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How South Asia’s brand of Sufi Islam became radicalized

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid: On September 7, the annual anti-Ahmadi rally in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province, organized by the Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nabuwwat (Assembly to Protect the Finality of Prophethood) saw tens of thousands celebrate the 27th anniversary of Ahmadi Muslims being excommunicated by the state.

Ahmadis have been labeled as heretics according to Pakistan’s Constitution, owing to the sect’s belief in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a messiah, which representatives of other Islamic sects deem blasphemous. Since being apostatized, Ahmadi Muslims have been subjected to brutal persecution and a veritable religious apartheid.

While all other Islamic sects have been complicit in Ahmadiyya persecution, the Ahl-e-Sunnat, or Barelvi, sect of the Sunni Hanafi branch of Islam has been a growing proponent of the oppression. While the Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nabuwwat spreads anti-Ahmadism around the world, the most violent manifestation of radical Islam from the Barelvi sect in recent years has been the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

The TLP has not only targeted Ahmadis, it has also taken up blasphemy against Islam as a rallying cry, with its orchestrated mobs often choking Pakistani cities since the group’s formation five years ago. Earlier this year, the TLP led violent anti-France protests nationwide following French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s publication of Muhammad’s caricatures last year. September 25 marked the first anniversary of the first TLP-inspired overseas attack, when a Pakistani attacked Charlie Hebdo’s old office in Paris over the Muhammad cartoons last year.

Despite being banned by the government over its violent anti-France demonstrations in April, the TLP continues to openly spread its ideology, with the group’s banners displayed across the country. The TLP even contested the cantonment board elections last month. Much of the group’s clout comes from the fact that the majority of the country’s population adheres to the Barelvi sect, including those calling the shots.

The Barelvi movement – named after its 19th century founder, Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, and its origin in the town of Bareilly in India’s Uttar Pradesh state – takes inspiration from Sufism. Followed by the majority of Muslims across South Asia, Barelvi Islam is characterized by a reverence of saints and veneration of Muhammad, which often inscribes miracles to the prophet and other holy figures in Islam, including the Sufis. Given its Sufi influences, and inspiration from Indic religions, cultures, and practices, Barelvi Islam has often been described as a more inclusive brand of the religion.

So how did it become radicalized?

The Diplomat visited renowned Sufi shrines in Lahore, a hub of multiple Barelvi schools and sites, and saw the continuation of centuries-old Sufi practices. From qawwali (devout Sufi music), to the placing of chador (sheets) at the tomb, to the lighting of diya (clay lamps), shrines dedicated to saints like Mian Mir and Madho Lal Hussain continue to witness throngs of believers expressing their devotion even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is especially true on Thursday evenings, preceding Friday, the holiest day of the week, with shrines like Data Darbar — South Asia’s largest Sufi shrine — catering to up to 100,000 people, or over a million at the annual urs (festival).

Jihadist groups like the Taliban and Islamic State, adhering to the most radical interpretations of Deobandi and Salafi Islam, have long targeted adherents of Sufi Barelvi Islam and the shrines they frequent.

According to the literalist proponents of Deobandi and Salafi Islam, Barelvis are guilty of sacrilege owing to their devotion to the Sufi saints, which hardliners interpret as “shirk” (polytheism or idolatry).

In 2019, a terror attack targeted Data Darbar, killing at least 12 people. At least 50 were left dead and over 200 injured in a suicide attack on Data Darbar in 2010. In 2017, at least 90 were massacred when the renowned shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh’s town of Sehwan was bombed, in one of the first attacks by the Islamic State in Pakistan and still one of the country’s deadliest.

Today, the Barelvis, a sub-sect accused of blasphemy by radical members of other Sunni sub-sects, are witnessing the rise of a radical version of their sect, which itself has now weaponized blasphemy. And much of the metamorphosis is being carried out at the grassroots, with curricula at Barelvi madrassas brimming over with anti-blasphemy discourse.

The Diplomat’s visits to madrassas across Lahore, including the city’s outskirts, showcased that in addition to traditional teachings of the Quran and Hadith (sayings of Muhammad) there’ is widespread preaching of Islamist political discourse, with students being taught about a “growing trend of blasphemy” that needs to be countered.

While the Barelvi madrassas represent an increasingly broad ideological spectrum, ranging from advocating religious pluralism to hardline radical Islam, there is unflinching consensus among all on the punishment for blasphemy against Islam: death.

“The punishment is only applicable in Islamic countries. And it needs to be exercised by the state, not individuals,” said Dr. Raghib Hussain Naeemi, the principal of Jamia Naemia, a Barelvi institution renowned for preaching a tolerant brand of Islam to its students. Jamia Naeemia also announced a fatwa against the Pakistani Taliban and suicide bombing in 2009, following which the university’s founder, Sarfaraz Ahmad Naeemi, was killed in a terror attack on the institution by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Much of the shift of madrassas to radicalism is also owing to funding in recent decades from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states, which allowed many radical Salafi strains to penetrate Barelvi Islam.

“The foreign funding has pushed many madrassas towards extremism and away from the essence of Ahl-e-Sunnat. This has resulted in a decrease in tolerance and a rise in a more literalist interpretation of texts, which harms Islamic progress,” said Naeemi.

While Jamia Naemia can be placed at one end of the Barelvi ideological spectrum, other madrassas take an increasingly hardline approach, despite all mainstream madrassas coming under the Pakistan Madrasah Education Board. A growing number of Barelvi madrassas and movements accuse the state of not doing enough to curb blasphemy, not just globally, but at home as well, pointing to the fact that Pakistan has never judicially executed anyone for blasphemy.

Many Barelvi preachers argue that given the state’s “failure to hang blasphemers,” individuals and groups are being encouraged to mete out justice for blasphemy. Among those ascribing to this view is Dawat-e-Islami, whose founder Ilyas Qadri influenced, among others, Mumtaz Qadri.

A former police commando, Mumtaz Qadri gunned down the then-governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, for his criticism of the blasphemy law in 2011. Despite being judicially executed as a terrorist in 2016, Qadri’s funeral was attended by over 100,000 people. Qadri is now revered as a saint himself, with his tomb in Islamabad converted into a shrine. Among those influenced by Taseer’s extrajudicial killing over blasphemy was the group created in Mumtaz Qadri’s name: Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.

“Ghazi Mumtaz Qadri (may peace be upon him) did a noble deed, something any self-respecting Muslim would do. When the government isn’t doing its job of executing blasphemers, a true Muslim will naturally guard the sanctity of his beliefs, and the honor of the prophet (peace be upon him),” the cofounder of TLP Ijaz Ashrafi said while talking to The Diplomat.

The Mumtaz Qadri-influenced rise of the TLP brand of political Islam is in contrast to India, where Barelvi Islam is still largely devoid of political ambitions. Ittehad-e-Millat Council, a regional party in Uttar Pradesh formed by Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi’s great-grandson Tauqeer Raza Khan, got a meager 190,844 votes in 2012 state elections and won a solitary seat and has largely remained on the periphery of UP politics in recent years. Embroiled in clashes with rival Sufi factions in UP, and even booked for remarks against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, Tauqeer Raza Khan and other Barelvi ideologues in India haven’t witnessed a rise similar to the TLP, which became the third largest party in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, in terms of the votes cast in the 2018 elections.

“Ala Hazrat, founder of the Barelvi [school of Islam] never covered [his] despise for Wahabi, Deobandis, Shias, and Hindus, but never participated in politics. [While Tauqeer Raza Khan’s] organization fielded [unsuccessful] candidates in UP Assembly elections, every political leader including Arvind Kejriwal made the political pilgrimage to Bareilly to garner his support,” said Anil Maheshwari, the author of “Syncretic Islam: Life and Times of Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi.”

While in Pakistan Islamist politics caters to Islamic majoritarianism, critics argue that radicalization of Muslims in India, including the majority Barelvi, paradoxically serves Hindu nationalist majoritarianism. Rallies and billboards demanding that blasphemers be “beheaded” are also witnessed in India, often echoed by adherents of Barelvi Islam.

“This radical symbol is the gift to poor Muslims by the state, earlier by the British masters and then the present rulers. Rabid [Islamist] slogans help the ruling party in garnering and retaining Hindu base. Then who is the beneficiary?” added Maheshwari.

While the Hindutva rise in India, especially the UP, has pushed the Sunni Muslim leaders to tone down their differences, and converge toward “secular” alliances, Pakistan is witnessing the rise of a three-way Islamist turf war within Sunni Islam with the advent of radical Barelvism, now rivaling the Deobandi and Wahabi schools of thought.

It was this takfiri (apostatizing) radicalism that saw the state excommunicate Ahmadiyya Islam in 1974, followed by increasing hostility toward Shia Islam under the Islamist military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

“A majority of the TLP members belong to the Zia generation, and are the product of the environment that was created under him. Initially, the Barelvis weren’t violent, and were presented as moderates, because they don’t support the Taliban. Now the Barelvis have found their own issues to take up radically,” said former Punjab Chief Minister Hasan Askari Rizvi, author of “Military, State and Society in Pakistan.”

“Religious parties have their own politics. To highlight their importance they have to show a hardline and violent disposition, without which they aren’t truly considered a religious group,” he added.

Radical Barelvi groups, hence, are now resorting to violence to underline their sect as the truest version of Islam. This means taking a precipitously increasing hardline position on even universally embraced Islamic values, such as reverence for Muhammad. For the likes of TLP, this is translating into choking their own country for satire published in France or spearheading the gory persecution of Ahmadis, all in the name of the guarding the honor of their prophet. In doing so, not only are radical Barelvis further pushing Pakistan to the depths of Islamic extremism, they’re also damaging the centuries-old affiliation of Sufi Islam with pluralism and coexistence. (The Diplomat)

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Pakistan-based correspondent for The Diplomat.