In my last rant I mentioned an upcoming Ulema conference in Lucknow, which promised to bring Shia and Sunni clerics together to counter "Talibani ideology". It was organized by the "World Waseela Front", a new outfit in which the main Shia clerical family of Lucknow, more precisely Maulana Kalbe Jawwad, joins hands with Barelvi leaders from the All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board, namely Maulana Baba Ashraf. As expected, there were no women involved (apart from two photo journalists), but the two days were nonetheless very interesting, revealing, and, yes, even inspiring (picking up at least some of my concerns regarding contemporary Islamic trends in India).

The first interesting thing was to see who all would come, especially from among the Lucknowi Ulema. On the Shia side, all usual suspects were there - but on the Sunni side, most were not. The most prominent among them, Maulana Rabe Hasani Nadvi of Nadva, apparently departed to his village just before the conference, ostensibly to celebrate Bakr Eid there (which really only starts ten days later). Yet his absence was kind of expected, giving the orientation of his seminary. Equally unsurprising was the non-appearance of Maulana Khalid Rashid of the new Ferengi Mahal - though the older Ferengi Mahal was represented by Maulana Abul Hasan. More surprising was the absence of Maulana Fazlur Rahman Nadvi of Tilewali Masjid, especially since his friend Maulana Dr. Kalbe Sadiq (see here) dropped by briefly - the two were chiefly responsible to settle major Shia-Sunni tensions in the mid-1990s after decades of strife. In short: while Kalbe Jawwad managed to get most strands of Shia scholarship assembled, including some of his adversaries, Baba Ashraf only brought other Barelvis with him. Which above all shows the power balances within contemporary Hanafi Sunni Islam in India, I guess...

The second interesting thing was how the Shia-Barelvi unity was actually achieved: namely through shared spirituality first, and only later through a shared theological and political agenda. Before Shauqat Bharti, Lucknow's firebrand orator close to the Kalbe family, introduced the new outfit and its agenda of speaking up against simplified Salafism in general and Dr. Zakir Naik in particular (see today's post's picture), the stage was occupied by two Barelvi Qawwals, who recited hymns in favor of Imam Ali. Which really caused an overwhelmingly enthusiastic reaction from the mostly Shia audience. Yet while the Barelvi scholars on stage reacted with all the wiggling heads and other cultural forms associated with Sufi Qawwali, the Shia audience performed the same way it would in a Majlis - interrupting the recitation with exclamations of "Ya Ali!" and all. Which worked together beautifully.

The political and theological speeches that followed in some way seemed to be a mere afterthought to this spiritual connect, even though Maulana Baba Ashraf in particular got a lot of support for his admission that it was the mainstream Ulema's silence and passivity which allowed the great Salafi simplifiers to gain such popularity. Yet, he asserted, "ab se khamoshi ki vaqt khatm" - the time of silence is over. And to underline the passion behind this statement, his own guide and predecessor revealed that the fire burning within him over this issue would, once released, engulf the whole world in flames. Let's see where World Waseela Front travels - the first test will be Naik's visit to Azamgarh later this year - but the Shia-Sunni Bhai-Bhai in Lucknow was certainly a very interesting event to witness...