The fault lines within South Asian Sunni Islam

Spearhead Analysis – 30.01.2015

By Shayan Malik
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Mumtaz QadriThis analysis tries to uncover the gulf between Deobandi and Barelvi politics and the historical as well as political factors that lead to this unofficial division within South Asian Sunni’ism along with its implications for Pakistan. South Asia’s Islamist movement often projects an image within the wider non-academic and non-analyst segments as one whole united movement composed of a structured rank and file that is aimed at disavowing constitutional and parliamentary democracy and ever-ready to usher in the ‘golden days’ of Islam under the aegis of Sharia Law. However, this perception of Islamist politics and militancy in South Asia as a whole and Pakistan in particular could not be further from the truth.

The doctrinal split

19th century colonial India was a time and place that was rife for revivalist movements of all sorts. This could be seen throughout the communal ‘spectrum’, where movements from all different religions, Indian and Abrahamic, gained momentum in setting up their own doctrinal interpretive traditions, rituals, symbols and the surrounding culture. Two such lasting revivalist traditions still define most of South Asian Sunni Islam today. These are the Deobandi and Barelvi movements.

The Barelvi tradition is highly influenced by the various different Sufi orders, and the school’s interpretation of Hanafi law makes room for prayer through the intercession of religious pirs via the shrines where they are buried. It is the largest interpretive tradition found in Pakistan and it is particularly popular in the rural hinterland, including Southern Punjab and the Interior of Sindh. This tradition arose in the 19th century in the town of Bareilly in what is today India. For the barelvis, Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him is ‘hazir’ or ever-present and is ‘nur’ or light.

The second popular Sunni interpretive tradition within Pakistan is the Deobandi School which takes its name from the town of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh, India. ‘Deobandism’ was a reform movement that sought to cleanse Islam of all ‘un-Islamic’ influences that it deemed as being inimical to the very foundations of the religion. In this regard, it saw certain Sufi practices such as rallying around the graves of pirs as being influenced from Indic religions such as Hinduism, Jainism or even Buddhism. The Barelvis, on the other hand, stridently believed that they were upholding traditional Islamic values in the Indian Subcontinent, as they were always upheld and practiced.

The Pakistan Movement and assorted ‘Sectarianisms’

These opposing doctrinal tendencies precipitated divergent politics and reactions. The Barelvi movement, according to various sources, rejected the leadership of the Congress under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and its efforts at freeing India from the yoke of the British. At the same time, there was unanimous support for the Congress endeavor by the Ulema from the Deoband School. This was coupled with the Deobandi-oriented political leaders distaste for the Muslim League and its leaders, particularly, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who were perceived as utilizing religion to fight for what was termed as essentially a ‘secular nationalist’ cause. Nevertheless, the League won the backing of influential Barelvi Pirs as well as a section of the Deobandi Ulema. What followed was the utilization of the Barelvi Ulema by the Muslim League and the Deobandi Ulema from the Congress in order to cast doubts on the rival party’s ‘Islamic credentials’ publically.

The development of Barelvi and Deobandi Politics and Militancy Post-Partition

The initial overwhelming opposition of Deobandi-oriented parties such as the Jamiat-e-Ulemai-Islam Hind’s to the Pakistan Movement was made up by the breaking away of a supposedly ‘Pro-Pakistan’ faction lead by Shabbir Ahmed Usmani and others from the parent organization as well as the JI’s attempts to define the ‘Ideology’ of Pakistan.

The popularity of Barelvi-ism in Pakistan today has been affected by the rapid urbanization changes starting from the 1970’s and the surrounding political economy in the same era. State patronage of Deobandi institutions and madrassa’s changed the political balance of power between the two groups in light of the Deobandi Madrassas that indirectly churned out the ‘Mujahideen’ in order to fight against the Soviets. According to Christine Fair, about 1000 madrassas were established during the latter half of the Zia period. Today, at least 65 percent of madrassas in Pakistan are affiliated with the Deobandi School, whereas, the rest belong to the Barelvi and to a smaller extent, the Ahl al-Hadith. The rise in Sunni Deobandi militancy as a direct result of the Afghan war in the 80’s not only endangered the sectarian and religious minorities within the country but the larger Sunni group itself, i.e., the Barelvis.

The radicalization of Barelvi Politics

The Barelvis have been represented by the Jamiat Ulema E Pakistan (JUP) apart from other parties that may be non-religious or non-sectarian. The former, though, has strictly focused on Barelvi interests. Although its offshoot, the Sunni Tehreek has always opposed Deobandi Militancy in the form of the ‘Taliban’, it has been at the forefront of the movement to utilize the blasphemy law in order to protect the sanctity of ‘Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). In this effort, it has meted out some serious injustices and human rights violations and has also come under the influence of other power-brokers.

Despite this, the Barelvis had maintained their ‘Sufi’ image for a long while, which also has enabled them to get funding from the US State Department as part of its Public Diplomacy Programmes. It must have shocked the sponsors of ‘Moderate Islam’ in Pakistan that the Sunni Ittehad Council later offered money as a reward to the murderer of Salmaan Taseer and also led rallies across the country denouncing his arrest. This radicalization has gotten further entrenched due to the breaking of denominational borders via urbanization. The Barelvis feel that they have lost a lot of space to the Deobandis as far as Urban Pakistan and its middle class is concerned. Hence, with an increased emphasis on punishing any purported blasphemy, the Barelvis believe that they are recovering that space.

The National Plan of Action, Zarb-e-Azb and the way forward

In the aftermath of the Peshawar massacre and the launching of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, there have been more voices pressing for an alternative narrative. However, it is essential to recognize that whereas terrorism and insurgency can be dealt with a counter-narrative as well as with operational measures, hate speech and the misuses of laws spearheaded by the followers of one school of thought can have damaging effects on that very effort. It is essential for the state not to ally itself with the adherents of one interpretive Sunni tradition against the other, and it must also not let other forces do so as well. This is a somber reminder that radicalization, as shown by history and today, is not the forte of any one religion, sect, denomination or interpretive tradition.