Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his speech during the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi, March 17, 2016.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his speech during the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi, March 17, 2016.

NEW DELHI - Praising Islam as a religion of peace, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Thursday that Indian Muslims reflect the spirit of Sufism, which he called the “voice of peace, co-existence, compassion and equality.”

He was addressing a four-day conference of Sufi scholars from about 20 countries being held in New Delhi to promote tolerance as a counterpoint to the rise in terrorism and extremism. Sufism is the mystical form of Islam.

The Indian prime minister’s presence at the inaugural function of the World Sufi Forum is being seen as an outreach to Muslims and a bid to ease concerns that his Bharatiya Janata Party is pursuing a Hindu revivalist agenda.

But the conference, coordinated with the help of the BJP government, was criticized by several Indian Muslim leaders as an attempt to create divisions in the country’s Muslim community.  

Crediting India’s progress to every member of every faith, Modi called Islam a great religion and said Indian Muslims “reflect the timeless culture of peace, diversity and equality, of faith of our land. They are steeped in the democratic tradition of India, confident of their place in the country and invested in the future of the nation.” 

Indian Sufi leaders say they want to make India, which has a 170 million-member Muslim community, a hub of moderate Islam. Sufism is a mystical tradition that promotes universal love, peace and tolerance. 

Delegates listen to Indian Prime Minister Narendra
Delegates listen to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech at the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi, March 17, 2016. The four-day event will be attended by more than 200 international delegates, spiritual leaders, scholars, academicians and masters of Sufism.

Sufi adherents came from countries like Syria, Pakistan, Iran and the United States.

A focus on love

Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichhowchhawi, president of the All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board, said they want to send the message that “hate will not end hate, atrocities will not end atrocities. To end hate, we must learn to spread love.”  

In recent months, the Indian prime minister has spoken several times of the ideology promoted by Sufi saints, saying it has made a significant contribution to the creation of a pluralistic, multicultural society in India.

However, some Muslim leaders remain suspicious of the prime minister’s invocation of Sufism.

Kamal Faruqui, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said the conference is not making efforts to address problems of the Muslim community, such as those related to education, law and order, and what he called a “hate” campaign by Hindu hard-liners.

“If the basis of the agenda is creating a division among the people itself, then perhaps it won't be good for the community and the country itself,” Faruqui said.  

Modi was elected in 2014, having promised to create jobs and increase development, but Muslim leaders worry that hard-liners within his BJP want to promote a Hindu revivalist agenda and have raised questions about threats to religious minorities under his leadership.