The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Theological and Political Radicalization: The Salafi and Jama’at-e-Islami Influence in Contemporary Kerala

Photo: The Indian Express

By Anwar Haneefa

There are three basic psychic states, as per Islamic psychology. The first and the most dangerous is that of ‘radical optimism’, the socio-psychological realm from where the terrorists, extremists and ideological fanatics take their form. The second realm is of ‘pessimism’ from where the secular reformists within the religion and anti-canonical sects emerge and this too is a threat to the authenticity and divinity of Islam. The third realm is of ‘realism’, which is a psychological state between radical optimism and pessimism, where there is optimism about the future of Islam and realistic understanding about the contextual location of Islam. Ulema, Sufi saints, and their followers are the advocates of this realm. The Kerala Muslim community, which from its very inception followed the Ulema circles, was in the realistic psychological state and thus was an ideal Muslim community in the global Islamic world.

The recent trend of the recruitment of Kerala Muslims to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), although it is exaggerated by the media, marks a radical shift among Keralite Muslims from their neutral psychic state to a more sensational one. At the same time, it has also led Kerala Muslims to be reflexive and to inquire into the factors that make particular sections of youth attracted to terrorism and post-globalized jihad. The inquiry leads us to what could be a foundational cause, though not the only one – the fundamentalist approach to Islam transmitted by the Salafi and Jama’at-e-Islami groups. Although both of these groups are from distinct faith traditions within the broader Muslim commune, they promote the ‘radical optimist’ state of religious psychology.

Salafism and Theological Radicalization

Salafism is traced back to Ibn Taimiyya, a fifteenth century scholar, and the earliest advocate of a systematic theological shift from an ethical Islamic faith tradition. It was from the 1920s that the Kerala model of Salafi knowledge system, which is an ideological blend of Saudi Wahhabism and Egyptian Salafism, began to intervene in the sequential Mappila theology, which had its link to Makhdoom scholars. While they are more sophisticated today, the anti-traditional mentality of Salafi scholarship has undermined the plural character of popular Islam, which was an ethical psycho-system enabling and accommodating trans-religious interaction. Salafism draws upon theological apparatuses like jihad, caliphate, political sovereignty of Allah, and divine duty to turn the commune anti-national and anti-plural.

Establishing theology as the ideological apparatus enabled the Salafis to stand unquestioned in the religious sphere. To them theology is in essence a dogmatic position which can be used to hijack the divine sequence of ecumenical Islamic (the ethical Islam following the Shafi-Sufi stream) faith tradition. Now there are some new theoretical trends within the Salafi system that criticize the old Salafi promotion of theological radicalization in an attempt to escape from that broader dogmatic milieu. That said, they are in turn radicalizing themselves covertly by demonizing the ecumenical stream as old Salafi and isolating them. The case of Ashraf Kadakkal, a professor of Islamic History at the University of Kerala, and his work on the Sufi scholar, Sheikh Umar bin Hafiz, and the Islamic seminary, Dar-ul-Musthafa, founded by Hafiz, in which he termed the seminary as an example of a Salafi center, intensified debates in Kerala.

Ashraf Kadakkal

Ashraf Kadakkal

The Salafi cause is furthered through the system’s theological lucidity, social rigidity, and anti-plural ethics. They use the radical interpretive methods of hermeneutics to understand Qur’an, thereby marginalizing the fundamentality of context in interpretation upheld by the Tafasir (plural of Tafseer) of Imams, who promoted a liberal reading embedded in an exclusive post-enlightenment western conception. The Qur’anic interpretation of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Muhammad Abdu, Rashid Rida and Jamaluddin Afghani, whose views were advocated by the Kerala Salafi system, followed this path. In contemporary times, while fascist ideologies terrorize the innocent Muslim community, Salafi proclamation for jihad with a profit of jannah (heaven) summons wider acceptability and emulation by the youth. This theological exploitation makes the Salafi radicalization of Kerala Muslim youth more tenacious than their counterpart, Jama’at-e-Islami, which radicalizes the psychology of Muslim youth through politicization.

