Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan  رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ : Life of a Muslim Scholar

Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ : Life of a Muslim Scholar

(pic : the grave if Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ)

By Usha Sanyal

Maulana Ahmad Riza Khan رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ was born in Bareilly, in the western United Provinces, in 1856, just a year before the great Indian Revolt. A story is told about his grandfather, Maulana Riza ‘Ali Khan (1809–65/66), relating to the British resumption of control over Bareilly after the Revolt had been put down in that town:

After the tumult of 1857, the British tightened the reins of
power and committed atrocities toward the people, and
everybody went about feeling scared. Important people left
their houses and went back to their villages. But Maulana Riza
‘Ali Khan continued to live in his house as before, and would
go to the mosque five times a day to say his prayers in
congregation. One day some Englishmen passed by the
mosque, and decided to see if there was anyone inside so they
could catch hold of them and beat them up.They went inside
and looked around but didn’t see anyone.Yet the Maulana was
there at the time.Allah had made them blind, so that they
would be unable to see him. … [When] he came out of the
mosque, they were still watching out for people, but no one
saw him. (Bihari, 1938: 5)


Bihari goes on to quote the Qur’anic verse,“And We shall raise a barrier in front of them and a barrier behind them, and cover them over so that they will not be able to see” (36: 9,Ahmed
‘Ali translation).

The story is interesting at many levels. It casts Maulana Riza ‘Ali as a fierce opponent of the British who put his trust in God instead of fleeing and who was so holy and so good that God protected him,blinding the enemy to his presence.This miracle, for so it was described (karamat),was a sign of his eminence as a sufi (mystic).The title of Maulana before his name shows that he was also a religious scholar (faqih). Or, to put it another way, he didn’t just practice his faith by meticulously adhering to the Law (shari‘a), he also lived it and breathed it in his inner being.

Ahmad Riza Khan’s family had not always been associated with religious learning. His ancestors were Pathans who had probably migrated from Qandahar (in present-day Afghanistan) in the seventeenth century, joining Mughal service as soldiers and administrators. One family member eventually settled down in Bareilly, where he was awarded a land grant by the Mughal ruler.There followed a brief interlude in Awadh, when Ahmad Riza Khan’s great-grandfather served the nawab in Lucknow, probably in the late 1700s, when Mughal power was in decline and Awadh in the ascendant.The nawab is said to have given Hafiz Kazim ‘Ali Khan, Ahmad Riza’s great-grandfather, two revenue-free properties.These properties were in the family’s possession until 1954 (Hasnain Riza Khan, 1986: 40–41).

We know that Hafiz Kazim ‘Ali later returned to Bareilly, for that is where his son Riza ‘Ali (Ahmad Riza’s grandfather) grew up. It was Riza ‘Ali who made the break from soldiering and state administration to become a scholar and sufi. In the early nineteenth century, at a time when Muslim states all over India were bowing to British power, the opportunities for a soldier who sought a Muslim patron were diminishing rapidly. Riza ‘Ali was educated at Tonk,the only Muslim state in central India (where, as mentioned in the previous chapter, Sayyid Ahmad had been a soldier in the ruler’s army in the 1820s). After completing his study of the Dars-i Nizami syllabus there by the age of twenty-three, he returned to Bareilly and made his reputation as a scholar.

Ahmad Riza’s father, Naqi ‘Ali Khan (1831–80), carried on the scholarly tradition begun by his father, while also looking after the family properties. By this time the family owned several villages in the adjoining districts of Bareilly and Badayun. The Revolt of 1857 did not affect the family significantly, though some property in Rampur was lost in its aftermath because of failure to find the title deeds and prove ownership to the British. Relations with the British appear to have been indirect but cordial.Ahmad Riza’s nephew Hasnain Riza owned a printing press which later published many of Ahmad Riza’s writings. Hasnain Riza reportedly collected certain fees from the police tribunal for the British, acted as arbitrator between Muslims in the town, and mediated between them and the British on occasion. He did not, however, work for the British in an official capacity.

