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The growing influence of Wahhabism, a radical stream of Islam, on Indian
Muslims and on the political scene, especially south Indian politics, can
cause further communal polarization if the state fails to uphold the secular

THE PHENOMENON of Islamist terrorism has received considerable attention in
recent times. Pointing to a trend of increasing radicalization of Indian Muslims, Indian
intelligence has expressed concern that it is becoming a paramount national security
issue. However, in looking at Islamist fundamentalism as one of the causes for
communal polarization in the country, many observers tend to portray the Muslim
community as a homogeneous group. The Muslim society is equally worried about the
growing radicalization of Indian Muslims.
In fact, the increasing influence of radical streams, especially Wahhabism, within Islam;
the rising Islamophobia across the world; and the strengthening of Hindu nationalist
forces in India are issues that are frequently debated among Indian Muslims. The
growth of radical Islamist streams became visible only in the past two decades. The
unprecedented polarisation of the political environment in the aftermath of the Babri
Masjid demolition in 1992 not only broke a long history of communal harmony in India
but also gave rise to insecurities in both Hindu and Muslim societies. Fundamentalist
groups in both societies, interested in creating communal disharmony, found ample
scope for the radicalisation of the youth. Communal riots have erupted before 1992, but
systematic campaigns to polarise religious groups gained currency only post-Babri
The influence of Wahhabi Islam in the Indian Muslim community started growing
around this period. Indian Muslims have a long tradition of Sufi Islam or what is called
the Barelvi tradition. A milder form of Wahhabism exists in the subcontinent in the
form of the Deoband theological school, which commands a large following but has
always coexisted with other forms of Islamic traditions. This has made Islamic practices
in India dynamic and syncretic. No wonder then that many sections of the Muslim
community have resisted the strict code of conduct and practice of a puritanical
religion advocated by the Wahhabis.
The time when Wahhabism was trying to get a foothold in India was also a time when
the Muslim community was trying to strategize its resistance and highlight its concerns.
The secular section of the community believed that in order to contain the growing
radicalisation, the insecurities among Muslims would have to be addressed. A large
section of the community believed that the problems could be resolved within the
democratic framework of the Indian state, a reflection of the faith it reposed in Indias
secular ethos. This has been the legacy of the Indian state since the founding of the Non-
Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1969, in which many Muslim-majority countries
participate. A second group of Muslims doubted the Indian states intentions to resolve
the problems facing the community and campaigned against its inconsistency in
upholding secularism. It challenged the Indian state within the constitutional and
secular framework, by seeking political action through civil society groups. These groups
also canvassed for Hindu-Muslim unity in the face of an adverse environment. The third
group, comprising clerics belonging to a few revivalist schools and some Western-
educated Muslims, denounced the capacity of the state to be secular altogether and
believed that only the true practice of Islam could redeem the community. It is among
members of this group that Wahhabism, a revivalist movement founded by the 18th
century theologian Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia, started to gain ground.
The Wahhabi movement denounced all the Islamic schools of jurisprudence which it
thought wrongly interpreted the Quran. It championed Tauhid (the oneness of Allah)
and argued against the Shafi, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali schools of jurisprudence. It
advocated going back to the Quran and the Sharia (Islamic law). It described Islam as
a code of life and not a religion, in the same way the Sangh Parivar describes Hindutva
as way of life. The Wahhabis demanded a return to the Salaf (golden age of Islam, the
caliphate). The movement found political patronage in Saudi Arabia, which continues to
adhere to its principles. In the early 20th century, Wahhabism flourished with renewed
vigour when Maulana Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, and Sayyid Qutb, a
leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, espoused its ideals to form a true Islamic
society and considered proselytisation as true jehad. Wahhabism considers the
Western world and people from other religions jahilliyah (ignorant) and believes that
fighting against them will lead one to Allah (God) because, according to Wahhabism,
only Islamic law can ensure a just society.
The majority of Muslims find this strand of Islam fundamentalist. Ali Mamouri, a
theologian based in Iran, says: The fundamentalists emerged not out of conservative
circles but rather out of reformist movements which were aiming for an Islamic
awakening. The goal of fundamentalism is to return to the sacred text, carefully
executing what it says, without any interpretations, and rejecting the official, and more
conservative, historical interpretations of it.
It is not surprising that most militant Islamist outfits, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and
the Jammat-ud-Dawa, draw their inspiration from the strict theology of Wahhabism.
Embracing this insular approach towards Islam, these outfits justify severe punishments
such as beheading, stoning to death and flogging of people who do not follow the Sharia.
Wahhabis consider all modern governments illegitimate as they are an intervention in
the workings of the Sharia.
With the passage of time, this tradition of Islam gradually lost acceptance except in
Saudi Arabia, only to find new strength in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia pumped millions of
petrodollars into the madrassas and mosques of the subcontinent to propagate the
Wahhabi theology, Javed Anand, general secretary of Muslims for Secular Democracy
and co-editor of Communalism Combat, told Frontline. This led to the rise of the
Taliban in Afghanistan and its influence travelled east for the liberation of Kashmiri
Muslims, he added.
No doubt the continued bleeding of Palestine, Bosnia and Chechnya provided extra
charge to global jehad. But it is important to remember that Maududi had foregrounded
global jehad on the Muslim agenda before the surfacing of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. Qutbs vision, too, was never limited to the solution of the Palestinian problem,
Javed Anand has written in an article in Seminar.
Observers have pointed out that Saudi Arabias brand of Islam was tacitly promoted by
its most important ally, the United States. We all knew it but it was exposed in the
recent war on Syria. Recently, on the instruction of the U.S., Saudi Arabia stopped
channelling zakats [Islamic tax] fund to a few madrassas, which means that
Washington controls where the money goes from Saudi Arabia. Recently, a Saudi
Minister went on record saying that thousands of youth from his country have gone to
Iraq to wage jehad. Both the U.S. and Israel are against Islamic fundamentalism but
they shelter its most vociferous supporter, Saudi Arabia, said senior journalist Md
Ahmad Kazmi.
It is the promotion of Wahhabism in the Kashmir Valley that led to the bombing of Sufi
dargahs. The Wahhabis advocated a ban on music, a prominent feature of the
subcontinents Sufi Islam, and issued directives to make the wearing of the burqa by
Muslim women compulsory. They also introduced new prayer rituals. The attack on
Charar-ei-Sharief and other dargahs in the recent past can be contextualised within this
Wahhabi campaign, Md Ahmad Kazmi said. He said that the growing conflict between
the Shia and Sunni sects could be attributed to the increasing influence of Wahhabism.
After the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran, the conflicts between Shias and Sunnis had
decreased tremendously. The re-energising of Wahhabis in India is precipitating
renewed conflicts. The Wahhabis teach that killing Shias will lead them [its followers]
to jannat[heaven], he added. He pointed out that the influence of Wahhabism was
spreading in the rural areas of north India and was leading to the destruction of dargahs
and Sufi shrines. (Wahhab had condemned the cult of saints, and shrine and tomb

Influence in South India

The influence of Wahhabism is much stronger in south India than in the north. Groups
such as the Popular Front of India (PFI) and its political front, the Social Democratic
Party of India, have gained considerable influence in Kerala and coastal Karnataka.
Reports about the PFI running terrorist camps in northern Kerala surfaced last year,
following which several PFI leaders were arrested. In July 2010, PFI activists reportedly
chopped off a professors hand, apparently for preparing a question paper with
blasphemous references to the Prophet Muhammad.
The PFI has been charged with kidnapping and also the murder of several Communist
Party of India (Marxist) activists and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh workers in
northern Kerala. Political observers have opined that Wahhabism in south India is an
import from the Gulf region, where many south Indians have migrated for work.
One of the main activities of the Wahhabi groups in India is mobilisation of students
groups in colleges. The PFI and its front organisations have begun to wield considerable
influence in many private colleges. In their desire to take forward their understanding of
puritanical Islam, they issue diktats against Muslim women who refuse to wear the
burqa. Rayana R. Kazi moved the Kerala High Court in 2010 seeking police protection
after she received threatening phone calls asking her not to wear jeans and shirt.
Similarly, Shirin Middya, a lecturer in Aliah University near Kolkata, was asked by the
students union to wear a burqa if she wanted to teach. The students union even banned
her from entering the university premises.
In Tamil Nadu, too, the influence of Wahhabism has increased in all areas. The Tamil
poet Salma said: A woman writing is considered a sin. It was very difficult. People
would come and threaten my family. Pointing out that the level of intolerance had
increased in recent years, she said that the Wahhabis advocate child marriage,
discourage women from studying, and campaign among Muslim families to live
according to the Sharia laws. You cannot question the traditional way of divorce in
front of them. They become militant, she said.
The PFI is said to be an offshoot of the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI),
which was banned in 2001. SIMI functioned as a student movement but bracketed Islam
within the strict codes of Wahhabism.
The nefarious nature of SIMI has been evident from the moment it emerged from the
womb of the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1977. Character building to fight against the perceived
twin evils of communism and capitalist consumerism with its degenerate morality was
the declared objective. But in less than a decade, this self-styled moral brigade
metamorphosed into the real inheritor of the legacy of the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami,
Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, who argued that all Muslims must strive for an Islamic
state. True to its ideological mooring, in the 80s, SIMI produced eye-catching stickers
proclaiming Secularism, NO; Democracy, NO; Nationalism, NO; Polytheism, NO; Only
Islam. These stickers adorned many Muslim homes and shops throughout India, Javed
Anand has said in one of his essays.
At its Mumbai meeting in 2001, SIMI for the first time declared that the time had come
for Indian Muslims to launch an armed jehad to establish an Islamic caliphate. Posters
issued by SIMI following the demolition of the Babri Masjid had declared: Ya Ilahi, bhej
de Mahmood koi (Oh Allah, send us a Mahmud), in reference to the Turkish conqueror
Mahmud of Ghazni.
These groups, while trying to impose a strict Sharia code of conduct in Muslim
households, are also changing the language of Indian Muslims. They advocate the use
ofAllah hafiz as a parting phrase as opposed to the traditional khuda hafiz, Kazmi said.
Allah, an Arabic word for God, is considered appropriate by the Wahhabis as opposed
tokhuda, which is a Persian word. They ask [Muslims] to keep chanting Allah hoo to
call God, but they are strictly against finding meaning in Quran or studying the history
of Islam. They are trying to box the religion, Kazmi added. Similarly, these clerical
groups force Indian Muslims to address the Islamic holy month as Ramadan (which is
Arabic), as opposed to Ramzan.

