A legacy of discord

Khadim Hussain Rizvi alone wasn’t responsible for polarising the society; in fact, he was a product of a polorised society

Photo by Rahat Dar

The sudden death of firebrand cleric and chief of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, came as a shock to his supporters and detractors alike.

Beginning his career as the khateeb at a mosque in Lahore, Rizvi rose to prominence within the span of half a decade and turned his party into a political force to reckon with. His funeral, perhaps one of the largest in the history of Pakistan, has laid the foundation of a problematic legacy. It has also alarmed the liberal elite who fear a resurgence of religious extremism in Pakistan.

Rizvi’s methods were certainly problematic. Regardless, in my view, he wasn’t responsible for polarizing the society; in fact, he was only a product of a society that had already been polarised. While most academics do agree with the former statement, in tracing the roots of societal polarisation they stop way too short in blaming Gen Zia ul Haq for the rise of mullahs. Religious extremism and societal polarisation in the subcontinent predates not just Zia but the very birth of Pakistan.

Some form of social divide always existed in the Indian subcontinent; however, the current form of polarisation can directly be traced back to the colonial era when the British rulers categorised society in terms of the ‘Westernised loyal elite’ and the ‘primitive barbarians’. This was manifest in the writings of Lord Macaulay, who was also the author of the Indian Education Act, 1835. He stated that Indians must be “English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and intellect,” for he viewed the local culture to be useless and the masses too inferior to their Western counterparts.

Macaulayism soon began to be referred as national policy. British colonies were thus subjected to Anglicisation via the education of a select elite to keep the masses under control.

Rizvi belonged to the Barelvi group, a movement within Sunni Islam, that was mostly regarded as relatively peaceful. Further, he traced his scholarly roots to the venerated Sufi Saints of the subcontinent, who are often cherished as flagbearers of tolerance, pacifism and love. To this understanding, the likes of Rizvi are a surprise and a riddle.

In my opinion, this is a gross misunderstanding of the Sufi legacy that Rizvi was claiming adherence too. Historically, Sufis may have been peaceful under different circumstances but it was never a pacifist movement. There was always a need-based political or aggressive side to it. A recent example may be found in the Libyan sufi order of the Senussiya’s resistance against the Italian invaders.

The most influential class amongst the Muslims of Macaulay’s era was the religious scholars. A significant number of them were obstinate about not submitting to colonial rulers. This, despite the British appeasement by way of allowing Muslim personal law and running Sharia courts according to the Fatwa-i-Alamgiri (Emperor Aurangzeb’s codex of Hanafi Islamic law). To no effect.

Macaulayism proposed a remedy to this problem. The British were to raise a new generation of an Anglicised Indian elite that would stay loyal to the colonial powers. Their Indian blood and appearance along with bestowed feudal authority would then ensure the loyalty of the masses to those individuals who wouldn’t otherwise submit to their white overlords. A number of schools and colleges were established across the Indian subcontinent through the years, for the execution of this policy. My alma mater, Aitchison College, which has a history of reserving itself only for the English-speaking, moneyed elite, was one of those.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi traced his scholarly roots to the venerated Sufi Saints of the subcontinent, who are often cherished as flagbearers of tolerance, pacifism and love. To this understanding, the likes of Rizvi are a surprise and a riddle.

The newly born English loyalist elite broke off from their devotion to the ulema and re-approached religion from an orientalist perspective, promoted by the colonial rulers. This is where the divide was born. A select group dominating the masses was educated in a language, culture and intellectual setting completely averse to that of the subjects it governed. They shared the same blood but had mentally evolved into radically different communities. The elite then saw the masses from the same lens the British would see them; as ‘primitive barbarians’. Is it not very obvious now, why we sit in our cozy drawing rooms complaining about the backwardness of our country and blame the ‘primitive masses’ for it?

The ulema that had already been sceptical about everything that English saw this Anglicisation as a threat to religion and began campaigning against it. Intellectual but fundamentally reactionary movements, namely the Deobandi movement and Barelvi movement, were born in order to preserve the essence of Islam in India, splitting only on the basis of minor differences in creed. The fear of secular education among the ulema and the frequent outcry of Islam being threatened is the memory imprinted by colonialism.

Khadim Rizvi was born out of this legacy. A fiery orator who could quote Iqbal’s poetry to good effect, he was better prepared to lead than a typical mullah when the opportunity presented itself. Having roused his followers, he crossed the line to become a radical preacher.

Rizvi’s followers, for their part, are almost blameless. Governed by the same Anglicised elite that the British had created, the masses were never understood or sympathised with. They were never given access to the institutions that are reserved for the elite. Given the gulf, in Khadim Rizvi, someone who sat amongst them and lived like them, they found a voice that spoke for them and resonated with them.

Above all, Rizvi was a claimant to the heroic legacy of those who had once fought for the downtrodden and a preacher of religion, one of the few things that makes the daily grind of living worthwhile for the masses. The problem wasn’t born with Khadim Rizvi; he was a product of the problem, a problem that the liberal elite’ are a part of.

The writer is an alumns of Aitchison College, currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree at York University, Canada, where he also serves as the Pakistani community director. He frequently writes on politics, current issues and history, and tweets @Khan_Bahadur

Khadim Hussain Rizvi: A legacy of discord