The family also had close ties with officials in Rampur state, which, as noted in chapter 1, retained its independence under a Muslim nawab throughout the period of British rule.Thus, for instance, Ahmad Riza’s father-in-law was an employee at the Rampur Post Office, and attended the nawab’s court (Hasnain Riza Khan, 1986: 152). Rampur’s nawabs had been Shi‘is since the 1840s – all but one, that is: Kalb ‘Ali Khan (r. 1865–87) who was a Sunni.


Maulana Ahmad Riza’s رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ Education and Scholarly Training 

Maulana Ahmad Riza’s رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰ most important teacher was his father. He studied the Dars-i Nizami syllabus under his direction, and imbibed from him the rationalist tradition. The pattern of a student studying specific books under a single teacher, whether in an institution such as a madrasa (seminary) or at the teacher’s home, was traditional throughout the Muslim world. At the end of the period of study, the teacher would give the pupil a certificate (sanad) stating that the student had studied certain books under his direction (including glosses and commentaries thereon) and giving him permission (ijaza) to teach these in turn. Thereafter, if he so wished, the student could continue his studies under another teacher, with whom he would remain until he had obtained another certificate testifying to competence in another set of books. Chains of transmission of authority – recorded in writing at the end of a period of study – were thus established between individual teachers and their students, for each teacher received the authority to teach from the one who had taught him. Over time, these chains of authority linked a vast network of ‘ulama in different parts of the country (for an example of such a chain of ma‘qulat scholars, see Robinson 2001: 52–53).

Not surprisingly, in view of the strong ties between teachers and their students, the intellectual positions taken by the former often stamped themselves indelibly on the minds of the latter. So it was with Ahmad Riza Khan. His father’s stand on a number of theological issues in the mid-nineteenth century later also became his own.


Scholarly Imprint of his Father

One of the well-known debates of the early nineteenth century dealt with God’s omnipotence. Some ‘ulama argued that God had the power,should He so wish,to create another prophet like Muhammad.Thus, Muhammad Isma’il, author of the Taqwiyat al-Iman (Strengthening the Faith), had written in the 1820s:

in a twinkling, solely by pronouncing the word “Be!” [God
could], if he like[d], create crores [tens of millions] of
apostles, saints, genii, and angels, of similar ranks with
Gabriel and Muhammad, or produce a total subversion of
the whole universe, and supply its place with new creations.
(Mir Shahamat ‘Ali, tr. (modified), 1852: 339)

This statement – known as imkan-e nazir, the possibility of an equal (of the Prophet) – was made in the context of tawhid, as an illustration of God’s power. It was strongly opposed by Maulana Fazl-e Haqq Khairabadi, whose presence at the Madrasa ‘Aliyya at Rampur and association with the rationalist position in ‘ulama circles were mentioned earlier. Maulana Fazl-e Haqq – taking a position known as imtina’-e nazir, or impossibility of an equal – argued that even God could not produce another prophet like the Prophet Muhammad.

A generation later,in the 1850s and 1860s the two views were expressed again, both verbally and in print, with Naqi ‘Ali Khan, Ahmad Riza’s father, echoing Maulana Fazl-e Haqq Khairabadi’s position.In the 1890s,Ahmad Riza Khan himself wrote a responsum (fatwa) in which the focus of discussion was no longer on God’s transcendental power but rather on the uniqueness of the Prophet.Arguing that it was impossible for anyone ever to equal the Prophet (not only in this world but in any of the six levels of the earth believed to exist apart from this one), he declared that to maintain otherwise amounted to denial of the finality of his prophethood and thus to kufr, unbelief. Although the terms of debate had shifted from a discussion of God’s powers to Muhammad’s prophethood,Ahmad Riza’s stance on this issue, as on others as well,was clearly influenced by his father.


Exemplary Stories

Ahmad Riza’s biographer, Zafar ud-Din Bihari, records a number of stories about Ahmad Riza’s spiritual and intellectual accomplishments as a child. Each of them illustrates a distinctive aspect of the way his followers came to see him in later life. Thus, when learning the Arabic alphabet from his grandfather, Ahmad Riza is said to have instinctively understood the deeper significance of the letter “la” – a composite letter with which the attestation of faith (the kalima or shahada, lit. “witness”) begins. He grasped not only its outward meaning, that related to the Oneness of God, but also its inner, gnostic meaning, communicated to him by his grandfather.This story is significant in light of the fact that Ahmad Riza went on to become both an ‘alim or scholar of Islamic law, and a sufi or mystic seeker of God.

