Islamic reformism in South Asia is a complex reality that aims to transform individuals and society, but with different methods

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Having resulted in different manners of activism, Islamic reformism in South Asia is a complex reality that aims to transform individuals and society, but with different methods. There are those who prefer social and educational commitments, but also those who use the political path and those who opt for the use of violence. Also widespread beyond the South Asia borders, this testifies to the multipolarity of Islam and documents the fact that exportable Islamic models can come from regions other than the Middle East.

The reformist movements of Sunni Islam in South Asia[1] demonstrate a remarkable diversity in time (in pre- and postcolonial periods), in space (Islam is the majority religion in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and minority in independent India) and even in its forms (quietist, political, jihadist). What distinguishes them is on the one hand the fact of having known the external influence of religious renewal movements, arising in other parts of the Muslim world, and on the other hand the internal desire to re-evaluate Islam in view of the modernity introduced with the colonial and post-colonial context. Although all result in attempts to “purify” the conceptions and practices considered as the foundation of the Islamic tradition of the local innovations and scoriae, these reformist movements are swept by differences that concern education in particular and the spread of ideologies, the relationship with traditional religious authorities and with politics in general. In South Asia, these brought forth a multidimensional activism (which will be examined following a brief historical background), but also exercise a certain influence in other parts of the Muslim world.

Islamic reformism emerged at the eighteenth century in the footsteps of Shah Waliullah (1703-1762), the theologian and mystic from Delhi. Like his contemporary Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the founder of Wahhabism,[2] Shah Waliullah laid the foundations for Islamic reformism in the region, inspired by the works of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), the theologian from Damascus. Initially, his project to “purify” Islam did not have a major impact. But the Muslims’loss of political power to the advantage of the British had important repercussions on their religious conceptions and practices. It was within this context that the Tariqa-i Muhammadiyya emerged, the founder of which, Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (1786-1831), was inspired by local reformers such as Shah Abdul Aziz (1745-1823, the son of Shah Waliullah) and by reformists from other countries such as Yemen (for example Ali al-Shaukani, d. 1834), and sided in favour of a religious and social reform. While opposing the role of the saints as mediators between God and men and the colossal sums spent in Sufi shrines, Barelwi primarily recommended the abolition of the worship of saints and he protested against the customs that he believed to be influenced by Hinduism, such as the habit of widows marrying again. He declared himself to be in favour of abolishing the pompous and expensive ceremonies held for the various rites of passage and finally insisted on the importance of some Islamic practices that had fallen into disuse, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca and the jihad.

Following the intensification of the British presence from 1857 onwards, new trends systematized and continued the reformist ideas of the previous century. All insisted on the superior and distinct nature of Islam compared to Christianity (in response to the British missionaries and settlers), and to Hinduism (in an era when even Hindus were engaged in a process of redefining their religion).


Deobandi Movement

The most important of these movements, founded in 1867 by Muhammad Qasim Nanutawi (1833-1877) and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905), was the Deobandi movement, whose name derives from the city of Deoband, situated to the north of Delhi. Their originality lay primarily in the plan to teach and spread Islam. They adopted modern teaching methods, while excluding English and “Western” sciences from their programme, and in their place promoted the study of the Qur’an, the hadîths, the Islamic law and sciences. As they gradually developed Deoband into one of the major centres for religious learning in South Asia, they created the largest network of Madrasas at the time. Despite its reformist ambitions, Deobandi remained loyal to the Hanafi tradition in relation to theology and law, and tollerated Sufism as an individual spiritual practice.

