Friday, September 30, 2016

'Either Deobandi or Barelvi': Difficult to be simply Muslim amid growing sectarianism

Shams Ur Rehman Alavi

More than the Shia-Sunni sectarian differences, these days you hear about Barelvi-Deobandi schism.

The Sunnis, who form a majority of population among Indian Muslims, are seen as 'Either Deobandi or Barelvi'.

There are many non-Muslims who claim to have studied Deobandi and Barelvi sects, and have emerged as experts lately.

The truth is that the nuances and the nature of beliefs is such that they can't understand them. It is not easy to comprehend the complexities, similarities and differences, especially, for an outsider. Damn confusing, I must say. Worse, it is the sweeping generalisation, and nomenclature that has compounded the problem.

*Those who are not Deobandis, are all considered Barelvis.
*And those who are not Barelvis, are all termed Deobandis.

But the reality is not as simple. There is a huge Muslim population that may not fit in this caterogization, the identity is often thrust on them even though these terms are of recent origin, in the long history of Islam.

I'm writing this post after witnessing the huge amount of energy spent on social media by certain Muslims and also non-Muslim experts of Islam in recent times.  Initially it may be difficult reading but do read till the end, especially from point 7-10, and the concluding text.

1. Categorising someone is so simple. Let me first start with those Muslims who don't subscribe to Deobandi school of thought. By default this population is termed Barelvi but many of them may not have even heard of Ala Hazrat [Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi], let alone visited his shrine or have any special regard for him. 

2. Similarly, many non-Deobandis feel that anyone who is against visiting Dargahs, is a Deobandi [or Wahabi]. This is also untrue. Deobandi beliefs are seen more in sync with the Salafis who rule the Saudi Arabia.

However, it is the Ahl-e-Hadith sect in India, which has spread more in recent decades, and it represents the Salafis here. As rituals vary from region to region and even family to family, it ironically comes to the point that what one has seen in his household, is 'true' for the person.

3. Your parents didn't follow a ritual, so you believe that the other person who performs it, is not on right path. Those with some interest in discussions or debates get particular Hadith, that suits their own view, rather having a deep study or a broad view, awareness about all aspects, Islamic injunctions, real knowledge of Ahadiths. In the past I have seen, that people casually term a fellow Muslim, 'non-believer' just because he wears an amulet. But that shows immaturity and rigidity.

4. Many from both the sides may even be on the same page when it comes to women--issues like women going to a grave yard, but would still brand the other group and term something as an 'undesirable practice'. In fact, this is endless.

5. From participating in a 'Milad' to going to a 'Urs', any practice may be condemned. But if you belong to a sect that opposes it and yet it is your family tradition, you justify it.

6. Similarly, the counter-charge would be that the particular sect is trying to lessen the love for Prophet. With the Saud family's hold and the manner in which heritage has been destroyed in Arab, it makes for a strong argument. The Khanqahis [associated with Dargahs] are also considered as Barelvis by default.

7. Though there are Sufis whose love for Hazrat Ali reaches the stage where they are termed close to Shia doctrine, there also Pirs and Sufis who are now close to Deobandi beliefs. Of later, we have been hearing it too often that Barelvis are more liberal or accommodating.

8. But, when it comes to the sole Muslim public event--Muharram, both Deobandis and Barelvi stand on it, is known, not favourable. The mourning procession on the day of Yaum-e-Ashurah is generally 'believed' to be taken out by the Shias. But in North India, mostly Sunnis take out Tazias.

While Shias take 'alam' and perform 'maatam', it is only Sunnis or some Hindus who take out 'Tazias' or organise the 'akhadas'.

Shias don't take out Tazias. Now, all these Sunni Muslims are termed 'Barelvis'.

9. But Imam Ahmad Raza Khan's stand was quite harsh on these practices.

He opposed them, issued fatwas and his followers are also against these Muharram observances.

So who are these people who are on streets during Ashura?

Of course, Muslims--the Sunni Muslims, in fact, the ordinary Muslims, who mourn the killing of their Prophet's grandson and his family at Karbala. Unfortunately, it's so easy to compartmentalise and categorise!

Of course, they are Muslims, ordinary Muslims.

10. The Barelvis dislike them. The Deobandi too, who is more urbane, decides that these people are 'non-believers' or 'corrupt'. The 'elite' [moneyed] declare that these practices are not in sync with their sophisticated lifestyle and terms them as 'jaahil' [ignorant].

Even more recent phenomenon is that a section of 'elite Shia' are also seen avoiding self-flagellation or attending the mourning processions where blood is shed. Is it like elite Hindus these days who often claim that they don't play Holi like the louts and use flowers instead of colours!

Despite Islamic injunctions to avoid judging others, it has become routine to call the 'other', 'unbeliever' just because his/her sect is different. And there lies the real tragedy. Somewhere in between, may come the Tablighi Jamat enthusiast.

If he finds you are not inclined to go with them, they might look down upon you as someone of 'lesser faith'. This is all internecine Sunni differences. We haven't touched Shias as yet. 

--Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi was born in 1856
--Darul Uloom Deoband was established in 1866. Maulana Qasim Nanutvi was born in 1833
--Tablighi Jamat movement started in 1926


The sectarian bug hurts the community.

Some people openly write on invitation cards that a person of other sect [in case he might have got the card by mistake because the sender wasn't aware of his sect], must not attend the wedding ceremony.

In many parts of the country, the grave yards are now separate for those belonging to these two different sects.

In real life and on social media [after debates], people shun old friends just because they discover that the other person performs a particular ritual or has a different take on certain things.

Again, it is the same obsession to turn everyone like yourself. To prove your point, you may bring your citations or examples, the other person also has his own.

What exactly is this sort of obsession and silly arguments over traditions and practices?

Not just Quran and Hadith, but innumerable other examples are given and this adds to more bitterness--the idea and the effort is just to bring the other person to your own position on each issue, every ritual.

Even more interesting is the lack of knowledge. As few read Quran along with the translation, and even few have gone through the Hadis [Hadith], the arguments are for the sake of argument and the aim is to somehow prove the other person wrong, as only your sect should be on right path.

In order to win argument, they ultimately go to the cleric of their own sect or search on internet--from websites favourable to your sect to videos on YouTube. Why all this effort? Ego trip, what else?  Aim should be to learn more, pray that we don't falter, worry about own mistakes and sins, rather than focusing on others and proving them wrong.

In the era of social media boom, when you find forwarded posts by friends and relatives on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, on every festival and observance--asking you to either shun or embrace some ritual, in order to fall in line, how do you cope? How much you can ignore.

It is damn irritating. Imagine, there are cities where people fear to go to a new mosque where they haven't gone before, because the way they offer prayer may incur wrath of the sect that controls the mosque.

In this backdrop, I am asking, is it possible to be 'Simply Muslim'? I ask this question myself, often. Still there is a vast majority of Muslims--simple Muslims, who are still not afflicted with this sectarian bug. However, the pace at which the sectarianism is growing, is worrying.

UPDATE: This article was written a few years ago. Now it seems that a lot of Muslims have realised that futility of endless discussions over sects & excessive focus on differences in schools of thought. On social media, there are some sectarian-minded people but on the other hand, a huge population that gives a call to shun sectarianism. This has more to do with rise in Hindutva extremism & lynchings.