Barelvi Tradition: The Vibrant Sufi-Inspired Branch of Sunni Islam

Dec 3


Yusha Sayyid

Yusha Sayyid

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The vibrant and enchanting world of Barelvi Islam beckons those seeking a more mystical and spiritual approach to Sunni Islam. With its origins in South Asia and a growing global presence, Barelvi Islam continues to captivate the hearts and minds of millions across the world. But what sets this Sufi-inspired branch of Sunni Islam apart from the rest?

Let us embark on a journey to uncover the rich history,Barelvi Tradition: The Vibrant Sufi-Inspired Branch of Sunni Islam Articles beliefs, and practices that define the Barelvi tradition.

Key Takeaways

  • Barelvi Tradition is a vibrant Sufi-inspired branch of Sunni Islam, founded by Imam Ahmed Raza Khan in 19th century South Asia.
  • It emphasizes mysticism, spirituality and devotion to Prophet Muhammad. Veneration of saints and shrines as well as the concept of Nur (light) are also integral aspects.
  • The Barelvi movement has advocated for peace & interfaith dialogue while collaborating with other Islamic movements against terrorism & extremism.

Origins of the Barelvi Movement

Illustration of traditional Sunni Islam scholars

In response to the strict Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith movements in South Asia, the Barelvi movement was born in the 19th century. Founded by the revered Islamic scholar, Imam Ahmed Raza Khan, the Barelvi movement sought to:

  • Preserve traditional Sunni beliefs
  • Safeguard the spiritual core of Sufism, a historical cornerstone of South Asian Muslim culture
  • Present itself as the true representative of Sunni Islam

As radical Deobandi groups gained traction within Deobandi Islam, Barelvi Islam aimed to protect and promote its unique beliefs and practices.

The approval of a group of Ottoman clerics, secured by Imam Ahmed Raza, contributed to the significant influence the movement gained in the Muslim world. However, tensions between Barelvis and Deobandis escalated when Imam Ahmed Raza issued a fatwa in 1906, declaring all non-Barelvis, including Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadith, and Ahmadis, to be non-Muslims. This sparked a feud between the two movements that persists to the present day.

Ahmed Raza Khan's Life and Contributions

Imam Ahmed Raza Khan, the founder of the Barelvi movement, was a prolific writer and scholar who dedicated his life to defending Sufi traditions and countering the influence of Wahhabism in South Asia. Born in 1856 in British India, Ahmed Raza Khan demonstrated exceptional intellectual prowess from an early age. Under the guidance of his father, Naqi Ali Khan, he:

  • Established the Fatwa committee to address issues related to Islamic jurisprudence
  • Authored numerous books on various topics, including theology, jurisprudence, and spirituality
  • Founded the Jamia Rizvia, a renowned Islamic seminary in Bareilly, India
  • Played a key role in promoting religious tolerance and unity among Muslims in the region

Imam Ahmed Raza Khan’s contributions continue to be celebrated and his teachings are followed by millions of Barelvi Muslims around the world.

Throughout his life, Ahmed Raza Khan composed numerous literary works, including:

  • A 30-volume Fatwa compilation known as “Fatwa-e-Razvia”
  • A celebrated Urdu translation of the Holy Quran called “Kanzul Iman”
  • Various “naat” compilations, which reflect traditional Sunni beliefs

Although he did not actively participate in politics, he opposed the Pakistan movement and the Khilafat Movement, which he believed were not in line with the teachings of the Holy Prophet.

Ahmed Raza Khan left an indelible mark on Barelvi Islam and the broader Sunni Muslim community, not only in South Asia but across the world. His teachings and writings continue to inspire generations of South Asian Muslims, reinforcing the importance of Sufi practices and spirituality in the face of puritanical influences.

Sufi Influence on Barelvi Islam

Sufism markedly impacts Barelvi Islam, underscoring aspects such as mysticism, spirituality, and saint veneration. The movement is rooted in the primary tenets of Sufism, which include devotion to Prophet Muhammad, reverence of walis (saints), observance of Sharia (Islamic law), adherence to Sunnah (the teachings and practices of Prophet Muhammad), and performance of dhikr (remembrance of God).

Sufi mysticism played a pivotal role in the emergence of Barelvi Islam, as it emphasized the inward search for God and encouraged spiritual practices such as meditation, chanting, and devotion. Sufism also fostered Barelvi Islam’s emphasis on personal piety, devotion to Prophet Muhammad, and the value of spiritual experiences in forming a connection with God. Influenced by Sufism, Barelvi Islam developed distinct beliefs and practices, distinguishing itself from other Sunni sects.

Key Beliefs and Practices of Barelvis

Photo of a Sufi shrine

At the core of Barelvi Islam lie several key beliefs and practices that differentiate it from other Sunni sects, including orthodox Sunni Islam. Among these are the veneration of saints and shrines, the concept of Nur (light), and the intercession of Prophet Muhammad. These unique elements serve to deepen the spiritual life of Barelvi Muslims and provide a distinct identity within the broader Sunni Muslim world.

Barelvis believe in the doctrine of Hazir o Nazir, which stipulates that the Prophet Muhammad is a viewer and witness to the actions of people. They maintain that Muhammad’s knowledge is universal, encompassing both the visible and invisible realms, and is derived not from mankind but from Allah. This belief in the intercession of the Prophet is supported by Quranic terms, such as Shahid, and various hadiths.

Veneration of Saints and Shrines

The veneration of saints and shrines is a central aspect of Barelvi Islam, deeply rooted in Sufi tradition. Barelvis revere saints as holy figures who can intercede on their behalf with God, seeking their blessings and spiritual guidance. They visit the shrines of these saints as an expression of devotion and a means of connecting with their spiritual essence. While this practice is common among Barelvi Islam followers, it is important to note that it may not be prevalent among other Islamic sects, such as Shia Muslims.

This practice is based on the theological conviction that saints and Sufis serve as mediators between humans and God. Barelvis believe that these holy persons have a special affinity with God and can assist in the realization of their prayers and desires. This notion is influenced by the Sufi custom of seeking spiritual direction and blessings from saints, setting Barelvi Islam apart from other Islamic traditions that may not accord as much significance to shrine visitation.

The Concept of Nur (Light)

The concept of Nur (light) holds great significance in Barelvi beliefs, closely associated with the essence of God and regarded as a sacred light that was present before creation. Barelvis believe that Prophet Muhammad was created from Nur (light) and that his existence predates creation.

This belief in the Prophet as being ‘nur’ or light makes him more than just a normal human being. Consequently, this belief engenders the reverence and devotion of Barelvis towards the Prophet and is reflected in their rituals and practices.

The concept of Nur serves as a symbol of spiritual illumination and divine guidance, shaping the understanding of Barelvi Muslims and their relationship with the Prophet Muhammad.

Tawassul: Intercession of Prophet Muhammad

Tawassul, or the practice of seeking intercession through Prophet Muhammad, is an important aspect of Barelvi Islam. Barelvis believe that the Prophet can intercede on their behalf with God, both in this life and the afterlife, and that his help comes from God. This practice is based on the belief that the Prophet’s intercession is supported by the Holy Quran and prophetic tradition.

The role of Prophet Muhammad as an intercessor in the afterlife is a source of hope and comfort for Barelvi Muslims, as they believe that he will intercede on behalf of his followers, and that God will forgive their sins and allow them to enter Jannah (paradise). This belief in the intercession of the Prophet serves to strengthen the spiritual bond between Barelvi Muslims and the Prophet, as well as their connection to God.

Barelvi Presence Across the Globe

Illustration of Barelvi scholars in a global context

Barelvi Islam has a significant following in South Asia, particularly in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. However, its influence extends far beyond the region, with growing communities in:

  • the United Kingdom
  • South Africa
  • Europe
  • the United States
  • Canada

This global presence attests to the adaptability and resilience of Barelvi Islam, as it continues to thrive in diverse cultural contexts and appeal to Muslims around the world.

The expansion of Barelvi Islam is partially due to the displacement of South Asian Muslims worldwide and the rising appeal of Sufi-influenced traditions among Muslims educated in the West. As Barelvi Islam continues to expand and evolve, it remains an influential and vital force within the global Muslim community.

Barelvi Relations with Other Islamic Movements

The multifaceted relationship between Barelvis and other Islamic movements is characterized by both disputes and alliances. While Barelvis have a long-standing rivalry with Deobandis and other puritanical Islamic movements, they have also found common ground with other Sunni Sufi scholars, joining forces to promote unity and counter extremism.

In this context, Barelvis have participated in conferences and initiatives aimed at promoting unity and understanding among different Islamic movements. These efforts demonstrate the potential for Barelvis to play a constructive role in fostering dialogue and collaboration within the broader Muslim world, despite the challenges posed by historical rivalries and theological differences.

Conflicts and Rivalries

The rivalry between Barelvis and Deobandis took root in the late 19th century, subsequent to the cessation of Muslim rule in 1857. This conflict has been characterized by sporadic violence, disputes over control of mosques, and clashes in religious seminaries. The Barelvis view the Deobandis as a threat to their religion and country, and the rivalry has extended to pamphlet wars and physical altercations.

The primary disagreement between Barelvis and Deobandis, which led to the emergence of the Deobandi movement, revolves around their interpretation of the role of intermediaries in religion and the true status of the Prophet (PBUH). While Barelvis emphasize the intercession of the Prophet and the importance of Sufi mysticism, Deobandis adopt a more puritanical approach, often rejecting the veneration of saints and shrines. This theological divide has fueled tensions between the two movements, contributing to the ongoing rivalry.

Cooperation and Common Ground

Despite their divergences, Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims, particularly Barelvis, have identified shared interests with other Sunni Muslims, such as Sunni Sufi scholars, and participated in initiatives and conferences that aim to foster unity and combat extremism within traditional Sunni Islam. For instance, Barelvis have engaged in conferences, such as the International Islamic Unity Conference, and initiatives aimed at promoting moderation and unity in the Islamic community.

Barelvis have also cooperated with other Islamic movements in their shared struggle against terrorism and extremism. They have advocated for peace and interfaith dialogue, and have united against extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. These examples of cooperation demonstrate the potential for Barelvi Islam to play a constructive role in fostering dialogue and collaboration within the broader Muslim world, despite the challenges posed by historical rivalries and theological differences.

Barelvi Stance on Terrorism and Extremism

Photo of a peaceful anti-extremism protest

Barelvis have strongly opposed terrorism and extremism, denounced sectarian violence and issued religious decrees against suicide bombings. They have consistently advocated for peace and interfaith dialogue, positioning themselves as a moderate voice within the broader Muslim world. Their commitment to peace and tolerance distinguishes Barelvi Islam from more radical Islamic movements, often associated with acts of terrorism and violence.

However, some Barelvi groups have been involved in incidents that raise questions about their commitment to peace and tolerance. The assassination of Salman Taseer, the then Governor of Punjab, by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, who was a devotee of the Barelvi organization Dawat-e-Islami, is one such example. Despite these isolated incidents, the Barelvi movement as a whole has maintained a firm stance against extremism and violence, seeking to promote unity and understanding within the Muslim community.

The Future of Barelvi Islam

Illustration of the future of Barelvi Islam

The future direction of Barelvi Islam is likely to be influenced by its continued efforts to safeguard its Sufi-inspired traditions amidst increasing puritanical pressures, and the need to manage its intricate relationships with other Islamic movements. As Barelvi Islam continues to adjust to contemporary challenges and changes, maintaining fidelity to its core principles while engaging in conversations and collaborations with other Islamic traditions will be key.

Younger generations of Barelvi Muslims have a critical role to play in shaping the future of the movement. By transmitting the teachings of Islam to the next generations and serving as representatives of the Ummah, they can contribute to the evolution and reform of Barelvi Islam in the 21st century. It remains to be seen how the movement will continue to adapt and evolve in response to the challenges and opportunities presented by the modern world, but its rich history and vibrant spiritual tradition suggest that it will remain a vital force within the global Muslim community.


In conclusion, Barelvi Islam represents a vibrant, Sufi-inspired branch of Sunni Islam that continues to captivate the hearts and minds of millions across the world. With its rich history, distinctive beliefs and practices, and growing global presence, Barelvi Islam offers a unique perspective on the diverse tapestry of the Muslim world. As the movement continues to adapt and evolve in response to modern challenges and changes, it will be essential for Barelvis to maintain their spiritual essence, while also fostering dialogue and cooperation with other Islamic traditions. In doing so, Barelvi Islam has the potential to serve as a force for unity, understanding, and peace within the broader Muslim community.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the belief of Barelvi?

The Barelvis consider love and devotion to the Prophet Muhammad as an integral part of their faith, believing that Muhammad existed before creation as a divine light. They are obligated to protect his sanctity from any blasphemers or dishonorers.

What is difference between Deobandi and Barelvi?

The Deobandi movement is closely aligned with Wahhabism, advocating a strict interpretation of Islam. In contrast, the Barelvi movement follows more traditional South Asian Islamic practices, such as Sufi mysticism and emphasizing beliefs in the intercession of Muhammad, the knowledge of Muhammad, and the Nur Muhammadiyya (Light of Muhammad).

Who founded the Barelvi movement?

Imam Ahmed Raza Khan founded the Barelvi movement to preserve traditional Sunni beliefs and Sufi practices.

What is the concept of Nur in Barelvi Islam?

In Barelvi Islam, Nur (light) is the concept that Prophet Muhammad was created from divine light, existing prior to all creation.

How do Barelvis view terrorism and extremism?

Barelvis have strongly condemned sectarian violence and issued fatwas against suicide bombings, instead advocating for peace and interfaith dialogue to counter terrorism and extremism.