At an October 16, 2011 conference in the northern Indian city of Moradabad, thousands of Sunni Islamic clerics and mosque leaders called for countering the violent message of Wahhabi Islam and eradicating Saudi Arabia’s influence among Indian Muslims, and stressed the message of peace and love advocated by Sufi Islam. The clerics belong to the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB), which organized the conference, amahapanchayat (grand convention) of Islamic scholars and prayer leaders.
The AIUMB represents thousands of Sunni Islamic scholars and Sufis (mystics) from across the country. Its members owe allegiance to the Barelvi School of Islamic thought, which advocates unconditional love for Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. The organization comprises of 78 Sufi dargahs (monasteries and shrines), including that of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti based in the town of Ajmer and that of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia based in Delhi.
Unlike Deobandi scholars who support the Taliban in Pakistan, the Barelvi clerics approve numerous syncretic beliefs and practices – including music and dance – at Sufi shrines across India and elsewhere. The syncretic beliefs and practices at Sufi shrines are seen as un-Islamic by Deobandi followers. It should be noted that the Darul Uloom Deoband, the world’s second largest Islamic Deobandi seminary after Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, is situated in the town of Deoband, not far from Moradabad.
In the recent past, the AIUMB, whose members voluntarily join the organization, has held similar conferences in various Indian cities, mainly in the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. The AIUMB leaders plan to organize similar conferences in coming years to counter the influence of Deobandi/Wahhabi Islam.
Calls for Eradicating the Saudi Influence
According to a media report, the grand convention urged Indian Muslims to reject the message of hardline Wahhabi Islam, saying that it is giving the Muslim community a bad name, and called for limiting the Saudi influence in the affairs of Indian Muslims.
Syed Babar Ashraf, an AIUMB spokesman, accused the Deobandi Islamic organizations in India – such as the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind and Ahl-e-Hadees – of importing a “foreign ideology” into the country, and added that these groups, which owe allegiance to Wahhabi Islam propagated by Saudi Arabia, are “funded by petro-dollars and aim to grab political power.”
Syed Babar Ashraf noted that 80 percent of Indian Muslims follow the Sunni Sufi tradition – i.e. the Barelvi School of Islamic thought – while Wahhabis wield control over just 13-14 percent of Muslim community in India.
Syed Mohammed Ashraf Kachochavi, the AIUMB General Secretary, urged the Indian government to set up a federal board for madrassas in India to counter the influence of the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi Islam.
“Right now the madrassas are under the control of Wahhabi-inspired organizations which run on Saudi money. The ideology they teach and spread is hardline Wahhabism,” the cleric said. He added: “Madrassas, which are being run by the Deoband school of thought, are radicalizing and poisoning the minds of innocent Muslim boys.”
Syed Mohammed Ashraf Kachochavi further stated: “We clearly want to tell this to everybody, that we won’t allow the Deobandis and Wahhabis to grab Indian soil by terror and violence being fostered through petro-dollars [from Saudi Arabia].”
At the convention, the AIUMB released a memorandum urging the external affairs ministry of India to ask Saudi Arabia to stop “destroying historical places and preserve sites associated with the Prophet, his family and his Sahabas (companions).”
Sufi Islam Described as “Deterrent” to Wahhabi Islam
Maulana Mahmood Ashraf, the AIUMB president who also spoke on the occasion, said that the only thing which could be “a deterrent to Wahhabi terrorism” is the Sufi tradition of Islam. He said that Wahhabis and Saudi petro-dollars have destroyed the secular fabric of India by propagating the worst form of puritanical version of Islam, which considers Sufism as not only un-Islamic but worst as shirk (unpardonable idolatry).
Hazrat Shahid Mian Chishti, who is in charge of the dargah (shrine) of the 12th century Sufi mystic Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, at Ajmer, countered the Wahhabi clerics’ opposition to praying at dargahs, stating: “Millions of Muslims visit the Prophet’s shrine at Madina every year. Muslims are following the Prophet when they pray at dargahs. Why should it be un-Islamic?” It should be noted that every year millions of Muslims as well as Hindus visit the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, who is popular across South Asia.
At a press conference organized a week before in connection with the convention, AIUMB General Secretary Syed Mohammed Ashraf Kachochavi outlined the threat to Indian Muslim youth from the Saudi-backed Wahhabi Islam, stating: “Wahhabi-influenced terrorism has taken a section of Indian Muslim youth in its grip…”
“Peace-loving Sufi Muslims are in a huge majority in this country but regrettably the major Islamic institutions, including the Waqf Boards [which control collective Muslim properties] and the madrassas, are under the control of cash-rich organizations practicing hardline ideologies. We want to reclaim Islam from these elements and turn our youth away from the path of extremism and towards harmony and coexistence,” he told journalists in New Delhi.
