The emir of Qatar and the president of Pakistan were both in India this week. Both leaders hail from Muslim-majority countries in which literalist interpretations of Islam have enjoyed outsize influence on government. In different ways, both Pakistan and Qatar have allowed literalist Islamism of different hues to attempt to obliterate more mainstream expressions of, say, Sufi-influenced, popular Islam.
India is a global hub of Muslim Sufism, a spiritual, synchronistic approach to Islam. Home to more than one hundred fifty million Muslims, India does not struggle with the growth of literalist Islamism to the extent that many other Muslim-majority countries do. The deep historical roots of Sufism in India are one reason for this.
While in India, Pakistan’s President Zardari visited a prominent Sufi shrine, the tomb of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a twelfth-century saint. By doing so, he sent a strong message to Pakistan’s Muslims that he is a mainstream Muslim in theology and practice. His visit pushes back against Pakistan’s influential takfiri jihadis who denounce Sufism as too liberal. By embracing Sufism, Zardari is reaching out to the many Pakistanis who do not identify with those forceful proponents of literalist Islam.
In stark contrast, Qatar’s emir was nowhere to be seen near the homes of ancient Islam in India. Why? Because to do so would send a message to his own literalist Wahhabi base in the Gulf that he had become a “grave worshipper,” who had abandoned “true Islam.”
In neighboring Bahrain, Shia protestors have been attacked and many killed by state police who accused Shia Muslims of being “grave worshippers.” Such literalist-fueled attacks on mainstream Muslims must stop.
When the monarchs of the Gulf begin to jettison Wahhabism and embrace a more pluralist form of Islam, their populations will inevitably follow. While every Salafi is not a terrorist, almost every terrorist is a Salafi. Undercutting Salafism or Wahhabism by embracing mainstream Muslim thinking is a sure antidote to the rigidity and literalism on display in the Gulf.
The emir of Qatar should seek out Muslim shrines in his future trips to other countries. After all, Arab monarchs are keen to be seen in Westminster Abbey in London or at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC. If they are willing, rightly, to visit the tombs of non-Muslims, then why not honor those of their fellow Muslims? By demonstrating an appreciation for Islam’s rich history, Qatar’s emir and other Gulf leaders can begin to remove the stranglehold of Wahhabism from mainstream Islam in the Middle East.