By Yoginder Sikand
A significant number of South Asian Muslims are associated with what can be loosely defined as the Barelvi tradition, named after the late nineteenth century defender of the cults of the Sufi shrines Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi. In contrast to various South Asian reformist Islamic groups and movements, the Barelvi tradition is loosely organized, lacking the strong network of institutions of other Muslim groupings. Barelvi ulema have, by and large, been loath to work with ulema of other Muslim groups, seeing many of these as ‘Wahhabi’ and ‘anti-Islam’. Much Barelvi scholarship is devoted to rebutting the claims of other Muslim groups, dismissing them as ‘deviant’ and ‘un-Islamic’. Consequently, many other Muslims see the Barelvis as ‘backward’, ‘sectarian’, ‘superstitious’ and ‘quarrelsome’. For their part, few scholars writing on the Indian Muslims have cared to seriously explore the Barelvi tradition, seeing it as a rapidly declining trend in the face of the apparent decline of the Sufi cults.
Fifty-five year old Maulana Yasin Akhtar Misbahi is a leading Indian Barelvi scholar. Born in 1953 in a village in Azamgarh district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, he received a traditional religious education at the apex Barelvi madrasa in India, the Jamiat ul-Ashrafiya in Azamgarh, graduating in 1970. From then on, his career has been quite atypical of most Barelvi ulema. He is one of the very few Barelvis to have taken admission in the Nadwat ul-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow, which traditional Barelvis see as representing a ‘Wahhabi’ form of Islam that it shares with the major rivals of the Barelvis, the Deobandis. After completing a course in Arabic literature at the Nadwa, Misbahi returned to the Jamiat ul-Ashrafia, where he taught Arabic for a little less than a decade. In 1984, he shifted to Delhi, where he launched a monthly magazine, Kanzul Iman, and wrote several books and articles for various Indian and Pakistani Urdu papers. In 1991, he established the Dar ul-Qalam in New Delhi, a research centre that aims at producing a genre of literature in marked contrast to the standard Barelvi polemical writings. ‘Dar ul-Qalam aims at engaging in new forms of research and producing socially relevant literature that departs from the petty squabbling and nit-picking so characteristic of much of the existing literature’, Misbahi explains.
Till date, Dar ul-Qalam has produced 15 books, all written by Maulana Misbahi himself. Indicating the shift to a more socially engaged and relevant form of literature that the Dar ul-Qalam sees itself as promoting, some of these books aim to promote better relations between Muslims and Hindus. ‘One book of mine, published in both Hindi and Urdu, deals with certain verses of the Quran which Hindutva ideologues misinterpret to argue that Islam calls for war against all non-Muslims. Another book deals with the history and ideology of Hindutva, there being an extreme paucity of writings in Urdu on the subject. A third deals with the history of the Babri Masjid, countering Hindutva arguments about the case’.
‘Many non-Muslims and even many Muslims’, Misbahi goes on, ‘do not know anything about the role of the Muslims in India’s freedom struggle. To highlight this I’ve published a book recounting the numerous ulema who participated in the uprising of 1857 against the British, and another one on a charismatic alim, Maulana Fazl Haq Khairabadi, who was deported to the Andaman islands by the British for his role in the 1857 revolt’.
‘Our Hindu countrymen need to be reminded of this important role of Muslims in the freedom of the country. The Hindutva propaganda against Muslims needs to be effectively countered by Muslim writers’, the Maulana explains. ‘Today, there is so much propaganda against Islam and Muslims in the media. In this regard, Muslim writers have a major role to play in reaching out to non-Muslims to explain their position’. Yet, the Maulana laments that few middle-class Muslims take any interest in doing so, leaving this task largely to the ulema. ‘There is an increasing number of ulema today who are writing on such social issues, but the problem is that few of them can write in any language other than Urdu. Consequently, their reach remains limited to an almost entirely Muslim audience. Muslims who know Hindi and English must take upon themselves the task of rendering these works into Hindi, English and other languages and also producing similar literature themselves. Sadly, this is lacking’, the Maulana laments.
As a way out, the Maulana recommends that the ulema themselves learn English, Hindi and other languages so as to directly communicate with people of other faiths through their writings. There are indications that this may soon begin to happen, with increasing numbers of madrasa graduates now enrolling in universities, where they can learn new languages and, for the first time in their lives, closely interact with people of other faiths. But the purpose of dialogue is not just to communicate to others. Rather, the Maulana says, the ulema should also be willing to learn about what others feel and believe. As of now, he says, there is little interaction between the ulema and people of other faiths. ‘This has to change. The responsibility for this is on both sides.’
The Dar ul-Qalam departs from most other Barelvi publishing houses in yet another way: by steering clear of polemical issues that set the different Muslim sects against each other. ‘It is natural that there will be differences between followers of different religions or even among followers of the same religion. Such differences can never be done away with’, Maulana Misbahi says. ‘Writers need to recognize this and seek to focus on the issues that the different Muslim sects or Muslims and Hindus have in common, rather than keep harping on their differences. If you denounce others or demand that they become identical to you, far from producing this result it will only lead to more strife’, he explains. He laments the fact that numerous Muslim, including Barelvi, publishing houses actively promote sectarianism by publishing polemical material directed at other Muslim sects, denouncing them as ‘un-Islamic’.
‘It’s basically all about profit’, the Maulana avers. ‘If publishers find that they will get more money publishing the books of their ideological rivals, they might well do so!’, he adds. ‘Let the different sects publish books that present their own views, but without denouncing the adherents of other sects or other religions’.