Islam In The Subcontinent


On the social media there is often talk of the so called “Arabization” of the Muslims in the subcontinent. Social media loves simple explanation but in the process loses all sense of reality. Let me explain how complex the Muslim society of India is before we even try to understand the influences that may or may not be working on them.

There are around 170 million people in India who identify themselves as Muslims. Apart from Jammu and Kashmir which is a Muslim majority state there is high concentration of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. In other states the Muslim population is between 6 to 15 percent of the total population of the state. In India different states have different languages and cultures and accordingly the Muslims too follow different cultural practices in cuisine, clothing and the way festivals are celebrated. Indian Muslims are just as diverse as the Indian population.

Now let me come to the interesting part of religious beliefs. The fundamental division between Muslims is on the basis of Sect. While there is no official statistics on the sectarian demographics, it is estimated that around 80% of Muslims in India are Sunnis. The division does not end there. Sunnis are further divided school of thoughts. Unlike popular belief that Muslims blindly follow the Fatwas from clerics there are various schools of thoughts among Indian Muslims that teach very different versions of theology. Since vast majority of Indian Muslims follow the Hanafi School, I will focus on explaining further differences.


Barelvi school of thought

Barelvi school of thought is gets its name from the religious school located in the town of Bareli in Uttar Pradesh. This 19th century revivalist movement was established to counter the onslaught Christian missionaries. Believers in this school of thought see Prophet Mohammed as a supernatural being without any human weaknesses. Other defining feature of this school of thought is the importance given to shrines where there spiritual leaders of Islam are buried. They believe that praying at the tombs (mazaars) of these spiritual gurus will help the prayers reach God through the awliya (Gurus) as the intermediary.

Raza academy was recently in news for protesting against a film on the prophet of Islam. This academy is named after the founder of Barelvi Islam, Ahmed Raza Khan. The media tried to dismiss Raza academy as a fringe group when in fact it is quite a mainstream organization of Barelvi Islam.

Deobandi school of thought

The Deobandi school of thought was also established in the 19th century and it also gets its name from a town located in Uttar Pradesh. This school of thought strongly rejects the idea of shrines and declares that no intermediary is required to communicate with the omnipresent God.

This school of thought also rejects the idea that the prophet of Islam was a supernatural being and accepts him as human who lived and died a natural death. The Deobandi school of has emerged as a serious challenger to the Barelvi school of thought through its missionary work among Muslims. Some people confuse this with “Arabization” of Muslims when the fact is that this reformist movement is almost two centuries old in the subcontinent.

 The Conflict

Deobandis and Barelvis have very serious disagreements with each other to the extent that they consider each other outside the Church of Islam.

The Deobandi movement remained on the fringes of subcontinental Islam. There was a little impetus on reformation as shrines fulfilled the necessary social and spiritual needs of the people. There was no trigger that would push for a change in status quo.

With Islam becoming a global issue due to Western media, there came a new urgency among Indian Muslims (and perhaps Muslims around the world) to understand the meaning of Islam. This is where Deobandi movement got a massive boost. More and more Muslims are associating Shrines with idol worship and disassociating themselves with Barelvi Islam. Sufism had some great thinkers and unfortunately the Sufi thought is being rejected along with the Shrines which were the crucible of Sufi enlightenment.

Deobandis have their own set of problems. There is this attention to detail in rituals. From how to eat to how to sit to how to sleep there is close attention to detail to an extent that it can become quite irritating. There is no room to question or amend the Deobandi literature, nor is there any significant impetus on building scientific temperament. But their push to educate women has yielded some good results.

Salafi School of Thought

Salafis don’t believe the four major schools of thought. As per their claim, their impetus is on understanding and redefining Islam, once again, on the basis of Quran and the prophetic traditions (The Hadits) and rejecting all other books and interpretations written by different scholars over the years. While there is nothing wrong in this idea the Salafis have been involved in or have inspired some very violent movements in the Muslim world. Salafism is what is popularly known as Islamism or Islamist movement because of their fanatical focus on politics rather than spirituality.

