Barelvi (Urdu: بَریلوِی‎, Barēlwī, Urdu pronunciation: [bəreːlʋi]) is a movement following the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence, with over 200 million followers in South Asia.[1] The name derives from the north Indian town of Bareilly, the hometown of its founder and main leader Ahmed Raza Khan (1856–1921).[2][3][4][5][6] Although Barelvi is the commonly used term in the media and academia, the followers of the movement often prefer to be known by the title of Ahle Sunnat wa Jama'at, (Urdu: اہل سنت وجماعت‎) or as Sunnis, a reference to their perception as forming an international majority movement.[7]

The movement emphasizes personal devotion to Allah and the Muslim prophet Muhammad and a synthesis of Sharia with Sufi practices such as veneration of saints.[8][9] Because of this, they are often called Sufi.[10] The movement later identified as "Barelvi" to differentiate itself from the Deobandi movement.[11][12]



The Barelvi movement is named after the town of Bareilly, India, from where this movement was originated.[13][14]

To its followers, the Barelvi movement is the Ahle Sunnat wal Jama'at, or "People of the traditions [of Muhammad] and the community," and they refer to themselves as Sunnis. This terminology is used to lay exclusive claim to be the only legitimate form of Sunni Islam in South Asia, in opposition to the Deobandi, Ahl-i Hadith, Salafis and Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama followers.[7][12][15]


The Barelvi movement became known as Barelvi due to their leader Ahmad Raza Khan[16][17][11][18] who established Islamic schools in 1904 with the Manzar-e-Islam.[12][19] The Barelvi movement formed as a defense of the traditional mystic practices of South Asia, which it sought to prove and support.[20]

Although the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama was founded in 1893 to reconcile South Asia's Muslim sectarian differences, the Barelvis eventually withdrew their support from the council and criticized its efforts as heretical, radical, and counter to the Islamic values.[21]

In contrast with the Deobandi movement, the Barelvis showed unequivocal support for the Movement for Pakistan. In the aftermath of the 1948 Partition, they formed an association to represent the movement in Pakistan, called Jamiyyat-u Ulam-i Pakistan (JUP). Like ulema of the Deobandi and Ahl-i Hadith movements, Barelvi ulema have advocated application of sharia law across the country.[22]

As a reaction to the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, a conglomerate of forty Barelvi parties called for a boycott of Western goods, while at the same time condemning violence which had taken place in protest against the film.[23]


India Today estimates that the vast majority of Muslims in India adhere to the Barelvi movement,[24] and The Heritage Foundation, Time and The Washington Post give similar assessments for the vast majority of Muslims in Pakistan.[25][26][27][28] Political scientist Rohan Bedi estimates that 60% of Pakistani Muslims are Barelvis.[29]

The majority of people in the United Kingdom of Pakistani and Kashmir origin are descended from immigrants from Barelvi-majority areas.[7] The Barelvi movement in Pakistan has received funding from Barelvis in the UK, in part as a reaction to rival movements in Pakistan also receiving funding from abroad.[30] According to an editorial in the English-language Pakistani newspaper The Daily Times, many of these mosques have been however usurped by Saudi-funded radical organizations.[31]


Like other Sunni Muslims, Barelvis base their beliefs on the Quran and Sunnah and believe in monotheism and the prophethood of Muhammad. Although Barelvis may follow any one of the Ashari and Maturidi schools of Islamic theology and one of the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i and Hanbali madhhabs of fiqh in addition to optionally choosing from one of the Sunni Sufi orders like the Qadiri, Chishti or the Suhrawardi tariqas, most Barelvis in South Asia follow the Maturidi school of Islamic theology and the Hanafi madhhab of fiqh.[32][33]

Light of Muhammad (Nur Muhammadiyya)Edit

A central doctrine of the Barelvi movement is that Muhammad is both human and light.[34] According to the doctrine, Muhammad's physical birth was preceded by his existence as light which pre-dates creation. According to this doctrine the primordial reality of Muhammad existed before creation and that creation was created out of God's love for the Muhammad.[35] Proponents of this doctrine believe that the word Nur (light) in the Quran 5:15 refer to Muhammad.

Sahl al-Tustari the famous 9th century Sufi commentator of the Quran, describes the creation of the primordial light of Muhammad in his tafsir.[36] Al-Tustari's student, Mansur Al-Hallaj, affirms this doctrine in his book ‘’Ta Sin Al-Siraj’’.[36]

"That is, in the beginning when God, Glorified and Exalted is He, created him as a light within a column of light (nūran fī ʿamūd al-nūr), a million years before creation, with the essential characteristics of faith (ṭabāʾiʿ al-īmān), in a witnessing of the unseen within the unseen (mushāhadat al-ghayb bi’l-ghayb). He stood before Him in servanthood (ʿubūdiyya), by the lote tree of the Ultimate Boundary [53:14], this being a tree at which the knowledge of every person reaches its limit."

Sahl al-Tustari, Tafsir of Surah An-Najm ayat 13[37]

"when there shrouded the lote tree that which shrouded [it].This means: ▛that which shrouded▜ the lote tree (ay mā yaghshā al-shajara) was from the light of Muḥammad as he worshipped. It could be likened to golden moths, which God sets in motion towards Him from the wonders of His secrets. All this is in order to increase him [Muḥammad] in firmness (thabāt) for the influx [of graces] (mawārid) which he received [from above]."

Sahl al-Tustari, Tafsir of Surah An-Najm ayat 16[37]

According to Stūdīyā Islāmīkā, all Sufi orders are united in the belief of the light of Muhammad and generate practices with this concept as a foundational belief.[38]

Multipresence of Muhammad (Hazir o Nazir)Edit

Another central doctrine of the Barelvi movement is that Muhammad can witness and be present in multiple places as the same time (Hazir-o-Nazir).[39] The doctrine is present in various Sufi works prior to the Barelvi movement, such as Sayyid Uthman Bukhari's (d. ca. 1687) Jawahir al-Quliya (Jewels of the Friends of God), where he instructs how Sufis may have manifested to them the presence of Muhammad.[40] Proponents of this doctrine assert that the term Shahid (Witness) in Quran 33:45 4:41 refers to this ability of Muhammad and provide various hadiths as sources to support this belief.[41]

Muhammad's Knowledge of the Unseen (Ilm e Ghaib)Edit

A fundamental belief of the Barelvi movement is that Muhammad has knowledge of the unseen.[42] This relates to the concept of Ummi as mentioned in the Quran 7:157. Barelvis do not see this word as referring to unlettered or illiterate, but rather see it as referring to one who is not taught by man. The consequence of this belief is that Muhammad therefore learns directly from God and his knowledge is universal in nature and encompasses the seen and unseen realms. This belief predates the Barelvi movement and can be found in Sufi books such as Rumi's Fihi Ma Fihi[43] in which he states:

Mohammed is not called “unlettered” [Ummi] because he was incapable of writing or reading. He is called “unlettered” [Ummi] because with him writing and wisdom were innate, not taught. He who inscribes characters on the face of the moon, is such a man not able to write? And what is there in all the world that he does not know, seeing that all people learn from him? What can the partial intellect know that the Universal Intellect [Muhammad] does not possess?

Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi, translated by A. J. Arberry, p. 257

Intercession of MuhammadEdit

A fundamental belief of those within the Barelvi movement is that Muhammad helps in this life and in the afterlife.[44] According to this doctrine, God helps through Muhammad (Tawassul). Sunni Muslims of the Barelvi movement commonly call upon Muhammad using statements such as ‘’Ya Rasool Allah’’ with the belief that any ability that Muhammad has to help others is from God, who helps through Muhammad. The help received from Muhammad is therefore considered God's help.[44] Sunni Muslims of the Barelvi movement believe that Muhammad is a Rahmah (mercy) to all creation as mentioned in the Quran 21:107.[44] Muhammad therefore is a means by which God expresses his attribute, Ar-Rahman, to creation.[44] Proponents of this belief look to the Quran 4:64 as a proof that God prefers to help through Muhammad.

