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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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