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The Muslim Renaissance

In conformity with the fact that ideology determines the character of a community, the
foundations of the Muslim community in India were rooted in ideology. It was severely
undermined in Akbar’s rule, when he introduced innovations in Islam and went to such
an extent of mingling with the local Hindu population to please them that the distinction
between monotheism and polytheism started to diminish. He married a Hindu princess;
furthermore, he introduced a new religion, “Deen-e-Elahi” in 1581. Accordingly, he
declared himself a Vice-regent of God on earth.

But on the other hand, Akbar’s era was also that of Muslim Renaissance during
which the ideological articulation and communication were performed by Sufis, Ulema
and the Reformers. They consolidated among the Muslim masses a sense of community
and a feeling that they were pre-eminent from other communities.


Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi, commonly known as Mujaddid-e-Alf-Sani (the reformer of the
second millennium), was born on 26 June, 1564, in Sarhind, a city of East Punjab. He
was educated at home and inducted into mysticism by his father, Shaikh Abdul-al-Ahad,
who was himself an eminent Sufi. At the age of 36 (1597 A.D.), he went to Delhi and
there he met Khwaja Baqi Billah who introduced him to the Naqshbandi Silsila. Shaikh
Ahmad made remarkable progress and soon heights of mysticism. He died on 15
December, 1624, at the age of 63 years.

Mujaddid’s Reforms:
It was the period of propagation of atheistic activities by Akbar and such apostate
activities had gained full momentum when Sarhindi was a saint and a scholar in the
making. When Akbar died and Jahangir ascended to the throne, Sarhindi started the
reformatory process of the Muslims, to do away with un-Islamic practices initiated and
propagated by Akbar.

Sarhindi never got involved in politics. He wrote letters to court nobles of

Jahangir, most of which belonged to Akbar’s era, to advance their guidance to the
Muslim masses for doing away with un-Islamic practices. A few nobles took Sarhindi as
a potential threat to their status and started proclaiming him an atheist. Furthermore, they
instigated Jahangir against Sarhindi and urged him to take action against him, resulting in
Jahangir having Sarhindi imprisoned at the Fort of Gawaliar.

At last, wisdom dawned upon Jahangir and he released Sarhindi, befriended him
and presented due respect to him. Jahangir listened to his advices, and spared some time
after Maghrib prayers for discussing religious affairs with Sarhindi. He asked his son
Shah Jehan to become a spiritual disciple of Sarhindi.

Atheistic practices were rampant even in Jahangir’s era. Muslim spiritual leaders
and mystics followed the lines of Akbar and introduced various innovations in Islam. One
instance is that of Nizam Thanseri who ordered his disciples to bow down before him.
Sarhindi wrote a letter to him, admonishing him for this sinful act.
Mujaddid directed his efforts towards nobles and the rich, and advised them to influence
the emperor to keep a check and balance on his decrees, and to conform to the needs of
Islam. Sarhindi also requested Islamic scholars and saints to guide the Muslim masses
and the emperor towards the right path. He asked saints to give up un-Islamic practices.

At last, Mujaddid succeeded in convincing Jahangir to abolish Deen-e-Elahi and other

innovations introduced by his late father, which marred the face of true Islam.

Muslim Movements in the 18th and 19th Centuries

SHAH WALIULLAH (1703-1762):

Qutbuddin Ahmad, or Shah Waliullah as he is popularly known as, was born on
21 February 1703, 4 years before the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir, in a small village
near Pulth in Muzaffar Nagar District. His father, Shah Abd-ur-Rahim, was a lineal
descendent of Hazrat Umar and his mother came from the house of Hazrat Imam Musa

Shah Waliullah received his theological and mystical education from his father,
who was a great scholar and Sufi in his own right. Shah Abd-ur-Rahim had helped the
orthodox monarch of his time, Alamgir, in compilation of the well-known Fataawa-e-
Alamgiri. But Shah Abd-ur-Rahim was known for his abstinence from gaining benefits
from the monarch. He had established Madrassah-e-Rahimiya, where young Shah
Waliullah received his early education. Shah Waliullah later gave lectures in that
institution for 12 years, before leaving fro Arabia to further his studies and to perform the
Hajj pilgrimage.

