Delhi’s controversial Sufi Conference

A four-day international “Sufi” conference was held at New Delhi during 17-20 March. The first day was the inaugural session. Academic sessions were held on the second and third days with very small attendance while on the fourth day a public session was held in Delhi’s large Ramlila maidan.

The conference was inaugurated by the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi in New Delhi who said in his address that Islam does not teach terrorism. He said, “The fight against terrorism is not a confrontation against any religion. It cannot be. It is a struggle between the values of humanism and the forces of inhumanity. It is not a conflict to be fought only through military, intelligence or diplomatic means… It is a battle that must be won through the strength of our values and the real message of religions. As I have said before, we must reject any link between terrorism and religion. Those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious." He further said, “When we think of the 99 names [attributes] of Allah, none stand for force and violence, and that the first two names denote compassionate and merciful. Allah is Rahman and Raheem." He added that “When the spiritual love of Sufism, not the violent force of terrorism, flows across the border, this region will be the paradise on earth that Amir Khusrau spoke about... Terrorism divides and destroys us. Indeed, when terrorism and extremism have become the most destructive forces of our times, the message of Sufism has global relevance." Modi added, “At the dawn of Independence some chose to go away and, I believe, it also had to do with colonial politics of that time." He underlined that leaders like Maulana Azad, and spiritual leaders such as Maulana Hussain Madani, and millions and millions of ordinary citizens rejected the idea of division on the basis of religion.

Thousands of delegates from various parts of India and about a hundred foreign guests from 20 countries attended this event which was organised by a fairly new organisation called “All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board," headed by Hazrat Syed Muhammad Ashraf Ashrafi. It belongs to the Barelwi Muslim sub-sect who claim to represent the majority of the Subcontinent Muslims though others contest this claim. Due to rampant poverty and illiteracy in their ranks, Barelwis have traditionally failed to occupy the political space they claim. The grand event in Delhi comes in the wake of  holding dozens of smaller conferences across the country during the last few months.
Barelwis are Hanafis like their rival Deobandis who are more educated and well-organised and have traditionally enjoyed a strong leadership. The Barelwis, who call themselves “Ahl-e Sunnat” or “Sufis” or “Sunnis", are followers of A’la Hazrat Maulana Ahmad Raza Khan (1856-1921) who laid the foundation of this new sub-sect in early twentieth century.

Both Deobandis and Barelwis follow the same Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence) school and both are sufis, while the Barelwis pay more stress on the glorification of the Prophet and on paying visits to and praying at sufi dargahs (graves of saints) which is objected to by the Deobandis and other sects who consider it bid’at (innovation). Both groups try to control mosques and madrasahs through which Muslim masses are influenced.

Barelwis have been apolitical traditionally while Deobandis have been active in politics even during the struggle against the British colonial rule. A section of Barelwis has now joined hands with the BJP while many other Barelwis continue to consider the BJP as an ultra-nationalist Hindu party which is inimical to Muslims and therefore, they maintain a distance from it. Earlier a section of Shias too tried to curry favour with the BJP in a similar fashion but left it after it discovered the ultra nationalist Hindu party has nothing to offer Muslims.

As soon as the news of the forthcoming Sufi conference was out, a number of important leaders of the Indian Muslim community in a press statement on 11 February warned Indian Muslims against the conspiracy to push them into inter-sectarian fights. In a joint statement, these leaders said that the elements which served their political aims by pitting Muslims and Hindus in violence against one another in the past, have now hatched a conspiracy to push Muslims of various sects to fight each other. The leaders alleged that the Indian government is providing funds “freely” for this purpose. They said that this policy is neither beneficial for the country nor is it going to help any community. They said that the organisers are trying to spread sectarian chaos in the name of Sufism, and are falsely accusing some Muslim groups of being supporters of terrorism.

On 7 March the organisers of the Sufi event admitted that the government is helping them. They justified it saying that such a big event cannot be organised without government help.

On 8 March, influential leaders of the Barelwi sect denounced the forthcoming conference. In a statement issued at Mumbai, they raised questions over the purpose of this programme. A statement issued by the All-India Sunni Jamiat Ulama of Maharashtra and Raza Academy among others said that this “Sufi Conference” enjoys the support of certain powers which want Indian Muslims to suffer in the name of “sect” and “faith". The statement, in particular, objected to the invitation extended to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend it as the chief guest. The statement said that three important religious centres of the Barelwi scholars are not attending this conference including the leaders of the important Barelwi centres at Bareilly Sharif, Budaun Sharif, etc. The statement further said that “attending this conference may cause certain religious and political harm to the Indian Muslims, which compelled the ulama to skip it. The decision was taken in view of safeguarding Muslims from the lurking dangers." The statement mentioned a number of influential scholars of the Barelwi sect who have decided not to attend the conference including leaders of the important Barelwi seats at Bareilly Sharif, Marahrah Sharif, Kichchocha Sharif and the influential seat of Barelwi learning, Jamia Ashrafia Mubarakpur (Azamgarh).

Observers in the Indian Muslim community see the Sufi conference as an attempt by the BJP to divide Muslims with a plan to carve a vote-bank among a certain large group of Muslims. Observers see that the BJP is moving from Hindu-Muslim to Muslim-Muslim strife. Barelwi scholars took particular umbrage at the attendance of the Canada-based Pakistani scholar Tahirul Qadiri whom they consider a renegade.

The most influential leader and recognised face of Barelwis in India, Maulana Tauqeer Raza, said in a press statement on 17 March that the RSS’ hand is behind this conference. He said, “through this conference a game is being played to spread hatred against Muslims. There is no harm if the organisers of the Sufi conference come out of the sufi curtain and do politics openly. But no Muslim will tolerate that they mortgage the whole Sunnism with the RSS… In today’s world nothing remains secret. You cannot befool anyone today. Everyone knows the game behind this conference. RSS wants to pit Muslims against each other on the basis of their maslaks (schools of thought) and for this it is using some people." Maulana Tauqeer Raza went on to say, “History is witness to the fact that kings bowed their heads at the doors of the Sufis. No sufi ever knocked the doors of a king. This is happening for the first time in history that in the name of Sufism, help is being accepted from the Prime Minister and the RSS. This is the same prime minister who is accused of the mass murder of 3000 Muslims in Gujarat. Some sellers of conscience are bowing in front of Modi. Muslims will never forgive this…All ulama, Sufis, caretakers of khanqahs, imams and administrators of madrasahs not only oppose this alliance with the RSS but are also boycotting it."

As assembly elections in a number of states approach, BJP and its allied organisations are preparing for a fresh bout of violence to polarise the voters on communal lines. With the new strategy, the party may win some voters from among the Barelwi sub-community while defaming other Muslims as supporters of terrorism. The organisers of the Sufi event have been repeatedly blaming other Muslim groups as supporters of terrorism while the fact is that every Muslim group and organisation in India has condemned terrorism and issued umpteen statements and fatwas to this effect. This unequivocal attitude by Indian Muslim community leaders is responsible for checking the terror menace among Indian Muslims.

An important Barelwi scholar, Maulana Yasin Misbahi wrote three articles against this conference which were widely published in Urdu press (one of these articles was translated into English and published in the previous issue of the Milli Gazette).

The conference, finally taking the shape of “World Sufi Forum," issued a manifesto on the last day giving a message that the Muslim community is against terrorism. Prominent Muslim leaders from around the globe condemned violence in the name of Islam and said that it is sin to misuse the name of Islam in order to spread terror.

The Muslim leaders attending the conference urged the government to rectify the “historical blunders” against Muslims and to introduce Sufism at all levels of education. Head of the organising outfit (AIUMB), Maulana Syed Muhammad Ashraf said: “Over the last few decades, there have been concerted efforts to weaken Sufism in India and replace it with an extremist and radical ideology…We request our Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) to rectify these historical blunders and meet the demands of millions of Sufi followers in India." He also raised concerns over low Muslim representation in various minority institutions.

AIUMB unveiled its 25-point charter on the occasion. It appealed to the government to establish a Sufi university in the name of revered Sufi saint Khwaja Gareeb Nawaz and said that a central Sufi centre should be established in New Delhi and in all capital cities to promote Sufi literature, Sufi culture and music. In order to promote Sufi tourism, it suggested that a ‘Sufi corridor’ be created to connect all the shrines in the country.

“There is a sense of fear among Muslims due to riots. The government should alleviate this fear and Union Home Ministry should spell out what steps have been taken with regard to all small or big communal incidents and riots that have taken place so far in different parts of the country," said the AIUMB charter released on the concluding day of the event.

The conference and the newfound bonhomie between some Barelwi leaders and the Modi government was seen by other Muslim groups as pitting Sufis/Barelwis against Deobandis/Wahabis which is not in the larger interests of Indian Muslims.

An earlier version of this article appeared on BBC Hindi portal.