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Islam in India

Police detained several hundred protesters in several Indian cities 19 December 2019 as they defied bans on assembly imposed to stop demonstrations against a controversial new citizenship law. Protests turned violent in several places, including the southern city of Mangaluru, where two people died of injuries. Protests raged across India against the citizenship law, which critics say threatens the country’s secular democracy amid growing anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's alleged anti-Muslim agenda. Internet and phone services were intermittently suspended in a number of places, including parts of Delhi, mobile carriers said, widening a communications clampdown in restive areas stretching from disputed Kashmir to the northeast. Rather than contain uprisings, the protest bans appeared to be helping them spread – from Assam and a handful of university campuses and Muslim enclaves in the capital – to campuses and cities from coast to coast.

In 2014 the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or the Indian Peoples Party) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. The BJP which is part of an avowedly rightwing Hindu nationalist umbrella formation, led by its mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or the Nationalist Volunteer Service), has enacted laws and backed action that directly affects the interests of the Muslim community. In the next five years, several states led by the BJP banned cattle slaughter or tightened existing cattle laws affecting thousands of Muslims and the marginalised Dalit community which are engaged in the leather industry and other related occupations. Scores of mainly Muslims have been lynched by Hindu vigilante mobs on the suspicion of continuing to be engaged in cattle trade. Punishment has been rare and some federal ministers like Jayant Sinha have even openly patronised the accused.

The decision in August 2019 this year to strike off the constitutionally-guaranteed special status to Jammu & Kashmir state again shook the country and has been widely seen as yet another attempt against the Muslim community who comprise the majority there. The abrogation of its special status included dismembering the state into two less powerful union territories, or regions controlled directly by the federal government.

The long-drawn-out dispute over a temple versus a mosque on a site in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya town was resolved by a controversial judgment of the Supreme Court that favored the construction of a Hindu temple of Lord Ram on the site. The judgement was contentious as the country’s top court could not convincingly spell out the rationale behind handing over the site to the Hindu petitioners to construct a Ram temple on the disputed Ayodhya site.

Under the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by parliament on 11 December 2019, religious minorities such as Hindus and Christians in neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who have settled in India prior to 2015 would have a path to citizenship on grounds they faced persecution in those countries. Critics charged the law goes directly against Article 14 of the Indian Constitution which prohibits discrimination on any ground including religion, race, ethnicity and gender. In other words, the constitution explicitly stands for the equality of all individuals irrespective of who they are or what they believe.

Protests over a new Indian citizenship law based on religion spread to students on campuses as critics said the Hindu nationalist government was pushing a partisan agenda in conflict with the country’s founding as a secular republic. The protests, in which several people lost their lives, erupted in the northern tea-growing state of Assam, before spilling over to other parts of the country. On Sunday, several buses were set on fire by demonstrators in Delhi, as were a number of railway stations in West Bengal; police had to use tear gas and batons to disperse the crowds.

Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, said the Modi government was dividing up Indian society through the citizenship law and a plan to launch a national citizenship register. “The best defense against these dirty weapons is peaceful, non-violent Satyagraha,” he said. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party denies any religious bias. It says the new law is meant to help minority groups facing persecution in the three nearby Muslim countries. Modi said the law has been passed by parliament and there is no going back.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC), an attempt to identify Indian citizens and weed out undocumented migrants, which was conducted in the Northeastern Assam state, created a huge mess. Contrary to the BJP government’s expectation that it would expose thousands of illegal Muslim immigrants, the NRC exercise turned out more Hindu illegal migrants. The BJP went into a flap and in an attempt to wriggle out of the mess, has blamed the bureaucracy and the manner in which the process was conducted. Home Minister Amit Shah, who led the moves on behalf of the BJP, and terms illegal migrants as “termites”, announced that the NRC will be implemented across the country. Home Minister Amit Shah, who was leading the moves on behalf of the BJP, and terms illegal migrants as “termites”, announced that the NRC will be implemented across the country.

Islam in India - Background

Like most issues affecting the world's largest democracy, Islam in India presents a series of dichotomies. The Muslim population of India ranks as the second or third largest in the world and yet it is small minority in India, representing about 177,000,000 people, or 14.6 percent of the total population by 2010 . Iconic celebrities such as Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan attract legions of fans, while millions of Muslims languish in poverty. Since independence, three Muslims have been appointed President, but Muslims are grossly under-represented in parliament and other elected bodies.

