Is Sufism dying out even at the Dargahs and Khanqahs (Sufi shrines), which imbibed an egalitarian tradition of inclusiveness, pluralism and egalitarianism among the Indian Muslims for ages?
In this context, the Bombay High Court’s verdict protecting women’s right to enter into the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali Dargah has stirred a pertinent debate. It’s a soul-searching not only for the Indian Muslim women but also for the adherents of Sufism — the silent majority of Indian Muslims.
It cannot be denied that the Darghas have historically been spiritual hospices for all, with their all-inclusive and all-embracing ethos welcoming both men and women from all faith traditions. But what seems to have changed the entire scenario in the Haji Ali Dargah is the lack of liberality and plurality that Sufism is known for.
Indian Sufi saints like Piya Haji Ali Shah stressed on an egalitarian and universal worldview of spirituality in this subcontinent at a time when gender equality was not even debated in a large part of Western Europe. They reinforced the spiritual Qur’anic concept of Musawat (human equality) and a patriarchy-free narrative of mysticism. Sufis conceived the idea that mysticism is an egalitarian, universal and all-encompassing body of truths that wins the hearts of all people regardless of caste, creed or gender. Therefore, they did not reconcile with the subjugation of mysticism to a narrowed and desiccated religiosity of the priestly class. As a result, the puritanical Islamic clergy denounced these Sufi masters for their liberal ideas, and issued fatwas against them declaring them apostates (murtad), misguided (gumrah) and heretics (zindiqs).
But any such exlusivist fatwas of the maulvis could not hamper the path of Sufis towards eternal salvation, universal pluralism and wide embrace for all sections of society. Thus, Sufi saints emerged as more influential spiritual leaders for the Indian Muslims than the retrogressive ulema or the Islamic clergy. Therefore, an all-inclusive, non-conformist and pluralistic Islamic trend is still alive in the form of Sufism in India.
But it is distressing to see the true philosophy of Sufism in a constant decline in India today, even at the Sufi shrines like the Dargah Haji Ali Shah.
Some pseudo-Sufi self-serving mullahs are capturing the lofty positions of ‘gaddi nasheens’ (custodians of the shrines) and mujawirins (shrine keepers). Today, there is no dearth of such so-called Sufis in the Dargahs across the country who falsely claim to be the practitioners of the Indian Sufi philosophy. But their patriarchal, exclusivist and intolerant thoughts are antithetical to the spiritual foundations of Sufism. In fact, they are either obsessed with the creeping radical Islamist thoughts or are motivated by their sectarian designs.
Clearly, the Dargah Haji Ali Shah is in the very wrong hands of such misogynist maulvis (clergy) and muftis (Islamic jurists) who are preaching male chauvinism, exclusivism and other forms of religious extremism in the name of Shariah. It’s deplorable enough for the true lovers of Indian Sufism, who practice its core values — universal equality, inclusiveness, egalitarianism, moderation and social integration.
Inevitably, the latest Haji Ali Dargah ruling has come crashing down on the religious zealots’ assertions of patriarchy and male hegemony over the right to pray. But the Bombay HC’s verdict is stipulated with a six-week stay, allowing the Haji Ali Dargah trustees (read ‘maulvis’) to move the Supreme Court and prove that the ban on women’s entry into the sanctum sanctorum is endorsed by the Islamic scriptures. Earlier too in February, 2016, the state government had said before the Bombay High Court that unless the Dargah Board is able to prove that the ban is part of their religious practice with reference to the Quran, women should be allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali, as reported in The Indian Express.
Given the six-day stay, the freshly minted maulvis have again spearheaded a massive campaign to keep women removed from the Haji Ali Dargah’s sanctum sanctorum, much in the same way as the wishy-washy pandits did to the Hindu women seeking to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple.
In their nefarious bid to ‘purge’ Sufism and the dargahs of their plural traditional ethos and egalitarian values, the mullah-minded pseudo-Sufis are leaving no stone unturned. They are persuading the less-educated common Muslims cherry-picking the prophetic sayings (hadiths) and misquoting unrelated references from the Islamic scriptures. A few of the can also be seen in prime time TV debates and other media talks and interviews with their untenable arguments vehemently opposing the Bombay HC’s ruling.
