T is an Islamic scholar belonging to the Barelvi maslak and is the imam of a mosque near Jammu. I first met him in his simple, sparsely furnished room adjacent to the mosque, where he was surrounded by a group of Muslim peasants. ‘Killing an innocent Hindu just because he isn’t a Muslim is certainly not a jihad’, he tells me in response to my query about what he feels about the ongoing violence in Kashmir. He explains that in a legitimate Islamic jihad non-combatant non-Muslims must not be harmed. Rather, he says, they must be protected. Yet, he laments, many of those who claim to be waging a jihad in Kashmir do not abide by this basic Islamic principle. He recounts the case of a fellow Barelvi maulana who made this point at a public meeting and was later threatened with death by activists from the dreaded Lashkar-i Tayyeba.
T is loathe to discuss politics. ‘I am a religious man’, he says, but he does insist that violence is not the way to solve the Kashmir issue. Rather than directly discuss Kashmiri politics, he prefers to dwell on what he believes is the correct Islamic notion of jihad. He argues that physical violence for the defence of Islam, when Islam or its adherents are under threat, is legitimate, but war for worldly advancement, for land or for power, is not. He tells me that the conflict in Kashmir is simply over the land—both India and Pakistan want to grab it, and they are not really concerned about the people as such—and hence it is not a real jihad. He does not hesitate to condemn the excesses of both the Indian armed forces and certain Pakistan-based militant groups. He recounts cases of killings of innocents by both, describing their actions as unambiguously ‘anti-Islamic’. He fears that such violence might exacerbate in the future, with rival Islamic groups, representing different sectarian formations, fighting each other. ‘The gun culture has become so deeply ingrained that, who knows, Kashmir might go the Pakistan or Afghanistan way, with Shi‘as and Sunnis and Wahhabis training their guns on each other’.
As a traditional Islamic scholar, T’s interaction with the local Hindus is somewhat limited. Yet, he insists on the need for harmonious relations with the Hindus, and laments that in the course of the ongoing violence in Kashmir Hindu-Muslim relations have drastically deteriorated. Yet, he believes that ‘ordinary’ Hindus and Muslims simply want to live in peace and carry on with their lives. He tells me about his experiences of living in a largely Hindu town, where there are few Muslims. In the years that he has lived not once was he targeted by the local Hindus or made to feel unsafe. ‘Given what has been happening in Kashmir’, he says, ‘they might have been expected to hate me, to create trouble for me, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, they treat me with respect’.
H is a Muslim college student in Jammu. His family are, as he puts it, ‘staunch Barelvis’, and he counts himself as an ardent Barelvi as well. He has not had a formal Islamic education, but through books and personal meetings with scholars associated with a particular Barelvi organization he has received a fairly good knowledge of his faith.
We talk about this Barelvi organization, and he tells me about how, in its own way, it is trying to promote peace in Kashmir. The organization has arranged numerous public meetings in different parts of Jammu and Kashmir, where Barelvi ‘ulama, including many from other parts of India, deliver lectures on various aspects of the Prophet’s life and teachings. The focus of these lectures is often on social issues, particularly issues of contemporary concern. H names a number of such issues, from female infanticide and dowry to inter-communal amity and the need for peace. ‘We cannot directly speak out the militants or they will kill us’, he says. ‘So we hold out the model of the Prophet as a way to counter their propaganda’.
H insists that Islam, as he sees it, and peace between the different communities, are indivisible. When the Prophet was born, his mother, Amina, saw angels planting white flags, symbolising peace, he tells me. Hence, Muslims must struggle for peace and against the misuse of religion to promote violence against innocent people. One of the meanings of ‘Islam’ in Arabic is peace, he notes, but adds that this does not mean a passive acceptance of things as they are, but, rather, also struggling, through morally justifiable means, for an end to all forms of oppression. This includes working for the rights of non-Muslims as well. To illustrate the point he tells me the story of a property dispute between a Muslim and a non-Muslim. They appeared before the Prophet, who decided in favour of the latter, although the Muslim had expected that he would rule in his favour simply because he was a Muslim. ‘The Prophet stressed the rights of one’s neighbours, and these include non-Muslims, and said that he who gives unnecessary sorrow to his neighbour would go to hell’, H says gravely.
