Wahhabi impact

The growing influence of Wahhabism, a radical stream of Islam, on Indian Muslims and on the political scene, especially south Indian politics, can cause further communal polarisation if the state fails to uphold the secular ethos.

Published : Nov 13, 2013 12:30 IST

SDPI workers pulling down publicity material of Kamal Hassan film "Viswaroopam" outside a theatre in Thiruvananthapuram.

SDPI workers pulling down publicity material of Kamal Hassan film "Viswaroopam" outside a theatre in Thiruvananthapuram.

THE PHENOMENON of Islamist terrorism has received considerable attention in recent times. Pointing to a trend of increasing radicalisation of Indian Muslims, Indian intelligence has expressed concern that it is becoming a paramount national security issue. However, in looking at Islamist fundamentalism as one of the causes for communal polarisation in the country, many observers tend to portray the Muslim community as a homogeneous group. The Muslim society is equally worried about the growing radicalisation of Indian Muslims.

In fact, the increasing influence of radical streams, especially Wahhabism, within Islam; the rising Islamophobia across the world; and the strengthening of Hindu nationalist forces in India are issues that are frequently debated among Indian Muslims. The growth of radical Islamist streams became visible only in the past two decades. The unprecedented polarisation of the political environment in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 not only broke a long history of communal harmony in India but also gave rise to insecurities in both Hindu and Muslim societies. Fundamentalist groups in both societies, interested in creating communal disharmony, found ample scope for the radicalisation of the youth. Communal riots have erupted before 1992, but systematic campaigns to polarise religious groups gained currency only post-Babri Masjid.

The influence of Wahhabi Islam in the Indian Muslim community started growing around this period. Indian Muslims have a long tradition of Sufi Islam or what is called the Barelvi tradition. A milder form of Wahhabism exists in the subcontinent in the form of the Deoband theological school, which commands a large following but has always coexisted with other forms of Islamic traditions. This has made Islamic practices in India dynamic and syncretic. No wonder then that many sections of the Mulim community have resisted the strict code of conduct and practice of a “puritanical” religion advocated by the Wahhabis.

The time when Wahhabism was trying to get a foothold in India was also a time when the Muslim community was trying to strategise its resistance and highlight its concerns. The secular section of the community believed that in order to contain the growing radicalisation, the insecurities among Muslims would have to be addressed. A large section of the community believed that the problems could be resolved within the democratic framework of the Indian state, a reflection of the faith it reposed in India’s secular ethos. This has been the legacy of the Indian state since the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1969, in which many Muslim-majority countries participate. A second group of Muslims doubted the Indian state’s intentions to resolve the problems facing the community and campaigned against its inconsistency in upholding secularism. It challenged the Indian state within the constitutional and secular framework, by seeking political action through civil society groups. These groups also canvassed for Hindu-Muslim unity in the face of an adverse environment. The third group, comprising clerics belonging to a few revivalist schools and some Western-educated Muslims, denounced the capacity of the state to be secular altogether and believed that only the true practice of Islam could redeem the community. It is among members of this group that Wahhabism, a revivalist movement founded by the 18th century theologian Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, started to gain ground.

The Wahhabi movement denounced all the Islamic schools of jurisprudence which it thought wrongly interpreted the Quran. It championed Tauhid (the oneness of Allah) and argued against the Shafi, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali schools of jurisprudence. It advocated “going back” to the Quran and the Sharia (Islamic law). It described Islam as a “code of life” and not a religion, in the same way the Sangh Parivar describes Hindutva as “way of life”. The Wahhabis demanded a return to the Salaf (golden age of Islam, the caliphate). The movement found political patronage in Saudi Arabia, which continues to adhere to its principles. In the early 20th century, Wahhabism flourished with renewed vigour when Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, and Sayyid Qutb, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, espoused its ideals to form a “true Islamic society and considered proselytisation as true jehad”. Wahhabism considers the Western world and people from other religions jahilliyah (ignorant) and believes that fighting against them will lead one to Allah (God) because, according to Wahhabism, only Islamic law can ensure a just society.

The majority of Muslims find this strand of Islam fundamentalist. Ali Mamouri, a theologian based in Iran, says: “The fundamentalists emerged not out of conservative circles but rather out of reformist movements which were aiming for an ‘Islamic awakening’. The goal of fundamentalism is to return to the ‘sacred text’, carefully executing what it says, without any interpretations, and rejecting the official, and more conservative, historical interpretations of it.”

It is not surprising that most militant Islamist outfits, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jammat-ud-Dawa, draw their inspiration from the strict theology of Wahhabism. Embracing this insular approach towards Islam, these outfits justify severe punishments such as beheading, stoning to death and flogging of people who do not follow the Sharia. Wahhabis consider all modern governments illegitimate as they are an intervention in the workings of the Sharia.

With the passage of time, this tradition of Islam gradually lost acceptance except in Saudi Arabia, only to find new strength in the 1990s. “Saudi Arabia pumped millions of petrodollars into the madrassas and mosques of the subcontinent to propagate the Wahhabi theology,” Javed Anand, general secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy and co-editor of Communalism Combat, told Frontline . “This led to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and its influence travelled east for the ‘liberation’ of Kashmiri Muslims,” he added.

“No doubt the continued bleeding of Palestine, Bosnia and Chechnya provided extra charge to global jehad. But it is important to remember that Maududi had foregrounded global jehad on the Muslim agenda before the surfacing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Qutb’s vision, too, was never limited to the solution of the Palestinian problem,” Javed Anand has written in an article in Seminar .

Observers have pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s brand of Islam was tacitly promoted by its most important ally, the United States. “We all knew it but it was exposed in the recent war on Syria. Recently, on the instruction of the U.S., Saudi Arabia stopped channelling zakat ’s [Islamic tax] fund to a few madrassas, which means that Washington controls where the money goes from Saudi Arabia. Recently, a Saudi Minister went on record saying that thousands of youth from his country have gone to Iraq to wage jehad. Both the U.S. and Israel are against Islamic fundamentalism but they shelter its most vociferous supporter, Saudi Arabia,” said senior journalist Md Ahmad Kazmi.

It is the promotion of Wahhabism in the Kashmir Valley that led to the bombing of Sufi dargahs. The Wahhabis advocated a ban on music, a prominent feature of the subcontinent’s Sufi Islam, and issued directives to make the wearing of the burqa by Muslim women compulsory. They also introduced new prayer rituals. “The attack on Charar-ei-Sharief and other dargahs in the recent past can be contextualised within this Wahhabi campaign,” Md Ahmad Kazmi said. He said that the growing conflict between the Shia and Sunni sects could be attributed to the increasing influence of Wahhabism. “After the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran, the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis had decreased tremendously. The re-energising of Wahhabis in India is precipitating renewed conflicts. The Wahhabis teach that killing Shias will lead them [its followers] to jannat [heaven],” he added. He pointed out that the influence of Wahhabism was spreading in the rural areas of north India and was leading to the destruction of dargahs and Sufi shrines. (Wahhab had condemned the cult of saints, and shrine and tomb visits.)

Influence in south India The influence of Wahhabism is much stronger in south India than in the north. Groups such as the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political front, the Social Democratic Party of India, have gained considerable influence in Kerala and coastal Karnataka. Reports about the PFI running terrorist camps in northern Kerala surfaced last year, following which several PFI leaders were arrested. In July 2010, PFI activists reportedly chopped off a professor’s hand, apparently for preparing a question paper with blasphemous references to the Prophet Muhammad.

The PFI has been charged with kidnapping and also the murder of several Communist Party of India (Marxist) activists and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh workers in northern Kerala. Political observers have opined that Wahhabism in south India is an import from the Gulf region, where many south Indians have migrated for work.

One of the main activities of the Wahhabi groups in India is mobilisation of students groups in colleges. The PFI and its front organisations have begun to wield considerable influence in many private colleges. In their desire to take forward their understanding of puritanical Islam, they issue diktats against Muslim women who refuse to wear the burqa. Rayana R. Kazi moved the Kerala High Court in 2010 seeking police protection after she received threatening phone calls asking her not to wear jeans and shirt. Similarly, Shirin Middya, a lecturer in Aliah University near Kolkata, was asked by the students union to wear a burqa if she wanted to teach. The students’ union even banned her from entering the university premises.

In Tamil Nadu, too, the influence of Wahhabism has increased in rural areas. The Tamil poet Salma said: “A woman writing is considered a sin. It was very difficult. People would come and threaten my family.” Pointing out that the level of intolerance had increased in recent years, she said that the Wahhabis advocate child marriage, discourage women from studying, and campaign among Muslim families to live according to the Sharia laws. “You cannot question the traditional way of divorce in front of them. They become militant,” she said.

The PFI is said to be an offshoot of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned in 2001. SIMI functioned as a student movement but bracketed Islam within the strict codes of Wahhabism.

“The nefarious nature of SIMI has been evident from the moment it emerged from the womb of the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1977. Character building to fight against the perceived twin evils of communism and capitalist consumerism with its ‘degenerate morality’ was the declared objective. But in less than a decade, this self-styled moral brigade metamorphosed into ‘the real inheritor’ of the legacy of the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, who argued that all Muslims must strive for an Islamic state. True to its ideological mooring, in the ’80s, SIMI produced eye-catching stickers proclaiming ‘Secularism, NO; Democracy, NO; Nationalism, NO; Polytheism, NO; Only Islam’. These stickers adorned many Muslim homes and shops throughout India,” Javed Anand has said in one of his essays.

At its Mumbai meeting in 2001, SIMI for the first time declared that the time had come for Indian Muslims to launch an armed jehad to establish an Islamic caliphate. Posters issued by SIMI following the demolition of the Babri Masjid had declared: Ya Ilahi, bhej de Mahmood koi (Oh Allah, send us a Mahmud), in reference to the Turkish conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni.

“These groups, while trying to impose a strict Sharia code of conduct in Muslim households, are also changing the language of Indian Muslims. They advocate the use of Allah hafiz as a parting phrase as opposed to the traditional khuda hafiz ,” Kazmi said. Allah, an Arabic word for God, is considered appropriate by the Wahhabis as opposed to khuda , which is a Persian word. “They ask [Muslims] to keep chanting Allah hoo to call God, but they are strictly against finding meaning in Quran or studying the history of Islam. They are trying to box the religion,” Kazmi added. Similarly, these clerical groups force Indian Muslims to address the Islamic holy month as Ramadan (which is Arabic), as opposed to Ramzan.

Hard-line teaching The phenomenal rise of two Wahhabi groups, Tablighi Jamaat and Ahle-Hadith, in the past five years is noteworthy. Tablighi Jamaat has been growing stronger, especially in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. This group is trying to appropriate the syncretic culture of “Aalmi Tablighi Ijtema” (world conference held in Bhopal), which attracts at least 10 lakhs of the faithful every year. Tablighi Jamaat wants to hold similar ijtema s in Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and Hyderabad. Tabhlighis reportedly also control the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and most wakf boards. Its members visit villages and hold congregations of local Muslims and propagate the group’s six-point programme. The six tenets are: Kalimah, which teaches Muslims to follow only Allah and no other God; salat, which stresses the need to pray five times a day; Ilm and zikr, which invoke the Hadith; Ikram-e-Muslim, which stresses the need to respect other Muslims; and Dawah, which urges every Muslim to live according to the Islamic virtues practised by the Prophet. Apart from this, the Jamaat encourages its followers to go on khuruj , a conversion tour.

