On the social media there is often talk of the so called “Arabization” of the Muslims in the subcontinent. Social media loves simple explanation but in the process loses all sense of reality. Let me explain how complex the Muslim society of India is before we even try to understand the influences that may or may not be working on them.
There are around 170 million people in India who identify themselves as Muslims. Apart from Jammu and Kashmir which is a Muslim majority state there is high concentration of Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. In other states the Muslim population is between 6 to 15 percent of the total population of the state. In India different states have different languages and cultures and accordingly the Muslims too follow different cultural practices in cuisine, clothing and the way festivals are celebrated. Indian Muslims are just as diverse as the Indian population.
Now let me come to the interesting part of religious beliefs. The fundamental division between Muslims is on the basis of Sect. While there is no official statistics on the sectarian demographics, it is estimated that around 80% of Muslims in India are Sunnis. The division does not end there. Sunnis are further divided school of thoughts. Unlike popular belief that Muslims blindly follow the Fatwas from clerics there are various schools of thoughts among Indian Muslims that teach very different versions of theology. Since vast majority of Indian Muslims follow the Hanafi School, I will focus on explaining further differences.
Barelvi school of thought
Barelvi school of thought is gets its name from the religious school located in the town of Bareli in Uttar Pradesh. This 19th century revivalist movement was established to counter the onslaught Christian missionaries. Believers in this school of thought see Prophet Mohammed as a supernatural being without any human weaknesses. Other defining feature of this school of thought is the importance given to shrines where there spiritual leaders of Islam are buried. They believe that praying at the tombs (mazaars) of these spiritual gurus will help the prayers reach God through the awliya (Gurus) as the intermediary.
Raza academy was recently in news for protesting against a film on the prophet of Islam. This academy is named after the founder of Barelvi Islam, Ahmed Raza Khan. The media tried to dismiss Raza academy as a fringe group when in fact it is quite a mainstream organization of Barelvi Islam.
Deobandi school of thought
The Deobandi school of thought was also established in the 19th century and it also gets its name from a town located in Uttar Pradesh. This school of thought strongly rejects the idea of shrines and declares that no intermediary is required to communicate with the omnipresent God.
This school of thought also rejects the idea that the prophet of Islam was a supernatural being and accepts him as human who lived and died a natural death. The Deobandi school of has emerged as a serious challenger to the Barelvi school of thought through its missionary work among Muslims. Some people confuse this with “Arabization” of Muslims when the fact is that this reformist movement is almost two centuries old in the subcontinent.
Deobandis and Barelvis have very serious disagreements with each other to the extent that they consider each other outside the Church of Islam.
The Deobandi movement remained on the fringes of subcontinental Islam. There was a little impetus on reformation as shrines fulfilled the necessary social and spiritual needs of the people. There was no trigger that would push for a change in status quo.
With Islam becoming a global issue due to Western media, there came a new urgency among Indian Muslims (and perhaps Muslims around the world) to understand the meaning of Islam. This is where Deobandi movement got a massive boost. More and more Muslims are associating Shrines with idol worship and disassociating themselves with Barelvi Islam. Sufism had some great thinkers and unfortunately the Sufi thought is being rejected along with the Shrines which were the crucible of Sufi enlightenment.
Deobandis have their own set of problems. There is this attention to detail in rituals. From how to eat to how to sit to how to sleep there is close attention to detail to an extent that it can become quite irritating. There is no room to question or amend the Deobandi literature, nor is there any significant impetus on building scientific temperament. But their push to educate women has yielded some good results.
Salafi School of Thought
Salafis don’t believe the four major schools of thought. As per their claim, their impetus is on understanding and redefining Islam, once again, on the basis of Quran and the prophetic traditions (The Hadits) and rejecting all other books and interpretations written by different scholars over the years. While there is nothing wrong in this idea the Salafis have been involved in or have inspired some very violent movements in the Muslim world. Salafism is what is popularly known as Islamism or Islamist movement because of their fanatical focus on politics rather than spirituality.
One of the major reasons behind Muslims of India rejecting global Jihad is their rejection of Salafism. They don’t need Salafism because their urge to reform can be fulfilled by the indigenous Deobandi movement.
Wahabism is an 18th century Saudi Arabian religious reformation movement against Shrine worship. Wahabism is not necessarily Salafism but Saudis have often been accused of encouraging Salafis by helping them financially. Wahabi influence in India is often exaggerated. Most people in India wont even know who Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was.
Quranist School of thought
This is a relatively new school of thought that rejects every book associated with Islam except the Quran because according to them all the other books are corrupted and they often contradict the Quranic teachings.
This is the most puritanical movement that exists today and is slowly gaining ground among educated Muslim elites. The Quranists reject ideas like blasphemy, punishment for apostasy, child marriage, female genital mutilation because none of these appear in the Quran. There are some Quranists who argue that the prophetic traditions (The Hadits) that do not contradict with the Quran are acceptable as a source of religious guidance.
Strange as it may seem Shia Islam emerged as a distinct theological school of thoughts only because some people did not agree on the leader after the demise of the prophet of Islam. Those people who wanted Ali, the prophet’s son in law to lead were unhappy at the appointment of Abu Bakr, prophets close friend, as the next leader of the nation of Islam. To most of us this would appear to be a minor disagreement but obviously some people felt quite strongly about it. Their defection created a whole new sect in Islam called Shia Islam. Now there are many different sub-sects within Shia Islam, namely, Ismailis, Zaidis, Jafri etc. Some would argue that Bohra and Khoja sects are specialized branches of Shia Islam.
You may have heard the term Ahmedi and the persecution they face in Pakistan. Ahmedis believe in the Quran and the Prophet but they don’t see Mohammed as the last prophet of Islam. They follow the teachings of their spiritual Guru Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who was a brilliant scholar of Islam.
The conflict began when Ghulam Ahmad declared himself as the next prophet after Mohammed. Ahmedis are not accepted as Muslims by any sect of Islam because of their challenge to the most fundamental belief of Islamic theology that Mohammed is the last and final messenger of God.
Islam is a ecosystem which is often confused to be an echo-system. There are diverse and competing ideologies trying to gain space. As is the case with any society. For Muslims belonging to various sects and school of thoughts it is important than ever before to focus on what people can agree on. A constant focus on disagreements will only create more rifts and cause misery.
No sect is inherently evil or are seeking to do wrong with a malicious intent. Usually people do what they believe is right, you may disagree with what they believe, you may even try to convince them about your point of view, but it is wrong to declare them as enemies. While you may disagree with them on certain issues, it is very important to respect their human rights and to understand that they too are seeking to live a peaceful life as per their understanding of religion.
Ahmedis are not considered as Muslims, they can easily disassociate themselves from Islam and move on. They face all the persecution and still strive to be called Muslims because their intent is not to malign Islam. All we need here is a bit of compassion and a bit of understanding. After all that is the whole point of being religious.