H stresses the importance of personal behaviour and morality, arguing that calls for jihad and an Islamic state are meaningless if their advocates do not practise genuine spirituality themselves. ‘Your behaviour with others should be such that people think that it is because of Islam that you are good, not, as now, that you are bad because of Islam’, he says. He critiques certain radical Islamist groups in Kashmir, whom he describes as ‘Wahhabis’ and who, he says, are really political and not religious outfits, although they assume an ‘Islamic’ garb. ‘They walk in the path of money, not of Islam’, he says. In the name of jihad, he laments, ‘they have finished us off’. In contrast to their actions, he says, the ‘real jihad’ is to ‘develop a proper Islamic character and to convey the message of Islam to others’. He cites the example of the widely revered Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, as a ‘true mujahid’. Through his message of love and peace, he says, scores of people were attracted to Islam. In contrast to the Khwaja, the activities of several radical Islamist outfits have only succeeded in further repelling non-Muslims from Islam, as a result of which they see Muslims as ‘terrorists’. Rather than their activities being a genuine jihad, they are, he says, a ‘great strife’ or fitna, that has no legitimacy in Islam at all.
Like most other Muslims, believes that Islam alone is the way to salvation, but, at the same time, he insists that Islamic missionary work has no room for violence. Rather, he argues that it is only through promoting love and peace that others can be receptive to the message of Islam, adding that this is precisely what the Prophet also sought to do. Non-Muslims are free to accept or reject Islam, and in no case should they be forced to do so.
H tells me that he has ‘nothing to do with politics’, but he believes that a solution to the issue of Kashmir must have the consent of all the various communities in the state. Perhaps, he says, joint rule by India and Pakistan for a few years is a possible solution. He thinks that many Kashmiris might prefer independence, rather than being ruled by Delhi or Islamabad, but says that this option is not without its dangers. In an independent Kashmir, he warns, there is a likelihood of civil war breaking out and sectarian violence spearheaded by ‘Wahhabis’, whom he describes, echoing the views of many other Barelvi scholars, as ‘blasphemers against the Prophet’ (gustakh-i rasul), accusing them of being imperialist creations in order to set Muslims against each other.
R is a practising Sufi, and is the custodian of a large dargah in Jammu. Like many other Barelvi scholars in Jammu, he, too, thinks that the Kashmir issue is political, and not religious as such.
‘No religion, properly interpreted, allows for killing innocent people’, R explains as I settle down on the mattress on the floor of his room, declining a chair that he offers me. In Islam, he tells me, one is allowed to take to arms only in self-defence, when one’s life or faith are under threat. Prior to the outbreak of the militant movement, the Kashmiri Muslims enjoyed freedom of both, he says and pauses, leaving me free to draw my own conclusion. ‘Yes, there have been human rights violations by the armed forces as well’, he admits when I point this out, ‘but the trouble started with the militants, so it’s not entirely the fault of the army’.
R is decidedly opposed to the Islamists, including the Lashkar-i Tayyeba and the Jama‘at-i Islami, groups whom he describes as ‘Wahhabis’. He denies that they are Islamic at all, and says that their demand for an Islamic state in Kashmir is untenable. ‘If Muslims demand an Islamic state in Kashmir of the sort that the Wahhabis want’, he says, ‘how can one deny Hindu groups the same right in India?’. He points out that the ‘Wahhabis’ and the Hindu right-wing feed on each other, both being ‘thoroughly anti-religious’ while claiming to be the greatest defenders of their respective faiths and communities. He also tells me that the Islamist militants in Kashmir have no concern about the grave consequences Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan or becoming independent might have for the Muslims living in the rest of India, who, he says, number 14 times the Kashmiri Muslim population. It is bound to lead to a strengthening of right-wing Hindu forces, he points out, who might wreak further havoc on the Indian Muslims.
R recognises that the actions of the militants has had a tremendously negative impact on non-Muslim perceptions of Islam and its adherents. ‘Ordinary people cannot distinguish us from the Wahhabis and so they now think that all Muslims are terrorists’, he says in despair. Yet, despite the what he calls the relentless ‘un-Islamic’ propaganda of ‘Wahhabi’ groups, he believes that the majority of the Kashmiri Muslims continue to deeply revere the Sufis. The ‘Wahhabis’ recognise this, and that is why, he claims, they do not openly reveal their beliefs or preach their views, such as their opposition to Sufism and the cults associated with their shrines. Were they to reveal their true beliefs, he says, they would be stiffly opposed by the Kashmiri Muslims themselves.
As R sees it, the ‘Wahhabi’ militants lack true piety, despite their claims of being true mujahids. Several of them are involved in militancy just to make money, he says. And some of them, particularly the leaders of militant groups in Pakistan, have raked in millions in the name of jihad, he assures me. ‘Their politics are totally against the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet. They say, no matter what happens, even if innocent people are raped or killed, we want to set up our own government. Surely, the Prophet did not act in this way!’. He refers to Pakistan as an example of a failed state, despite its claims of being a model Islamic country. ‘You can’t impose an Islamic system by force like that’, he says.
It is not easy for people like him to take on the militants directly, says R. Some, including moderate Muslim leaders (he cites the late Qazi Nisar, the Mirwaiz of south Kashmir as an example), who dared to do so have even paid for this with their lives. Rather, R says, he tries to do this indirectly, by telling Muslims about the Prophet and the Sufis and their message of love and tolerance and the meaning of the ‘true jihad’. ‘I point out that we must follow the Prophet alone in all matters, and behave as he did’, he explains. ‘That means that we must work for love and peace. That is precisely what the Sufis, who brought Islam to Kashmir, did, and we should walk in their path’.
R insists on the need for Muslim scholars to reach out to people of other communities. ‘We live in a multi-religious society and so must have good relations with each other. It is only through love and in a peaceful environment that we can disabuse others of the misunderstandings that they have of Islam’, he says. He admits the need for organised work for promoting inter-religious harmony, noting that hardly any efforts have been made in this regard in Jammu. ‘Each of us seems to obsessed with our own communities that we just do not think beyond’, he bemoans.
A is a Muslim school teacher from a village near Kishtwar, in the mountainous Doda district. I met him one afternoon at a tea stall outside the Jami‘a mosque in the largely Muslim locality of Mohalla Khatikan in Jammu. He looked plainly tired and harried as he sipped his tea and read out a newspaper story about the killing of a young man in Doda. Apparently, the youth had been kidnapped by a group of militants belonging to the dreaded Deobandi Harkat ul-Mujahidin, who kept him with them for a month. He was then killed by them because he had opposed the marriage of his relative with a Harkat militant.
‘We simply cannot do anything because we are poor people’, A says with an immense sigh. ‘On the one hand the army terrorises us, and on the other hand the militants. We can’t afford to speak up against either of the two’.
It is not just the Hindus who were being targeted by the militants, he explains. In fact, most of those killed in his area, by both the militants and the army, are Muslims. ‘And that means’, he declares emphatically, ‘that this is not a jihad at all’. ‘In a true jihad’, he says, ‘innocents cannot be targeted, women cannot be raped, you cannot steal other’s money or property, but this is precisely what is happening’.
A’s father is said to have been a practising Sufi, and A has inherited from him a passionate commitment to the Sufi way. This explains his strident opposition to the Islamist militants. ‘I used to firmly support the cause of Kashmiri independence’, he tells me, ‘but seeing what these so-called mujahids have done, murdering and looting in God’s name, I have come to the firm conclusion that it is best for us to be with India’. ‘If ever Kashmir becomes independent or joins Pakistan we will descend into civil war’, he warns. Denouncing Islamist radicals, he argues, ‘They claim to be working for an Islamic state, but that’s all hot air. We’ve seen what their agenda is from their actions’. And this includes what he sees as the Islamists’ fierce hostility to Sufism, or what A defines as ‘true’ Islam. ‘Although the militants don’t openly say so for fear of losing public support, we know that they see Sufism as un-Islamic and regard us as little better than polytheists. How can we trust or support such people?’, he asks.
As a devout Muslim, A sees as his primary task the mission of tabligh or communicating the message of Islam to others. That, he says, was the Prophet’s mission in life, not the capture of political power. The best and most effective way to convey Islam to others, he says, is through one’s own character. ‘If people see how noble and kind you are because you are a good Muslim, they would automatically be attracted to the faith’, he argues. He sees the militants as not only having no interest whatsoever in tabligh and, in fact, as actually working to defeat all possibilities for attracting others to Islam. ‘The militants have created such a hatred in the minds of the Hindus here about Islam that no Hindu would at all be interested in, leave alone attracted to, Islam’, he rues. He refers to Islamist ideologues and militant activists as endlessly proclaiming that Islam has the answer to all the ills of humankind, but then hurriedly adds that obviously no Hindu would ever accept this claim since the militants themselves refuse to act according to Islamic principles. ‘The Hindus answer, and rightly so, that all these wonderful things about Islam should first be practised by the militants themselves, and only then would they care to lend an ear to their propaganda’, he says.
This is Part III of a VIII Part series by Yoginder Sikand, first published in 2010