Wahhabis. Deobandis. Tablighi Jamaat. Orthodox outfits have been turning the Valley into a bastion of puritanical Islam. But the Sufis are fighting back to regain their moorings.
By Riyaz Wani
A COLOURFUL procession stretched a mile long along the picturesque Dal lake. A truck carrying preachers in green turbans was followed by thousands of faithfuls waving green flags. Some people were busy at makeshift kitchens on the roadside where tehri (turmeric-dyed rice), salt tea and kehwa were served to the devotees.
The occasion was not a political rally but the celebration of Eid Milad (Prophet’s birthday) on 12 February. Organised by Minhajul Islam, a newly-floated Barelvi outfit, the procession was a not-so-veiled attempt to reassert the Valley’s Sufi tradition and reclaim the religious space ceded to the conservative Wahhabi Islam. It was the first time in the past two decades that the festival attracted such a massive crowd — estimated to be around 1 lakh people.
Similar events were held at shrines housing the Prophet’s relics. Bazaars and government offices were lit up, adding to the festive air. Understandably, this uninhibited display of festivities didn’t go down well with the adherents of puritanical Islam, who want celebrations to be “austere and exclusively devoted to worship”.
Over the past two decades, the orthodox Deobandi Islam has spread through an extensive network of madrassas, followed by the Wahhabi Islam propagated by the Jamiat Ahle Hadith (JAH). Together, they have gone a long way in reshaping the Valley’s religious landscape.
The JAH owns around 700 mosques, 150 schools and claims a membership of 15 lakh people, which has made it an influential entity even though it doesn’t indulge in any demonstrative political activity.
It is between these religious traditions — antithetical in their stance on Islam — that Kashmir is getting inexorably split. Even though the conflict is not yet out in the open, the two religious sects are busy building up their mutually exclusive domains that don’t see eye to eye.
It is a battle for the soul of Kashmir between the Valley’s Sufi moorings and its newfound fascination with a mix of Deobandi and Wahhabi Islam.
After having a free run in the Valley for the past two decades, conservative Islam, which saw its influence rise with the growth of the separatist movement, is confronted with a sudden proliferation of Barelvi outfits. In the past four years, several Barelvi organisations claiming to be the custodians of Kashmir’s Sufi moorings have sprung up to challenge the growing power of the Wahhabi faith.
“We are here to resurrect Sufi Islam,” says Minhajul Islam chief Maulana Mohiudin Naqeeb, who thinks Wahhabism is primarily a political strain of Islam. “It is the Sufis who brought Islam to the Valley. Their shrines have a spiritual significance as they mediate our relationship with God. Nobody should stop us from visiting them.”
Minhajul Islam is part of an amalgam of 45 Barelvi outfits called Karwan-e-Islam, which is working for the revival of the Valley’s “Sufi soul”. The alliance is led by Maulana Ghulam Rasool Hami, the Imam at Srinagar’s Dastigeer Sahib, one of Kashmir’s pre-eminent Sufi shrines.
The Karwan-e-Islam has plans to establish the Valley’s first Sufi university, named after Sheikh-ul-Alam, Kashmir’s patron saint. The university, besides teaching all modern subjects, will sponsor research on Kashmir’s Sufi saints.
With 700 mosques and 150 Darul Ulooms, the Wahhabis have entrenched themselves deeply in the Valley
However, the proposal is still hanging fire with the state government, which, incidentally is also sitting over a similar proposal from the JAH. In fact, the government has already allotted land for the Jamiat university, to be called Transworld Muslim University. But the final nod has yet to come after differences arose during discussions in the Assembly in 2009.
But the bid for the universities — Minhajul Islam also has an individual proposal to revive Shah-i-Hamdan’s Sufi university at the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib — is a sideshow to the competitive grassroots work that is redrawing the battlelines.
If a recent study by the Union home ministry is anything to go by, a majority of youth are seeking refuge in religion. And a substantial portion of them make up the ranks of conservative Islam, propagated by the JAH and Darul Ulooms inspired by the Deobandi school of thought. This generation rejects the idea of the Sufi shrines being a source of salvation or the saints being the agency mediating the connection between their followers and God.
These youth are not satisfied with their individual sense of salvation. They want to transform society. Over the past two decades, their sphere of operation has widened from the Darul Ulooms into everyday community life. A new debate about the nature of “essential Islam” is raging in Kashmiri households. As a result, there is an emerging polarisation that is not easily discernible to the naked eye.
ORDINARY KASHMIRI households are a living proof of this new reality. One such house is that of Sufi-oriented Abdul Gafoor at Ganderbal. Two years ago, his trendy, jeans-wearing son Sajid Gafoor, 23, went through a sudden spiritual transformation after his chance association with the followers of Tablighi Jamaat, an offshoot of the proponents of conservative Islam. He started praying five times a day, donned a skullcap and grew a long beard. And it wasn’t long before he started questioning his parents’ faith in Sufi dargahs, saying the shrines had no divine authority and the saints buried there were mere mortals.