Shah Waliullah studied at Medina for about 14 months, where he was greatly
influenced by Shaikh Ibn Tahir bin Ibrahim, a competent scholar. Under his supervision,
he learnt how to remove differing views wherever this could be achieved and to broaden
his horizon of viewing problems from different patterns. He returned to Delhi (India) on
9th July 1732 A.D. Then on, began the most fruitful period of his life. He died in
1762 A.D.

a) Translation of the Holy Quran:

Shah Waliullah believed that the Muslims could improve their life only by reaching and
taking guidance from the Holy Quran. He observed that most Muslims had become
distant from the holy Quran, the book of guidance, and rather regarded it like a divine
ritual just to be recited in a foreign language. He contemplated that the holy Quran was
limited to Mullah circles only, beyond the reach of a common Muslim. Hence, he
translated the holy Quran for the first time in Persian, the language understood by most of
the Muslims residing in the sub-continent at that time.

The translation in Persian paved way for translation in other languages. His sons, Shah
Rafi-ud-din and Shah Abdul Qadir translated the Holy Quran into Urdu.
b) Efforts for revival of Islamic society:
Shah Waliullah made his greatest mark on the moral and intellectual training of the
contemporary Muslim Society. He concluded that the reason for Muslim empire’s plight
and downfall is the lack of equilibrium in society. Due to economic, political and
sectarian maladjustments, there had arisen the imbalance between the functions and
performance of the different organs. There was little difference left between production
and consumption. The custodians had become parasites. He laid emphasis upon the
rectification of the state of affairs where the rulers had become a burden on public funds
and public economy. He believed that well-being of peasantry and craftsmen were the
basis of a sound economy.

Shah Waliullah laid special emphasis on principles of ADL and TAWAZUN (Justice and
Equilibrium), without which a society can not endure.

c) Efforts for socio-political integration:

Shah Waliullah elaborated that the principle of ADL is the very life of all political; and
social institutions. The maintenance of TAWAZUN, according to hi, is mainly dependent
upon healthy economic conditions. He implied that the health of economy is dependent
on removal of all forms of economic justice and tyranny, and the unjust distribution of
wealth creates a serious disequilibrium and produces serious conflicts in the society. In
such a situation where people must work like animals to earn a livelihood, the society is
prone to be doomed.

Shah Waliullah gave a logical theory of the social and political integration. He presented
his theory of IRTIFAQAAT (stages of human evolution), which had four stages of
development in the social structure, namely
1. Families
2. Villages
3. Cities / states
4. The great caliph.

In his view, the establishment of the Khilafah is the highest development of the political
society. Contrary to Ibn-e-Khaldun who believed that the establishment of Khilafah is the
starting point of revolution, Shah Waliullah observed that Khilafah is the culminating
point of a revolution, and emerges out of the anarchy of city/state.

d) Efforts for the survival of Mughal Empire:

After his return to India in 1732 A.D. from Arabia, Shah Waliullah saw rapid
disintegration of Mughal Empire. The Jats, the Sikhs, the Marathas and Nadir Shah,
among other elements, had brought down disaster on Mughal Empire. He understood
common man’s plight in such state of affairs and wrote letters powerful rulers to unite,
and prayed sincerely for Empire’s officials who upheld the cause. He urged Ahmad Shah
Abdali and Najibul Daula to put an end to the Maratha menace, prominently the most
formidable danger to Mughal Empire at that time. Shah Waliullah succeeded in
persuading Abdali and Daula to take up arms against Marathas, and in the 3rd Battle of
Panipat, in 1761 A.D., the Marathas had a devastating defeated, that crushed them
SHAH ABDUL AZIZ (1746-1824):
After the death of Shah Waliullah his son and successor, Shah Abdul Aziz took upon
himself his deceased father’s task. He continued on the teachings and patterns of his great
father, through bringing about the reforms in the society and establishing a centre to
implement his revolutionary program. The important persons of this movement were
Syed Ahmad Shaheed, Shah Ismail Shaheed, Molana Abdul Hai and Shah Ishaq.

a) Abdul Aziz’s Fatwa and his program:

After the completion of his preliminary work, Shah Aziz issued a Fatwa (religious
decree) to the effect that the whole of sub-continent had become Dar-ul-Harb (house of
atheism). Therefore, all the powers of Indian Muslims should unite their powers to
establish an Islamic government, or should emigrate.


Syed Ahmad Shaheed was born on November 29, 1786, at Rai Barelli (U.P.). He was a
weak student in his childhood and paid more heed to sports, games and outdoor activities.
Since childhood, that seemingly carefree child used to say that he would wage war
against atheists when he would grow up.

At the age if eighteen, he came to Delhi and became a pupil-disciple of Shah Abdul Aziz.
The teachings of Shah Abdul Aziz transformed the carefree youth into a passionate
believer in the teachings of the holy Quran and Hadith. During his stay at Delhi, he had
acquired the essential knowledge of Quran and Hadith, as well as learnt Persian. He
returned to his native town of Rai Barelli nearly after two years.

In 1821, Syed Ahmad Shaheed Barelvi went to Makkah from Calcutta to perform the
pilgrimage of Hajj and stayed there for two years. There, he met many scholars and
acquired knowledge about various Islamic movements working globally. He was inspired
with new thoughts and ideas. On his return to the Indian sub-continent on August 6th,
1823, he devoted himself to the religious and social reforms and preparation of Jihad. His
teachings may be classified into four heads,
1. Fight against corrupt practices and innovation
2. Attitude towards Taqleed (conformation) and Ijtihad (individual judgment)
3. Reforms of Sufism
4. Political aims and objectives.

Syed Ahmad Shaheed was a Sufi, but unlike other Sufis he did not belong to a single Sufi
school. He had initiative in Qadriya, Chishtiya, Naqshbandiya and Mujaddidiya and
admitted his followers into any one or all of these schools. In addition, he was the
founder of a movement called Mujahids.

a) Political Object of his movement:

According to the European historians, Syed Ahmad Shaheed’s political part was aimed
against the British. He was interested in the renaissance of Islam in the Indian sub-
continent in the religious as well as political spheres. Others believe that the movement
was exclusively led against the Sikhs who had forbidden Azaan (the call for prayers) and
who used to interfere with the Muslim religious practices in the Punjab and the North
West Frontier Province.

At the instance of Shah Abdul Aziz, he prepared for waging Jihad against the Sikhs. To
popularize the movement, he visited Gwalior, Tonk, Ajmer and other cities. He devised a
strategy to travel via Panipat, Karnal, Thaneswar, Sindh, Baluchistan and Afghanistan, to
gain strength from people participating for the cause along the way. Wilayat Ali, Inayat
Ali and Karamat Ali in the Central Provinces and Shah Ismail Shaheed and Abdul Hai
ion the N.W.F.P. joined his party and strengthened his hands.

b) Capture of Peshawar:

In 1826, Syed Ahmad Shaheed and his Mujahids conducted an offensive against the
Sikhs. The Sikhs were led by Budh Singh, a cousin of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Budh
Singh was defeated and a large number of Sikhs were killed in the action. From then on,
Mujahids attained a series of victories over Sikh armies for some time. Peshawar was
captured by the end of 1930.

Later, Ranjeet Singh sent an army under the leadership of General Ventura, a French
veteran military commander against the Mujahids. Ranjeet Singh did not stop at that; he
infiltrated his agents into the Mujahids’ camps to create disruptions and
misunderstandings against Syed Ahmad Shaheed’s religious views. Ranjeet Singh’s
machinations worked wonders and a number of Mujahids fell into the trap. But Syed
Ahmad Shaheed focused on the task in hand and met the Sikh forces at Balakot (in
Abbottabad District) in 1831. A severe battle was fought in which Syed Ahmad Shaheed,
Shah Ismail Shaheed and many other leaders of the movement died a martyr’s death.

Their death for the cause of Muslims inspired many generations to come and Dr. Sachin
Sen, author of the “Birth of Pakistan”, rightly said in the book that the movement led by
Barelvi is the precursor of the later Muslim National Movement in the Indian sub-

d) Causes of the failure of the movement:

There were serious causes for the failure of Syed Ahmad Shaheed’s collective cause.
There was absence of cooperation between Syed’s Mujahids and the local populace, lack
of proper funds, poor war equipment and of proper military training, the sectarian
propaganda against the reforms introduced by followers of Syed Ahmad Shaheed and the
dissension created by Ranjeet Singh among the Pathan allies of Syed.

Though the movement received a great setback at Balakot, Syed Ahmad Shaheed’s task
was forwarded later by Wilayat Ali of Patna. The subsequent extension of the British
power over the Punjab brought the Mujahids into direct conflict with British, resulting in
defeating former after a series of battles.

W.W. Hunter and some other writers try to link Syed Ahmad Shaheed’s movement with
the Wahhabi movement in Arabia, started by Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab of Najd in
late 18th century. But this argument is implausible as the teachings of Syed Ahmad
Shaheed differed from that of Wahhabi’s. The basic argument against this accusation is
that Wahhabis were dislodged from Hijaz before his arrival in Makkah. Apart from that,
Syed’s moderate views on Taqleed and his attitude towards Sufism may be cited as
examples. He followed middle course regarding Taqleed and Sufism while Wahhabis
rejected both absolutely.


Haji Shariatullah was the founder of Farayezi Movement in East Bengal, in the first-half
of the 19th century. Haji Shariatullah was born in the district of Faridpur in 1768. He
became a master of various subjects at an early age and was regarded as a great scholar.
At the age of 18, he went on pilgrimage to Makkah where he received his training under
Shaikh Tahir. After 20 years, he came back to his country and started his reform
movement, known as Farayezi Movement. He urged his people to return to fulfilling the
religious duties or Farayez. Hence, his followers were known as Farayez.

The conditions of Bengali Muslims were miserable at that time. The British biased policy
had put Muslims into repression and they had become economically and educationally
crippled. The oppression of the landlords made their lives agonizing. Besides, they had
become greatly influenced by Hindus and they sunk in various superstitions and un-
Islamic practices.

Haji Shariatullah dedicated himself to reform the cancerous social evils and alleviate the
plight of Muslims, and he made it the goal of his life to reawaken the true sense of Islam
in the subjugated Bengali Muslim minds.

a) Haji Shariatullah’s reforms:

Haji Shariatullah stressed upon the need of giving up un-Islamic practices and
superstitions. Due to his sincere efforts, people started approving of his teachings and
retu7rned gradually to fulfilling Farayez or religious duties. He established the common
relation of Ustad and Shagird, instead of then popular tradition of Peer and Mureed. He
was against Taziya processions in Muharram and dancing at the time of wedding

Another dimension of his movement was directed against the oppression of feudal lords,
or Zamindars. He followed in the footsteps of Shah Abdul Aziz and declared the Indian
sub-continent as Dar-ul-Harb (the home of atheists) where Friday and Eid prayers could
not be offered publicly. The revolutionary teachings of Haji Shariatullah gave new rise to
the oppressed Bengali Muslims and turned into a Jihad against the feudal-religious
subjugation. His doctrines propagated especially among peasants. He can rightly be
called as the founder of Muslim Renaissance in Bengal.
TITU MIR (1782-1832):
Mir Nasir Ali, popularly known as Titu Mir, was born in 1782 in the district of Twenty-
Four Parganahs. Since an early age, his aim of life was to revive the past glory of
Muslims and he was greatly moved by the suffering of Muslims of Bengal. While Syed
Ahmad Shaheed was fighting against the Sikhs in the NWFP, Titu Mir was carrying on
the work of reformation among the Muslims of Bengal.

In 1819, Titu Mir visited Makkah for Hajj pilgrimage, and met Syed Ahmad Shaheed
there. He was greatly inspired by Syed Ahmad Shaheed and his Doctrine of
Independence. When he returned to his country, he busied himself in propagating the
work of Syed Ahmad. Within a short span of time, a large number of people became his
followers and Narkelbaria, a village near Calcutta was made the centre of his activities.
He also made a fort of bamboos at Narkelbaria, collected war materials, and appointed
Masum Khan the commander of his forces and Miskin Shah his advisor.

a) Titu’s war against the Zamindars of Bengal:

Titu’s followers came into the limelight for the first time when they refused to bow down
to the demeaning rule of the Zamindars, paying tax for keeping beard. It is an obligation
on Muslims to keep beards and this law was specifically targeted at Muslims.

The Zamindars had the rebellious peasants arrested and they were maltreated. Although
the peasantry sought justice from British courts, but to no avail. The Zamindar fraternity
was too strong and had close bonds with the higher-ups in Calcutta, thus the plea of
peasants was shrugged off. As they were reduced to desperation, they gathered in a
village and barricaded themselves behind a bamboo stockade.

On 19th November, 1831, after the disaster of Balakot had overtaken the significant
Muslim leaders, the police conducted raids on them on behest of the feudal lords, but the
peasants resisted vehemently. Ultimately, the British troops marched towards the bamboo
stockade; the peasants were no match for trained and well-equipped troops. Although
they gave them a tough time, but subsequently fell one by one. Around fifty of the
resisting peasants died, along with their leaders. Their bodies were desecrated and burnt;
their houses were looted and put on fire; their families were nabbed along with other
innocent sympathizers. The fate of Titu Mir did not deter the followers of Syed Ahmad
Shaheed or Titu Mir from spreading their teachings assiduously among other Bengali