New Age Islam
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Islam and Sectarianism ( 14 Sept 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Poverty of Islamic Scholarship in India: Sectarian Differences Can Only Be Bridged With Revolutionary Reform in Islamic Theology

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

September 15, 2021

Ulama And Other Muslim Leaders Have Made Numerous Efforts Of Unity Ignoring The Fact That The Sectarian Differences Among The Muslims In India Are Based On Theological, Not Political Differences

Main Points:

1.    This essay criticizes the ‘Ulema’s approach to deal with the sectarian and political problems of Indian Muslims.

2.    It highlights that the sectarian differences of Muslims are theological, not political.

3.    And that ‘ulema should creatively engage with their tradition to deal with the theological problems, and interpret their tradition to make it adjustable to the current realities.


Last month, on August 8, 2021, a section of elite leadership of Indian Muslims organized a closed-door meeting of ‘ulema and Muslim intellectuals in Hotel River View, Okhla, Delhi, to discuss a roadmap for uniting the different factions of Indian Muslims against the political uncertainties that they are facing in India. Since the meeting was exclusive, uninvited persons were not welcomed there. As anticipated, it raised concerns among certain people on the social media platforms. This meeting was followed by another meeting the very next day. Unlike the first meeting, it did not seem planned. It was convened and presided by Sajjad Nomani, a well-known ‘Alim and preacher, who was also among the organizers of the previous meeting.

By a happy coincidence, I was visiting a friend where the meeting was convened, so I got an opportunity to sneak into the meeting hall to have a look at whatever was going on. I asked around and learned that the meeting was planned that very morning and that people were invited by phone call. The friends I was visiting were also invited to the meeting. However, they told me that they did not have any idea what this meeting was about. Ubaidullah Khan Azmi, a renowned Barelvi scholar, and politician, who was sitting beside Nomani, commenced the meeting with a passionate speech highlighting the significance of being united against the current political challenges. At the end of his speech, he told the audience that the purpose of this gathering was to seek advice and recommendations from the people in attendance for resolving the sectarian and political problems of Indian Muslims. Soon, people started giving their best suggestions one by one, occasionally interrupted by comments from Nomani and Azmi. 

The purpose of narrating this event is to share my disappointment with the readers. Any sensible person would realize that it was a total waste of resources. As I said earlier, the meeting seemed unplanned, and even though the issues, i.e., sectarian, and political problems of Muslims, were important and required serious conversation, the convenors, Nomani, and Azmi, did not give it enough thought to do it justice. Azmi asked the participants to offer their advice regarding the sectarian and political problems within five minutes, which is absurd. Because there is a difference between a well-articulated and researched response and a quick and unprepared response, the fact that Nomani ignored. The participants were undoubtedly not prepared to respond to such questions properly. Therefore, the suggestions that came from the people sitting around the long table were superficial, generalized, and monotonous, and unable to generate a serious conversation. And above all, there was no recording of their oral statements and suggestions.

The recording of the conversation was not only necessary for transparency, but also for including other people in the discussion. Furthermore, their approach to deal with sectarian and political issues was misconceived. In the last few years, ‘ulema have been calling for a unity of the different sects of Muslims in India. This call, no doubt, is made due to the pressure of the current political climate. ‘Ulama and other Muslim leaders have made numerous efforts in this regard while ignoring the fact that the sectarian differences among the Muslims in India are based on theological, not political differences.

 And such theological differences can be ameliorated or, at least, reduced only by establishing a theological dialogue. For example, in universities like Jamia Millia Islamia or Aligarh Muslim University, a Barelvi and a Deobandi can become close friends, yet when the time of prayer comes the Barelvi cannot pray behind his Deobandi friend. This is because Barelvi theology does not consider a Deobandi a Muslim, so dealing with a Deobandi for a Barelvi is like dealing with any other non-Muslim.

Similarly, a Deobandi regards a Barelvi as a Bid’ati that is, an innovator in religion, and therefore, misguided in his/her religion. This is also the case among other sects of Muslims in India. So, even if they get united out of their fear of the current political scenario, this unity cannot survive much longer. Since Muslims from different sectarian affiliations have not dealt with a more fundamental issue: their inability to consider each other Muslims, it is hard to believe that they will be coming together against the Majoritarian politics.  The real task for ‘ulema is to counter such divisive theology, which they have been ignoring for almost a century. If ‘ulema succeed in countering the theology that has been keeping the Indian Muslims apart, they could achieve the goal of unifying the Indian Muslims in a real sense. 

 The second issue that these ‘ulema were gathered to discuss was the political issues of Indian Muslims. There is no doubt that ‘ulema still exert a great influence on the Indian Muslims. However, this does not mean that their influence is ubiquitous in every sphere of life. In matters related to politics, people generally tend to follow politicians. A politician and an ‘Alim, both are leaders in their society. However, the tasks that they are supposed to do are different. And this is because of their expertise and profession. ‘Ulamā, such as Nomani, or those who are associated with a Khanqah, masjid, and madrasa, are not qualified to lead Muslims in political matters. Because neither are they expert in politics nor this is the domain of their scholarship. They can assist honest Muslim/non-Muslim politicians by amplifying their voices or they can demand redressal from the government of the problems of the Indian people. I am not saying that ‘ulema should not pay attention to the current political matters. Indeed, they should, so that as the leaders of Muslim society politicians can become aware of their problems and try to find a way to resolve them. In the meeting I am talking about, ‘ulema were assuming the leadership, while the right way for ‘ulema to discuss or deal with political issues of Muslims is to walk under the leadership of the qualified people.

 ‘Ulema’s indifference to the responsibilities that they bear towards society is an indication of the crisis of their scholarship, the very thing that furnishes them with such a prestigious position. ‘Ulema’s responsibility is to interpret Islam to the masses. Interpretation/reinterpretation of any text is required when there occurs any type of difficulty in accessing the text.

This difficulty arises due to the changes that takes place in time, environment, and perception. Until the task of interpretation is not carried out properly, the followers of the text are stuck in a state of uncertainty. Neither are they able to adapt to the present nor can they understand their relationship with their past. ‘Ulama had effectively been performing their job of interpreting religious texts according to the changing circumstances for centuries. Even in early twentieth-century India, we find scholars like Abul Kalam Azad, Hussain Ahmed Madani, and Ubaidullah Sindhi, who creatively engaged the Islamic tradition within the contemporary political realities and modernism. However, that tradition has been broken after the partition. And today, ‘ulema need to revive that tradition of robust and timely scholarship.


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