In what could be a major realignment of political forces in Kerala, two factions of an influential Sunni Muslim organisation are laying the ground for a merger 28 years after they parted ways.

The Samastha Kerala Jemiyyathul Ulama split in 1989 following differences between its two main leaders, the late EK Aboobacker Musliyar and AP Aboobacker Musliyar. The splinter groups came to be known as EK and AP factions. The EK faction is currently led by Syed Jifri Muthukoya Thangal.

They have been talking about a merger for a while but the proposal gained momentum recently after both factions formed committees to work out the details.

By getting together, they aim to increase their bargaining power with the Indian Union Muslim League, the fourth-largest political party in Kerala in terms of seat share after the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Congress and the Communist Party of India. The League heavily depends for electoral success on the more traditionalist among Sunnis, whom the Jemiyyathul Ulama represents.

Moreover, a united Jemiyyathul Ulama could also prevail upon the League to end its patronage of the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, which represents the ultra-conservative Sunnis known as Salafis.

Muslims constitute 26% of Kerala’s population and the majority are traditionalist Sunnis.

Tedious exercise

“Our Mushawara has constituted a four-member committee to check various aspects of the talks,” said Abdussamad Pookkottur, a prominent leader of the EK faction, referring to the organisation’s Supreme Council.

Said Jamal Kurulai, media coordinator of the AP faction in Malappuram district, “We also chose four members to hold discussions with the EK faction.”

But the biggest indication yet that the two groups are seeking rapprochement came last week when the EK faction leader Syed Jifri Muthukoya Thangal met the AP faction’s Syed Khaleel Bukhari Thangal during a religious event in Malappuram.

Still, the merger is going to be a tedious exercise as the two factions have been functioning as independent entities for so long. Pookkottur conceded as much. “It may take many years to complete the merger process,” he said.

That is not a problem, though, Karulai said. “We hope to work together as we follow the same religious practices and oppose Salafis,” he said.

President of EK faction of Sunnis in Kerala Syed Jifri Muthukoya Thangal greets prominent leader of AP faction Syed Khaleel Bukhari Thangal at a religious event in Malappuram.

For expediency 

Leaders of the both the groups said the merger has become necessary to counter the League’s continuing patronage of the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, and the Salafi movement it leads.

Salafism is an ultra-conservative movement within the Sunni branch of Islam that seeks to return to the way of life of Prophet Muhammad and his followers. It spread in Kerala after the Nadvathul Mujahideen, which started out as a reformist organisation working to improve the socio-cultural condition of Muslims, began to look to Saudi Arabia for guidance in the 1990s. In Saudi Arabia, Salafism enjoys state patronage.

Though Nadvathul Mujahideen’s activities are limited to Kerala, it is known to associate with the like-minded Ahl-e-Hadith movement, which originated in North India in the 19th century.

The Nadvathul Mujahideen has also suffered from factional feuds. It split almost vertically in 2002, into TP Abdulla Koya Madani faction and Hussain Madavoor faction, only to reunify in 2016. Of late, another Salafist group called Wisdom Global Islamic Mission has been trying to gain presence in Kerala.

The Nadvathul Mujahideen propagates that Muslims who seek the intercession of intermediaries, or saints, to pray to Allah, are polytheists. In his book, Mappila Muslims of Kerala, the sociologist Roland E Miller noted that the Mujahid movement strengthened its criticism of practices it regards as superstitious and pursued its struggle for a purified concept of Tauheed, or monotheism. Its members, Millar said, viewed themselves as proponents of legitimate Islamic reform.

Political impact

Currently, the EK faction is politically aligned with the Indian Union Muslim League while the AP faction mainly supports the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front.

The League has 18 legislators in the Kerala Assembly, two in the Lok Sabha and one in Rajya Sabha.

The EK faction’s equation with the League became strained after two of the latter’s prominent leaders attended the Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen’s state conference in Malappuram last December. The group took exception to this, with its chief Mohammed Jifri Muthukoya Thangal threatening that those who belittle the Sunni leaders would never reach the steps of the Assembly.

Earlier in October, the group had criticised the League’s national organising secretary and Member of Parliament ET Mohammed Basheer for praising the Salafi organisation. “The Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen has played a key role in spreading the message of Thouheed,” Basheer had said.

The group said Basheer should not forget that the Salafi ideology spread by the Nadvathul Mujahideen had inspired many people in Kerala to join the Islamic State.

The National Investigation Agency is investigating the disappearance of 21 people from Kerala in 2016. They are alleged to have been influenced by the Salafi ideology into joining the Islamic State.

Pookkottur said they are aware of the League’s “soft stand” on the Salafi organisation. “The EK faction does not oppose the Indian Union Muslim League, but we oppose the growth of Salafis capitalising on the strength of the party.”

He claimed the Salafists are on the back foot since some of its cadres allegedly joined the Islamic State. “Only people who embraced Salafi ideology joined the Islamic State,” he said. “No one from Sunni outfits joined the dreaded organisation.”

Kutty Ahammed Kutty, vice president of the Indian Union Muslim League in Kerala, meanwhile, said it was too early to talk about the reunification of the Jemiyyathul Ulama. “Let us wait and see,” he said.

He added the merger, if it happens, would not affect the League’s electoral chances. “It is impossible for Sunnis to oppose the League,” he said. “We have always listened to their demands. We respect all religious organisations.”