Travels of a political pilgrim: Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

For more than a decade, the northern Indian town of Bareilly – the seat of the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam – has grown in prominence in national politics.

Tufail Ahmad February 27, 2017 12:06:49 IST
Travels of a political pilgrim: Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Editor's note: Uttar Pradesh is home to India's sixth largest Muslim population according to the 2011 Census, a figure whose magnitude is amplified when viewed in the context of the sheer expanse of the state and its Byzantine linkages of identities and communities. Such an examination is rendered all the more urgent considering Uttar Pradesh is now in the thick of a tumultuous election. To understand the mind of its Muslim community — its anxieties, aspirations and animating impulses - political commentator and journalist Tufail Ahmed set off on the road, sending us dispatches from its far corners. Firstpost will chronicle his travels in a multi-part series. The following is the seventh part of this series titled 'Travels of a political pilgrim'.

For more than a decade, the northern Indian town of Bareilly – the seat of the Barelvi school of Sunni Islam – has grown in prominence in national politics, largely due to the growing influence of Islamic cleric and politician Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan.

"This town is a stronghold of Barelvi Sunnis. Yahan maslakon aur silsilon ki jang chhiri huwi hai (A war of juristic and Sufi orders is being fought here)," says senior journalist Dinesh Juyal.

Before 2010, Bareilly had not seen any Hindu-Muslim conflict – not even around the Partition in 1947 or in 1992, after the demolition of Babri mosque in Ayodhya – but it is all changing now.

In religious practices, ordinary Muslims are required to follow one of four maslaks (juristic orders or schools of jurisprudence), represented by renowned Islamic jurists: Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafi'i and Imam Hanbal.

Travels of a political pilgrim Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Representational picture. AFP

This also means that ordinary Muslims cannot change loyalty from one juristic school to another, because these schools determine the very minute practices and styles of prayers if not beliefs. Most Muslims in India and across South Asia follow Imam Abu Hanifa (702–772 CE).

Among the Sunnis who follow Abu Hanifa are Deobandis, known after the Darul Uloom Deoband, the second largest madrassa after Cairo's Al-Azhar University. Deoband has enjoyed political influence over a long period, especially owing to the role of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, a Deobandi group.

Opposed to the Deobandis are Barelvis, known after Ala Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi (1856-1921), who founded the Barelvi school of Islam. The Barelvi school upholds Sufism and syncretic practices at Sufi dargahs (shrines), such as religious singing and dancing, while the Deobandis, whose supporters include the Taliban, denounce visits to shrines as idolatry.

The Rise of Tauqeer Raza Khan

Concerns were often raised that the Ala Hazrat Dargah in Bareilly did not exercise any significant political influence, when compared to Darul Uloom Deoband, which has had huge influence over the past century. This was despite the fact that the bulk of Indian Muslims followed the Barelvi school, not Deobandis.

Sometime in the 1990s, Tauqeer, who belongs to the Ala Hazrat family, figured out the contours of Hindu-Muslim politics. By 2004, Tauqeer was responding to the politics of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Pravin Togadia, who was distributing trishuls (tridents) among Hindus for self-defence. Tauqeer, too, started distributing trishuls to Muslims; tentatively from his office at first and later in public meetings, according to Mahbub Alam, a journalist.

Tauqeer's move was seen as bold by many Muslims living in an environment of insecurity, emanating from the demolition of the Babri mosque. Over the past decade, Tauqeer has delivered inflammatory speeches that challenge Hindu sensibilities, thereby ingratiating himself politically among Muslims.

Even now, his public speeches taunt the religious sensibilities of Hindus, says journalist Suhail Khan, adding that Tauqeer's influence in Bareilly and nearby towns has declined recently. In the 2012 Assembly elections, several candidates had won from the Ittehad-e-Millat Council (IMC) party founded by him; but, after winning, many of them had switched their loyalties to other parties.

Talking to a diverse groups of people based in Bareilly, an unchallengeable view emerges that Tauqeer Raza Khan enjoys support among all the political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Pramendra Maheshwari, a doctor by professor and BJP worker, agrees with the view but also notes that Tauqeer's influence has gone down recently.

Common Muslims have grasped that Tauqeer is a trader in politics, says Maheshwari, and adds that many a times now, Tauqeer's political supporters are chased away by local Muslims. But, it's clear that Tauqeer has played a significant role in the emerging Hindu-Muslim divide in Bareilly.

In the 2010 riots, Tauqeer was arrested but mysteriously released overnight by the Mayawati government, notes Sanjeev Saxena, a teacher. There were Hindu-Muslim riots around Janmashtami in 2012 too and Bareilly had to endure weeks of curfew.

Parthu Vatsayayan, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker, observes: "Now Hindus and Muslims no longer live together like before, but Tauqeer's chhaya (graph) has become bigger than the Ala Hazrat dargah itself."

Vatsayayan also notes that Tauqeer lacks substance and is unable to enhance his image further. The authority of the Ala Hazrat Dargah, as well as Tauqeer's image, was severely dented after Nida Khan, a daughter-in-law with modernist views in the ruling Dargah family, was picked up by goons from her college because the family did not want her to complete her education.

Soon after, she was divorced by invoking triple talaq. Nida filed court cases against the talaq, given by her husband Shiran Raza Khan, and accused the Dargah family of dowry harassment. The cases are being heard.

Although the Ala Hazrat Dargah has publicly tried to dissociate from Tauqeer's political activities, he continues to speak at events organised by it and therefore is seen as a representative of the dargah among Muslims.

Notably, Tauqeer is a key speaker on the last day of the annual Urs programme at the Islamia Inter College, organised by the dargah. This has become a major power-flexing event, where members of the Ala Hazrat family show off their influence, and sometimes clash against each other on stage.

The dargah has not completely distanced itself from politics either. But Tauqeer is politically suave and knows how to shore up his stature. Journalist Wasim Akhtar points out that Tauqeer's recent visit to the Darul Uloom Deoband, which attracted a lot of criticism from Barelvis, was meant to burnish his image through the use of media.

Notwithstanding Tauqeer's sliding graph locally, his influence has grown nationally and internationally, especially in politics. The Dargah also runs an international supreme court called Darul Ifta, where Sharia cases are brought before it from scores of countries, including Saudi Arabia, says Alam.

Tauqeer was recently visited by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Ajit Singh of the Lok Dal party. He had also campaigned for Lalu Prasad Yadav during the Bihar Assembly elections of 2015.

Ordinary Muslims outside Bareilly do not know anything about Tauqeer's declining local influence. Outside Uttar Pradesh, he is seen as the representative of the Ala Hazrat Dargah by Muslims. This image sustains his political life.

The war of Dargahs

In addition to the Hindu-Muslim conflict that has emerged in Bareilly, largely due to the divisive role played by Tauqeer, a war of silsilas (Sufi orders) is also underway in the region. Among Muslims, Rizvis are Shias, while the Barelvis among the Sunnis call themselves Razvis – after Ala Hazrat Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi – a minor difference in pronunciation but denoting a major difference between Shias and Sunnis.

In early Islam, sahabis (companions) were those individuals who had met Prophet Muhammad and had listened to him, and therefore considered as a source of lawmaking in Islamic Sharia. After them were Tabi'een – or those who were born after the death of Prophet Muhammad but were contemporaries of sahabis. They too are a source of lawmaking in Sharia.

Dr Mahmud Hussain, in charge of the Arabic department at the Bareilly College, says that Sufism started after Tabi'een and is represented by the four key silsilas (Sufi orders): Naqshabandiya, Qadriya, Sahrwardiya and Chishtiya. Generally, there are no doctrinal differences between different Sufi orders.

There are many dargahs in Bareilly: such as Khanqah-e-Niazia, Khanqah-e-Bamqiya, Khanqah-e-Shrafiya, and many others. Khanqahs are monasteries associated with dargahs. In Bareilly, a competition to exert influence and control among Muslims has been underway between two major khanqahs: the one led by the Razvis, who control the Ala Hazrat Dargah, and the Saqlainis, who belong to the Dargah Sharafat Miyan.

Travels of a political pilgrim Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Haji Mumtaz Miyan, an official associated with the Sharafat Miyan Dargah at Bareilly. Firstpost/Tufail Ahmad

Haji Mumtaz Miyan, whose brother is in charge of the Dargah Sharafat, says that khanqahs were initially meant to research and teach about religion, and that the first khanqah was established at Ramalla, now in the Palestinian territories, in 300 Hijri (912 CE) by Hazrat Abu Hashim.

"When the khanqahs became shrines, their original purpose of teaching ended," Miyan says, adding that, "Today, we the madrassas and khanqahs, are responsible for the backwardness of Muslims. The people who control khanqahs turned them into sources of livelihood but even today the nation (of Muslims) is willing to listen to them."

The Saqlainis, who belong to the group represented by Miyan, are fighting against the dominance of the Razvis of the Ala Hazrat Dargah. Every year, on the occasion of the Jaloos-e-Muhammadi, the procession taken out to mark the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, Razvis and Saqlainis have clashed, many a times violently.

For the past few years, the Razvis and the Saqlainis have been taking out separate processions through different routes determined by police so that violent clashes between the two Sufi orders can be prevented. Miyan says that the Razvis clash not only against the Saqlainis but also against Madaris, another Sufi order.

While Tauqeer has his own political agenda, the Saqlainis are supporting Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party in this year's UP Assembly elections. Miyan, who argues that Muslims must intervene in politics, also notes that there are no differences with the Razvis on the grounds of beliefs propagated by the Ala Hazrat Dargah, but adds that Razvis (Barelvi Muslims) do not consider non-Barelvis as Muslims.

Miyan says that his group objected to the use of what he calls as "slogans" by Razvis, but his argument that these 'slogans' are non-doctrinal does not appear to be valid, as they do originate from theology.

As a consequence of this fight between the Razvis and the Saqlainis, the Muslims of Bareilly now stand divided. The fear is that this fight has turned into a campaign in recent years and will likely transform itself into militating doctrinal movements between the two Sufi orders.

Over the next century or so, these doctrinal movements will formalise and become organisational networks with their own dedicated followers, thereby dividing Muslims much like today's Barelvis and Deobandis have divided Muslims – with the Deobandi group represented by the Taliban taking up arms.

Travels of a political pilgrim Tracing the rise of Barelvi Islam in Indian politics

Mufti Muhammad Saleem Noori, spokesperson of Ala Hazrat Dargah at Bareilly. Firstpost/Tufail Ahmad

"At first, Muslims were divided only between Sunnis and Shias. But then Sunnis divided between Barelvis and Deobandis," says Mufti Muhammad Saleem Noori Barelvi, spokesman of the Ala Hazrat Dargah and editor of the Ala Hazrat magazine.

He laments that, "The Barelvis later got divided into different silsilas. These silsilas too have their own Ulama (Islamic scholars). Earlier too, there were silsilas but there was no such shiddat pasandi (militant religiosity) among them." The militant religiosity that Mufti Saleem Noori talks about is part of the increasing religiosity at the international level in the recent decades, and is not just limited to Muslims.

Earlier, the differences were limited to books and munaziras (public debates between rival Islamic scholars), but today, these differences have reached courts and police stations, Mufti Saleem Noori observes, adding that the hope has died that the Islamic scholars will ever sit together and work collectively for the advancement of Muslims.

Part One: Separatism and integration among Muslims in the time of Uttar Pradesh elections

Part Two: Secularism versus communalism at election time

Part Three: Is rise of religiosity on AMU campus a precursor to another 'Partition'?

Part Four: Should taxpayers be funding AMU’s imams, muezzins, theology department?

Part Five: How bridging religious, worldly knowledge gap can reform Muslim education

Part Six: Be it Kairana, Muzaffarnagar or Aligarh, India is headed towards multiple 'Partitions'

Part Eight: Farangi Mahal, once a bastion of Islamic education, looks to regain lost glory

Part Nine: Understanding the Shia-Sunni Muslim divide in the country

Part Ten: Government must address 'minority' syndrome which causes social conflict

Part Eleven: Mubarakpur sits at the junction of Islamic doctrinal sects divided by Taqleed

Part Twelve: Madrassas play key role in inducing orthodoxy among Azamgarh's Muslims

The author, a former BBC journalist, is a contributing editor at Firstpost and executive director of the Open Source Institute, New Delhi. He tweets @tufailelif

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