New Age Islam
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Islamic Society ( 4 Oct 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Beyond the Moderate and Radical in Indian Islam

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

05 October 2016

Recently a leading English news channel aired a two part series called the ‘On the Trail of Salafism in India’. Considering that the journalist and the channel in question are not part of the xenophobic ultra nationalist tribe of newspersons, the series merits some serious discussion, particularly from within the Muslim community which has so far been lacking. The broad assertion of the program was that a more literalist and purist version of Islam is taking over the imagination of the Indian Muslims and that this kind of Islam is ultimately detrimental to the pluralistic culture of India.

The assertion that a literalist reading of the Islamic tradition has the effect of erasing pluralist traditions within Islam has been made time and again. However, in popular terms, there is a problem of simplification which occurs when the supposed liberal ethos of Sufi Islam is compared with the virulent traditions of Deobandism or the more recent Salafism. I have argued for some time now that the Sufi-Barelwi tradition within Indian Islam and the Deobandi-Salafi tradition should not be seen as polar opposites. Rather they should be seen as part of the same continuum. In this understanding, the Barelwi tradition becomes as much part of the Islamicate Indian culture as does Deobandism.

The difference between the two is not a matter of type but rather one of degree. Conservatism and fanaticism are not the monopoly of the Deobandi tradition alone, rather they can also be found within the Barelwi tradition. To treat them as polar opposites is an exercise in misrecognition which a lot of us end up doing under the influence of the partisan debate on moderate vs. radical Islam. The so called tolerance and pluralism of the Barelvis comes apart when we realise that they were at the forefront of calls to ban the Satanic Verses and of course indulged in the most vile celebration of murderer of Salman Taseer. On most things which one will find conservative, Indian Barelvis are on the same page as the Deobandis be that the issue of women’s access to shrine or mosque or the question of triple Talaq. Moreover, madrasas controlled by Deobandis or the Barelvis hardly differ in terms of content of the curriculum. The same collection of Hadis and the same commentaries on the Quran are prescribed in both sets of madrasas.

 The difference is only in terms of interpretation. At times, this interpretative difference is huge but in most matters of Islamic Sharia, particularly with those relating to the conduct of women, there is hardly any difference between the two. Also, we should remember that the written word itself promotes a certain textual tradition, and it is natural that some of the customary practices will be called into question. It is not surprising therefore that even within the Barelvis, some of their texts are highly critical of Indian and Islamic customary practices. Therefore, in any reasoned discussion about the nature of Indian Islam, this false binary between the Barelvis and Deobandis should be done away with.

Rather, both these religious orientations within Islam are highly critical of customary practices within Indian Muslim community: practices which have over the years due to religious and cultural sharing between various communities. Despite having differences, the Barelwi and the Deobandis both see these customary practices as alien to the Islamic experience. And it is these customary and liminal practices which are the common heritage of many communities in India, which is under threat from the collective weight of reformism from both the Deobandis and the Barelvis.

 The discussion about religious pluralism should focus on developing ways to save and strengthen these cultural and religious practices which are common to more than one religious community. By posing a largely false debate between moderate Barelvis and radical Deobandis, we are hardly even recognising the problem. It is true that Deobandis were the first to come down heavily on the customary traditions of ordinary Muslims and term them as Bidah. It is also true that they were the first to teach against these practices within their madrasas.

 However, over the years, particularly owing to the hegemonic position of the Deobandis, even the Barelvis started following them when it came to the condemnation of these customary practices. The regime of reform became common to both the Barelvis and the Deobandis, following the model of early Islam which was adopted by them both. The problem of the loss of pluralism starts from there: till that model of early Islam heavily infused with Arab cultural traditions gets questioned, there is no point pitting moderate Barelvis against the radical Deobandis.

Arshad Alam is a columnist


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