I felt the urge to write having recently read a blog titled, ‘Aurangzeb: the Salafi Mughal Emperor‘. The blog I thought was a good demonstration of revisionism taking hold of history as it claimed that the so-called Salafi way defined the 6th, and perhaps most devout, Mughal Emperor – Muhiyuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707). Lacking nuance, research and contextualisation, I felt the article was well-tuned into the Information Age’s no end to all kinds of misinformation and opinions on the internet. Initially, it caught my attention because it triggered the memory of a pamphlet I read some 17 or so years ago which similarly claimed that the Indian scholar Shah Waliyullah al-Dihlawi (1703-1762) was a Salafi. Déjà vu aside, unlike then, I felt it was necessary to help readers unfamiliar with Mughal history to recognise the need for nuance and corroboration to avoid producing crass articles that so often masquerade as authoritative.
‘A Salafi,’ according to the article, ‘is someone who believes in strict monotheism, that nothing can be added to Islam after the Prophet and that the first three generations of Muslims (the Salaf) ought to be emulated.’ Curiously, by this definition, to be Salafi one isn’t required to live in the time of the first three generations, but by merely following those who did. Though, by the same logic few would ever claim to be a Sahabi by following the Sahabah as it were, and rightly so. A Sahabi is of course a special designation of a believer who saw the Prophet in person. It seems odd, too, the tendency not to identify with Khalafi as an admission of being latter day Muslims. A term that arguably seems more in tune with our inherent lack of spiritual character requiring humility, particularly in the face of a universalising modernity.
And, I’m not convinced if the term Salafi can truthfully differentiate one group of Muslims over another. After all, it’s virtually unheard of to find a Muslim who doesn’t believe in Islam as a purely monotheistic (tawhid) faith or doesn’t consider the first three generations as rightfully to be followed in matters of religion.
There is then the equally contentious shorthand label, ahl al-hadith, which the article defines as, a ‘follower of the Prophet’s Hadeeth (words or actions).’ As it turns out, so the article states, ahl al-hadith is just another term for Salafi. Yet, oddly, many Muslims today happily identify themselves as people who follow hadith but not ahl al-hadith. There are good reasons for this.
Terms like Salafi, ahl al-hadith and the many other shorthand identity labels are highly contentious, misused and mean different things to different people in different periods. As such, their use requires contextualising both to the times they applied to and the purpose they served. For example, the Kufan school of Sacred Law (fiqh) in classical Muslim civilisation was known by some as ahl al-ra’y (“the people of opinion”) in contradistinction to the label ahl al-hadith. Over time, such dichotomy became muted with the realisation that both juristic reasoning/opinion and hadith are more or less relied upon by all reputable scholars, and have always been so. The tendency today, however, is that such terms are abused in the politics of religious authenticity and self-righteousness.
The article doesn’t provide a definition for Sufi or Sufism which seems somewhat careless given that Salafi and ahl al-hadith (for which definitions are provided), are framed in antonymic fashion to Sufism. From what I know (and I accept I can be wrong), the term Sufi can express at least four different forms – which shouldn’t be crudely grouped together as if they were all one and the same, as they are in this article: 1) charlatan Sufis [i]; 2) mainstream Sufis; 3) those who identify with Sufi scholars but are themselves indifferent to its methods; and 4) those who others deem pious using the term Sufi sometimes as an expression of ridicule or dissatisfaction.
The article, rightly, describes Emperor Aurangzeb as a devout man of faith (iman). My own notes have him down as: “always prayed in congregation (jama’at), strictly adhered to Hanafi fiqh, memorised the Qur’an after becoming Emperor, authored (arba’een) collections of hadith, wrote the entire copy of the Qur’an (mashaf) in his own handwriting, observed i’tikaaf, habitually fasted on the days of ayyam al-bidh, payed zakat (charitable tax) on his own wealth, confronted a lion at the age of 14, didn’t wear silk or listen to musical instruments” and so on.[ii] Yet despite being a strict Hanafi and commissioning the multi-volume text of Hanafi edicts known as Fatawa ‘Alamgiri or Fatawa Hindiyyah, the article claims Aurangzeb adhered “to the grain of Salafiyyah.”
Rather than see this for what it was, the article seeks to explain away the real significance of the apparent contradictions. Drawing parallel with Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792), who the article states was himself Hanbali in fiqh yet had unquestionable “Salafi” credentials because he, like Emperor Aurangzeb, “fought against polytheism (shirk) and bidah [innovation].” The article implies that because the different schools of fiqh weren’t available for Aurangzeb in seventeenth century India, identifying Aurangzeb as “Salafi” would still be accurate. Even if for a moment we accept this, it still seems a little odd that someone could be ahl al-hadith yet not make reference to hadith in a major codification of their fiqh.
The article then goes on to make subtly disparaging remarks about how the spread of Hanafi fiqh was due to the appointment of Hanafi State Judges who refused to allow other schools of fiqh to grow, which, in turn meant that ordinary people couldn’t choose alternative fiqh. What seems missing in this line of thinking is that the early Hanafi fiqh showed consistency and inductive power to organise Sacred Law. For instance, it made use of hypothetical cases, which enabled them [the ‘ulama] to test principles and procedures, and attained them [the ‘ulama] to apply them consistently. As a result, it wasn’t surprising that the early Hanafi fiqh became the adopted fiqh of the Abbasid state (as did the Ottomans, Mughals and many other dynasties). After all, it was for state officials to institute things that they thought were in the best interest of the state.
The article then boldly claims that Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani and a list of other scholars were all Salafi. Just how Abdul Qadir Jilani, the very scholar who initiated the central Sufi practice of giving allegiance (bay’ah) to a spiritual mentor figure, could be Salafi is puzzling to say the least.
In fact, the overwhelming historical evidence pinpoints Aurangzeb as a “zinda pir” (“living saint”). He was a disciple of the Sufi Khwaja Muhammad Ma’sum, who was a deputy (khalifah) of Muhammad Tahir Lahori. Muhammad Tahir Lahori, in turn, was a Sufi disciple to one of India’s greatest Sufis and renovator (mujaddid) Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624). In other words, Aurangzeb was initiated into the well known chain of the Naqshabandi Sufi order (tariqah) whose spiritual lineage in the Subcontinent traces through Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi. Moreover, it seems, Aurangzeb was in close contact with many renowned Naqshbandi Sufis. Khwaja Muhammad Ma’sum, for example, frequently visited Aurangzeb, and whose sons were close friends. [iii] Aurangzeb is reported to have even given expensive gifts to them and visited them in Sirhind. He is also reported to have read Imam al-Ghazzali’s Ihya ‘Ulum ad-Din to a scholar by the name Sa’id Mulla Jiwan. Moreover, amongst the working group of leading scholars commissioned to compile the Fatawa ‘Alamgiri, there were many famous Sufi scholars; including the likes of Sheikh Abdur Rahim, founder of the famous Madrasah Rahimiyyah in Delhi, as well as father and Naqshabandi Sufi teacher of Shah Waliyullah al-Dihlawi.
Hence, the idea that Aurangzeb was against Sufism per se is simply not true. To understand Aurangzeb one would need to understand the religious discourse and social polity of his time. It might explain why Aurangzeb took a stricter line on things in line with the legacy of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi’s efforts to, amongst other things, maintain mainstream Sufism’s conformity to the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Having considered these points, it’s clear in my mind that unnuanced, retrograde fitting of significant historical figures into today’s popular, contentious labels of Sufi, Salafi or ahl al-hadith (or other identity labels – the ones I’ve used here are just for illustration), is to unwittingly revise history using shorthand terms that are current reflexes in the politics of religious identity and authenticity today.
The wider import is the need for nuance, consistency and accurate use of terms like Sufi, Salafi, ahl al-hadith etc., not by presenting filtered definitions that trap us into the politics of face-value identity, but rather, by looking at their real socio-religious contexts and experiences. The intrinsic pluralism and complexity of religious life within Muslim communities in modernity requires thorough investigation and reconciling conflicting viewpoints by teasing out intelligible nuances. Academic rigour in such matters will no doubt help Muslim communities develop greater understanding and respect for differences of opinion and to come together in mutual service and benefit.
[i] Sufis who do not adhere to the Shari’ah in many aspects of belief and religious law, and are not considered mainstream Sufis.
[ii] Personal notes from classes on Fatawa al-‘Alamghiriyyah with Sheikh Akram Nadwi.
[iii] Ibid, p281-291. Also known as Imam Rabbani and/or Mujaddid Alfe Thani – “the renovator of the second millennium.”