EVOLVING ISLAM

For how long can Indian and Pakistani Muslims resist the Saudi influence?

Quartz india
Quartz india

The two-way traffic of the nineteenth century, when Muslim scholars of South Asia and the Middle East—including clerics of Mecca and Medina—were in a conversation, is something of the past.

Indeed, as shown by Ayesha Sidiqqa, the “madrasa system in Pakistan now represents a one-way traffic in which financial patronage has shaped the discourse in the country since the 1980s.” However, Gulf influence is not unequivocal as the Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam widespread in Arabia is transformed while travelling to South Asia, having to adapt and coexist with South Asian understandings of Islam. Hence Samina Yasmeen argues that Lashkar-e-Taiba could attract followers only by “indigenising the Salafi narrative,” especially in respect to and regarding women.

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In spite of…attacks, dargahs remain part of popular Islam and Muslims continue to visit them, along with Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs. Yet while this dimension of the religious scene is true across South Asia, it is the most obvious on the Indian side. Pilgrims continue to attend Urs festivities, and Pakistanis apply for visas to visit the  Sufism has also made some inroads into the Gulf monarchies. Ajmer Dargah Sharif and other shrines. Interestingly…Sufism has also made some inroads into the Gulf monarchies, following in the footsteps of the South Asian diaspora there and establishing links with the local Sufi networks eager to find support at home against the encroachment of Salafi ultra-orthodoxy.

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Regionalism—often mixed with Sufism—has also been an antidote to Salafism in different provinces of South Asia. It has contained the Salafi external influences even more effectively when local cultures combined with the popular religion par excellence that is Sufism.

Sindh is a case in point. Sindhi nationalists look at themselves as the descendants of the Indus civilization. Their ideologue in chief, GM Syed (1904–95) used to say, “I am Sindhi for 5,000 years, I am Muslim for 1,400 years, I am Pakistani for 63 years.”

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“Saudi Arabisation” in Pakistan

Clearly, despite the resilience of local perceptions and practices of Islam, a process of “Saudi Arabisation” of Islam is taking place across South Asia. In Pakistan, the state is a major actor in this process—a point that needs to be re-emphasised. As mentioned by several contributors to this volume, the growing religious influence of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan is one of the legacies of Zia’s Islamisation policy. Since then, the government has oscillated between long phases of greater rapprochement with the Saudis and short episodes of equidistant relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Islamabad has been closer to Riyadh when rulers came from the army or the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), a party whose leader, Nawaz Sharif, had found refuge in Jeddah from 2000 to 2007 when General Musharraf exiled him after the 1999 coup. The Sharifs had already good relations with the Saudi ruling family, but these links intensified. Not only did one of Nawaz’s daughters marry a grandson of King Fahd, but Nawaz and his brother developed several businesses in Saudi Arabia—a country they visited very often, for more than pilgrimages.

By contrast, when the People’s Pakistan Party was in office, the government tried to promote better relations with Iran, a policy Riyadh attributed to the Shi‘a background of the Bhutto family. While Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the party, never declared whether he was a Shi‘a or not, he married an Iranian woman, a decision that fostered suspicion. When Asif Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, became president in 2008, he favoured a balanced attitude vis-à-vis Iran.

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On the Indian side, a similar development has taken shape with the creation of Peace TV channel by Abdul Karim Zakir Naik who has reached a reported 100 million viewers. Zakir Naik speaks against Sufi devotions and Shi‘ism in more or less explicit terms.

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Besides electronic media, physical communications have also intensified. The number of Pakistanis who performed the Hajj has jumped from 12,300 in 1948 to 58,743 in 1974 and then crossed 100,000 by the late twentieth century, reaching 190,000 in 2012. Islamic influences are also conveyed via migrations. Individual stories of Indian Muslims who have become more orthodox during their stay in the Gulf are numerous.

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Beyond individual trajectories, Saudis are supporting Salafi enterprises in South India, including Kerala where former migrants have resettled. According to a cable of the Saudi embassy in Delhi, millions of Riyals have been reserved for the Islamic Mission Trust of Malappuram (Kerala), the Islamic Welfare Trust, and the Palghat Mujahideen Arabic College (Kerala). Recently, two new Islamic organisations have started to benefit from Saudi financial support in South India, and more especially in Kerala: the Popular Front of India and the Social Democratic Party of India. There is a sense of participating in a worldwide renaissance of Islamic “moral values and culture.” 

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Filippo and Caroline Osella point out that the “pan-Islamic orientation” of Muslims of this state has increased over the last 30 years for two reasons: “not only has Gulf migration brought thousands of Malayali Muslims close to what they imagine as the heartland of Islam and exposed them—with all ensuing contradictions and ambivalences—to life in Muslim-majority countries, but it has also renewed ties with Arab religious scholars. There is a sense of participating in a worldwide renaissance of Islamic “moral values and culture.”

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Today, the attractiveness of Salafism increases with education—a major factor of social transformation in Kerala; so much so that the cult of saints and Sufism are “associated to ignorance, superstition and uncouthness; it is seen as characteristic of either rural (Mappila) or poor Muslims.”

Transnational Shi‘ism and Iranian influence

Finally, as far as Shi‘a Islam is concerned, this volume has confirmed that the transnational networks woven around the centres of religious authority in Iraq and Iran continue to wield a great deal of influence in the structuring of the landscape of South Asian Shi‘ism. Studying in Iraq or Iran is still a must for any ambitious South Asian Shi‘a cleric. It confers a great amount of symbolic legitimacy but also access to financial resources. No such thing is witnessed among Sunnis, where the new religious centrality of Arabia has not materialised in such a firmly established monopoly over religious authority. The centrality of Iraq and Iran for South Asian Shi‘as should be seen both as a reflection of the old Indo-Persian dynamic that, in particular, shaped the politics and culture of the Mughal empire, and of the resilience of the old Shi‘a clerical institutions which, far from having been sidelined by the emergence and development of political Islam, has been at the very heart of this activist brand of Shi‘ism.

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On one hand, the rise of Hindu nationalism in India is gradually transforming Indian Muslims into second-class citizens, while on the other, the South Asian brand of Islam has lost some of its “autonomy” because of the growing influence coming from the Gulf. The Sufi traditions are already under attack in Pakistan, where sectarian repertoires are gaining momentum, and Sunni militants rallying around the idea of the Caliphate once again. Even if it shows some resilience, the Indo-Islamic civilisation will inevitably transform itself into something new in the course of the 21st century.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India from the book The Islamic Connection edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louer. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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