“He told us we were committing shirk (worshipping anyone other than God) and therefore transgressing the boundaries of religion. Our rebuff made him only more rebellious,” says Gafoor. “But we told him that Kashmir is a Pir Waer (Valley of dervishes) and it was because of these dervishes that Islam had spread here.”
The tension at Gafoor’s house, if not transparently evident, is palpable in the evolving religious discourse of the Valley. It plays out in every locality, village and mosque with the debate centered on the rival claims to the allegiance to what is perceived to be bona fide Islam.
Some people such as Sufi scholar Hameed Naseem Rafiabadi call this transformation one of the most radical in the 700-year Islamic history in the Valley — a sweeping transition from the Sufi tradition to the puritanical Islam. “A few decades ago, it was only a few families in Srinagar who espoused conservative Islam. Now, there are thousands of followers, a constituency that is now duly played to by the political parties,” says Rafiabadi, the author of the book Islam and Sufism in Kashmir.
But there is now a deliberate effort to reverse this orthodox juggernaut. And it is here that things are getting complex. For the first time in history, Sufi Islam is getting organised and aggressively promoting devotion to shrines. What is more, there is now a competitive race to enlist followers.
“We have around 4,000 khatibs (prayer-leaders) and 30,000 more are undergoing training,” says Karwan-e-Islam head Hami. The amalgam also has 50 Darul Ulooms and madrassas where they teach Quran and Hadith. “Around 30,000 students study in the madrassas but we plan to take the number to three lakh in another five years.”
Karwan-e-Islam also plans to hold an international Islamic conference in May where it will invite leading Sufi scholars such as Allaudin Siddiqui from the UK, Syed Ali Jami of Egypt, Dr Tahir-ul-Qadiri and Alama Hanif-u-Din from Pakistan and Sheikh Abubaker Shafi from Kerala, besides a number of others from Central Asia.
On the other hand, the JAH is pinning its hopes on the expected visit of the Imam of Mecca later this year. “We have invited him and he has assured that he will come,” says JAH general secretary Abdul Rehman Bhat. With 700 mosques and 150 Darul Ulooms, JAH has already deeply entrenched itself in the Valley. “We have two part-time madrasas in every village,” says Bhat.
Similarly, the Deobandis have networked the Valley with some of the biggest Darul Ulooms in the state. Their Darul Uloom at Poonch has around 1,500 students and the one at Bandipora has 1,000 students. The Deobandis also have two major Darul Ulooms in Srinagar. They are the centres of exclusive religious learning, which between them turn out hundreds of moulvis and a number of muftis who then enter mainstream Kashmiri life and try to remould it in their own image.
But Barelvis don’t think Wahhabism encompasses the full gamut of faith. “Sufism takes care of Zahir and Batin (exterior and interior self) whereas other schools of thought focus exclusively on the exterior meaning of Quran and Hadith,” says Hami. “We believe that only Sufism helps in full development of spirituality, recycles our self and liberates us from all ills.”
However, senior JAH leader Maulana Riyaz Ahmad says there is only one authentic version of Islam — “one prescribed by God and his Prophet”. He suspects there are deliberate efforts to “twist Islam” to suit the needs of the establishment.
“There cannot be a compromise Islam. Islamic principles cannot be adapted to taste,” says Ahmad, who is the brother of the late JAH president Maulana Showkat, who was killed in an IED explosion on 8 April 2011. “But we aren’t worried. Even if one percent follow the true path of Islam, they can usher in a revolution.”
BUT THE issue doesn’t end with this deepening polarisation. What is vitiating the atmosphere is the endemic perception about the government’s role in setting up Barelvi organisations as a counter to the proponents of conservative Islam. Equally, the conservatives themselves are not free of blame. They are also suspected to be the recipients of foreign funding.
Lending some credence to these suspicions was the home ministry’s reply to an RTI last December, in which it revealed that 362 madrassas in Jammu & Kashmir had been funded under the Scheme for Providing Quality Education. However, all the religious outfits have denied any kind of government funding with Hami, even holding a press conference to distance his madrassas from the controversy.
Besides, the distance both the Barelvis and conservatives have maintained from the politics of Kashmir has sowed doubts about their ideological outlook, more so in the separatist quarters who tellingly point to their silence through the successive summer revolts from 2008-10.
“We are witnessing the growth of an army of maulanas who maintain a safe distance from the ongoing turmoil in the state. But at the same time, they are splitting the society along sectarian lines. We see their emergence as part of a deliberate strategy to weaken the movement,” says a leader of hardline Hurriyat, an amalgam that is otherwise accused of being a proponent of fundamentalist Islam.
A moderate Hurriyat leader has a similar take. “We have a hunch that there is a well-planned conspiracy to embroil Kashmir in a sectarian war. We look worryingly at this development,” he says.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.