Maulana Nasser Sheikh, 44, looks like an oddity. And speaks and behaves like one too. Standing pretty short at about 5 feet 2 inches, this man is, however, a towering figure at Kebala, a small town near Harishchandrapur, nearly 400 kilometres north of Kolkata, in West Bengal’s Malda district bordering Bangladesh. Nasser is the imam of the local mosque and also runs a madrassa that is not registered with the state government. He speaks a strange mixture of Bengali and Bihari (Kebala is a short distance away from the Bihar-Bengal border), but is fluent in Arabic.
Nasser, attired in what liberal Muslims derisively say is “chhote bhai ka pyjama aur bade bhai ka kurta” (younger brother’s kurta since it ends well above the ankles and elder brother’s pyjama since it stretches much below the knees), has hennaed hair, an untrimmed beard, shaven moustache, kohl-lined eyes that dart around like a snake’s, a rosary in his hands, and reeks of cheap attar (perfume). Reverentially called “Maulana Sahab”, he adjudicates over matters of religion, marriage, divorce and other personal issues.
Nasser describes himself as a “pure” Muslim, which is why he will not be photographed. The only photograph he has in his three-roomed house inside the madrassa, where 72 young boys ranging from the age of eight to 18 learn the Quran and other scriptures by heart, is that of the Kaaba Stone (or the al-Hajar al-Aswad) at Mecca. He doesn’t even have photographs of his two daughters and four sons from three wives (he had four, but one died two years ago and he’s planning on getting another one soon) on his Samsung mobile.
“The Hadith prohibits any sort of imagery in Islam. Taking photos of people is haram,” he says animatedly. Even photos and paintings of landscapes are proscribed in Islam, he adds. Television is the “devil’s tool to corrupt” and cinema is a greater evil. Music, even whistling or humming a song, is a sign that Satan has entered a person’s body. He proudly proclaims that he had broken some teeth of his eldest child (daughter Sabera Khatun), when she was eight, when he heard her singing a popular Bollywood number. “I beat her badly, and she has learnt her lesson. I banned her from stepping out of the house because she picked up that song that was playing at some tea stall,” says Nasser, adding contentedly that nowadays, few, if anyone, in Kebala (an almost exclusively Muslim-populated town) listens to or plays music.
Kebala, till a decade ago by Nasser’s account, was full of sinners and “takfirs” (people who claim to be Muslims but don’t follow the Sharia to the letter). “Everyone used to watch movies, play music, sing and even dance. Barely any woman wore the burkha and women and men used to sit together in tea shops and chat,” he said. Worse still, he says, “Kebala was full of ‘mushrikeens’ (those committing shirk, or idolatry) who would visit the mazhar (tomb or shrine) of a Sufi pir (saint). That is totally forbidden in Islam and is punishable by death.”
He calls out to one of his wives to prepare tea. There is no reply of affirmation in return, neither do any of the wives or his daughters come into the room that doubles as a sitting room with a bed and two green plastic chairs. Only two of his sons come out and greet their father. Nasser explains that in Islam, women of the household are not only barred from appearing in front of male strangers; even their voices should not be heard by males who do not belong to the family. Five minutes into his lecture on what constitutes haram and shirk in Islam and the punishments they attract, there is the sound of a ladle knocking on a metal pot thrice. That’s the signal for one of Nasser’s sons to go to the kitchen and get us glasses of water, cups of sweetened milk tea, biscuits and some fried grams. Nasser lifts his glass of water and drinks in three pauses. Drinking water in that manner is as per the “sunnah” (the verbally transmitted records of the teachings and sayings of Prophet Muhammad).
Nasser also has a very unusual manner of eating: he lifts the fried grams from the plate with three fingers—thumb, and index and middle fingers—and puts them in the mouth. “This is how the Prophet ate and this is how everyone should eat,” he proclaims. And he doesn’t blow into the hot tea to cool it, as is the usual practice. “It is forbidden in Islam to breathe into something you are eating or drinking,” he says. But he can’t explain why such practices are recommended. He adds, for good measure, that one has to lick his three fingers after eating. “That is because it is forbidden to waste even a small morsel of food in Islam,” he explains.
The Making Of A Salafi
Nasser is not a native of Kebala. And nor is his original name Nasser. He was born Shimul Khan to a poor family of sharecroppers near Laskarhat, a small rural town, in eastern Malda. He was the youngest of five sons and three daughters. He grew up in poverty, but was a good student at the local madrassa and caught the eyes of his teachers. When he was eight, he was provided a scholarship to study at a bigger madrassa at Gazole (also in Malda) and two years later, shifted to another madrassa in Malda town. He was an outstanding student who excelled in learning the scriptures and by the time he was 12, he got a bigger scholarship and was taken under the tutelage of a prominent religious scholar, Maulana Hafiz Muhammad, at an Islamic seminary in Bhopal.
