Islamic Reform Movements of British India

There were a number of religious-revivalist and even religious-reform movements launched by the Muslim reformers. However, these were less powerful and lacked national standings. Some notable are as follows:


It was founded in Lahore in 1866 by Muhammad Shafi and Shah Din, both followers of Sayyid Ahmad Khan, the founder of the Aligarh movement. This Islamic society opened schools imparting Western education, emphasized female education, loyalty to the British Government and opposed the Indian National Congress.


The death of Saiyid Ahmad Raebarelwi, the founder of the Wahabi movement in India, divided his followers into two groups. The more devoted and radical considered him to be the imam-i-mahdi and expected that he would return to lead them once again. His moderate followers, led by Saiyid Nazir, who did not regard him as mahdi and his concept of jihad, founded the Ahl-i-Hadith, a branch of Tariqah-i-Muhammadiyah. The leaders of the Ahl-i-Hadith rejected Sufism and condemned polytheism. The movement advocated widow remarriage as Islamic and attacked the institution of dowry as a non-Muslim innovation.

Aligarh Movement

This movement was launched by Syed Ahmad Khan, who was in the judicial service of the Company at the time of the rebellion of 1857 and stood loyal to the Government. After his retirement from service he appeared in the role of a socio-religious reformer. His articles in Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, which he started in 1870, as well as his other writings, gave evidence of the markedly rationalistic and non-conformist trend of his thoughts.

Sir Syed liberalized Indian Islam and took upon himself the triple task of religious reinterpretation, social reform and education. He came to the conclusion that only by taking to Western education would the Muslims be able to rise above their backwardness and come to an understanding with their rulers. He made the town of Aligarh, a predominantly Muslim area, the centre of his activities. The range of his activities is known as the Aligarh movement.

With the full backing of the bureaucracy he founded the Aligarh School on May 24, 1875, on the birth anniversary of Queen Victoria. This school was upgraded in 1877 to a college and named Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, the forerunner of the Aligarh Muslim University. One of the objects of the Aligarh movement was to prevent the Muslims from joining the Congress which Sir Syed condemned as anti-British and anti-Government.

In 1887, when Badr-ud-din Tyabji was elected President of the Indian National Congress, Syed Ahmad Khan emerged actively in opposition to it. In his view a Hindu-Muslim alliance could only be disadvantageous to the Muslim community, which was much smaller in number, educationally backward, politically immature, and economically insecure. Alliance with the Hindus against the British could only lead to the loss of British patronage and to the exploitation and subjugation of the Muslims by the overwhelming Hindu majority. Thus began modern Muslim political separatism in India.

Ahmadiya Movement

The Ahmadiya movement was launched by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadiyan (1839-1908) in 1889, who began his work as a defender of Islam against the polemics of the Arya Samaj and the Christian missionaries. In 1889 he claimed to be masih (messiah) and mahdi, and later also to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Krishna and Jesus returned to earth. Ghulam Ahmad, though called himself a minor prophet, regarded Muhammad as the true and great Prophet whom he followed.

The Ahmadiya movement based itself, like the Brahmo Samaj, on the principles of a universal religion of all humanity. Ghulam Ahmad was greatly influenced  by  Western liberalism, Theosophy, and the religious-reform movements of the Hindus. The Ahmadiyas opposed jihad or sacred war against non-Muslims and stressed fraternal relations among all people. The movement spread Western liberal education among Indian Muslims and started a network of schools and colleges for that purpose.

Deoband Movement

The Islamic Seminary at Deoband was founded in 1867 by two theologians, Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi (1837-80) and Rashid Ahmad Gangohi. The Deoband School of Islamic Theology was a poor man’s school and its teachers and students lived frugal lives. The followers of this school were concerned with the problems of education and character. The questions of “society and State” were as important for them as those of “belief and practices of the individual”. Rashid Ahmad Gangohi advised the Muslim community in India to cooperate with the Congress in its activities. The Deoband School declared in unambiguous terms that the concept of nationality was based upon the unity of all religious groups and did not contravene any Islamic principle. This declaration created a gulf between the Deoband and Aligarh movements.

Among the supporters of the Deoband school was Shibli Numani (1857-1914), a profound scholar of Persian and Arabic and a prolific writer in Urdu. He was in favour of reforming the traditional Islamic system of education by cutting down its formal studies and including the English language and European sciences. He founded the Nadwat-al-Ulama and Dar-ul-Uloom in Lucknow in 1894-96, where he tried to give effect to his educational ideas. Shibli admired the Congress for its high idealism and for its concern for the welfare and advancement of the Indian people. He believed that Muslims were citizens of India and they owed loyalty to their motherland. He was convinced that “the Muslims could, jointly with the Hindus, create a State in which both could live honourably and happily”. As a result of these reform movements, the Muslim urban society started taking to modern ways. The modern awakening among the Muslims led to a decline in the practice of polygamy, and widow remarriage was encouraged. The great political upheavals of this period thus helped in bringing about a renaissance of Indian Islam and a reorientation of Muslim society.

Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the different Hindu and Muslim reformative schools of thought, they showed a keen consciousness of the need for religious reconstruction and moral reform and a keenness to unite all those professing the same faith. They fostered a rational outlook and individualism, which is the basis of modern secular thought.