Battling radicalism with Sufism: Is Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind using Ajmer Sharif for political gains?
While at one end the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind is using Sufism to appeal to the liberal Muslims in India, its rejection to identify it as a part of Islam shows its dual political stand, which also spans across issues like Triple Talaq and uniform civil code
In March this year, a Firstpost article had noted that the World Sufi Forum, an initiative by an apex body representing Sufi Muslims in India, was an effort showcasing the community's resilience against extremism and as "an effective antidote" to terrorism masked as "religious ideology".
Explaining this "religious ideology", Syed Muhammad Ashraf Kichhouchhwi, key organiser of the World Sufi Forum and founder-president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), had told Firstpost: “A specific ideology which is not part of Islamic tradition is motivating radicals who are wrongly interpreting the Quran and its narrative from their own ego pursuits and politics.”
He went on to say, “Any extremist organisation waving Islamic flags and misusing the holy Quran such as Daesh (Islamic State) have actually no endorsement in the ambit of Islam...” and, “this is an extremist ideology which spreads hatred if someone does not subscribe to it. Enormous resources are invested in perpetrating violence. Therefore, it is important to realise and unearth the propaganda of such people and organisations that are funded by foreign entities to spread hatred and intolerance to disrupt peace and harmony in a country such as India”.
The World Sufi Forum, held in March 2016, was slated as the first-ever mega Sufi event of counter-extremism with more than 200 international dignitaries from 20 countries. Though seen as the first and last event as such, it, however, seems to have begun an unending onslaught on the particular ideology which the Sufi forum believes is a grave threat to the country’s pluralistic ethos.
According to a front-page news report in the leading Urdu newspaper Inquilab, World Sufi Forum held a similar conclave entitled, “Sufism and Humanity” in Lucknow on 4 December. Sufi Sunni ulema and intellectuals with various backgrounds spelled-out their opinions on the current ongoings. Several Indian Sufi clerics, who run some of the largest Sunni Islamic seminaries in India, seemed worried about the growing phenomenon of pseudo-Sufism or “neo-Sufism” dressed in diametrically different political forms.
A systematic research on the mystical strain of Islam reveals that the origin of Sufism has its roots in a spiritually-inclined notion of "close personal relationship with the Divine". Therefore, meditation has been exhorted by Sufi saints as an inner spiritual channel to attain this exalted relationship. But today, this spiritual path to eternal salvation is being turned into a phenomenon of political dominion.
Recently, the largest Sufi shrine in the country, Ajmer Dargah — perhaps for the first time in the Indian history — was dragged into a well-worked-out political campaign by Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind (JUH), an avowed supporter of the Congress party. The key members of the JUH whose ideologues have clearly and categorically declared Sufism as "anti-Islamic", chose to hold their 33rd annual conference in the prime Sufi Dargah in India, Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan. It was an out-and-out political attempt to woo the mainstream Indian Muslims anchored in age-old Sufi traditions.
Going by the media reports, more than one lakh Muslims of a certain religious faction from across the country assembled at the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Moinuddin Chishti. The JUH invited Deobandi leaders and a few Barelvi clerics who theologically endorse its political motives, with a view to debating the burning political issues of the Muslim community, ranging from the Uniform Civil Code to Triple Talaq to the upcoming UP Elections.
Given the fact that Maulana Mahmood Madani, the JUH general secretary has been a Rajya Sabha member with support from Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal and has dabbled in electoral politics, the 33rd annual conference of the JUH held in Ajmer cannot be seen apolitical. With the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election around the corner, the JUH leaders and other religio-politicians are trying to forge a new narrative to woo the gullible Indian Muslims.
But, by any stretch of the imagination, the JUH Ajmer conference will not be able to garner the support of the Sufi-oriented Indian Muslims to achieve its ulterior motives. Tellingly, while the JUH has celebrated Sufism as an effective channel for "unity of the ummah" or "Islamic unity" (note that only Muslims are included in it), it maintained deafening silence over the pernicious "religious ideology" which the World Sufi Forum accuses to be playing havoc across the Muslim world, particularly striking the non-Muslims, Shia and Sufi Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It was distressing to note that the JUH did not even castigate the radical Islamist ideology of bigotry in its so-called "Sufi conference" in Ajmer.
Isn’t it ironical that the same leaders of the JUH who organised the Ajmer conference lambasted the World Sufi Forum as a political ploy of the Indian government to divide the Muslim community over "Sufism vs Wahhabism"? The JUH chief Maulana Madani went to the extent of loudly claiming that “Sufism is nothing” while branding the World Sufi Forum as an NDA bid to "divide the Muslims". In the wake of the three-day World Sufi Forum which came crashing down hardcore philosophies in Islam, Maulana Arshad Madani blatantly stated: “Sufism is no sect of Islam and is not found in the Quran”. He also accused the Modi government of trying to create animosity among the Muslims.
While the World Sufi Forum’s key participants — mostly global leaders of Sufism — exhibited great zeal in strengthening the foundations of Sufism to combat all the forms of violent extremism, the JUH and the ilk disparaged these Sufi practitioners as “pseudo-Sufis”. So, how would the JUH like to brand itself now when it has held its 33rd largest annual conference in Ajmer using the prime Sufi shrine in India for its own political ends?
Remarkably, while the World Sufi Forum stressed on composite nationalism (muttahida qaumiyat), inclusive democracy (jumhuriat) and pluralism (qaumi yakjehati) in its final-day declaration, the Sufi conclave of the JUH in Ajmer promoted the religionist and sectarian narratives.
The JUH Ajmer conference mainly discussed three points: first, the unity of ummah (ittehad-e-ummat), a JUH unification proposal for Muslims in India which actually calls for a truce between the Deobandis and Barelvis — the two largest Islamic sects in India opposing each other in the foundational religious principles. Second, it called for social condemnation of the practice of Triple Talaq while at the same time strongly theorising its Islamic legality and thus opposing any proposals for a uniform civil code; and third, it called for Dalit-Muslim unity.
But one can find the JUH's duplicity on the above two points distressing in many ways. Just as theorising the narrowed concept of the unity of ummah, which includes only Muslims in the common perception, is akin to promoting an exclusivist ideology among Indian Muslims. Similarly, publicising dubious views on a daily-life issue of paramount importance — Tripple Talaq — is celery misleading.
As for the truce between the Deobandis and Barelvis, it cannot be simply overlooked that the Ajmer conclave was led by Maulana Mahmood Madni, the third generation of Deobandi cleric Maulana Hussein Ahmed Madni who could not reconcile with the Barelvi ulema on religious grounds. So, the JUH could very well bring together a few known faces of the Barelvi and Deobandi ulema on its stages without which it would be merely a mirage to form the unity on the ground level.
A noted scholar on the Barelvi and Deobandi sects in India, Dr Arshad Alam has pointed it out: “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 Ahl-e-Hadith. 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”.
In the latest event of the World Sufi Forum held in Lucknow on 4 December, it was buttressed that the sole purpose of organising Sufi conclaves is the promotion of an ideology which calls for unity in multiplicity, tolerance and acceptance and respect for all humanity. Sufi clerics like Shaikh Anwar Ahmad, a senior scholar at Baghdad University in Iraq who now runs a female-oriented Islamic seminary in UP, proclaimed: “the aim is to help the people build a peaceful, progressive and pluralistic nation through the Sufi teachings”.
Despite the vehement opposition from the leading Islamic organisations like the JUH, these Sufis claim that they do not believe in opposing others, but rather engaging actively in peace activism. A Firstpost article has also noted that Sufis are now trying to come out of their conclaves to tackle the ideological extremism stemming from the hardcore philosophies in Islam.
It was also stressed in the Lucknow conclave that Sufism belies all the notions which Salafism stands for. Traversing from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, Sufism incorporates harmonious local practices like music and qawwali which are rejected by the radicals in Islam.
The author is a scholar of comparative religion, classical Arabic and Islamic sciences, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication Studies. Views are personal. He tweets at @GRDehlvi.
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