Main content start

Researching Saudi and Iranian Religious Influence on Muslims

Feyaad Allie

This summer with the funding of the Abbasi Center, I traveled to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala in India to begin to understand the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran on Muslims in India and the broader issues facing the Indian Muslim community.

I carried out 28 interviews with individuals in think tanks, NGOs, government offices, and mosques. I primarily sought to understand how and why Saudi Arabia and Iran project their brand of Islam abroad into India. I expected that both countries would target their influence in India in areas where Muslims face higher opposition from Hindus (in the form of communal violence and anti-Muslim policies). Through my interviews I ultimately found that the institutional support for Muslims in India from outside actors is less systematic, seemingly unrelated to Saudi-Iran competition, and driven by local connections to either Saudi Arabia or Iran. Beyond this research question regarding Saudi and Iran influence in India, I also used the exploratory fieldwork to learn more about the politics of the Indian Muslim community. Below I provide details and takeaways from my exploratory research related to external Islamic influence, Muslim political behavior, and Muslim land politics.

External Islamic Influence

Uttar Pradesh: In Lucknow, UP, there is a presence of Saudi Arabia and Iran reflected in Sunni and Shia religious institutions, respectively. In the case of Saudi Arabia / Sunnis, the common connection is from clerics who were trained in Lucknow (usually at the Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama usually called “Nadwa”) and who become clerics in Saudi Arabia. These clerics have a strong connection to the religious school that they trained at and often raise money from wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia which they send back to Nadwa school in Lucknow. This money can then be used to support Nadwa as an institution. Several Muslims I spoke to in Lucknow said that Nadwa receives financing from Saudi Arabia. When I was able to briefly interview a cleric who is currently at a mosque in Saudi Arabia but was trained and brought up in Lucknow he told me that money is raised in Saudi Arabia and it's not necessarily money coming from the Saudi government. One major Sunni cleric that I spoke with said that the economic conditions of Sunni Muslims has been improved by the connection to the Gulf through job opportunities there and remittances sent back. Sunni clerics expressed

Several individuals I spoke with also mentioned that Salafi ideology from Saudi Arabia is able to make more inroads in Deobandi rather than Barelvi communities. The Deobandis are a movement under Sunni Islam in South Asia that advocate for a stricter interpretation of Islam. They are often called Wahhabis by Barelvis and Shias; however, it is not the case that all Deobandis ascribe to Wahhabi ideology. Barelvis are another movement under Sunni Islam in South Asia that is a more localized practice -- often allowing shrines and saint veneration, more similar to Shia Islam and Sufism.

In the case of Iran / Shias, the connection is strongly related to the Iranian government. Some prominent Shia clerics have strong connections with the main clerics in Iran and funding likely operates through that mechanism, but no Shia cleric would say this was the case -- although some journalists and other Muslims did say so. Some prominent Shia clerics were also educated in Iran. Shia clerics in Lucknow are also very attuned to the rules and regulations of Shiism in Iran. Over the past few years an NGO that focuses on Shia-Sunni relations wanted to organized a joint prayer for the Eid holiday between Sunnis and Shias. The NGO ultimately had to email prominent clerics in Iran to receive approval before Shia clerics agreed. Many Shia leaders also travel to Iran / Iraq for pilgrimage to the holy shrines and conferences. Iran also has connections to Shia Muslims in Kashmir and Hyderabad. For example, Shias traditionally were pro-Indian control in Kashmir and Sunnis more aligned with separatism; however, some are saying that Iran’s influence is causing some Shias to become more supportive of separatism with regard to Kashmir.

Kerala: The Muslims in Kerala are overwhelmingly Sunni (with some Sufis). Within Sunni Islam in Kerala there are Sunni-AP and Sunni-EK (two strands that split due to a difference of opinion on Islamic hadith). Sunni-EK is the larger group and AP is a splinter. In addition, there are now Salafis (also called Mujahids) who follow the teachings of Wahhabism. Saudi support generally goes to Salafi organizations but there are also accounts of clerics from the other Sunni sects being close to people in the Gulf. The funding from the Gulf is linked to labor migration from Kerala. Often times, people who moved to the Gulf for work are able to get funders to give money back to mosques in Kerala. These donors do not necessarily tell the mosques what to preach but one leader said that their patron from Dubai came to visit the mosque and see what renovations they did with the funding. The money is used more for renovations of existing mosques rather than building new mosques. Any funding from the Gulf appears to be less linked to governments but instead to wealthy individuals in the region.

Several differences exist between Sunni and Salafi mosques. The Salafis do not allow shrine rituals whereas the Sunni mosques do. Salafi mosques allow women to pray in their mosques while Sunni mosques do not -- however, some have recently started creating spaces for only traveling women to pray. Salafi mosques tend to give sermons in Malayalam while Sunni mosques give sermons in Arabic (with a small Malayalam speech after). The Salafi movement appears to have differentiated itself from Sunni practices as it has expanded in Kerala.

Political Behavior

A key issue that many Muslims (especially in Lucknow) spoke about was voting. In Lucknow, a major concern for Sunni Muslims was the view that Shia Muslims are supporting the Hindu nationalist BJP party. Across my interviews Sunnis and Shias both expressed several reasons for this Shia support for BJP: (1) just doing the opposite of Sunnis (2) Sunnis are more closely linked to the global narrative of extremism, so Shias are trying to move away from that (3) Shias are traditionally wealthier and “more integrated” and so see themselves benefiting from BJP policies (4) Shias look at how their fellow Shia are treated in Pakistan and would rather vote for a nationalist government than have Sunni aligned government in power (5) BJP has courted Shia groups through helping them retain their practices (helped them regain permission to practice processions, helped them reclaim an important waqf property of a shrine). Many of the local Shia religious elites in Lucknow have a strong connection to BJP politicians. The main Shia clerics often appear on TV in support for BJP politicians. There is also a Muslim branch of the RSS (the paramilitary Hindu nationalist parent organization of the BJP) that is relatively active in Lucknow.

In Gujarat and Maharashtra, a large population of the Shia sect known as Bohras are also supportive of the BJP and Modi. The Bohras are an extremely organized and wealthier sect of mostly business-people. After the Gujarat riots in 2002 the head leader of the Bohra community (the Dai) made amends with Modi and many Bohras supported this. They are known for putting aside political differences for economic gains / business.

In Kerala, the Sunni EK and Salafis largely supports the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) who are aligned with the Congress Party and the Sunni AP support the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI(M)). The BJP has not made much inroads in Kerala; however, Kerala accounts for the most RSS shakhas (daily meetings for the RSS) in India.

Land Politics

A big concern for many Muslims was land politics, specifically waqf encroachment. Waqf are religious property that are endowed to be used for religious purposes forever. Most waqf boards reported that there are many properties being encroached upon by both private individuals and the government. Sunni clerics said that this was less of an issue for the Sunni community and more relevant for the Shia community. However, the Sunni waqf board did report instances of waqf encroachment. The Muslim community says that the waqf boards are not strong enough to take action against encroachments; however, when they do sometimes it just ends up in court for a while. Corruption at the waqf board is also cited as a reason for why encroachments are not taken seriously at the institutional level.