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Role of Muslim Clergy in Medieval Society of the Indian Subcontinent


  Translator: Rabia Aslam Source: Dr. Mubarak Ali, “Almiyah-e-Tarikh”, ch. 9 – 10, pp. 95 – 105, Fiction House, Lahore, (2012). During the reign of Muslim ruling families in India, the Ulema, with the help of government institutions, sought to keep the roots of orthodoxy strong in Muslim society so that they could maintain their […]


Translator: Rabia Aslam

Source: Dr. Mubarak Ali, “Almiyah-e-Tarikh”, ch. 9 – 10, pp. 95 – 105,

Fiction House, Lahore, (2012).

During the reign of Muslim ruling families in India, the Ulema, with the help of government institutions, sought to keep the roots of orthodoxy strong in Muslim society so that they could maintain their influence. Governments, in order to gain support of the Ulema, promoted them to high positions (judges, physician, etc.), while at the same time keeping them financially prosperous through the “Madad-i-Maash” grants. Therefore, the spirit of understanding and compromise between the Ulema and the government remained, and in return, Ulema declared these governments to be Islamic and urged the Muslim subjects to remain loyal.

The job of the Ulema was not to solve problems but to create problems (in form of religious rulings). As Muslim societies became entangled in these issues, the influence of the Ulema in the society grew, and they continued to lead the common populace. They never intended to help the society rather preferred to create more trouble.

1) The business of religious hatred

From the very beginning, the Ulema used violence and prejudice as a weapon to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. An example of this can be found in the statements of the scholars in the times of Delhi Sultanate, in which they demanded from ‘Al-Tamish’ that either the non-muslims should be killed or humiliated. Ahmad al-Faruqi al-Sirhindī (Mujaddid aif-sani) also expressed the same views during the Mughal period and opposed any movement that would create harmony and unity between Hindus and Muslims and increase cultural congruence among them. He repeatedly stated in his letters that Hindus should be demeaned and their religious festivals must be banned. In a letter addressed to Sheikh Farid, he writes:

“The honor of Islam is in disgrace and humiliation of infidels. He who cherished the comfort of non-believer, disgraced Islam. Caring for them does not mean just respecting and exalting them. Rather, giving place in one’s meetings, associating with them and talking to them all contribute to dis-honoring Islam. They should be kept away from believers like dogs” (1).

Thus Ahmad Sirhindi’s views were against Akbar’s modernity. The enlightenment movement started by Akbar sought to liberate the non-muslims from the humiliation the conquerors used to inflict upon them in the name of religion. This was an unpopular policy for the Ulema since it endangered their relevance in the society and government affairs. Shah Waliullah continued the same policy of violence against Hindus. In one of his letters he says:

“Strict orders should be issued in all Islamic towns forbidding religious ceremonies publicly practiced by Hindus such as the performance of Holi and ritual bathing in the Ganges. On the tenth of Muharram, the Shias should not be allowed to go beyond the bounds of moderation, neither should they be rude nor repeat stupid things in the streets or bazars.” (2)

His attitude towards non-muslims is also reflected by one of the dreams he saw:

“I saw myself in a dream that I am Qaem al-Zaman (master of the age). Which means that when God Almighty wanted to establish a system of goodness and benevolence, then He made me a tool and medium for the fulfillment of this noble cause. And I saw that the king of the infidels took over the land of the Muslims and looted their property. He arrested their women and children and in the city of Ajmer he declared the rites of disbelief. He eradicated the rites of Islam. Then after that I saw that the Almighty became angry and very angry with the people of the earth. And I witnessed the embodiment of the wrath of the Almighty in the heavens. And then dripping from there, divine wrath descended on me. Then I found myself angry. And this wrath which was filled in me, was blown into me by Almighty. Then I proceeded towards a city, destroying it and killing its inhabitants. other people followed me. Thus, destroying one city after another, we finally reached Ajmer. And there we killed the disbelievers. Then I saw the king of the infidels walking with the king of Islam, surrounded by a group of Muslims. In the meantime, the king of Islam ordered the king of the infidels to be slaughtered. People grabbed him and slaughtered him with knives. When I saw blood gushing out of the veins of his neck, I said: now blessing has descended” (3).

In the same way, he addressed the rulers in one place and said:

“O kings! The will of the heavens has established for you to pull all the swords. And do not put them back in scabbard until Muslims are distinguished from the Infidel and the rebellious leaders of disbelievers join the ranks of the weak. Be assured that there is nothing left in their control that will enable them to raise their heads in the future”. (4)

Maintaining this distinction between Hindus and Muslims, both Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah vehemently opposed co-operation and co-existence. In this way, unlike the Muslim rulers in India, they took the view that Hindus were infidels, not ‘dhimmis’ (a person living in a region overrun by Muslim conquest who was accorded a protected status and allowed to retain his or her original faith). Therefore, they should not have the rights of a protected person. And they should be humiliated in every possible way. Therefore, regarding the personal identity of Muslims, Shah Waliullah believed that:

“Muslims, no matter where they live, wherever they spend their youthful days, they should in any case be completely separated from the natives of that country in their culture, traditions and mannerisms. And wherever they are, they must be immersed in their Arabic splendor and Arabic trends”. (5)

He strongly opposed the adoption of non-Arabic culture, writes in one place:“Beware! The rich intend to adopt the ways of strangers and non-Arabs and those who deviate from the right path, and tries to mix and be like them” (6)

The details of non-Islamic rituals given by Shah Ismail Dehlavi in his book ‘Taqwiyat-ul-Iman’ (Strengthening of Faith) are as follows: Wearing a turban on wedding, Shaving-off beard, Hugging on Eid while greeting, Lighting, degrading the donkey and camel rides, slaughtering a goat at the birth of a boy, organizing social gathering on occasion of circumcision, tying pearls at the wedding and spectacle of light ladders, dancing, wearing red clothes, men wearing henna, serving food to relatives before marriage, giving up adornment in Muharram, holding Muharram gatherings, social gatherings on Milad-un-Nabi (Birth day of Prophet Muhammad) in Rabi-ul-Awal, cooking sweets on Eid, fondness towards music and melody, boasting about one’s lineage, flattering one and other, offering too much dowry, extravagance in marriage ceremonies, self-Adornment, the etiquette of communication, and abandonment of saying Asalam-u-Alaikum (religious greeting), etc. (7).

The second type of rituals were those that arose due to lack of education, political, social and economic disintegration and superstition. Their description in ‘Taqwiyat-ul-Iman’ is as follows: asking for help from the dead, taking omens, believing in superstitions, placing arrows and the word of God on the mother’s bed during labour, visiting graves, lighting lamps on graves, women going to shrines, cementing graves, writing dates and verses on graves, not marrying widows, etc. In ‘Sirat-i-Mustaqeem’, Shah Ismail Dehlavi writes:

“It should be noted that most people call on the prophets, imams and martyrs in difficult times. They seek fulfillment of wishes and desires through them. And in doing so offer sacrifices. Some slaughter animals and others give away their hard-earned wealth. Some swears by someone’s name in their words “.

Ulema in India always kept alive the question of whether it is permissible to learn about the Hindu ways, rituals, language and religion, to know, to associate with them, to eat their food, to buy food from them, etc? This issue of identity has been important to the Muslim ruling classes from the very beginning. Because the problem was with the number of Muslims in India. If these small numbers were lost in the cultural life of Hindus, their political status would have been weakened.

Secondly, cultural harmony eradicates hatred, a sense of enmity and hostility. It promotes reconciliation and co-operation. In that case, their theory of adventurous Jihads would have been damaged which they were imposing against Hindus. Therefore, it was in the interest of the ruling classes to keep Hindus and Muslims separate. If the cultural ties between them are weak, then that would promote segregation and hence the military strength would not be at risk. The Ulema too were interested in segregation because their leadership depended on the number of Muslims. If religious influence in Muslim society had diminished, their influence would have lessened. Their means of livelihood would have disappeared too.

2. Promotion of cultural suffocation

The Hindu and non-Islamic customs which the Ulama opposed from the beginning were of two kinds: First, the rituals that took place at cultural and social festivals and occasions. These included fairs, stalls and wedding ceremonies. The second type of rituals were those that appeared as a result of the socio-economic environment of the society, such as the worship of the smallpox goddess Sheetala. Therefore, the reasons for the promotion of these two types were different.

