India, the world’s second largest country by population after China, includes a significant Muslim minority of 140 to 160 million. Indian Muslims are well-represented in the country’s institutions and cultural and media life. As India is a democracy, albeit a weak one, moderate Muslims in India have been asserting their rights against the radical clerics who have gained status as representatives of the whole Muslim community.
In India, the pattern seen in many other countries, including Western societies, has held: Saudi-financed Wahhabi radicals, as well as Deobandi extremists from Pakistan, have been officially accepted as the authoritative, autocratic Muslim leaders. Islamist terror in India has taken the notable form of the 2008 Mumbai atrocities.
The Wahhabis and Deobandis - the latter being the inspirers of the Afghan Taliban - have gained control of many public institutions relevant to Muslims’ lives. These include The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which handles family law disputes as determined by a mixture of shariah and Indian law. Until recently, the board was headed by a member of the Barelvi sect of Sunni Muslims. Barelvis, probably a majority among Indian and Pakistani moderate Muslims, account for a large share of immigrants in Britain. They are theological conservatives, but they recognize the Muslim obligation to obey the laws of countries in which Muslims are not a majority, whether Britain or India. They are also dedicated to the Sufi practice of the Qadiri mystical order. And, although traditionalists, they accept the political realities of modern life.
The AIMPLB has become a battleground between the Barelvis and the Deobandis. Aside from their historic link to the Taliban, Deobandis are a radical fundamentalist sect that opposes the preservation of Islamic architectural legacy, such as tombs and shrines, and that preaches violent hatred toward Barelvis and Sufis in general. This is particularly troubling to Indian Muslims as Islam in India has always been Sufi-flavored, both reflecting and extending itself toward the mystical traditions of millions of Hindus.
As Stephen Suleyman Schwartz and I mentioned recently in The Weekly Standard Blog [see http://www.islamicpluralism.org/1441/moderate-muslim-leaders-take-a-stand], Barelvis in India had already begun protesting Wahhabi and Deobandi usurpation of public institutions. The article told of a conference on January 3, “in the Indian city of Moradabad, held by the All-India Ulema Mashaikh Board, representing the moderate leaders. The board’s general secretary, Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, called for 10,000 madrassas, shrines, tombs, and other Islamic monuments in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (India’s largest, with a population of nearly 200 million) to be taken out of the hands of the “Wahhabis.”
Kichowchhwi accused a minority, financed by petro-dollars - no need to guess from where - of systematically capturing mosques and madrassas.
He called upon the moderates to “liberate our properties,” and demanded that the Indian government assure that administrators of the countless religious facilities be named from the 80 percent of Indian moderate Muslims who maintain Sufi traditions." In the latest episode another Barelvi leader with a similar name, Maulana Syed Zafar Masood Kichauchvi, resigned from the Personal Law Board. Masood Kichauchvi, who also functions in another powerful religious body, the All-India Hussaini Sunni Board, has warned that it may be necessary to create a wider range of separate institutions.
Masood Kichauchvi, the son of the long-serving vice president of the Personal Law Board, who recently died at 90, said he resigned from the Personal Law Board because his voice had been “throttled” in its recent convention. He described the Board as “occupied by ‘Wahhabis,’ who make merry with the money they receive from Saudi Arabia.” According to him, the radicals also want to keep control over madrassah religious schools by opposing state oversight over them.
Indian Muslims point out that continuous quarrels between the Wahhabi infiltrators and indigenous Muslim leaders, and the insistence by the radical Wahhabis on their interpretations of law and beliefs, have fostered various shariah or “personal law” boards, with competing claims of authority -- including separate groups led by Shiites and women.
While remaining conservative in their dedication to Shariah law among Muslims, Barelvi leaders like Masood Kichauchvi refuse to be swept aside by the Wahhabis, Deobandis and other extremists who seek to permanently establish their control of Indian Muslims.
As Kichauchvi put it, “I had just demanded adequate representation of all sects on the Board, but it was turned down.”
Muslims living in democratic states like India, Britain, and the U.S. have special opportunities to expose the expansion of petrol-financed fundamentalism and to assist those who have pledged to resist it among Muslim communities around the world.
The battle for Islamic pluralism is not limited to the West, or to controversy over Western principles; it strikes to the heart of Muslim spiritual life, whether in America, Britain, India, or Pakistan.