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«Tahir Kamran• Abstract This paper seeks to delineate the process that culminated into the proliferation of Deobandi version of Islam in the Punjab ...»

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Evolution and Impact of ‘Deobandi’ Islam

in the Punjab

Tahir Kamran•


This paper seeks to delineate the process that culminated into the

proliferation of Deobandi version of Islam in the Punjab that eventually

led to the formulation of terrorist outfits by the closing years of twentieth

century. Gradual creeping of Deobandi influence was not in consonance

with the composite cultural ethos that was very intrinsic to the Punjab. In

the colonial Punjab and even before that, saints and shrines signified ‘symbolic cultural outposts’. In that social and political setting the tribal and kinship identities assumed centrality, thus, complementing the power and influence of the saints. In that context with all its peculiarities, the emergence of the Deobandi exegetes in the Punjab with the sharia oriented interpretation of Islam needs a fresh enquiry. However, before mapping the Deobandi influence on the Punjab through the agency of the ulema and madaris one must take into account the significance of the saint or sajjada nishin as intercessor between them (people) and God. Besides, ‘spiritual excellence’ their political role within the British imperial system would also be examined whereby structures of political power and religious organization forged a close relationship. Thereafter, the main theme of the paper would be addressed--evolution and impact of Deobandi Islam in the Punjab. However, a brief reference to the historical and political antecedents of the Deobandi puritanism would form the part of the narrative. Contrary to the local Islam, centring on the saint or sajjada nishin and shrine or dargah, the Deobandi Islam was disseminated through ulema and madaris. The shift from sajjada nishin and dargah to ulema and madaris brought with it a profound change in the religious outlook at the popular level, culminating in the Lal Masjid like incidents.

Deobandis in the contemporary Pakistan constitute the most important Muslim segment which exercises enormous control over the religious seminaries (madaris). Around 65 percent of the madaris belong to this school of thought and “are the most militant in their demands for the Pakistani state to become truly Islamic--as they would define it”.1 • Chairperson, Department of History, GC University, Lahore Deobandi faction had been in the vanguard of the movement against Ahmediyya community that eventually was declared non-Muslim in the 1970s and also have orchestrated anti-Shia sectarian violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Jamiat-ul-Ulema-eIslam (JUI) is the largest Deobandi political outfit which gave rise to the terrorist organizations like Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Jaish-i-Muhammad (JM), Sipah-eSahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ). Not only these organisations have been active in Kashmir and other parts of India but subsequently they also challenged the writ of Pakistani state. In July 2007, Deobandi clerics’ stiff armed resistance to the state agencies from Lal Masjid, located in the very heart of Pakistani capital, Islamabad, demonstrates their potential to pose a challenge to the state. Ironically, all the above mentioned organizations had a very strong link with the Punjab. It, therefore, becomes imperative to contextualize the emergence of Deobandi organizations and assess their impact on the area.

The protagonists of the Deobandi thought owe a good deal to Majlis-i-Ahrar that acted as an instrument of political articulation for them in the Punjab. Ulema like Maulana Ahmed Ali Lahori, Maulana Qazi Ehsan Ahmed Shujabadi and Ataullah Shah Bokhari demonstrated their anti-British political activism through Majlis-i-Ahrar during 1930s. Therefore, Ahrar also finds a niche in the paper for better understanding of the evolution of Deobandi influence on the province’s politics. Deobandi creed proliferated after the Partition of India as is evident from the study of Deobandi literature with respect to its evolution in the Punjab. The major emphases of the paper would be devoted to the important Deobandi ulema from the Punjab, who set up their madaris, and the impact they engendered on the political and social formation of the province.

So far no study on the Punjab has brought the subject of Deobandi permeation into focus. David Gilmartin and Ian Talbot, however, have reflected on the issue in their respective works on the colonial Punjab but tangentially. Similarly, Tariq Rahman, Ali Riaz, Qasim Zaman and Mumtaz Ahmed have carried out studies of considerable worth and merit but their focus had been circumscribed to the evolution and functioning of the madaris only. Besides, they have not examined Deobandis and particularly their creeping influence in the Punjab in an exclusive manner. Hence, in contemporary era when religious extremism is attracting the attention of scholars from far and wide, the above mentioned subject merits thorough investigation from academic stand point. This provides a raisan detre for the paper at hand. In order to locate Deobandi discourse in the perspective of the Punjab, it seems apposite to make a reference to the religious and political specificity of the region which may also serve as an appropriate entry point into the deliberation to follow here under.

Pir-Murid relationship in the Colonial Punjab

The most outstanding feature of ‘popular Islam’2 in the Punjab has been all permeating influence that the Sufi saints wielded for centuries. Pir-Murid relationship acquires particular salience in the socio-political setting of the rural Punjab. Although mosques and maulvis abound in the villages, they could hardly have substituted “a pervasive ideal of religious authority” that a pir embodies and the shrines as “sites of special access to religious power”3 or barakat. The barakat or spiritual charisma is transmitted from one generation of the pir’s living descendants to another from the eleventh century onwards.

Barakat “perhaps best understood as an almost blood-like substance that flows through the veins of a pir and endows him with what Max Weber called ‘charismatic authority’”.4 Pir’s shrine also epitomises sanctity that it derives by virtue of the barakat it inherits from the pir itself. The pir, ‘the spiritually saturated holy man’, creates a bond with the murid through bait, a pact of spiritual allegiance, thus the former formalises his role visà-vis the latter. Pir performs dual function: he not only fulfils the ‘mundane desires’ of the murid but also acts as a mediator between him and Allah.

The sufi saints of the Punjab, without any exception, belonged to one of the main four Sufi orders. Chishti order casts the greatest influence on the rural Punjabi folks cutting across the boundaries of faith and kinship. The most important shrine of any Chishti saint is of Baba Farid Ganj Shakar at Pakpatan. The sufis of Chishti order represent syncretic cultural ethos that has considerable accommodation for the followers of other faiths. Qadiriah order at Lahore and Multan as its centres has a tangible impact in the urban Punjab. Ali Usman Hijveri or Data Ganj Baksh’s shrine in Lahore is the prime site of homage for the devotees of that order (silsilah). The Naqshbandi order whose “influence radiated outwards from the home of its leading saint in Sirhind”5, Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi. That order holds extraordinary importance with respect to the present paper as the large majority of Deobandi exponents drew inspiration from him. Multan is the centre of Suhrawardy order as its leading sufi saint Bahaud-Din Zakariya has his eternal abode there.

Apart from exercising spiritual influence, the Pirs of the Punjab possessed large landholdings which “ideally placed (them) to play a leading role in rural politics”.6 Over the period of time, the important shrines acquired enormous property through inam grants from the state and considerable waqf endowments donated by the devotees. From eleventh century onwards, most of the rulers granted the shrines large chunks of land as a matter of policy called madad-i-muash,7 meant to secure the sajjada nishin’s loyalty. Ian Talbot provides archival information about the landed property of the different pir families during the colonial era, which made them a serious contender for political power

in the Punjab:

The descendants of Baba Farid possessed, by the twentieth century, a tenth of all the land in the Pakpattan tehsil in which the shrine is situated, some 43,000 acres in all. Part of this came to them as State gifts during Sikh rule. The Shia Shah Jiwana Pir family in Jhang owned nearly 10,000 acres of land, whilst the Pirs of Jahanian Shah owned 7,000 acres. Five thousand acres were attached to the leading Suhrawardy shrine of Baba Bahaud-Din Zakariya in Multan.8 Such large landholdings became instruments not only of economic viability but also political authority for the sajjada nishins who sustained as British collaborators. The government from the second half of the 19th century weaned itself away from the official patronage previously extended to the mosques, temples or shrines. The Act XX of 1863 laid down legal procedures for managing local religious institutions and barred the government from direct financial support for or control over them. However, in order to establish a link with the ‘rural hierarchies of mediation’ a structure was evolved by the British government whereby the local authorities and cultures could be incorporated into the empire. Therefore, British imperial ideology warranted an alliance with many of the rural shrines despite the official policy stating otherwise. The events of 1857 forced the British to take cognizance of the political influence of the sajada nishins on the Punjabi populace. Gilmartin quotes one British official stating about Mukhdoom Shah Mehmood, the sajjada nishin of Bahawal Haq’s shrine, that his mere “presence in our Court convinced the people that the most influential man of their own faith was on the side of order”.9 As the local political influence, the sajjada nishins wielded “obvious interest” as enunciated by the Lieutenant Governor. He justifiably regarded the sajjada nishin as “an individual of territorial influence between the government officials and a population almost exclusively pastoral and agricultural, and as shown by recent experience very liable to be moved to insurrection by sudden and inadequate causes”.10 Consequently, many sajjada nishins rendered services for the British in the rural administration in the capacities of zaildars, honorary magistrates and district board members. Dispute over the income from the lands and succession forced the British to intervene, hence, drawing them even closer to the sajjada nishins. That was the political importance of the sajjada nishins and the shrines of their estates were taken over by the Court of Wards, a measure meant to protect the jagirs of big landlord families caught up in the quagmire of indebtedness or succession crisis. All said and done the sajjada nishins were not only ensconced in the position of ‘spiritual excellence’ and the representatives of ‘local Islam’ but also exercised enormous political influence and authority as big zimindars and the collaborators of the state.

Darul Ulum Deoband: Establishment

Sufi shrines and the countless variations in celebrating the local saints “lend a truly Indian colour to the Muslim practices in the sub-continent. Sufi Islam is usually eclectic and tolerant towards other faiths”.11 However, the orthodox Sunni Islam has a strong tendency to build up an “ideological edifice” on the foundation of puritanical and literalist Islam which “imposes a uniformity of belief and practice through the extensive network of traditional schools and colleges”.12 In the case of Punjab, the overriding influence of the pirs and sajjada nishins did not go unchallenged despite their firmly entrenched position particularly after the Deobandi version gained currency during closing years of the nineteenth century. The traditional religious forms with sajjada nishins and shrines as the mediatory agency was trenchantly denounced by the ulema from Deoband but denunciation came more forcefully from Ahl-i-Hadith13 section of Islamic scholars. However, Ahl-i-Hadith brand of puritanical Islam and its impact does not fall within the purview of this paper. The sole focus of the paper would, heretofore, be on the steady permeation of Deobandi influence in the Punjab. Thus, a reference to the establishment of Darul Ulum14 in 1867 by Hafiz Syed Abid Hussain at Deoband in the United Provinces and the social and historical context making its existence and subsequently sustenance a possibility seems pertinent here.

Throughout the Muslim rule in northern India, “ulema, as teachers, interpreters of religious law, and theologians, were closely linked to political power”.15 Their economic as well as political fortunes “waxed and waned with the rise and fall of Islamic (Muslim) Empires.”16 The decline of the Mughals and the onset of the British rule threatened their status as state functionaries. The reaction of the ulema to the Mughal downfall and the advent of the British rule were markedly different from those of the sajjada nishins of the Punjab. In that era of socio-political transition, the influence of many sajjada nishins remained intact in their respective localities but it was no less than a catastrophe for the ulema of Delhi. For them “it signalled the disappearance of the cultural axis around which the entire Indian Islamic system was developed”.17 With the crumbling of the Muslim authority, “the ulema thus faced a new dilemma in defining the practical meaning of Islamic community in India”.18 Not only the meanings of the Islamic system underwent a tectonic shift as Smith argues, but the responsibility for its maintenance was assumed by the ulema class. Hence, “a serious reorientation among many of the Delhi’s leading ulema”19 ensued, beginning with Shah Waliullah in the eighteenth century.

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