Sufism vs Militant Islam

‘Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India'

[Tariq Hasan, Aligarh-based veteran journalist and scholar, speaks to Garga Chatterjee about his recent book ‘Colonialism and the Call to Jihad in British India' where he details the role of Ulema of North India in their Jihad against British rule.]

Garga Chatterjee: In your book, you have tried to differentiate the Wahhabis from the Deobandi circles. Is it not true today that some of those differences are getting obscured. Can you tell us more about that drawing upon the past?
Tariq Hasan: The Deoband Movement started immediately after the failed Revolt of 1857 also remembered as India's first war of Independence. It's founding fathers like Maulana Qasim Nanotivi had actively participated in the Revolt. It was inspired by the idea of resisting Colonialism by strengthening religions faith. It was a revivalist movement whose roots were directly connected to the teachings of the 18th century reformer Shah Waliullah. This movement is also known as the Mohamedia movement. The British erroneously dubbed this movement the Wahabi movement which it certainly was not! There are some common points between Wahabiism and the Waliullahi (Mohammadia) movement. Both were against worshipping of tombs or over giving emphasis to shrines of Saints. Both were against the role of intermediaries between God and man. But there was one fundamental difference between the two—the Waliullahi stood for reconciliation and ijtihad (independent reasoning) whereas the Wahabis stood for complete intolerance towards even the slightest variation of their beliefs and violent retaliation. The Deoband movement was the inheritor of the Waliullahi legacy. They took the centre stage in the freedom movement. Just before the Khilafat movement and non-cooperation was launched the Deoband movement gave birth to its political wing—the Jamiat ulema e Hind in 1919. It stood for complete reconciliation with Hindus while following the basic principle of pure Islam. Just before the partition of India the Jamiat split into two groups. The overwhelming majority of the ulema say about 90 percent remained loyal to the Indian Nationalists led by Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni. The other ten percent shifted to Pakistan and so was born the Jamiat ulema Islam. This group remained relatively moderately Islamist in its policies till the early nineteen eighties. It was under General Zia, President of Pakistan that billions of dollars from USA and Saudi Arabia were poured into Madarsas for creating a new mutant of the Deoband movement. This mutant shared some beliefs with the original Deoband movement but had totally succumbed to the lure of Saudi inspired Salafi (Wahabi) school of thought whose core beliefs rested on violent Jihad.

GC: Why do you think that a character like Ahmadullah Shah, one of the principal characters of the 1857 revolt, does not make it to mainstream history text books of India? Do you think there has been a deliberate attempt to underplay the role of the Ulema in 1857? If so, why?
TH:  It is one of the tragedies of modern India that many things which were critical in the task of building a stable strong United India were not given the importance which they deserved. Creation of Pakistan may have temporarily solved some issues for some people. For the vast majority of Indians who inherited this vast land inhabited by diverse religious and ethnic groups the prime priority should have been to search grounds of commonality. This task should have begun by a large hearted open and tolerant view of history. Our history had large tracts of white, grey and some dark areas. Which country does not have turbulent areas? No modern nation can survive if it digs up past conflicts between different groups. Will any European country survive if it starts raking up the past desperately searching for points of conflict?. We did or atleast some of us did the very opposite ! British historians remember Ahmad Ullah Shah as one of the most formidable foes of the Revolt. Today which Indian school child has even heard of Ahmaduulah Shah? Does this single omission tell the entire story. How can Hindus and Muslims bond together when they are not made aware of their rich common heritage and kinship?

GC: Given the huge variety among the subcontinental Muslims, with most of them being local converts and not people with ancestry from Afghanistan, Persia, Central Asia or Arabia, how well could Ulemas who were primarily drawn from ‘ashraf’ backgrounds claim to speak for ALL subcontinental Muslims?
TH:  The role of the ulema is meant to interpret the teachings of Islam. The Mughal emperors sought their opinions on all religious matters. In matters of state their role was limited. The Mughal rule was by and large marked by religious tolerance and respect for different beliefs. Islam is based on egalitarian society and in the true spirit of Islam race, colour, social status and caste are alien concepts. In practice sometimes these guiding principles are flouted.

GC: In your book, you suggest that most of the Ulema were not in favour of Pakistan. However, the Pakistan ideal had huge support among some sections of the Ulema. How do we know the comparative strengths, as it were?
TH:  You will read in my book that about ninety percent of the ulema were opposed to the Partition. It was the feudal class and professional class especially in states of United Provinces, Bihar and to an extent in Bengal who succumbed to the call for Pakistan. Ironically Punjab, Sindh and the North West Frontier were not enamoured of this proposal till the very end.

GC: Why do you think that the exploits of Raja Mahendra Pratap and Maulana Barkatullah so margina-lized in the collective remembrance of anti-British struggles. Can it be for the reason that they never conducted their movements and initiatives amongst the masses?
TH:  They were patriots fighting in distant lands. They never sought fame or reward. We in return chose to relegate them to the footnotes of history.

GC: It is well known that South Asian Muslims are very much looked down upon by significant sections of Arab Muslims. However, you mention that certain Ulemas were highly regarded in AI-Azhar as well as in the Ottoman court. Can you explain this apparent fallacy?
TH:  It is true that in early phase of Islam say right upto the 12th century the Arabs seldom gave importance to the Indian ulema. But with the rise of the Ottoman Caliphate and the Mughal rule in India the Indian ulema started gaining respect all over the Muslim world. The 18th century scholar Shah Waliiullah, his son Shah Abdul Aziz followed by Maulana
Mahmoodul Hasan in the 20th century are just a few. In the late 20th century Maulana Aly Mia of Lucknow was held in the highest esteem in the entire Muslim world.

GC: Many Muslims of provinces like UP and Bihar actually did quite well in the new Pakistan. That was also true for a section of educated Bengali Muslims who migrated to East Bengal. While from Madani and Abul Kalam Azad's stand-point, Partition was an unmitigated tragedy for subcontinental Muslims, this doesn't hold universally. What are your thoughts?
TH:  Religion can have some role in building a particular nation. But it is at best a limited role. So many other factors play a role in nation building—ethnicity, culture and art. For just about three decades the Urdu speaking migrants ruled the roost in Pakistan. After all they had spearheaded the move for Pakistan. But then religious identity was subsumed by other more powerful determinants. Thus was born the Muhajir Quami Movement in Pakistan, a body which raised so many disturbing questions for the Muslim state of Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan had realised the bitter truth a decade earlier.

GC: Why do you think that the Jihad-i-Akbar (the greater struggle) concept has never had the mass currency or has fired popular imagination to organize people as the other forms of Jihad? This is important since a lot of current debate centres around 'true Jihad' or 'true Islam' whatever those terms mean.
TH:   Since the earliest days of Islam the debate between Jihad and Jihade Akbar (highest jihad—the struggle to conquer your inner darkness) has been going on. The founder of Sufism Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law symbolised the predominance of Haj E Akbar. He was assassinated because he stood for the values of peace and reconciliation with his enemies. So was his son Hazrat Imam Husain. Since then Sufism—the core of Islam has been in conflict with militant Islam.. The Salafi school of thought which inspires militant schools of Islam has been wrecking havoc in the form of ISIS. When I see the plight of thousands of refugees from Syria and Iran I hang my head in shame! This is certainly not the Islam preached by the Prophet, peace be upon him!

Vol. 48, No. 23, Dec 13 - 19, 2015