Religions are calculated to create in the minds of their followers long-lasting moods and behaviour patterns. They indelibly shape the worldviews of their followers, they way they look at and act towards themselves, others and the world around them. At the risk of too broad a generalisation, one can talk of two typical moods or frames of mind and behaviour generated by two very different and competing understandings or interpretations of Islam. The first mood, associated with a once dominant form of ‘inner Islam’ or Sufism, reflects in its followers’ values such as gentleness, humility, compassion, love, generosity and cheerfulness. It leads one to consider the spark of God as being present in every particle of the universe, and, on that basis, leads to a universal love that transcends all barriers, including religion, class and gender. It conduces to celebration, joy and laughter, which is expressed in song, poetry, art and aesthetics. Sufis and Sufi-inspired Muslims (and some non-Muslims, too) were once the vanguard of artistic and intellectual creativity in the Muslim world.
The Sufi form of Islam, which its proponents insist is indeed the authentic Islam, has been increasingly overshadowed over the years by a virulent, harsh and brutal reading of the faith, most notoriously characterised by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the Deobandis and Ahle Hadith in South Asia, and groups such as al Qaeda in some other parts of the world. This version of ‘Islam’, which, for purposes of convenience, can be called the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology, is calculated to promote precisely a mood and character precisely the opposite of that of the Sufis, being based on hatred and harshness, privileging a rigid textualism that drains religious experience of its spiritual content. It is premised on unrelenting opposition to and conflict against other religions and other readings of Islam. It is manifested in a seemingly never-ceasing cycle of violence and killing, in relentless suppression of women and minorities, and in hate-spewing mullahs stirring their awe-struck followers from the pulpits of their mosques with fear and trepidation, vengeance and hate. Its followers are easily recognisable: they wear a permanent scowl on their faces, and completely lack a sense of humour. They ardently believe they are God’s khalifas and are best qualified to bring the entire world under their domination, only if what they readily brand as the kuffar, that is all of humanity but themselves, would let them. Painfully self-righteous, they are convinced, so their mullahs have driven them to believe, that they are destined to monopolise heaven, and that the rest of humankind is doomed to eternal punishment in hell.
This latter version of Islam has, in recent decades and for a variety of reasons, become the dominant expression of the faith over large parts of the world, although, it is important to note, it wrongly arrogates to itself the mantle of Islamic ‘authenticity’. While much can be said about the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology and the havoc it is creating for the image of Islam worldwide and for, and in, the lives of its followers (and others, Muslims and non-Muslims, affected by their presence, too), this essay focuses on just four key aspects of the phenomenon, using the case of a curious email message that I received last week to illustrate a broader argument.
On the first day of this month, when I switched on my computer and checked into my Inbox, I spotted a curiously titled e-mail message. ‘April Fool’s Day: An Important Notice’, it announced. Presuming it to be a light-hearted April Fool’s Day prank, I opened it only to discover a long and bitter harangue against this harmless occasion of joy. The mail was an impassioned appeal to Muslims to desist from having their bit of fun on April Fool’s Day. It had been circulated on the Internet by—you guessed it right!—a self-righteous Muslim of the Wahhabi-Deobandi brand, the sort who can never stop obsessing about their deluded belief in being God’s chosen people.
In order to understand the import of the mail, a brief digression focussing on four principal aspects of the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology and the permanent mood it creates in its followers is in order here. The first aspect of the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology that needs to be considered in this regard is the fact that it is premised on a fanatic insistence that it alone represents the truth, and that all other belief systems, including other versions of Islam, are fatally false. This belief, a cardinal aspect of the ideology of Wahhabi-Deobandism, necessitates the constant promotion of hatred towards others, both other Muslims as well as non-Muslims. All non-Wahhabi-Deobandis are branded together as supposed ‘enemies’— of Muslims, of Islam and of God.
They are often depicted as sinister ‘friends of the devil’, as allegedly constantly engaged in ‘conspiracies’ to distort and destroy the ‘true believers’ faith. All manner of conspiracy theories are invented to reinforce this bogus belief that has no sanction in the holy Quran and is also completely at odds with the universal love preached by the true exemplars of Islam, the Sufis. Muslims (by which is meant adherents of Wahhabi-Deobandism) must always remain in a state of alert, constantly defensive of their faith, because, it is repeated ad nauseum by the clerics of this creed, the ‘unbelievers’ never spare a moment in their ceaseless ‘plots’ against them and their faith.
Keeping this in mind, it is easy to recognise how and why the Wahhabi-Deobandi is, by definition, a principle factor for what is called Islamophobia, which has grown alongside the exponential expansion of Wahhabi-Deobandism in recent years, in part as a reaction to it. Wherever the supremacist Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology has spread, it has invariably provoked mounted opposition to Muslims and Islam, for it is premised on a firm opposition to cordial relations with others. In societies where Muslims and others lived together in peace and harmony for centuries, where Sufis were the vehicle for the spread of Islam, attracting scores of non-Muslims, too, to their learning circles and shrines, this poisonous ideology has succeeded in fomenting communal hatred and violence and creating deep-rooted animosities to Islam where they did not exist before.
Linked to this inherent maniacal tendency of Wahhabism-Deobandism that rests on generating unrelenting hostility towards the rest of humanity is a second aspect of the Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology — its utter intellectual poverty. This has caused havoc for the state of scientific and creative thought and imagination among Muslims infected by this virus the world over. The Wahhabi-Deobandi ideology is based on an unthinking assent to the dictums of half-baked mullahs, who are viscerally averse to any innovative thinking, to any idea outside their narrow and extremely suffocating self-created framework. Wherever this ideology has spread, often with the help of hefty petro-dollar financing, Muslims have suffered an immense intellectual, besides moral, decline.
Linked to the two above-mentioned aspects of Wahhabism-Deobandism is a third aspect of this pernicious ideology: a marked tendency to blame others (non-Muslims as well as other Muslims) for all the ills of the Muslims, and a stunning refusal to introspect, to recognise the Muslims’ culpability both for their own decline as well as for the sufferings that Muslims may have caused for others. This is yet another aspect of Wahhabism-Deobandism that sets it neatly apart from the ‘inner Islam’ of the Sufis, which is based on the search within and what is called the ‘blaming of the self’.
A fourth aspect of the ideology of Wahhabi-Deobandism is its total lack of humour. It stands for a stultifying, dehumanising way of life, morose, haunting and tomb-like, deadening in its utter seriousness, harshness and brutality. If the joy shared by the Sufis was one of the many gifts that attracted scores of non-Muslims to Islam, the brutal gravity of the Wahhabi-Deobandis drives non-Muslims to the other extreme, repelling them far from Islam. All things of beauty and joy are considered anathema in the ideology of Wahhabi-Deobandism — be it song and dance, art and creativity, and even simple occasions for harmless fun, as I will now explain, such as good old April Fool’s Day.
The four key aspects of Wahhabi-Deobandism just outlined are clearly expressed in the mail denouncing April Fool’s Day that found its way, quite uninvited, into my Yahoo! Inbox the other day. In an impassioned appeal to Muslims to desist from playing pranks and having innocent fun on April Fool’s Day, the anonymous sender of the mail claimed that the event actually commemorated a sinister plot hatched by what it called ‘The Christians of the West’ or, alternately, ‘unbelievers’, to topple Muslim rule in Spain and to ‘wipe out Islam from all parts of the world’. For this purpose, it went on, ‘the unbelievers’ sent batches of their spies to Spain, where they freely distributed alcohol and cigarettes among the Spanish Muslims in order to tempt them to stray from Islam. This, they hoped, would cause them to degenerate and would lead to their political downfall. This ‘plot’ gradually succeeded, so the mail claims, and, finally, on the 1st of April (the sender of the mail leaves the year unmentioned), Granada, the last bastion of Spanish Muslim rule, finally fell to the plotting Christians. And that was why and how, the mail argued, the Christians decided to celebrate the 1st of April every year to mark their victory over the Muslims by having fooled them into defeat by a mere prank — causing their degeneration and final fall by enticing them away from their faith with free cigarettes and alcohol.
‘We, the Muslims, were fooled by the unbelievers,’ the mail wailed. ‘They have a reason to celebrate April Fool’s Day, to keep up the spirit.’ ‘Dear brothers and sisters,’ the mail ardently appealed in conclusion, ‘when we join in this celebration, we do so out of ignorance. If we had known about it, we would never have celebrated our own downfall. So now, that we are aware of it, and now let us promise that we shall never celebrate this day. We should learn our lesson from the people of Spain, and shall try to become practising Muslims, never to let anybody weaken our faith. The case of this curious e-mail message brilliantly illustrates what I have described as the permanent mood that Wahhabism-Deobandism is bent on creating and reinforcing in the minds of its hapless victims: a complete lack of humour and a ferocious opposition to even the small pleasures of life, such as celebration and joy and a bit of fun on April Fools’ Day; unrelenting hatred towards other communities, based on wild and untenable generalisations about them as ‘plotters’ against Islam (and thus providing convenient fodder for the spread of Islamophobia); an utter intellectual sterility, characterised by a deadening and stultifying understanding of religion and history, often based on patent falsehoods (internecine wars among the Spanish Muslims were as much a cause of the fall of Muslim power there as were Christian attacks; cigarettes were invited years after the fall of Granada; Granada was re-conquered on the 12th of January, not, as the mail claims, the 1st of April. April Fool’s Day has nothing even remotely to do with the Spanish Muslims and their downfall, but was probably invented in France more than a century later to mark a dispute between two groups of Christians over the Gregorian calendar!).
Here’s my advice to the hapless folks who might have fallen prey to the sender of the angry anti-April Fool’s Day mail: Let down your hair, have a bit of fun and spring a prank on someone to bring some joy into your lives and of others around you. If you think God and religion are all about moaning and mourning, as the sender of this mail probably does, you can continue to wallow in your self-created sorrow and curse the world for thinking you are painfully insufferable, but let me have my share of fun! My God loves fun, too!