Other stories claim that at four,Ahmad Riza had memorized the entire Qur’an by heart, and at six he addressed a gathering of worshipers at the mosque from the pulpit on the occasion of  the Prophet’s birthday (an annual celebration at which he addressed large crowds from the mosque in later years).When studying the Dars-i Nizami from his father he showed that he had outstripped him in knowledge by answering a criticism noted by him on the margins. His father was very happy to see this and embraced him. And when he was fourteen – much younger than most scholars in a comparable situation – and had finished his studies in both the rational (ma‘qulat) and copied (manqulat) sciences, his father entrusted him with a great responsibility, that of writing fatawa (Bihari,1938:11,31–33). This was to be the hallmark of his later career as a scholar.The number of fatawa he wrote from then until his death in 1921 was said to be in the thousands.

Ahmad Riza’s superiority of intellect to other ‘ulama far older than him is also illustrated in several stories. Shortly after his marriage, when he was about twenty, he gave an opinion that contradicted that of a famous scholar at the Rampur court, Maulana Irshad Hussain Rampuri.The nawab noticed this and upon enquiry discovered that Ahmad Riza was the son-in-law of one of his courtiers. So he asked to meet him (Bihari, 1938: 135).  Accordingly,Ahmad Riza Khan came to court.Impressed by both his youth and his erudition, the nawab suggested that Ahmad Riza would profit by studying under the famous Maulana ‘Abd ul-Haqq Khairabadi, who had a reputation as a scholar of logic and who attended the Rampur court. Ahmad Riza replied that if his father gave his permission, he would be happy to stay in Rampur for a few days and study with ‘Abd ul-Haqq. Just then ‘Abd ul-Haqq himself came into the room.

The story continues:

Maulana ‘Abd ul-Haqq believed that there were only two and
a half ‘ulama in the world: one, Maulana Bahr ul-‘Ulum [‘Abd
al-‘Ali of Farangi Mahall, d. 1810–11], the second, his father
[Fazl-e Haqq Khairabadi, d. 1861], and the last half, himself.
How could he tolerate this young boy being called an ‘alim?
He asked Ahmad Riza:Which is the most advanced book you
have read in logic?
Ahmad Riza answered: Qazi mubarak.
He then asked: Have you read Sharah tahzib?
Ahmad Riza Khan, hearing the derision in his voice, asked:
Oh, do you teach Sharah tahzib after Qazi mubarak over here?
[‘Abd ul-Haqq decided to try a different approach. He asked:]
What are you working on right now?
Ahmad Riza:Teaching, writing of fatawa, and writing.
‘Abd ul-Haqq: In what field do you write?
Ahmad Riza: Legal questions (masa’il ), religious sciences
(diniyat), and rebuttal ofWahhabis (radd-e wahhabiyya).
‘Abd ul-Haqq: Rebuttal ofWahhabis? [A discussion about the
best authority in this field of disputation followed, at the end
of which ‘Abd ul-Haqq fell silent.] (Bihari, 1938: 33–34)


The tone of the exchange leaves the reader in no doubt as to the winner. Ahmad Riza Khan had defeated ‘Abd ul-Haqq Khairabadi, who belonged to an eminent family of ‘ulama in the ma‘qulat tradition, with links to Farangi Mahall. Robinson goes so far as to say that the Farangi Mahalli family’s “impact in northern India … was intensified by the development of a powerful offshoot, another great school specializing in ma‘qulat scholarship, that of Khayrabad in western Awadh, whose notable scholars [included] Fazl-e Haqq Khairabadi” (Robinson, 2001: 67). Given that   Ahmad Riza’s family also adhered to the tradition of ma‘qulat studies rather than the hadith scholarship emphasized by the Shah Wali Ullah family in Delhi, there was no philosophical difference between the two men. Moreover,Ahmad Riza’s youth and his own family’s relative obscurity in the world of ‘ulama scholarship (which only went back two generations) compared to ‘Abd ul-Haqq’s at this time, would lead one to expect him to be deferential to the older man. Instead, the conversation as reported by Zafar ud-Din Bihari indicates that Ahmad Riza had already mastered the works of logic (standard texts of the Dars-i Nizami syllabus) that the nawab of Rampur had suggested he study under ‘Abd ul-Haqq.The only person who ever corrected any of Ahmad Riza Khan’s writings, Bihari reports, was his father, Naqi ‘Ali Khan.