Such hard-line teaching is also preached by the Ahle-Hadith, which denounces all other traditions of Islam and claims to follow true Islam. It invokes Hadith, accompanied by the Quran, and is strictly opposed to the Sufi tradition. Both these groups promote a minimalistic lifestyle and irreverence towards other cultures.

Influence on politics The growing influence of Wahhabism is having considerable impact on the Indian political scene, especially south Indian politics. Parties such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), considered to be moderate parties, have started taking hard-line stances. The IUML recently supported the campaign for a separate Tirur district to be carved out of the existing Malappuram district.

This campaign was originally started by the SDPI in 2010 and subsequently it gained resonance in the Gulf region among the migrant Muslims of Kerala. The SDPI had originally demanded a new district comprising Tirur, Tirurangadi and Ponnani taluks and some portions of the Chavakkad region in Thrissur district. This led to intense communal debates, especially between the upper-caste Nair community and the SDPI.

In another instance, the IUML quoted the Sharia in its circulars to demand that the marriageable age for Muslim girls be reduced from 18 years. The party leaders also declined to light lamps at public functions, claiming that it was a Hindu practice.

In Tamil Nadu, the TMMK has displayed aggression in its protests. It demanded a ban on Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam and some other films ostensibly for being anti-Muslim. In 2008, it demanded that Muslims be allowed entry into a mosque located in a protected monument.

Kalanthai Peer Mohamed, the award-winning Tamil writer, commentator and observer of Muslim politics and culture, told The Hindu on August 5: “Within the TMMK itself, a radical wing emerged, led by the charismatic P. Jainul Abideen, who formed the TNTJ [Tamil Nadu Thouheed Jamath]…. The TNTJ, largely a one-man show, eschews electoral politics and confines itself to its communal ideals. It blindly backs acts of omission and commission committed by the Arab world under the garb of Islam. When the whole world found the beheading of the Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim girl, Rizwana, revolting, Jainul Abideen vociferously justified the act. It’s worrying that the community in Tamil Nadu does not have representatives who can articulate their voice in a reasonable manner within a broad humanistic and universalistic framework.”

Some political observers, however, say that parties such as the IUML and the TMMK have been courting and serving feudal interests of affluent Mulims. Behind most of the issues raised by them are the commercial interests of a few leaders of these parties. But the issues have subsequently been communalised. A case in point is the communalisation of the IUML’s campaign to start four universities in Malappuram district. It later turned out to be an effort to appease the real estate interests of the Muslim elite and some party leaders. A cause of concern for secular Muslims of Kerala is the increasing criminalisation of parties such as the IUML in recent years.

The electoral impact of these organisations and cultural fronts promoting “true Islam” has been minimal. However, several Wahhabi groups, such as the Gujarat Muslim Revenge Force, the Muslim Defence Force, and the Islamic Defence Force, were founded in the past decade. Most of these organisations engage in proselytisation activities. But there are no reports of their involvement in terrorist activities. Acting as the cultural vanguard of “true Islam”, these organisations invoke the sense of injustice among Indian Muslims and pave the way for their cultural assimilation. There is the possibility of working-class Muslims, already strained by poverty and injustice, getting carried away by such campaigns.

It would be inappropriate to say that the Wahhabis have been highly successful because they do face resistance from Sufi traditions. As opposed to the theories of Hindutva ideologues, it is the pluralistic practice of Islam in the subcontinent that acts as a strong defence against such insular radicalisation. Indian Muslims, not Hindus, are facing the brunt of such radical tendencies. However, if the Indian state fails to adhere to its secular ethos, a far worse situation could arise.

The anthropologist Irfan Ahmad noted in one of his papers on SIMI: “The formation of such illegal groups by a segment of Muslim population also points towards an affinity between the geography of riots and cartography of Islamist radicalism. Over 15% or 20% of SIMI’s members came from Maharashtra, Gujarat and U.P., States where the masculine, virulent Hindutva has far more impact, and which have a history of the worse riots in the past two decades.” It is, therefore, binding on the government to intervene positively to address the problems of Indian Muslims.

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