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Monday, March 19, 2012

Popular culture & religion

It is often said that culture is a product of institutions. Controlled by the elite, institutions generally create high culture different to the popular culture of the average citizens. High culture claims to be refined and sophisticated while popular culture is regarded as rustic and common.

However, popular culture provides relief to the people at large from the humdrum of their daily lives filled with mundane routines and hard labour. Since ordinary people are not resourceful, they are not really in a position to make their lives full of recreation and leisure. So in order to escape their dry and barren lifestyle, they enjoy popular celebrations and rituals.

In popular culture, religion provides a distraction to the average citizens from suffering, sorrow and hardships of life. For them celebration is not only a spiritual ecstasy but also has an element of entertainment. Therefore popular culture does not conform to puritan and orthodox ideology which condemns this kind of deviation from the original teachings of religion.

In the 19th century, different religious movements emerged as a reaction to colonialism. Old and modern tools such as the printing press, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books, madressas, mosques, shrines, public gatherings and the fatwas were used to propagate a religious ideology. One important aspect of these religious edicts was that some of the sects leaders would send such edicts to Makkah for approval by the ulema there. This only showed their lack of confidence in themselves.

Under these circumstances, Ahmad Raza Khan founded the Jamaat al-Sunnah, popularly known as the Barelvi Jamaat. The original homeland of this sect was Rohelkhand and its branches were in Delhi, Badayun, Rampur, Pilibhit, Marharwa and Patna.

Their teachings appealed to Muslim masses influenced by the sufi saints and their orders.  Khanqahs and shrines became the centre of spiritual activities. The institution of shrines also contained the relics of the Sufis sects such as their slippers, turban and staff, which were a source of spiritual inspiration for the devotees.

Every shrine held annual celebrations in memory of the saints which were attended by people from all over of India to pay homage to the saints. The rituals showed the piety and love of the disciples to the sufi saints. On this occasion qawwali was held which created spiritual ecstasy among the audience. Milads were held in the honour of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) where poetry was recited in praise of the Prophet.

The orthodox ulema were against these rituals and believed that they polluted the purity of Islam. On the other hand, Ahmad Raza Khan’s argument was that since these rituals became apart of popular religion, they should be retained. His insistence was that without pirs or patron saints no one could attain salvation. A pir should be Sunni, well versed in Sharia, and have the capacity to lead his disciples on to the right path. Ahmad Raza Khan appeared to be the perfect pir for his followers. He fully used all available media to propagate his ideas. In 1904, he founded the Madressa Mazahir-ul-Uloom.

He was not in favour of indulging in politics, did not recognise India under the British as dar-ul-harb or the home of war and was against launching jihad against the empire. He regarded the Hindus as being hostile to Islam and was not in favour of social relations with them. Similarly, he was also against Deobandis and regarded them as irreligious. He wanted to keep his followers aloof from other sects.

His inflexible and uncompromising attitude towards his contemporaries created a great divide damaging the unity of the Muslim community. The movement survived partition and is active both in India and Pakistan.  Linked with popular culture, it has appeal with the masses.

In Pakistan there have been conflicts between Barelvis and orthodox sects. This has created a sectarian divide in the Muslim society. Contrary to its past, the Sunnat Jamaat, under the banner of Sunni Tehrik is now participating in politics like other religious parties.

By Mubarak Ali

http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/18/past-present-popular-culture-religion.html