Keeping the inclusive faith
Sadia Dehlvi | Mar 24, 2011, 07.44pm IST

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Keeping-the-inclusive-faith/articleshow/7781965.cms

Imam Al Sudais’s India visit to lecture at the Deoband seminary is sending some sections of the Muslim community into overdrive. I received a card from the India Islamic Cultural Centre (IICC) inDelhi to attend an address by ‘His Holiness’, Imam-e-Haram, Dr Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais, presently imam of the mosque in Mecca. The accompanying letter details the imam’s achievements including his educational degrees in sharia law. In 2005, he received ‘The Islamic Personality of the Year’ award and stood nominated for the Dubai International Quran Award, which he accepted.

The ‘His Holiness’ came as a jolt, for no such prefixes have ever been added to Prophet Muhammad’s name or that of his companions, who rank the highest in Muslim piety. As one devoted to Islam, i believe using the Quran to name an award belittles the sanctity of God’s word and borders on blasphemy. Legitimising such an award by its acceptance seems a worse action. The early history of Islam contains no examples of spiritual or religious leaders accepting state or private awards. On the contrary, sharia and prophetic traditions frown upon those who seek or allow public adulation, for all righteous deeds are for God alone.

The Deoband leadership has requested that Al Sudais not be frisked during his visit to Parliament. Due respect must be accorded to the visiting imam, because he leads the prayers at the Kaabah. This reverence flows from ‘where’ the prayers are led and not because of ‘who’ the imam is. To quote Arshad Madani of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind, “Sheikh Al Sudais is the highest religious leader of the Muslims”. This is misleading because Al Sudais merely represents the highest-ranking sacred space. The worldwide Muslim majority does not subscribe to the radical Wahhabi ideology propagated by Saudi clerics.

This political, narrow, legalistic and literalist interpretation of Islam emerged from the desert wastelands of Najd in Saudi Arabia from among the followers of the Bedouin Abdul Wahhab, an 18th century self-claimed reformist. The trajectory of the Wahhabi movement is rooted in violence, legitimising jihad as an armed conflict to kill fellow Muslims in disagreement with their vision of Islam by declaring them kafirs, infidels. Related to the ruling family through matrimonial alliances, Abdul Wahhab’s family continues to control the ministry of religion, quashing many reforms desired by the political leadership, particularly by the present moderate King Abdullah.

The Wahhabis, who call themselves ‘Salafis’, have a limited following in the subcontinent. It includes the Deoband seminary, Tablighi Jamaat, Ahle Hadith and the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. Together, they constitute not more than 15 to 20% of the total population. Unfortunately, the government and the public fall prey to media-driven stereotypes. The perceptions of these factions representing majority Muslim opinion are baseless. Muslims are not monolithic communities but adhere to varied interpretations of Islam. In India and Pakistan, the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat represented by the Barelvi creed has the largest following.

Saudi clerics, including Al Sudais, face international criticism for inciting passions against the Barelvis, Shias, other Muslim minorities and non-Muslims. The Saudi state outsources its Wahhabi ideology by spending billions of dollars in patronising the building and running of mosques, madrassas, journals and cleric training programmes. It remains the fountainhead of the extremism infiltrating Muslim communities, tearing their local cultures apart. The bombing of dargahs and Shia mosques in Pakistan is one such manifestation.

The Saudi state has robbed all Muslims in the world of their legitimate cultural, historical and spiritual legacy, both in the physical and spiritual realm. In 1925, despite global outrage, all mausoleums including those of the Prophet’s family at Jannat-ul Maali and Jannat-ul Baqi, the sacred graveyards of Mecca and Medina, were demolished. Once reflecting Islamic glory and heritage, the bulldozed compounds are now typical Wahhabi burial grounds with rows of featureless unmarked graves. Several other historical sites continue to be obliterated.

Throughout history, Sufis and their disciples from different parts of the globe inhabited Mecca and Medina, the first centres of spiritual Islam. Now, the constant patrolling by the mutawwah, the religious police, ensures that pilgrims do not participate in collective spiritual gatherings. Forced to follow Wahhabi practices, devotees in Medina are not allowed to face the Prophet’s chamber in supplication. Women face severe restrictions of time and space at the sacred mosques. It is decreed sinful and therefore criminal to write, read, sing or listen to ‘naat’, poetic praise, of the Prophet. Enforcements have washed away these traditions commonplace during Prophet Muhammad’s life. Thirty-five among the Prophet’s poet companions composed ‘naat’, Hassan ibn Thabit being his favourite.

The aims and objective of the IICC is to preserve and promote the composite and inclusive cultural traditions of Indian Muslims. Since its inception, the Centre has been trying to decode which cultural activities are sharia compliant and those that are not. Therefore, it is ironic and worrying that the IICC is one of the venues for the imam’s address. I hope Al Sudais’s discourse triggers a genuine and long overdue intra-faith dialogue amongst Indian Muslims as to what the rightful traditions of Islam are.

( The writer is a commentator and an author.)