Jama’at-e-Islami and Political Radicalization                 

In 2015, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), a political party influenced by the Jama’at-e-Islami ideology, conducted a seminar on Sayyid Alawi Al Mampuram, a prominent Sufi saint and anti-colonial nationalist, whose mausoleum is a spiritual center for south Indian Muslims. But the only discussion held there was of the radical strategies upheld by Sayyid Alawi, while his spiritual and scholarly contributions were left unexcavated. That was a deliberate attempt to appropriate spiritual leaders to the political domain and, thus, to transform Islam into a political movement against evil. In other words, Jama’at-e-Islami radicalizes Muslim youth through the transplantation of spirituality by politics. The problem, I argue, is not of highlighting the political relevance of Sufi scholars but of employing them for mere radical political purpose.



By subscribing to the radical transformative ideology of Maulana Maududi, the Jama’at-e-Islami from its very inception worked against the nation. It has consistently argued that government jobs are idolatrous (shirk) and that Muslims should, under all circumstances, resign from them. It is true that the Kerala Jama’at-e-Islami was forced to publically discard the teachings of Maududi. But even so they have not been able to discard his ghost from their ideology. To this date, the Jama’at-e-Islami is at loggerheads with the nation and its plurality. Even when intervening in public issues affecting Muslims, they promote radical ideas rather than democratic movements as solutions. This creates a more volatile situation as the youth are drawn to anti-national or terroristic platforms.

Jama’at-e-Islami draws on Malcolm X, Alija Muhammad, Franz Fanon, Ali Shariati, and Marxian frameworks to interpret and politicize Islam. One recent trend is to address Malcolm X and other Muslim activists as ‘Al Usthad’. Since ‘Al Usthad’ is a supreme spiritual status rather than an educational post in Islamic theological and epistemological tradition, it has massive power in drawing disciples. Here I again insist that the problem is not of introducing such leaders to Muslim youth but of shrinking the advocacy of Islam to merely political activists. Jama’at-e-Islami alienates pivotal pioneers of Islam like Al-Imam-Shafi, Abu Haneefa-Al-Kufi, Al-Imam-Malik and Ahmad-Ibn-Hanbal and replaces them with political activists. Even when the former are taken into consideration, it is merely for analyzing them in the light of western philosophy or deconstructive possibilities. The Muslim youth in Kerala, without knowing the circumstances of these Muslim socialists, try to emulate them even at the cost of creating problematic contexts. Thus while the Salafis engender radicalization through the socialization of theology engendered through lucid canonical readings, non-contextual approach to histories and linking themselves to shahada (martyrdom) and jannah, the Jama’at-e-Islami tries to radicalize the community through more politically-oriented creations of allegories, histories, and textual readings.

Since both the knowledge systems are ideologically powerful enough to reframe the psyches of Muslim youth, it is of utmost importance to create a counter psychological state through the promotion or a return to the Sufi-Ulema oriented Islamic ethics in Kerala, which had a prominent place in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial public sphere. Its strength lies in its creative approach to Islam, its sensitivity to context, and its acknowledgement of the pluralistic nature of Islam. In its absence, primitive understandings of Islam thrive, generating a search for ‘real Islam’, such as re-creating a self-sufficient village untouched by modernization and complete with a goat farm to imitate the Arabian life of Prophet Mohammed’s times.  It should be noted, however, that apart from the influence of Salafis and organizations like Jama’at-e-Islami, poverty, social humiliation, and educational backwardness also play a vital role in the radicalization of Muslim youth. It is hoped that apart from stemming the tide of radicalization, the Sufi-Ulema ethics will assist in addressing these other alienating factors as well.

Anwar Haneefa
is at present a research intern at Madeenathunnor, Calicut, Kerala. He is a writer, interviewer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of Muslim culture, Islamic jurisprudence and Western philosophy. He is also interested in orthodoxy, textual tradition and Ulema activism.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook.  Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Intersectional Identities: Disability and the Other Margins’, edited by Dr. Nandini Ghosh, IDSK and Dr. Shilpaa Anand, MANUU.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: