By Nabeel Hassan
August 06, 2016
The impact of the Salafi ideology which has been gaining a strong foothold among Muslims in Kerala, in recent years, is visible particularly among the youth and women.
Muslim parents today face considerable anxiety about their children entering adulthood. But, their fears are not about their character of job prospects. They are about the extreme piety that many of them exhibit and the organisations that they get involved with.
A few weeks ago, one of my friends (who works as a counsellor) got a call from a Gulf-based parent who wanted his son to be given emergency counselling. The boy was pursuing a B.Tech degree in the prestigious Cochin Institute of Science and Technology. Of late, said the parent, he has been showing signs of “religious exhilaration” and now wants to end his studies at the Cochin Institute due to the presence of female students there.
According to the boy, his religion forbids co-education and continuing to study in an institution with girls would impede the practice of his religion.
The word Salaf refers to the three generations of Muslim rulers, starting from the Prophet himself. Salafists claim that they understand and follow the Quran and Sunnah as it was understood and practised by the early Muslims. At its core, Salafism is about maintaining the “purity of original Islam”.
The impact of this ideology which has been gaining a strong foothold among Muslims in Kerala, in recent years, is visible particularly among the youth and women.
A section of today’s youth are showing marked changes in their behaviour and dressing. It is not just limited to B.Tech students, but women and even high-school students. The teachings are so impactful that there have been reports of high-school students refusing to study in co-ed institutions.
It can be seen, most clearly, in their appearance and behaviour. Young men flaunting long beards, wearing skull caps, Jubbahs and short Shalwars that barely reach the ankles are becoming increasingly common.
The number of young women who don the Purdah is also on the rise. Today, even a girl who studies in the sixth standard wears a Purdah when stepping out of her house. This has to be seen in the context that the Purdah has a very short history in Kerala.
When you ask these girls the reason for this transformation, they will say that their religion requires them to cover their faces when outside, and forbids them from adopting the clothing styles of “non-believers”. The Maulvi’s exhortations, in this regard, have also helped fan this trend.
Not to be left behind, even traditional, non-Salafist Muslim sects of Kerala, such as the AP Sunnis and EK Sunnis, have also started holding such religious classes for their womenfolk. It is not rare to find even those in their 60s attending such classes.
Religious education starts at a young age— before children achieve the ability to discriminate. The study material is the same, impervious to any change or reform.
In fact, even after achieving adulthood, this “education” has to be continued, like in the case of giving IV drops to a sick patient. Without continued “religious education”, religious belief is considered incomplete. Night and day classes for men and women proliferate like frogs in the monsoon season.
This has resulted in the scary sight of highly-educated young men roaming around in flowing beards and short pyjamas.
Hijacking Islamic Reform
Today’s mode of religious transmission has been taken directly from Salafism. Extreme Salafists, who are silently spreading their roots among Kerala Muslims, are spreading their ideology by utilising the corrective and reformative channels set up by the Mujahid movement of Kerala— a self-proclaimed, progressive and revolutionary movement.
The Mujahid movement of Kerala originated in the middle of the 20th century. The reformists drew their inspiration from prominent Muslim community leaders such as Abdul Khader (Maulvi of Vakkom), Sahib Muhammad Abdul Rahman and K.M. Seethi Saheb.
These early leaders of the Mujahid movement were able to create revolutionary changes in the social, political, religious, cultural and educational landscapes of Kerala’s Muslim community.
The Mujahid movement represented the progressive trend in the Muslim community in Kerala, challenging orthodoxies as well as the power of the clergy.
They promoted modern education among Muslims and encouraged women to learn the letters, and set up schools, colleges and madrasas. They urged Muslims to remain integrated with Kerala’s linguistic and cultural heritage.
It is, perhaps, time to examine the attitudes of these early leaders and contrast them with the present actions of their followers.
Gulf Boom and Salafism
The Mujahid movement, which emerged as a progressive internal reformation, slowly came under the increasing influence of Gulf-based Salafists and is, today, busy creating a new generation that holds extreme religious beliefs.
Salafists today claim that the Quran already contains everything that science uncovers, whether it is discoveries made by NASA or advances in microbiology. Instead of using their intellect to critically examine such claims, the new generation of youth are attracted to these teachers like moths to flames, eventually wasting their lives.
The Gulf-based Salafists characterised the Mujahid movement of Kerala as a “deviation from the true path”.
A section of Malayali Muslims, who came in contact with these Salafists in the Gulf, became the agents of Salafism in Kerala. Salafists insist that Muslims must not introduce any new practice or ideas into their religion that would have the impact of diluting the fundamental beliefs, practices and the teachings of the Koran and the Prophet.
Such an extreme ideology does not allow its holder to adjust to a multicultural social setup.
The most dangerous Salafi beliefs are those that prohibit the peaceful cohabitation of the believer with those who profess other faiths.
Wishing others on non-Islamic festivals, sharing meals with non-believers, etc, are seen as blasphemous acts. Though the Salafists of Kerala do not make public statements on these subjects, internal groups are quite active on these fronts. They are further encouraged by the rise of similar tendencies among the traditional Sunni groups of Kerala as well.
Zakir Naik, M.M. Akbar and many other Maulvis are busy creating more such religious leaders.
(The above article is an abridged translation of Nabeel Hassan’s Facebook post, written in the context of reports suggesting that many young, Malayali Muslims have joined Islamic State and the recent interest in the national media about the impact of controversial preachers like Zakir Naik.)