In the subcontinent, the reformist movements within the Sunni sect of Islam have evolved into three distinct schools of thoughts. Although the primary creed is the same, the difference in certain concepts at a secondary and tertiary level has resulted in diametrically opposite approach towards certain aspects of faith and outlook on life. In this article, the basic differences between the three have been highlighted.
The three major schools of thoughts (Madhabs) in the subcontinent are Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahl-e- Hadeeth. It should be noted that both Deobandi and Barelvi madhabs are subsets of the Hanafi branch. The Ahle –Hadeeth school of thought is a comparatively recent viewpoint that has arrived on the shores of the subcontinent from Arabia and to a certain degree has positively influenced the Deobandi Madhab. At the same time, the Barelvi madhab has responded to it in a reactionary manner. Although the Ahle Hadeeth scholars (such as Syed Nazeer Husain), have been publishing books in the region for over a century, they only found a firm footing in the subcontinent during General Zia –ul Haq’s era after the Siege of Mecca (1979) debacle.
The term Deobandi points to the origins of the movement based in the famous seminary, Darul uloom in Deoband, India. The followers of this branch adhere strictly to the works of Imam Abu Hanifa and his students. One of their fundamental concepts is the practice of “Taqleed” which means to “follow” as opposed to using one’s own or a secondary opinion. Their second hallmark is “Talfiq” which restricts venturing into ideas other than those as codified by the Hanafi School. Therefore the contemporary scholarly work based on the interpolation/extrapolation of religious text is far and few between. In the cyber-age, many of the ideas of Deobandi School look fossilized in time. For example, the validity of the marriage agreement in case if one of the spouses goes missing for a long time, has no practical solution within the Deobandi faith.
Societies are dynamic, ever evolving and so are their problems. Pillars of faith however will remain the same till eternity. Every now and then, concepts driven out of theology collide with knowledge and understanding gained from other spheres of life. This in theory should aid the understanding of truth. With regards to theological jurisprudence, there is a famous saying “Changing laws for changing needs and unchanging laws for unchanging needs”. This statement also holds true for Islam, the however confusion can arise in what is changing and what is unchanging, not at the theological but at the application level.
Although Deobandi school recognizes the changing needs of the society, but because of their strict adherence to an interpretation that is a millennia old, it is limited in offering solutions to many ills of the society in the modern times or offer explanations in a language that aids the modern mind.
Deobandi’s do recognize the mystical form of religion that is embedded in the Islamic history of the subcontinent.
With regards to the mystical -spiritual aspect of Islam, the Deobandi madhab does not encourage the proliferation of esoteric knowledge or practices to masses. It maintains that such knowledge should be the preserve of those who are perched on the higher echelons of faith.
The name Barelvi is also based on a seminary present in Bareli in India, which serves as this madhab’s centre for scholarship. Although extremely close at the root level to the Deobandi sect, the Barelvi sect is much more open and progressive. However, it is sometimes its over-progressive stance that has brought this movement into disrepute.
Most notable feature of this school is the fact that it allows the dissemination of spiritual knowledge to masses. It allows openly, sharing of the spiritual experiences of saints even to the most basic of followers.
With respect to spirituality, there has remained a dictum that has been permeated by Sufis themselves. It is that spirituality and spiritual experiences are individual experiences. Therefore they should not be criticized but neither should anyone’s spiritual experience be used to issue an edict on the community nor should be used to drive a practice in religion.
By opening the door of spirituality to all, the Barelvi school of thought is finding itself struggling to stop its followers from taking a shortcut approach towards normal religious rituals. There is a general tendency among the followers (barring the more learned) of avoiding more orthodox religious practices for perfecting their faith. Instead, they are more keen on adopting fringe practices of religion.
A case in point is celebrating the Mawlid (birthday) of the prophet (PBUH). The month of Rabi ul Awal used to see humble communions, celebrating the life of the prophet (PBUH) with poetry recitals and recounting his life’s events in sermons. Today, the month of Rabi ul Awwal has turned into a carnival of sorts which oozes more festivity than reflection.This gear shift to excessive joviality is driven mainly by members of Barelvi Madhab. Even many of the Barelvi scholars despite wanting to, are unable to stem the tide because of the fear of a backlash from their own followers.
