By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
18 November 2016
Two things stood out at the recently concluded Jamiat Ulema e Hind Conference in Ajmer. The first was the call to fight sectarian divisions within the Indian Muslim community while the second was the call for Dalit-Muslim unity given at the Conference. There were other resolutions passed in the conference relating to religious and political issues affecting the Muslim community. But it was the above mentioned two agendas which got sympathetic press within the mainstream media. No doubt these are laudable objectives in themselves but certainly need critical scrutiny whether the Jamiat has the ideological and political rational to fulfil these objectives.
The demand for sectarian unity is nothing new among Indian Muslims. We know that the community is divided internally among Shias and Sunnis. Among the Sunnis, there are divisions like the Deobandis, the Barelvis and the Ahle Hadis. These are not just superficial divisions but their ideological roots run deep and have a history of nearly 150 years on the Indian subcontinent. Curiously enough, the initiators of schism within the community were the Deobandis themselves who through their various publications and sermons decided in their wisdom that the Barelvis were something of a lesser Muslims. Their argument rested on the Barelwi practice of shrine visitations which were castigated by the Deobandis as ‘proof’ of Hindu influence on the Barelvis. The deeper philosophy of Sufism was dubbed as shrine worship by the influential Deobandis. Even seemingly harmless customary practices among the Indian Muslims, such as rituals on the occasion of birth and death were sought to be brought in line with the Islamic mores: a shorthand for repudiating everything Indian in the belief that Arabic traditions were far superior than the Indian ones. Now the Jamiat Ulema, as the body of the Deobandis wants to share common grounds with the Barelvis whom they derided as lesser Muslims not in the too distant past. Does this even sound convincing to start with?
On their part, the Barelvis returned the favour by calling the Deobandis as inspired by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and therefore not truly Muslims. They even went to the extent of asserting that praying behind a Deobandi Alim was not valid as Deobandis were not Muslims. One of their fatwas issues by Ahmad Raza himself declared the Deobandis as Kafirs and therefore as a people with whom one should desist from forming any kind of religious alliance. Will the Barelwi establishment today, led by Tauqeer Raza, forget what their own ideologue wrote a century ago? His recent efforts in bridging the gap is indeed laudable. It is through his personal visits to Deoband that such an alliance was even made possible. But the moot question remains: are both the camps willing to revisit their own theological positions vis a vis one another and are they willing to castigate and disown some of the very important Ulema who have written and lectured against one another? In short, will it be possible for a Deobandi to repudiate the claims of Ashraf Ali Thanwi that the Barelvis are not true Muslims as false? Will it be possible for the Barelvis to openly say that the writings of Ahmad Raza Khan and Arshad ul Qadri against the Deobandis and no longer tenable and were an error of judgment in the first place?
It is all very well to come together on a platform and announce to the world that the Indian Muslim community is united. It is quite another to announce about one’s own historical and ideological errors. My sense is that that it will be exceedingly difficult to do so. After all, these are not just divisions which are based on some ritualistic differences. Rather, they relate to fundamental beliefs about how best to be a Muslim. These differences have to do with understanding of the Prophet himself. The differences on imagining the Prophet means that fundamentally there are differences in ways of being Muslim itself as each believing Muslim models himself on the Prophet. Will it then be possible for these two factions within the community who portray the other as practitioners of shirk, to come together and forget their past and present differences?
Both these sects are also an institutional organization which means that they run an organized system of mosques and madrasas. If they are really serious about doing something about their differences, then perhaps the first site to start doing this should be the madrasas. After all, it is through the network of madrasas that these differences are forged onto the minds of students and the common Muslims. Why not start by repudiating those texts which denounce the other sect as deviant Muslims. Will it be possible for the Barelvis and the Deobandis to come together and devise a curriculum which can be common to both the Deobandi and the Barelwi madrasas? Till the time this happens, the coming together of these two factions is just a show without any content to it.
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist