So which Islam are you talking about? (Part 1)
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

We need to recognize existence of different strands of Islam in India and renew our efforts to continually engage and dialogue with those strands that share a great deal of commonality with our civilization ethos. While doing this we also need to recognize that a certain interpretation of Islam is pernicious and has to be intellectually combated. There should be no attempt to either justify or rationalize these interpretations.

Let us look at the example of Indonesia, a very fascinating society, where Islam is layered on Hindu belief. There are actually three Islamic groups, which represent three different interpretations, and they are at each other’s throats most of the time.

Nahadlatul Ulama which follows an interpretation of unique Indonesian Islam, mixing older Javan,Hindu and Islamic beliefs, which is the largest group

Muhammadiya, the second largest, which is formed in 1912 and is much more a conservative interpretation, similar to the Royal Creed that I talk about, more like the Jamait-e-Ulama-e-Hind, a traditionalist nationalist group

• Third group, newer radical Islamists, who are fast gaining at the expense of both groups.

Needless to say that the second and third groups are slowly coming together and are threatening the existence of the first group. (I have not identified the little people with the Barelvis, though I was sorely tempted. Very frankly my knowledge of Islamic systems is not that very deep and I do not want to wander in a territory that I am not familiar with).

I have made certain generalizations, that I know are not universally valid, but this article is to initiate debate.

This article is not about “how different religions are the same path to God” or about moral or religious equivalence, this article is about formulating a strategy of resistance to Arabicised Islam by identifying probable sympathizers.

So which Islam are we talking about?

Now, after ‘a thousand years of oppression’, 40 years of trauma and a partition which tore apart our very existence, the question which haunts us after 60 years of independence, is the same which haunted our forefathers and theirs, from the time that Muhammad Bin Quasim and his Arabs entered into Sindh- ”Which Islam are we talking about ?”

“Islam is not a monolith”. “Islam cannot be wished away”. “India has the second largest Muslim population after Indonesia, 150 million”. “One in every 5 Indians is a Muslim”. “Islam is a part of our heritage and culture”, “Islam cannot be wished away and a homogenous Hindu state created”. We have heard these being repeated ad hominem by a section of our intelligentsia and our politicians.

However, the same intelligentsia and politicians are not willing to entertain queries which interrogate these assumptions further. The biggest question which looks us in the face today is “Which Islam are we talking about?” and “Who are the representatives of that Islam ?”

Two Types-the “Deen” and the “tareeka”

Islam historically in its development in India (and for the present I restrict the discussion to India ) has been largely of two types . The creed of the Kings – “the Deen” and the way of the people – “ the tareeka”. It is this distinction that we must remember when dealing with Islam in India.

The “Deen” was the driving force behind Mohammad Ghaznavi, Mohammad Ghori, Aurangzeb, and the various court appointed Imams, and assorted Kazi’s, and governors, who ran the most heinous ( with very few exceptions), brutal, oppressive and savage system for nearly 800 years in India. The Deen was an ideology of the Kings and of the Royal Court and spread by force and the sword, a foreign creed imported from Arabia, Persia and Turkey, the heartlands of Islam and imposed on the people of “Hindustan” or the land of the “Hindus”.

The two notable exceptions were by Akbar, who tried to create a Royal Religion “the Deen –e- Illahi” by mixing both the elements of the Royal Creed and the Indic Dharmic faiths, and, by the ill fated Dara Shikoh, who was ruthlessly put out by Aurangzeb in the name of the Royal Creed . Both attempts were short lived and aborted because they were not accepted by the followers of the Royal Creed in the Mughal court.

“Tareka” under attack

Islam has also been at least in certain parts of India, a genuine way or “tareeka”, followed by the little people – a  pantha which comes closer to Indic roots.

The “tareeka” practiced by Khwaja Muin-uddin Chishti, Bulleh Shah, and Shah Jalal, was a way which came to be accepted as the chosen path by the people of the large areas of the country. The people who were like us in very many ways, but, who changed their “method of worship”, their “tareeka”, their “pantha” just as they had previously during the time of Sakyamuni or Mahavira .They form till today the vast majority of the people who follow Islam in this country (though how long that is a tricky question ?).

It is a way, which is under attack from militant global Islam and the liberal modern secularists all over the country, for their own diverse ends. It is a way which is in danger of disappearing. It is a way that has to be kept alive. It is an interpretation and a way that grew up symbiotically with Indic faiths, and at many levels has much more in common with interpretations of Dharmic tradition than with the Royal Islamic Creed of the Imperial Courts and has been at the receiving end of as much violence as other Hindus (being used here to describe nationality as did Abul Fazl ).

How is “Tareka” different?

This “ Islam pantha”, is different from the Islamic Deen of the Royal Courts. It has its own religious centers and its own method of worship, and even its own prayers distinct from the Imperial Creed, more akin to the other “panthas” or interpretations of Dharma, which is so integral to Indic faiths.

The followers of the way of the little people have been held in contempt by the followers of “Deen ” as not genuine and “too Hindu”.

The followers of the way of the little people have been held in contempt by the followers of “Deen ” as not genuine and “too Hindu” from the time the ideal of Islam gained currency in large parts of India, variously relegated to “Ajlaf” status distinct from the “Ashraf” . The followers of the Royal Creed have tried at various times to force the followers of “the way of the little people” to convert to “the Royal Creed”, and they are trying till today.

Deobandhis and the Tablighi Jammaat

The ideas of the Deobandhis and the Tablighi Jammaat are modernist interpretations invented after the defeat of the Mugal Empire in 1858, to fuse the “Deen” and the “tareeka” together to create an united Islam, a modernist conservative interpretation of the way of the little people, to coerce the little people to accept the interpretation of the Royal Creed and the leadership of the followers of the Royal Creed, under the banner of “United Islam” . This is the biggest falsehood perpetuated, since there is no one interpretation of the methods of worship in Islam, and the method of worship and even the prayer for worship some would claim is different for the followers of the Indic followers of the “tareeka” in India from those of the arabicised interpretation of the Deen .

Spread of Deen

The ideology of the Deen has been very effectively spread through the Madrassah system (wherein the children of the little people are coached in the interpretation of the Royal Creed ), which teaches a conservative interpretation and stresses on values of the Deen rather than of the tareeka, after all the sylabii of the Madrassah was fixed at the time of Aurangzeb, which goes to show their orientation .

The problem is that we have let the propagators of such ideas go uncontested, on the ground that the people who follow the “tareeka” are “Muslim” and therefore different from us, and so, we have nothing to do with them . We have also tended to deal with the followers of the “tareeka” as people “socially” beneath us and therefore we have shown an unwillingness to accept them as part of people who may believe in Dharma and a valid interpretation of Indic belief systems and faith, though, they have more in common with us, than the creed that they nominally follow. What we forget and must remember always is that the followers of the “tareeka” are as close to us as to the followers of the “Deen” are to those who follow the “tareeka”. It is incumbent upon us, to make that apparent both socially and politically.

It is still another matter as to whether large sections of followers of the “tareeka” actually considered themselves Muslim at all before the British carried out their census in the country, and deliberately set out to create their supporters or increase their numbers by classifying them into specific categories and then subsequently using British law to force them to change their rules and customs and chose the leadership of that group promoted by the British, but that is not the subject matter of our discussion here .

Interestingly during the Movement for Pakistan, the Muslim intellectual and poet Iqbal wrote





( Both Mulla and Mujahid say Allah-O-Akbar,

Although words and meaning are same, but there is a difference in purpose

Although both Vulture and Falcon fly in the same sky, both have different way of living,

vulture flies low and lives on dead bodies, where as falcon flies high and lives on preys )

thereby deliberately and cleverly inverting the causes for which Pakistan was being fought for .


While Pakistan was being sought by the followers of the Deen it was argued in the name of the followers of the Tareeka. That is why possibly the idea of Pakistan did not find much favor with some parts of the followers of the Deen, but was actually promoted by the Communists, who identified with the “way of the little people”. More interestingly the Indian National Congress through the entire freedom struggle fought alongside the Mullahs and the Ullema against the little people, thereby leaving it open to the Muslim League to monopolize the entire “Islamic” space in the name of fighting for the “way of the little people” all the while pushing the agenda of the Royal Creed. This is a dichotomy which haunts Pakistan till today, and is the source of all the existential problems of Pakistan .

The relationship throughout history between the two Islams in India has been very rocky indeed. All those beautiful examples that you hear about symbiotic relationships, all those syncretic shrines, that supposedly dot, the entire country are all centers of people who are followers of “Islamic panth” or the “tareeka” just like the “Khalsa panthis”, the “Jainas” and “the Baudhs”. I do not think there is a single example in India, where the Royal Creed has co-existed with any other belief system. The Royal Creed has not created shrines through syncretism but destroyed them through brute force .

Compatibility with Indic faiths

I very much doubt that the followers of “Islam panth” would have any problem in accepting Dharma on which to graft their “Islam”, as long as they retain the right to worship in terms of their “tareeka” unlike the followers of the Deen, the religion of the righteous. The followers of “Deen” know that,and from the time of Aurangzeb, through Jinnah and presently through the petty mullas and terrorists. They know within the core of their hearts that the “Islam panthis” are a step away from Indic faiths and could at any time join the larger mother group built around Dharma, and it remains their worst nightmare.

The nightmare the Royal Creed sees is of “Islam panthis” returning to their Indic roots, away from the Royal Creed, just like the Baudhs and the Jaina’s did earlier . The screams of “Islam is in danger !!” is always heard loudest when the adherents of Royal Creed feel that the interests of the “Islam panthis” may diverge from the leadership of the “Deen” as was the apprehension during partition, and the upcoming “spectre of a Hindu dominated India”.  Needless to say as experience would show they need not have worried.

(Continued in Part 2)