Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2009 > May 2009 > Ideological and Development War Ahead

Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 23, May 23, 2009

Ideological and Development War Ahead

Attack on Mosques/Dargahs of Sufi-oriented Sunni Muslims

Saturday 23 May 2009, by Kunal Ghosh


Pakistan’s Permanent Representative Abdullah Haroon made a link in the UN between Darul Uloom Deoband in India and terrorism in Pakistan’s NWFP and FATA areas where the Al-Qaeda and Taliban ideology flourishes. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind protested to the MEA, Pak High Commission and UN Secretary-General against Pakistan opening this new front. (Ref: ‘Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind Protests Pak Link’ The Times of India, Kanpur, New Delhi, December 19, 2008) In the aftermath of the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attack, when India put forth incontrovertible evidence that the terrorists were trained in and came from the Pakistani soil, there was a debate in the UN General Assembly and Abdullah Haroon said:

Some of you may not be aware that how this matter has taken root in a deep way, led entirely by Mullahs in India in Deoband. I am not pointing a finger. I am coming up with a very good suggestion. It is for the clerics in Deoband, who wield great influence in the North West Frontier territories of Pakistan and in FATA, to come to Pakistan, get together and embed, offer a Fatwa in Pakistan against suicide bombing.

Haroon’s was a sincere attempt to draw attention to the need for an ideological offensive against terror. The Government of India, petitioned by the Mullahs, misunderstood and thought it to be a red herring for diverting attention toward India. Facing a lot of criticism in India the Deoband seminary responded by organising conferences and rallies against terrorism and the first such conference was in February 2008. However, the pronouncement in the conference was that ’unjust violence’ is un-Islamic. It stopped far short of naming specific outfits or actions. Why cannot the Deoband clerics go to the Taliban controlled areas of the NWFP in Pakistan and organise such a conference?

Arif Mohammad Khan, who had been a Cabinet Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government in the 1980s and resigned on the issue of the regressive stand taken by the government on the infamous Shah Bano legal/judicial case, wrote a scholarly article, ‘Sending a Wrong Message: There’s a Disconnect between the Clergy and the Common Muslims’ in The Times of India, September 30, 2008, New Delhi. He examines the syllabus of the Darul Uloom seminary of Deoband on the question of jihad and forcible conversion to Islam and shows that the syllabus prescribes the sword even when the infidel is not the first aggressor and is at complete variance with the Holy Quran; in fact the syllabus is based on Hedaya, a 12th century text. He mentions that he wrote to the Deoband authorities pointing this out but received no reply. He further says:

This syllabus is not confined to Deoband, the seminary that was established in 1866, but is prescribed in more than 5000 of its affiliates across the country (India) and thousands of madrasahs in Pakistan, run by former students of Deoband. It is curious that for admission into these madrasahs no formal application is needed; instead madrasahs send recruitment teams to very poor and backward areas emphasising that the education, food, lodging and clothing provided by the madrasah are all free.

Further, Arif Mohammad Khan cites a published case study by a Pakistani psychologist, named Sohail Abbas, based on personal interviews of 517 arrested jihadis, which concludes that almost all the jihadis belonged to the Deobandi school of thought.

Development and Education on War Footing

The recruitment strategy of the madrasahs, as mentioned by Arif Mohammad Khan, should be an eye-opener for the political leaderships of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Boys from very poor half-starved families, not getting any form of education whatsoever, are being targeted by a certain group of madrasahs that seem to be flushed with finance. Therefore the first task before the governments is to provide development and free education to the poor all over the Indian sub-continent. Extremism in any form, be it of the religious or Naxalite variety, flourishes only in dire abominable poverty. The situation in Pakistan’s North West frontier is fast spinning out of control and there is no time to lose. We need development on war footing, and that is why I call it a developmental war. If we lose the developmental war, we are sure to lose the ideological war to the extremists.

Attack on Shrines of Sufi-oriented Sunni Muslims

Muslim Extremism: In the last one month two important mosques have been attacked and bombed by the Taliban in the NWFP of Pakistan. The Rahman Baba mosque in Peshwar was bombed because of its Sufi connection. A famous Sufi Dervish, called Rahman Baba, had established this mosque and the complex includes his mausoleum where thousands of devotees offer obeisance everyday. Even now most of the people of the NWFP are of Sufi-Islam persuasion, but that is sought to be changed at the point of the gun. The Taliban attacked the Jamrood mosque at the Khyber Agency of the NWFP soon after they attacked the aforesaid Rahman Baba mosque. Initially I was puzzled as to the reason for this attack because, according to newspaper reports, that mosque is an ordinary Sunni mosque and contains no mausoleum of a saint. I found a clue in a recent article by Syed Salim Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan’s Bureau Chief. Shahzad, in his article, ‘US Strikes at Taliban’s Nerve Centre’ (Thursday, April 2, 2009 7:55 am (PDT)), talks of drone attacks by the NATO in Orakzai area and says:

Orakzai is important for another reason. The Taliban chose it as a base from where to send fighters into Khyber Agency to attack NATO supply convoys. The Taliban don’t have roots in Khyber Agency, where the people are mostly traders and being Sufi are not religiously like-minded with the Taliban, so the militants have been unable to set up bases.

So the mosque was attacked because people of the area are of Sufi-Islam persuasion. In Shahzad’s statement it is also implied that the Taliban are anti-Sufi. We observe that Pakistani spokesmen and Indo-Pak writers are repeatedly drawing attention to an ideological fault-line in Sunni Islam and are pointing fingers at Deoband. It is well known in Pakistani circles that the Taliban and their associates, such as Lashkar-e Tayaba, Sipah-e-Salar, Jaish-e-Mohammad etc., follow the Deobandi interpretation of Sunni Islam and are against veneration of Sufi saints and the Sufi institutions such as Dargahs and Khanekas. Deobandis also hold the Shia and the Ahmadiya to be un-Islamic. True to their ideology the Taliban have been attacking Sufi-oriented Sunni mosques and Shia mosques in the NWFP.

Incidentally, I have come across several Muslim gentlemen, who are good citizens of India in every perceptible way, who candidly admit that they follow the Deobandi interpretation of Islam and hold Sufi practices such as visiting saints’ Dargahs and offering flowers or Chadar there as un-Islmaic. So all Deobandis are not terrorists, but all terrorists seem to be Deobandis. The connection between Deobandi and Wahhabi thoughts are given later in this article. The Al Qaeda, head-quartered in the secret hideouts of the NWFP, is an avowedly Wahhabi organisation led by a Saudi Arabian, Osama bin Laden. Since the Deobandi Taliban is aligned with the Al Qaeda, there must be some ideological affinity between the two.

In 1996 Aruna Asaf Ali (awarded Bharat Ratna posthumously) wrote in her article titled, ‘An Agenda For National Renewal’ (published in Mainstream, New Delhi, September 26, 1996, pp. 13-17):

Fanatical indoctrination imparted over the years in hundreds of schools run by the Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir is widely believed to have been a potent factor in the growth of fundamentalist and secessionist forces in that state.

The Jamaat-e-Islami is a well-known political party of Deobandi persuasion, founded in Lahore by Maulana Maudoodi. The Jamaat in Bangladesh or India is a sister organisation of the Pakistani Jamaat and the madrasahs in Kashmir are manned by former students of Deoband. So it is no wonder that the militants of Hizbul Mujahideen, who had been indoctrinated by the Jamaat and been fighting a secessionist war in Kashmir against the Indian Army, occupied and eventually burned down the Dargah of Saint Nuruddin Noorani at Chrar-e-Sharief. Separating Kashmir from India is not their only aim. They also aim to destroy the Sufi-oriented Sunni Islam of Kashmir. (It should be recalled that the Bangladeshi Jamaat sided with the Pakistani forces and took part in the genocide during the liberation struggle in 1971.)

Hindu Extremism: The story of the attack on Sufi Dargahs will remain incomplete unless we mention what happened during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Tens of Dargahs in Ahmedabad alone were destroyed or vandalised. These Dargahs were the symbols of Hindu-Muslim syncretism where the two communities mingled in harmony and where on occasions vegetarian food was prepared by Muslims to be served to Hindu devotees. It is often said that it is only the Hindus who visit (Sufi) Muslim shrines and there is no reciprocity vice-versa. This simply is not true and here are a few examples.

During the recent Gujarat riots, a Hindu mob burned down the tomb of noted classical singer Ustad Faiaz Khan near Ahmedabad. It is well known that Faiaz Khan Sahab used to start all his recitals by saying “Om Ananta Narayana Hari”. He obviously believed in the philosophy of “Ishwara Allah tere naam (Ishwara and Allah are thy two names)”. He was a religious person and known to maintain all the observances of a good Muslim. Among India’s musicians there are many like him. Late Ustad Alauddin Khan, father of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar, often visited a Masjid and a Mandir on the same day. The Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan used to play in a Banaras temple and has repeatedly talked about his gaining a spiritual experience while performing there. Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote poetry on the goddess Kali. Noted classical singer Pandit Ajay Chakraborty and many other Hindu singers of Bengal sing a song written by the same poet in praise of Prophet Mohammad, “Noor Nabi Mohammad”. The list is endless. The purpose of mentioning all this is to urge both Hindus and Muslims not to abjure the path of syncretism which is so rooted in the culture of this land. Muslim Indians of eminence should work for upholding the Chishtiyya tradition and in particular for restoring the kalashes on the spires of the Chishti dargahs of Ajmar and Fatehpur Sikri; these kalashes had been present for more than six centuries as symbols of Muslim-Hindu syncretism and have been removed between 1975 and 1997, a span of 22 years. As a gesture of friendship the Hindus of Ahmedabad should re-build the tomb of Ustad Faiaz Khan and all vandalised Dargahs.

We shall now focus attention to another significant political formation concerned mainly with security in Central Asia.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or SCO

Vladimir Radyuhin in his article, ‘SCO: Towards a High-profile Role in Afghanistan’ (ref:, re-printed as ‘Stage Set for a High-Profile SCO Role in Afghanistan’ in Mainstream New Delhi, April 10-16, 2009), says:

The Special Conference on Afghanistan, held in Moscow last Friday…. was organised by the SCO…..It was remarkable for a broad range of participants from outside the organisation. They included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Secretary-General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mark Perrin de Brichambaut; US Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon; and NATO Deputy Secretary-General Martin Howard. There were also representatives …from the European Union and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Afghanistan was represented by Foreign Minister Rangin Dagdar Spanta…….

The Moscow Conference call for adopting a comprehensive approach to Afghanistan was consonant with Mr Obama’s new emphasis on diplomacy, economic assistance, the building of a strong Afghan army and security forces and on shutting down the Pakistani safe haven for extremists. If anything, the Moscow Declaration came harder on Pakistan demanding that it find effective means to combat terrorism, including denying sanctuaries and dismantling the extremist and terrorist network and ideological centres.

The last sentence of Radyuhin’s summary calls for dismantling of ‘ideological centres’ in Pakistan. He might as well have widened his net to include ideological centres in the whole of the Indian subcontinent. It should be noted that India was represented in the Moscow conference and has an observer status in SCO.

Wahhabi Deobandi Connection:
The Anti-Sufi Stand

Wahhabism sprang in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and started a challenge to traditional Sunni Islam worldwide. Muhammad Ibn Abd-el Wahhab was a scholar in 18th century Saudi Arabia and is the father of Wahhabism. Later an Indian scholar, called Maulana Maudoodi, nourished this stream of thought and is widely respected in the Wahhabi circles. Maudoodi’s writings influenced the scholars of Al Azhar university of Egypt. Abd-el Wahhab held that Sufi practices of building mausoleums or dargahs around the burial chambers of saints and veneration of these saints amount to idol worship and hence must be eradicated. The clerics of Deoband agree with Wahhab’s thesis and they aggressively preach against Sufism in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Wahhabis destroyed Sufi dargahs and Khanekas and killed Sufis wherever they came to power in the Middle East. Yet Sufism has always been a part of traditional Sunni Islam right from the days of Prophet Mohammad. Sufi orders are to be found from Morocco to Indonesia everywhere. Sufism derives from certain chapters of the Holy Quran. There are more than a hundred Sufi orders in the world, and all except one, the Naqshbandiyya order, preach universal love and believe in the Quranic concept of Wahdat ul Ujud or Unity of All Existence. Sufis offer a path of spiritual training under a Murshid (a teacher or Guru) which lead to direct realisation of God. In other words, the Wahhabis wish to eliminate the spiritual dimension of Islam altogether. Traditionally there has always been a sectarian tendency among the Ulema of Islam, but it was held in check by the Sufis because the Ulema usually deferred to the Sufi Peers or Dervishes. There was a bipolar balance between the two arms of traditional Sunni Islam, the Sufi and the Ulema. This balance has been disturbed by the rise of Wahhabism. Yet it must be said that for nearly two centuries Wahhabism could not manage to create dent in traditional Sunni Islam till the formation of OPEC in 1973 and the rise in the petro-dollar power of Saudi Arabia. This Wahhabi state has financed thousands of Wahhabi madrasahs all over the world and Deobandi ones in South Asia to enhance its political influence. The Deobandis do not openly admit to being Wahhabis. But their attitude toward Sufism is the give away. One suspects that the thousands of Deobandi madrasahs of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh which offer free board and lodge to poor students are bank-rolled by the Saudis. Intolerance is the inevitable result of the spread of Wahhabism, and extreme intolerance leads to terrorism.

Sufism and World Peace

The importance of Sufism for world peace and harmonious co-existence needs some elaboration. A great musician of India, Amir Khusro, was a Sufi spiritualist and a realized soul. He wrote,

Khusro rain Suhag ki jaagi piya ke sang,

Tan mero man piyu ka, dono bhayo ek rang.

(Khusro remains awake with his beloved in the night of union, the body is mine but the mind belongs to the beloved, the two fuse to become of one colour.)

His language is medieval Hindi and not Urdu. His imagery is of love, but this love is spiritual and not physical. The great Turkish Sufi Maulana Jalal Uddin Rumi (fondly called Maulana Rum) wrote:

I knocked on the door and the voice called ‘who is it’?

I said it is me, Rumi, but the door did not open.

I knocked again and the voice asked ‘who is it?’ once again,

I answered, “It is you my friend” and then the door opened.

This poem describes an experience akin to what is known as ‘monistic mystical experience’ in Catholic and Orhtodox Christian literature and as Nirvikalpa Samaadhi in Hindu literature. The purpose of quoting these two poets is to show the similarity in spiritual thoughts of different religions and different climes. It is this which offers a basis for universal love which all Sufi orders practice. Relentless assault on Sufism by Wahhabi fanatics is destroying the foundation of peaceful co-existence of different religions. The latest is the recent destruction of the mosque-dargah complex of the revered Sufi Rahman Baba in the town of Peshawar. Even now most of the people of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan are followers of traditional Sunni Islam and hold Sufis in reverence. But they are unarmed and unorganised and have no chance to defend their faith against the organised might of the armed-to-the-teeth Taliban, often backed by the Pakistani state.

People of the Swat valley were traditionally following Sufi Islam and the traditional law which is based partly on tribal customs and partly on Shariah. So restoration of this law is not so dangerous in itself, provided they stay in the traditional Sufi path and the ruling Awami National Party can reverse the Wahhabi/Deobandi trend. But that is unlikely, because the ruthless Taliban have killed an enormous number of tribal elders all over the province, including in the Swat valley, so that a link with the past is broken and the traditional Sunni leadership is now in disarray. The latest flogging of a 17-year old girl for stepping out of home with a male companion, who was not father or brother, holds ominous portents. Incidentally in this case what the Taliban has enforced is Salafi Law that is practised in Saudi Arabia; the traditional law of the Swat does not prohibit a woman from stepping out with a non-relative male companion. Once again we observe that the Taliban prefers the Saudi law to the traditional one. Saudi Arabia is now trying to pacify some of the Taliban by offering monetary allurement and mediation in order to help their American allies. But this is hardly likely to work.


Development and alleviation of poverty are the primary necessary conditions for fighting Islamic extremism, but they are not sufficient, in my opinion. An ideological offensive is also imperative. Only a war that combines developmental and ideological measures would be sufficient.

Is the Saudi state prepared to eschew Wahhabism and return to traditional Sunni Islam? That perhaps is too tall an order. The least that they can do is to stop financing the spread of Wahhabism abroad and allow a space of legitimacy to traditional Sunni Islam and Shia Islam at home. This amounts to granting religious freedom within the Islamic fold. Again calling for religious freedom for non-Islamic faiths would be too tall an order at this juncture. Instead of bank-rolling madrasahs, the Saudi state and its businessmen should provide development aid to Pakistan and Bangladesh. They should stop financing madrasahs in India. But there is still no evidence of any dawning of this kind of wisdom among the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Indian and world policy-makers must wake up to the need for waging an ideological battle at the global level. The SCO seems to be have woken up to the need for an ideological offensive inside Pakistan. Surely that is not enough, because it leaves the source-spring (Saudi Arabia) of the ideology intact.

Dr Kunal Ghosh is a Professor, Aerospace Engineering Department, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.