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Sufis strike back

Rakhi Chakrabarty | Dec 4, 2011, 07.01 AM IST   Sufism is in fashion. A 'Rockstar' can't pull in the crowds without riffing his guitar at the h

| Dec 4, 2011, 07.01 AM ISTTOI


Sufism is in fashion. A ‘Rockstar’ can’t pull in the crowds without riffing his guitar at the holiest of Sufi shrines; and any gathering of the swish set in big cities is not complete until someone whirls on their toes to the poems of Rumi.

In the real world – outside Bollywood’s imagination and beyond sanitized zones of India’s metros – it’s a different story. The followers of Sufism and the visitors to the shrines of medieval saints have been feeling the pressure -of being cornered by extremist and narrow strains of Islam, which have been telling them that they are not “real Muslims” because they go to shrines or follow “un-Islamic” rituals.

Across the border, in Pakistan, Sufi shrines have been bombed and the devotees killed. Here in India, the attack has been only verbal. Fed up, Sufis are hitting back now, trying to reclaim the space that might have been ceded to the Wahabis — followers of puritan Islam who look down upon all other traditions.

The recently-formed All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), which claims to represent Sunni Sufis — also called Barelwis — is now taking lead in this fight. At its well-attended meetings across UP recently, the AIUMB has been calling on its supporters to “resist the Wahabi interpretations of Islam” and accept the “tolerant, peace-loving” nature of Sufism as a counterpoint. The Barelwis claim to represent 80% of Indian

Muslims, with a large presence in Pakistan. But the question is, can they win this battle for the leadership of the community?

Incidentally, there is nothing new in this fight which has been going on for ages. “Divisions within the community are fairly old. Rise of Islamism and Saudi Arabia and the growing power of the ulemas in India contributed to such divisions,” says Prof Imtiaz Ahmad, a sociologist.

But in present day India, the debate has taken a different turn. The Deobandis say Sufis are not “good” Muslims. And the Sufis accuse Deobandis of promoting Wahabism . “Deoband embodies the vestige of the Wahabi movement,” says Prof Ahmad . But Darul Uloom Deoband rector, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, disagrees: “We have no connection with Wahabis.”

Since the attacks of 9/11 and the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Muslims have been facing a question of identity. Now the debate has reached India , too, where Sufi roots are probably the deepest. AIUMB general secretary Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichhouchhwi says Sufi khanquahs don’t differentiate between “us” and “them” or Muslims and non-Muslims . Sufis or Barelwis are perceived as ‘moderate’ Muslims. “Besides admitting local culture and practices , they defend what existed as Islam in India,” says Prof Ahmad.

Though the Deobandis consider visits to Sufi shrines or graves and seeking blessings bida or deviation from true Islam, for ordinary Muslims, especially in villages, such arguments make no sense. “They still find solace in the highly diversified eclectic Islam of India,” says Ahmad.

Indian Muslims, according to scholars, are still rooted in their unique culture and there are no Wahabi-inspired hardliners in India. “At best you can call them mild fundamentalists. Muslims can’t afford to be radical in India. About 95% of Indian Muslims have Hindu ancestors. So, Hindu culture dominates India, the basis of which is tolerance. For extremism to flourish , a Muslim majority country, like Pakistan , is needed,” says Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan.

Even as the Sufi versus Wahabis debate rages in the subcontinent, there are many who believe that classifying Islam as moderate or hardline is a Western myth which has been propagated since 9/11. As the Taliban and fundamentalists professed Deobandi ideology, the US has used Sufi Islam as a counter force to terrorism. Since 2001, the US has helped Sufism by giving more than $1.5 million for the restoration and conservation of Sufi shrines in Pakistan , according to an article that appeared in the ‘New York Times’ in January 2011.

In India, the shrines don’t need any external help. Their roots are quite deep. And now they are ready to fight for the protection of their tradition.