Apparently Ahmad Riza Khan took a personal dislike to ‘Abd ul-Haqq Khairabadi, for we are told that on another occasion when Ahmad Riza was traveling to Khairabad with a revered friend of the family, who was planning to visit ‘Abd ul-Haqq Khairabadi,Ahmad Riza refused to accompany him, saying that ‘Abd ul-Haqq was in the habit of saying things “detrimental to the glory (shan) of the …‘ulama”, and that he would therefore prefer to visit someone else (Bihari, 1938: 176).

The fact that Ahmad Riza’s visit to the nawab’s court was occasioned by his writing an opinion that contradicted Maulana Irshad Hussain Rampuri’s is also part of this pattern. If the exchange with Maulana ‘Abd ul-Haqq tells the reader about the depth of his learning and the range of his scholarship (I will examine what he meant by “rebutting Wahhabis” in a subsequent chapter), his contradiction of Maulana Irshad Hussain is intended to show that he had an independent mind, was a skillful logician, and had outstripped his elders early on in his career.The spirit of competition demonstrated here was also to characterize the claims and counterclaims made by rival Muslim movements in the later nineteenth century.


Sufi Discipleship to Shah Al-e-Rasul of Marehra

If the responsibility for writing fatawa at age fourteen at the end of his Dars-i Nizami studies marked a watershed in Ahmad Riza’s life, so too did his discipleship to Sayyid Shah Al-e Rasul in 1877, when he was twenty-one. Shah Al-e Rasul was in his eighties at the time and died two years later, so the tie between them was not close – for Ahmad Riza had not spent time with him prior to his discipleship, not even the customary forty-day period (chilla) of waiting and training. Shortly before his death, however, Shah Al-e Rasul entrusted Ahmad Riza’s spiritual development to his grandson, Shah Abu‘l Husain Ahmad, known as Nuri Miyan (1839–1906), who was Ahmad Riza’s senior by about fifteen years, and the relationship between the two men did become close.


The Importance of Dreams 

Ahmad Riza’s biography indicates the importance of the tie between Shah Al-e Rasul and Ahmad Riza by reference to dreams.Thus it is recorded that before his journey to Marehra with his father, Ahmad Riza experienced a period of painful spiritual longing. His grandfather appeared to him in a dream and assured him that he would soon be relieved of his pain.The prophecy was fulfilled when Maulana ‘Abd ul-Qadir Badayuni came to their house and suggested that both father and son affiliate themselves to Shah Al-e Rasul. Shah Al-e Rasul was also awaiting his arrival, for he already knew (we are told) that this new disciple would be the gift he could present to God after his death, when God would ask him what he had brought Him from this world (Hasnain Riza Khan, 1986: 55–56). Because he was already so well advanced spiritually, the forty-day waiting period had not been necessary.


Sayyids of the Qadiri Order of Sufis

The decision as to whom Ahmad Riza and his father should bind themselves (for they did so together) in this all-important relationship was probably dictated in part by Shah Al-e Rasul’s genealogical history. The Barkatiyya family of Marehra to which Shah Al-e Rasul belonged were Sayyids, or descendants of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law ‘Ali. His very name “Al-e Rasul,” meaning “[the] family of the Prophet,” indicates as much. Other males in the family had similar names. Shah Al-e Rasul’s younger brother, for example, was called Awlad-e Rasul, or “children of the Prophet.”Women in the family were often named Fatima or a compound thereof, such as Khairiyat Fatima, “Fatima’s well-being.” Although such names were not limited  to Sayyid families, in this case they were indicative of such status.

