By Sultan Shahin, Founding Editor, New Age Islam
26 March 2017
Is this Islam? Could this be the Islam of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) who was sent as a blessing for mankind? Could Islam convert a British-born into a mass killer of his own people, plowing a car into innocent pedestrians, as happened this week in a London attack on British Parliament?
Questions like this are asked everytime there is an Islamist terrorist outrage. This question was asked recently in India when a young radicalised Muslim Saifullah was killed in Lucknow, preferring what he called “martyrdom” to life, despite hours long pleadings of his brother as well as a cleric and other elders.
The same question was put in an even more poignant scene by a lady in Peshawar, crying over the blood-spattered dead bodies of her school-going children in December 2014. The proud killers of 132 innocent children and scores of female teachers were the Pakistan Taliban, students of Islamic madrasas, supposedly well-versed in the teachings of Islam. The Taliban claim to kill in the name of Islam. They claim to glorify Islam by doing so. They believe they are trying to establish the sovereignty of Allah over the world. So, the question is inevitable. Is this Islam, indeed?
Only a fortnight ago, I was forced to ask this question in a slightly different mode. Is this pure Islam or true Islam, as Salafis, Wahhabis claim? Not for the first, nor for the last time, to be sure, over hundred devotees of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh, Pakistan, had been killed in the name of what Salafi-Wahhabis consider true, pure Islam. Salafi-Wahhabis abhor Sufism because they believe that Sufi practices resemble pre-Islamic polytheistic Hindu traditions. Any Muslim who strays from the path of what Salafis consider true Islam is an apostate and deserves to be killed. The murderer has been brainwashed by Wahhabi ulema into believing that he can be assured of a place in heaven if he kills apostates and kuffars.
Questions galore. But no real answers. Sufism-oriented Ulema and Mashaikh in India and the Sahel region of Africa are becoming more and more vociferous in denouncing Wahhabism-Salafism. No doubt Islamist terrorism is a result of the indoctrination of sections of Muslims by Wahhabi-Salafi ulema around the world. This has been possible owing to the induction of tens of billions of Saudi petrodollars over the last 40 years. Even after 9/11, in which 16 of the 19 terrorists were products of Saudi education system, the West has allowed Saudi Arabia to continue spending billions in the propagation of an extremist, desiccated version of Isam, shorn of all its beauty and benevolence.
So it is good that Sufi ulema, under attack from Wahhabi militants, are coming out to denounce the Salafi understanding of Islam. But is this enough? Do they not need to ask why it’s Salafis who are winning this ideological war? Have Sufi ulema been able to bring back to the Sufi fold even a single Islamist terrorist? After all, all the terrorists of today, at least from the South Asian and African Sahel region were part of a Sufism-oriented Islam until recently. Wahhabism existed mainly in the Arab regions. There were very few Salafis anywhere else. Easy availability of petrodollars for the propagation of Salafism has certainly played an important role. But can money alone bring about this kind of transformation? Why is the Sufi counter-narrative not effective enough to make a difference?
Writing in this space, almost exactly a year ago, I had made an earnest appeal to the Sufi Ulema and Mashaikh gathering in Delhi for an international conference. I had asked them to go beyond the usual shibboleths and utilse this great opportunity to consider this most urgent question: why is the Sufi focus on positives of Islam not working? The more Sufis and other moderate Muslims denounce terrorism, the more followers this Satanic ideology finds. I had pointed out the basic reason behind this conundrum: the radical theology of violence and exclusion and the current theology of consensus of all ulema, including Sufi ulema, are by and large one and the same. Any differences are cosmetic. ISIS and other terroist organisations may be militarily defeated tomorrow but the problem of radicalisation and violent extremism in Islam will still remain. Islam supremacism, xenophobia, intolerance and exclusivism as well as gender inequality are inherent in the current Islamic, including Sufi, theology. It is this that should concern us most.
I had an opportunity on the eve of that last March’s conclave in Delhi to meet Maulana Tahirul Qadri, a Sufi-Barelvi scholar from Pakistan, renowned for his 600-page fatwa against Islamist terrorism. I asked him two questions. One: are holy Quran’s war-time instructions, intolerant and xenophobic in nature, still applicable to us Muslims in the 2st cenury, though we could not be possibly fighting 7th century wars of the Prophet’s time? His answer: There are no intolerant verses in Quran and yes, all of them are applicable to us for ever. My second question was: by quoting a profusion of ahadith (plural of hadith, so-called sayings of the prophet) in your presentation, and considering them akin to revelation, are you weakening Khalifa Baghdadi’s terrorist ideology, which is largely based on ahadith, or strengtening it? He remained silent.
There is a hadith, according to which Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) himself ordered his followers to attack a town called Taif by showering stones with Minjaneeq (i.e. a catapult) despite the possibility of innocent civilians being killed. When a companion ponted out that this could result in civilian killing, the Prophet is supposed to have said: “They are also from them.” A Taliban scholar, under interrorgtion from a Pakistan Army officer, quoted this hadith to justify terrorism. Having watched the video on internet, I asked an Indian Sufi scholar, if the Prophet, in his view, could have said something that contradicts several verses of Quran and his own previous statements. He simply said: “I have checked, this hadith is in the sihah-e-sitta (six so-called authentic books of ahadith including Bukhari and Muslim).” To all my questioning, if this meant, he believed that the Prophet himself justified killing of civilians, the Sufi scholar just remained silent. So, regardless of what your rationality may tell you, hadith, as collected even centuries after the Prophet’s demise, in the age of Arab imperialism, is believed to be akin to revelation and cannot be questioned.
It is this thinking on the part of all our ulema, of whatever school of thought, that must change, if we are going to fight violent extemism in Islam. Sufi fulminations against Wahhabism-Salafism are hypocritical until the core of their theologies remains the same. It is sheer hypocrisy to quote peaceful, pluralistic verses of Quran and teach in a madrasa books like Tafsir-e-Jalalain which say that these verses have been abrogated by later war-time verses asking Muslims to kill the kafir wherever they are found.
The fact is these verses were meant for a particular situation and do not apply to us any more. Similarly many ahadith were concocted to justify imperialist, expansionist wars fought by monarchical, dynastic khalifas, in the name of Islam. It is irrational to call them akin to revelation. The same holds true of Sharia that was first codified 120 years after the demise of the prophet and has been changing since from time to time and place to place. It simply cannot be considered divine. These aspects of the consensus core theology of Islam constitutes the root of the problem.
Clearly, moderate ulema, from whichever sect, must realise the need to introspect deeply and honestly and go far beyond their present positions, if they are serious about rescuing Islam from extremism. This should not be a sectarian endeavour. There are Muslims in all sects who want to live in peace and favour pluralism. They all need to get together and brainstorm.
Sultan Shahin is the Founding Editor of a Delhi-based progressive Islamic website, NewAgeIslam.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi, on 26 March 2017)