A Strange Meeting
By Ali khan
17 September 2009
A village in district Barabanki is a microcosm of the struggle between the Barelvi Sunnis and those with Wahhabi inclinations. The town's population is largely Sunni with a Shia minority. Before partition, the rulers of the estate were Shia and were a collateral branch of the Mahmudabad family. Mahmudabad's Muharram processions are famous all over India and in some parts of the world. When processions were banned in Lucknow, people flocked to Mahmudabad. Bilehra always had smaller processions but the thing that stood out was that most of the crowds were Sunni Muslims.
With the arrival of funds from some Middle East countries as well as returning migrant workers, some of whom had spent years away from home and were influenced by their surroundings, Bilehra gradually saw the rise of Wahhabism. The crowds in Muharram diminished and the number of people who attended prayers at the Barelvi mosque also fell. According to one young man, for a number of years the people who subscribed to the Barelvi school of thought would outwardly show loyalty to the Wahhabis.
The Wahhabis - with their puritanical behaviour and insistence that some Sunnis and all Shias are essentially infidels - have polarised Muslim societies worldwide. Their literalist interpretation of the Quran is reductionist and does not allow scope for debate, analysis or a contextual, historical and consequently nuanced understanding. They strictly forbid music, religious or spiritual, and veneration of holy men amongst many other things.
A number of urs, gatherings around the tomb of a Sufi pir where music is performed and poetry is read aloud in remembrance of the Prophet, his family and the pir, are held in and around Bilehra. People who attended these functions are now subject to the taunts of students at the Wahhabi mosques. During Muharram, people would be afraid of going to processions or keeping a tazia, a paper replica of the shrine of Imam Hussain in Iraq, in their houses since these acts would also mark them out for heckling and jeering. The less powerful Barelvis could not match the money or resources thrown at them. But it is not power or money that has shaken or caught by surprise the Wahhabis.
Earlier this year an individual ignored and labelled a madman who roamed the streets of Bilehra became the crucial factor in the resurgence of the Barelvis. Mastaan Baba was homeless. People remember him wandering around, sleeping under trees, eating what little he was given and never trying to gather any worldly possessions. About six months ago, he was asleep as usual underneath a mango tree in the fields adjoining the Kerbala, where the tazias are brought after the processions and buried. A little girl came and lay down next to him and when he noticed her he got upset, pushed her and asked her to go away. Apparently, when she got up, her back had straightened and she was no longer a hunchback.
People flocked from villages all around to see the girl and to see this man. He continued to wear what he had always worn, a dirty white kurta, a black lungi or cotton towel wrapped around his legs like a sarong. He carried a little satchel tucked under his arms. The little brick room in which he sometimes slept has now become a beehive of activity. People have set up shops around the room, a power cable that was meant to be laid a long time ago is now finally in place and there is a constant throng around him.
Politicians, IAS officers and many other officials have all come to him in different capacities. Since that night he hit the girl, there have been more stories about his powers and how he has changed people's lives. Hindus and Muslims both are seen around him. This article is not about whether following him is permissible in Islam. It seems that people are desperate to seek out men who have not been 'corrupted' by the material world. The rise of Mastaan Baba in Bilehra has had an inadvertent effect on Bilehra's Muslims.
People who had gone over to the Wahhabi mosque and others who had hidden their true sympathies with the Barelvis have started to drift back. Whereas the Barelvi mosque used to be nearly empty with about 30 people, recent Eid prayers saw close to 300 people in attendance. Wahhabis in Bilehra who openly condemned anything involving the veneration of living or dead men as innovations in Islam, have found themselves drawn to a quiet, wandering man. A few refuse to acknowledge Mastaan Baba but, according to people who live there, their wives and daughters regularly and secretly go to visit him!
It seems there are now a couple of more people in Bilehra who claim to be Mastaan Baba. Regardless of whether this man is genuine or not, it seems he has managed to single-handedly and unintentionally stall the rise of Wahhabism, in and around Bilehra.
The writer is a student of religious studies.