Islamic Pluralism and South Asia
Illuminated mosque in Kerala – Photograph 2009 by Challiyan at ml.wikipedia, Via Wikimedia Commons.
Query: Brother Suleyman, while the 'Islamic State' has brought upheaval to the Arab lands and the West, we see that 'IS' has not gained a strong position in South Asia, where a distinguished, prominent, and varied presence of Sufi traditions exists. What is the role of these traditions in stabilizing moderate Islam in the region?
Reply: First, brother Muhammad, let me offer many selams to all who will read this interview, especially as we celebrate the birthday [mawlid] of our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Of course, participation in mawlid is despised and repressed by the Islamofascists of 'IS'. I would like to mention that while it has become rather common to see 'IS' referred to in Western media as 'Daesh' or 'Da'ish', an acronym of its Arabic title, which translates as the 'Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams/Syria/The Levant' I propose that we refer to it as 'Dawlat min al-Shayatin' which would have a similar acronym but would mean 'State of Satans' or 'Satanic State'.
As to your enquiry, let me state forthrightly that the South Asian Sufis who reject radicalism – I say this because the Deobandis and their Taliban disciples claim to accept Sufism – play an indispensable role in stabilizing Islam in the region. They do this by maintaining good relations among all moderate, conventional, spiritual, traditional, and even conservative – but not radical Muslims – and the other communities of believers and non-believers in the region. This is the path of Qur'an.
South Asia is vast and teeming while the Balkan region, where I became Muslim, is small and has less population. But there is an important element of similarity between them. In the Bosnian war, as many as 250,000 [2.5 lakh] people died. That is a tenth of the country's population. It is as if 2,500,000 [one quarter crore] people had died in the Syrian war. Westerners often describe Muslim Bosnia as un-Islamic or possessing an 'Islam lite' because its culture is tolerant and based on mutual respect. But in reality Muslim Bosnia exhibits an intense commitment to belief, great spirituality, courage in the defence of our religion – and a will to continue living side by side in peace with Christians, Jews, and nonbelievers. This resembles the situation in India.
The Albanian lands, with a majority of 70-80 percent Muslim, are even more interesting in that their religious panorama, involving Sunnis, Shias (the only indigenous Shias in Europe), Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, and nonbelievers, is based on absolute national unity. The most significant history of interfaith efforts in Albanian history involves the alliance of the Bektashi [Kizilbash] Shias and the Catholics to promote popular education and national identity. Though I know little of Kerala, this seems comparable to the situation there.
Query: Since you have been active for a long time in working for Islamic pluralism, how do you view South Asia as a platform for discussions of pluralism?
Reply: South Asia is the most diverse culture area in the world. It is unique. Not to engage in clichés, let me relate a story I consider relevant here. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who was the 1990 Nobel Laureate in Literature, was Mexican ambassador to India until 1968. He was greatly devoted to India and somewhat absorbed the old-fashioned Spanish notion that Islam was backward and violent, destroying benevolent societies. Octavio, whom I knew, viewed India as a 'big Mexico' – freed from colonialism, multilingual, filled with indigenous communities and folkloric customs, violent, colorful, exuberant, and young while old. He needed to change his view of Islam, a matter in which Sufi poetry could be important.
South Asia is probably the best location for discussions of pluralism today. I have been invited to New Delhi as a Distinguished Speaker at the International Sufi Conference of the All-India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) in 2016, a Summit with the themes of Strengthening Global Peace, Rejecting Violence and Extremism, Calling for Unity in Multiplicity, Unconditional Love and Tolerance and Acceptance. The Centre for Islamic Pluralism faces difficult financial conditions now – we are truly poor servants of Allah subhanawata'la – but I hope we will go to the event, insha'allah, and present our full perspectives on these topics. Above all, we support the rejection of Wahhabism and Deobandism and absolute defeat of the 'Satanic State'.
Query: The term 'Islamic Pluralism' may be interpreted only as a defence of moderate and Sufi Islam. Can this movement do more for humanity as a whole? What is your perception of the concept of Islamic Pluralism?
Reply: We view Islamic Pluralism as a rehabilitation of the great epoch of Islamic philosophy and spirituality, comprising, roughly, the period from Al-Farabi [10th century CE] to Mulla Sadra [16th c. CE]. During this period Islamic intellectual inquiry flourished, producing such great thinkers as Al-Ghazali and Shaykh ul-Aqbar Muhyid'din Ibn Arabi. We do not treat their works as pretexts for dogmatic repetition, but as models for addressing the problems of the present day. We also note that during the period in which the three greatest Muslim civilizations were powerful – the Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Indian Muslim states – all were dominated by Sufi Islam.
Sadly, we have yet to make significant additions to the Islamic intellectual corpus. Our works against Wahhabism are influential but, in the West, are now taken for granted and mentioned seldom. Perhaps we succeeded too well. In that sense, we have a better audience in India. We published the most serious and sober volume on the penetration of the West by the un-Islamic attempt to introduce Islamic law in non-Islamic lands, but it has been ignored. It is titled A Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe. It was concluded in 2010 and revised subsequently.
As for the situation of humanity as a whole, every word, every act, that restores Islamic Pluralism and repudiates the 'Satanic State' will, insha'allah, benefit all of humankind. But Islam, as a blessing and mercy to humanity, is aided by every sincere prayer for peace and every other noble devotional practice.
Query: I was mesmerized by your book The Two Faces of Islam, in which you described the serious threat of Wahhabi extremism enabled by Saudi funding. How would you comment on Wahhabism in South Asia today?
Reply: Thank you for your high compliments. We see Deobandism, which also has a presence in the South Asian diaspora communities in the West, and the followers of Mawdudi, as more directly threatening to South Asia now. They are entrenched in local governments, attack shrines, and kill innocent people. During the reign of Saudi King Abdullah, which ended at the beginning of this year, the Saudi Wahhabis drew back from their global campaign of corruption and agitation. Unfortunately, they may now resume their aggression in South Asia, with Saudi King Salman in power.
Query: What, in your view, is the most dangerous aspect of militant Islam today? Is it an involvement in global insecurity, its scriptural distortion, or its responsibility for Western stereotyping of Muslims? Can moderate Islam prevail over the harmful extremists in South Asia? If so, how can this be achieved practically?
Reply: You have named two of the main problems caused by radical Islam in the world, but they must be analyzed carefully. First, radical Islam contributes to global insecurity, but not by itself. The world is undergoing an international shift of generations, technological advancement, and political turbulence in which, finally, radical Islam is a feature rather than a driving force – but a major feature. For example, I do not think the so-called 'Arab Spring' had anything to do with Islam or even with Arab politics, but was, simply, a breakdown of international society by the snapping of its weakest links.
Second, stereotyping of Muslims in the West is an obvious reality. The West is ignorant of Islam. But that situation has been aggravated by the Saudi corruption of Western academics. The Western educational system is appallingly bad in its discussion of topics having to do with the Muslim world.
We argue, naturally, against the radical interpretation of Islamic texts, but as a Sunni, I do not declare my Muslim adversaries, even if they want to kill me, to be distorters of scripture. I have not gained enough knowledge to proclaim my rightness against my opponents, and, finally, Allah knows best. But I persist in asserting my and our right to disagree with Wahhabi, Deobandi, and other bigots.
Islam has existed for 14 centuries and since the time of the Khawarij has had to contend with extremist outbursts. I believe Islam will survive the Wahhabi/Deobandi onslaught. But the defeat of the fanatics, aside from the military suppression of the 'Satanic State', will require the expulsion, as soon as possible, of radical clerics and functionaries from mosques, awqaf, medresas, colleges, and government institutions.
Query: How do you see the role of national governments in South Asia in promoting a pluralistic world?
Reply: South Asia is pluralistic by nature and so long as it remains true to its character it will remain pluralistic. Unfortunately, the advance of globalization homogenizes cultures and supports a 'commodity fetishism' in which believers, who are dazzled by the simple connectivity of smartphones, social networks, and similar substitutes for ordinary human contact, find themselves drawn to equally convenient, 'available', religious observance, which may lead to radicalism. It is often mentioned that the 'Satanic State' is adept at modern communications technology. In a certain sense, this is unsurprising. People addicted to staring at smartphones are, in my opinion, susceptible to similar addictions in faith.
At the same time, the national governments in South Asia must adopt policies to deter religious extremism of any kind. That means confronting radical Islam, extremist Hindu ideology, and the new Buddhist supremacism in Burma and Sri Lanka.
Query: India has good conditions for moderate Islam, while Pakistan and Bangladesh are difficult countries for peaceful Islam. What do you think is the reason for that? Is the Partition of British India in 1947 to blame?
Reply: I must confess I am somewhat uneasy with the term 'peaceful Islam'. Moderates in any community sometimes do not have the option of remaining peaceful. We could not ask the Bosnians to remain peaceful when they were attacked by the Serbs. The intent of the Bosnians was to live in peace with their neighbors but they had to form an army and fight. I would not ask the Kurds who are in battle against the 'Satanic State' to be peaceful. But all Muslims should be committed to peace when it is possible.
It is also difficult for me to assign blame for the radicalism present in Pakistan and its growing interference in Bangladesh to Partition, which is now 68 years in the past. I have not studied the history of the subcontinent sufficiently to offer an opinion on this issue. I am tempted to think that because the mosques and medresas were the main intact institutions in Pakistan, both West and East, after Partition, there was a base for radicalism to grow and even replace an undeveloped civil society. But West Pakistan produced enlightened thinkers like Allama Iqbal and the Bengali Sufi tradition is one of the greatest in Islamic culture.
One thing is certain: from Kabul to Dhaka, the enemy must be defeated.
Muhammad Ashraf Thachara Padikkal lives in Kozhikode, Kerala, India. He is an interviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Sufism, Islamic studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition and philology.