As soon as he finished his education at Deoband, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi took up the job of a teacher in the Madrasa Faiz-e-Aam, Kanpur. Apart from teaching, he was supposed to lead prayers and give waz (sermons). As was the practice in the new era, when donations from people of new professions had replaced the traditional patterns of patronage, the waa’iz (sermoniser) was expected to appeal for chanda (donation) during his waz. However, Thanvi did not like it for several reasons. He did not deny the need of the madrasa to collect donations, but he thought that it was not becoming of a teacher, engaged on a monthly salary, to make an effort for chanda. Besides, he came from a well-off, new-rich family and believed that this kind of an economic and social background suited a religious leader, not to mention the correct lineage, which, in his view, was essential for social impact. However, he spent 14 years teaching at the Kanpur madrasa before establishing his own seat at his ancestral town of Thana Bhavan.
Being a product of Deoband, Thanvi was a strong proponent of cleansing the Indian Muslims’ religion of the locally developed forms of devotional and social practices and rituals. The influence of Muhammad ibn Abdal Wahhab (1703–1792) of Najd had reached the subcontinent mainly through Shah Ismail (1779–1831), who wrote a book called Taqwiyyat-ul Iman, which has been shown to be a more or less an exact Urdu translation of a risala by Wahhab. As the latter had taken a hard, rigid and violent stand against the practiced form of religion which in his view was to be abandoned in favour of a ‘puritan’ form. Wahhab’s (and Shah Ismail’s) detractors said that the ‘puritan’ Islam was nothing but a modern invention with specific political and social purposes.
This line of religious argument was useful for the Deoband school because the prominent maulvis associated with it wanted to campaign against the local content of the lived religion, although they did not at all wish to touch — let alone demolish — the system of caste hierarchy. (This hierarchy, practiced in the Hindu society following the teachings of a religious scripture called Manusmriti or Laws of Manu, was followed into the division of the South Asian Muslim society into Ashraaf, Ajlaaf and Arzaal, referring to the supposedly upper, middle and lower castes, respectively, according to their ancestral professions.)
In the local, lived Islam in the subcontinent, the converted people’s devotion to the saints of the past several centuries was an important aspect. The dargahs of the deceased saints (pirs) used to – and still – play a central role in the religious life of Muslim communities. This had gradually become a family profession of the descendants of those saints (Pirzadas) — all of them belonging to the Ashraaf castes, mostly Syed. The modern ‘reformist’ maulvis, belonging to Deoband and other schools of religious thought, wanted to change this state of affairs and turn it in their favour. There is a clear difference between a genuine urge for social reform and a professional rivalry with those who have been traditional beneficiaries of the local religious practices. The modern maulvis did not want the practice of monetary exploitation of the devotees to be eliminated; they just wanted the madrasa to replace the dargah as the centre of religious life of the Muslims of South Asia.
There is a revealing incident mentioned in the ‘official’ biography of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, Ashraf-us-Sawaneh, which illuminates the point mentioned above. Here it goes:
Somewhere in Marwar [where Thanvi had gone to give a waz], one Pirzada came to attend accompanied by an alim with the purpose that if there was something against the profession of Pirzadas in the sermon, he should challenge it by way of munazra (debate), because the Pirzada was worried that his followers might get influenced by what Thanvi was going to sermonise. During the sermon, Thanvi said: It is a right of the descendants of holy men (buzurgon ki aulad) that they should receive monetary offerings (maali khidmat) from their followers, but the Pirzadas should not be asked to give religious guidance (deeni khidmat). On the other hand, maulvis should be asked to provide deeni khidmat, but they should not be offered maali khidmat, as they don’t need it. Maulvis earn their living on their own, but the buzurg-zadas have no other option but to depend on the offerings of their devotees. This line of reasoning pleased the Pirzada and once the sermon was over, instead of challenging him with a munazra, he came and kissed Thanvi’s hands. After narrating this anecdote, Thanvi commented: The Pirzada felt happy in vain, because he did not understand how I had cut his roots (un ki jar ki kaat di) because if people receive religious guidance from maulvis, they will offer maali khidmat to them and not to Pirzadas.
Abdul Haq, Thanvi’s father, had decided what professions his two sons were going to pursue. He had predicted that although his younger son, Akbar Ali, with the help of his ‘Angrezi taleem’, would be better placed to make money and acquire social status in the modern era, his elder son, Ashraf Ali, with his ‘Arabi taleem’, would also achieve a status where people having wealth and social standing would find a place near his shoes. Even before Abdul Haq, the majzoob, who had predicted Thanvi’s birth and survival, had also declared: one of the two sons would belong to me, he would be a maulvi, and the other would be a dunyadar (a worldly man). Needless to say, both brothers did reasonably well in their respective professions chosen for them. While Akbar Ali served the British colonial administration in various capacities at the municipal and provincial level, including that of deputy superintendent of police and secretary of the Bareilly municipality, Ashraf Ali excelled in his career as a prominent maulvi of the modern times.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 24th, 2011.
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