More than 200 Muslim men of Moradabad town are required to remarry their own wives. This is the opinion of the local Mufti of the town. Their fault: participating in a funeral prayer which was led by an imam of a denomination not their own. It so happened that while most of these Muslims were Barelwis, the imam under which they said the prayers happen to be a Deobandi. The local Barelwi leadership was enraged and decreed that since they do not regard the Deobandis as Muslims enough, all those who said their namaz under that imam ceased to be Muslims. And since they went outside the pale of Islam, the logical conclusion was that their marriages had become invalid and hence they had to marry again.
Strange though it may sound to many of us, it is unfortunately true that the Barelwi Mufti was being true to what must have been taught at the madrasa in which he studied. For it is true that the Barelwis do not regard Deobandis as true Muslims. Their chief ideologue, Riza Ahmad Khan, had pronounced the leading Deobandis of his times, which included some of the founders of the Deoband madrasa, to be Kafirs. It followed from his assessment that any one following the path of Deoband was also a kafir. Within the Barelwi tradition, Riza Ahmad Khan is revered and his voluminous writings are a guide to millions of Barelwis. The local Mufti at Moradabad was therefore only following the true teachings of his own denomination.
Curiously enough the Deobandis, the other party in the incident, posed as the more enlightened of the two and appealed for moderation. The understatement was that the Barelwis should try to become as broad minded as the Deobandis are. I say 'curiously', because their own position with regard to the Shia and Ahmadias is hardly any different. It is well known that the Deobandis and Barelwis alike hounded Ahmadias in Pakistan. Also the Shias, for them, remain outside the pale of true Islam. But then the Deobandis do not even regard the Barelwis on par with them. In standard Deobandi literature, the Barelwis are backward Muslims who are shrine-worshippers and are not being true to the original teachings of Islam. They argue that Barelwis are innovators (bidati) who have borrowed their religious practices from the Hindus and point to similarities between shrine and idol worship. So much for the recent Deobandi cosmopolitanism as witnessed in the Moradabad incident.
Despite the attempts of a section of media and the Hindu Right to paint the Muslims as a monolithic community, the incident in fact unravels the deep divisions within Muslims. Apart from divisions based on caste and culture, the incident reminds us that the very notion of Islam itself is contestable. Islam is approximated and defined in so many ways that it is practically impossible to speak of Islam in the singular sense of the term. But then this is not an argument for the existence of Islamic pluralism in India. Had it been so, the various denominations would not have denigrated each other. Rather there should have been a process of dialogue and respect for each other’s denominations. The absence of such a dialogue points towards regimes of orthodoxies within each denomination. Such a sorry state of affairs only breeds hate and distrust of the other interpretation.
And madrasas have a big role to play in fomenting such distrust. Despite the projection that madrasas are centers of transmitting Islamic education, in reality they are denominational institutions. The founder of any madrasa belongs to one of the various maslaks and it is the propagation of the ideas of this particular maslak, which is the main aim of any madrasa. The Deobandis, the Barelwis and the Ahl e Hadis, all have their won network of madrasas in which they teach how, apart from their own interpretation of Islam, all other interpretations are false or simply erroneous. Although all madrasas would publicly state that they teach Islamic knowledge, in reality students are required to learn the art of refutation of the other point of view. There are books for this purpose as well as practice sessions in which students learn how to refute other interpretations of Islam. The Barelwi Mufti therefore was only applying what he had learnt was the right thing to do.
The effects of this Islamic competition is varied depending on the situation and local contexts. In India, this contest has by far remained a verbal duel between different denominations. But as the Moradabad incident points out, such doctrinal differences can impact negatively on people’s daily lives. Moreover, in certain contexts where Islam is the sole ideology of legitimation, such differences can lead even to large-scale bloodshed. The Pakistan case is an important reminder. Denominational differences are no longer confined to writing books to refute the other’s point of view. Rather, sectarian killings have become quite common. Apart from the age-old tussle between the Shias and the Sunnis, killings have occurred within the Sunnis themselves. Thus few months back, the entire leadership of Barelwis in Pakistan was wiped off in a bomb attack. Attack on shrines, etc also point to the regime of denominational intolerance in Pakistan.
Fortunately enough, denominational rivalries among Indian Muslims have not reached such a nadir. It is still largely confined to pronouncing fatwas and writing refutations. Still it is dangerous since it surely affects the lives of Muslims, mostly of those who are poor and uneducated. After all it is the poor ordinary Muslims, especially women, who have to pay the price of denominational competition among the Ulama. It would be too much to expect the Ulama to start dialoguing with each other, since it is this very competition which keeps the religious market afloat. What is required is that ordinary Muslims should question the interpretation of the Ulama in a bid to make Islam compatible with basic democratic rights.
Arshad Alam is with the Center for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Milia University, New Delhi