Barelvis and Deobandis, still takfir-crazy after all these years

Half a century ago, observers guffawed at the spectacle of Barelvis and Deobandis excommunicating each other over minor difference of opinion and trifles (in one case over the pronunciation of the Arabic letter dad in the final word of Suratul Fatihah, dhaleen).

Well, 200 couples in UP in India recently had to retake their vows as Muslims and remarry after they were excommunicated by a Barelvi mufti for the crime of attending a funeral prayer led by a Deobandi cleric.

200 weddings redone in UP after a fatwa-India-NEWS-The Times of India

Abid Ali is 80 years old and has been married to 75-year-old Asgeri for as long as he can remember. But this week he repeated his wedding vows and performed a nikah because a top cleric issued a fatwa dissolving his marriage. Ali wasn’t the only one. More than 200 couples had to re-do their nikah in Aharaula village, about 20 km from Moradabad.

What happened? These Barelvi Sunni Muslims had committed the crime of attending a namaaz led by a cleric from the rival Deoband sect. The namaz on August 11 was led by Maulana Hafiz Abu Mohamid during the burial of his uncle, Master Nazakat Hussain, a respected madrassa teacher who had died at the age of 85.

Mind-blowing.  Not only does the infamous, almost proverbial, feud among South Asian Muslims, the Barelvi/Deobandi conflict–which must be the desi equivalent of the Hatfields and the McCoys–live on, but in a virulent and utterly anachronistic form.  Given how trivial the offense in question is, this bespeaks an astonishingly intolerant world view.

I find the idea of any Muslim having to make taubah (repentance) for praying behind an imam from the "wrong" school of thought problematic, but concede there might be circumstances where doing so could be a spiritual error (e.g., choosing to pray behind somebody from a group known for engaging in takfir against your sheikh or community, a dilemna I’ve faced in the past).

But being expelled from the ranks of Islam simply for participating in a funeral prayer led by an imam from another community?  In other words, for prioritizing observance of the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) over sectarian grudges.  That’s as absurd as it is outrageous.

It shows you the continuing influence of (and, sometimes, threat posed by) village maulvis.  It’s easy to forget that despite all the important philosophical developments among Islamic intellectuals and leaders–e.g., the  conference in Jordan last year denouncing the phenomenon of takfir–on the ground in much of the Islamic heartland our deen remains far too often in the grip of unqualified obscurantists and extremists.

For reform initiatives to be meaningful and effective, they must be accompanied by concrete communication and dissemination efforts.  It’s no longer enough to just issue an enlightened statement of principle or even a fatwa, as that will never reach the village level, where the most harm.  There needs to be outreach.

  • The Lounsbury

    Surataul Fatiah? the Fatiha will do, you know, rather than over correct transliteration with a faint special tinge.
    But leaving this aside, the obvious proper response of the community in question would be to tell the over-weening fool of a so-called Imam to sod off.
    (and please do lay off the excessive use of Arabic vocab for utterly ordinary concepts, like religion that are perfectly well expressed with the language you’re writing in. It’s idiotically precious.)

  • Svend

    I don’t want to have a spat with a kindred spirit, but since you’re being so snarky I have to say that I strongly doubt most Muslims would find my usage “idiotic” and that it sounds like you’re unaware of some of the ins and outs of Islamic lingo.
    As regular readers of my blog know, I make a conscious attempt to translate and/or link to translations when using jargon, but sometimes something slips through or I just don’t feel like robotically annotating everything I write or disrupting the flow with yet another definition.
    As a point of fact, I actually went quite light on the Arabic. I did not use the words most Muslims would instinctively employ here, such as JANAZAH (funeral), NIKAH(wedding) or SHAHADAH (declaration of faith).
    Perhaps you’re reacting more to the article from the Indian newspaper, which did have a lot of foreign terms (mostly Persian terms universally used among South Asian Muslims). If so, you might’ve been a little more tactful about it.
    MUFTI, SHEIKH and FATWAH are ubiquitious in the media. SUNNAH is a basic Islamic concept, and TAKFIR (excommunication) is pretty well known today and it easily googled. DEEN (religion), which I think is what you were specifically objecting to, is admittedly less familiar to non-Muslims, but this word means much more than religion–and is far more powerful rhetorically–and, again, my primary audience here is Muslims.
    re: Suratul Fatihah
    Just as pious Muslims are more likely to refer to the Holy Prophet (pbuh) simply as Rasul Allah (literally, “the Prophet of God”) rather than the rather dry “Prophet Muhammad”, so are Muslims wont to refer to the first (and most beloved) chapter of the Quran by its Arabic title “Suratul Fatiha”. That’s how it’s pronounced.
    Speaking of quirky usage, it’s almost unheard for people to say “the Fatiha”. In English, Muslims employ either Suratul Fatiha or al-Fatiha. Or just translate the whole thing as, “the Opening”. But people rarely use your suggestion.
    And spelling it with an ‘h’ at the end is less common but hardly pendantic. For one thing, it’s all over the Web (try googling “‘suratul fatihah’”). And it’s quite sensible from a linguistic perspective–this is the standard convention for transliterating the “ta marbuta” or feminine ending in Arabic, which the word al-fatiha has.
    Finally, I feel a bit like a Jew being lectured for choosing to spell the name of their holiday “Channukah”. There are good reasons for choosing that “confusing” spelling, regardless of whether the unitiated initially find it confusing. And I don’t think it’s the place of outsiders to lecture people on how they discuss their own faith traditions. Especially when they’re doing so half-cocked.
    In keeping with your complaint, I will define another important Arabic term for you: ADAB. It means among other things “good manners”, my catty friend.

  • The Lounsbury

    “Most Muslims”?
    Mate, spare me.
    Perhaps you meant to write “Most Religious Activists” or perhaps “Sub Con Muslims in Anglophone World with Chips on their Shoulders showing off their Arabic” and New Muslims Following Along.
    However, in my experience in the actual Dar “u”l-Islam (to use the precious over vocalisation), one gets along dandily, when using the European language, using the ordinary language without recourse to faux jargon such as “deen” and other Arabic.
    Of course, since I deal mainly with native Arabic speakers, perhaps they feel less moved to be ostentatious.
    I would add that “Most Muslims” in the West I have dealt with also eschewed excessive and ostentatious use of Arabic when the English (or French) did.
    I’m well aware of Islamic vocabulary, the criticism stands.
    Oh, no need to tell me to bloody google the Fatiha and the precious ‘look-at-me I know my tanwine’ transcription. I can recite it well enough on my own. The point was again, overly precious transcription. Sura al Fatiha, the Fatiha. Or write it in Arabic. You can even add the vowelizations for the reader that might go wrong.

  • Abu Sinan

    Wow, nice way to come to someone’s blog just to be offensive.
    I am married to a “native speaker” of Arabic, and you’ll find that on her blog she uses just as many Arabic words, if not more. Who is she trying to impress? You?
    Svend uses a type of Arabic I have commonly seen used amoungst religious scholars, not usually of Arabic descent. I see nothing wrong with it.
    Svend’s blog isn’t usually targeted towards non Muslims, I don’t think, so I don’t see the need to lay off the Arabic words, nor to have to provide a translation or definition for every Arabic or religious word used.
    I sense a great amount of ego in your post, with things like “Of course, since I deal mainly with native Arabic speakers, perhaps they feel less moved to be ostentatious.”
    Am I, or others, supposed to feel impressed by this bit you’ve added? Does that mean you have some special insight that others do not?
    Like I have said, I am married to a native speaker of Arabic. I am also regularly in situations, for days at a time, where Arabic is the only language used, and that by native Arabic speakers mostly from Saudi Arabia. We speak Arabic at home, so the only English happening there is often from the TV alone.
    Does that somehow give me the right to come to another person blog and act mighty and condescending?
    If your knowledge of Arabic is so good, why not continue this conversation, with me, in Arabic? It would be very interesting to see just how much Arabic you know for you to want to come into someone else’s blog and try to read them the “riot act”. Keep in mind, if you choose to continue this conversation in Arabic, that my Arabic is not “fus7a”, but it is Hijazi, you know “since I deal mainly with native Arabic speakers”.
    You, honestly, sound like the pretentious newcomer that you talked about in your comments. Bas, kalaam fadi.
    Yallah, b’3arabi kaman?

  • Svend

    Wrong again, Lounsbury. These usages are simply common among educated native speakers of English who are aware of the stylistic norms of Islamic literature in English. Perhaps they are slightly elevated, but such is the nature of inspirational writing in general. You tend to use the Queen’s English, and for good reason.
    You’re judging by examples that are hardly normative for English style. I guess next you’ll tell me that “incha’Allah” is an acceptable transliteration becaue you’ve seen francophone North Africans employ it when writing in English.
    It’s not surprising that Arabs tend to speak differently from South Asians, as they don’t have the same history of interaction with English. English is not yet a language of scholarship or intellectual exchange on religion in Arabic-speaking countries. India and Pakistan are the heart of English-language publishing in the Muslim world for a reason.
    Also, you’d be hard pressed to find literature by or media catering to Muslims in North America or the UK which do not resort similiarly to these supposedly snobby turns of phrase.
    Finally, these kinds of phrases are seamlessly integrated into normal Islamic discourse around in many languages around the globe. Often simply because they’re from the Quran.
    In my travels, in Africa (Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia), Latin America (Guatemala), the Middle East (Qatar), South Asia (Pakistan) and among the diasporas of Europe (Denmark, Germany and France) and North America, I’ve been struck by how even when I didn’t understand a blessed word of khutbahs (sorry, “sermons”) and religious talks, I caught THOSE KINDS OF WORDS AND PHRASES were what sometimes allowed me to follow along (at least to an extent). They are a lingua franca of Muslims today.
    Do people discuss Islam without using them? Sure, but that doesn’t make them in any way obscure. And reasonably educated and/or religiously observant Muslims will instantly recognize them even if they themselves may not instincitively use them.
    Anyone interested in understanding how Muslims think will need to familiarize themselves with them, as opposed to kvetching* about their prevalence.
    * Yiddish: “to whine”

  • Basil

    OK, the Barelvi/Deobandi nonsense aside, I just have one question: Are these people mad???
    It is impossible to excommunicate a Muslim, full stop. No mufti–small or grand, villager or Azhari–has that authority. The same principle applies to the marriage. Muslim clergy have no real “power” over anyone and fatawa are merely non-binding opinions.
    I find these displays of “religious authority” to be highly disturbing because the requisite trust and respect associated with authority is most often assumed rather than earned or warranted. Sadly, this phenomenon is not restricted to villages in India. Rather, it is a systemic problem throughout the world wherein Muslims have forgotten (or were deluded into believing otherwise) that their faith and their path lie squarely in their own hands; just as Muslim clergy do not have the power to absolve people of sins, they do not have the power to tar people with them either.

  • Abu Sinan

    A civil and respectable response.
    It is also useful to note that whilst the “kvetcher” gives you a bit of stick about the “use the precious over vocalisation” he/she seems not to realise that this classic, Qur’anic type of “over vocalisation” is exactly how Arabic is spoken by educated Arabs, in religious and scholarly natured conversation.
    No khateeb or scholar worth their weight, would discuss religious matters, or give a khutba using dialect Arabic. This would all be done in the very “over vocalised” Arabic that this person complains about.
    Of course, if as they claim, they spend a lot of time around “native speaking Arabs” he/she would be aware of that fact that Arabs speak in their own dialect, not “fus7a” Arabic, on a day to day casual basis.
    The fact is that classical Qur’an Arabic is not heard much outside of TV news shows or religious circles, where “over vocalisation” is a must.
    Usually what one gets is dialect, no real stress on vowels and slurred and muted pronunciation. One of the banes of a new learner of Arabic, as I found out years ago.
    As Arabic is different enough in the Arabic speaking world so as not to be understood by other Arabic speakers, ie in the Maghreb, Fus7a is what is spoken when addressing a wide audience or on religious or scholarly matters.
    If only the average Arabic speaker enunciated their words better. What passes for conversational Arabic now usually sounds like e-G-yptian, unfortunately for those of us that dont care for the dialect. kuwayyis? Khara! lol

  • ayesha

    lol @ “deen” as “faux jargon” :) hoot hoot!

  • Leila

    welcome to your first troll, Svend (is it the first? lol oh lordy!)

  • Svend

    I hadn’t thought of it that way, Leila, but I guess you’re right. Still, I wouldn’t have expected it from such ostensibly sympathetic and cosmopolitan quarters as Aqoul, much less over such a trivial matter. Perhaps someone was having a bad day.
    Whatever. People who are infuriated by the occasional appearence of foreign words in their news should probably stick to READERS DIGEST. And they certainly needn’t subject themselves to my snooty musings, nor me to their provincial grousing.

  • shabana

    Suratul fatiha and deen? THAT’S what’s getting him upset?
    I mean, a person can construct an abrasive persona if he wants, but should have the good taste to at least find a worthy *occasion* to parade it.
    I guess one can over-use such difficult and rare words as deen, but one can’t overdo one’s public persona eh?

  • Wellwisher

    I think the Lounsbury would prefer to see Those-Who-Submit-to-God go for pilgrimage at the Cuboid-House-of-God whilst reading The-Extensively-Read-Book. Indeed, why use ‘foreign speak’ when we can use good old English everywhere? ;-)
    WHAT a waste of space. I think it was only intended to wind us up and throw us off the issue under discussion. We shouldn’t be put off by insults. Let’s just give the likes of the Lounsbury a short concise reply and then let’s get on with the dire problem of takfir.
    One wonders WHAT the so-called ‘Ulama are reading – or understanding – from the Qur’an which clearly states: “Do not say to the one who greets you with Salam: You are not a believer.” How could they have missed that verse??
    Every time a Mollah, Imam, Sheikh, Maulana or Maulvi declares the kufr or disbelief of people who consider themselves Muslim and who say As-Salaamu ‘Alaikum, everyone should just raise that Quranic verse to their faces to bring them back to reason.
    Takfir is a blight on Islam and a source of shame, as well as an occasion for those who hate Islam to ridicule it all the more.
    Those who are partial to Takfir arrogantly believe they have the divine power to know who is a Muslim and who is not. Takfir is treason against the Holy Qur’an which FORBIDS anyone to say such a thing to ANYONE who uses the greeting of salam. That is no less than Allah’s clear commandment. What more can be said after that?

  • jinnzaman

    wow, thats pretty bonkers.

  • The Lounsbury

    Well, a late response, but regardless.
    I find it amusing to be accused of being a troll (and the presumption with respect to my religion, but leaving that aside):
    It is also useful to note that whilst the “kvetcher” gives you a bit of stick about the “use the precious over vocalisation” he/she seems not to realise that this classic, Qur’anic type of “over vocalisation” is exactly how Arabic is spoken by educated Arabs, in religious and scholarly natured conversation.
    I am quite aware of how Quranic Arabic is actually recited, and indeed, Abu Sinan, can do it very, very well myself.
    I merely have contempt for the pretension uage in English and having direct experience with Muslim usage over a decade among the self-confident – of the non-pretension and non-differentiating kind (i.e. no need to use “deen” when the common English “religion” is both proper and clearer, as well as non-self-segregating out of some over-precious desire to pimp one’s ‘scholarly knowledge’).
    So spare me the Reader’s Digest, matey, it’s not the mere appearance of foreign words, it’s the idiocy of self-segregation and pretension from someone who bloody well knows that not all Muslims (above all self confident ones) parade such terms in translation.

  • Svend

    “Self-segregation”? That’s a good one. I didn’t know discussing one’s beliefs in their traditional idiom is divisive and communal. Spoken like an insular reactionary.
    Speaking of contempt, I have contempt for people who lack manners and obnoxiously preach of things they clearly know precious little.
    Stand down while you still have a shred of dignity. You’re in over your head.

  • svend

    Also, your focus on Quranic usage illustrates how fundamentally you misunderstand this whole question. This isn’t about texts, it’s about culture. And primarily non-Arab cultures (85%).

  • Frandroid Atreides

    There’s about a dozen words in this entry that are not common in the English language media when discussing Islam-related topics. Googling one word is fine, a dozen is a bit much. I sometimes engage in jargon usage when I want to show off my knowledge of South Asia, but even then I usually explain what I’m saying. I mean unless you expect only Muslims (and their immediate cohorts) to read your blog, then your usage makes sense, but I doubt that’s the case.

  • svend

    Thanks for the comment, Frandroid.
    I went back and counted the foreign words *I* used. They are
    taubah (but which I defined)
    Suratul Fatiha
    Most of these are fairly familiar to people who follow Islam, which is of course the topic of my blog. The only two that might be obscure or difficult to look up to such a person are DIN (religion) and DESI (South Asian slang for a South Asian).
    I try to keep things accessible. Hence my definition of TAUBAH.
    Now, there *are* a number of far more obscure words in the article I quoted (NIKAH, NAMAAZ, …), but keep in mind that I summarized the article, so an attentive reader should be able to deduce what these words mean. Even if they don’t they have the summary.
    Believe me, there are many far, far more jargon-heavy Muslim blogs (as there are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, … ones). Mine’s probably quite accessible compared to them.
    I make an effort, but sometimes I’m going to miss something. Or I’ll just be too tired to footnote everything.
    I appreciate all my readers taking the time to visit and/or comment, so I’m quite open to answering questions or constructive criticism if I’m making it too specialized.
    More importantly, this isn’t about me forgetting to provide a few definitions here or there (a common problem in blogs that try to tackle academic topics). It’s about 1) factually misinformed claims concerning contemporary Muslim cultures and 2) somebody’s conspicuous lack of class.

  • OmarG

    In Svend’s defense, although I can see Loonsbury’s general point, I barely ever notice any “Muslim-ish Jargon” here. He is definately quite light on it. Certainly, at least not ever as strong as on the Salafi sites, where every other word is Arabic or even worse, pseudo-Arabic usages. I remember in a black mosque when I was young, I literally heard this from an american child: “Amu, my abuya is doin salat in the masjed”. That launched me on my fascination with socio-linguistics…
    But, svend, I personally never say *al-*fatiha; in my speech (writing is a different story!), I usually I am quite comfortable with using Arabic loanwords in Muslim-only contexts and am just as confortable with re-purposing my native English vocabulary to describe Muslim life when needed. However, I do not import Arabic grammatical items such as “al-” or the tanween (Center and I had a quite long tiff on this at; he is also on Eteraz). Thus, I may routinely speak “Surah Fatiha” or even “Did you read Fatiha”, but see no need to make it definite with either ‘al-’ or ‘the’.
    Of course, since Islam is young in America, the variety in adopting loan words from Muslim-majority languages is quite wide. I very much believe we are witnessing the same process with English and French that created New Persian (the Muslim variant after the fall of the Sassanids), Urdu and modern Malay. I’m personally fascinated with how second-gen-ers like you employ these loanwords. Q: did you learn ‘desi’ and ‘namaz’ from Shabana or was it just part of your vocabulary while growing up?

  • svend

    Thanks, Omar. To answer your question, I grew up hearing “namaaz” ALL THE TIME, as I “imprinted” religiously off Pakistanis. Knew “salaat” of course, as that was what the the African-American and Arab Muslims used (and my father, who despite converting in 1957 through Pakistanis never picked up any Urdu; he always used the Arabic terms).
    “Desi” is a more recent addition to the repetoire. I picked that up about a decade ago through Muslim friends from India when they got tire of saying “Indian, Pakistan and Bangladeshi” over and over (which of course leaves out poor neglected Sri Lanka and, depending on your definition of desitude, Nepal) in a convservation. First time I heard it, it was “deshi”.
    So I didn’t grow up with it (did anybody?) but I did encounter it well before it became so common in the community.

  • OmarG

    Yeah, I’ve started to use ‘desi’ for much the same reason. Its interesting how these very distinct ethnicities become merged in America, similarily to what happens with most similar nationalities who emigrate. Like, when Italians first came, no one called themselves Italian: it was always Sicilian, Genevese, Calabrian, Neapolitan, etc. Also, my freinds use it now, so at least I know I can use it and be understood without a verbal footnote.
    What your father did was similar to myself: I converted fairly young but all of my freinds were either American or desi/afghan in origin. But, I suppose Arabic the obvious, default cultural source of religious loanwords for reasons even I understand and use even if I don’t always approve of the connotations of thier superiority over others (which may or may not be present in the relationships between converts and immigrants). On one hand, it feels natural to use some Arabic loanwords when appropriate (and everyone’s level of appropriateness is different, even varying per situation). On the other hand, when I consciously think about it, it does seem to make Islam foriegn. Catholicism was often labled as a foriegn invader as well, for much the same reasons as Islam is today: it “sounds” foriegn, they “dress” fancy and foreign (the priests at least) and they have loyalty to a foreigner (the pope). It passed, and so will this. Hey, even Daniel Pipes uses Arabic loan words, especially “dhimmi”!

  • Svend

    There’s a balance. For example, one of my pet peeves is when people insist when speaking in English to people who only speak English on nasalizing words and adding glottal stops to familiar Arabic words (e.g., Islam, Quran). It’s esthetically jarring, often elitist and makes Islam seem needlessly alien.
    Also, it’s religiously unnecessary. If some Arabic tribes in the Prophet’s time were granted a dispensation for mispronouncing difficult sounds IN THE QURAN, why this obsession with “correct” pronunciation in English.
    I don’t accept that “Qur`an” must be intoned with trilling and flared nostrils when speaking English. It’s a form of cultural chauvinism masquerading as tradition.

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