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Islam and Sectarianism (25 Jan 2017 NewAgeIslam.Com)

Sectarianism: A Profound Ideological Crisis In The Indian Muslim Community


By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

25 Jan 2017

The founding editor of New Age Islam, Mr. Sultan Shahin has asked a pertinent question in his recent article:“Sectarian unity is certainly an admirable goal. The intention behind it, however, is also very important. Wahhabi-Deobandi and Sufi-Barelvi sects, who call each other kafir (infidel), are seeking to unite for some months now.  But towards what end?”

On May 10, 2016, The Indian Express reported the beginning of the unification between the two majority Muslim groups in the country— Deobandis and Barelwis—who have been vehemently opposed since their creation. Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, a noted Barelwi cleric, surprisingly visited Darul Uloom Deoband, the leading seminary of Deobandi school of thought in India. He met with the influential Deobandi ulema including the Darul Uloom’s current rector (naazim-e-a’ala), Mufti Abul Qasim Nomani, and stressed the need for unity of Indian Muslims to fight the “common enemy”.

According to several other media outlets, noted Deobandi and Barelwi clerics organised conferences and meetings—first in Deoband and then in Ajmer—putting forward a proposal for the unity of ummah (Muslim community) in India. Both the Barelwis and Deobandi Muslim sects with an overwhelming majority in the community have been declaring each other beyond the pale of Islam for decades. Therefore, the news that they are now aspiring to unite themselves has to come as a surprise to many. But it is equally staggering to note the reason they are advocating the ‘unity of Muslim ummah’ for. The country’s ruling party, they believe, is ‘deliberately’ trying to further their sectarian divide ‘to drive a wedge among the Indian Muslims’. Thus, as word of the political fright hanging on the community’s political leaders is clearly at play.

Commenting on this surprising development, several observers of the Indian Muslims’ affairs averred that the unity between the two vehemently opposed Muslim sects is being formed in response to the ‘dividing policy’ of the ruling “anti-Muslim” regime. As evidence, they cite the recently held mega Sufi event in Delhi, World Sufi Forum which had the presence of the P M Modi as one of the chief guests. For instance, Syed Zubair Ahmed, editor of Muslim Mirror, an online Muslim media outlet opinionated: “There is a growing fear and perception amongst the community that it is being targeted and attempts are being made to divide it. The recently held Sufi conference was seen as a way of creating rift in the Muslim community. This [Barelwi-Deobandi unification] is significant as a message is being sent that it will be difficult to drive a wedge between the community now”, he told The Indian Express.

In fact, the Barelwi and Deobandi sects have indulged in deep-rooted theological polemics which have often caused serious inter-sect tensions. Given this, bridging the sectarian gap is certainly a welcome move. It should have long been done. But shifting the blame for their own internal problem to the government and maligning the Sufi divines’ effort to counter religious fanaticism is bizarre. Isn’t it the run-of-the-mill narrative of denial and victimhood far from the introspection required in the community?

Instead of a stage-show of the Barelwi-Deobandi truce, it was high time both Muslim sects’ clergy sincerely reflected on the prevailing sectarian psyche plagued with extremist thoughts. An objective observation reveals that not only the Deobandi-Wahhabi clergy but a section of the present-day Barelwi ulema have also fanned the fire of religious extremism among the country’s gullible Muslims.  

The Barelwi movement emerged in 1880 in the undivided India as a quasi-Sufi group of clergy. It was launched to refute the extremist thoughts of the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideologues. Seceding from the mainstream Sunni-Sufi school of thought, the pioneering Deobandi ulema like Maulvi Ismail Dehlvi and Syed Ahmad “Shaheed” got aligned with the Wahhabi think-tank. Inevitably, the subsequent generation of Deobandi Muslims incorporated an ultra-puritanical and exclusivist narrative of Islam. Therefore, Deobandi followers were easily drawn towards Islamist militancy. Many researchers have found theological linkages between the Deoband and the Tahrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). According to the Pakistani media reports, Talibani militants in the north-eastern Pakistan sprang out of a local Deobandi madrasa. The radical Islamist seminaries like the one at Lal Masjid were found ideologically linked with the Deobandi school of thought.

However, the mainstream Indian Sufi-Sunni Muslims led by the Barelwi ulema practiced a relatively tolerant and traditional Islam. They were greatly imbued in the precepts and practices of Islamic mysticism interchangeably known as Sufism.

