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Government promotion of Sufism is weakening its true essence

Riyaz-ur-Rahman | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:00 IST

The World Sufi Conference in New Delhi heralds India's belated bid to woo and promote Sufism, a strain of Islam that is perceived as apolitical, moderate and tolerant as against the conservative strands like Wahhabism, which are seen as politically active, inherently militant and intolerant of the other faiths. At least this is the received wisdom that Hazrat Syed Mohammad Ashraf, the founder president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board duly enunciated in his explanation of the purpose of the Sufi event.

"The conference will seek to find constructive ways to spread the Islamic message of peace and tolerance as a counterpoint to the ever-rising global violent extremism," Ashraf told the media. "The Indian Muslims will be appealed to practice the ancient Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb that is the fusion of Hindu and Muslim values."

In Kashmir, many people with no strict affiliation to any specific tradition of Islam, were quick to point out the "boldness" of the latter part of Ashraf's statement: his appeal for a practice of Islam that is "the fusion of Hindu and Muslim values."

Sufism is seen as the more apolitical, moderate and tolerant strain of Islam

"Most Muslims will take an exception to it. This will be seen as an officially sponsored attempt to corrupt Islam by blending Hindu way of life into it," said a Kashmir University professor not wishing to be identified as he was not an expert on religion and the sensitivity involved in religious matters.

But this disapproval too is not original, but a regurgitation also of a received wisdom. It draws on a prevalent conservative Muslim discourse that the government is promoting Sufism "as a friendly, pliant brand of Islam" which compromises its original message.

And the more the government courts Sufism, the more traction this narrative gains in public, and the more it discredits this otherwise influential strain of Islam.

Also read: World Sufi Forum: Muslim leaders divided over PM Modi's presence

Religious changes in Kashmir

The transformation of Kashmir's religious landscape over the past two decades, though rooted in complex factors, is in part the result of this thinking towards Sufism.

In recent years, Kashmir has witnessed a sudden proliferation of Barelvi outfits. Several Barelvi organisations claiming to be the custodians of Kashmir's Sufi moorings have sprung up to challenge the growing power of the conservative faith. Organisations like Karwani Islam, Minhaj ul Islam, Sufi Cultural Trust, Ahle-Ahnaf, Tehreek Soutal Hamdan etc have worked to institutionalise the Valley's Sufi order.

Changes in the religious landscape of Kashmir are also due to the injection of Hinduism into Sufism

It is now usual to see Barelvi clerics in green turbans and gowns holding large gatherings of the shrine-going Sufi believers. In 2011, an international Sufi conference was organised at the University of Kashmir. Now Sufi conferences are held intermittently in different parts of the Valley. One such conference in Ganderbal in 2014 also invited the migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Vinod Pandit of the All Parties Migrant Coordination Committee addressed the event.

"We are here to revive Sufism," says Farooq Renzu, a former bureaucrat actively involved the activities of the Sufi groups in the Valley. "Sufis have brought Islam to Kashmir. An Islam that teaches love between God and God's creation. How can you ignore their shrines. They mediate our relationship with God."

This new religious reality is in sharp contrast to the orthodox Deobandi Islam that has spread through an extensive network of madrassas, followed by a brand of conservative Islam propagated by the Jamiat Ahle Hadith.

This new religious reality in Kashmir is in sharp contrast to the orthodox Deobandi Islam

The Jamiat claims to own around 1,500 mosques, 100 schools and a membership of 15 lakh people. These numbers have made it one of the Valley's most influential religious group which has a distinct say in how people interpret their faith for themselves. Its adherents look askance at Sufi practices and see these as the dilution of bonafide Islam.

Government and Sufism in the Valley

While there is nothing new about this outlook - and that of the Sufis against the proponents of conservative faith - the widespread public perception of the government support to Sufis has swung this ideological contestation in favour of the Ahle Hadith and Deobandi groups. Sufis are accused of accepting favours from the government and thus quoting an "officially sanctioned version of the scripture which violates its authenticity".

Sufis have been accused of accepting government favours and thus violating the authenticity of Sufism

In 2007, the Army's bid to renovate Muslim shrines and mosques in the Valley snowballed into a major public issue with the Mutahida Majlis Ulema, a group of leading Islamic scholars and Ulemas led by Hurriyat Chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq warning the Army against "expanding" its activities into the religious domain. It also urged the then President A P J Abdul Kalam and the then PM Manmohan Singh to intervene and direct the Armed forces in Kashmir not to interfere in Muslim religious affairs.

"We believe that the Army has a hidden political design. Renovation of shrines is not a goodwill gesture as it is being made out to be," Mirwaiz had then said. Separatist and civil society groups had also spoken about the then frequent Sufi festivals being organised in the state by the Governor at that time, S K Sinha.

However, the newfound fascination of the governments with Sufi Islam isn't an India-centric phenomenon. Post 9/11, the West woke up to the need to empower this mystical branch of Islam to counter the literalist Saudi-exported Wahhabism and its allied creeds, which are believed to underpin the violent Islamic movements currently roiling the Muslim world.

Also read: Unite against violence & extremism: the message from World Sufi Forum

Sufism and the rest of the world

In US, a 2004 Nixon Centre report titled "Understanding Sufism and Its Potential Role in U.S. Policy" sought "to explore how Sufism-the spiritual tradition within Islam-relates to US foreign policy goals."

Similarly, after the 2005 London bombings, the British Government supported the creation of a Sufi Muslim Council to assist the fight against terrorism. However, the subsequent negative fallout of the SMC on the relations among different Muslim groups, persuaded the government to reconsider its support.

In Britain again, Idries Shah's fifty-year-old book The Sufis, was republished in 2014 by the Idries Shah Foundation and its translation commissioned in Urdu, Arabic and Persian. The book, with a foreword by Robert Graves, has drawn writers like Dorris Lessing, Geoffrey Grigson and JD Salinger to it.

Last year, in an outreach to the US Congress, the Syrian Government Spokesperson Mohamed Jihad al-Laham, urged the United States to back Sufism in order to bolster the fight against ISIS.

Bringing it back home

With the World Sufi Conference in New Delhi, India is the latest convert to this strategy - that is, at the national level. Speaking at the conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "Sufism became the face of Islam in India, even as it remained deeply rooted in the Holy Quran, and Hadis. Sufism blossomed in India's openness and pluralism. It engaged with her spiritual tradition, and evolved its own Indian ethos. And, it helped shape a distinct Islamic heritage of India".

Giving Sufism the status of being the face of Indian Islam neglects all other strands of the religion including Deobandi Islam, which originated in India and has now extensively spread through South Asia. In 1919, an organisation created by Deobandi scholars, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, had participated in the freedom struggle and opposed the creation of Pakistan.

Also read: Sufi principles are behind 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas': Modi

Besides India's experience with terrorism has been different from that of the West. As Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in Jaipur in February, while addressing the second edition of the Counter-terrorism Conference organised by the India Foundation: "most of the terror attacks in India emanate from Pakistan". And as the figures since 9/11 have shown, a negligible number of Indian Muslims have joined international terrorist organisations.

And in Kashmir, on the contrary, the militancy has sprung from entirely different factors than religion. "Kashmir militancy is primarily rooted in history and the politics of the Kashmir dispute. And when it began in 1989, Kashmir's religious character was predominantly Sufi," says Naseer Ahmad, author of Kashmir Pending. "Some religious orthodoxy took root later, priding itself on staying true to the fundamentals of Islam. And this is a USP that the government may be only reinforcing by backing Sufism, first in Kashmir and now in mainland India".

If the statements from some miffed Muslim groups are anything to go by - some of them including Barelvis also - the Sufi conference may have already sown divisions within the community. "Why are Sufis aligning with divisive forces?" asked the leader of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind Arshad Madni, at a recent press conference.

Government involvement with Sufism has been received with mixed emotions and some suspicion

Maulana Tauqeer Raza, a well known Barelwi leader, said in a press statement on Thursday that the RSS is behind the conference. "Through this conference, a game is being played to spread hatred against Muslims. There is no harm if the organisers of the Sufi conference lift their Sufi veil and do politics openly. But no Muslim will tolerate that they mortgage the whole Sunnism with the RSS," the statement read adding that in the name of Sufism some Muslim were accepting help from the Prime Minister and RSS.

"History is witness to the fact that kings bowed their heads at the doors of the Sufis. No sufi ever knocked on the doors of a king. Some sellers of conscience are bowing in front of Modi. Muslims will never forgive this.all ulama, Sufis, caretakers of khanqahs, imams and administrators of madrasas, not only oppose this alliance with the RSS but are also boycotting it," said Raza, the great grandson of Ahmad Raza Khan, a Hanafi jurist.

(The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation)

Edited by Anna Verghese

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First published: 21 March 2016, 10:23 IST