Divided We Stand

Of late the divisions among Muslims have grown exponentially, writes MOHAMMAD ZEYAUL HAQUE
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A friend, who has sufi leanings and a PhD in Urdu literature, wrote a 200-page book on the 13th century sufi poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi last year.

That friend, whose scholarship I have every reason to trust, told me recently the following anecdote from Rumi’s life. One day a visitor came to Rumi and asked him: “I have heard that you deem all the 72 firqahs (sects) of Muslim as being in the right. Is that true?”

“Yes, of course, I do,” replied the sufi poet. That straight-faced answer to a heavily contentious question sent the visitor flying into a rage. He hurled a few of the choicest abuses at Rumi.

Rumi looked up coolly at the fuming and frothing visitor, and told him in an even, calm voice: “And I also consider this 73rd firqah of yours as being in the right.”

Now, to put a disclaimer here, I have not learnt about this through my own studies. However, I have no reason not to believe a friend who is so well-versed in these things.

The talk between Rumi and his visitor was set in the background of a hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) in which he reportedly said “(there would come a time that) there would be 72 sects among Muslims. Only one of them would be true to Islam, and that sect would follow the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions in their life.”

That point in time has not come so far, and few people can count more than 20 sects. However, mainstream ulama think that most sects of today are following the Prophet and his companions and agree on the basic principles of Islam. Television preacher Maulana Tarique Abdullah has this stance on the issue. That means most of them are not heretical, and follow the Prophet (pbuh).

That somehow vindicates the “liberal” stance of Rumi (as reflected in the contemporary ulama like Tarique Abdullah and others) is that diversity could be a source of strength, not heresy. Most of today’s sects are not heresies, says Maulana Abdullah, and the hadith refers to heretical sects, not diversity of interpretation.

Despite respect for diversity of opinion, one does feel apprehensive about the widening division among Muslims in India. Today there is such a cacophony of conflicting claims and mutually exclusive positions that one finds it difficult to grasp what could be the actual position of Indian Muslim community on contemporary religious, political and economic issues.

This looks bewildering even after we accommodate the Islamic position in the reckoning that diversity of opinion in Islam is a blessing. For instance, look at the pre-poll scenario in UP, particularly eastern UP. There seem to be more “Muslim parties” than is good for Muslims. So, where are they going? In all four directions, of course.

By the way, this is no plea for voting en bloc, and Muslims have not voted en bloc in the past any more than other groups. However, there has to be some sense of direction or some idea about at least such basics as “does our vote strengthen secular politics rather than an avowedly anti-Muslim party?” This clarity is not visible. It is invisible virtually in every area of Indian Muslim life.

The latest evidence of a widening division is between two branches of a sub-sect of Sunnis, that is, between Hanafis of two different persuasions. Reading English newspapers published from the national capital these days one gets the impression that the Deobandis are from the Moon and the Barelvis from the Mars.

If one is not familiar with these things one would get the impression that they are unrelated to each other. The fact is that both are Muslim, both are Sunni and Hanafi. The Deobandi-Barelvi division among Hanafis and the contrived distinction between them is not readily apparent to Muslims from outside the Subcontent.  

The English media in Delhi are calling the Barelvis “Sufi Sunnis”, which to a Sunni sounds rather hilarious. The fact is that from the founders of Darul Uloom to contemporary Deobandi luminaries virtually everyone is Chishti-Sabri sufi. The “Sufi Sunni” tag put on Barelvis is meant to mark them out from the Deobandis who are supposed to be non-sufis. This erroneous description is an indication of the media’s own lack of understanding of these issues rather than a realistic grasp of things.

How come the media chooses to call only one of them “Sufi Sunnis” in the face of facts? Simpletons also brand all khanqahs and dargahs as Barelvi, even though all of them are not Barelvi. The same holds true for the saffron robe and headgear of Chishti sufis.

This discourse seems to ignore the fact that the founder of Barelvi movement himself was an alumnus of Deoband. This also shows that like amoeba, Muslim groups flourish on continuous division.

There is another way of looking at it: the Barelvis, or the Sufi Sunnis, had been nursing a grudge for quite some time that somehow their Deobandi counterparts had a greater share of political space, connections and influence right from 1947 till date.

Most Sunni groups wielding some political influence had been Deobandis. The Barelvis needed their share of the political space and nobody would give it to them on a platter unless they kicked up a row and presented themselves as a distinct brand of Hanafi Sunnis (which the Deobandis too, are).

The Deobandis and Barelvis have clashed violently in the past. This time round, however, the division seems particularly ominous.

The Sufi Sunni-non-Sufi Sunni divide is only a reflection of myriad divisions in the putatively undifferentiated, monolithic Muslim community of India, which was already deeply riven by the Shia-Sunni schism.

Anywhere you care to look the amoeba-like division seems to be working. First there was the division of India into India and Pakistan, then of Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Now there is every effort being made to divide Pakistan into Sindhi and Balochi independent states and, possibly another state in the tribal areas, besides Pakistan.

We began with a single Darul Uloom Deoband, which broke into two. People have been busy trying to do the same with Mazahirul Uloom nearby, an institution that is as old and prestigious as the Darul Uloom.

At every gathering some Muslim group organises, one is sure to be subjected to a harangue on “Muslim unity.” Such talk is mandatory, but “unity” is the last thing on their minds. They would pay lip service to unity without meaning it. Noises on unity would be made even if such consolidation is unnecessary. Possibly, like all unattainable things, Muslims talk about it merely because it is unattainable.

Coming back to Uttar Pradesh, the most unedifying spectacle is there for everyone to see as that state is warming up for the coming elections. A lot of unpleasant developments are taking place there just because elections are due. Even the fervour round the Sufi Sunni versus non-Sufi Sunni controversy can be placed in this context.

Reporters visiting eastern Uttar Pradesh to see the pre-election scene come back with the impression that a couple of new Muslim parties  are working hard, not to ensure victory for their own candidates, but to ensure that the rabidly anti-Muslim BJP, especially Mahant Adityanath’s men, win their seats by default in the melee created by these people.

Adityanath and many BJP leaders publicly abuse and menace Muslims. People have made audio-visual records of their sickening anti-Muslim posturings. It is difficult to see what good the “Muslim parties” see in making such men winners by default. A community divided against itself is not fit for survival.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 December 2011 on page no. 14

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