First Person | Wahhabi, Deobandi or Barelvi?

In the age of global war on terror, get your religious nuances right

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

It is best to establish the facts first. I am an Indian, well a north Indian, from Uttar Pradesh to be precise, a woman and a Muslim. As far as my parents can go back on the family tree, and it is at least seven generations, we have always been Muslims, (no conversions there) and we have always been north Indians, ‘UPwallahs’ for the sake of accuracy. So what does that make me? Believe me, it is not my idea to indulge in this vain exercise. It has been thrust upon me by a number of people I have met in the last few years who, unable to figure out a box to put me in, keep asking who I am; and are never happy with the answer. One evening, a gentleman at a party asked me where I came from, his guess was Iran. When I put him right, he asked where my father came from. ‘Same place,’ I said. ‘And his father?’ he persisted. We finally traced my seven generations, who amazingly had known little mobility I realised (with a degree of mortification) and the gentleman remained unfazed. ‘So, you are converts basically,’ he concluded. ‘I don’t know,’ I admitted honestly. ‘But you have to be either converts or foreigners,’ he pressed. I considered both options. Which would I like to be, a convert or a foreigner? Honestly, this was no easy choice, both had their own perils. After all, between a ‘Babur ki aulad’ and a hapless Hindu defiled by marauding Muslims whose soul needs purification, which one do I choose in these times of political correctness and decreasing religious tolerance? I chose the easy way out. ‘Does it matter?’ I asked.

However, in the last few years, I have discovered that an exclusively well-defined identity is mattering more to more people. And it is not just other people who want to put you in a box; a large number of boxed people actually prefer the security of cardboard existence. It is like a name card that you carry so that you do not have to explain anything. So while non-Muslims like the idea of a well-defined homogenous body of Indian Muslims, a large number of Muslims themselves are working towards not stepping out of the stereotype.

These are new ideas and reflective of our growing intolerance towards anything out of our defined parameters. When I was growing up I faced neither these questions nor discrimination. My first exposure to religious differences occurred in my teens when a friend of mine, while gleefully tucking into mutton kebabs at my place revealed that her grandmother had asked her not to eat non-vegetarian food at a Muslim’s house. When she said this, I wondered if I would have defied my grandmother’s instructions with such impunity and came to the conclusion that I would have, simply because such religious delicateness did not seem important enough to deprive myself of good food. Today, when somebody gasps in surprise after discovering my religious persuasions, I am at pains to explain that in my family we had a rather informal relationship with religion. So instead of a devout and humourless approach we preferred to live well with plenty of scope for one on one private communion with God.

In my childhood, religion remained at the periphery of our lives, defining itself only through cultural and traditional events. Festivals like Ramzan and Eid were more in the realm of tradition than religion though they were sometimes marked by a degree of last minute religious fervour. I say culture because festivals, whether it was the Muslim Eid or Christian Christmas or Hindu Diwali, were marked by non-religious celebrations. For us they meant holidays, uncontrolled binging on special delicacies which were made only around this time and, of course, fancy clothes. And I am not talking only for myself here, but for the children I grew up with, who all are adults now and sadly not all revel in the cultural aspect of their respective religions.

Clearly, things are not the same anymore. I hadn’t heard of the word terrorism when I was growing up, whereas a six year old today not only knows what a terrorist is, he also knows who a terrorist is. Today, new exclusive religious identities are being forged, not only in India but across the world and right down to the last caste specifications. First, Hindus, Muslims and Christians were different from each other. Then some Hindus were different from other Hindus as were some Muslims and Christians. And today, even these specifications have become broad-based. I have to admit that this has been creating problems for me because I end up being a misfit. When I ask my parents for a new, improved definition for people like us, they draw an even bigger blank. Till a few years ago it was enough being a North Indian Muslim; nobody bothered how many times you prayed or if you were a Wahhabi, a Barelvi or a Deobandi. But thanks to the Global War on Terror, these have become household names. At a gathering of enlightened souls, or experts in today’s parlance, one gentleman introduced me to an expert on terrorism, who had just returned after lecturing the Americans, “Wahab is only her last name,” he explained, “she is not a Wahhabi.” I smiled as the guest nodded sagely. Perhaps, he understood something about me which I didn’t.


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