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INDIA’s ULEMA – Fighting for Political Space:

Paper No. 6151                                  Dated 19-Jul;-2016

By R. Upadhyay

Is it a Fight between Barlevis and Deobandhis or among the Barlevis themselves?

Common Enemy?

The recent visit of Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan, a noted Barelvi cleric and great grandson of Ahmad Raza Khan, the founder of Barelvi movement - to Darul Uloom Deoband on May 9 raised many eye brows.  His talks with Abul Qasim Nomani, the rector of the seminary, emphasising the unity of the two Islamic schools of thought who have been at loggerheads for over a century to fight against the “common enemy” was projected in media as “shocking”.  Who is the common enemy? No one Knows. 

The meeting was in fact immediately disapproved by a section of Barelvi clerics on the plea that Tauqeer has violated the fatwa issued by his great grandfather in early twentieth century for total boycott of Deobandi.

Maulana Tauqeer Raza Khan is a known controversial Barelvi cleric who likes to be in the news always! In 2007 he had announced a reward of Rs. 5 lakh for beheading Taslima Nasrin a Bangladeshi author for her anti-Islamic writings (Wikipedia).

In 2013 both the BJP and the Congress had crititicised Arvind Kejarival for meeting Raza Khan. Earlier in 2012 the Samajwadi Party government in UP appointed him as Vice-Chairman of the State Handloom Corporation with the rank of Minister of State which he subsequently resigned due to some differences with the ruling party (Ibid.).

The Meeting had a different Purpose?

It is widely believed that the intended meeting had a different purpose.  Alarmed by the fact with non-representation of Muslims in Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh in the last Lok Sabha election, the meeting between two prominent Ulema of ideologically opposed sects was said to be for some “course correction” to unite the Muslim votes in the ensuing assembly elections.

 But a close look at the Barelvi Ulema suggests that the present controversy is more rooted to the personal rivalry of Ulema within Barelvis themselves for socio-political space and not with the Deobandhis!

Proximity of another prominent Barelvi Ulema Syed Muhammad Ashraf Ashrafi, the founder president of All India Ulema and Mahashaikh Board (AIUMB) and the custodian of the Kichhowchhawi dargah in Uttar Pradesh to the present ruling BJP at centre was not liked by Tauqeer Raza Khan. Ashraf had even led an AIUMB delegation with 40 Sufi scholars and shrine heads, at a meeting with Modi in August last year.

Subsequently, the AIUMB, an umbrella organisation of Sufi shrine chiefs, scholars and practitioners organised a four-day World Sufi conference in Delhi on March 17 this year which was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While talking to a journalist, Ashrafi said “the primary aim of the event was to showcase Indian Islam’s co-existence with multiple religions and push it as a counter-narrative against ISIS’s brand of radical ideology”. The meeting of Ashrafi with Modi became the starting point of the war of words between two groups within Barelvi Ulema.

Tauqeer’s Outburst Against Ashraf!

Tauqeer Raza Khan while criticising this Sufi conference in a press statement on 17 March alleged that the RSS was behind this conference- a game to divide the Indian Muslims. He observed, “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 when they mortgage the whole Sunnism with the RSS”... (

Considering the BJP as an “ultra-nationalist Hindu party which is inimical to Muslims”, he tried to send a message to the community that the conference was an attempt of the BJP to carve a vote bank among Barelvis particularly in next Assembly elections in UP and other States. In fact Maulana Tauqeer used this conference as an opportunity to attract the anti-Modi political parties and bargain for some political space for himself in the Assembly elections of early next year

Contrary to the anti- Modi and anti-BJP stand of Maulana Raza, Maulana Rizvi maintains that "Ye RSS ke log mulk se mohabbat karte hain, mulk ke liye kam karte hain. Aur Wahhabi mulk ke khilaf gatiwidhi karte hain and hamesa bahar ke Saudi (Arabia) ki taraf dekhte hain. Hum RSS ya XYZ koi bhi jo mulk ke saath mohabbat karta hai uske saath kam kar sakte hain, lekin mulk ke gaddre-ewatan (wahhabi followers) ke saath kam nahi kar sakte (The RSS guys love this nation. They work for nation. And Wahhabis keep on working against nation and look outward, to Saudi Arabia for guidance. We can work with RSS or any XYZ who love this nation but never with the traitors of this nation)"

 Appreciating Narendra Modi for his supportive gesture to anti-terror, anti-Wahhabi call given by him, the All India Tanzeem Ulama -e- Islam leader is willing to engage with PM. (

Ulema’s Dubious Tactics:

Politically ambitious Ulema is seen to be media savvy.   But their dubious credentials are also well known.. On one hand they are becoming a satellite of one political party or the other and   bargaining with different entities for suitable political space in lieu of community votes. On the other hand they are preaching for the separate political identity of the community which is not only detrimental to the interest of the community but also to the country where they live.

Since Independence the Deobandi Ulema is perceived to be availing the patronage of the ruling parties particularly of the Congress and other ‘secular’ parties. This is the first time Narendra Modi gave a warm audience to a couple of different Sufi delegation (Barelvis) since he came to power at centre. Viewing this closeness of Modi with a section of Barelvi Ulema as a danger signal of shifting their political space to their century old ideological opponents, Deobandis are said to be scared now. They apprehend the loss of their control over the Waqf Board which also manages thousands of Sufi tombs. Therefore, even before the proposed Sufi conference, a Deobandi outfit Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind chief Maulana Syed Arshad Madani went to the extent of saying, “We don’t know if he (Modi) is going there or not, but if a section of Muslims is being held close and others are being ignored, hatred is being spread in minds of people, then this is bad for the country. None will benefit from this, but the country will be hurt, of course,” (

Historically, both Deoband and Barelvi sects of Sunni Islam in India expanded a wide network of their Ulema to ensure their grip over the masses and utilise them as their foot soldiers for self-seeking political space in the country. With the decline of Muslim power which also led to the receding influence of the priestly class of Muslims made them restless and therefore they tried to create a mindset in the community that anything howsoever logical and rational it may be if not approved by Islamic scriptures was betrayal of the faith.

One should not forget that Barelvi Ulema even supported the creation of Pakistan. But, after partition irrespective of their sectarian rivalry, they continued to focus on narrow communal issues, more to keep their flock together and not for their enlightenment.

Unfortunately, Uttar Pradesh failed to elect even a single Muslim to Lok Sabha in last election despite the widely believed block voting by the Muslims.  This disturbed the Islamic Clerics and their current endeavour should be seen in this context as an attempt to ensure their relevance in the socio-political space of the country.

On the brighter side of the Muslim society we find a meaningful initiative for condemning hard-line Islamist like Zakir Naik but at the same time reports of some well-educated Muslim youths joining the ISIS are disturbing.

Deobandi Ulema might have felt enthused over a prominent Barelvi Ulema coming to their door but how far it will bring unity among them against their unspecified “common enemy” is uncertain. Had the Islamic theocrats instead of treating the community as a separate political identity guided the latter for independent political thinking they would have overcome their isolation from the political mainstream of the country. Actually, the Islamic priestly class never thought of any reform in Islam although their counterparts in other religions in the world lost their socio-political and economic hold over the masses following reform movements.

The infighting now seen within the Barlevi sect in seeking political space will rather push the community again into a stage of confusion in the ensuing assembly elections next year. This is not in the interest of the community.