The Deobandis and Barelvis have debated Sunni Islam since the nineteenth century with ulama in Pakistan continuing today to intensely disagree on many theological matters. Take for example, the question of whether you should stand when invoking Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) at the milad or birthday ceremony.
SherAli Tareen, an associate professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, who hails from Quetta, has written a book that explains the history and complexity of many such religious debates and questions in Pakistan. Defending Muḥammad (SAW) in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press) has been lauded for making the subject easy to understand for the non-specialist reader. And the American Institute of Pakistan Studies has just awarded it the 2020 Book Prize.
“This book presents a detailed account of crucial and to this day controversial theological and political debates that occupied the most influential and authoritative Muslim scholars in modern South Asia,” Tareen told SAMAA Digital over email, “especially the pioneers of the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought, and their predecessors.”
In order to go into the historical beginnings, Tareen worked with a broad archive of Arabic, Persian and Urdu sources. He did research at the Punjab University Library in Lahore, and the Ganjbaksh Library in Islamabad.
“I argue that their intense disagreements over ritual practices … and other legal and theological matters were reflective of larger anxieties over preserving and guarding the faith in conditions of British colonialism marked by the loss of Muslim political sovereignty following the fall of the Mughal empire,” he added.
During the course of his research, Tareen found that a careful and close reading of the religious texts and thought of the pioneers of the Deobandi and Barelvi schools, who wrote simultaneously in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, and of the historical context in which they wrote, helps us dispel popular stereotypes regarding this debate. “Most notably, my book dismantles the common perception that the Deobandi-Barelvi polemic represents a disagreement between Sufism and Islamic law or between moderates and extremists,” he said. “I instead argue that this polemic should be seen as a reflection of what I call ‘competing political theologies,’ meaning competing visions of how one ought to understand the relationship between God, the Prophet (PBUH), and the community in conditions of political change and uncertainty.”
This book is important reading in Pakistan today for anyone who wishes to understand the beginnings and complexities of these debates among the ulama. “It also showcases an excellent example of a high stakes and intensely fought out intellectual disagreement that yet did not descend to physical violence or attacks,” said Tareen. “Both religious scholars and non-scholars in Pakistan today can learn a lot from this polemic, both in terms of its content and its mode of expression.”
The book has been praised by Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Religion Muhammad Qasim Zaman of Princeton University who said, “No book offers a richer, more illuminating guide to the origins and complex theological relationship of the Barelvi and the Deobandi orientations, which have dominated Sunni Islam in modern South Asia.”