The Barkatiyya Sayyids had migrated to India, via Iraq and Ghazni (in present-day Afghanistan), in the thirteenth century. They had settled down in Marehra, a small country town (qasba) about a hundred and twenty miles southeast of Delhi, in the seventeenth century, after an earlier period of residence in Bilgram, western Awadh.The Mughals had awarded religious families such as the Barkatiyya Sayyids revenue-free (mu‘afi or madad-e ma‘ash) lands to support them.The family name probably referred to their illustrious seventeenth-century ancestor, Sayyid Barkat Ullah (1660–1729), who founded the hospice (khanqah) around which later generations of the family lived and grew up. In time, their settlement came to be known as “Basti Pirzadagan” (Qadiri, c. 1927).

The sufi affiliation of the Barkatiyya Sayyids was with the Qadiri order, one of the three major sufi orders in India since the eighteenth century (the others are the Chishti and the Naqshbandi). The Qadiri order traces its origins to ‘Abd al-Qadir Jilani Baghdadi (d. 1166), and has been popular in South Asia since the fifteenth century. I take up the significance of this sufi affiliation to Ahmad Riza in the next chapter.


Going on Pilgrimage, 1878

Shortly after Ahmad Riza became Shah Al-e Rasul’s disciple in the ritual known as bai‘a, he and his father undertook another important journey, namely, the pilgrimage to Mecca. By performing this ritual, Ahmad Riza was fulfilling one of the so-called “pillars” of Islam, a necessary step before he could assume his role as the leader and Renewer of his community. In this sense, he was undertaking a rite of passage, a transformative event which allowed him to return to Bareilly with greater authority.

Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities for Muslims,were under Ottoman control at this time. Mecca is the center of the Muslim pilgrimage because it houses the sanctuary which Abraham is believed to have built with his son Ishmael in antiquity and also because it is the city in which Muhammad was born. By the nineteenth century it was first and foremost as the Prophet’s birthplace that it was revered. Medina, the city where Muhammad lived in the second phase of his career and where he is buried,is not a part of the pilgrimage.But because he is buried there, many Muslims making the pilgrimage visit it too.Ahmad Riza and his father, not surprisingly,went to both places.

While Ahmad Riza was in Mecca he received recognition from ‘ulama in high positions of authority. Sayyid Ahmad Dahlan, the mufti of the Shafi‘i law school, gave him a certificate (sanad ) in several fields of knowledge – hadith (the traditions of the Prophet), exegesis of the Qur’an (tafsir), jurisprudence ( fiqh), and principles of jurisprudence (usul-e fiqh).The other scholar to do so was the mufti of the Hanafi school of law. Although Ahmad Riza had not studied under these scholars formally they authorized him to teach in the fields they had specified and to cite their names when doing so.

Equally important, though in a different way, was his encounter with Husain bin Saleh, the Shafi‘i imam.The latter noticed him one day during the evening prayer and took him aside.We are told that he held “his forehead for a long time, saying at length that he saw Allah’s light in it. He then gave him a new name, Zia ud-Din Ahmad, and a certificate in the six collections of hadith, as well as one in the Qadiri order, signing it with his own hand” (Rahman ‘Ali, 1961: 99). This encounter emphasized the spiritual (sufi) rather than the scholarly sources of Ahmad Riza’s authority. So too did another – Medinan – experience, a dream in which Ahmad Riza was assured that he was absolved of all his sins. As most Muslims believe that this assurance is granted to very few, this vision can be read as a claim to leadership of the Ahl-e Sunnat movement in coming years.


Maulana Ahmad Riza  رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ  as Mujaddid

Ahmad Riza’s proclamation as the mujaddid of the fourteenth Islamic century occurred in unusual circumstances and in an unusual manner.Throughout the 1890s the Ahl-e Sunnat had been busy organizing meetings opposing the Nadwat al-‘Ulama.Ahmad Riza had played an active part in this opposition movement, writing some two hundred fatawa on this issue alone. Starting in 1897, the Ahl-e Sunnat also published a monthly journal (Tuhfa-e Hanafiyya, the Hanafi Gift) from Patna, Bihar, which brought together anti-Nadwa articles, poems, and news reports about the annual meetings. It was in print until about 1910.

