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Islam and Sectarianism ( 24 Jan 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Sectarianism: A Profound Ideological Crisis In The Indian Muslim Community


By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

25 Jan 2017

The founding editor of New Age Islam, Mr. Sultan Shahin has asked a pertinent question in his recent article:“Sectarian unity is certainly an admirable goal. The intention behind it, however, is also very important. Wahhabi-Deobandi and Sufi-Barelvi sects, who call each other kafir (infidel), are seeking to unite for some months now.  But towards what end?”

On May 10, 2016, The Indian Express reported the beginning of the unification between the two majority Muslim groups in the country— Deobandis and Barelwis—who have been vehemently opposed since their creation. 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 Deobandi 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”.

According to several other media outlets, noted Deobandi and Barelwi clerics organised conferences and meetings—first in Deoband and then in Ajmer—putting forward a proposal for the unity of ummah (Muslim community) in India. Both the Barelwis and Deobandi Muslim sects with an overwhelming majority in the community have been declaring each other beyond the pale of Islam for decades. Therefore, the news that they are now aspiring to unite themselves has to come as a surprise to many. But it is equally staggering to note the reason they are advocating the ‘unity of Muslim ummah’ for. The country’s ruling party, they believe, is ‘deliberately’ trying to further their sectarian divide ‘to drive a wedge among the Indian Muslims’. Thus, as word of the political fright hanging on the community’s political leaders is clearly at play.

Commenting on this surprising development, several observers of the Indian Muslims’ affairs averred that the unity between the two vehemently opposed Muslim sects is being formed in response to the ‘dividing policy’ of the ruling “anti-Muslim” regime. As evidence, they cite the recently held mega Sufi event in Delhi, World Sufi Forum which had the presence of the P M Modi as one of the chief guests. For instance, Syed Zubair Ahmed, editor of Muslim Mirror, an online Muslim media outlet opinionated: “There is a growing fear and perception amongst the community that it 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 between the community now”, he told The Indian Express.

In fact, the Barelwi and Deobandi sects have indulged in deep-rooted theological polemics which have often caused serious inter-sect tensions. Given this, bridging the sectarian gap is certainly a welcome move. It should have long been done. But shifting the blame for their own internal problem to the government and maligning the Sufi divines’ effort to counter religious fanaticism is bizarre. Isn’t it the run-of-the-mill narrative of denial and victimhood far from the introspection required in the community?

Instead of a stage-show of the Barelwi-Deobandi truce, it was high time both Muslim sects’ clergy sincerely reflected 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 in the undivided India as a quasi-Sufi group of clergy. It was launched 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 (TTP). According to the Pakistani media reports, Talibani militants in the north-eastern Pakistan sprang out of a local Deobandi madrasa. The 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 zindiqs (heretics), badmazhab (erroneous in faith) and gumrah (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 Dr. Qadri on the grounds of his interfaith activities like participation in the 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 of the extremist Barelwi fatwas can be seen in the reactionary protests of the Mumbai-based Raza Academy, a religio-political Barelwi wing. In March, 2012, the Academy demanded ban on Tahirul Qadri’s speeches on interfaith harmony following the Barelwi fatwa declaring it akin to shirk fil risalah, a grave form of polytheism. But the Bombay High Court granted conditional permission to Dr Qadri to hold public gatherings in the city and thus Raza Academy failed in its petition against him.

Tellingly, Raza Academy was the first Muslim outfit to have campaigned against the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's ambitious biopic, Muhammad: The Messenger of God. The film based on the early life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) faced a threatening fatwa from the Barelwi clergy who didn’t even watch and review the content, as the movie had not been launched. But the fatwa lambasted the film maker Majidi 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. Therefore, they charged the entire film making crew—including the Indian Muslim music composer AR Rahman who gave the music for this Islamic movie—with harsh fatwas of blasphemy and apostasy (irtidad). Following this, the Raza Academy demanded everyone associated with Majidi’s movie to recite the kalima (to confess faith in Islam) and come into the fold of Islam again. The fatwa was issued by Mufti Mahmood AkhtarQadri, 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 spiritual experiences working on the film are very personal, and I would prefer not to share these… 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, AR Rahman, the film maker Majid Majidi also showed a very pious intention behind this film. In his interview to the Iranian magazine Hezbollah Line, Majidiis 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.

But despite the clearly stated devout ambitions behind the Islamic film and its welcome reception in the Shia-majority Iran, the Barelwi clergy issued a fatwa against Majid Majidi and AR Rahman demanding the Indian government to ban the film in the country.

Besides the Islamic movies, Sufi music and women’s shrine visitation, the hard-line Barelwi ulema have banned a lot more 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.


A regular New Age Islam columnist, Ghulam RasoolDehlvi is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies.


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