Why are Indian Wahhabis angry with Modi for promoting Sufism?

The PM is the only political leader in India who understands the dynamics of the Muslim problem.

 |   Long-form |   07-04-2016
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The leaders of the Wahhabi section of Indian Sunni Muslims represented by the Deoband school, the missionary body Tablighi Jamaat, and another Wahhabi stream, Ahle Hadees, were into their familiar game of accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of dividing the Muslim community recently, soon after Modi extolled Sufism at the World Sufi Forum in Delhi and called for encouraging it to counter radical Islam, leaving a deep impression on a series of Sufi scholars who were present at the meet.

The first salvo was fired by Maulana Arshad Madani of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (JUI), a Deobandi outfit. He accused Modi of dividing the Sunni Muslim community (Sunnis are divided into Wahhabi and Sufi sections in South Asia) by promoting Sufism. Next, a series of Urdu publications controlled by Wahhabis made the same allegation against Modi. Significantly, in the past one year, this was the third time that the Wahhabis were attacking Modi on the issue. The last two attacks followed soon after Modi met two different Sufi delegations in 2015.

What is the difference between Wahhabism and Sufism?

The attacks on Modi are, in fact, rooted in the internal religious dynamics of the Sunnis of India who form 85 per cent of the total 17 crore Muslim population in the country, and are divided among themselves into Wahhabi and Sufi sections, with the former constituting 35 and the latter 65 per cent of the 14-crore-plus Sunnis in India.

An intense struggle has been going on between the two factions for the past many decades with the Saudi Arabia-supported, powerful Indian Wahhabis working overtime to convert their fellow Sufis into Wahhabism in what is a battle of two religious ideologies - one moderate and inclusive, and the other orthodox and exclusive.

Significantly, the Sufis who are also known by two other names in India – Ahle-Sunnat and Barelvi - worship saints and celebrate Prophet Muhammed’s birthday as against the Wahhabis, and believe that Allah can’t be reached without the intercession of the souls of the Muslim saints buried in dargahs.

Sufism in India and Pakistan is symbolised by the dargahs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer, Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi and Baba Farid in Pakistan. These are among the dargahs of hundreds of Sufi saints in the Indian subcontinent which are worshipped by Sufis as well as Hindus by laying chadar on them in what is the symbol of a truly syncretic culture.

On the other hand, the Wahhabis, driven by the radical ideology of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) of Saudi Arabia, believe that there can only be direct dialling between the believer and Allah because seeking intercession of a saint - a third party - in reaching out to the Almighty is akin to guru puja. They believe the practice of dargah worsip is an import from Hinduism and therefore un-Islamic.

Terrorists come from among the Wahhabis only and not the Sufis

Interestingly, all the terrorists in the world invariably belong to the Wahhabi stream while not a single terrorist comes from the Sufi stream. But only a minor section of the Wahhabis have taken to terrorism or have sympathised with terrorists, others understanding the pitfalls of terrorism. The arrival of the ultra-Wahhabi Islamic State (ISIS) and its medieval vandalism has created a scare amongst a big section of the Wahhabis about their survival in the wake of the world zeroing in on their ideology. This has further strengthened the moderate faction amongst the Wahhabis. The biggest symbol of this is the welcome that Prime Minister Modi is getting in Wahhabi countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE).

How Wahhabis convert Sufis and how riots strengthen Wahhabism

But in India and Pakistan, the old game of Wahhabi preachers to convert impressionable Sufi youths into the Wahhabi fold continues. The communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims help the Wahhabi strategy. In Hindu-Muslim riots, it is the Sufis who largely bear the brunt of Hindu aggression in reaction to acts triggered by the Wahhabis. For example, in the 2002 Gujarat episode the Muslims who killed the 59 karsevaks at Godhra were Wahhabis and those who faced Hindu ire later, in reaction, were largely Sufis. How the Wahhabi conversion game operates is indeed interesting.

When the Sufi victims of communal riots land up in relief camps the Wahhabi preachers woo these riot victims with the aggressive brand of Wahhabism and convert them. The Wahhabi clerics’ missionary zeal and convincing power, backed by funds create an ideal platform for conversion in these situations.

Interestingly, the Sufi victims of the communal riots are told that they are facing the ire of Allah because they are following un-Islamic practices. The Wahhabi funds are often used in the form of subtle inducements to convert the Sufis who succumb to this ideology in those delicate phases.

No wonder then that incidents like the 2002 Gujarat riots and 1992-'93 Mumbai riots following the demolition of the Babri Masjid have strengthened Wahhabism in a big way, as these unfortunate episodes have been exploited by sections of Wahhabis to convert Sufis into their fold. In fact, that is how Wahhabi population has increased in India from less than ten per cent at the time of independence to 35 per cent now.

Interestingly, another factor that strengthened Wahhabism in India was the patronage that it got from the Congress since the days of the freedom struggle when the Deobandis, since they didn’t believe in territorial nationalism, shook hands with an unsuspecting Congress and Gandhiji and earned the label of "patriots" in the process. That’s how Abul Kalam Azad, a Wahhabi and a follower of the Deobandi school, could become the president of Congress twice. His second innings was in the most crucial phase - between 1939 and 1945 at the time of Second World War.

So it is was not surprising that Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad attended the massive anti-RSS/Modi rally organised by Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (JUI) of Arshad Madani in Delhi last month in a vain bid to cash in on the artificial anti-RSS atmosphere built by the leftists with the support of a section of the media which, however, on the ground, was quite hollow.

The nationalist claims of the Indian Wahhabis are best exposed by the speech given by the late JUI leader Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madani in the 1945 JUI conference at Delhi which has been very precisely quoted by historian ZH Faruqi in his book The Deoband School and the Demand for Pakistan and also by reformist Muslim writer Hamid Dalwai.

Madani opposed the demand for Pakistan in that conference saying that he didn’t want Islam’s right to convert non-Muslims remain restricted to a small part of undivided India called Pakistan, thus clearly underlining that the Deobandis or Indian Wahhabis pitched for India against Pakistan since they were against territorial nationalism as they thought Islam’s right was to convert the entire world.

This is what Madani said in the 1945 conference: "It is the non-Muslims who are the field of this Tabligh (propagation and conversion) of Islam and form the raw material for this splendid activity. We are opposed to Islam’s right to do missionary activity to a particular area (read Pakistan).”

How Congress and Gandhiji helped strengthen Wahhabism

It is the one-sided secularism of Gandhiji that created room for the Wahhabis to enter the Congress and play their strategic game unhindered after the Mahatma shook hands with the pan-Islamists by supporting the Khilafat movement launched in 1920 by pan-Islamist Muslim leaders, including the Wahhabis for the reinstatement of the Khalifa of Turkey who had been unseated by the British. Once the Wahhabis earned the label of patriots, the patronage from the Congress helped them grow after independence and come up with the famous Qazmi Bill that proved to be a blow to Sufism.

The Bill which came soon after independence had a deep bearing on the growth of Wahhabism as it clubbed the Wahhabis and Sufis together under the label of Sunnis in what was a strategic move by the Wahhabis who controlled the levers of power in the ruling Congress at that time.

The power to appoint members on State Wakf Boards that controlled dargahs was given to the state governments. And since state governments, till only a few decades ago, were mostly of the Congress, a vast majority of the members appointed on the Waqf boards were Wahhabis. So in a unique and unjustifiable situation, the Wahhabis came to control the dargahs in which they didn’t believe, and according to allegations by many Sufis, started taking steps to erode Sufism through the backdoor.

When the Sufis protested against giving the control of dargahs to the non-dargah-believing Wahhabis through the backdoor, their protests fell on deaf years, thanks to the pro-Wahhabi Congress establishment. In some cases, the allegations of the Sufis that the Wahhabis were openly eroding Sufism was borne out by powerful evidence as in the case of the dargah of Dorabshah Baba in Navsari near Surat which would have been completely destroyed by the Wahabis but for the support of the BJP government in Gujarat.

What Wahhabis fear the most under Modi

The Sufis are demanding that since the Wahhabis don’t believe in dargah worship, the current Sunni Wakf Boards should be renamed Sufi Wakf Boards and their charge be exclusively given to the Sufis while floating a new Wakf Board for the Wahhabis in every state. Mohammed Hamid, president of the Sufi tanzeem, IMAN (Indian Muslim Association - Noorie) said: “Why should those who don’t believe in dargah worship control dargahs? It is a very legitimate demand of the Sufis."

What the Wahhabis are fearing the most now is that the strengthening of the Sufis will embolden them to place this demand before the Central government and a sympathetic government might give in to their demand which has all the logic when it comes to evidence. Plus, the Sufis’ argument that the control of dargahs can’t be allowed to remain with those who don’t believe in dargah worship can stand scrutiny even in the court of law. No wonder then that a possible loss of control of the dargahs would shatter the Wahhabi dream of wiping out Sufism from the entire Indian subcontinent.

How the Wahhabi march slowed down in the Indian subcontinent

When the situation goes out of control it seeks natural channels for remedy. Wahhabism got a unexpected lift when Russia invaded Afghanistan in late-1979 and the then Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq, a Wahhabi himself, used the opportunity to spread the ideology while seeking American help in the anti-communist drive.

The first stage comprised the training of mujahideens at Wahhabi madrasas in the North West Frontier Province with the help of America to fight the communist occupation of Afghanistan. Little did America know it was creating a Frankenstein. Eventually, the very Wahhabi fighters who were trained with American help started targeting America in an upsurge of ultra-Wahhabism which, in turn, started producing suicide bombers.

That’s how anti-America ultra-Wahhabi movements in the form of Taliban and Al-Qaeda surfaced. In Pakistan, the final upshot of these developments was that the ultra-Wahhabi suicide bombers started targeting Sufi shrines and mosques in the country in a bid to wipe out Sufism.

But what then happened was the most unexpected, and it pointed to how natural remedies are created in a hopeless situation. In what was a ripple reaction to the destruction of Sufi shrines the peace-loving and scattered Sufis, moved by the challenge of survival, started defending and uniting themselves and making their presence felt.

The consolidation of the Sufis slowly but effectively started curbing the conversion of Sufis to Wahhabism. By 2011, the conversion rate of Sufism to Wahhabism had greatly slowed down because of the awakening of Sufi youths to the dangers of Wahhabism both in India and Pakistan.

This was was best demonstrated by the turnout of lakhs of Sufis in the birthday procession of Prophet Muhammed (Wahhabis consider this procession un-Islamic) in both India and Pakistan in 2011. The turnouts were one of the biggest in both countries in many years and indicated an awareness amongst the Sufis about the Wahhabi threat.

Why Modi is the best bet for the Wahhabis

A senior officer in the prime minister's office (PMO) very bluntly told a delegation of the Sufis recently that describing all Wahhabis as terrorists was unacceptable to the prime minister as he firmly believed that a very small section of Wahhabis had taken to terrorism or sympathised with the terrorists.

He was only reiterating what Modi has indicated in the past: while he would promote Sufism he would also like to take the moderate Wahhabis along who are genuinely against terrorism. Modi’s stand is just and is borne out by evidence. The first clue to the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts was provided to the police by a Wahhabi.

So not surprisingly, Modi is the only political leader in India who understands the dynamics of the Muslim problem and has some vision on how to tackle it. The only correction Modi needs to bring in himself is that he has to be more pronounced in his disapproval when BJP leaders like Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, Sakshi Maharaj and Giriraj Singh tend to equate and condemn all Muslims by their senseless statements.

Clearly, Modi is the best bet for even the moderate Wahhabis in India.


Uday Mahurkar Uday Mahurkar @udaymahurkar

The writer is deputy editor, India Today.

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