Jihadi cleric Syed Salman Husaini Nadvi's reasons for shifting Babri Masjid are as complicated as his ideology
How should we understand radical Islamic cleric Salman Nadvi when he surprises everyone by advocating a compromise to move the Babri mosque from Ayodhya?
How should we understand a radical Islamic cleric when he surprises everyone by advocating a compromise to move the Babri mosque from Ayodhya to somewhere elsewhere? On 8 February, Syed Salman Husaini Nadvi met Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in Bengaluru where, along with some other Muslim leaders, Nadvi argued that it is permissible in Islam to shift the Babri mosque, paving the way for an out-of-court settlement. Three days later, on 11 February, he was sacked as an executive member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which reiterated the commonly held clerical position that a mosque cannot be gifted, sold or shifted.
Nadvi is a pro-jihad cleric who founded the Jamiat Shabab-il-Islam (Organisation of the Youth of Islam) in 1974. This is a radical group that seeks to mobilise the youth for Islamic causes and accuses non-Muslims of spreading unbelief among Muslims, observing: "The flag-bearers of disbelief: Jews, Christians and Polytheists [i.e. Hindus], concentrated all their efforts to detract the Muslim youth from the mainstream of Islam." This organisation went on to establish in 1989 the Jamia Syed Ahmad Shaheed, a madrasa that aspires to become a university. Salman Nadvi has stated that the madrasa was "named after that Islamic hero to revive his reformation and revival movement." In Islam, all jihadi groups call themselves reformist.
So, who was Syed Ahmed Shaheed – who is praised by the Taliban in Pakistan every day? Syed Ahmed Shaheed – of Rae Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh – was a young delinquent who did not complete school-level Islamic studies. However, along with his discipline Shah Ismail Dehlvi, he launched the first jihad in India in early years of the 19th century – not against the British rulers, but against Punjab, which was under the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839, ruled 1801-1839). It is not surprising then that Syed Ahmed Shaheed is a hero for Nadvi, who issued a congratulatory letter to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State soon after Al-Baghdadi declared himself as the Emir-ul-Momineen (the leader of Muslims) in 2014.
Although Nadvi has tried to explain away his congratulatory message to Al-Baghdadi, his radical teachings remain a cause of concern. According to a video from the Middle East Media Research Institute, he was expelled by Oman last year for lambasting the Saudi king and US president Donald Trump whom he called "pimp" and added: "People who ally themselves with them – be it one of the kings of the Two Holy Places [in Saudi Arabia] or anyone else – are considered one of them. Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies."
While Nadvi's efforts for an out-of-court settlement of the Ayodhya dispute must be lauded, his statements on the issue have to be placed in context. There are four ways to understand Salman Nadvi's position on the issue of the Babri mosque and the need for an out-of-court settlement. First, it is possible that humans can change and therefore, perhaps he is suddenly a changed man out to advocate communal harmony in India. It is clear that he has done considerable thinking over the issue of the Babri mosque. And it appears that his 8 February meeting with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was perhaps the third, with two previous meetings on 20 January and 3 February being kept secret. However, given his previous record, this explanation appears to be weak.
Following is the second possibility. On a tour of Uttar Pradesh during the 2017 Assembly elections, I met Nadvi in Lucknow. During the meeting, the cleric was sweet, short and curt in answers to all my questions until I asked him about his congratulatory letter to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. He suddenly became full of life, stating: "I congratulated Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on the point that he had registered victories against Shion ke zalimana mazalim (the cruel atrocities of Shias in Iraq)." Nadvi does not think that Shias are Muslims. Most Barelvi/Sufi groups too agree on this point. This could be the strongest reason why he has suggested the shifting of the Babri mosque.
An editorial from an Urdu monthly magazine called Allah ki Pukar (the Call of Allah), from the issue of December 2017, is posted on the Facebook page of Nadvi. The editorial clarifies that the Babri mosque was built not by the Mughal ruler Babar but by his Shia Governor of Oudh Mir Baqi Tashqandi and "was known by his name" as "Mir Baqi Masjid" – not under Babar's name. Once the status of the mosque is clear as belonging to a Shia, then theologically it becomes acceptable to Nadvi that it is not a Muslim mosque since, according to him, Shias are not Muslims.
Third, once it is established that the Babri mosque is not a Muslim mosque, the editorial offers justifications from the Islamic Sharia for its shifting to another place. But arguments remain on whether even a Muslim mosque can be shifted. The editorial asks: i) Does the Babri mosque (Mir Baqi mosque) have special religious status when compared to other mosques? ii) Is there no other mosque for the Muslims of Ayodhya to offer prayers? iii) Can a mosque be shifted to another place under exceptional circumstances? iv) If it is not possible to offer prayer in a mosque, does it retain its status as a mosque? v) How do the Quran and Hadiths (traditions of Prophet Muhammad) guide us in this regard? vi) What does Islamic jurisprudence say about it?
Giving arguments from Islamic Sharia, the editorial comes to many conclusions, including that in Islam the worship is not for the land – namely the land of the Babri mosque – but to Allah. All the conclusions reached in the editorial facilitate the key argument that the Babri mosque can be shifted. The fact that the editorial was posted on Nadvi's Facebook page means he endorses such a step, which of course, is against the commonly held view among Islamic clerics.
Fourth, there is another likely reason behind Salman Nadvi's stand in favour of an out-of-court settlement: maslaeh – expedience or prudence. In Islamic theology, expedience has been a long-standing principle accepted by all leading scholars. This principle of maslaeh was discussed in detail in an article published by Tahqeeqat-e-Islami, a quarterly scholarly magazine published from Aligarh. Leading Islamic scholars such as Imam Ibn Taymiyyah and Shah Waliullah Dehlvi accepted this principle. It is possible that Salman Nadvi too is inspired by this principle and deems it useful to resolve the Ayodhya dispute. We must not forget that for a somewhat similar reason, most Islamic clerics, including Jamaat-e-Islami founder Maulana Abul A'la Maududi, had opposed the partition of India in 1947.
Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative at the Middle East Media Research institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif
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