By Syed Kamran Hashmi
June 15, 2018
I always leaned towards the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam for its moderate, less dogmatic and much more empathetic views. In comparison to Barelvism, the Deobandi School appeared rigid, more commanding and less compromising on daily rituals.
Tableeghi Jamaat, for instance, a Deobandi organisation, focused so much on the five daily prayers that I thought Islam was reduced to prayers in the mosque alone rather than a comprehensive way of life, a universal doctrine. Barelvis, on the other hand, zeroed in on Islamic mysticism and Sufi orders offering a personal and spiritual connection with the Creator. Dogma in their perspective had its own significance, no doubt, but the ideal of love superseded every other virtue. The theological differences between the two did not sway me one way or the other. I actually found them to be trivial and, in many ways, uncalled for.
I thought these divisions pervaded the entire Islamic world. However, a little research disclosed the two groups are limited to the Subcontinent alone. Muslims outside India have not even heard of them. Their story goes like this: Early in the twentieth century, Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan of Bareli objected to the translation of a few verses of the Quran done by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi of Deoband. Their disagreement went so far that each scholar built a small personality cult around himself. That cult later morphed into an individual sect named after the city each scholar belonged to: Barelvi after Bareli for Ahmed Raza and Deobandi after Deoband for Ashraf Ali.
Politically speaking, during the Pakistan movement, Ulema of Deoband opposed the Two Nation Theory and the division of India, whereas the scholars of the Barelvi School favoured it. Yet after the creation of Pakistan, Barelvis stood disorganised and ineffective as a united force. Why? Because of their romanticism with ascetic Sufis, their regular pilgrimage to the shrines of the saints, their not-so-legal rituals of celebrating the death anniversary of renowned mystics and their fondness of devotional music. On the contrary, despite their initial disapproval of Pakistan, it was Deoband that was preferred by the state because of its simple rules, curt and straight-forward doctrines.
The undercurrent of extremism that had swept society did not spare Barelvis either, despite their claims. Humiliated for being innovators and idolaters, due to their association with medieval saints, their stances grew harder and harder. Not as violently as other sects, but still quite radical
This advantage of easy comprehensibility and simplicity helped the Tableeghi Jamaat grow at a break neck speed. It also worked against the peaceful ethos of Deoband, particularly when the state decided to promote a military version of Islam and use it for its geo political purposes. Barelvi Islam could not lend its services because of its diversity, disunity, and complicated theology. The proof in the pudding? Of course, is in its eating: most terrorist organisations in Pakistan which indulge in ‘private jihad’ follow the same Deobandi school of Islam, for example, the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar e Jhangvi, Sipah e Sahaba and Lashkar e Tayyeba.
While Deobandi Islam struggled to disassociate with the concept of violence, Barelvis kept on promoting themselves as the major opposition to the notion of jihad by ‘non-state actors.’ For that, their shrines were attacked and their leaders assassinated. To some extent, these attacks strengthened their message of peace and inter-religious harmony which was noticed, accepted and appreciated internationally. World powers began to look into the depths and thus the utilisation of Sufism in future, wondering if mystics could build an alternative narrative within Islam that could tame the anti-West sentiment of Deobandism and Wahhabism.
There was a growing problem though that everyone missed or ignored. The undercurrent of extremism that had swept society did not spare Barelvis either, despite their claims. Humiliated as innovators and idolaters for their association with the medieval saints by the onslaught from Saudi Arabia, their stance grew harder and harder, not violent, but quite radical.
In the name of devotion to the Prophet (PBUH), a doctrine that always distinguished Barelvis, they started using blasphemy and the belief in Muhammad (PBUH) as the last Prophet, to kill or threaten anyone who disagreed with their faith. Everything that was related to the Prophet, his shirt, his camel, his sword; the food that he liked to eat, the drinks he preferred, had to be respected the same way and up to the same extent by everyone. In other words, if He liked milk, and you didn’t, it was considered near blasphemy. If he liked the colour white, and you didn’t, you committed a crime. Melons, bananas and dates were revered, their genealogy exaggerated, their benefits overstated, as the Prophet once favoured them.
Don’t believe it? Spend few hours on the internet listening to the speeches of Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a fiery speaker, a devoted Barelvi, an emerging hard liner and a person well known for his ‘flowery’ language. His tone has turned alarmingly radical specifically after the death of Mumtaz Qadri, whose funeral attracted a huge gathering and a successful sit-in against the minor changes made by the previous government in the application form to contest elections. Currently, he has not waged a war against the state like non-state-actors of the Deobandi clan did, but he is dredging up and closing in on people who disagree with his views. The question is not about if; it is about when he will take the big leap.
In this environment, one thing has changed, if nothing else: the old moderate Barelvi Islam that attracted me once is no more. What has emerged instead is this forceful, in your face devotion to the Prophet (PBUH) without spirituality.
Syed Kamran Hashmi is a US-based freelance columnist.