The war against popular Islam

October 12, 2007 12:00 am | Updated April 29, 2011 03:23 pm IST

Praveen Swami

Islamist groups have made no secret of their loathing for the Ajmer Sharif shrine

NEW DELHI: The highest form of worship, wrote saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, is “to redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry.”

Thursday’s bombing of the saint’s shrine at Ajmer — the third in a series of attacks on Muslim religious institutions after the 2006 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Malegaon and this summer’s strike at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad — have been characterised as attempts to provoke a pan-India communal war. But the bombings also reflect another less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is, almost without dispute, the most venerated Sufi saint of South Asia. Born in 1141 C.E., Chishti is believed to have studied at the great seminaries of Samarkand and Bukhara before travelling to India. Ajmer emerged as an important centre of pilgrimage during the sixteenth century, after Emperor Akbar undertook a pilgrimage on foot to the saint’s grave.

Chishti’s order laid stress on seven principles, notably the renunciation of material goods, financial reliance on farming or alms, independence from economic patronage from the established political order, the sharing of wealth, and respect for religious differences.

Chishti’s doctrine on the “highest form of worship” led to the saint often being described as the Garib Nawaz, or emperor of the poor. Several of the most famous Sufi shrines in South Asia – notably that of Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar at Pakpattan in Pakistan, and that of Nizamuddin Awliya in New Delhi – were born of Chisti’s teachings.

Over the centuries, they have come to command a massive multi-faith following, attracting Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike. For that precise reason, they have long been under attack from religious neoconservatives.

Islamist critics of Sufism have made no secret of their loathing for shrines like that at Ajmer, which they claim propagate the heresy of ‘shirk’ – an Arabic term commonly translated to mean polytheism, but which is also used to refer to the veneration of saints and even atheism.

South Asian terror groups associated with recent attacks on Muslim shrines — notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba — draw theological inspiration from the Salafi sect, a neoconservative tradition also sometimes referred to as Wahabbism. Salafi theologians are intensely hostile to Sufi orders like that founded by Chishti, characterising them as apostasy.

In The General Precepts of the Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, a pamphlet which propounds the Salafi doctrine, theologian Shaykh Naasir al’Aql, sharply criticises religious practices “where the dead are taken as intermediaries between a person and Allah, supplicating them and seeking the fulfilment of one’s needs through them, seeking their assistance and other similar acts.”

Al’Aql, whose work is often drawn on by Lashkar ideologues, argues that “every avenue that leads to shirk in the worship of Allah, or innovations in religion – it is obligatory to forbid it.” Another pamphlet available on the website of the Lashkar’s parent organisation, the Pakistan-based Jamaat-ud-Dawa, rails against shrines, demanding that “Muslim leaders combat and uproot this phenomenon.” Just how this is to be done, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa does not say – but Lashkar cadre have left little to the imagination.

Terror groups in Jammu and Kashmir have frequently targeted regional religious institutions that draw on the same syncretic traditions as that at Ajmer. In June, 2005, for example, the Lashkar-e-Taiba was held responsible for the attempted assassination of north Kashmir mystic Ahad B’ab Sopore. Eyewitnesses said the assassination attempt, in which one person was killed and nine were injured, was carried out by Qayoom Nassar, a well-known Sopore-based Lashkar operative.

Lashkar cadre are also thought to be responsible for a May 2005 arson attack that led to the destruction of the 14th century shrine of the saint Zainuddin Wali at Ashmuqam in south Kashmir. Ashmuqam was earlier subjected to several grenade attacks, leading to disruption of festive days there for several years. A month later, Lashkar operative Bilal Magray was arrested on charges of having thrown a hand grenade at a Sufi congregation in Bijbehara, injuring 15 people. Dozens of similar attacks have taken place over the years.

In 2000, Lashkar terrorists destroyed sacramental tapestries Bafliaz residents had offered at the shrine of Sayyed Noor, one of the most venerated Sufi saints in the region. As early as June 1994, Lashkar terrorists stormed the historic Baba Reshi shrine at Tangmarg and fired on pilgrims.

Perhaps, the most prominent incident in the campaign was the October 1995 siege of the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, which houses a relic claimed to be a hair of Prophet Mohammad. The terrorists threatened to blow up the shrine unless troops, who had surrounded them, were withdrawn. A similar siege at Chrar-e-Sharif in May 1996 led to the destruction of the town’s famous 700-year-old shrine. Despite these attacks, popular Islam in Jammu and Kashmir has held its own – as it is likely to do elsewhere in India, too.

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