By Husain Al-Qadi
Ramadan arrived in Britain this year in a week when the Murdoch media empire intensified its attacks on Muslims in general and on those who follow the Deobandi school of thought in particular.
Murdoch’s Times newspaper ran a series of scaremongering articles which attempted to paint a picture of Islam as a “suicide cult” and the Deobandis as an obscure “sect” that got lucky by taking control of mosques in Britain “away from the Barelwis”.
So who is Murdoch and who is this “dangerous sect” of Deobandis and these “nice guy” Barelwis?
Most people know about Murdoch’s satellites, which deliver TV programmes in five continents, his 175 newspapers (including the New York Post and the London Times), his Twentieth Century Fox studio, Fox Network, and its 35 TV stations (his cable channels include Fox News and 19 regional sports channels). But what many seem to forget is that he is also a hard-core Neocon supporter of Israel, who played a major role in turning public opinion in favour of invading Iraq.
Mr Murdoch was unequivocal about war with Iraq:
We can’t back down now. I think Bush is acting very morally, very correctly, and I think he is going to go on with it.
He said the price of oil would be one of the war’s main benefits.
The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in any country.
Mr Murdoch’s comments come just a week after he told US Fortune magazine that war could fuel an economic boom.
Who knows what the future holds? I have a pretty optimistic medium and long-term view but things are going to be pretty sticky until we get Iraq behind us. But once it’s behind us, the whole world will benefit from cheaper oil which will be a bigger stimulus than anything else”
he told Fortune. (The Guardian, 12.02.03).
The attacks by his Times newspaper is not the first on Muslim scholars of the Deobandi school of thought. Last year, Murdoch’s Star TV Network tried to entrap Muslim scholars in India with gifts and accusations of bribery. Later it was discovered that his reporter had misled the scholars under false pretences and then misrepresented conversations in his reports.
Deobandis and Barelwis
In the Times articles there were repeated, disparaging references to Deobandis, contrasted with highly-favourable statements about Barelwis. So who are the Deobandis?
A conservative estimate on the number of Deobandis around the world today puts it somewhere between 200 and 270 million. Although the name is taken from a village where a seminary was established in 1867 to protect traditional Muslim learning from interference by the British Raj, the term “Deobandi”, as a name for a school of thought, emerged much later in response to the polemics of the theologian Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi in the 1890s and early twentieth century.
During the establishment of the Indian seminary Nadwatul Ulama, which was set up to reform the madrasa curriculum and unite the various Muslim factions in India, a dispute developed which led to this division. Initially, Ahmad Riza Khan supported the idea of Nadwatul Ulama, and wrote hopefully that
in the era full of misfortune, in which the affliction of bad-mazhabi surrounds us and the plague of freedom has conquered the world, the Nadwatul Ulama…would strengthen the Ahl-e-Sunnat, and dispel turmoil”
(Muhammad Hasan Riza Khan (1895), Sawalat Haqaiq Numa ba Ruasa Nadwatul Ulama, Badayn; Victoria Press. p.2)
As the movement developed, Ahmad Riza Khan tried to convince those involved to restrict membership to his particular school of thought (Matubat-e-Imam Ahmad Riza Barelwi, 1986, p. 88-102) and he wrote private letters to the leader of the project, Moulana Mohammad Ali Mongeri, to this effect.
Eventually, he found the Nadwa movement too liberal in its approach to Muslim unity and decided to launch a campaign against the movement and all those involved with a series of theological and personal attacks. His campaign involved, for the first time in the history of Islam, a concept of “automatic takfir” or “default apostasy”, which was declared on anyone who doubted (man shakka) the kufr (apostasy) of the long list of Muslim scholars with whom he disagreed.
His 1903 fatwa compilation entitled Husam al-Haramyn (The Sword of the Two Holy Places) declared that, among others, all of the scholars of Deoband (the institution which had by then served the Muslims of India for almost four decades as one of the most distinguished and vibrant places of Islamic scholarship in the subcontinent), all of the scholars of the Nadwatul Ulama movement, all of the scholars of the Ahl-e-hadith movement, and the Nechiriyya (Sir Sayyid Ahmad and all those in his Alighar Muslim University movement) were apostates without doubt.
These scholars and their followers were to be excommunicated from the fold of Islam in the absolute sense.
Ahmad Riza Khan declared:
It is fard (obligatory) on everyone to stay away from such a person. He must be despised and scoffed at and refuted. Any respect shown to him is not only haram (prohibited) but will amount to the demolition of the foundation of Islam. It is haram to greet him, to sit or eat and drink with him. The conclusion of any marriage contracts is also haram: it will amount to pure adultery. Such a person should not be visited even if he is sick. Participation in the funeral of such a person, washing him according to the shari’ah law, to shoulder his dead body, to bury him in a Muslim burial place, to stand alongside his grave and make supplication for his salvation or the offering of the Fatihah to the departed soul – all are not merely haram – but acts of (kufr) apostasy.
The prayers of such people were also null and void
since their prayer is not real prayer, no prayer is allowed behind them. On occasions like Friday and Eid, if there is no Imam available other than these apostates, it is obligatory on every Muslim to forsake and abandon the Friday and Eid prayers.”
(Ahkam-e-Shariyat, Vol.1, p.129)
In responding to these serious charges, the scholars of Deoband were distinguished from the Barelwis (Ahmad Riza Khan and his followers) and hence the naming of these two camps as “Deobandis” and “Barelwis”. In recent times, however, scholars from both sides have tried to bridge the gap of misunderstanding, especially in the Muslim diaspora.
Neocons and 21st Century Barelwis
So why are Murdoch and his Neocon friends so keen to promote the Barelwis and target the Deobandis? There are several reasons for this, the first being historic. The Deobandis always maintained their independence from the state during the British Raj in India. Unlike the Barelwis, the Deobandis were also at the forefront of the freedom movement for Indian independence. The calculation is that, given this history, the Deobandis would be less likely to accept any Neocon programmes of interference in Muslim social affairs.
The second reason is strategic. By reviving and promoting a school of thought that excommunicates almost all other streams of Islamic scholarship with the charge of apostasy, they would be able reduce the chances of unity among Muslims in defiance of their programmes of interference. If Muslims are united against their interventions, which are designed to undermine faith in Islam, then the task will be much more difficult. So it is better to promote people who can exclude large swathes of the community through doctrinal edicts.
The third reason is the enthusiasm nowadays of people like Haras Rafiq (who claim to speak for the Barelwis) to accept and promote, on the one hand, Neocon inspired “advice” such as, “instead of speaking out against atrocities in Palestine and Iraq, Muslims in the UK should occupy themselves only with ‘lifestyle discussions'” and, on the other hand, their willingness to exhume a century-old, rancorous pronouncement by Ahmad Riza Khan of apostasy against the Deobandis for political gain.
Waking Up to Pie in Sky
For those who may be inclined to take the pronouncements and editorial dictates of Mr Murdoch as gospel, it would be useful to bear in mind that this is the man who constructed public opinion through his newspapers and the Fox News Network for the war on Iraq with promises of a $20 barrel of oil. Yesterday, the price of oil closed at a record-high of more than $80 a barrel and the world economy continues to jitter on a knife edge while the death toll on all sides continues to spiral in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Deobandis and Barelwis may have their differences, but for Mr Murdoch to assume that he can exploit these to excommunicate or simply “wish into non-existence” a quarter of a billion (Deobandi) Muslims through biased media speculation, or even by force of war, is as much pie in the sky as a $20 barrel of oil today.
The sooner the world wakes up to these realities, the better it would be for all concerned. If not, we are likely to be faced with a future of even more catastrophic wars based on wishful thinking with dire consequences for all of us.