The Widening Divide by Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam (DECEMBER 19, 2011)

Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam on the need for unity among Indian Muslims.

The holy Quran asks Muslims to hold on to “God’s rope”, together. Islam’s call to Muslims is to stay united and not sow the seeds of division and mutual conflict. Over the centuries, we have violated these injunctions repeatedly.

Indian Muslims today are more divided than ever. The division, instead of closing and healing, is only widening and aggravating. Surely, this is not how we are going to survive and grow. Remember the poet Iqbal: Firqabandi hai kahin zaatien hein / Kya zamane mein panapne ki yahi baatein hein (There are warring sects here, castes there / Is that how on earth people prosper?)

New “sects” are emerging as old sectarian conflicts fester. Is it how we think we are going to flourish?

The latest sect to emerge is “Sufi Sunni.” This is the name we see mostly in English newspapers given to a section of Hanafi Sunnis. It is difficult to see how the vast majority of the other Sunnis are un-sufi. From what we gather from the reports, the Deobandis are excluded from this sufi classification even though right from the founders of Deoband like Maulana Qasim Nanannatawi and Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi to the stalwarts of today, all have been ijazatyaftah (recognised by masters) sufis. The last stalwart of Nadwatul-Ulema, Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, was ijazatyaftah of four different orders of sufism. If we believe the English media, these people are un-sufi.

According to this narrative, most sunni mosques belong to the “Sufi-Sunnis”, but the imams are un-sufi. Why so? Let our “Sufi Sunnis” lead prayers. Who prevents them from doing it? If they do it they will find all kinds of un-sufi Sunnis praying behind them.

Another serious division that is threatening the unity of Muslim society is caste. As caste conflict has escalated among the larger community a parallel caste movement has grown among Muslims as well, mimicking the patterns of the larger society. The Muslim version is as virulent as the original Hindu version even though, unlike Hinduism, caste has no religious sanction in Islam. It is a social aberration, not the basis of religion like Varna Dharma. Caste is so fundamental to Hinduism that Mahatma Gandhi said Hinduism would perish if caste was removed from it. On the contrary, no Muslim says that Islam will be destroyed if caste is done away with.

Secondly, the disability it confers on the alleged lower Muslim castes is not of the same intensity and character as in Hinduism. Islam does not prohibit any group from reading the scripture and does not prescribe pouring molten lead into the ears of a low-caste person listening to the scripture. It does not award death sentence to somebody reading the Quran. On the contrary, Shri Ram himself beheaded Shambuk for reading the Vedas, the highest crime that a Shudra could do.

People talking about caste in Islam and Hinduism in the same breath should also take note that in Islam there is no bar on any caste entering mosques or leading prayers. In fact, at least one serious observer says that persons from the lower orders are imams in mosques in larger numbers, and nobody has any objection to it. Nor are there castes polluting and untouchable in Islam. Among Muslims there are no unseeables either as there are some Hindu castes who must never show their face to higher castes and must keep their faces covered. In Islam, nobody of any religion or caste is so polluting that his or her touch will destroy a Muslim’s cleanliness or pollute his or her food.

Yet, we have to admit that there is the reality of caste identities within Indian Muslim society that has its roots in the historical experience of Islam in India. Even though it has no semblance with Hindu caste doctrine or practice, it has to be addressed honestly and squarely. The way it is being addressed today with bile and venom, abuse and slander, is not going to solve anything. Divisive politics over Muslim castes has to be dropped as soon as possible and a consensual approach has to be adopted for identifying and curing the malaise.


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