Aziz continued the works of Shah Waliullah. He was a Muhaddith who emphasized the importance of Hadith with students all across the subcontinent. As a teacher, preacher and social religious-reformer, Shah Abdul Aziz was closely monitoring the socio-political developments in the subcontinent. British were gaining ascendancy in India by capturing power in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. In 1799, British defeated the Kingdom of Mysore in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. When the British armies entered Delhi in 1803, the Mughal empire was turned into a protectorate of British East India Company, thus gaining political supremacy in the subcontinent. Upon this, Shah Abdul Aziz declared a decisive fatwa declaring India to be Dar-al Harb(abode of war). This was the first significant fatwa against colonial rule in the subcontinent that gave an indirect call to Indian Muslims to fight colonial occupation and liberate the country.
Under these circumstances the call to Jihad against British rule began becoming popular amongst the Muslim masses. Shah Ismail Dehlvi, the nephew of Shah Abdul Aziz and grandson of Shah Waliullah, would lead a religious revivalist movement. In addition to being an excellent orator, he was also a soldier and military commander. Shah Muhammad Ishaq, the grandson of Shah Abdul Aziz would continue his religious reform after Abdul Aziz's death in 1823. Maulana Abdul Haie, son-in-law of Shah Abdul Aziz was also a reputed scholar. These three theologians prepared the spadework of Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyya, the reform movement that would be known as the Indian "Wahhabi movement". During his last years, Shah Abdul Aziz would give his cloak to Syed Ahmed Bareilly appointing him as his successor. Syed Ahmed would campaign against the corruption of various Sufi orders, and initiate his disciples into Tariqah-i-Muhammadiya ("the Muhammadiyya Order"). The disciples in this order were required to make a vow that they will strictly abide by Sharia and would not follow anything not proven by Qur'an and Hadith.
In 1821, Syed Ahmad embarked on a journey for Hajj in Hejaz accompanied by Shah Ismail Dehlvi and Maulana Abdul Haie with 400 disciples. They performed Hajj in 1823 (1237 A.H) and stayed in Hejaz for 8 months. Shah Ismail and Abdul Haie authored the Arabic book "Sirat e Mustaqim" to call Arabs to their reformative movement. They returned home in 1824. The three scholars then charted a strategic plan to wage Jihad against the colonial occupation across India. Many parts of the subcontinent became recruitment centres for the Mujahideen. When his Pathan disciples offered him territory, Syed Ahmed set-up the North West Frontier Province as the operations headquarters for the future "Wahhabite" Jihad in 1826 to re-take the subcontinent from the British. However this put the Mujahideen into conflict with the Sikh empire. In January 1827, Syed Ahmed was elected as Imam and Amir-ul-Mu'mineen (commander of faithful) by religious scholars and tribal chiefs. Soon war broke out between Sikhs and "Wahhabi" Mujahideen.
On 24 February 1828, one of the three leaders of Jihad, Maulvi Abdul Haei, the chief advisor to Syed Ahmed died as an old and ailing person. In his letters to Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh, Syed Ahmed clarified that he didn't seek a confrontation with Sikhs, but only their help in defeating the British. Ranjit Singh, for his part, respected Syed Ahmed as a "courageous, bold and determined person". By 1830, many Pathan tribal chiefs rose against the Wahhabi Mujahideen and committed massacres against the Wahhabi emigrants. Disillusioned by this, Syed Ahmed lost interest in the movement and made plans to migrate to Arabia. However, senior advisors such as Shah Ismail opposed the idea and sought to complete the objectives of the movement, despite the setbacks.
On 17 April 1831, Syed Ahmed set out on his last journey for Balakot with the aim to capture Kashmir, accompanied by Shah Ismail. A Pashtun cheiftain named Zabardast Khan who made a secret deal with the Sikh commander Sher Singh withheld promised re-inforcements. On 6 May 1831, an ill-equipped army of 1,000 Mujahideen faced a 12,000 strong force of Sikh gunmen(Banduqchis) led by Sher Singh. On that day Syed Ahmed, Shah Ismail and prominent leaders of the Wahhabi movement fell fighting in the battlefield. Out of the 1000 Mujahideen, 300 died and Sikh casualties were 700 deaths. Sikh victory at Balakot arose jubilation in Lahore. The British government also congratulated Ranjith Singh in his victory. The defeat at Balakot made a devastating blow to the Wahhabi movement.
In the mid-nineteenth century, an Islamic religious reform movement was started in Northern India that continued the Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyya movement. It rejected everything introduced into Islam after Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and the early eras. This was led by Nawab Siddiq Hasan Khan of Bhopal (1832-1890) whose father became a Sunni convert under the influence of Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1824) and Syed Nazir Husain (1805-1902) who was student of Muhaddith Shah Muhammad Ishaq (1782-1846), the grandson of Shah Abdul Aziz and his Khalifa(successor). With the aim of restoring Islamic unity and strengthening Muslim faith, they called for a return to original sources of religion, "Qur'an and Hadith" and eradicate what they perceived as bid‘ah(innovations), shirk(polytheism), heresies and superstitions. 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. However, unlike its Wahhabi predecessor, the movement sought pragmatic recognition of British Raj inorder to stop repression against Wahhabis. Throughout the 19th century, Ahl-i Hadith scholars were persecuted under various pretext during the "Wahhabi trails" (during 1850s-1870s). Upon the petition of Ahl-i-Hadith scholar Muhammad Hussain Batalvi to the British Indian Administration, the government of India issued a notification in 1886, stopping the use of the term "Wahhabi" in official correspondence. In a victory to reform movement, the government conceded to referring the community as "Ahl-i Hadith".
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-i 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-i Hadith opened a center for their movement in Srinagar. Followers of the Hanafi school of law, forming the majority of Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir, socially boycotted and physically attacked Ahl-i 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-i Hadith now also administer schools and mosques in the English-speaking world. In the modern era, the movement draws both inspiration and financial support from Saudi Arabia, now being favoured over the rival Deobandi movement as a counterbalance to Iranian influence.
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Its adherents oppose taqlid. They reject being bound by the four mainstream Islamic jurisprudential mad'habs, and the four Imams. Hence they are known as ghair mukallideen (non -conformists). They repudiate the traditions of the schools of jurisprudence and consider it permissible to seek guidance directly from Qur'an and authentic hadith. This set them in opposition to the Sufi sects of the subcontinent with whom they often have constant arguments and disagreements with those who follow the Hanafi school of thought due to jurisprudential differences.
Ahl-i-Hadith movement continues the reform tradition of Shah Waliullah Dehlawi(1703-1762) whom the adherents regard as it's first modern member. They also draw upon the teachings of his son Shah Abdul Aziz Muhaddith Dehlavi, his follower Syed Ahmed Barelvi, and the Yemenite Qadi Muhammad ibn Ali Al-Shawkani (whom they regard as Shaykh al-Islam). Siddiq Hasan Khan's father studied under Shah Abdul Aziz and Syed Nazir Husain was a student of the Muhaddith Shah Muhammad Ishaq, a grandson of Shah Waliullah Dehlawi. Due to their reliance on the Qur'an and Hadith only and their rejection of analogical reason in Islamic law, the modern-day Ahl-i Hadith are often compared to the older Zahirite school of Islamic law, with which the Ahl-i Hadith consciously identify themselves.
Shah Ismail Dehlvi's book "Taqwiatul Eiman" is viewed as the manifesto of the Ahl-i-Hadith movement. In it he emphasised on the pristine monotheism of Islam and condemned what he viewed as heretic un-Islamic customs that violated Tawhid. Such customs included celebration of death anniversary of saints, asking their mercy or invoking Allah's blessing through them.
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-i Hadith remain similar to yet distinct from Salafists.
According to Islamic scholar Muhammad Asadullah Al-Ghalib, the aim and objective of the Ahl-i Hadith movement is:
"To earn the satisfaction of Allah by preaching and establishing unmixed Tawheed and by following properly the Kitab and Sunnah in all spheres of life. The social and political aim of Ahle hadeeth movement is to make all out reforms of the society through the reforms of Aqeedah and Amal."
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Like other Islamic movements, the Ahl-i 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. Ahl-i Hadith call for a return to the first principles and for a revival of "the original simplicity and purity to faith and practices." They are also opposed to foreign customs and beliefs that crept into Muslim societies as well as foreign philosophical thoughts and Sufi Mystical concepts such as Ma'rifat.
According to one source (Yoginder Sikand), "from the 1970s onwards", as Ahl-i Hadith began to access to funds from Saudi Arabia, it began to be "transformed" and doctrinal differences with ‘Wahhabis’ began to disappear "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."
Relations with Other Reform Movements
With Najdi Da'wa
With Ottoman Salafiyya
The early Ottoman Salafiyya reformers would influence and impart influence on Ahl-i-Hadith scholars. Salafi scholar Khayr Al-Din Al-Alusi corresponded with Ahl-i-Hadith scholar Siddiq Hassan Khan and praised him as a religious reformer. Influenced by Ahl-i-Hadith, Salafi scholars like Rashid Rida would call for a non-madhab or pre-madhab approach to Fiqh. 'Abd al-Baqi al-Afghani (d. 1905) who was influenced by Ahl-i-Hadith in the subcontinent would also be active the reform movements in Syria. Syrian scholar Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani too would be highly influenced by Ahl-i-Hadith and would be known as an excellent Muhaddith. Ottoman Salafiyya scholars shared with the Ahl-i-Hadith, a common interest in opposing various Sufi practices, denounce blind following, reviving correct theology and Hadith sciences.
Leading proponents of the movement joined forces against the opposition they faced from established ulama (religious scholars) and in 1906 formed the All India Ahl-i-Hadis Conference. The Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadees was respresented in the All India Azad Muslim Conference, which opposed the partition of India. One member organization of the All India Ahl-i-Hadis Conference is the Anjuman-i-Hadith, formed by students of Sayyid Miyan Nadhir Husain and divided into Bengal and Assam wings. After the 1947 separation of India and Pakistan, the Pakistani Ahle-Hadith center was based in and around Karachi.
In 1930 Ahl-i Hadith was founded as a small political party in India. In Pakistan, the movement formed a political party, Jamiat Ahle Hadith, which unlike similar Islamic groups opposed government involvement in affairs of sharia law. Their leader, Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, was assassinated in 1987. The Ahl-i Hadith oppose Shi'ism.
Millions of dollars in Saudi funding has also been given into Indian and Pakistani Ahle Hadith madrassas, militant organizations and educational institutions.
During the rule of the British Raj, no accurate census was ever taken of the movement's exact number of followers. The group itself claims 22 millions followers in India and 10 millions in Pakistan as well 25 millions in Bangladesh with strongholds in 40 districts of the country. In the United Kingdom, the Ahl-i 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.
Violence against other Muslim ideologies
The relation of Ahle Hadith with other Islamic ideologies and movements is hostile and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have witnessed widespread tensions and violence due to the militant actions by Ahle Hadith groups. The Ahle Hadith militant organizations in Indian, Pakistan and Bangladesh have targeted Hanafi Barelvis, Shias and Ahmadis along with Indian security forces. The Markaz al-Dawah Irshad (MDI) is one of the leading organizations, whose sister organization Lashkar e-Taiba, Markaz Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH), Tehreek e-Mujahideen have been found behind attacks. While the organization Lashkar-e-Taiba has recruited followers of the Ahl-i Hadith movement in the past, the organization's views on jihad alienate the mainstream adherents of the Ahl-e-Hadith movement. Lashkar e-Taiba is also notorious for conducting various attacks on Indian soil including the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 people.
When the Deobandi Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1990s, they had suppressed Salafist trends. However, after the post-9/11 US Invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban was forced to ally with Salafists. Many Salafist footsoldiers and groups have joined the Taliban insurgency under the Afghan Taliban’s command.
Prominent Ahl-i Hadith figures
- Syed Nazeer Husain
- Siddiq Hasan Khan
- Abdullah Ghaznavi
- Abdul Mannan Wazirabadi
- Muhammad Husain Batalvi
- Sana'ullah Amritsari
- Shams-ul-Haq Azimabadi
- Muhammad Asadullah Al-Ghalib
- Zubair Ali Zai
- Abdullah el Baqui
- Muhammad Ishaq Madni
- Outline of Islam
- Glossary of Islam
- Index of Islam-related articles
- Salafi movement
- Jamiat Ahle Hadith: A religious-political party in Pakistan
- Shirk (Islam)
- Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees Hind
- Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadees Pakistan
- Al-Markazul Islami As-Salafi
- Ahlehadeeth Andolon Bangladesh
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It was ... not an easy task for the Ahl-i-Hadis preachers to go against the powerful sunni ulema ... They encountered frequent opposition from the latter ... In order to consolidate their efforts, the leading members of the movement decided to form an all-India organization, called the All India Ahl-i-Hadis Conference in 1906, in Lucknow, India.
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