Every human long for happiness and joy. He satisfies these desires through dance, music and other activities. This way the shadows of sorrow and despair in life disappear while pleasurable moments make him physically and spiritually healthy. Therefore, he tries to use every occasion and festival for his happiness. This aspect of his life is fulfilled by the pop-religion. As it offers religious traditions, rituals and festivals that are full of colors. It provides a cultural identity to the common man and allows him to breathe and heal.
Since Arabs were not rich and vibrant in their culture in comparison to Iran and India, Muslim migrants got influenced by the locals. After embracing Islam, the people in Indian-subcontinent inherited these traditions and they continued with these festivals and rituals. Therefore, the festival of ‘Nowruz’ was celebrated with great pomp in the court of Muslim kings. Muslims Kings and common people also started celebrating Hindu festivals such as ‘Dussehra’, ‘Holi’ and ‘Diwali’. Moreover, Muslims started tweaking with their own religious festivals. Use of animated colors during holy festivals, cheerful lightings on ‘Shab-e-Barat’ (the Night of forgiveness) became common.

The nights of Eid al-Fitr began to shine like Diwali. On the occasion of Muharram, in the process of offering condolences and processions, swordsmanship and weaving tricks were shown. In the same way, by adopting many cultural rituals, colors and attractions were created in life. For example, many Indian rituals were adopted at weddings.

In societies that are influenced by class systems, these rituals also become an expression of stature distinction and glory. Therefore, through these rituals, the elites began to show their social supremacy in the feudal society of India. They also started maintaining their class superiority through these rituals. This mindset of class-superiority and the abundance of wealth gave rise to diverse kinds of food on different festivals. Therefore, these festivals and rituals started becoming an economic burden on society.

The real problem in this situation was the financial inequality and class division of the society. Therefore, when the Ulemas started a movement against such rituals, they could not succeed. Because in order to eliminate them, it was necessary to attack the social structure of the society. By attacking the social order, Ulema had to criticize the ruling kings, elites and men of power, to which they hesitated owing to their mutual interests. Therefore, these rituals and festivals remained present in the society and persisted with the same zeal. On the contrary, people with wealth used it for pomp and power and secondly, its human nature of seeking amusement that kept these festivals alive.

Seeking help and guidance through shrines and by spiritual leaders, inclining towards them to ask for help in everyday problems, this concept and tradition emerged under the rule and political setup of Muslim rulers in Indian Sub-continent. Because the system was hostage to class division, a common man didn’t have access to the court of kings and princes. They could not reach the kings or the rulers unless there was any noble connection or a recommendation. This mentality formed the belief that a common man could not have direct access to God without any means. And for that he needs some resources or help. He found this resource in saints, mystics and spiritual leaders. As the influence of the Saints and Sufis increased with this belief and their economic interests were also attached to it, they contributed to its strengthening. Taking advantage of this situation, the number of Sufis and Saints increased towards in the end of the Mughal period. They used to amaze people by performing miracles. They adopted a certain kind of appearance with long hair and wearing strong scents. Public confidence in them grew in this era of crisis, hunger, poverty, disease, everyday problems, worries, confusions, and sense of inferiority and insecurity. People began to lean towards such individuals. They began to trust them and wait for miracles and wonders. Therefore, on the one hand, the people would seek a solution to the oppression and economic and social unrest at the shrines run by these saints, while on the other hand, the Sufis and the exploiters of the shrines would take advantage of it and make vows, gifts and offerings.

3) Attitude towards women

In the last days of the Mughal period, Muslim scholars complained that women frequented shrines and they indulge into shameless and unethical practices. Though, no one tried to understand the background and the root cause. In a society where a woman was confined in a veil, all avenues of her freedom were shut, opportunities for her entertainment were scarce, so in such circumstances, it becomes her natural desire to come out of the shackles of social tyranny, and to see the outside world. This was possible only if she visited the shrines to ask for prayers and offerings. It was the only source of entertainment she wanted to make the most of. ‘Mirza Hairat Dehlavi’ writes on this ritual of the era:

“Among the noble women, saint-worship had reached its peak. The ill-hearted used to stare at the noble women to get their undeserved desires fulfilled. Every year, noble women graced the shrines with their presence in huge numbers without anyone stopping them. Nobody cared to wear a veil” (10).

In these circumstances, the Ulema tried to keep women in the veil and force them to avoid superstitions. But no one thought of removing the root cause of all these defects. All these things had to do with the status of women in the society. Because in a society in which the status of a woman was meagre and she was considered to be inferior to a man, she was not respected and her human rights were not taken care of. Therefore, simply saying that widows should be married was not enough. Because in hindsight, there existed a thought that this woman has already been with someone else. She has lost her purity by being somebody’s property. Therefore, her social status was less than that of a virgin. Further, the woman was also considered responsible for being a widow. And in that sense, she was considered an outcast, and no one tolerated social relations with her. These perceptions could have changed only if women were awarded higher status in society and had equal rights with men. But none of the Ulema was ready to give this position to a woman. They were only focusing on minor reforms. Therefore, despite all their efforts, these problems remained.

4) Scientific backwardness

Superstitions persisted in women because they were not educated. Ignorance and limited exposure entangled them in the cyst of superstition. The only solution to this menace was modern education and enlightenment. Similarly, when people used to offer sacrifices to the goddess Sheetala to ward off smallpox, or to turn to amulets, saints and mantras to cure diseases, the reason was that there was no cure for these diseases in society at that time. There were no medicines or hospitals for them. Nor were there sufficient physicians for the sick. The poor also could not afford treatment. In such circumstances, people had no choice but to resort to prayers and amulets for illness. Either they recovered, or they died. In societies where the basic needs of the people are met, all these superstitions automatically disappear.

Reforms require promotion of (scientific) education and technical inventions in any society. Medicines for diseases need to be discovered and disseminated to the common people. Only then will superstitions, and supernatural beliefs, be eradicated. Unless the mental level of the common man is raised, there can be no social or economic reform through mere preaching. In the Indian subcontinent, whenever Ulema raised their voices for social reforms, they failed because they did not address the root-cause of social evils. All the Ulema continued to oppose modern education, scientific developments, by associating them with polytheism and practices adopted by infidels.

5) Lack of political vision

By the time of Shah Waliullah, the Mughal dynasty had lost its stability and the kingdom had collapsed under the weight of its shortcomings. The elites enjoyed luxuries and indulged into corruption. Therefore, Ulema criticized the political system of their time and exposed the corruptions of kings and elites. But they still worked towards the stability of the same system with certain reforms. Hence, at times they turned to Rohilla Sardar (Chief) Najeeb ad-Dawlah and later invited Ahmad Shah Abdali (founder of the Durrani empire) to invade India. Their horizon was very limited in analyzing the changes taking place in Indian politics. They failed to understand the nationalist sentiments of Sikhs, Juts, and Marathas. They never realized that the Hindu majority of India needed basic rights. They must be given the right to practice their religion and be part of a national government. Similarly, they could not understand the growing influence of the British in India.


(1) Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, “Rūd-e Kausar”, p. 320, Lahore (1967).
(2) Athar Abbas Rizvi, “Shah Abdul Aziz” (English), p. 4, Canberra, (1982)
(3) Shah Waliullah, “Fuyooz-ul Haramain” , pp. 297-299, Lahore, (1947).
(4) Manazer Ahsan Gilani, “Tazkira Shah Waliullah”, p. 90, Karachi (1959)
(5) Manazer Ahsan Gilani, “Tazkira Shah Waliullah”, p. 121, Karachi (1959)
(6) Manazer Ahsan Gilani, “Tazkira Shah Waliullah”, p. 122, Karachi (1959).
(7) Shah Ismail Dehlavi, “Taqwiyat-ul-Iman”, pp. 79, 81- 82, Karachi.
(8) Shah Ismail Dehlavi, “Taqwiyat-ul-Iman”, pp. 200-201, Karachi
(9) Shah Ismail Dehlavi, “Sirat-i-Mustaqeem “, p. 39, Karachi
(10) Mirza Hairat Dehlavi, “Hayat-e-Tayyaba”, p. 124, Lahore (1976).


Role of Muslim Clergy in Medieval Society of the Indian Subcontinent


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