Influence on politics

The growing influence of Wahhabism is having considerable impact on the Indian
political scene, especially south Indian politics. Parties such as the Indian Union Muslim
League (IUML) and the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), considered
to be moderate parties, have started taking hard-line stances. The IUML recently
supported the campaign for a separate Tirur district to be carved out of the existing
Malappuram district.
This campaign was originally started by the SDPI in 2010 and subsequently it gained
resonance in the Gulf region among the migrant Muslims of Kerala. The SDPI had
originally demanded a new district comprising Tirur, Tirurangadi and Ponnani taluks
and some portions of the Chavakkad region in Thrissur district. This led to intense
communal debates, especially between the upper-caste Nair community and the SDPI.
In another instance, the IUML quoted the Sharia in its circulars to demand that the
marriageable age for Muslim girls be reduced from 18 years. The party leaders also
declined to light lamps at public functions, claiming that it was a Hindu practice.
In Tamil Nadu, the TMMK has displayed aggression in its protests. It demanded a ban
on Kamal Hassans Vishwaroopam and some other films ostensibly for being anti-
Muslim. In 2008, it demanded that Muslims be allowed entry into a mosque located in a
protected monument.
Kalanthai Peer Mohamed, the award-winning Tamil writer, commentator and observer
of Muslim politics and culture, told The Hindu on August 5: Within the TMMK itself, a
radical wing emerged, led by the charismatic P. Jainul Abideen, who formed the TNTJ
[Tamil Nadu Thouheed Jamath]. The TNTJ, largely a one-man show, eschews
electoral politics and confines itself to its communal ideals. It blindly backs acts of
omission and commission committed by the Arab world under the garb of Islam. When
the whole world found the beheading of the Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim girl, Rizwana,
revolting, Jainul Abideen vociferously justified the act. Its worrying that the community
in Tamil Nadu does not have representatives who can articulate their voice in a
reasonable manner within a broad humanistic and universalistic framework.
Some political observers, however, say that parties such as the IUML and the TMMK
have been courting and serving feudal interests of affluent Mulims. Behind most of the
issues raised by them are the commercial interests of a few leaders of these parties. But
the issues have subsequently been communalised. A case in point is the
communalisation of the IUMLs campaign to start four universities in Malappuram
district. It later turned out to be an effort to appease the real estate interests of the
Muslim elite and some party leaders. A cause of concern for secular Muslims of Kerala is
the increasing criminalisation of parties such as the IUML in recent years.
The electoral impact of these organisations and cultural fronts promoting true Islam
has been minimal. However, several Wahhabi groups, such as the Gujarat Muslim
Revenge Force, the Muslim Defence Force, and the Islamic Defence Force, were founded
in the past decade. Most of these organisations engage in proselytisation activities. But
there are no reports of their involvement in terrorist activities. Acting as the cultural
vanguard of true Islam, these organisations invoke the sense of injustice among Indian
Muslims and pave the way for their cultural assimilation. There is the possibility of
working-class Muslims, already strained by poverty and injustice, getting carried away
by such campaigns.
It would be inappropriate to say that the Wahhabis have been highly successful because
they do face resistance from Sufi traditions. As opposed to the theories of Hindutva
ideologues, it is the pluralistic practice of Islam in the subcontinent that acts as a strong
defence against such insular radicalisation. Indian Muslims, not Hindus, are facing the
brunt of such radical tendencies. However, if the Indian state fails to adhere to its
secular ethos, a far worse situation could arise.
The anthropologist Irfan Ahmad noted in one of his papers on SIMI: The formation of
such illegal groups by a segment of Muslim population also points towards an affinity
between the geography of riots and cartography of Islamist radicalism. Over 15% or 20%
of SIMIs members came from Maharashtra, Gujarat and U.P., States where the
masculine, virulent Hindutva has far more impact, and which have a history of the
worse riots in the past two decades. It is, therefore, binding on the government to
intervene positively to address the problems of Indian Muslims.