Dr. Tareen prefaced his speech with words of gratitude to IIIT, remarking that during his fellowship he has had the opportunity to meet different scholars and even shared his office with veteran scholar Mahmoud Ayoub at one point. He encouraged other scholars to experience the IIIT fellowship, enthusiastically exclaiming, “There is no other fellowship like it!”
During his talk, he explained that both Deobandi and Barelvi were late 19th century reform movements that derived their names from towns in Northern India. Their rise in that particular moment of history was inextricably connected with the loss of political sovereignty that Muslims experienced at the hand of the British colonial power. In essence, this fall led to an “ever greater intensification and fermentation of intellectual thought.” The need for reform was urgently felt by leaders of both movements – however, they disagreed as to what that reform would constitute. Whereas the debate between the two movements is popularly characterized as a law-Sufism binary (with Barelvis cast as soft Sufis and Deobandis as harsh jurists), Dr. Tareen continuously emphasized that this is not true. In fact, both movements included scholars that were prominent Hanafi jurists as well as Sufi Masters.
Instead, he suggested that their polemic should be viewed in the conceptual framework of how authoritative scholars interpreted “divine sovereignty and its interaction with law and ritual practice during a moment when Muslim political sovereignty was threatened and eventually eroded by colonial power.”
The point of contestation was the very relevant question, “How should a community honor the Prophet’s memory and normative example?” Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi (d. 1944), a renowned Deobandi scholar, argued that while a practice such as the Mawlid (celebration of the Prophet’s birthday) is permissible, it has over time taken on an obligatory nature as practiced by Indian Muslims – so much so that anyone who does not participate in it is subject to communal censure.
Historically, it had transformed into a rasm, “customs and habits that through a process of repetitive performance become an entrenched part of a community’s every-day life.” The elevation of this permissible act to an obligatory one was a heretical innovation (bid’a) and the inverse of prophetic tradition, Thanvi argued. As such, it must be abolished, he declared. In doing so, the Deobandis felt they were guarding divine law and protecting the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), explained Dr. Tareen.
Barelvis, on the other hand, believed in the “active veneration of the Prophet as the most exalted of all beings,” Dr. Tareen said. Hence, Ahmad Raza Khan, the founder of the Barelvi movement, accused the Deobandis of outlawing practices that honored the Prophet’s memory, such as the Mawlid. Citing the 16th century jurist Muḥammad al-Qasṭalānī (d.1517), Khan contended that unless an act was explicitly forbidden in Islam, it was permissible.
Khan further disputed the Deobandi view of tradition and time as mistaken and myopic. He reasoned that an act of goodness was good irrespective of when it occurred in history. While he acknowledged that the first three centuries of Islam were sanctified, it did not mean the “rest of time, the non-prophetic past, the present, and the future, were doomed to the abyss of moral failure,” according to Dr. Tareen.
In sharing the thoughts of these venerable theologians of the late 19th century South Asian subcontinent, Dr. Tareen clearly defined their differences but cautioned the audience not to collapse them into a Sufi-law binary. Both Khan and Thanvi acknowledged the extremity with which certain rituals were practiced. Whereas Khan believed that these practices should be corrected and reformed, Thanvi deemed them to be terminal and maintained that they must be abandoned.
The lecture was followed by an animated Question and Answer session during which members of the audience engaged with Dr. Tareen, asking relevant questions and sharing their thoughts on the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic. In short, the topic had clearly touched quite a few chords and stimulated much discussion.