But the recent developments have distressed the community watchers and progressive Muslim thinkers. The Barelwi group of Indian Muslims, who prided themselves in their tolerant Sufi-Sunni tradition, are at times drawn towards the religious fanaticism very similar to the notorious Wahhabi extremism.

In the name of ‘reforming Sufism’, many hardline Barelwi clerics today are peddling hatred against the liberal and tolerant ideas espoused by the earlier Indian Sufi saints. They literally castigate the non-conformist and mystically-inclined Sufi practitioners who profess liberalism in their religious outlook, declaring them zindiqs (heretics), badmazhab (erroneous in faith) and gumrah (misguided).

For instance— Pakistani-origin Canadian Sufi scholar Dr. Tahirul Qadri has been declared a ‘deviant Muslim’by a large section of the Barelwi muftis (Islamic jurists). A number of Barelwi fatwas have targeted Dr. Qadri on the grounds of his interfaith activities like participation in the non-Muslim celebrations, Sufi dance and music, welcoming other faith leaders in mosques. Such retrogressive and hardline fatwas are on the rise in the Barelwi clerical circle. Evidently, they are no different from the Deobandi clergy running the scary fatwa-factories in the country.

The impact of the extremist Barelwi fatwas can be seen in the reactionary protests of the Mumbai-based Raza Academy, a religio-political Barelwi wing. In March, 2012, the Academy demanded ban on Tahirul Qadri’s speeches on interfaith harmony following the Barelwi fatwa declaring it akin to shirk fil risalah, a grave form of polytheism. But the Bombay High Court granted conditional permission to Dr Qadri to hold public gatherings in the city and thus Raza Academy failed in its petition against him.

Tellingly, Raza Academy was the first Muslim outfit to have campaigned against the Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's ambitious biopic, Muhammad: The Messenger of God. The film based on the early life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) faced a threatening fatwa from the Barelwi clergy who didn’t even watch and review the content, as the movie had not been launched. But the fatwa lambasted the film maker Majidi for his ‘sinful’ attempt to portray the Prophet’s life through the cinema, something which is ‘haram’(strictly forbidden) in Islamic Shari’ah according to the authoritative Barelwi clergy. Therefore, they charged the entire film making crew—including the Indian Muslim music composer AR Rahman who gave the music for this Islamic movie—with harsh fatwas of blasphemy and apostasy (irtidad). Following this, the Raza Academy demanded everyone associated with Majidi’s movie to recite the kalima (to confess faith in Islam) and come into the fold of Islam again. The fatwa was issued by Mufti Mahmood AkhtarQadri, an acclaimed Barelwi cleric appointed as imam at Haji Ali Dargah’s mosque, who also runs a fatwa centre (Darul Ifta) in the city. He was behind the much-hyped fatwa against women’s entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah.

However, it is noteworthy, the prime Sufi shrines, particularly Ajmer Sharif and Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, took a stand against the Barelwi fatwas on music and film-making on the Prophet’s life. They rather commended AR Rahman for his ‘brilliant’ performance and called him ‘a true believer’. According to the media reports, AR Rahman issued a written statement in which he stated: “I am not a scholar of Islam. I follow the middle path and am part traditionalist and part rationalist”... “My spiritual experiences working on the film are very personal, and I would prefer not to share these… My decision to compose the music for this film was made in good faith with no intention of causing offence.”

It was indeed distressing to note that just like the film composer, AR Rahman, the film maker Majid Majidi also showed a very pious intention behind this film. In his interview to the Iranian magazine Hezbollah Line, Majidiis reported to have stated: “I decided to make this film to fight against the new wave of Islamophobia in the West”..... “The Western interpretation of Islam is full of violence and terrorism”, he said.

But despite the clearly stated devout ambitions behind the Islamic film and its welcome reception in the Shia-majority Iran, the Barelwi clergy issued a fatwa against Majid Majidi and AR Rahman demanding the Indian government to ban the film in the country.

Besides the Islamic movies, Sufi music and women’s shrine visitation, the hard-line Barelwi ulema have banned a lot more cultural practices which exhort social affinity and religious harmony.

Thus, the threat of fanatic fatwas, from both Barelwi and Deobandi clergy, looms large in India scaring a sizeable section of the Muslim society. Given that Muslim clergy don’t reflect on this deeper ideological crisis in the community, the Barelwi-Deobandi truce is simply pointless. Without this introspection, the community’s unity, integrity and harmony will remain merely a mirage.


A regular New Age Islam columnist, Ghulam RasoolDehlvi is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies.

URL: http://www.newageislam.com/islam-and-sectarianism/ghulam-rasool-dehlvi,-new-age-islam/sectarianism--a-profound-ideological-crisis-in-theindian-muslim-community/d/109848

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  • Dear Janab Khalidi sahib, first I would like to introduce you to the NAI readers. Mr Usama Khalidi is a well-settled American citizen now with his origin in the land of mystics—India.

    Dear and respected sir, your reflections also ring true and must be confirming impressions of many readers over here.

    In any case, clubbing the Sufism with either of the Deobandis or Barelvis would be grotesque. This is a huge mistake which is now being done. It feeds into a wrong media depiction. The Barelvis are as radical as the Deobandis and the true Sufi practitioners do not agree with their politics or beliefs. We can use the correct terminology of Ahle sunnat wa Jamaat for those who follow the Sufi traditions in India.  

    Declaring Sufi music or Qawaali as haraam castigating the Shias as kafirs clearly revelas that they are not on the path of Sufis. Therefore, most of them now don’t want to be identified as 'Barelwis'. 

    More tragically, Deobandis and Barielvis both are now ganging up to keep women oppressed. Haji Ali Dargah and Talaq-e-Salasa (triple talaq) are the obvious instances.

    By GRD - 1/30/2017 9:57:48 AM

  • Miyan Dehlvi, your analysis seems on target. the broader picture you paint of the inter-sect relations and the political dynamics you describe, everything rings true, and confirms my impressions. 
    However, it is entirely credible that the ruling party at the Center and its "Muslim specialists" are devoted to the cause of widening the sectarian divides among Muslims. The stimulus for "unity" talks, and an acknowledgment of the need to close ranks, is coming from a hostile party. But all of this happening in a democratic contest of ideas. Even if that stimulus comes in the form of material incentives, stick and carrot, that is to be expected from an adversarial force. While this contest plays out, others should demand a total denunciation of Takfirism. That is fascist, and can be called Islamo-fascism.

    By Usama Khalidi - 1/29/2017 9:24:37 AM

  • GRD talks about the North and I have clearly talked about the South.

    As far as the North is concerned, yes it is a different story. There are also Barelvi fatwas prohibiting offering prayers behind a Deobandi imam and incidents of refusal to bury a Deobandi in an Barelvi burial ground published in NAI.

    By Naseer Ahmed - 1/28/2017 1:44:26 AM

  • Naseer sb states: 
    "As far as the mosques are concerned, people of either leanings make no distinctions and worship in whichever mosque is convenient to them. Even the mosques do not carry Barelvi/Deobandi tags."

    But the ground reality is at odds. The animosity between Barelvis and Deobandis has touched new low in Bahraich district of UP. A shocking incident has been reported from Bahraich District in Uttar Pradesh where the local Deobandi Maulvi Hafiz Abdul Moeed and his accomplices did not let a Barelvi family bury their dead at a graveyard located in Siddique Nagar Niyapura, Jarwal Road, Bahraich of Uttara Paradesh, India.

    The incident took place on the eve of August 3rd, when Peer Ali Mistari led the funeral of his mother after the funeral namaz, to bury the body when Maulvi Hafiz Abdul Moeed stopped the funeral and declared that he would not led any Barelvi family bury their dead in the graveyard. Even when the burial pit has been already dug for Mistari’s mother’s deadbody.

    Let alone mosques, even they can't  share graveyards.

    By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi - 1/27/2017 10:07:32 PM

  • Mr. Naseer seems to live in denial or nativity.
    His wishful thinking is that:
    "Animosity between the groups does not exist as both types exist in every family and on death in a family, the differences between the elaborate sufi rituals and the simpler Deobandi ones is quickly resolved among the family members one way or the other."
    But according to media reports, more than 200 couples had to re-do their nikah in Aharaula village, about 20 km from Moradabad.
    What happened? These Barelvi Sunni Muslims had committed the crime of attending a namaaz led by a cleric from the rival Deoband sect. The namaz on August 11 was led by Maulana Hafiz Abu Mohamid during the burial of his uncle, Master Nazakat Hussain, a respected madrassa teacher who had died at the age of 85.
    So all the villagers who attended the teacher's namaaz-e-janaza fell into the abyss of hostility between the Barelvis and Deobandis that has been a fault line between the UP's Sunni Muslims. The namaaz was led by Mohamid, a Deobandi, because the local imam of the village failed to turn up. However, this enraged local Barelvi leaders. Days after the burial, Haji Ali Hasan, a village elder travelled to Moradabad to meet with Mufti Abdul Mannan Karimi, a Barelvi religious cleric and briefed him on how a Deobandi had led a band of Barelvis in prayer.
    That's when the mufti struck back. Those at Hussain's burial were no more Muslims and had turned kafir, he decreed in a fatwa last week. The price for resumption of status quo was, "Tauba karo, kalma padho aur nikah padhwao" (do penance, recite the kalma, marrying their wives all over again). "At least 100 couples have had the nikah ceremony done so far," a triumphant Mufti Karimi told TOI on Tuesday. "This time there has been no pomp and show at the nikah. The basic requisite have been the presence of just two witnesses and no dawat or other celebrations have followed them."
    The mufti, however, exonerated those who were not aware of the identity of the Deobandi maulana and, therefore, were misled. But those who knew, he said, had to pay the price. "It is not my view, this is the stance taken by noted ulema and clerics of Barelvi sect hundred years ago in conformity with the Koran and Hadis," he said.
    The edict has stunned the entire village. Aharaula is a very peaceful place which has seen no tension or crime, station officer Patbarha, in-charge of the area, Jaipal Singh told TOI. The place, he says, "is little too peaceful as we have not seen a single FIR filed from here so far". The population of the village is around 1,800, with 55% Muslims and most residents are poor and illiterate.
    By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi - 1/27/2017 9:56:31 PM

  • The use of the expression Wahhabi-Deobandi itself reeks of sectarianism when Deoband has several fatwas against Wahhabism. The sectarian Barelvi however insists on using the expression.

    The history of the subcontinent as it concerns the school of thought represented by the Barelvis and Deobandis is a mixed one. While the Barelvis agitated and fought for the partition of the country and indulged in the communal riots accompanying the partition of the country, the Deobandis participated in the freedom movement and opposed partitions and strongly campaigned against migration of Muslims to Pakistan after the partition. They have been nationalists all through.

    In Pakistan, if the so called Deobandi Madrasas have succumbed to Saudi/US funding for churning out Jehadis and the Barelvi Madrasas have not, it is because of the Saudi anathema for Sufis who refused to fund Barelvi Madrasasa and not because the Barelvi Madrasas were unwilling. 

    The division between the Barelvi and Deobandi may be stronger in the north but in the South, the common Muslim has not even heard of these terms. He knows that he is a Sunni and if you ask him whether Barelevi or Deobandi, he wouldn't know. There is therefore no tension between the people irrespective of their leanings - whether visiting shrines for blessings or avoiding it considering it as shirk. The shrine visiting types are more particular about marrying within their own kind as they consider those who do not visit shrines as deprived of all blessings. Animosity between the groups does not exist as both types exist in every family and on death in a family, the differences between the elaborate sufi rituals and the simpler Deobandi ones is quickly resolved among the family members one way or the other.

    As far as the mosques are concerned, people of either leanings make no distinctions and worship in whichever mosque is convenient to them. Even the mosques do not carry Barelvi/Deobandi tags. 

    By Naseer Ahmed - 1/27/2017 12:33:32 AM

  • Dear Ghulam Mohiyuddin Sb, you have rightly pointed out the basic problem: Takfirism, which is actually an indirect result of sectarianism in our supremacist community. 
    Indeed, truth has no monopoly.
    Thanks for your kind words. 

    By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi - 1/26/2017 11:54:13 AM

  • Excellent article! Perhaps the first step for the Muslim community should be to condemn takfirism and to learn to respect the beliefs of others. Instead of exaggerating differences we should learn to stress and expand on areas of agreement. And it must be understood that no one has the monopoly on truth.

    By Ghulam Mohiyuddin - 1/25/2017 11:19:14 AM

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