Muslim millionaires like Azim Premji influence Indian markets, while the release of the Rajinder Sachar Committee Report in November 2006 revealed that Muslims in general fare worse in economic terms than India's Dalits (former Untouchables). These seeming contradictions reflect overall socioeconomic trends in India: a tiny percentage of Muslims thrive, while the vast majority struggle to support themselves. Indian Muslims are eager to catch up to their compatriots. Their Sufi heritage, promoting pluralism and tolerance, should leave them well-equipped to compete in secular India. However, lingering resentment from the Partition and external influences threaten to divide the community.

According to the 2001 Census, over 138 million Muslims live in India, making it the second or third most populous Muslim country - various estimates have Pakistan and India tied for second place [Muslims officially comprised 12.1 percent of the country's population, or 101.6 million people as of the 1991 census]. Despite their impressive numbers, Muslims are a minority in India representing only 13.4 percent of the total population. States with 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. The status of Muslims across India generally mirrors the general population, where development has been strongest in southern and western India. For example, Muslims in UP and West Bengal lag behind educationally and economically, while their counterparts in Kerala and Hyderabad fare slightly better.

More than demographics, the key to understanding the subcontinent's Muslim population is appreciating the profound impact that Sufism has had on the nature and spread of Islam in India. Sufism is a mystical path (tariqat ) as distinct from the path of the sharia. A Sufi attains a direct vision of oneness with God, often on the edges of orthodox behavior, and can thus become a pir (living saint) who may take on disciples (murids ) and set up a spiritual lineage that can last for generations. Orders of Sufis became important in India during the thirteenth century following the ministry of Muinuddin Chishti (1142-1236), who settled in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and attracted large numbers of converts to Islam because of his holiness. His Chishtiyya order went on to become the most influential Sufi lineage in India, although other orders from Central Asia and Southwest Asia also reached to India and played a large role in the spread of Islam. Many Sufis were well known for weaving music, dance, intoxicants, and local folktales into their songs and lectures. In this way, they created a large literature in regional languages that embedded Islamic culture deeply into older South Asian traditions.

In the case of many great teachers, the memory of their holiness has been so intense that they are still viewed as active intercessors with God, and their tombs have become the site of rites and prayers by disciples and lay people alike. Tales of miraculous deeds associated with the tombs of great saints have attracted large numbers of pilgrims attempting to gain cures for physical maladies or solutions to personal problems. The tomb of the pir thus becomes a dargah (gateway) to God and the focus for a wide range of rituals, such as daily washing and decoration by professional attendants, touching or kissing the tomb or contact with the water that has washed it, hanging petitions on the walls of the shrine surrounding the tomb, lighting incense, and giving money.

The descendants of the original pir are sometimes seen as inheritors of his spiritual energy, and, as pirs in their own right, they might dispense amulets sanctified by contact with them or with the tomb. The annual celebration of the pir 's death is a major event at important shrines, attracting hundreds of thousands of devotees for celebrations that may last for days. Free communal kitchens and distribution of sweets are also big attractions of these festivals, at which Muslim fakirs, or wandering ascetics, sometimes appear and where public demonstrations of self-mortification, such as miraculous piercing of the body and spiritual possession of devotees, sometimes occur. Every region of India can boast of at least one major Sufi shrine that attracts expressive devotion, which remains important, especially for Muslim women.

The Sufi message of love and harmony promoted by Sufi saints and through its various orders, particularly the Chishti order, have profoundly shaped the experience of Islam in the subcontinent. 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 with a syncretic Islamic tradition. Sufi Islam is "mainstream" Islam for both Sunnis and Shias.

Over 85 percent of Indian Muslims are Sunni. Because Muslims are a minority in India, they have traditionally avoided public disputes between Shias and Sunnis, although communal violence has periodically flared up in Uttar Pradesh. Indian Muslims expended their fighting instinct on political battles against the Indian government or proponents of Hindutva (political Hinduism). However, there is tension between two Sunni movements -- Barelvi and Deobandi -- rooted in differences in ideology, wealth, education, and views on reform.

The Barelvi school, which proudly promotes the Sufi ideal of pluralism, considers itself "mainstream" Islam in India due to its large following of over 75 percent of Sunni Muslims. Many Barelvis converted to Islam from Hinduism and the Sufi influence allowed them to retain elements of their prior faith and culture. Unfortunately, they tend to lag behind economically and educationally. Many blame the Barelvis' current lot on the Partition -- before Indian independence Barelvis sided with the Muslim League that supported the creation of Pakistan. The move was in reaction to the Congress Party's alliance with the Deobandis. Partition heartburn has left the Barelvi "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. This chip weighs heavily on the Barelvis' shoulders, despite the fact that all 29 Muslims MPs and five Muslims cabinet members are Barelvi.

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 economic and educational 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. Indians refer to Deobandis as "pink Wahhabis," despite vehement protests from Deobandis to the contrary. Deobandis have tried to distance themselves from Wahhabism because of the stigma associated with conservative Arab Muslims. Less than five percent of the Indian Muslim population is made up of "true Wahhabis," but the numbers are growing.

Deoband's wealth may be attributed to an influx of funding from Arab Wahhabis starting before Partition. Deobandis used the money to create a powerful system of madrasas that provide shelter and education to Muslims, including Barelvis, that would otherwise be unattainable. Deobandis also made aggressive efforts to place Deobandi imams in mosques across India in hopes of influencing Barelvi communities. Deobandi groups loosely connected to Wahhabi ideology donate money to dilapidated Barelvi mosques for repairs, then appoint their own priest and slowly take over. Deoband imams have taken charge of roughly one-fourth of Barelvi mosques since the mid-1990s. The younger Barelvis are being indoctrinated to a radicalized version of Islamic thinking with the help of this chain of Deobandi madrasas and Tablighi Jamaat volunteers (a conservative Muslim missionary group that emerged from the Deobandi sub-school of Hanafi jurisprudence). Deoband's strategy has strengthened its "spiritual control" of India's Muslims, threatening the country's Sufi-influenced mainstream Islam. The political patronage of the ruling Congress party has also helped the number of Deobandis to swell.

The Pew Research Center estimates that approximately 16-24 million Shia Muslims live in India, making it the country with the third largest Shia population after Iran and Pakistan. Estimates put India and Pakistan roughly on par with each other. Shias compose approximately ten percent of India's total Muslim population. There are three main divisions of Shias in India: Asna-e-Ashari, the group to which the majority of Shias belong, residing in north India and Hyderabad; Dawoodi Bohras originally from Gujurat but now living in Maharastra; and Khojas, former traders who also migrated from Gujurat to Maharastra.

Historically Shias enjoyed the status of India's landlords. Unfortunately, this linked the fate of Shias to the decline of the landed property system after independence and Shias lost their political and economic clout. Compared to Sunnis, Shias failed to adapt to the new democratic India, where numbers (i.e. votes) mattered and Shias fell short. They have struggled economically because employment had been viewed as beneath the Shia landholders. Shia youth, especially women, are changing the mind set in the community and exploring both high tech and traditional fields. Shias still retain large land holdings that were folded into Islamic charitable foundations -- Waqfs -- but some holdings were lost due to corruption and mismanagement.

Shias are searching for a new political identity as well. Indian Shias tend to be more liberal and cosmopolitan and feel a kinship with higher caste Hindus. 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 apparent 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. Shia and Barelvi leaders have discussed forming a political alliance to counter Deoband and the increasing influence of Wahhabism. The alliance would balance each groups' strengths: Barelvis have the numbers and Shias have a higher level of education and more contact with the Indian elite.

Barelvis' long-term fear of increased Wahhabi influence over Deoband leading to a more extreme form of Islam in India has lent a new sense of urgency to efforts to mobilize their community -- possibly with the help of a Shia alliance -- to regain control of mainstream Islam and their political fate. Such an alliance could motivate political parties to pay greater attention to the Muslim vote bank.

For centuries, Muslims worldwide have grappled with an uncomfortable question – how old was Aisha at the time of her marriage with the Prophet? Some say the Prophet married Aisha when she was six years old and consumed the marriage when she was nine. On 26 May 2022, national spokeperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party Nupur Sharma made disparaging statements on national television about Prophet Muhammad for marrying the young Aisha.

On June 5, the BJP suspended Sharma hours after the party said it “strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities”. Sharma came under the scanner along with former Delhi BJP media cell head Naveen Kumar Jindal for their statements on the Prophet. While she was suspended from the party's primary membership, Jindal was expelled.

India faced massive backlash from numerous west Asian nations, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Qatar over Sharma and Jindal's comments. The controversy led to these Islamic countries calling out to boycott Indian products from their markets as a mark of protest. India issued statements clarifying that the views expressed on the Prophet were made by certain individuals and does not signify the Government of India.

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Page last modified: 20-06-2022 19:07:14 ZULU