By Arshad Alam
13 April, 2011
The visit of the Imam of Saudi Mecca Masjid to India a couple of weeks ago created quite a flutter in the Indian English media. It was disturbing to note that leading English newspapers hailed him very nearly as the Pope of the Muslim world, betraying an acute lack of understanding of the nature and pattern of religious authority within Islam. To put the record straight, Imam Sudais is just an imam of a particularly important mosque in Saudi Arabia is paid by the Saudi state for that job. Even the sermons that he delivers on Fridays have the prior sanction of the Saudi establishment. Sudais is also not known for being tolerant towards other faiths; his vitriol against the Jews is well known to be repeated here. Moreover, Saudis and thus Sudais represent a particular version of Islam called Wahabism which is truly a minority viewpoint within the overall Islamic weltenschhaung. Thus to call him the imam of all Muslims is patently incorrect and misleading.
Sudais, however, himself had no problem as to whose imam he was. In India, he met the representatives of the Deoband and the Ahl e Hadees. Both these Islamic interpretative communities have been at loggerheads over what is termed as ‘correct’ interpretations of Islam. The Deobandis have termed the Ahl e Hadees as ghair muqallid which means that they are outside the fold of Islamic jurisprudential system. The Ahl e Hadees on the other hand have campaigned against the Deobandis arguing that they are no better than the grave worshippers and in fact have graves within the seminary itself. Some of these tirades have been done through the Arabic press with the express intention of gaining Wahabism’s favour and consequently a share in the petro-dollar charity of the Saudi state. The Wahabi state, initially, through the good offices of Ali Mian Nadwi, veered towards the Deobandis but later on found greater merit in the argument of Ahl e Hadees. How does then one view the recent visit of Sudais meeting the representatives of both these rival denominations within Indian Islam. Can it be seen as the diplomatic posturing of the Saudi state which is now trying to project a moderate picture of itself, especially in the post 9/11 context?
More fundamentally perhaps, the answer may be sought not in whom Sudais met but those he did not. Despite being represented as the imam of all the Muslims, he did not care to meet the most numerous Indian Muslims, the Barelwis. Through a mediated understanding of Islam, the Barelwis have had the most sobering influence on Indian Islam; in fact they largely define what Indian Islam is all about. But it is this mediated understanding of Islam, where the notion of divinity is both local and experiential, which is an anathema to Wahabism. It shares this antipathy of India’s lived Islamic traditions with the subcontinent’s own Deobandis and Ahl e Hadees, both of which largely made their respective communities by attacking precisely these very lived Islamic traditions. Hardly surprising then, that Sudais would not meet the most numerous practitioners of Islam in India.
What is however surprising is that the Prime Minister of India finds time to meet this Saudi cleric. Was he also under the impression that Sudais is the imam of all Muslims? And if he did not make that erroneous judgment then what was the point of meeting a representative of an ideology which is known for bigotry? Oil diplomacy might explain this to some extent. But the Prime Minister comes from the land of Bulle Shah, which has given us a mysterious, mystical, mediated and embodied tradition of Islam. We in India are the carriers of this open and polyvocal Islam. Why trade it for some cheap oil?
Arshad Alam is with the Center of Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia