Sufism Asserting Against Extremism


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

One of the foremost challenges that multiethnic and pluralistic societies confront in 21st century is religious based extremism, which is resented by both state and non-state actors who believe in the values of peaceful coexistence of religions and other pluralistic values practiced by human society. Any orthodox interpretation of a religion at the cost of exclusion of saner values preached by other religions often puts practitioners of different religions at loggerheads. The situation gets murkier when the orthodox side gets powerful and draws massive support of followers to the detriment of pluralistic ethos upheld by the other groups. Another variety of tussle comes to picture in this context when different strands of same religion preach different values with divergent propaganda; the clash within religion becomes obvious. And in this age of science and technology with rapid strides in communication technology, when concepts like suicide terrorism or cyber terrorism are prominent, the clashes come to highlight in ever present media glare.

In its Maha Panchayat (meaning large congregation) on 16 October 2011 at the Indian town of Moradabad, not far from capital New Delhi, the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) raised this conflict within religion to a new height. In a congregation of more than 100,000 followers, the General Secretary of AIUMB, Maulana Syed Mohd Ashraf Kachochavi raised the pitch against extremism to a new level as he called the followers to shun radical variety of Islam, as reflected in the preaching of Wahabism that fosters intolerance in contrast to eclectic preaching upheld by Sufism. Though both Wahabism and Sufism are varieties of Sunni Islam, the basic precepts of both the variants have often clashed. While Sufism entered India many hundred years ago, Wahabism is a comparatively recent entrant to India. While Sufism, a peaceful variety of Islam, has deep entrenchment in Indian soil with having great Sufi Saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, the later Wahabi version of Islam have threatened the peaceful accommodation and moderation of Sufism. The core of Sufi teaching is love and devotion to God. Under its roof are allowed all kinds of people irrespective of birth or creed. There are even Sufi saints with having both Muslim and Hindu names, the famous being the Kashmiri Sufi saint Nurudddin (called Nund Rishi by Hindus). Sufism played a great role in the building of Indian society and in fostering brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims. In the spirit of Sufism Maulana Kachochavi urged the huge congregation, “the time has come for us to come out and claim our rights. Let us take a pledge that we will never support Wahabi extremism — not today, not tomorrow.” He further urged, “let us take a pledge that we will work for the unity and integrity of our motherland.” This message may appear too disturbing to detractors of peace and advocates of Wahabism, and also to separatists who are interested to divide nation-states on the basis of religion.

However, the issue of terrorism and the apparent castigation of Muslims as terrorists have led well meaning and broad minded Islamic scholars to further interrogate the issue and search rationale behind this absolutist and unjust criticism. It is but foolish to term all Muslims as terrorists, but at the same time the radicalization of Muslim youth at some places has become a matter of concern for policy makers as well as common people worldwide. Perhaps this new trend of radicalization has created a kind of soul searching, and led to contestation between moderate and extreme varieties of Islam. The congregation that drew hundreds of thousands of young people including the youth at Moradabad is no mean achievement in showing resilience of Muslims in India and their abhorrence to violence and intolerance. Maulana Kachochavi told his followers, “when an extremist turns up at your door seeking your support, when anyone tries to recruit you into terrorism, hand him over to the nearest police station.” The AIUMB represents about 80 percent almost India’s Sunni Muslims, which constitute the majority faction of Indian Muslims. Other sects of Islam in India such as Shia, Ismaili and Ahmadiyya constitute the minority at about 30 million from total of 150 million Muslims of India. The Maulana also rightly lamented the vote bank politics of political parties, which is driven to win elections at the cost of secularism. He alleged that political parties do not shy away to play dangerous politics of religion to win votes of minorities including Muslims.

The point here is to highlight the urgency to fight extremism at its root. A radicalized young man may be less dangerous in comparison to a radicalized Maulvi or religious preacher. The young man at most can kill few people, while the leader can divert hundreds of innocent minds towards radicalism and violence. These radical leaders must be targeted and brought to justice. Maulana Kachochavi minced no words while highlighting the pathetic situations of many of Indian madrasas, run by extremist Muslim organizations with support of funding from foreign sources. He argued, “right now the madrasas are under the control of Wahabi-inspired organizations,” which are “radicalising and poisoning the minds of innocent Muslim boys.” These extremist organizations turn these education institutions and other religious bodies like the Dargahs, Sufi Shrines, Waqf Boards into centres of radical propaganda. The Maulana cautioned that his followers will not allow these radical elements ‘to grab the Indian soil by terror and violence.’ He appealed to the government of India to mobilize efforts towards establishing a Central Madrasa Board to regulate the activities of madrasas and to audit the sources of their funding. He also pointed out how the radical organizations are well entrenched into political system, and play their religious card to woo political parties towards furthering their narrow sectarian agenda.

The President of AIUMB Maulana Mahmood Ashraf echoed the sentiment of moderation and tolerance when he emphasized that one of the deterrents to Wahabi extremsim is Sufi tradition of Islam. He argued that the extremist version of Islam has dented the secular fabric of India. Hence, the idea must be to confront radical ideas before confronting the radicals. Unless the radical ideas are contained, it is difficult to contain extremism and terrorism. It is a complicated task but necessary. The Moradabad congregation in India brings this stark reality to forefront with all urgency. The leaders like Maulana Kachochavi and Maulana Ashraf and the organizations like AIUMB must be supported by the public authorities as well as civil society groups not only in India, but worldwide because the menace of extremism and terrorism is not confined to India or South Asia but to other multi-ethnic and pluralistic societies in the world.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics. 


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 31 Oct 2011.

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