One of the major reasons behind Muslims of India rejecting global Jihad is their rejection of Salafism. They don’t need Salafism because their urge to reform can be fulfilled by the indigenous Deobandi movement.


Wahabism is an 18th century Saudi Arabian religious reformation movement against Shrine worship. Wahabism is not necessarily Salafism but Saudis have often been accused of encouraging Salafis by helping them financially. Wahabi influence in India is often exaggerated. Most people in India wont even know who Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was.

Quranist School of thought

This is a relatively new school of thought that rejects every book associated with Islam except the Quran because according to them all the other books are corrupted and they often contradict the Quranic teachings.

This is the most puritanical movement that exists today and is slowly gaining ground among educated Muslim elites. The Quranists reject ideas like blasphemy, punishment for apostasy, child marriage, female genital mutilation because none of these appear in the Quran. There are some Quranists who argue that the prophetic traditions (The Hadits) that do not contradict with the Quran are acceptable as a source of religious guidance.


Strange as it may seem Shia Islam emerged as a distinct theological school of thoughts only because some people did not agree on the leader after the demise of the prophet of Islam. Those people who wanted Ali, the prophet’s son in law to lead were unhappy at the appointment of Abu Bakr, prophets close friend, as the next leader of the nation of Islam. To most of us this would appear to be a minor disagreement but obviously some people felt quite strongly about it. Their defection created a whole new sect in Islam called Shia Islam. Now there are many different sub-sects within Shia Islam, namely, Ismailis, Zaidis, Jafri etc. Some would argue that Bohra and Khoja sects are specialized branches of Shia Islam.


You may have heard the term Ahmedi and the persecution they face in Pakistan. Ahmedis believe in the Quran and the Prophet but they don’t see Mohammed as the last prophet of Islam. They follow the teachings of their spiritual Guru Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who was a brilliant scholar of Islam.

The conflict began when Ghulam Ahmad declared himself as the next prophet after Mohammed. Ahmedis are not accepted as Muslims by any sect of Islam because of their challenge to the most fundamental belief of Islamic theology that Mohammed is the last and final messenger of God.

The Ecosystem

CWr9gGAUEAAG142.jpg largeIslam is a ecosystem which is often confused to be an echo-system. There are diverse and competing ideologies trying to gain space. As is the case with any society. For Muslims belonging to various sects and school of thoughts it is important than ever before to focus on what people can agree on. A constant focus on disagreements will only create more rifts and cause misery.

No sect is inherently evil or are seeking to do wrong with a malicious intent. Usually people do what they believe is right, you may disagree with what they believe, you may even try to convince them about your point of view, but it is wrong to declare them as enemies. While you may disagree with them on certain issues, it is very important to respect their human rights and to understand that they too are seeking to live a peaceful life as per their understanding of religion.

Ahmedis are not considered as Muslims, they can easily disassociate themselves from Islam and move on. They face all the persecution and still strive to be called Muslims because their intent is not to malign Islam. All we need here is a bit of compassion and a bit of understanding. After all that is the whole point of being religious.








  1. It’s difficult to write a concise post about all belief systems, but I think you should do a few corrections. Salafis don’t reject all books and interpretations – they take the opinions which they ‘think’ are closer to how the ‘Salaf’ practised the faith. There are many scholars like Ibn-Taymiyyah who are spoken of very highly in their circles. Also, it is outright wrong to say that they are all interested in politics and not spirituality. Most groups are just focussed on their own spiritual upliftment. In India, groups like Ahl-e-Hadith, who are getting more popular, can be put into this bracket.This is a good primer on Salafism for someone who wants to look into it a bit deeper –

    It has to be noted that Barelwi groups and even many non-muslim groups, find it convenient to label everyone a Wahaabi or Islamist like we see in the West nowadays. It’s patently untrue. While ideologically Wahaabis would find themselves much more in agreement with Deobandis than Barelwis, but they aren’t the same and there are differences. Even in Saudi Arabia, many people who you would refer to as Wahhabi, wouldn’t like to be called one. I mentioned about Ibn-Taymiyyah earlier. He was a Hanbali jurist but took a different line on many issues compared to his Hanbali predecessors. And, Ibn-Abd-al-Wahaab, went further than Ibn-Taymiyyah.