Ahmad Riza’s stature was heightened when one of his fatawa was published in 1900 with the approval and certification of sixteen ‘ulama from Mecca and seven from Medina.In October of that year the annual meeting of the Ahl-e Sunnat ‘ulama took place in Patna, during which time a new madrasa, the Madrasa Hanafiyya, was formally opened. The Nadwa was holding its own annual meeting in a different part of town. In fact the Ahl-e Sunnat appears to have deliberately chosen to hold its meeting in the same place and at the same time as the Nadwa, in order the better to undercut its message.

It was during the week-long meetings that occurred at Patna that one of the ‘ulama present referred to Ahmad Riza in his sermon as the “mujaddid of the present century.” According to Zafar ud-Din Bihari, all those present seconded the idea, and later thousands of others, including several ‘ulama from the Haramain (Mecca and Medina) did so as well. As he writes, there was thus consensus among the ‘ulama of the Ahl-e Sunnat on the question. Zafar ud-Din adds that Ahmad Riza fulfilled the requirements of a mujaddid, namely, that he (it could not be a woman) be a Sunni Muslim of sound belief, endowed with knowledge of all the Islamic “sciences and skills,” the “most famous among the celebrated of his age,” defending the faith without fear of “innovators”who would criticize him, and also, according to Zafar ud-Din, a profound sufi. He also had to satisfy the technical requirement that he be well known when one century ended and the other began (or, as Bihari puts it, at the end of the century in which he was born and the beginning of the century in which he was to die).The thirteenth Islamic century had ended on 11 November 1882, and Ahmad Riza had indeed begun to establish a reputation among the ‘ulama of north India by then.The fact that ‘ulama in Mecca and Medina were ready to append their names to his commentary on the Prophet’s knowledge of the unseen (see below) was taken by his followers as confirmation that he was indeed the mujaddid of the fourteenth Islamic century.

In the years before his death in 1921,Ahmad Riza made a series of decisions about the leadership of the movement in the future. Already in 1915, as reported by the Dabdaba-e Sikandari, he had chosen his older son, Hamid Riza Khan (1875–1943), as his sufi successor (sajjada nishin). After 1921, Hamid Riza became the head of what came to be known as the Khanqah-e ‘Aliyya Rizwiyya, the new sufi order named after Ahmad Riza. Ahmad Riza’s younger son, Mustafa Riza Khan (1892–1981), had been active in the Dar al-Ifta during the teens of the twentieth century. In the twenties, he was involved in organizational activities centered on defense of the Arab holy cities and rebuttal of the Arya Samaj. In addition, he was a scholar in his own right and did a great deal to collect and publish his father’s works. In the 1930s, he started a second school in Bareilly, which is still functioning today.

In 1921, Ahmad Riza passed on to both his sons (and a nephew) the responsibility for writing fatawa. Responding to a question whether India would ever gain its freedom from the British, and if so how qadis and muftis would be appointed, he told his audience that one day:

The country will definitely become free of English
domination.The government of this country will be
established on a popular basis. But there will be great
difficulty in appointing a qadi and a mufti on the basis of
Islamic shari‘a law. … I am today laying the foundation for this
[process] so that … no difficulty will be experienced after
independence. (Rizwi, 1985: 20–21)

He then proceeded to appoint one of his close followers, Amjad ‘Ali ‘Azami, as the qadi, and two others – Mustafa Riza Khan and Burhan ul-Haqq Jabalpuri – as muftis to assist him. This qadi would be the qadi for all India, he said.The fact that he believed he was choosing an all-India qadi speaks to the way he viewed the Ahl-e Sunnat movement, as part of the worldwide, universal umma or community of Sunni Muslims.To his mind its reach and status were pan-Islamic, not merely local.That these arrangements were not in fact realized reflects the reality on the ground, in that the future of the Indian Muslim community was largely determined by people and events far removed from Bareilly. The Ahl-e Sunnat movement, though by no means absent during the momentous events of the 1930s and 1940s in British India,was but a small part of a larger whole.