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When Sufis Challenge the Dictates of Keralite Islamic Organizations

Abdur Rahoof Ottathingal

History’s life in the present often takes uncanny turns, and sometimes certain ways of enlivening the past become so critical for the making of cultural and political configurations in the present. Looking at the heated space of public debates on various issues among Muslims in Kerala, one cannot evade the impression that there are pompous uses and evocations of an ‘anticolonial past’ of the community every now and then. From the regular conferences and public meetings of Islamic organizations, volumes of books, special or ordinary issues of magazines, political rallies, to the announcements of local soccer matches and even the advertisement of a jewelry or textiles shop, invoking a connection to the anticolonial legacy, printing some lines about or pictures of the ‘anti-colonial leaders’ on the flex hoardings, or public descriptions of their naadu or locality with anti-imperial sites or shades are an everyday affair among the contemporary Mappila Muslims. In a social context like this, how must one view the moment of stripping a dominant Islamic organization off its mantle of anti-colonial legacy by a marginal Islamic group?

Recently, a suppressed tariqat (Sufi brotherhood) group, with less number of followers than other mainstream Islamic organizations, publicly challenged the largest Islamic organization in Kerala on the ground of anti-colonial legacy. The Sufi group came out in protest particularly against the ‘traditionalist’ Sunni organizations that claim themselves to be patrons of Sufis and run many shrines, and, also, against the hegemonic dictations of ‘organizational Islam’ in general. In a present where anticolonial legacy is in vogue to seek legitimacy, critical revision of history of the dominant Islamic organization and calling it a ‘collaborator with colonial regime’ by this Sufi group indicate the everyday uses of history on  the one hand, and, on the other, the levels of regimentation engendered by organizational Islam.

Surely, Malabar and Mappilas have a long history of confronting colonialism on different grounds, ranging from trade and religion to politics and culture. It is now accepted that during the colonial times, most Muslim religious leaders were sensitive to the social and economic situations and political requirements of the region, although religion was their prime concern to stand for and express through.  The sixteenth century anti-Portuguese works of Shaikh Zainuddin (Tuhfat al-Mujahidin) and Qazi Muhammad (Fath al-Mubin), the eighteenth century anti-British treatise of Sayyid Alawi (Saif al-Battar) and Padappattu (war-songs), the genre of poetry in Arabi-Malayalam,  widely sung and circulated in the  nineteenth and  twentieth centuries  are all representative repositories showing how strongly the traditional intellectuals took part in the socio-political processes of resistance.

However, from the early twentieth century on, or, to be more precise, in the immediate years after the Malabar Rebellion of 1921-22, Keralite Islam began to take a new shape of collective experience by forming Islamic organizational platforms to resist or propagate particular Islamic ideals and interpretations. Different Islamic organizations competed with each other through basic religious schools, control over mosques and mahallu, trying to exert political influences and getting a powerful hold over the mass.  And, obviously, each one of these competed in projecting the ‘anti-colonial’ marks and scars. These organizations have grown powerful in the present with pervasive presence in the everyday lives of the community, and with hegemonic mechanisms of control over the lives of most Muslims in Kerala.

The Sunni majority is divided mainly in two ‘traditionalist’ organizations both called in short as Samastha, which used to defend the Islamic legitimacy of Sufis and hail the Sufi past of Kerala, especially related to the anti-colonial struggles. Sunnis’ ‘traditionalism’ got organized as a collectivity through the challenges of the ‘modernist’ organizations of Mujahids/Wahhabis and Jama’at-e-Islami. While Mujahid magazines project some of the Muslim reformist leaders, who took part in the nationalist movement, recently Jama’at also began to talk about the anti-imperial qualities of some of the past leaders, who are otherwise identified as the forerunners of the unreformed Islam in Kerala. To the majority of Muslims in Kerala, who are affiliated to one of these organizations, it may seem heretic to live a Muslim life without organizational affiliation. A Muslim’s religious authorization is made possible through organization, and an organization’s social legitimacy is sought mainly through anticolonial legacy. It is this frenzied context that makes the Sufi dismantling of the organizational authority and debasing it of its historical claims so critical and curious a political engagement.

Although the ‘traditionalist’ organization in their polemical engagement with ‘modernist’ reformism advocated for the Sufi Islamic ideals, in the long run of organizational maintenance of the followers, they   suppressed the independent expressions of Sufi circles. While the reformist fold rejected Sufi practices in toto, the ‘traditionalists’ viewed the operation of Sufi circles without subscribing to the organizational schema as something to be suppressed. Polemics, in turn, went on for the sake of organizations. Sufi circles by and large internalized the inferiority and weaker authenticity. Every reference to tariqat generated fury, sarcasm or sense of obsolescence in the mainstream Islamic public sphere. Whenever any tariqat group strove to gain followers or share the public space of articulation, the organizational authority suppressed it by issuing fatwas and public cry of juridical illegitimacy. Diverse traditions of Islamic life, thus, got hegemonically patronized by the modern organizational framework. Sufi circles, as they followed different form of collectivity that may not always be conforming to that framework, began to be the victims of the dominating structure of Islamic society. The powerful and pervasive presence of organizations sought to control the social life of Muslim groups and individuals, restricting them into the banally instituted limits of parochial ‘organizationalism’.  Despite the continuing antagonism among each other, the macro structure of Islamic articulations and engagements was well maintained through powerful practice of ‘organizationalism’. The organizational power exercised itself in such a degree that can manufacture the mass consent to go for silencing the dissent, mutilating condemnation of differences, and sometimes literally social boycott. In a religious community like that of the Mappilas, the organizational authority is ensured also through generating the threat of excommunication in everyday life. As they sought to argue with the organizational decree to banish them the Sufi groups had to face these harsh consequences.

Citing the illegitimacy of certain practices, the ‘traditionalist’ organization Samastha declared fatwas against Korur and Chottur tariqat in the very beginning. Noorisha tariqat was once patronized by Samastha and later attacked when the Shaikh (Sufi-master) began to attract mass reception. Yet many other tariqat groups faced the same fate from Samastha and utter ridicule from other reformist organizations. But the situations changed when a fatwa was decreed by Samastha against the Qadiri Sufi order known as Aluva tariqat in 2006. The group was not willing to accept the organizational dictates. Instead of retreating to their private den of activities, they remained in the public challenging the authority of these organizations, ‘traditionalists’ and ‘reformists’ alike. Despite suffering from the social boycott and excommunicating moves prompted by the fatwa, this group went on with frequent public talks that scathingly critiqued organizational hegemony. This has led to revitalization of various hitherto silently functioning Sufi movements at a new pace, fashion, and intensity of articulation among the Sunni Muslims.

The latest episode in the Sufis’ counter-mobilization was to urge people for critical reconsideration of the twentieth century history of anticolonial struggles. The Qadiri group dared to publicly claim that the forefathers of these organizations were in fact collaborators with the British administration, when it was on a wild move of witch-hunting against the Mappilas, who revolted against the oppressive economic policies and horrible measures of social control. They went even further branding the Ulama council and the organizational body as a British conspiracy to tame the unrest and regiment the Mappila population internally.

It should not be viewed necessarily as Sufis making a nationalistic critique of the dominations in a postcolonial situation. Rather, a more nuanced and productive way of understanding this argumentative moment would be to view this as a present day strategy for a counter-mobilization. Also, when institutional power operates as common sense, recalling history on pragmatic ground and posing practical challenges are emancipatory. Sufi critique of the organizational paradigm of Islam in contemporary Kerala, and its revisionist reference to history of colonial times, are, therefore, a historically contingent act of resisting the hegemony in the present.  Nevertheless, the new currents of counter-hegemonic practices may influence the directions of change in organizational Islam and its factionalist publics in Kerala in the coming days.

[Abdur Rahoof Ottathingal completed his MA and MPhil. in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently he is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of History, Leiden University. He can be reached at]

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeet Bhattacharya #

    Is the Organizational form only ‘modernist’ form remaining for the traditionalist muslims to negotiate with present? Are’nt the the Sufi’s in a way subverting modernity itself?

    October 28, 2013
  2. Renny Thomas #

    well written

    October 28, 2013
    • Abdul Majeed #

      Congratulation for this effort. I like the way you articulated the theme in article. I don’t think you are trying to validate any claim by any parties. I appreciate this effort, and as a part of which I put certain doubts.

      Firstly, can we take categories like ‘organizational Islam’, Sufi Islam, Wahabi islam, Urban Islam, Folk Islam etc. as taken for granted? Can ‘Islam’ be essentially categorized so, because they either use ‘modern bureaucratic apparatus’, or is centered around Sheikh, or informed by ideas of WAhab, or centered around city or rural area. does one need examining of the historical, contemporary political and cultural location in which these particular attribution got associated with ‘Islam’.

      Secondly, locating the particular Sufi order out side the ‘Organizational Islam’ sounds confusing. Although the particular Sufi order is centered around a Sheikh, does it also use the mechanism of ‘Organizational Islam’ and participates in the public polemic debate without any difference in its articulation style and organize public gathering to ‘Shakthi theliyikkal’ (which is an essential part of contemporary factions of Muslims in Kerala). Is it similar to other factions of Muslims in kerala in excommunicating the dissent voices and claiming true Sufism/true Islam.

      thirdly, Where do you locate the excommunication, denying the fellowship of Muslim community in pre-1920s. Branding some group of people as ‘thareeqath without shareeath’ were there in pre-1920s as well and there the centers of discourses were the Masjid/place of a particular religious expert. Understanding the shift in the centers of Islamic discourses is also important here.

      November 1, 2013

    Dear Abdur Rahoof, your article is well written and carefully argued. I enjoyed reading it. Still I have few dissent notes. Your approach on Muslim organizational practice in Kerala is helpful to displace “essentialist “views on Islam, ironically creates a new essentialism by assuming that all the different organizations (including Sufi organizations) are composed of common structural elements. Your negligence of wider context where different organizations have been framed as “uncivilized, disloyal to nation, fundamentalist” by state apparatus requires further exploration. As for me, rather than viewing Islamic organizations as an explanatory phenomena in present Muslim discourse one should consider it as a phenomena which has to be explained. These organizations use multiple strategies about Islam to construct a different identity and Sufis are not an exception. It’s true that organizational Islam has internal divisions and debates but the same inside Sufi sect are not less. We cannot ignore the specific historical context of how different organizations are emerged rather than positioning them in a binary opposed category.

    November 2, 2013
  4. The tendency of fooling the man mass in the name of belief prevailed in all times in the history and continues even in the present time also, as now the the institutionalized Islam in Kerala turned more commercialized and political and it has been far from the fundamental concepts and faiths which determine character of a Muslim……. !!!! Hats off to Raof… Well written..

    April 26, 2014
  5. husain #

    Congrts raoof. Well writton.

    August 21, 2014

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