Islamic Revivalist Movements in British India

Review of Politics for Faith: Karamat Ali Jaunpuri and Islamic Revivalist Movements in British India circa 1800-73, by Rajarshi Ghose.

Rajarshi Ghose’s dissertation, Politics for Faith: Karamat Ali Jaunpuri and Islamic Revivalist Movements in British India circa 1800-73, is a study of the South Asian religious reformer Karamat Ali (1800-1873). Although focused on this prominent figure, Ghose presents a broader historical context for his revivalist activities, particularly in terms of his scholarly lineage and family background. A devoted adherent of the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah movement, which has its origins in 18th century Sunni revivalism in India, Karamat Ali was part of a pre-existing movement of Islamic reform, and Ghose discusses in some detail his place in the tradition of Hanafi scholarship and Sufi activism.

Ghose presents Karamat Ali as both a model for the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah’s revivalism as well as diverging in important ways from the movement’s general political posture. Questions of political authority are the major focal point for the dissertation, and Ghose devotes considerable attention to the transition from Mughal to British rule and the differing conceptions of social and political authority found in South Asia at the time, particularly among the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah and Karamat Ali himself. While the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah conducted a jihad against the British in northern India (namely the Northwest Frontier Provinces) Karamat Ali and his followers did not participate, because, according to Ghose, he understood the futility of such a venture; later Karamat Ali adopted the position that British India was in fact part of the Dar al-Islam, not a territory in the Dar al-harb, a reversal of his earlier stance. Ghose argues that his views, particularly the evolution of his opinion on this issue of the Dar al-Islam, were greatly influenced by the sectarian context of British India, namely conflicts between various Muslim groups. Ghose describes the intellectual background for the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah and Karamat Ali specifically, his familial and educational lineage, the connection between his biography and historical context and the debates among Muslims surrounding the questions of British India’s territorial status and permissibility/possibility of jihad.

Chapter 1 addresses the history of the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah, particularly its origins in the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidiyya and the reformism of Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi (1703-1762) and his son, Shah ‘Abd al-Aziz (1746-1824). Ghose discusses their belief in the Mughal Empire as the embodiment of legitimate Islamic rule in India, and how the occupation of Delhi by the British East India Company in 1803 represented a momentous shift in the political context of South Asia. The Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah—started by Saiyid Ahmad (1786-1831), a Sufi murid of Shah ‘Abd al-Aziz, and his associate Shah Muhammad Ismail (1779-1831), a grandson of Shah Wali Allah—was formed as a group devoted to reasserting Muslim moral and political authority in the subcontinent and (accordingly) resisting British incursions. This project involved a strong emphasis on jihad, in both the spiritual-moral and political-military senses of the term, advocated and conducted by members of the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah.

Chapter 2 is devoted specifically to Karamat Ali and his activities as a member of the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah. A follower of Saiyid Ahmad from a young age, Karamat Ali was devoted primarily to the non-military forms of jihad promoted by the group, and Ghose, relying largely on biographies by Karamat Ali’s followers and descendents, describes his constant efforts at reviving specifically Sunni (Hanafi) piety and religious adherence. This began in his hometown of Jaunpur, where he was descended from a long line of prominent members of the ulama, and continued in Bengal, where Karamat Ali spent most of the latter half of his life as the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah’s most prominent representative. Ghose argues, pace Juan Cole, that this Sunni revivalist drive was not inspired by similar Afghan movements, but rather was a natural extension of the tradition of Shah Wali Allah and the Mujaddidiyya in the subcontinent, and it was spurred on by sectarian opposition to the growing Shi‘i influence in northern India.

While intra-Muslim rivalries—not only with Shi‘ites, but the Ahl-i Hadis and Faraizi groups as well—are of clear importance for the context for Karamat Ali’s revivalism, there is also the question of his stance regarding British colonial rule (particularly significant given the very impetus for the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah). Ghose writes that Karamat Ali’s view evolved over time; he initially supported—though did not participate in—armed jihad against the East India Company, but gradually came to accept British rule, and by the end of his life he represented a pillar of Muslim moderation in Bengal and was favored by the colonial government. This evolution according to Ghose was spurred both by historical factors (e.g. the failure of Saiyid Ahmad’s jihad) as well as his belief in the need for a stable political order and the appeal of Britain’s hands-off approach to religion in India. Ghose notes that 20th-century historiography in the subcontinent had reconceptualized Karamat Ali’s activities through an anti-colonial lens, presenting him as actively, even violently resisting British rule; Ghose critiques this depiction, made, he argues, on the basis of dubious historical evidence and a false dichotomy between pro- and anti-colonial positions.

Chapter 3 looks at the context for Karamat Ali’s activities in Bengal and the role of the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyyah in that region. Ghose focuses on the more politically quietistic elements of the movement, as well as its emphasis on reviving orthodox Sunni practices and forms of devotion. Ghose also describes in some detail Karamat Ali’s work in Bengal, particularly the development of his substantial following and rise to prominence within colonial Indian society, becoming somewhat of a public figure beyond the Muslim community.

Finally, chapter 4 is devoted to the shift in Karamat Ali’s conception of British India as a political entity, namely whether or not it can/should be considered part of the Dar al-Islam, with all the legal connotations that accompany such a designation. Ghose argues that at some point in the 1850s Karamat Ali came to the realization that a stable political order was necessary for Islamic revivalism and the realization of a truly sharia-based society for India’s Muslims and that British rule represented the only possible vehicle for political stability in the subcontinent. Focusing on a lecture given by Karamat Ali (and subsequently published) in 1870, Ghose shows how his view that British India was part of the Dar al-Islam was at odds with many contemporary positions on the issue, particularly in terms of those who believed that even if jihad and/or emigration were legally unwarranted, British India did not meet the pre-established criteria for status as Dar al-Islam.

Ghose’s study of Karamat Ali and his revivalism provides needed nuance to the scholarship on Muslims and the colonial experience. Rather than relying on the (reductive) framework of rejection/accommodation of Western imperial rule, Ghose presents Karamat Ali as navigating a diverse array of social, political and religious concerns in his lifetime, with colonialism merely one of the different elements at play in Indian Muslim society. And this fact has particular importance for understanding Karamat Ali’s stance; Ghose argues that the primary causes for his acceptance of British rule came from within the Muslim community. His revivalism was overwhelmingly inward-looking, aimed at increasing Muslims’ devotion, religiosity and piety in particular ways, and thus his attention and activities were directed almost exclusively toward Muslims (a fact evinced by his ire toward the Ahl-i Hadis and Faraizis). Relations with the colonial administration and Hindus exerted some influence on him, but this was decidedly secondary. This complex portrait of a specific, if changing, set of responses by Karamat Ali to the various elements of Muslim society in colonial India can contribute much to the scholarly understanding of the role of sectarian, intra-Muslim conflicts in colonial politics, as well as add much-needed nuance to the picture of 19th-century Islamic movements.

Nathan Spannaus
Department of Religious Studies
University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Primary sources

Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Sirat-i Saiyid Ahmad Shahid
Maulana Abd al-Batin Jaunpuri, Sirat-i Maulana Karamat Ali Jaunpuri
Muhammad Ismail, Sirat-i mustaqim
Karamat Ali Jaunpuri and Mawlana Zafar Ahmad Siddiqi Jaunpuri, Miftah al-jannah ma‘ Misbah al-sunnah
Karamat Ali Janupuri, Zakhirah-i Karamat

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 252 pp. Primary Advisor: Muzaffar Alam.


Image: Siwan Mohammedan Revival, India, ca. 1910. Tinted lantern slide. Wikimedia Commons.

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