Islamic perspective

Indian Sufis speak out against Wahabi dominance


Recently a huge congregation of Sunni (Sufi) Muslims in Moradabad denounced Wahabi Islam and the spokesperson of the All India Ulama Mashaikh Board, Syed Mohammad Ashraf and leader of the Sufi Islam said we do not accept leadership of Wahabi Islam (hamen inki na qayadat na imamat qabool hai). Syed Mohammed Ashraf said, 80% of Indian Muslims followed the Sunni Sufi tradition while Wahabis wielded control over just 13-14% of the community.

But, he said, a large section of the Urdu press has boycotted us. They are controlled by hardliners. Though there has been a serious difference between the two, it was for the first time that public denunciation came taking many by surprise.

For outsiders all Muslims are one in India. In fact they consider Muslims a monolithic bloc. However, it is far from true. Indian Muslims are highly diverse, as diverse as India culturally, linguistically, regionally as well as theologically. Indian Islam, it must be noted has been thoroughly Indianised in terms of culture, local customs and traditions. This is reflected in various ways including celebration of festivals, marriage, birth and death rituals etc.

Some purists of course opposed this Indianisation and worked for de-Indianising Islam through medieval ages also. Mujaddid alf-e-Sani during Jahangir’s time was one among them. He was opposed to Chishti school of Sufi Islam (which has been predominant in India) and which believes in what is known as Wahdat al-Wujud (Unity of Being). This School demolished all walls of separation between religions.

Mujaddid alf-e-Sani proposed the doctrine of what he called Wahdat-e-Shuhud (Unity of Witnessing). However, this school never becomes popular in India or even outside India. It remained confined to a few religious elite. Some separatists in 20th century used Mujaddid as their icon of pure Islam and also for consolidating their separatist movement under Islamic garb. In fact it is too much to read political separatism in Mujaddid’s religious doctrines.

We are mentioning Mujaddid alf-e-Sani here only to show that there has always been some tension between pure Islam and Indian Islam which Chishtiya Sufis preached. It is interesting to note that Hasan Nizami, Sajjada Nashin (Keeper) of the Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi, wrote a wonderful book Fatimi Dawat-e-Islam in which he has documented in detail how Sufis adopted various Indian rituals, customs and traditions to popularize Islam in India and how successfully they Indianised Islam.

Thus it will be seen that Sufi Islam reflects regional variations of cultures from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Sufi Islam has always been pluralistic and inclusive and its emphasis has always been on spiritual aspects of religion (tariqat) than Shariat (legal path) though Shariat is not neglected. It is closer to what we can call bhakti marg among Hindus. Sufi Islam lays more emphasis on devotion.

Sufis, though they were great scholars of Persian and Arabic - two languages in India in which Islamic literature was produced - they preferred to write in local languages. Baba Farid Ganj Shakar, a great Sufi saint from Punjab wrote in Punjabi and is considered as the first Punjabi poet and Guru Nanak has quoted his verses in Adi Granth Sahib and hence Baba Farid is highly respected by Sikhs. Punjab University in Chandigarh has a created a Chair in his name, The Baba Farid Chair and also publishes a journal.

Sufi Islam being pluralistic in approach was tremendously popular among people of different religions, especially among Hindus. One can see large number of Hindus at Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti’s Dargah in Ajmer or Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Dargah in Delhi and so on. Thousands of Hindu women come and take vow for offering chador (sheet of cloth) if their problem is solved.

It is interesting to note that Dara Shikoh, the elder son of Shah Jahan who was appointed heir apparent by him (Shah Jahan) was a Sufi belonging to Qadariyah School (which did not have much following in India). He was a great scholar of Hinduism and he learnt Sanskrit in order to understand Hinduism through original sources. He translated Upanishads into Persian and maintained that he found the concept of Tawhid after Qur’an only in Upanishads.

He also wrote a seminal work Majma ul Bahrayn which is a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam and in which he shows how similar these two religions are. In fact, it should be a compulsory study for students to promote national unity and integration. However, it has been totally neglected and hardly anyone knows even its name. Instead books promoting serious misunderstandings, even downright animosity, are taught in schools and colleges.

It is Sufi Islam which not only brought Hindus and Muslims together but also created our rich heritage of composite culture. It is highly necessary that our youngsters know more and more of this rich heritage.

The Wahabi Islam, on the other hand, came into existence in 18th century in Najd, a part of what is called today Saudi Arabia. It was Muhammad Abdul Wahhab who was its founder. Abdul Wahhab was totally against Sufi version of Islam and he thought it is corruption of Islamic teachings.

Sufi Islam believes in visiting graves of Sufi saints and reciting Fatihah (prayer invoking name of Sufi saint and taking vows in the name of Sufi saints). Abdul Wahhab denounced all this and thought Islam cannot permit this and this is against the teachings of Islam as it believes in unity of God (tawhid) and is shirk (associating partners with God). Thus, he argued, Sufi Islam is totally anti-Islamic and must be rejected.

The Wahabi Islam is opposed to even invoking name of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and opposes visiting Prophet’s grave and praying there. Here I’m not trying to judge who is right and who is wrong. I am only trying to portray what is what.

Maybe Wahhabis are right from their own perspective but it would be equally wrong to denounce Sufi Islam as corruption of Islamic teachings. No ideology in the world, be it religious or political, can remain ‘pure’ as some ideologues would like to desire. Even Marxism drastically changed when imported to China.

It is also interesting to note that those who desire to use any ideology for power insist on purity, even extremism and those who desire to make it pro-people take it closer to people’s culture and thus compromise its original purity.

While Wahhabis desired to capture power which they subsequently did, Sufis kept their distance from power. Sufi Islam is inclusive and pro-people and hence does not want to aspire for power. In fact power becomes problematic as it is always exploitative and anti-people.

Even democratic power structure tends to become exclusivist for certain groups and communities and does not remain pro-people as it ought to be. Sufi Islam, though Muslim dynasties were ruling over India, maintained its distance from rulers and ruling dynasties. It remained closer to common people rather than ruling classes.

Thus among Muslims, all those who desired power were not much enthusiastic about Sufi Islam. Even poet Iqbal initially denounced Sufism as its teachings seriously interfere with the philosophy of what he called khudi i.e. elevation of self. Iqbal at that stage thought Sufism leads to inkisar (humility) as against khudi so necessary for a power wielding personality.

However, Iqbal did realize later inner richness of Sufi approach and came to greatly appreciate poetry of Hafiz, Sa’adi and Rumi and he calls Rumi as‘Pir i.e. spiritual teacher and quotes him repeatedly in his poems. Indian soil was very fertile for Sufi Islam and specially Chishtiyah Sufism which was founded by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi on the philosophy of Unity of Being i.e. Being is one and we all are its manifestation.

India had developed this approach in its own way and Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi in Spain in his own way. When these Wahdat-ul-Wujudi Sufis came to India the two met and flourished. That is why Wahdat al-Shuhud of Mujaddid alf-e-Sani found no takers in India and now it is only history whereas Wahdat al-Wujudi Islam is still flourishing.

Wahhabi Islam, as pointed out above, is essentially a political Islam and it found some takers in 19th century when the Mughal rule declined and Muslims suffered both politically as well as economically. Its history in India is a chequred one. It began as a revolt against the British as well as against the feudal lords who exploited the peasants. In Bengal the peasantry was mainly Muslim and Dadu Miyan and Titu Miyan, both described as Wahhabis led to revolt. However, in U.P. it acquired mainly anti-British tone.

In India the Wahabis are generally known as Deobandis as they had established the famous seminary Darul Uloom Deoband in 19th century and from day one they had been opposing the British rule and played prominent role throughout the freedom movement. They supported the Indian National Congress and its ideology of secular democracy and opposed Jinnah’s two nation theory. Thus one finds this contradiction among Deobandis - politically they have been progressive but religiously and theologically rather conservative.

The Deobandis though technically not the followers of Abdul Wahhab of Najd, are closer to Shah Waliyullah Dehlavi who tried to work out synthesis of Wahdat al-Wujud and Mujaddid alf-e-Sani’s Wahdat al-Shuhud to reconcile the two opposing ideologies. However, it did not succeed much. Shah Waliyullah, an eminent theologian did not reject Sufism but did not accept philosophy of Wahdat al-Wujud without reservation either.

But Deobandis of late have adopted hostile attitude towards Sufi Islam and both try to revile each other. As Saudis are quite intolerant of Sufi Islam, Deobandis who are going closer to Saudis ideologically, are also becoming more and more intolerant of Sufi Islam. Saudis are pouring money in the Islamic world to popularize Salafi Islam which is most intolerant and exclusivist and wants to go back in history and practice Islam as practiced by the earliest Muslims.

Of late, due to Saudi influence Salafi Islam is spreading fast among Muslims and this leads to extremism. During anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan America also promoted Salafi Islam as at that time Islamic extremism was thought to be American ally. Today America is paying the price for that. America never hesitates to exploit religious fanaticism, if it helps its purpose even temporarily. Thus America is no less responsible for spreading Salafi Islam.

Again, because of Saudi influence Indian government also gives more importance to Deobandis than to representatives of Sufi Islam though they are in great majority. Recently when our peace yatra from Ayodhya to Nizamuddin Awliya ended at the Mausoleum of Hazrat Nizamuddin the sajada nashin bitterly complained that we are not included in any governmental delegations though were most inclusive and people of all communities Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians visit this place. He pleaded with us to use our influence with the government to include them in official delegations.

It was in this background and frustration that Syed Babar Ashraf spoke at a rally at Moradabad. It is unfortunate that Muslims while swearing by unity (ittihad) are indulging in sectarian fights. In this respect one must admire the efforts of Shah Waliyullah, a man of social vision, tried to reconcile the two schools of thought but his ideas have been marginalized and intolerance is growing.

India is a land of diversity and tolerance and Sufi Islam prospered here because of this nature of Indian soil. Some Muslims may not accept Sufi Islam for ideological reasons and there is nothing wrong about it but they should show respect for those who are devout Sufis and believe in praying at Sufi Dargahs. Sufi Islam is after all more spiritual in nature and Sufis, though do not renounce the world as renunciation has no place in Islam, but they do believe in controlling desires and keep their distance from power. That is why it is more inclusive and pluralistic in nature.

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