In the same period, however, other movements emerged that broke this conformism. The first with fundamentalist tendencies was Ahl-i Hadith (The People of Tradition), founded in 1864. Drawing inspiration from the reflections of the theologist Nazeer Husain (1805-1902), the movement only permitted the Qur’an and the hadîths as source of law and rejected the teachings of the Hanafi school, as well as Sufism in all its forms. It looked forward to the return to the Islam of the ancestors (the Salaf) belonging to the first generations of Islam, thus representing the South Asian version of Islamic Salafism. The other anti-conformist trend was that of the modernists, who not only refused the protection of the ulama but also demanded religion be limited to the private sphere. Their leader, Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), further recommended combining the study of Islamic law with English law and the exact sciences, while also developing a rationalist theology. Just as for the Deobandi, teaching was an important part of his reform project. In 1875, he founded the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh (which in 1920 would become the Aligarh Muslim University), an English style university that produced generations of westernised intellectuals. Many of these would gradually join the separatist movement that would lead to the creation of Pakistan. Finally, the Nadwatu’l ulama, founded in 1892 by Muhammad Ali Monghiri (1846-1927) was aimed at reconciling the different trends of reformism by modernising Islamic teaching. However, such attempts would prove fruitless and the ulamas of the Nadwa became representatives of a conformist reformism.

The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by the introduction of two types of innovation: proselytism and the project of an Islamic state, the cornerstones of modern Islamic activism. These projects were supported by two movements respectively: the Tablighi Jama’at and the Jama’at-i Islami. The former, whose name means “preaching” (Tablîgh), was founded in 1927 by Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944), an ‘alim of the Deobandi constellation that, through preaching, was intended to respond to the competition that arose in the first half of the twentieth century between Hindus and Muslims, to gain or regain converts. The latter was created in 1941 by Abdul Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), the most important theorist of the notion of the Islamic state. Refuting the authority of the traditional ulama, Mawdudi defended the idea that Islam represents a framework for all areas of social, political and individual life. The British presence in India helped to politicise his vision of Islam, which he established as on the ideological foundation of the state. The plan to form a separate and fundamentally secular state for Muslims announced by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1940 encouraged Mawdudi to react by creating a political-religious movement the following year, the Jama’at-i Islami, whose mission was to form an elite comprising of pious and “virtuous” men, charged with the task of acting politically and socially to found a universal Islamic state.


Three-dimensional Activism

Far from being extinguished after the end of British colonisation, the activism of the reformist movements continued to develop in the three countries formed by the partition in 1947 – India, Pakistan and East Pakistan, which would become Bangladesh in 1971 – this time engaging in dialogue with post-colonial modernity. This activism can be divided into three forms: quietist, political and jihadist, with fairly significant variations depending on whether Islam was the majority or minority religion. The same movement could give priority to one form of activism over another at a given time, or combine different forms of activism sychronically or diachronically.


The Quietist Line and Proselytism

Proselytism is the spearhead of quietist activism and unites all the great reform movements, each of which adopts different methods of preaching with varying degrees of success. Both in majority and minority contexts, proselytising is primarily internal and is aimed at the re-Islamisation of everyday Muslims through reforming their practices in accordance with the ideology of the movement.

We have seen that the most symbolic movement of this type of activism is the Tablighi Jama’at, which not only made proselytising its basic doctrine, but achieved the greatest success with Muslim populations in the majority of South Asian countries. From its inception, this basically Pietist movement developed very precise techniques: followers must devote a clear part of their time to proclaiming the word of truth in the group, from house to house, and to encouraging Muslims to live according to the six principles established by the movement’s founder (the profession of faith, the canonical prayers, the knowledge and memory of God, respect for all Muslims, the sincerity of one’s intentions and the devotion of part of one’s time to proselytising). Since the attention of the followers should concentrate solely on deepening the faith, they are forbidden from intervening in religious disputes and discussing politics in the movement’s field of activities.

Other reformist movements, such as Ahl-i Hadith and the Jama’at-Islami, also assign a major role to proselytising within their activities. The case of the Jama’at-i Islami is particularly interesting. In India, it has been forced by the minority status of Islam to change the course of its plans, which originally aimed at Islamisation through control of state apparatus, in the direction of individual reform of Muslims by means of proselytising. In Pakistan, the disappointment over the state’s very limited concessions in the Islamisation process of its institutions (cf. infra) led the Jama’at-i Islami to refocus its activities on the re-Islamisation of society. For this purpose, in India as in Pakistan, the Jama’at has adopted various methods, such as the widespread dissemination of the works of its main ideologues, the use of new means of communication, the creation of student sections on university campuses, and the establishment of Qur’an study groups or groups of charitable activities. Because of its elitist nature, its impact on society was negligible.

In India, it was to be the quietist activism that prevailed over forms of activism, since Islam was a minority. A similar form of activism could be found to quite a substantial degree in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but what set these countries apart compared to India is the fact that the political activism – whether violent or non-violent – was much more developed.


The Political Option

In Pakistan, the most important Islamic movements, the Deobandi and the Jama’at-i-Islami (but also the Barelwi that represent an unreformed Islam), formed in the 1950s political parties, producing complex and varied forms of political activism (participation in elections, street mobilisation, etc.). These groups mainly fight in favour of applying sharia in the regulation of personal law and the codification of the country’s legal system. Their election results were not very significant (they only managed to mobilise around a fifth of the electorate), but the pressure that they exerted on the various governments that followed over time generated a partial Islamisation of institutions, symbolised in particular by the introduction of Islamic penalties called hudûd [corporal punishment, Ed.]. Among these movements, the Jama’at-i Islami, whose plan for an Islamic state was the most accomplished, played a leading role in attempts at Islamisation. Until the 1990s, the success of these movements was linked to their exploitation by secular parties, with Islam being an important source of political legitimacy. Faced with modest results in the islamisation of the institutions, Islamist movements such as Jama'at-i Islami subsequently redirected their activities towards the social sphere.

The fight to enforce sharia followed a logic of the appropriation of Islam by Sunni reformist movements – the Sunnis make up around 80% of Pakistanis – who claim to be the only true Muslims. This vision resulted also in a hostile militancy towards religious minorities (especially Christians) and sectarian minorities (Twelver Shi‘ites and Ahmadis[3] in particular), which put pressure on the state to eliminate them from the 1950s onwards. Excluded from accessing the highest offices of the state with the 1973 Constitution, the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by a 1974 amendment and a 1984 decree has forbidden them from calling themselves Muslims and from practising the Islamic rites. As for the Christians (2% of the population), they were the main victims of various amendments to the blasphemy law passed by the Pakistani state under pressure from Islamists.

In Bangladesh, where Bengali particularism established itself at the expense of Islam, the Islamist movements returned to the political arena, notably through the Jama’at-i Islami, but with poor results compared to Pakistan, and despite considerable mobilisation capacity they did not manage to Islamise institutions. The marginalisation of religious and sectarian minorities (declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims, for example) constituted an important part of their agenda.

In a minority context, however, political activism has very limited scope. Therefore, the Islamic parties that formed in the different regions of India have until now been of marginal importance as Indian Muslims have preferred to turn to secular parties.


The Jihadist Way

The third type of Islamic activism in South Asia is the use of violence, which actors have adopted with Islamic overtones, assimilating it to jihad. This is especially true in the case of Pakistan. If at first the use of violence was limited and piecemeal (anti-Ahmadi riots in the 1950s, for example), several decades later there was a shift towards violence adopted as a modus operandi of some groups. This third method was mainly developed in two areas that are sometimes intertwined: sectarianism, pitting mainly Sunnis against Shi‘ites, and regional conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

With the Pakistani authorities fearing that the Shi‘ites, following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, might end up under the sway of Iran, in the 1980s several radical Sunni groups emerged, backed by the army and the secret services, and suspected of receiving funding from Saudi Arabia. The war in Afghanistan, which attracted many emerging Pakistani jihadists, lent a new dimension to the idea of Jihad in Pakistan, which was hitherto reserved to conflicts with India, transforming militant organisations such as the Sipah-e Sahaba, created out of the Deobandi movement, into paramilitary groups conquered by Kalashnikov culture and influenced by the militancy of the Taliban. After September 11th, there was a new surge in violence, fuelled by the support of al-Qaeda for more radical groups like the Lashkar-e Jhangvi (created out of SSP). This violence, which claimed the lives of thousands of victims, resulted in attacks on Shi‘ite mosques, and the murders of prominent figures. Jihadi activism also developed on another front: the conflict in Kashmir, which has set India against Pakistan since the Partition. This mobilised both groups that were initially active in Afghanistan, such as Harkat-ul Ansar, and organisations supported by Pakistani intelligence and armed forces, created specifically to wage Jihad in Kashmir, such as the Jaish-i-Muhammad, close to the Deobandi movements, and the Lashkar-i Tayyiba, related to the Ahl-i-Hadith.