    In India, both Deobandi and Barelwi follow or claim to follow Hanafi figh, but if you read opinions of Hanafi scholars who aren’t from the sub-continent, then they argue that on certain issues Deobandis/Barelwis don’t follow the Hanafi viewpoint, so shouldn’t really be called Hanafis. But, that debate is as old as the dawn of human civilisation!

    Deobandi scholars regard Sufi tariqats as valid pathways to God. They don’t reject tasawwuf, though it might come across that way when they oppose praying at shrines. It is an inseparable part of traditional Islam, and will always remain so.

    A point on Bohras – They are an off-shoot of Ismailis, so can be considered within the fold of ‘Shia’ Islam.

    Less said about Quranism the better. We have Quran today because it was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. It wasn’t found hidden somewhere in the earth. Hadiths, even in traditional Islam, aren’t seen as infallible. They are ways of classifying Hadiths, and different schools of jurisprudence have their own principles of applying Hadiths when formulating law. An authentic Hadith in Bukhari means its ‘sanad’ i.e chain of narration is sound – that’s it. The jurists have to then look at the bigger picture and see it’s applicability.

    If you listen to Ahmadis, they would say different things. Some say they are misunderstood and they do believe Prophet Mohammed was the last prophet but then they qualify it with law bearing prophet etc.

    Religion of Islam can be fundamentally something as simple as reciting the Shahada and giving testimony, and can be as complex as any belief system out there – layers after layers. But, such is human nature. We are complex beings, and this is how Allah intended us to be.

    1. You said: Less said about Quranism the better. We have Quran today because it was revealed to Prophet Mohammed. It wasn’t found hidden somewhere in the earth. Hadiths, even in traditional Islam, aren’t seen as infallible. They are ways of classifying Hadiths, and different schools of jurisprudence have their own principles of applying Hadiths when formulating law. An authentic Hadith in Bukhari means its ‘sanad’ i.e chain of narration is sound – that’s it. The jurists have to then look at the bigger picture and see it’s applicability.

      Does this mean you can’t accept Quran without some paparazzi telling you it is from God? You just said that hadiths are not infallible. This means you do agree that some are inaccurate. Now what if scholars mistakenly choose one incorrect hadith to be accurate?
      There is a hadith which instructs sectarians to kill exMuslims. Some countries have been using it to justify killing of those who leave Islam. According to 10:99 and 2:256 of Quran, Muslims are prohibited from forcing anyone to believe. There is another verse that tells us to not worry about who leaves the religion. Now on judgement day, what if God tells you that you were supposed to follow such verses and that the so called authentic hadith was actually false?

  2. Why add Ahmedis in any branches of Islamic School Of Thought listed above, when all have rejected them to be Muslims. Also you missed out on Tablighi Jamaat

    P.S: I am not a fanatic here just being logical.

  3. Salam BrumbyOz, interesting read and good information. I was not aware that a Quranist School of thought existed. I kind a lean towards that more as I am not comfortable with when ppl say you must follow the Hadiths as is. Yes they can be read for guidance. I am comfortable with the statement “The Hadiths that do not contradict with the Quran are acceptable as a source of religious guidance”. If Quran is words of God that should be our main source of guidance is my argument. BTW, which school of thought do you follow although I have my own guess 🙂

  4. Understanding Indian Muslim society through Islamic sects is like trying to understand Hindu society through lens of shaivism, vasihnavism and shakti. While sects do play a role but actual picture of muslim society can not be painted without understanding the castes and communities with in Indian muslims.

Comments are closed.