Minorities

Threat of fatwas, from both Barelwi and Deobandi clergy, looms large scaring a sizeable section of the Muslim society in India

January 26, 2017 01:51 PM
Muslim gathering (File pic)

WRITER: Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi
Stalwarts from both Muslim sects want to unite their followers only in public to fight a ‘common enemy’. Clearly, it is a politically motivated slugfest rather than a genuine effort to counter sectarianism. The ideologues are steeped in religious humbug and disparage one another over trivial theological polemics.

n the end of 2016, prominent leaders of Deobandis and Barelwis—the two majority Muslim sects in India— organised large-scale conferences putting forward a proposal for the unity of Muslim ummah (community) in India.

Thus, the threat of fanatic fatwas, from both Barelwi and Deobandi clergy, looms large in India scaring a sizeable section of the Muslim society. Given that Muslim clergy don’t reflect on this deeper ideological crisis in the community, the Barelwi-Deobandi truce is simply pointless. Without this introspection, the community’s unity, integrity and harmony will remain merely a mirage.

Several meetings and events were recently held at Deoband and Ajmer, as reported in several Urdu newspapers. The two largest Islamic sects in India which have been vehemently opposed for decades are now seeking to unite. The reason, they aver, is: a rising fear of the ruling party which they believe is ‘deliberately’ trying to further their sectarian divide ‘to drive a wedge between the Muslims’.

On May 10, 2016, the media reported the `beginning of the unification’. Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, a noted Barelwi cleric, surprisingly visited Darul Uloom Deoband, the leading seminary of Deobandi school of thought in India. He met with the influential ulema including the Darul Uloom’s current rector (naazim-e-a’ala) Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani, and stressed the need for unity of Indian Muslims to fight the “common enemy”. 

So, both the stalwarts have emerged to unite their followers only in public to fight a ‘common enemy’. Clearly, it is a politically motivated slugfest rather than a genuine effort to counter sectarianism. 

In fact, Barelwi-Deobandi unity is a mere figment of imagination. The ‘unity’ we saw in Ajmer conclave or at Deoband meetings were nothing short of stage-shows.  The ground reality is these 'priestly' sections are the biggest practitioners of sectarianism today. Their influential ideologues are deeply steeped in dogmatic and retrogressive religious humbug, disparaging one another over trivial theological polemics.  So can we expect from this false display of unity? Given this deeper ideological dilemma, only gullible Muslim masses would be naïve to expect those who are vanguards of the Barelwi-Deobandi sectarianism, to fight against it. 

More surprising is the bizarre observation of several community watchers. They glorify the Barelwi-Deobandi ‘unity’ as a fitting response to the ‘dividing policy’of the ruling “anti-Muslim” regime. They buttress their point citing the World Sufi Forum which had the presence of the PM Modi. Syed Zubair Ahmed, editor of Muslim Mirror, an online Muslim media outlet opinionated: “There is a growing fear and perception that the community is being targeted and attempts are being made to divide it. The recently held Sufi conference was seen as a way of creating rift in the Muslim community. This [Barelwi-Deobandi unification] is significant as a message is being sent that it will be difficult to drive a wedge in the community now”.

Of course, fighting sectarianism is welcome. Given the deep-rooted Barelwi- Deobandi sectarian tensions which often caused serious repercussions, bridging the sectarian gap is long overdue. But shifting the entire blame to the government and maligning the Sufi divines’ effort to counter religious fanaticism is appalling. Isn’t it the run-of-the-mill theory of conspiracy far from the introspection required in the community?  

Instead of a stage-show, both Muslim sects’ clergy must sincerely reflect on the prevailing sectarian psyche plagued with extremist thoughts. An objective observation reveals that not only the Deobandi-Wahhabi clergy but a section of the present-day Barelwi ulema have also fanned the fire of religious extremism among the country’s gullible Muslims.   

