Praveen Swami

Abdul Jabbar’s bizarre journey from a roadside restaurant to a Lashkar terror camp casts new light on the jihad in India.

More likely than not, Abdul Jabbar would have encountered the poetry of 13th century mystic poet Ibn al-Arabi in the Sufi order which shaped his life. “I profess the religion of love,” al-Arabi wrote, “and wherever its caravan turns along the way, that is the way the faith I keep.”

Jabbar’s own journey led him from a small north Kerala town, through a roadside restaurant, secret circle of Sufis, and an Islamist terror cell to a Lashkar-e-Taiba terror unit in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir — a Kalashnikov in his hands.

For chroniclers of India’s jihadist movement, his bizarre story has particular significance. Most members of the Indian Mujahideen’s networks were drawn from groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India or neoconservative religious orders. But Jabbar and the group of Kerala jihadists he was a part of emerged from the Noorisha tariqah — a prominent Sufi order of the Chishti-Qadri tradition, famous for its emphasis on openness and love.

Born in May 1973 into a working class family from northern Kerala’s Puruthur town, Jabbar dropped out of school in the fifth grade. At just 13 years of age, he began work as a parantha cook at a roadside hotel. His father, Kunzhi Bavanu, still runs a small tea stall in Puruthur; one brother, Abdul Samad, is a fitter, while the other, Abdul Hakeem, an autorickshaw driver.

Back in the late 1980s, the Malappuram region was in the midst of a small-scale communal war which pitted the cadre of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the charismatic Islamist leader Abdul Nasser Maudhany’s Islamic Sevak Sangh against each other. Jabbar was among hundreds of angry young men who found meaning in Maudhany’s inflammatory polemic, and went on to become a vice-president of his party’s Malappuram unit.

In 1998, Maudhany was arrested on charges of providing logistical support to the serial bombings in Coimbatore — of which he was only recently acquitted. Pursued by the police, many of his supporters fled Kerala. During his time underground, Jabbar came into close contact with Maudhany’s followers linked to the Noorisha order: Kannur resident Abdul Sattar and his long-standing associate Tadiyantavide Nasir.

Like Jabbar, Sattar and Nasir had cut their political teeth in Malappuram’s street wars. Police investigators believe that the men, who are alleged to have been involved in an abortive plot to assassinate the former Kerala Chief Minister, E.K. Nayanar, executed the July 2008 serial bombings in Bangalore, and supplied components for the improvised explosive devices used by top terror operative Riyaz Bhatkal for the Indian Mujahideen’s murderous attacks in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Nasir, using the alias Haji Omar, had established himself as an ustad — or instructor — of students at the Noorisha order’s headquarters in Hyderabad. The Jamia Arifiya Nooriya seminary sprawls across a 40-acre campus, housing a free school and the al-Arif Unani General Hospital. Thousands of people attend the order’s 40-day Chilla, a spiritual course intended to help adherents overcome physical and material desire.

Made up in the main of Kerala residents, the Noorisha order is among the inheritors of a unique tradition of Islam. Folk tradition in Kerala has it that king Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varma, on witnessing a miraculous split-moon in the skies, travelled to Saudi Arabia where he was converted to Islam by Prophet Mohammad himself. In some tellings of this legend, Varma took on the name Tajuddin and married the sister of the king of Jeddah.

After Varma’s death, the story goes, a spice trader named Malik bin-Dinar returned to Kondangaloor, bearing a letter from Verma which led to a local temple being converted into a mosque dedicated to the king’s memory. The Cheraman Jama Masjid, reputed to be over 1,370 years old, still stands — in the Hindu tradition, facing east.

Nasir had little time for the Noorisha order’s spiritual legacy — or its syncretic concerns. He argued that the rise of the Hindu right, and worldwide atrocities on Muslims, made armed jihad a religious imperative. Most clerics at the Jamia Arifiya Nooriya found Nasir’s position unacceptable — but he had the support of Abdul Kader, an influential Noorisha ustad known among the order as Abdu Ustad. 1960-born Kader, police sources say, first started visiting the Noorisha seminary in 1996, for treatment of a psychiatric disorder. Later, he gave his daughter in marriage to Sattar.

Sattar, in turn, helped draw Jabbar into the jihadist circle among the Noorisha. Married twice — first to Zeenath Ibrahim, by whom he has a 12-year-old son, and then Ramola Mohammad, who gave him two more sons, two-year-old Salahuddin and six-year-old Mukhtar — Jabbar was beset by financial and legal problems. Zeenath had filed a criminal complaint against Jabbar for dowry harassment, and moved the court for maintenance. Sattar arranged for Jabbar to marry again, this time his sister-in-law, Nasia Moinuddin, to help him rebuild his life in Hyderabad. Jabbar was to have two daughters with Moinuddin: Aasiya, who is now three and Zainabi, who was born last year. Sattar also helped Jabbar find work — and arranged for him to take on Kader as his spiritual mentor.

Behind the façade of this new life, Jabbar continued to pursue his old jihadist path. He was among five Noorisha-linked men from Kerala who joined a ten-man Lahskar unit in the mountains above Kupwara, along the Line of Control, on the morning of September 16, 2008. In the next few weeks, the men were put through gruelling combat-fitness drills, and taught to use assault weapons and explosives. Long before their training ended, though, the Jammu and Kashmir Police, backed by Indian Army troops, arrived to put their skills to the test. Four of the men Jabbar travelled with were killed. He hid out in the forests all night, before beginning his journey home — where the police were waiting.

“Those who distort the meaning of jihad,” the supreme leader of the Noorisha order, Sayyid Muhammad Arifuddin Jeelani, said in a recent interview, “will certainly go to hell.”

For the most part, public commentary on Islamist terrorism in India has cast Sufi Islam as inherently opposed to jihadist violence. In part because the aesthetic of ascetic spiritual traditions — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish and even Christian — has become fashionable among metropolitan liberals, Sufi practices have been cast as inherently hostile to the Islamist project.

But like other religious systems, Sufi mysticism can — witness the recent fighting in Iraq, Central Asia and Pakistan — provide legitimacy to violence. In the dying decades of the Mughal empire, the influential Sufi mystic, Shah Waliullah, called on the warlord, Ahmad Shah Abdali, to wage war against the Jats and the Marathas, arguing that it was “predestined that unbelievers should be reduced to a state of humiliation.” Sayyid Ahmad — whose failed 1831 jihad against Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s empire inspired the founding of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadis from which the Lashkar draws its ideological legitimacy — was also a mystic.

Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — the seed from which much of the modern jihadist movement was born — was profoundly influenced by the work of 12th century mystic Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. Although al-Banna rejected al-Ghazali’s theological convictions, scholars have noted that elements of the practices of the Sufi brotherhoods continue to suffuse organisations such as the al-Qaeda — practices like the swearing of a bayat, or oath, to its sheikh, Osama bin-Laden

Pakistan has seen Sufi orders adopt jihadist tactics to counter their neoconservative theological rivals. In 1997, Sufi leader Allama Pir Mohammad Saeed Ahmad Mujadidi set up the Sunni Jihad Council to fight in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking to the Gujranwala-based magazine Dawat-e-Tanzim ul-Islam in March 1999, SJC military commander Saeed Raza Bukhari said that the decision was taken because “certain people have used jihad to propagate their false creeds in Kashmir.”

In India, members of the mystic Deendar Anjuman order executed a series of 12 bombings in 2000. Deendar founder Siddiq Husain — who outraged conservatives by claiming to be the incarnation of the Lingayat-caste saint Channabasaveswara — sought to rebuild his legitimacy among Hyderabad’s Muslim elites by setting up a military training centre in 1939. Husain marketed his jihadist organisation, the Tehreek Jamiat-i-Hizbullah, as an instrument with which pre-independence Hyderabad would be able to resist both the Hindu chauvinist Arya Samaj, as well as a growing Communist insurgency. Police investigators found that Zia-ul-Hassan, Siddiq Husain’s Pakistan-based son, used the old Tehreek Jamiat-i-Hizbullah to execute the 2000 bombings, which were marketed as retaliation against Christian and Hindu atrocities.

Jabbar’s story demonstrates that the roots of the jihadist movement lie neither in scripture nor particular right-wing renderings of the faith. Like other jihadists, Jabbar turned to the jihad because of the lived experience of communal conflict — not a theoretical understanding of the imperatives of Islam. Even the most plural and tolerant faith-systems, his story makes clear, are unlikely to survive in the crucible of communal hatred. Secular political formations and the Indian state will have to find a language with which to meet the challenge.