The Rejecters of Hadith

Book: Questioning the Authority of the Past - The Ahl al-Qur’an Movements in the Punjab
Author: Ali Usman Qasmi
Place: Karachi, Pakistan
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year of Publication: 2011
Pages: 348

Muhammad Ali

Modern scholarly researches have widened the scope of looking deep into human behaviour concerning religions, societies, politics, economics, etc., formulating theses, antitheses and syntheses. It is a continuing process of interpreting the relationship between man and the phenomenal development happening in this world. With regard to the study on Islamic religious traditions, the work under review has added a fresh contribution to this process. In South Asia, Islamic history has throughout the years run a peculiar process of development, evolving into an amalgam of scriptural, foreign and native traditions. During the colonial and post-colonial periods the diversity in the South Asian Islamic traditions became not only more discernible, but also more rigid. Until the late 20th century, the approach toward South Asian Islam had solely been based on analysing textual sources and deriving opinion thereof. The underlying assumption of this approach was to consider “Islam as a closed system of well-defined beliefs and practices, and Muslims as a monolithic community which exhibits a remarkable uniformity of outlook and shares a considerable amount of religious and doctrinal values.” A more open approach to the diverse and heterogeneous Islam in South Asia started developing after that. However, the author differs from the attitude of these modern researchers on the point of their dichotomous and gradational terms/labelson the diverse religious traditions in Islam, with binaries as “orthodox-heterodox, or scriptural/normative and popular/folk or local/customary Islam.” Instead, he prefers the usage of “Islamic religious traditions” as a more suitable term in their place. This very approach has allowed the author to study the history and vitality of the Ahl al-Qur’an movement as distinguished from the rest of the Sunni and Shiite Islam, which emerged during colonial India. The book claims that until recent years there was no considerable work done within Western academia telling the stories of these movements.

The tendencies of Ahl al-Qur’an implies a belief in the Qur’an as the sole religious authority in deriving the articles of faith while rejecting the authority of sub-standard texts, including that of the Prophet, which have been a binding source for normative interpretation of Islam for centuries. It should be noted here that the founders of these movements, i.e., Abdullah Chakralawi, Khwaja Ahmed-ud-Din Amritsari and Ghulam Ahmed Parwez, whose ideas and interpretations of Islam are the subject-matter of this book, differ and contradict each other in their approaches and respective stances. Some interesting points can be drawn from the discussion in the book. One is: the scepticism about the authenticity of Hadith literature, which emerged during the late 19th century because of the critical works of Orientalists on Hadith literature, and the assaults of the Christian and Hindu missionaries on Islam and its Prophet. This compelled the Muslim intelligentsia to revise the corpus of Hadith literature. The later development culminated into the complete rejection of the hadith literature on the pretext of its historical inauthenticity, thus, holding it as unworthy for drawing religious interpretation. The third phase of this development is contextualized in the early political history of the nascent state of Pakistan. During this period, the ideology of Ahl al-Qur’an was deemed favourable to the power elites of Pakistan and those who did not want mullahs to exercise power in the political and legal domains. Their rejection of all the authorities of the past except the Qur’an challenged the long-time established authority of ulama as the expounders of Islam. Moreover, the tendencies of Ahl al-Qur’an proved their vitality by giving a vast scope for modernists to interpret the words of the Qur’an afresh. By recognition of a distinction between the so-called permanent values of Islam and mutability of its impermanent values, they allowed for dynamism in amendment of Islamic laws and made scope for fresh legislation more adjustable in the new world. In fact, the tendencies of Ahl al-Qur’an can be regarded as the precursors of the Islamic modernism. Though the book presents an exhaustive study of the movements (putting them into historical and socio-political contexts, exploring the primary works of the founders, along with the conflicts with the rival group, Ahl-e-Hadith), it is lacking in details on the conflicts with other rival groups, such as the Deobandis and the Barelwis. Studying the Ahl al-Qur’an within this context would also reveal more interesting facts of the position they constituted among the majority of traditional Muslims. Furthermore, the book does not touch upon the later development of the Ahl al-Qur’an tendencies after the removal of Ayub Khan from power in 1969, under the third significant founder-ideologue of Ahl al-Qur’an movement, Gulam Ahmed Parvez, who died in 1986.

However, these are minor concerns. The book as a whole is the embodiment of thorough research and is suitable for students of Islamic Studies and Muslim history of the subcontinent.