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Terrorism, an orphan of Reformist Islam: Reflections from Kerala Muslim milieu


By M. Abdul Fathah

Kerala Muslim populace seem to be largely bemused and greatly confounded with what government agencies pronounce as Muslim links with transnational terrorist outfits, underlying  suspected Muslim migration to IS camps from various districts of the state. Though puritan organizations all over the state opposed such radicalization immediately after the news came to limelight, recent probes revealed the suspects’ Salafist mindset and thought-paradigm. The arrest of M. M. Akbar, a publicly inoffensive Salafi preacher, regarding his school’s perceived intolerant syllabus came last in the line. Recently, the state police have gone to investigate how radical elements supplied by various political formations, more so from SDPI, a political wing of PFI, came together to organize a hartal which witnessed extensive vandalism. My contemplation here is never premised upon how honestly these probes and investigations are done; rather I analyze the recent developments from the vantage point of terrorism as an inevitable burden of reformist thought in Kerala. We may now draw an intricately interwoven network in which the jihadi tendencies and the latter form a part.

Many of the terrorist groups in the Islamic world are perhaps extreme manifestations of theological and intellectual currents, as a response to modernity. In the postcolonial world, they draw theological orientation from ‘Salafibism’, a synchronistic product of two reformist tendencies during this tumultuous interlude, namely Wahabism and Salafism .Wahabism, often referred to as the genesis of puritanical Islam, was espoused by Saudi-born evangelist, Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahab. Wahabism propounded a strict liberalism cutting loose from the traditional interpretation on hermeneutics of holy text. Wahabism discerned those traditional interpretations, mysticism, and scholarly thoughts as signs of bankruptcy of Muslims during colonial régime. Be that as it may, Wahabism was never tolerant of rationalism and creativity employed by others. And Abdul Wahab was obsessed with bestowing the doctrine of shirk on anyone, who had a distinct ideology from his own and thus characterized a supremacist character. With the cumulative weight of atrocities it had deployed in Arabia during Abdul Wahab’s years, it would have never assumed currency unless it had a euphemistic outer crust conducive to its growth.

Salafism as a creed originating in the late nineteenth century rendered such an apparatus for Wahabism. The pretext for Salafism could be traced to Muslim world’s inevitable encounter with western modernism, which removed religion as principle and base of identity and replaced it with reason. Though Salafist reformers tried to provide an antidote and read the value of modernism into original sources of Islam, they were corruptly influenced by western value-free science. Salafism in its proto period developed disjunctions with Wahabism in the sense that it was not anti-intellectual and supremacist. Rashid Rida advocated a rationalist method in the practice of Islamic law, championed Ijthihad, and was extremely vociferous of Taqlid. Apparently, though supportive of juristic tradition and sublime role of classically trained jurists, Salafist commonalities with Wahhabi clerics stem from its denunciation of technocratic tradition of established religious authority, let alone the mystic traditions. This desensitizing and deconstructing of authority virtually employed anyone without requisite qualification to return to the original text and interpret it to unscrupulous advantage. In fact, such an unrestricted circumference wedded with a degree of political opportunism and power expediency has translated Salafism into a hollowness, what Khaled Abu El Fadl points out: “a stark form of functionalism that constantly shifted in response to political demand of day.”

Contrary to extreme antagonism that characterized the relationship between these two puritan sects at its outset, we discern a genre of blending that the reformist organizations in Kerala has employed from the 1920s. This probably may have come from Salafist reformer Rashid Rida’s notion, to whom Kerala Muslim reformers were inclined a great deal. Vakkam Maulavi, who acted as a catalyst for the formation of the mother organization of Kerala Salafis, Aikya Sangam, was a reader of Rashid Rida’s publication, Al-Manar. Though incongruent with his rational thought, Rida was a beholder of Wahabism as a Salafi movement and a staunch opponent of Ottoman Empire. Long before ‘Salafibism’ as a synchronistic orientation came to limelight in the 1970s, Kerala reformism was peculiar to have exhibited characters of both. They harshly repudiated the historical baggage of Muslim renaissance waged by traditional scholars in the vaults of Kerala Muslim history.

The other realm where Reformers went for a gigantic overhaul was the local Muslim culture. Islam in its new locations has legitimized local culture derived from other communities, thus making it accessible through local vernacular customs. Traditionally, ulama were vigilant enough to lessen the scale of un-Islamic cultures. As Olivier Roy argues, one of the primary objectives of Salafism is “deculturation”: they seek to delink Islam from the cultural context. However, its Wahabi genealogy comes to the fore in the reformers’ near-obsession with bestowing shirk and Kufr on traditional Muslims and scholarship on the ground of ostensibly argued intellectual aberrations. Moreover, following Salafi creed, they too showed antipathy towards practice and theology of Sufi orders, including the doctrine of intercession practiced by mainstream Muslims.

I am not here to argue that these reformers never sparked a renaissance in Kerala. A bunch of educational and social ventures fashioned for the Muslim community were started by these preachers. But, the particular disjunction between them and the renaissance of traditional scholars and consequent vulnerability of the Salafi creed to terrorism stemmed from the level of religiosity that dictated these affairs. Plagued by its Salafist element of Ijthihad, it feeds into real vacuum of religious authority. Its proponents were interested in end results, rather than sticking to traditional integrity and coherence of juristic method. Their renaissance enterprises are rightly deemed to have been devoid of any attempts at spiritual resurgence of the community and were morally lethargic. Subsequently, it succumbed to periodical deflections in its stances on religious customs and practices, tailored to oppose traditional scholarship on issues of Isthigasa, Thavassul, etc.

Such a scarcity of spiritualism was instrumental in Salafism being termed synonymous with those hardcore responses to colonial subjugation such as Jamaat-e-Islami. Long before the politically extreme avatars of Salafism made appearance, Maududi interpreted central Islamic beliefs in order to suit his own political agendas, suggesting that Islam is simply about political power and that the relationship between God and human beings is that between King and his subjects. In his reasoning, the central virtues such as prayer and remembrance of god are just means to an end to establish an Islamic state. The traditional ulama such as Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi were extremely disgusted of this underlying irreligiosity.

This underlying irreligiosity of Muslim reformers was bequeathed from the epistemological break marked by the grand narratives of enlightment. Enlightment vilified the speculative and ideological metaphysics of church and placed rationalism and empiricism as core elements. Ebrahim Moosa is right to argue that modernist Muslims profited in varying forms from the idea of rationality. It was deemed as a defense weapon in apologetics, a weapon to combat so-called superstitions and desirable to lessen dependence on authority.

Besides, the zealotry peculiar to those ambitious Islamic political movements could be hardly discerned in mainstream Islamic tradition; they are rather progenies of modern politics and modernizing state. These totalitarian potentialities are more vulnerable to terrorist tendencies than any other deviant beliefs. Indeed, as Talal Asad elucidates, this never meant that traditional Islam can never be genuinely modern. Traditional Islam helps construct multiple modernity rather than surrendering to charms of European modernity

A phenomenon that made Kerala Reformist organizations more captive to terrorist tendencies was resonance of synchronic orientation resulting from the unity of Wahhabism with the worst in Salafism, i.e., ‘Salafibism’. The incipient liberalism and opportunism of Salafism ended up in narrowing to apologetics and its contingency with supremacist creed of Wahabism. Middle East through gulf migration played a decisive role in engendering such an orientation in Kerala Muslim milieu. Khaled Abou Fadl notes: Salafism is an orientation that exhibited broadways of ideological variants rooted in supremacist Puritanism with an arrogance vis-à-vis the other. Thus, various offshoots of Kerala Salafism and Salafi-induced organizations such as PFI and Jamaat-e-Islami came under the umbrella term ‘Salafibism’, which dismantled itself into puritans, politicos, and later jihadis.

Mujahids under the banner of KNM, generally affixed with Salafi designator, formed a segment of worldwide Puritanism, primarily centered and legitimized in Saudi Arabia. The latter two factions pledge their alliance to the political faction, spawned by Syed Qutb and his disciples. In the third faction, which is our issue of concern, jihadis constitute various splinter groups supporting the attribution of violence to establish an Islamic State. Notwithstanding their abysmal organizational presence in the state, such tendencies are slowly mushrooming in the psyche of the Salafi creed, forming a fringe element in Kerala Muslim society. Nevertheless, the relationships between them is characterized by an internal fissure between global Salafi communities. Purists portray politicos and jihadis as those driven by rationalist thought and human evaluation of strategic effectiveness. Politicos are generally critical of purists’ almost myopic focus on fighting shirk and promoting tawhid, thereby neglecting more pressing contemporary issues. In jihadis’ critique, purists are either ignorant of state of affairs or deliberately keep a veil over the actual context.

Perhaps such fissures are common among those organization in Kerala – while purists carry out anti-IS pledge and campaign, cyber terrorism becomes a vociferous jihadi tendency. Jihadis who are said to have migrated to IS camps are supremacist enough to bestow the former with takfir. Be that as it may, as Quintan Wiktorowicz put it, the fissure here is not in thought or creed, but in strategy, thus making en bloc critique of whole Salafi creed beyond specific content of jihadi beliefs as prerequisite to do away with terrorism. And the crux of such bifurcation between those factions could be better construed as generational struggle over sacred authority – the right to interpret sacred texts on behalf of the Muslim community – eventually leading to formation of more and more jihadi factions. This very conundrum of purist faction stemmed from the vacuum of religious authority and over-politicization of Islamic concepts instigated by Salafism from its outset.

However, en route our criticism of Salafi creed, we too ought to be extremely vigilant of loopholes and lopsided elements in the portrayal of terrorism by mainstream media outlets. Media flashbacks constantly stereotype symbols of “extreme spirituality” such as purdah culture and reluctance towards bank loans as premises of their theory of Salafi terrorism. Paradoxically, such portrayals seem to be entirely antagonistic towards religiosity and ethical formation in Islam. An increase in the observance of Islamic customs as such need not expose firmness of identity politics or Islamism. They better derive legitimate space in Islam from the ethics formed among the observant of those customs. Evidently, pervasiveness of such practices under traditional Ulamas predates such practices within Salafi creed, without any repercussions, let alone terrorist tendencies.

To conclude, rather than vacillating between responses towards global terrorist ventures, these reformist organizations in Kerala need to go for a self-reflective pause about their thought-paradigm to deconstruct it and start it over. Scholarly antidotes to the same ought to enliven traditional responses aimed to lessen the scales of Salafi thought-paradigm rather than considering terrorism as a contemporary subject altogether different.

M Abdul Fathah is a research intern at Madeenathunnoor College of Islamic science, Calicut, Kerala. His areas of interest include Indian Muslims, Transnational Islam, subaltern studies, anthropology, etc. He could be reached at:


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