• TheNews International
  • facebook
  • twitter
  • rss

A Barelvi revival?

A historical overview of the sectarian narratives through the last 160 years that almost all religious leaders of Pakistan are hostage to

A Barelvi revival?

Without attempting to justify his sudden and foul outpourings and name-calling, it is safe to say that Khadim Hussain Rizvi has heralded the revival of the Barelvi narrative against the rival Deobandis and Wahabis in a battle that has been waging for almost 160 years. Not only has Khadim Rizvi won popular support for the Barelvi cause, he has also won the favour of state institutions, something which even Barelvi luminaries, like Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, Maulana Abdul Sattar Niazi and Ahmad Saeed Kazmi, never achieved, despite the combination of their best efforts and the support of an overwhelming Barelvi majority.

Allama Khadim Rizvi, Amirul Mujahideen of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TYLR) is commonly known as Baba Jee by his followers, and Ustad Jee by hundreds of his pupils all around the country. By caste, Khadim is a proud Awan — Awans claim their descent as the non-Fatimi children of Hazrat Ali — like the hanged Mumtaz Qadri who gunned down Governor Salmaan Taseer.

The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deoband and Salafi groups gained strength with the help of the petrodollars coming in for the Afghan jihad. They built big madrassas, bought Pajeros and harnessed influence.

Originally, Rizvi is from a small village in the Attock district. The village was once called Nakka Kalan, and previously was also known as Nakka Qatilan, due to the high frequency of murders that took place there, but is now named as Nakka Baba Jee after Khadim Rizvi.

The white-bearded Khadim Rizvi is just 52-years-old but a terrible traffic accident in 2006 landed him in a Lahore hospital. Though Allama Rizvi himself is always mysteriously silent about his treatment in the hospital, his loyalists whisper about some foul play. They claim a doctor from a rival fiqah may be the reason behind why the Allama could not stand again after that incident.

The paralysed Khadim Rizvi was leading an undisturbed life as an Auqaf Imam in Pir Makki Mosque, Lahore, receiving a salary of around Rs30,000 from the government kitty when Mumtaz Qadri’s hanging put fire in his belly — it angered him to the point of rebellion. He involved himself in processions and dharnas in favour of Mumtaz Qadri. After warning him several times, eventually the Punjab Government dismissed him from his Grade-9 government job.

Khadim Rizvi has more than a thousand devotees who have all sworn to die for the cause of Hurmat-e-Rasool. Rizvi himself was sure that the Faizabad dharna would be his final activity since he was ready to sacrifice his life for this sacred cause. He is so committed to the cause that he took both his sons, 24-year-old Hafiz Muhammad Asad and 14-year-old Hafiz Muhammad Anas, to Faizabad. Throughout the dharna, they spent their nights under the cold, open sky with other participants and were given no special privilege or protocol. Reportedly, Hafiz Muhammad Anas burnt his hands while trying to catch a tear-gas shell during the dharna.

There are many tales about Rizvi’s simplicity; his followers narrate stories about his warm hospitality and his abundant love for the cause of Ishq-e-Rasul. Though a staunch Barelvi, he is conscious that sectarianism has been very harmful for Pakistan. That is why he desires the support of rival groups. He thinks they should all come together for this sacred cause.

Almost all religious leaders of Pakistan are hostage to sectarian narratives that were set up approximately 160 years ago.

It all started in India just before the 1857 War of Independence. This was when Maulana Shah Ismail Dehlvi, a descendant of Shah Waliullah Dehlvi, wrote Taqviat-ul-Iman, a book famous for its support of the Wahabi belief system, and criticising the Hanafi school of thought. Allama Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, a prominent religious scholar in Delhi, wrote a scholarly edict in response to this book. (Today, Khadim Rizvi is greatly inspired by the role of Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi and considers him as his role model.)

Allama Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi was hanged by the British for his active role in the 1857 War of Independence. Some Wahabi ulema were also sent to Kala Pani, a colonial prison in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as punishment for their role in the 1857 War of Independence. Though both rival religious groups were punished for fighting against the British, the rivalry between them continued in the times to come.

In the aftermath of 1857, Indian Muslims devised three new ways to handle their new role as British subjects. The revivalist Ahle Sunnat Hanafi ulema founded a religious school at Deoband in 1860 and tilted towards some Wahabi beliefs while still remaining within the Hanafi fold. In national politics, the Deoband school of thought ultimately sided with the Indian National Congress for the independence of India.

Presently, Maulana Fazlur Rehman represents Deoband politics in Pakistan. Militant groups like Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan and jihadi groups including Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Muhammad also follow this revivalist school of thought.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, on the other hand, tried to bridge the gap between the British and the Muslims. He was instrumental in guiding the Muslim youth to learn English and science and take an interest in national politics. He founded the All India Muhammadan Educational Conference in 1886, and then the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, popularly known as MAO college, which later developed into Aligarh University. Students of these educational institutions ultimately became the nursery for the Muslim League and supported Muhammad Ali Jinnah for the cause of Pakistan. This is the narrative that the majority of Pakistan still holds.

The third group led by Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi stuck to traditional Hanafi Islam with pirs, urs and the respect of Walis and their tombs. Aala Hazrat, as Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan is called by his Barelvi followers, established his madrassa in 1904, but the Barelvi narrative spread much before that in India. It became a strong narrative against the Deoband school of thought.

In the 90 years between 1857 and 1947, the disciples of Sir Syed created Pakistan and the non-political Barelvi ulema endorsed the demand for Pakistan at the All India Sunni Conference held in 1946 in Benaras. Most Punjabi, Sindhi and Pashtun pirs also supported the Pakistan movement. The Deobandi school, with the exception of Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, opposed the Pakistan movement tooth and nail, and instead supported Congress all the way until 1947.

Surprisingly, the Deobandi narrative ruled supreme even after the creation of Pakistan despite the fact that the Deoband school had opposed its very basis. Pakistan’s religious narrative was led by the majority of Deobandi ulema and Maulana Maududi and his associates. Pakistan had hardly come into being when these ulema came up with the Objectives Resolution, which affronted Pakistan’s Hindus and Christians, both.

The first serious challenge to the Government of Muslim League after the creation of Pakistan also came from a Barelvi stronghold: the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore. At first, Maulana Sattar Niazi, Abu-ul-Hasnat Syed Muhammad Ahmed Qadri and his son, and Aminul Hasnat Khalil Ahmad Qadri (all staunch Barelvis) along with Maulana Maududi were sentenced to death by the Martial Law Court for their role in the ‘anti-Ahmedi movement’; but later they were all released.

After this great Khatam-e-Nabuwwat movement there was a substantial Barelvi slump of almost 15 years, except for a short period when Khawaja Qamarud Din Sialvi (father of the present gaddi nasheen Hameedud Din Sialvi) tried and failed to galvanise the cause.

The Barelvi narrative in Pakistan took a most potent form with the advent of Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani in Pakistani politics. He was the son of Aala Hazrat Barelvi’s Khalifa Shah Abul Aleem Siddiqui of Meerath and son-in-law of another Khalifa of Aala Hazrat, Maulana Fazalur Rehman bin Muhammad of Saudia Arabia. At the height of his political power Maulana Noorani got seven National Assembly seats in the 1970 election, and from then till his death, he remained at the peak of Barelvi power. At the fag-end of his career, he became the head of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal which represented almost all rival schools of thought: Deobandi, Barelvi, Shia and Ahle Hadith.

Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani earned respect for his principled politics but he lost solid Barelvi support in the last decade of his life. After his death Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, his party, was divided into many factions and became ineffective.

Meanwhile, the Barelvis, Sawad-e-Azam (the majority of the people) had been feeling ignored and deserted by the state since the Zia regime. General Ziaul Haq had supported the Deobandi and the Ahle Hadith schools of thought and made them fight side-by-side in the Afghan jihad. Although the Barelvis were in majority, they never participated in the Afghan jihad, nor did they partake in the Kashmir militancy. The major reasons behind this were the non-militancy of Barelvis, and Maulana Noorani and the Barelvi ulemas’ disapproval of the private jihad.

The rise of Dr Tahirul Qadri also took place during the Zia regime. Dr Qadri was the Imam of Lahore’s Ittefaq Mosque owned by the Sharifs at that time. Dr Qadri took Nawaz Sharif to Maulana Noorani’s estranged friend Haji Hanif Tayyab in Karachi to form a Barelvi alliance in the 1980s. Later, Dr Qadri and Nawaz Sharif developed differences and today they are poles apart. Both Dr Qadri and Nawaz Sharif started their politics with the help of Barelvis, but now have their own political following which include Barelvis and others as well.

The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deoband and Salafi groups gained strength with the help of the petrodollars coming in for the Afghan jihad. They built big madrassas, bought Pajeros and harnessed influence. On the other hand, the Barelvis became introverted and took refuge in splinter groups like Daawat-e-Islami (a Barelvi reply to the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamaat) and Sunni Tehreek — the green turbaned party.

Daawat-e-Islami of Maulana Ilyas Attari Qadri focused on peaceful means of preaching the Barelvi cause and its bountiful love for the Prophet (Pbuh).

The Sunni Tehreek led by Sarwat Ijaz Qadri initially adopted an aggressive stance but the Rangers Operation in Karachi took care of that. Since then, the Sunni Tehreek has mellowed. Quite interestingly, the main support of Sunni Tehreek and Daawat-e-Islami is from the lower, poorer strata of society. Mumtaz Qadri and Khadim Rizvi both belong to the lower middle class and in fact, 70 per cent of Rizvi’s following is from former Daawat-e-Islami’s lower class members.

Ghazi Ilm Din Shaheed who killed Rajpal in 1929 was also a poor carpenter by profession. For the last eight years, Khadim Rizvi has been incharge of Ghazi Ilm Din Shaheed’s annual urs. At the time, his hanging inspired, in equal parts, the Islamic Renaissance poet Iqbal and the communist Muhammad Din Taseer (the slain Governor Salmaan Taseer’s father).

Lately, the Barelvis have been angry with Nawaz Sharif, and his party, for his close relations with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and Rana Sanaullah’s soft corner for Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. They feel ignored by Nawaz Sharif. Their long-time deprivations coupled with the recent happenings such as the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri infuriated them.

The real Barelvi narrative is completely different from the Pakistani text book narrative. Our syllabi portray Syed Ahmed Shaheed (1786-1831) and Maulvi Ismail Shaheed (1779-1831) as the great heroes who waged jihad against the Sikhs to liberate their Pakhtun Muslim brothers. Our contemporary religious figures have a strong sense of history, that is why Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed terms Syed Ahmed Shaheed as his role model. Syed Ahmed Shaheed was a Hanafi but his disciple Maulvi Ismail Shaheed was a Salafi. The Barelvi narrative, however, labels both of them pro-Wahabis who tried to forcefully change the beliefs of Pashtun Sunni Muslims.

Another major difference is that the Barelvis celebrate Milad-un-Nabi, the birth of Holy Prophet by taking out processions in the month of Rabi ul-awwal while Deobandis and Wahabis consider it a biddat. The Barelvi school of thought is most sensitive to the love of the Prophet and they have serious reservations about Deobandi and Wahabi beliefs in this respect. The founder of the Barelvi school of thought, Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi issued many edicts against Deobandi and Wahabi ulema for not respecting the Holy Prophet.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah’s very name shows its Barelvi imprint and distinguishes it from Jamaat-e-Islami, Deobandi, and Wahabi schools of thought who consider saying the very word ‘Ya Rasool Allah’ as biddat and against the spirit of Islam.

Khadim Rizvi is rapidly becoming a leader of Barelvis worldwide. The UK-based prisoner Ghazi Tanveer Attari who killed an Ahmedi shopkeeper is in contact with Khadim Rizvi.

Though Barelvi emotion is now at its height with Khadim Rizvi on centre-stage, this majority sect has always lacked discipline and organisation. The Barelvis like any majority group are good in movements and causes, but long-term party planning has never been their strength.

The biggest question is whether Khadim Rizvi can channel the vast Barelvi mob into a party or will they disperse again till another short-lived movement?

Suhail Warraich


  • A brilliant article indeed. The previous history of temporary barelvi activism may be repeated. Or, given the context of deobandi and wahabi activism, it may be more sustained. If u add in the willingness of the deep state to use it to weaken the vote bank of NS, it may be different from its history. The deep state needs them when the deobandies of MKTN aka SSP aka JUI/F agitate against the present mily leaders for their religious beliefs. God help us and those who think they will be protecting themselves by using barelvi proxies against deobandi proxies. Add in the factor of NS sponsored apparently anti qadiani but actually anti military movement and u have a complex scenario. The politicians and the military are both trying to play the religion card. At the end of the day, both may lose and we are left to deal with the monsters

    • And some foreign powers hired people to do propaganda against religious parties because they don’t want Islam as the system of Pakistan. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam we supported Pakistan always been loyal to it and we’ll change the system. If you hate the military then why you love NS? because he is a product of military. We support military but we don’t take political orders from military. So stop spreading propaganda lies.

  • Very informative and resourceful.

  • A scholarly article by Mr Sohail Warraich, tracing the history of two major schools of religious thought in Pakistan

  • A foul-mouthed and foul-minded leader will have followers of his own kind. It’s not looking so bright for the followers of someone who curses and abuses others

  • Indeed a beautiful article. Thank you. Let’s go back say

  • Over all a good read but there are a few factual errors. One, the All India Sunni Conference in its 1946 session did not lend support to the idea of Pakistan as projected in this article. One can see Usha’s Sanyal’s authoritative book on this. Only a few mashaikhs supported Pakistan and that too in their independent capacity.

Leave a Reply to Shahid Hafeez Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


 characters available

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Scroll To Top