The Barelvi sect’s most influential cleric in India paid an unprecedented visit to Darul Uloom Deoband recently to forge a unity between the two rival schools of thought within the Sunni majority of Indian Muslims. The reason for this effort at unity was prompted by “the tears of a mother” of a young Muslim man who, the cleric said, was falsely accused of terrorism and arrested.
“Our children are being targeted,” said Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, great-grandson of Barelvi movement founder Maulana Ahmad Raza Khan “Ala Hazrat”. “It is now time to get together and fight those picking up and putting young Muslims behind bars,” he told The Indian Express.
“Look at the Malegaon case. Our boys are sentenced or on trial in jail for years, even decades, and then finally released. By then their reputations are tarnished and their self-esteem is gone. This has to be fought as one, there are no good Muslims and no bad Muslims. We are all being victimised through a differential policy by the state.”
People at Deoband were astounded to see the most prominent Barelvi cleric alight from a car and head off to meet the mohtamim or head of Darul Uloom, Asia’s most influential Muslim seminary. When Tauqeer stopped, the mohtamim stepped out to receive him. Tea and snacks followed with a conversation on the need for “unity”.
The hour-long meeting, with about 25-30 people participating, took up the need to avoid debating differences in theology and to look for common ground to battle issues facing the community as a whole. “It was the tears of the mother of an accused most recently arrested under charges of plotting a bomb explosion, Shakir Ansari’s mother, that drove me to make the sudden visit,” he said.
Earlier this month, Delhi police’s special cell had picked up 13 young Muslim men in raids on Delhi’s outskirts and UP and claimed to have busted a Jaish-e-Mohammed module, set up to “avenge” a series of “anti-Muslim” incidents, by launching bomb attacks.
Subsequently, Delhi police released 10 of them for “lack of evidence”. Sajid, Sameer Ahmed, and Shakir Ansari were arrested. The police claimed they have arranged a psychologist for four of the released youth “to help them de-radicalise” and asked the parents of the six others “to ensure they remain on the right path”.
Tauqeer visited the families shortly after their arrest, and on May 8 went to Shakir’s home. He told The Indian Express he is working at putting in place a “common minimum agenda” between the two sects, and throw the weight of the Barelvis behind this effort to ensure a united front before the state’s “bid to target our children and young persons”.
Deobandis and Barelvis practise Islam with some essential differences about how the Prophet is to be revered. While the Deobandi school of thought began as a revivalist movement within Sunnis and a reaction to colonialism, Barelvi or Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jammat was formed as a defence of the traditional mystic practices of South Asia. Deobandis are seen as more austere while Barelvis emphasise shrines, song and eulogy as central as other aspects of Islam. Relations have often been marked by bitter and violent disputes.
In the recent cases of terror arrests and trials of many such cases, the Deobandi Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind has been providing legal aid in several matters that have led to acquittals. “But,” said Tauqeer Khan, “it is now time to get together”.
The mohtamim of Darul Uloom Deoband, Maulana Abul Qasim Nomani, told The Indian Express “we have always welcomed steps for unity”. “We are willing to walk the extra mile. We are an educational institution and stay away from activist roles, but want to encourage wiping out any differences between us if it forges more unity among Muslims who do feel increasingly besieged,” he said.
Prof Akhtar ul Wasey, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia , who was in Deoband when Tauqeer stopped by, said: “Earlier it was uneducated boys who were being picked up. Now educated and qualified boys are picked up systematically. One person who is targeted doesn’t mean just him alone but his entire family and community that faces loss of credibility, gets crippled economically and socially. If those who are inflicting such damage on Muslim boys don’t see any difference between us, why should we allow ourselves to be divided?” Wasey emphasised, however, that this is “not a bid to end theological disputes; we must move to a stage of accepting sects as a tribute to innately diverse and democratic Islam”.
Said another senior Barelvi cleric, not wanting to be named: “There are still differences, though this is a huge step aiming to erase differences at play for so long. Tauqeer Raza’s family itself has some detractors, as have the Deobandis, but people are hopeful, let us see if a broader agreement is possible.”
Wasey said, “The Barelvis and Deobandis came together once before, too briefly, in 1972 when there was a feeling that Muslim Personal Law was under attack and the Muslim Personal Law Board was set up. Today, it is the threat to the existence of the community itself which has brought the two sides together.”