The hard-line Deobandi school of Islam has the support of only around 20% of India’s 16-18 crore Muslims and most Indian Muslims prefer Sufi flavored versions, Timothy Roemer, the then Ambassador to India, told Farah Pandit before her first visit to India as Obama’s Administration’s ‘Special Representative to Muslim Communities.’
In a thorough analysis of India’s Muslim population, Roemer pointed out that despite this, the more liberal, Sufi-influenced Barelvi school and the Shias feel neglected by the Congress party, which has been more bent towards the Deobandi school.
Roemer pointed out that though only 20% of India’s Muslims supported the Wahabi (hardline Arab) school or it’s Indian counterpart, Western UP’s Deobandi school, political fortune has always favored this segment as it had the Congress Party’s ear.
“The Barelvi school, which proudly promotes the Sufi ideal of pluralism, has a following of over 75 percent of Sunni Muslims in India. Many Barelvis converted to Islam from Hinduism and Sufi influence allowed them to retain elements of their prior faith and culture.
“Unfortunately, they tend to lag behind economically and educationally. Imam Mazhari blamed the Barelvis’ current lot on the Partition — before Indian independence, Barelvis sided with the Muslim League that supported the creation of Pakistan. The Interfaith Harmony Foundation’s (IHF) Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed agreed, adding that the move was in reaction to the Congress Party’s alliance with the Deobandis.
“Barelvi contacts lamented that Partition heartburn has left them “politically orphaned.” To this day, Barelvis resent the perceived Deobandi influence over the Congress Party and its allies, and the very public support the Congress Party has thrown behind their rivals, including the appearance of the Home Minister and National Security Advisor at Deoband rallies over the past year.
“This chip weighs heavily on the Barelvis’ shoulders, despite the fact that all 29 Muslim MPs and five Muslim cabinet members are Barelvi,” Roemer said in the cable.
The report noted that Indian Islam is heavily influenced by the mystical and tolerant strain of Islam known as Sufism. Though Sufism originated outside India, he noted, it had many similarities with Hindu religions — such as its liberal, accommodating and mystical nature. This, he pointed out, helped it coalesce with the Hindu religions that were present in India.
“Noted Islamic scholar Imam Mohammad Mian Mazhari noted that the Sufi “unorthodox approach,” which accepted the local customs of South Asia, including Hindu influences, facilitated its spread in India. When Sufi Muslims came to India as far back as the 12th Century, they embedded older South Asian traditions within a syncretic Islamic tradition,” he pointed out.
He added that unlike in some countries in the Middle East, which look down upon Sufism as a corrupt or unauthentic version of Islam, Sufism is still considered “mainstream Islam” in India by both Sunnis and Shias.
While the Barelvis are heavily influenced by Sufism, Roemer pointed out that the Deoband school has tried to purge such influences to create a purer form of Islam.
“Deobandis, who make up approximately 20 percent of India’s Sunni population, follow a more puritanical version of Islam,
shunning many Sufi traditions. Deobandis mainly reside in western UP and are the elite of Indian Sunnis.
“The Deoband school, based in UP, has become a model of Islamic scholarship and graduates have founded Deoband institutions throughout South Asia and beyond.
“Compared to their Barelvi compatriots, Deobandis more closely resemble Wahhabis in their austere interpretation of Islam and more conservative stance on social issues, including the role of women.
“Deobandis have tried to distance themselves from Wahhabism because of the stigma associated with conservative Arab Muslims. Imam Mazhari estimated that less than five percent of Indian Muslims are “true Wahhabis,” but he fears the numbers are growing,” he explained.
The Sunni Muslims, such as the above two, make up around 85% of India’s Muslim population, with the remaining being contributed by sects such as Shias (related to Persia, rather than Arabia).
“Historically, Shias enjoyed the status of India’s landlords. Unfortunately, this linked their fate to the decline of the landed property system after independence and Shias lost their political and economic clout.
[Expert Zafar] Agha admits that compared to Sunnis, Shias failed to adapt to the new democratic India, where numbers
(i.e. votes) matter and Shias fall short. They have struggled economically because employment had been viewed as beneath the Shia landholders,” he noted.
Roemer did not forget to mention that Shias are changing rapidly, especially in matters such as Women’s empowerment.
“Shia youth, especially women, are changing the mind set in the community and exploring career opportunities in both high tech and traditional fields.
“Shias are searching for a new political identity as well. According to Agha, Indian Shias tend to be more liberal and cosmopolitan and feel a kinship with higher caste Hindus,” he noted.
However, the historic support of Shia’s for the Congress too is starting to change, he added.
“Historically, they have supported the Congress Party. Given the patrilineage of their imams, Shias easily relate to the dynastic politics of the Congress Party, including Congress heir Rahul Gandhi of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
“In certain elections Shias have thrown their support behind other parties, including the BJP, in retaliation for Congress’ cozy relationship with Deoband. Both Agha and Imam Mazhari noted that Shia and Barelvi leaders have discussed forming a political alliance to counter Deoband and the increasing influence of Wahhabism.
“The alliance would balance each group’s strength: Barelvis have the numbers and Shias have a higher level of education and more contact with the Indian elite,” he noted.
Roemer added that India is likely to have around 160 to 180 million Muslims (about 15% of the population). “States with the highest Muslim population include: Jammu and Kashmir (67 percent), Assam (30.9 percent), Kerala (24.7 percent), West Bengal (25.2 percent) and Uttar Pradesh (18.5 percent). Uttar Pradesh (UP) has the most Muslims with a population of 30 million,” he pointed out.
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