It was the Mumbai-based Mufti Mehmood Akhtar Qadri, who first issued the fatwa declaring women not to be allowed into the sanctum sanctorum of the Haji Ali Dargah. This mufti sahib repeatedly asserted his misogynistic pronouncement, speaking to media persons. In his interview with Ashutosh Shukla of DNA, he said:
“As a mufti, my job is to tell what the Shariah says. Everyone knew that women should not be allowed near graves...I feel that women should not come to the Dargahs at all. But if we tell them this, God knows what will happen, considering their reaction when we said that they should not be allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum. Women should not stand close to those who are not related to them. As per the Shariah, there is Salamati (well-being) if women do not go to dargahs."
But the fact is that this detestation against women’s shrine visitation was never part of the Indian pluralistic Sufism. This originally stemmed from the patriarchic fatwas of Saudi Salafist Islamic clergy. An authoritative cleric and mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid wrote in his well-known fatwa, 'Ruling on women’s shrine visitation', “The correct view is that it is not allowed for women to visit graves, because of the Hadith mentioned. It was narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) cursed women who visit graves. Women should stop visiting graves. The woman who visited a grave out of ignorance (of this ruling) is not to blame, but she should not do it again. If she does so, she has to repent and seek forgiveness." (Principles of Fiqh, Jurisprudence and Islamic Rulings, fatwa no: 8198)
According to an Al Jazeera study 'Arab World Journalism in a Post-Beheading Era', Shaykh Muhammad Saalih Al-Munajjid is considered one of the respected scholars of the Salafist movement, an Islamic school of thought whose teachings are said to inspire radical movements in the Arab world, including al-Qaeda and a group called al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wal Sham (also known as the Islamic State, IS or Daesh).
Wikipedia indicates that Saalih Al-Munajjid is also the founder of the most popular Saudi Islamic website providing which provides answers to questions in line with the Salafi school of thought.
In view of the above fatwa issued by Shykh Al-Munajjid, it is not difficult to see that the puritanical Saudi Salafism has successfully launched an onslaught on the pluralistic Indian Sufism. Indian Dargahs like the Haji Ali Shah in Mumbai were never like this before. It was only in 2011, first time in the Indian history of Sufism, that the trustees of a Dargah barred women from their right to seek blessings at the sanctum sanctorum of Haji Ali Dargah. Thus, they overturned an age-old Sufi tradition relying on the fanatic fatwa of the Muftis attached with the Dargah, who are speaking in the language of the Saudi Mufti Shykh Al-Munajjid. How come they conceived, all of a sudden, that the Quran and hadith (the primary Islamic scriptures) did not permit women’s entry into the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine? This male hegemony and strict segregation of women were never part of the mainstream Sufi Islam India.
Dr Zeenat Shaukat Ali, the founder-director general of The World Institute of Islamic Studies for Dialogue, has rightly pointed out, “The negative approach articulated by a strong patriarchy is far from the ideals and values of Islam where women and men stand on an equal spiritual ground and are assigned the same religious duties and the equivalent spiritual rewards. The prevalence of such unwarranted patriarchal control has tended to restrict women’s access to many aspects of Islamic religious/spiritual space and life. It must be stated that there is no segregation of women in the obligatory duty of the Haj pilgrimage obligatory upon all Muslim men and women."
That the self-styled Islamic clergy and trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah are replicating the language of the Saudi Salfist muftis is utterly deplorable. It does not augur well for the future of pluralism celebrated in the Indian Sufism. The mainstream moderate Muslims in India must concern themselves with it as a disturbing development in the community. While the Indian maulvis and muftis should shun their male-chauvinistic views in the light of the well-established Sufi traditions, common Muslims having reason and faith must not waver to apply their God-gifted intelligence. They should leave these mullah-maulvis aside and try to think for themselves.
The author is a scholar of Comparative Religion, Classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. He tweets at @GRDehlvi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org