It has to be said that despite the issues highlighted, the Barelvi Madhab does serve as a funnel for bringing the followers of folk Islam in to mainstream Islam.
Belonging to the same Hanafi school, the Barelvis and Deobandi madhabs have several other commonalities. Just like the belief in spirituality (Sufism), the other common factor between the two is the absence of critical analysis on hadeeth that are not from reliable sources. Both schools of thought have adopted the approach that if a hadeeth is regarding the encouragement of good deeds (fazeelat), its authenticity is secondary and it should be disseminated.
While it is understandable that events from a later era and even fables have been used to encourage good and discourage bad behaviour but there has remained a distinction within Islamic literature on what forms the body of religion and what does not. Mixing of authentic hadeeth with other traditions that have been known to be fabricated has altered certain perceptions.
Ahle Hadeeeth Madhab
The Ahle Hadeeth madhab is the youngest in the subcontinent when compared to the other two Hanafi sub schools. Both Deobandi and Barelvi have been historically exposed to other faiths in the region from Buddhism to Hinduism and have adopted a more pluralistic narrative from the Quran and Hadeeth. Compared to them, the Ahle Hadeeth madhab is focused on a singular interpretation of religious text. It therefore does not accommodate most of regional customs and norms in its prescribed lifestyle. In fact, Sufism that is popular among poor working class people in subcontinent is considered an anathema to Ahle Hadeeth beliefs. Furthermore, articles of the faith and jurisprudence is derived from an absolute viewpoint, casting aside the needs of the community or consideration of changes in the society.
Srinagar was historically attributed as the enclave for Ahle Hadeeth in Subcontinent but in recent times, it is Hyderabad Deccan, where the Ahle Hadeeth movement has taken firm roots . This is mainly because Hyderabad has a large number of returning workers from Saudi Arabia who prefer this school of thought after living in an environment where other madhabs are looked down upon. Dr. Zakir Nayak is the leading practitioner of this madhab in the subcontinent. The Ahle Hadeeth school of thought is also extremely popular in southern Punjab region of Pakistan owing mainly to the movement led by Ehsan Elahi Zaheer.
The Ahle Hadeeth madhab focuses on a more puritanical faith. It therefore does not allow any margin for the usage of religious texts that are not from an authentic source. The followers of this school seek knowledge directly from the the Quran or hadeeth. Interpretation and jurisprudence work carried out by notable Islamic scholars of the past is often brushed aside. By emphasizing on using the source directly to seek answers, the Ahle Hadeeth puts the onus of having theological knowledge on the follower. This has its own merit and demerit. Ahle Hadeeth followers are in general more aware and educated on the religious text and tend to be sceptical of adopting anything just on hearsay.
However on the flipside, it is known that not everyone has the capacity to become an expert in Islamic theology. Therefore one of the pitfalls of the Ahle Hadeeth followers is the formulation of conclusive opinions based on selective rather than holistic knowledge. The other problem with this approach is that wheels are constantly reinvented and a great body of scholarly work that has been built on Quran and Sunnah by distinguished theologians is ignored. The cumulative wisdom garnered over centuries in the form of Islamic jurisprudence is cast aside which leads to regress.
The Ahle Hadeeth madhab because of its stance against unorthodoxy is also completely at odds with Sufism. Note that Sufi saints have a huge contribution in spreading Islam to the subcontinent. The Sufi poetry has been part of the folk culture for centuries and the saints have been revered for generations. The recognition of the work by saints has allowed room for spirituality within both the Hanafi sub-schools (Deobandi and Barelvi).
The notable feature that binds the Sunni’s in subcontinent is that all three schools allow in taking an atomistic approach towards understanding of the Quran without taking into account the context. The verses of the Quran should not be looked in isolation for understanding the true meaning of the text. This approach often leads to a very myopic and literalistic understanding of faith.
Matrix of Differences between Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahle Hadeeth
Below is a matrix that highlights distinct features of each of the mentioned schools of thoughts.