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What is PM Modi’s gameplan in making Sufism the antidote to fundamentalist Islam?: India Today

As the world reels under the onslaught of terror attacks inspired by fundamentalist Islam, the government bats for a kinder, gentler version of the r

As the world reels under the onslaught of terror attacks inspired by fundamentalist Islam, the government bats for a kinder, gentler version of the religion.

Uday Mahurkar
March 23, 2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with delegates at the World Sufi Forum, New Delhi, March 1

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with delegates at the World Sufi Forum, New Delhi, March 17

“Nar-e-Taqbeer Allahu Akbar, Nar-e-Rasalat Ya Rasullulah, Nar-e-Haideri, Ya Ali.” The crowds at Ramlila Maidan roared throatily each time a pir (Sufi leader) ascended the stage. The culmination of the four-day-long World Sufi Forum, a first-of-its-kind event, attracted the largest gathering of Muslims in the capital since the Narendra Modi government came to power.

The four-day forum, organised by the All-India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), the apex body of dargahs, tombs of Sufi saints which orthodox Muslims shun as unIslamic-had the Modi government’s support. Among those who spoke was one of the world’s most influential Sufi preacher, Canada-based Pakistani cleric Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri . The Centre had made it clear-it saw Indian Sufis, practitioners of a gentler, tolerant version of Islam rooted in the subcontinent’s syncretic culture, as the antidote against fundamentalism.

Prime Minister Modi was effusive in his praise, crediting Sufism with being Islam’s greatest gift, in his inaugural speech at New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan on March 17. “When we think of the 99 names of Allah, none stands for force and violence,” Modi said. “At a time when the dark shadows of violence are becoming longer, you are the noor or the light of hope. When young laughter is silenced by guns on the streets, you are the voice that heals.”


The dark shadows of violence Modi referred to, of course, was the war for the hearts and minds unleashed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their war against the West, from the battlefields of Syria-Iraq to the streets of Paris, and now, Brussels.

The event, conducted under the aegis of the World Sufi Forum in Delhi, focused on de-radicalisation, cessation of fanatic ideologies and the taming of extremist fringes and religio-fascist cults that engage in religious misinterpretations to justify violence and intolerance. And it showcased India’s plurality to over 200 delegates from India and abroad. Participating in the meet were Sufi preachers from 20 countries, many of them from strife-torn nations like Iraq and Syria, as also other countries like Turkey, Egypt, the UK, the US and Russia which have found themselves in the crosshairs of the world’s deadliest Islamist group.

India, which has the world’s third-largest Muslim population, has so far resisted the group’s poisonous ideology. Just 25 ISIS Indian Muslim recruits have come to light and been arrested so far-a number too tiny to even be a statistical reality. In sharp contrast, 1,600 French nationals are thought to have crossed over to ISIS-controlled territories.

Modi’s gameplan

India’s syncretic culture-over half of the 14.5 crore Sunni Muslim population worship at dargahs and follow practices that would qualify them as Sufis-is believed to be one of several reasons that have firewalled Indians from the lure of ISIS. Daniel Benjamin, former counter-terrorism coordinator at the US state department, calls India “one of the most amazing and encouraging stories in the coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims”.

The forum brought together a galaxy of Sufi preachers, including Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam; Shaykh Hashimuddin Al-Gaylani of Baghdad; Dewan Ahmed Masood Chishti of Pakistan; and Syed Minhaj ur Rahman of Bangladesh. It came at a time when the Arab world’s great theological centres in Cairo, Istanbul and Baghdad are being battered by the ISIS’s ultra-Wahabi onslaught. Top government officials say the conference underlined Modi’s plan to make Delhi the headquarters of the world Sufi movement. “India has attained a significant position as this conference has united the scattered Sufis into a forum against the terrorists,” says Shaikh Mohammed Idris, imam of a leading Sufi mosque in Faiz, an ancient Sufi centre in Morocco.

The AIUMB is headed by Syed Mohammed Ashraf of the dargah of Kichhochwa Sharif near Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The board has in the past, organised a series of big conferences called ‘Muslim Mahapanchayats’ where they have attacked jihadism and extreme Wahabi thought. Reason enough for some Muslim groups to look upon it with suspicion. “The Modi government is trying to divide the Muslims and create animosity within,” alleged Maulana Arshad Madani of the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind.

Ashraf waves such criticism aside. He terms the conference not only one of the biggest global gatherings of Sufis but also the first of its kind in independent India. “In the 70 years of Independence, those in power have never encouraged us as we did not promise immediate benefits in the form of votes,” he says.

India’s Sufi Muslim numbers are constantly under pressure from the hardline Wahabis of the Deobandi school and its missionary wing, the Tablighi Jamaat, and a more virulent Wahabi stream, the Ahle Hadees. However, unlike Pakistan where Taliban suicide bombers have attacked Sufi shrines, the Sufis in India have only to reckon with Wahabi proselytisation. India’s security community is also favourably disposed towards them because, as they are fond of saying, no Sufis have become terrorists. Hardline thought is incompatible with the moderate strain of their faith. “Terror has no religion,” says Shaikh Abdel Naeem Yahaya Al-Khatami, who preaches Islamic jurisprudence at Cairo’s iconic Al Azhar University. “The fight against terror is a struggle between the values of humanism as symbolised by Sufism and the forces of inhumanity.”

Tackling the hardliners

The meet saw seminars facilitating compilation of innovative views and strategies for strengthening Sufism, and tackling the forces that weaken it in the face of the onslaught of radical Islam. A major concern of the forum was also on how to stop Sufi youths from being weaned away by Wahabis.

Incidents like the post-Babri and 2002 Gujarat riots contributed to the growth of Wahabism in India when rhetorical clerics played on the injuries suffered by Muslims in these clashes to attract Sufi youth towards a robust, aggressive brand of Islam.

Two-thirds of the 1,200-odd participants at the forum were young and middle-aged Muslims, the age group from which Sufi Muslims have been converting to Wahabism. The eight seminars held at the meet dealt with the revival of Sufism, its role in promoting tolerance and coexistence, and the history and reasons for terrorism.

Meanwhile, AIUMB president Ashraf also urged Prime Minister Modi to instil some sense of security among India’s increasingly uneasy Muslim community. “The pre-election propaganda about the Muslims being victimised if BJP or Modi came to power continues after the poll,” he said. Sufism, he added, could be a catalyst of change to herd victims of terror and radicalisation back towards peace and understanding.

Mohammed Habib, president of a Sufi tanzeem IMAN (Indian Muslim Association-Noorie) called the conference an unprecedented step in uniting the Sufis of India and promoting moderate Islam. Tahirul Qadri called for a separate syllabus in education on peace and counter-terrorism. He said Sufism had played a key role in sustaining India’s plural culture while denouncing ‘Taksirism’ (ultra-Wahabism) for destroying the values of brotherhood. ISIS, he said, was the ugliest face of Taksirism. “This meet has given a lot of strength to the Sufis of the world,” says Dewan Ahmed Masood Chishti, associated with the renowned dargah of Baba Farid in Pakistan’s Punjab. “The message of Sufi unity is a great message against ultra-Wahabism.” It is a message the Modi government would like to play out loud and clear.