Islamic Studies The Barelvī School of Thought
Khan Shairani, Ebrahim Moosa
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0288


The Barelvī movement or school is a theological interpretation within South Asian Sunnī Islam with roots in developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries spanning colonial India and into the post-independence history of the subcontinent. Most of its adherents are found today in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but also in educational and religious institutions in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and other parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. The Sunnī Ḥanafī scholar Aḥmad Raẓā Khān of Bareilly (d. 1921) was born in Uttar Pradesh during British colonial rule. Typically, his interpretations of certain doctrines of Sunnī Islam are seen as a response to the Deoband school and its theological ancestry that was formed in 1866-7, found in the northern Indian town of Deoband. The Barelvī school of thought is defined by a set of theological positions that revolve around the persona of the Prophet Muhammad and his special, if not exceptional, relationship and status with God. The Barelvī movement defines itself as the most authentic representative of what is known as Sunnī Islam and thus adopts the generic moniker, Ahl-i-Sunnat wa-al-Jamāʿat (The people who adhere to the Prophetic Tradition and preserve the unity of the community). Some describe the movement as first spreading among rural Muslims immersed in a selection of Sufi and shared Indian cultural practices. Today, it has its own franchise of seminaries (madrasas), scholars, and a robust industry of publications that engage in polemics with other theological sects prevalent in South Asia. It keeps its sights trained on the Deobandi movement and the global Muslim evangelical group known as the Tablīghī Jamāʿat and continuously exposes what it believes to be its doctrinal errors. Other adversaries are the anti-canonical school tradition, known as the Ahl-i-Ḥadīs, the variant doctrines of the Aḥmadis and Qādianis, as well as the Shīʿa. Aḥmad Raẓā Khān declared aspects or, all of these sects to be worthy of anathematization (takfīr) because they doctrinally depart from the true tradition and its interpretation of Islam. It would be a mistake to think of the Barelvī theological positions as paradigmatically Sufi. Indeed, the Deobandis, the Shīʿa, and even the Aḥmadis also accept variant teachings of Sufism, though they might diverge from the Barelvīs on precisely what the detailed doctrines of Sufism entails (Tareen 2020 [cited under General Overviews]).

General Overviews

Few academic works are available in English on the Barelvī movement. Recent scholarly attention focused on this majoritarian theological sect has produced some academic works that examine the historical rivalry between the Deobandis and the Barelvīs, delve into their curriculum, and challenge the ossified category of “mystical” sects opposed to “legalist” sects, as discussed in Tareen 2020. Polemics between these different schools of thought demonstrate intra-Islamic debates and contestations about the boundaries of orthodox tradition, rather than drawing boundaries against the “outside” world. The renewed interest in these theological schools, it must be acknowledged, comes from a national security interest in jihadist ideologies, terrorism, and religious extremism, especially in the interactions between the Pakistani and Afghan border areas where madrasas are a major provider of education in the post 9/11 context. The texts cited here nuance and historicize the theological stakes for Barelvīs and their rivals and detail the doctrinal issues at stake.

  • ʿAlam, Arshad. “The Enemy Within: Madrasa and Muslim Identity in North India.” Modern Asian Studies 42.2–3 (2008): 605–627.

    An article that follows the development of Deobandi-Barelvī polemics in contemporary madrasas in northern India and its inculcation in madrasa students. It makes the point that these polemics are not aimed at outsiders; rather, they are primarily focused on intra-Islamic theological differences.

  • Jalal, Ayesha. Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674039070

    This book on jihād addresses the Barelvī-Deobandi rivalry that rages in Pakistan, its international dimensions in producing terrorism, and its historical antecedents as an anticolonial struggle against the British in South Asia.

  • Moosa, Ebrahim. What Is a Madrasa? Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469620138.001.0001

    This volume contextualizes the modern South Asian madrasa institution and its internal debates. It draws attention to key figures, disciplines, and the famed Nizāmī curriculum. It vigorously rebuts charges that madrasas contribute to political radicalization. Part memoir and part personal reflection, it gives an in-depth view of madrasas in South Asia, their history, and their current transformed role in society as centers of a “Republic of Piety.”

  • Qadri, Abdul Hakeem Sharaf. Tazkira Akābir Ahl-e-Sunnat. Lahore, Pakistan: Noori Kutub Khāna, 2005.

    A bibliographical dictionary of 178 Barelvī scholars and their role in advancing the goals of the movement. It includes their contributions to Barelvi thought in terms of written works as well as compiling family genealogies.

  • Sanyal, Usha. Devotional Islam and Politics in British India: Aḥmad Riza Khān Barelwi and His Movement, 1870–1920. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    One of the most detailed English-language monographs on the subject of Barelvīs. It covers the history and thought of the Barelvī movement. It also covers aspects of the Deobandi-Barelvī polemics from the late 19th century.

  • Sanyal, Usha. Aḥmad Riza Khān Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet. Makers of the Muslim World. Oxford: Oneworld, 2005.

    This book is aimed at a general audience and gives a comprehensive overview of the founder of the Barelvī normative order, or maslak, and the historical background that led to the rise of this theological sect.

  • Tareen, SherAli. Defending Muḥammad in Modernity. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv19m63mw

    An excellent text on the details of the distinct doctrinal differences between the Deobandi-Barelvī schools. It addresses some of the key theological debates addressed by actors antecedent to Aḥmad Raẓā Khān. It breaks down the binary of Islamic law as opposed to Sufism that some polemics occasionally characterize as fundamental to these theological rivalries.

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