Daily Archives: 19 February 2020

Muslims Against the Mughals, 1850s

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 75-77:

JUST AS MILITANT Christians were a growing force among the British in the early 1850s, so among Delhi’s Muslims there was a parallel rise in rigid fundamentalism that displayed the same utter certainty and disdain for the faiths of others, as well as a similar willingness to use force against the infidel.

If the great abolitionist William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect had helped generate the spread of fundamentalist Evangelical attitudes in English Christianity, on the Muslim side the father of the radical Islamic reform movement was Shah Waliullah, an eighteenth-century Delhi divine who had gone to study at Medina in the Hejaz at the same time as Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Arabian Wahhabis. While there is no evidence that the two ever met, they shared an almost identical theology, and when he returned to India, Shah Waliullah quickly declared war on what he saw as the perverted and deviant interpretations of Islam practiced in Delhi.

Shah Waliullah and his sons—notably William Fraser’s friend Shah Abdul Aziz—strongly opposed the Sufi veneration of saints, which they likened to idol worship, and were especially outspoken about the syncretic practices they believed Indian Muslims had picked up from their Hindu neighbours: making pilgrimages to Hindu holy places, consulting Hindu astrologers, piercing the noses of women for nose studs, lighting lamps on tombs, playing music in holy places, and celebrating Hindu festivals. Even the practice of eating on banana leaves was anathematised. The Shah’s solution was to strip out all non-Islamic accretions and innovations, and to emphasise instead a strictly Koranic monotheism in which prayers could be directed only to God, and never through any saintly intermediary.

Judging human reason to be incapable of reaching divine truth on its own, Shah Waliullah emphasised the importance of revealed divine revelation and urged a return to the text of the Koran and the Hadiths. In order to make those texts easily available to ordinary people, the Shah translated the Koran into Persian while his sons later translated it into Urdu and disseminated both translations through the new Delhi printing presses. Like the Wahhabis, Shah Waliullah also opposed what he saw as the corrupt Muslim rulers of his day, and from his family stronghold in the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya he and his sons and grandsons encouraged Delhiwallahs to defy what he perceived as the decadence of the Mughals and not behave like “camels with strings in their noses.”

Shah Waliullah’s dislike of the Mughals was as much theological as political. For generations the Mughal emperors had intermarried with Hindus—Zafar was quite typical in having a Rajput mother—and the slow seepage of Hindu ideas and customs from the harem into the rest of the Palace had led the later Mughal emperors to subscribe to a particularly tolerant and syncretic form of Sufi Islam, aligned to the liberal Chishti brotherhood, at the very opposite end of the theological spectrum from the hard-line views of Shah Waliullah; many fundamentalists regarded such liberal views as bordering on infidelity—kufr.

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