Speaking at the convention in Moradabad, Syed Mohammed Ashraf Kachochavi lauded the Sufi traditions of Islam, stating: “About 100 years ago, Sunni Muslims in India rejected the Wahhabis. After [India's 1947] independence, however, the Wahhabis expanded their influence through political backing. While we remained distant from government and politics, Wahhabis gained control over institutions dealing with [Muslim] minority affairs…”
Various speakers at the convention accused Wahhabi-inspired Islamic organizations in India of indoctrinating radical Islam among Indian Muslims by feeding on their frustrations associated with educational and economic deprivation. Syed Mohammed Ashraf Kachochavi said: “Muslims should be careful about such anti-national activities in the name of religion. If they find any extremist exhorting them to terrorism, they should immediately hand over the person to police.”
Urdu Media Accused of “Boycotting” Clerics’ Message
A media report noted that the grand convention was “a sort of ‘coming out’ event for the AIUMB, which… has been barely visible on the Indian Muslim political and cultural scene. The AIUMB’s case is that despite their huge numbers, they have not been able to assert themselves because the Deobandis and the Wahhabis have captured key Muslim institutions such as the Wakf Board and the madrassas, and also wield political influence far beyond their size…”
The Urdu-language press, which has influence in the Muslim community, was not appreciative of the clerics’ convention. The Urdu media – including the Urdu newspapers owned by Hindu proprietors – is known for feeding hardline views among Indian Muslims in order to boost subscriptions. The Urdu-language newspapers “boycotted” the convention or allowed significantly less coverage of the event. Syed Babar Ashraf commented on the role of the Urdu media, stating that “a large section of the Urdu press has boycotted us. They are controlled by hardliners.”
According to another report in the secular daily The Hindu, the convention “appeared to have been boycotted by the influential Urdu press.” A week before the convention, when the AIUMB held a press conference in New Delhi, Urdu journalists were openly hostile to the organizers, arguing that the AIUMB was trying to divide Muslims.
In its reports, the Urdu language newspapers generally avoided highlighting the clerics’ calls against Wahhabi Islam and Saudi Arabia.
Clerics’ Message Lauded by Indian Commentators
Arshad Alam, a professor at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University who also spoke at the grand convention in Moradabad, noted that the Deobandis aspire to an Arabian model of Islam which obliterates the ethnic identity of Indian Muslims.
Alam, who has authored a book on madrassas in India, commented on the message of the clerics, stating: “This movement is articulating the ethnic roots of Islam in India. It’s not just about a religious identity but placing this identity in the national context.”
C. Uday Bhaskar, a New Delhi-based commentator, assessed the importance of the clerics’ call for eradicating the influence of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi Islam in the post-9/11 world. He stated, “The unambiguous stand taken by the AIUMB which represents almost 80 percent of India’s Sunni Muslims – who in turn are the majority faction of Indian Muslims (the Shia, Ismaili and Ahmadiyya amongst others are estimated to be less than 30 million in all) – is a very significant development in the ongoing contestation about the interpretation and practice of Islam.”
Bhaskar noted the growing Wahhabi influence among Indian Muslims in recent years and lauded the message of the Moradabad convention, stating: “In recent years, the hardline Islamic factions that have an Arab-Wahhabi texture to them have been gaining ground in India and many subtle changes have been evidenced. For instance, the common greeting in the sub-continent, salam-alekum, has gradually transmuted into khuda-hafiz, and has now become allah-hafiz. The word khuda has been dropped, since it is of Persian origin and is also seen to be preferred by the Shia populace.
“Predictably, women have become the target of such imposed conformity, and the new advocacy of groups like the Tablighi is that a purdah (veil) to cover the face is not enough – young Muslim girls are now advised (firmly) – to keep a purdah on their voices. To be barely seen and remain submissively within the family fold, in a silent mode, is the prevailing Wahhabi-derived prescription for the young Muslim girl – a template that the Taliban and their adherents in Afghanistan and Pakistan ardently support.
“The post-9/11 global challenge to quarantine and shrink terror predicated on a distortion of Islam cannot be won by military means alone. The greater war is that of resisting toxic interpretations of the Quran and insidious narratives that serve pernicious political ends.
“The Maulanas [clerics] in Moradabad have picked up the gauntlet. This denunciation of the distortion of Islam and the hijacking by the Wahhabi school is to be globally commended and calls for many debates within the Muslim fold – with women and girls being allowed to voice their opinions about what constitutes a gender-equitable interpretation of Islam. The White House, with its empathetic incumbent, should be apprised about the tectonic potential of Moradabad in the war against terror.”
* Tufail Ahmad is Director of MEMRI’s South Asia Studies Project (www.memri.org/sasp).