The Barelwi movement emerged in 1880 as a quasi-Sufi group of clergy to refute the extremist thoughts of the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideologues. Seceding from the mainstream Sunni-Sufi school of thought, the pioneering Deobandi ulema like Maulvi Ismail Dehlvi and Syed Ahmad “Shaheed” got aligned with the Wahhabi think-tank. Inevitably, the subsequent generation of Deobandi Muslims incorporated an ultra-puritanical and exclusivist narrative of Islam. Therefore, Deobandi followers were easily drawn towards Islamist militancy. Many researchers have found theological linkages between the Deoband and the Tahrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. According to the Pakistani media reports, Talibani militants in the north-eastern Pakistan sprang out of a local Deobandi madrasa. Radical Islamist seminaries like the one at Lal Masjid were found ideologically linked with the Deobandi school of thought.

However, the mainstream Indian Sufi-Sunni Muslims led by the Barelwi ulema practiced a relatively tolerant and traditional Islam. They were greatly imbued in the precepts and practices of Islamic mysticism interchangeably known as Sufism.

But the recent developments have distressed the community watchers and progressive Muslim thinkers. The Barelwi group of Indian Muslims, who prided themselves in their tolerant Sufi-Sunni tradition, are at times drawn towards the religious fanaticism very similar to the notorious Wahhabi extremism.

In the name of ‘reforming Sufism’, many hardline Barelwi clerics today are peddling hatred against the liberal and tolerant ideas espoused by the earlier Indian Sufi saints. They literally castigate the non-conformist and mystically-inclined Sufi practitioners who profess liberalism in their religious outlook, declaring them heretics, erroneous in faith and misguided. 

For instance— Pakistani-origin Canadian Sufi scholar Dr. Tahirul Qadri has been declared a ‘deviant Muslim’ by a large section of the Barelwi muftis (Islamic jurists). A number of Barelwi fatwas have targeted him for participation in non-Muslim celebrations, Sufi dance and music, welcoming other faith leaders in mosques. Such retrogressive and hardline fatwas are on the rise in the Barelwi clerical circle. Evidently, they are no different from the Deobandi clergy running the scary fatwa-factories in the country. 

The impact can be seen in the reactionary protests of the Mumbai-based Raza Academy which demanded a ban on Qadri. But the Bombay High Court granted conditional permission to Dr Qadri to hold public gatherings and thus Raza Academy failed in its petition against him.

Tellingly, Raza Academy was the first to have campaigned against the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's ambitious biopic, Muhammad: The Messenger of God. The film faced a threatening fatwa when the movie had not been launched! Undaunted, the fatwa lambasted the film maker for his ‘sinful’ attempt to portray the Prophet’s life through the cinema, something which is ‘haram’ (strictly forbidden) in Islamic Shari’ah according to the authoritative Barelwi clergy. 

The fatwa was issued by an acclaimed Barelwi cleric appointed as imam at Haji Ali Dargah’s mosque, who also runs a fatwa centre (Darul Ifta) in the city. He was behind the much-hyped fatwa against women’s entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah.

However, it is noteworthy, the prime Sufi shrines, particularly Ajmer Sharif and Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, took a stand against the Barelwi fatwas on music and film-making on the Prophet’s life. They rather commended AR Rahman for his ‘brilliant’ performance and called him ‘a true believer’. According to the media reports, AR Rahman issued a written statement in which he stated: “I am not a scholar of Islam. I follow the middle path and am part traditionalist and part rationalist”... … My decision to compose the music for this film was made in good faith with no intention of causing offence.”

It was indeed distressing to note that just like the film composer, Majidi also showed a very pious intention behind this film. In an interview, Majidi is reported to have stated: “I decided to make this film to fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West..... The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism”, he said.

Besides the Islamic movies, Sufi music and women’s shrine visitation, the hardline Barelwi ulema have banned many cultural practices which exhort social affinity and religious harmony. 

Thus, the threat of fanatic fatwas, from both Barelwi and Deobandi clergy, looms large in India scaring a sizeable section of the Muslim society. Given that Muslim clergy don’t reflect on this deeper ideological crisis in the community, the Barelwi-Deobandi truce is simply pointless. Without this introspection, the community’s unity, integrity and harmony will remain merely a mirage.

 

The writer is a scholar of classical Islamic sciences and researcher in communication studies

Have something to say? Post your comment