‘Wahhabis’ are not the only fanatics in Pakistan

The saints go marching out as the face of Islam hardens in Pakistan | World news | theguardian.com

This article is about how traditional, supposedly gentler and mystical, forms of Islam are being edged out in Pakistan by “radical itinerant preachers” and “hardline sects, many with strong doctrinal and financial ties with the austere Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia”, and that “the rapid rise of these sects is fostering intolerance against minorities and other forms of Islam, and can even act as a conduit towards militant groups such as the Taliban, one of the many militant movements that adheres to Deobandi ideas”. The article acknowledges that the corruption surrounding some of the cults around the shrines are driving people towards the “hardliners”.

There are some quite basic errors in this piece. For example:

They say the broad ideological assault on Barelvism, the moderate form of Islam that Muslims in south Asia have followed for centuries, is making it ever harder for Pakistan to confront extremism and terrorism.

The term “Barelvism” refers to a shaikh named Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi, who came from a city called Bareilly in India. The term was never heard before then; in fact, some people still refer to the movement as Razakhani, and this term appears in a number of religious texts including, for example, a translation of a book of early Deobandi fatwas I have. The term Deobandi refers to the city in India where their original religious school lies; but they have a number of other schools and colleges of major world standing, notably Darul Uloom Karachi. Before this, there were orthodox religious scholars and there was popular religion which included these cults and shrines.

“It amounts to ideological brainwashing of a country,” said Waleed Ziad, a researcher from the World Organisation for Resource Development and Education (Worde). “Takfirism [the tendency of hardliners to declare followers of other sects unbelievers deserving death] is rapidly eroding Pakistan’s social base”.

Ahmad Raza Khan was one of the most notorious figures for this behaviour; he declared a number of the early Deobandi scholars to be outside of Islam for supposedly insulting the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), although they deny writing, or even thinking, most of the things they are accused of writing and other scholars (inside and outside the Indian Subcontinent) have disputed either the truth of the accusations or the validity of the accusations of kufr. However, this tradition continues today with groups among the Barelvis circulating literature calling the Deobandis “Satanic Scholars” among other things. The disputes between these two groups is so bitter and vehement in some places that Internet forums often ban any discussion of it, as it would quickly drown out any other discussion.

Furthermore, it is also a myth that Barelvism is all about defending popular shrine and pir cults in Pakistan, and it is also a myth that Deobandism is a form of Wahhabism. The two groups are much closer together in doctrine and practice than either are to pir cultism or Wahhabism: they are both Hanafis (i.e. they follow the mainstream school of Islamic law that has been dominant in India, except Kerala, since the arrival of Islam) and they are also Sufis, and all major Deobandi scholars are Sufi shaikhs as well (usually in the Chishti order, whose founder is buried in one of the popular shrines, at Ajmer in Rajasthan (right), frequented by Hindus as well as Muslims), something the genuine Wahhabis have pointed out as reasons why Wahhabis shouldn’t support them or fund them. In terms of customs, however, Deobandis with their long white robes (for men) and black abayas and niqaabs (for women) may seem a bit like Wahhabis to outsiders, including Saudis who see Sufism and pir-cultism as the same thing.

Barelvis are also not immune from fanaticism even in this day and age. A few months ago, I was sitting in a curry house in south London, and the Urdu TV channel was featuring some shaikh ranting on and on in Urdu, which I don’t understand. I asked another customer who told me that the shaikh was Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, the leader of the Minhaj ul-Qur’an organisation, and kept telling me that he emphasised tolerance towards other faiths (perhaps because he thought I was not Muslim), but in this footage he didn’t sound tolerant, he sounded like a ranting demagogue. It’s also known that the Barelvis are the strongest supporters of the Pakistani blasphemy law, despite abundant evidence of unjust convictions and its use to settle personal scores and so on. This, of course, is entirely consistent with their position regarding the early Deobandis.

There are other places in Pakistan where the spread of conservative forms of Islam have been violent, including the bombing of shrines and attacks on gatherings, likely to be the work of Taliban-type Deobandis, but this does not account for all of the spread of conservative or orthodox forms of Islam in Pakistan. It is no bad thing to attack some of these cults, because they are corrupt and exploit people, often relying partly on begging (including by disabled people) to maintain themselves, but this can be done by means of education or by the law rather than by bombs. The decline in these cults is a very likely result of more, and better, education, Islamic or otherwise. It doesn’t mean Pakistan is going to turn into a country full of fanatics and the next Taliban and al-Qa’ida hotbed, which is what the article seems to suggest is happening.

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