IN NOVEMBER LAST year, the Kerala state police announced that approximately a hundred Malayali Muslim youth were suspected to have joined the Islamic State over the past few years. Many of these ‘missing youth’, as the media began to characterise them, had been reared in the composite Keralite ethos—created from the intertwining of Islam, Christianity and Brahminism over the past 1,300 years.
Yet, a spiritual vacuity or moral anxiety seemed to have pushed many of these youths towards Salafi preachers, whose obsession with a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture perhaps proved too captivating.
TK Hafeezuddin, a college student pursuing his BCom from Padanna, Kerala, left his education, wife and parents to ‘reach heaven’ where he could lead what he considered an Islamic way of life. Abdul Rasheed Abdulla, an engineer from Trikkaripuri village, near Padanna, left with his wife Aisha, also highly educated with a BTech and an MBA, to join the ISIS in Afghanistan after coming under the influence of fundamentalist preaching. Rasheed would even quarrel with local mosques over their rituals—considering many of them unIslamic.
Such abrupt withdrawals from normalised existence are not unique to India. From Europe to Indonesia, thousands of Muslims have chosen to submit to the appeal of the eponymous Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, whether through lone-wolf attacks on civilians or in undertaking migration to the Caliphate.
What explains the spurt of youth falling for fantastical notions of ideological purity? Two recently released works— The ISIS Caliphate: From Syria to the Doorsteps of India by Stanly Johny (Bloomsbury; 192 pages; Rs 499) and The Islamic Connection: South Asia and the Gulf (Viking; 320 pages; Rs 699), edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Lawrence Louer—wrestle with this question.
The ISIS Caliphate focuses on the most potent symbol of Islamic fundamentalism in the world today: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Stanly Johny, a senior editor at The Hindu, provides a terse overview of how the Islamic State came to be, the core of its appeal and where it is striking in India.
Johny is right in holding to account the disastrous 2003 American invasion of Iraq as the most direct factor in the rise of ISIS. The breakdown of law and order that pervaded the country in the aftermath of that invasion allowed a fledgling Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq to grow into a proto-state that eventually christened itself as the Islamic State of Iraq. Imprudent decisions by the United States, such as disbanding the Iraqi National Army, led to a ready supply of military officers for such radical jihadi militias as Iraq proceeded to tear itself apart along Shia-Sunni lines.
In 2010, after almost a decade of inflicting fundamentalist violence upon Shias, Sufis and American soldiers, the Islamic State chose Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its Emir. Al-Baghdadi, unlike previous IS leaders, was a sharp ideologue of Islamist thought. He aggressively pursued territory in the lawless regions of both Syria and Iraq, capturing Aleppo and Raqqa amongst other valuable territorial possessions, and doubled down on the Sunni fundamentalists’ war against the Shia.
In 2014, four years from his anointment as ISIS’s Emir, he would break into international attention with his declaration of a Caliphate from the Grand Mosque of Mosul, the second biggest city of Iraq and most prized conquest of the Islamic State. The world would watch in amazement as the announcement was followed by thousands of disaffected youth heading to Syria to join Al-Baghdadi.
Johny’s experience in documenting ISIS recruits from India is largely limited to South India, where some families have heartbreakingly seen their loved ones leave stable lives for utopian notions of an Islamic society. The ones who leave from India largely opt for Kunar province of Afghanistan, where ISIS has established a small foothold.
How did such an immersion in Salafi ideology come about? The ‘Gulf’ connection, which Jaffrelot’s The Islamic Connection charts in great detail, is to blame for promoting puritan beliefs. But also the legacy of early 19th century South Asian Salafi preachers such as Syed Barelvi and Shah Ismail, who pioneered the infamous Salafi organisations Ahl-i-Hadith and its south Indian offshoot, the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen (KNM), which is currently spearheading Salafi conservatism in Kerala.
The heart of Johny’s book, however, is correctly invested in understanding that it is not so much the rogue state of IS that is the problem, but the idea of an ‘Islamic’ state in the 21st century. In effect, the presence of ISIS is a culmination of almost a half-century of Islamic revivalism that gripped the Muslim world in its anxieties over modernity. Or, as Johny notes, the key element behind the worldwide emigration of thousands to the ISIS’s Caliphate is the ‘shared belief in and commitment to a puritanical version of Islam—Salafism’.
Salafism is an umbrella term for a set of theological outlooks that stress a literalist and hence fundamentalist understanding of Islamic scripture. Based on modernist ideologues such as Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, South Asia’s Abul Maududi and Saudi Arabia’s Abd al Wahhab, whose revulsion with Western modernity pushed them to call for a renewal of Islam, Salafism harkens back to the (imaginary?) Islam of the ‘salaf’—the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and the Prophet’s Companions (hence the term). Disregarding the many layers of commentaries on Islamic scripture that had developed over centuries, Salafi ideologues consider the Qur’an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) as the final authority on all matters Islamic.
In practice, this means a literalist reading of Islamic scripture that eschews values such as secularism, the nation state, equality for women and other staples of modernity as blatant violations of the text. Moreover, Salafism vehemently rejects Islam’s Sufi and Shia heritage, dismissing such sects as ‘shirk’ (polytheism) or ‘takfir’ (guilty of apostacy).
While not all Salafi sects advocate violence, it is important to note that Salafi- jihadist thought, which the ISIS espouses, is predicated on a similar literalist and non- historicised approach to Islamic scripture.
Johny fails, however, in providing a systematic analysis of the intellectual history of Salafi ideas on the lines of the excellent Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea (2016) by Shiraz Maher, a noted British expert on Islamist extremism. Unlike Johny, Maher’s story pieces together a Salafi intellectual history since the Abbasid Caliphate; how in some ways today’s jihadists, who often offer detailed jurisprudential logic for each major round of bombing innocents, are a continuation of a particular vein of theological tradition within Islam.
Johny’s book, therefore, could have been a detailed and comprehensive delineation of ISIS, Salafism and its presence in India. But it is likely to end up as a prolegomenon to a series of detailed books by Indian authors on the subject.
While not all Salafi sects advocate violence, it is important to note that Salafi-jihadist thought, which the ISIS espouses, is predicated on a similar literalist and non-historicised approach to Islamic scripture
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While Johny’s work focuses on how a theological outlook is spearheading and seducing violent minds today, The Islamic Connection edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louer, sports an anthology of essays that deal with the more mundane matter of how such ideas travel through migratory and financial networks between South Asia and the Gulf.
The Islamic Connection calls such Salafication the ‘Arabisation’ of what used to be an ‘Indo-Islamic civilisation’. The roots of this South Asia-centred Islam lie in Sufi sects and their dargahs (tombs of revered men) on the Indian Subcontinent, which over the past millennium had rivalled the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and supplanted Jazirat al-Arab (the Arabian Peninsula) as the faith’s holy symbols for most South Asian Muslims. Not only did these syncretic sects borrow many devotional practices from Hinduism, they received the active endorsement of the Indian ruling classes—most famously the reverence that Mughal emperors displayed for the Chishti Order of Sufism.
But on the Subcontinent today, as essays in The Islamic Connection tell us in detail, and as Johny also notes, Gulf-centric Wahhabi and Salafi variants of the faith are gradually replacing home-grown Sufi sects, and often go hand-in-hand with world views of pan-Islamism and violent jihad.
The export of such theological ideas is supported by a ceaseless supply of petrodollars from state and non-state actors in mostly Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, and through the migratory networks that result from millions of Indian and Pakistani Muslims working in Gulf countries.
The Islamic Connection opens with Jaffrelot’s essay, which notes the gradual but enduring radicalisation of Pakistan’s politics, augmented by a deepening Saudi connection. In 1959, Pakistan’s first generalissimo Ayub Khan had openly admitted to a delegation from Shia-dominated Iran the cultural debt that his country owed Persia. However, by the time of General Zia-ul- Haq in the 1980s, the tilt of Pakistan’s foreign policy had become decidedly pro-Sunni—to the extent of persecuting Shia militias in Afghanistan. This was thanks to Zia-ul-Haq’s persistent Islamisation policy, which was strengthened by Gulf funding for the Afghan insurgency against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The degree of radicalisation of Pakistan’s politics today is evident in Simon Wolfgang Fuchs’ contribution to the anthology, The Long Shadow of State. As Wolfgang writes, ‘Today’s Pakistan is no stranger to Sunni radical groups taking out processions that scream—Shia Shia Kafir Shia—‘Shias are Unbelievers’.’ This is mostly due to Wahhabi-inspired sects such as Ahl-e Sunnat wal Jamaat invoking takfir against communities that diverge from Sunni orthodoxies.
How did this transformation take place? As Jaffrelot notes, the influence of Saudi and Emirati funding played a significant role in promoting the theological ecosystem that is narrowing the boundaries of Islam to a rigid Sunni variety.
Samina Yasmeen and Don Rossler, in their respective essays, provide ample evidence of the creation of such an ideological infrastructure. Yasmeen details how groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan indigenised Gulf-based Salafi ideas of doctrinal purity through Urdu translations of Arabic Salafi literature and heavy use of the local context. ‘Purdah’ (the veil) is advertised to pious women as an embodiment of ‘sharam’ (modesty), while jihad is preached in the context of India’s hold over Kashmir.
Rossler, on the other hand, charts in great detail how Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of an infamous offshoot of the Afghanistan Taliban, built the logistical heft of his own fledgling Salafi organisation through carefully cultivated networks in the Gulf. Not only does Haqqani become a favourite of the UAE’s Emir, Shaykh Zayed bin Sultan, his deep links with the Gulf ensure that his network continues to receive substantial financial and volunteer help even after 9/11.
Yet, despite providing such painstaking descriptions of the relationships and networks between Gulf benefactors and their South Asian actors, Jaffrelot and Louer’s anthology of essays falls short on account of its excessive focus on the Af-Pak region. It does not do justice to the churn that India’s 200 million Muslims are undergoing. In fact, only one chapter, by Radhika Gupta, is devoted to an assessment of a Gulf connection to India. And that too is a connection rooted more in Iran and Iraq than the traditionally Sunni countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Gupta traces the effect of renewed proselytising within Shia Islam circles following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This not only cemented Iran’s status as the prime location for Shia theological and jurisprudent training, but also exported a range of mujtahids (qualified judges in Islamic law) to Indian Shia centres such as Kargil in Ladakh.
The spread of Salafism in Kerala, Varanasi and Telangana through the same networks (migratory and financial) described by experts in The Islamic Connection goes almost entirely unexplored, save for a brief mention in the book’s conclusion. This neglect of the largest Muslim group in South Asia is puzzling, particularly since Johny in his own book has been able to do extensive first-hand research on families where the youth have submitted to puritan beliefs or left homes for ISIS.
BOTH THE ISIS Caliphate and The Islamic Connection concentrate on the pernicious influence of Salafi theology on Muslims. The ISIS Caliphate focuses primarily on the ideological constituents of Salafi thought and its most violent manifestation in the form of ISIS, and The Islamic Connection emphasises the more general trend of financial and migratory patterns pushing such a theological outlook in mosques and communities across South Asia.
Yet, amidst this painful turbulence within Islam in the 21st century, the authors fail to answer the implicit query the existence of their books raise: Why are followers of Islam prone to such fundamentalist strains?