The Ahl-e Hadis emerged as a distinctive orientation among Indian ulema in the late-nineteenth-century milieu of reformist thought, publication, debate, and internal proselytizing. Like other reformers, they fostered devotion to the prophet Muhammad and fidelity to shari_a. Unlike them, they opposed jurisprudential taqlid (imitation) of the classic law schools in favor of direct use of hadith. They also opposed the entire institution of Sufism, a stance that further marginalized them. Like the Deobandis, they claimed to be heirs of Shah Wali Allah (d. 1763), and they encouraged simplification of ceremony and the practice of widow remarriage. Their practices in the canonical prayer (including uttering “amen” aloud and lifting their hands at the time of bowing) led to conflicts ultimately settled in British courts.
Core supporters of the Ahl-e Hadis came from educated and often well-born backgrounds. Cosmopolitan in orientation, they identified themselves with similar groupsin Afghanistan and Arabia. Within India, they turned to princes for Support, most famously with the marriage of Maulana Siddiq Hasan Khan (1832–1890) to the ruling Begum of Bhopal. Siddiq Hasan supported the classic interpretations of jihad,without the apologetic glosses of the day. Despite his writing to the contrary, he was suspected of disloyalty, as was another major figure in the movement, Sayyid Nazir Husain (d. 1902), who was briefly arrested as a “Wahhabi,” as supporters of the Arab Muhammad Abd al Wahhab (1703–1792) were called. Suspicion of the Ahl-e Hadis abated by 1889, marked by the success of a campaign to drop the word “Wahhabi” in official British colonial correspondence.
The armed Lashkar-e Tayyiba, affiliated with the Ahl-e Hadis in Pakistan, is alleged to have been active both within Pakistan and Kashmir since the 1990s.
The Ahl al-Hadith (people of the traditions) appear to have developed out of a pious reaction to the assassination of Caliph Yazid b. Walid (d. 744). Prior to Yazid’s assassination, scholars who emphasized hadith (traditions of the prophet Muhammad) as the primary source for interpreting the Will of God were disorganized and fairly removed from the widespread emphasis on applying varying levels of reason to the Qur_an. Yazid’s assassination was interpreted by more conservative groups as a revolution against the predestined plan of God. Whether or not the early Ahl al-Hadith were aligned with the Umayyad caliphate, as were many of the Jabriyya (advocates of predestination), it is clear that many understood Yazid’s assassination as a sign of the general decay of the Muslim community, the blame for which they assigned to the uncontrolled use of personal opinion by the Ahl al-Ra_y (people of considered opinion).
After the Abbasid revolution (c. 720–750), the Ahl al-Hadith developed into the main group opposed to the dominance of the rationalist theology of the Mutazilites. During the religious inquisition or Mihna (833–850) many of the Ahl al-Hadith were imprisoned for refusing to agree to the doctrine of the Created Qur_an. Members of the Ahl al-Hadith, such as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (d. 855), became important religious and social leaders due to their refusal to recant their beliefs in the eternal nature of the Qur_an. After the Mihna, the Ahl al-Hadith led an anti rationalist movement that forced advocates of rationalist thought underground. In the centuries following the initial triumph of the Ahl al-Hadith, a middle ground emerged that placed greater emphasis on a combination of reason and tradition. The Ahl al-Hadith formed a school of legal thought named after Ahmad Ibn Hanbal that continued to pursue legal methods that focused less on uses of reason and more on tradition. The Hanbali fixation on tradition led to a series ofreform movements that have sought to “revive” the moral and ethical standards of the first generations of Muslims. The contemporary influence of Ahl al-Hadith ideology continues to be important for a number of diverse groups. Organizations such as the Indonesian Muhammadiyah and the Islamic Society of North America, as well as the violent al-Qa_ida and Islamic Jihad, each bases its ideologies on ideas that emerged out of the Ahl al-Hadith and Hanbali movement over the last eight centuries.