Despite a few Pakistani groups developing affiliate organisations in Bangladesh, Jihadi activism was less developed here due to the distance from the outbreaks that fuelled Islamist violence. The fact remains, however, that some groups such as Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the Jama’at-i Islami, have often resorted to violence against their Muslim opponents and Hindu minority, especially by attacking Hindu temples. Jama’at-i Islami itself stood out for the atrocities it committed during the Bangladesh War of Independence, during which it sided with the Pakistanis.

As for India, except for Kashmir where Jihad has merged with the struggle for autonomy since the 1990s, Jihadi activism emerged in the 2000s essentially as a reaction to the violence perpetrated by Hindu nationalists against the Muslim minority. These attacks are often attributed to the Indian Mujahidin, a somewhat mysterious group that is suspected of comprising of more extremist elements of the Student Islamic Movement of India, a student organisation that was initially close to the Indian Jama'at-i-Islami and that was radicalised following the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992.[4]


Propagation Beyond Borders

The influence of South Asian reformism has surpassed the boundaries of the region. It has been exercised by exporting the models of piety and preaching of the Tablighi Jama’at, which has become the most important Muslim missionary movement in the world, and has been active in several regions, mainly in South-East and Central Asia, but also in Africa and in Europe through the diasporas that settled in these areas. Ulema like Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1914-1999), who in the tradition of the Nadwa had committed to a vast policy of translating religious texts into Arabic, had a major impact on the Middle East, while the ideas of Mawdudi on the Islamic state and the legitimisation of violence against corrupt regimes, exercised a strong influence on Islamists of the Middle East, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Islamic reformism in South Asia, which resulted in a multifaceted activism that was partially dependent on the majority or minority position of Islam, is therefore a complex reality that involves actors with different objectives and modes of action and enjoys very variable levels of influence and success. While all these movements are united by the objective of transforming individuals and society, the space reserved for politics can vary greatly within them.
In modern times, it should be observed that this reformism follows logic that transcends ideologies and where the political exploitation of religion prevails. Finally, this reformism stands out for its creativity, which allows it to be disseminated beyond South Asian borders. This testifies to the multi-polarity of Islam and, if not a new centrality, at least a geographical explosion within which different Middle Eastern regions are offering exportable models that are circulating and are adapted to new contexts.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


Essential bibliography

Mariam Abou-Zahab, Olivier Roy, Réseaux Islamiques: la connexion afghano-pakistanaise (Autrement, Paris, 2002).

Marc Gaborieau, Un autre Islam: Inde, Pakistan, Bangladesh (Albin Michel, Paris, 2007).

Christophe Jaffrelot (ed.), Le Pakistan (Fayard, Paris, 2000).

Denis Matringe, Un islam non arabe : horizons indiens et pakistanais (Téraèdre, Paris, 2005).


[1] Due to spatial constraints, this article will address Sunni reformism exclusively.

[2] See Hamadi Redissi’s article in this issue of the journal (Ed.).

[3] The founder of the Ahmadi sect, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, declared himself the Mahdi (Messiah), arousing the anger of the ulama who saw this declaration as a way for him to attribute prophetic functions to himself, where dogma considered Muhammad the “seal” of the prophets.

[4] The mosque was destroyed by Hindu activists, who for a long time claimed “ownership” of the site of the mosque because they considered it to be the birthplace of the God Rama (Ed.).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Aminah Mohammad-Arif, “The Ways of Reform in South Asia”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 24-32.

Online version:
Aminah Mohammad-Arif, “The Ways of Reform in South Asia”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: