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.