After being tutored extensively in Islamic religious texts and philosophy for the next three years, he cleared the junior high madrassa examinations with flying colours, and was sent to the famous Darul Uloom at Deoband for further religious education. That is when a senior cleric suggested that he change his name. “Shimul (the Bengali word for silk cotton flower) was not an Islamic name and so I changed it at the suggestion of senior scholars and became Nasser. Shimul is a Hindu name, and a Muslim should never be given the name of a Hindu or any other kafir. I don’t blame my parents though; they were uneducated and unaware,” says Nasser.
At Deoband, too, he was a bright student. And he soon came under the influence of Maulana Peer Muddadi, a senior cleric there who had trained at the Islamic University in Saudi Arabia and had become a Salafi (see box). This Maulana took Nasser under his wings and indoctrinated him in the extreme and puritanical Salafi theology and beliefs. Nasser joined the Ahl-i-Hadith, a Salafi movement that emerged in northern India in the mid-19th century and which now gets financial support from Wahhabi proponents in Saudi Arabia. Nasser refuses to say what he did after Deoband or where he travelled. But he also joined the Tablighi Jamaat, a Sunni proselytising and revivalist movement. Nasser arrived at Kebala seven years ago and took over as the Maulana of the local mosque. He then started the madrassa and insisted that all Muslims send their children to that madrassa.
And since then, a slow but sure transformation has come over Kebala. Men started growing beards and dressing up like their maulana, women started wearing the burkha and even girls as young as five started wearing the hijab. They stopped going to the mazhar of the Sufi saint, Ghiasuddin Baba (as he was reverentially known), and the closest to music that one hears at Kebala today is the lilting call of the muezzin for namaz. Many other changes have come about and the Muslims of the town have stopped interacting socially with the small Hindu population there.
However, it started well before Nasser arrived at Kebala. “The Muslims here were very friendly and liberal. They used to come over to our houses during our festivals and pujas and take prasad. We—Hindus and Muslims—used to go and pray at the mazhar. And then some outsiders came and started meeting the Muslims here and preaching in their houses. Suddenly, a lot of money came in for renovating the old mosque and then it was completely rebuilt. A new maulana also came in seven years ago and ever since then, the Muslims here have become very radical. They barely talk to us anymore and have started calling us ‘kafirs’, a term we had never heard of. They don’t come to our houses anymore and the maulana has asked them not to even look at our gods and goddesses, leave alone taking prasad. There is a chasm between the two communities now and it feels very uncomfortable to live in Kebala any longer,” said Keshab Chandra Das, a grocery shop owner. There are just two-dozen-odd Hindu families in Kebala now.
The maulana that Das was referring to is, of course, Nasser. Two years before his arrival at Kebala, preachers from the Tablighi Jamaat camped for months in this town to preach Salafi Islam to the local people. Local Muslims, most of them impoverished, were given money as enticements to start following Salafi Islam. An amount of Rs 7 lakh (a substantial sum of money in these parts) was spent on rebuilding the local mosque. The Muslim elders and prominent persons of the town who were members of the mosque management committee, were prevailed upon to terminate the services of the incumbent Imam and appoint Maulana Nasser in his place.
Kebala, and its majority Muslim residents, have undergone many changes and stark transformations since then. The colours, literally, have gone out of their lives—men are dressed in white while women always wear the black burkha. No shop sells lipstick or nail polish. Most houses don’t have photographs, portraits or paintings on their walls. A few have TV sets, and the ones that do only watch Islamic religious channels, including QTV of Pakistan. Even youngsters don’t listen to songs on their mobile handsets, at least not openly. And instead of sending children to regular schools, most Muslim families send their children to Nasser’s madrassa. Instead of dreaming that their children will grow up to become doctors, engineers or bureaucrats as they used to earlier, they now want their sons to join Salafi seminaries and their daughters to become dutiful housewives.
Nawab Biswas, a local trader, personifies this transformation. He was a die-hard movie buff and a Shah Rukh Khan fan. He used to drink alcohol occasionally and was not so particular about consuming non-halal meat. His daughters used to wear jeans and the eldest one (now 26) was even allowed to marry a (Muslim) boy of her choice a few years ago. He wanted his sons (aged 24 and 22) to become police officers or doctors. Both are now in Salafi seminaries and he wants the elder one to study at the Islamic University of Madinah where Wahhabism is taught. His wife Ruksana used to wear only sarees and he had many framed photographs of his family on vacations in seaside destinations and the hills of Bengal. She stays indoors now, envelops herself in a black burkha when she steps out of her house on rare occasions and cannot even dream of going on a vacation. His youngest child, daughter Sumi (now 19), was the apple of his eye and he wanted her to become a schoolteacher. He just got her married off last year to a 35-year-old maulvi from Berhampore town in neighbouring Murshidabad district.
“We were leading the lives of mushrikeen earlier and never realised that all that we were doing was sinful according to Islam. We were Muslims in name only. It was only after Maulana Nasser came that we got to know what Islam is really all about. He has saved us, bless him. Otherwise we would all have burnt in hell,” says Nawab, a portly man who has grown a beard and has undergone a few courses conducted by the Tablighi Jamaat to become a preacher himself.
“After having lived a major portion of my life in sin, it is now my mission to preach Salafi Islam to my fellow Muslim brethren in Malda district and even outside. I have also made it my mission to bring in as many kafirs as I can within the fold of Islam and save them from going to hell. Ultimately, insha’Allah, India will join Bangladesh and Pakistan in becoming a Muslim country and we will have an Islamic belt stretching from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. That day is not far away. Kafirs can live in the Islamic caliphate, but as second class citizens with limited rights as is deemed in the Hadith. It will thus be better for them to become Muslims, because that is the will of Allah,” says Nawab without even batting an eyelid.
He has been taught all this by Maulana Nasser Sheikh. Nasser is himself quite open about his extreme Salafist beliefs. He is all for beheadings, amputations of limbs and stoning to death of sinners, adulterers and kafirs. It is the sacred duty of all Muslims, he asserts, to strive for ummah (units of Muslims around the world), spreading Islam (by force, if necessary) and establishment of an Islamic caliphate that will stretch out to all corners of the world. Nasser supports the ISIS, calls USA a “Satanic power” and feels Muslims should not join the Indian army that is pitted against Islamic Pakistan. Bangladeshis are heretics and apostates for having broken away from Pakistan and that is why disasters visit that country quite often. “They have incurred the wrath of Allah and will continue to burn for ever,” he says angrily.
“The golden age of Islam, when Muslims ruled over much of the civilised world, will return for sure. India is the only country which stands between Islamic countries and it is only a matter of time before India also becomes an Islamic nation,” he says, adding with a satisfied smile that eastern India is already on its way to becoming a region with a large Muslim presence, thanks to the growth in the Muslim population over the last few decades. “India’s salvation lies in becoming an Islamic nation. Once that happens, enmity with Pakistan will cease and imagine the tremendous benefits that will accrue. India will not have to spend billions of dollars on the military and, in fact, won’t even need an army because it will have friends all around. Allah will protect the Islamic nation of India then,” he says in all seriousness.
A Thousand Kebalas
What is alarming is that it is not just in Malda’s Kebala that this dangerous transformation has taken place. West Bengal and Assam are dotted with a thousand Kebalas where Saudi Wahhabis have spread their poisonous ideas. Salafist seminaries and madrassas have mushroomed with Saudi financing and Salafi preachers are present in a majority of the cities, towns and villages that have a sizeable Muslim presence in the two states.
The spread of this toxic form of Islam is evident to everyone: the rising number of burkha-clad women, the increasing number of men with untrimmed beards wearing short pyjamas and long kurtas, the growing number of Salafi mosques with their hatred-spewing maulvis and imams and the changes in the lives of the Muslims at these places. A growing number of Muslims have given up listening to or playing music, photographing themselves, painting, dancing and enjoying life like normal human beings. More and more Muslim parents are pulling out their children from regular schools and enrolling them in Salafi madrassas. Most young girls in these areas wear the hijab. And interactions between Muslims and members of other communities have also decreased to the bare minimum.
What’s more, Salafi preachers and evangelists of the Tablighi Jamaat have been silently converting Hindus belonging to the disadvantaged sections — the so-called lower castes and the impoverishe — to their brand of Islam. Such conversions are not reported and the converts do not record their change of religion with the authorities immediately in order to avoid scrutiny and set alarm bells ringing. What is also cause for great concern is that a growing number of radicalised youths from these areas are joining extremist and terrorist outfits.
Indian intelligence agencies have been noticing and reporting this alarming trend. As a result, funds coming in from Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries for spreading Salafi ideology are being monitored and a number of Salafi, Ahl-i-Hadith and Tablighi Jamaat preachers have been put on the watch list. Slowly and silently, the funding to Salafi madrassas and seminaries is being cut off. But these steps, feel many in the intelligence establishment, are not enough.
The Salafi preachers should be investigated and arrested and watertight chargesheets drawn up against them for spreading hatred. At the same time, liberal Muslims and liberal Muslim organisations should be encouraged to take on the Salafists and counter their toxic ideology and brand of Islam. But will that happen?
What Is Salafism?
This ultra-conservative and regressive form of Islam derives its name from “Salaf”, or “devout ancestors”. Salafists emulate the puritanical ways of living and beliefs of Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers—the al-Salaf al-Salih, or the pious forefathers. They derive their inspiration from a hadith (one of various reports describing words, actions or habits of the Prophet) that quotes the Prophet as saying: “The people of my generation are the best, then those who come after them, and those of the next generation.” The three generations are collectively called the Salaf.
One of the earliest proponents of Salafi Islam was Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1262-1328), who held non-Arab Muslims to be inferior to Arab Muslims. He issued a fatwa in 1303 making it obligatory for all pious Muslims to kill Mongols since the latter were not following the Sharia. He said jihad was an obligatory duty for Muslims to eliminate infidels. Ahmad issued his first execution order in 1293 against a Christian cleric, Assaf al-Nasrani, for allegedly insulting the Prophet. These two fatwas are cited by hardline Islamists today to execute non-believers and all those they consider their enemies.
Ahmad and his followers acted as the moral police in Damascus, raiding taverns and wine shops, torturing atheists and killing them, and murdering Sufi shaikhs. He took part in military campaigns to eliminate the Alawites (followers of a liberal school of Islam that has syncretistic elements), Shias, Sufis and non-Salafists. He is believed to be the one who advocated that those who visit the grave of the Prophet to seek intercession and favours commit bid’ah (innovation, and hence forbidden in Islam) and shirk (idolatry), and those who seek intercession from a Sufi or wali is a kafir.
Salafists are the foremost proponents of the implementation of the Sharia in all countries having presence of Muslims. Salafists condemn practices such as polytheism and the tawassul (praying to) of religious figures. They also hold that to engage in a rational discourse of Islam (called Kalam or Ilm al-Kalam) is forbidden and haram, and that dialectics or speculative philosophy in theology are heretical innovations in Islam that can attract even the death sentence.
Salafism was given a boost in recent times by the 18th century Islamist scholar Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792). Wahhab started the Islamic revivalist movement in the remote region of Najd in central Saudi Arabia and advocated purging of practices such as the popular cult of saints, visitations to shrines and tombs (mazhars) which he considered idolatry. Wahhab considered Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah as his inspiration.
Wahab formed a pact with Muhammad bin Saud, the emir (chief) of Diriyah (an agricultural settlement near present-day Riyadh), in 1744, offering support in return for propagation of Salafi Islam. The pact was formally sealed with the wedding of Wahhab’s daughter to Saud’s son Abdul Aziz. Descendants of both the families are closely linked to this day and Wahhab’s descendants, called the Al ash-Sheikh, always head the religious affairs ministry of Saudi Arabia. Saud, with backing from Wahhab, launched bloody wars on neighbouring chieftains and expanded his domain.
The 1744 pact was the first example of the use of religion to gain political legitimacy, something that Pakistan’s military dictators have followed. Wahhab’s teachings are the official, state-sponsored form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, which spends billions of dollars to propagate this form of extreme and austere medieaval Islam all over the world.
Wahhab’s first act of intolerance was the demolition of the tomb of Zayd ibn al-Khattab (one of the sahaba or companions of the Prophet) and the stoning to death of a woman he alleged had committed adultery in his hometown of Uyayna.
After Saud’s death, his son and Wahhab’s son-in-law Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad became a hardened follower of Wahhab and used the “convert or die” approach to expand his domain and adopted the practice of takfir (declaring a non-Salafi Muslim as a kafir and putting him or her to death) propounded by Ahmad ibn-Taymiyyah. In 1802, Abdul Aziz led his army to attack the holy city of Karbala and sacked it, killed 5,000 Shias, plundered the tomb of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and enslaved all women and children of the town.
In 1901, Abdul Aziz, the fifth generation descendant of Saud, launched a brutal military campaign and defeated neighbouring rulers to give shape to the present kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The campaign that followed to propagate Wahhab’s teachings of Salafi Islam resulted in 40,000 public executions and 3,50,000 amputations in two years alone. Saudi Arabia established the Islamic University of Madinah in 1961 to propagate Salafi Islam; this University gets students from all over the world and in the current batch, there are 16 students from India, 41 from Pakistan and 22 from Bangladesh. In 1962, it established the World Muslim League to combat secularism in Muslim nations, propagate Salafi islam, and prop up extremist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahl-i-Hadith, and Jamaat-i-Islami in other countries.
Between 2011 and 2013, some 2,500 Salafi scholars came to India to preach and conduct seminars and brought in an estimated Rs 1,700 crore for propagation of Salafism. All these preachers circulated a handbook of do’s and don’ts for Muslims. The list includes compulsory wearing of burkhas for women, compulsory growing of beards for men, no intermingling of men and women, no weeping at funerals and no no laughing loudly, listening to music, dancing or watching TV.
Terrorist organisations like the al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Tayeba, Jammat-ul-Mujahedeen Bangaldesh all follow Salafi Islam.
By Jaideep Mazumdar
Jaideep Mazumdar is a journalist with many years of experience in The Times Of India, Open, The Outlook, The Hindustan Times, The Pioneer and some other news organizations.