They also believe that in the afterlife, on the day of judgement, Muhammad will intercede on the behalf of his followers and God will forgive his nation of sins and allow them to enter Jannah (paradise).[44]

The belief of Muhammad providing support and help is a common theme within classical Sufi literature. An example of this can be found in Fariduddin Attar’s book The Conference of the Birds in which he details the story of a Shaykh, named Sam’an, who travels to Rome where he falls deeply in love with a Christian woman.[45] The woman after seeing his state commands him to do acts forbidden in Islam to prove himself to her and the Shaykh begins to drift away from Islam.[45] Concerned disciples and friends of the Shaykh decide to go to Makkah to pray for the Shaykh and make many supplications for him. One of them has a vision of Muhammad who says: ‘’I have loosed the chains which bound your sheikh - your prayer is answered, go.‘’[45] They return to Rome to find that Shaykh Sam'an has returned to Islam and that the Christian woman whom he loved had also become a Muslim.

The belief of Muhammad interceding is found in various hadith as well.

A Bedouin of the desert visited the Prophet’s tomb and greeted the Prophet, addressing him directly as if he were alive. “Peace upon you, Messenger of God!” Then he said, “I heard the word of God ‘If, when they had wronged themselves . . .,’ I came to you seeking pardon for my mistakes, longing for your intercession with our Lord!” The Bedouin then recited a poem in praise of the Prophet and departed. The person who witnessed the story says that he fell asleep, and in a dream he saw the Prophet saying to him, “O ‘Utbi, rejoin our brother the Bedouin and announce [to] him the good news that God has pardoned him!”[46][47][48]


  • Public celebration of Muhammad's birthday.[49][50]
  • Veneration of dead and living saints. This consists of the intervention of an ascending, linked and unbroken chain of holy personages claimed to reach ultimately to Muhammad, who Barelvis believe intercede on their behalf with God.[9][51][52]
  • Visiting the tombs of Muhammad, his companions and of pious Muslims, an act the Barelvis claim is supported by the Quran, Sunnah and acts of the companions, but which some opponents call "shrine-worshipping" ("grave worshiping") and consider to be un-Islamic.[53][54][55][56]
  • Group dhikr which involves synchronized movements of the body while chanting the names of God. Some groups, notably those in the Chishti Sufi order engage in qawwali whereas others prefer not to use musical instruments. (Sfeir 2007, p. 339)[57][58][59][60]
  • Leaving the beard to grow for men; the movement views a man who trims his beard to less than a fist-length as a sinner, and shaving the beard is considered abominable.[61]

Barelvis and Sufi traditionEdit

Tasawwuf or Sufism is a fundamental aspect of the Barelvi movement. Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi himself was a part of the Qadri Sufi Tariqa and did Bayah (pledged allegiance) to Sayyid Shah Al ur-Rasul Marehrawi.[62][63] Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi instructed his followers on Sufi beliefs and practices and made strong arguments in support of them. Traditional Sufi practices such as devotion to Muhammad and the veneration of the Awliya Allah remains an integral part of the movement.[64][65] According to The Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism, Barelvis are often called Sufi because of their mystic practices, although they have little in common with the Sufism of classical Islamic mystics.[10] Other sources say that Barelvis upheld traditional Sufi beliefs and practices[66] and support the Sufi identity of the Barelvis.[64][67][68][69]


Relations with other movementsEdit

Having formed as a reaction against the reformist Deobandi movement, relations between the two groups have often been strained. Ahmad Raza Khan, the founder of Barelvis, went as far as to declare all Deobandis infidels and apostates.[70]

Although conflict has occurred, relations with other Muslim movements in South Asia have not always been hostile. In mid-2012, leaders of both the Barelvi and Ahl al-Hadith movements in the Kashmir Valley denied that there was any animosity between the two sects in the region, saying that Kashmiris can ill afford sectarian strife after two decades of bloodbath.[71]

Historically, relations between the Barelvi movement and the British administration of India have been better than those of other Islamic movements.[7] R. Upadhyay and Rajesh T. Krishnamachari of the India-based South Asia Analysis Group (SAAG) have denied that a simple comparison exists between Barelvism and Deobandism on any scale of tolerance or moderation.[72][73] According to the same SAAG analysis, the "Deobandi-Barelvi rivalry is also known to be rooted to their ethnic rivalry."[72]

Conflicts with the TalibanEdit

The Barelvi movement has taken a stance against the various Taliban movements in South Asia, organising rallies and protests in India and Pakistan, condemning what they perceive as unjustified sectarian violence.[74] The Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), an amalgamation of eight Sunni organizations, launched the Save Pakistan Movement to stem the process of Talibanisation. Terming the Taliban a product of global anti-Islam conspiracies, the leaders of SIC charged the Taliban with playing into the hands of the United States to divide Muslims and bring a bad name to Islam.[75]

Supporting this movement, the Pakistan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said: "The Sunni Tehreek has decided to activate itself against Talibanisation in the country. A national consensus against terrorism is emerging across the country."[76]

In 2009 another prominent Islamic scholar and mufti, or jurisconsult, of the movement, the late Sarfraz Ahmed Naeemi, issued a fatwa denouncing suicide bombings,[77] as well as criticizing Taliban leader Sufi Muhammad by saying he "should wear bangles if he is hiding like a woman". Naeemi added: "Those who commit suicide attacks for attaining paradise will go to hell, as they kill many innocent people". Naeemi himself was killed by a suicide bomber.[78]

Sectarian violenceEdit

Analysts and journalists have produced conflicting opinions about the underlying nature of the Barelvi movement, with some describing the group as moderate and peaceful,[79] while others describe it as being affected by intolerance and radicalism in ways similar to other Islamic movements in the region.[72][28][80][81][82][83]

In the 1990s and 2000s, sporadic violence resulted from disputes between the Barelvi and Deobandi movements over control of Pakistani mosques,[84] with the conflict coming to a head in May 2001 when sectarian riots broke out after the assassination of Sunni Tehreek leader Saleem Qadri.[85] In April 2006 in Karachi, a bomb attack on a Barelvi gathering in celebration of Muhammad's birthday killed at least 57 people, including several central leaders of the Sunni Tehreek.[86][87] In April 2007, Sunni Tehreek activists attempted forcibly to gain control of a mosque in Karachi, opening fire on the mosque and those inside, killing one person and injuring three others.[88] On 27 February 2010, militants believed to be affiliated with the Taliban and Sipah-e-Sahaba attacked Barelvis celebrating mawlid in Faisalabad and Dera Ismail Khan, again sparking tensions among the rival sects.[89]

Stand on Blasphemy LawEdit

On 4 January 2011, the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by a member of the Barelvi group Dawat-e-Islami, Mumtaz Qadri, due to Taseer's opposition to the blasphemy law.[82][90] Over five hundred scholars of the Barelvi movement voiced support for him and urged a boycott of Taseer's funeral.[72][28][81][83][91] According to Time, Sunni Tehreek rewarded the assassin's family[92][93] and threatened Taseer's family.[82][94][95] Supporters attempted to prevent police from bringing Mumtaz Qadri to an anti-terrorism court, blocking the way and cheering on him, showering rose petals.[96] In 2014 a Sunni mosque was built in Islamabad named after Mumtaz Qadri, whose admirers are Barelvis; as of 2014, the mosque was so popular that it started raising funds to double its capacity.[97][98][99]


Barelvis have been targeted and killed by radical Deobandi groups such as the TTP, SSP, LeJ, etc.[100] Suicide attacks, vandalism and destruction of sites considered holy to those in the Barelvi movement have been perpetrated by Deobandi extremist groups. This includes attacks, destruction and vandalism of Data Darbar in Lahore, Abdullah Shah Ghazi's tomb in Karachi, Khal Magasi in Balochistan, and Rahman Baba's tomb in Peshawar.[100] The murder of various Barelvi leaders have also been committed by Deobandi terrorists.[100]


Some commentators[who?] see the Barelvi movement as a radical movement which does not accept the views of the Deoband Ulama, the Ahl al-Hadith and some others.[101]

Notable scholarsEdit

Early scholarsEdit

Present scholarsEdit