The Changing Face of Sufism in South Asia

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Sufi syncretic culture today in South Asia is overstated. While tolerance may have been an inherent trait, the Sufi institution has evolved in a manner that it may not be able to deliver on this count.

It was around 2010 that I started my search for Sufism in my part of the world. Initially, the idea was to get away from the excessive heat generated after publication of my second book, Military Inc. But more importantly, working on the military had trained my mind to think about power from a people’s perspective – what it meant for the ordinary folk, how was it applied on them and the varied relationships that stakeholders carved out to control the public.

Someone from the family of the sufi-poet Khwaja Farid suggested that I should go back to my Sufi roots. My ancestor Khwaja Mohkam din Sairani was from the Owais-Qadri silsila. He was known to travel, thus the title Sairani or the one who travels, to call people towards Islam and engage them in a spiritual conversation. It was during one of his sojourns through Thar onto the marshy lands of Kutch that he died in Kathiawar, Gujarat in 1776 AD. But like most members of Sufi families, I had grown up conscious of, yet oblivious to my heritage.

My real learning came through my mother and her work on Sufism. I had watched her work on her novelette Chahra Bachehra Rubaru about the inner journey of the Bahai poetess and Sufi, Quratulain Tahira, and later, her last novel Dasht-e Soos on Hussain bin Mansoor Hallaj’s inner journey. I remember helping my mother chart it on an old map retrieved from Khana-e-farhang Iran, the path that Mansoor took on his journey to find his love:

Khana bakhana dar badar, kocha bakicha ko bako

(From house to house, from door to door, and from corner to corner)

I remember when Dashte Soos came out and many discussions were held on the book; numerous writers, whom we would today assign to the category, for lack of a better word, ‘liberal’, expressed disappointment.

Why hadn’t Hallaj been presented as the saviour of the poor and a revolutionary character? It fell on deaf ears that the novel was not about what was happening around him but what mattered to him within. It was about discovering the vast mystery of ‘ana l’haq’. What was it that made him so restless not to be able to contain his great secret? He was brutalised and tortured by the Caliph, al-Muqtadir, not for standing up for a worldly cause or being an ancient Marxist or Leninist, but for the fear that it would completely destroy the neat order of religion and religious teaching. He may have inadvertently challenged the orthodoxy but was that even his purpose? He was out on a journey not to discover but to lose himself. Sufism is a journey on which not everyone can embark but those who do are driven through an amazing maze of introspection, self-consciousness, self-denial and from one love to other.

But in 1985, Sufism wasn’t really fashionable as it is today. The decade of the 1980s was a watershed period in which a popular intellectual wave of dialectic materialism during the 1970s gently merged into a kind of liberalism that was the antithesis of the leftist-socialist ideology of the past. Later, religious discourse of the capitalist type took center stage. On the intellectual scene then, the Sufi instincts of Sindh, South Punjab and other parts of the country, or even the rest of South Asia, did not matter. The dominant narrative that was discussed in hotel rooms or coffee shops had nothing to do with what happened in the territorial backwaters. Sufism was taken at best as something that represented anti-modernity, which it was to a certain extent, but more on that later.

It was difficult for writers in the mainstream to understand what Jamila Hashmi said in explaining the journey of her book – she had learnt a lot from being part of the Sufi family that she was married into.

Notwithstanding that we focus mostly on the socio-politics of Sufism, it has its own world comprising norms and a very hierarchical universe that can only be imagined through a deep interest in it or through experience. Sufi practice is not just about dance, music or an imagined freedom of expression, but it is about meditation, knowledge, control and surrendering your will and the self in pursuance of tawhid and tawwakul. There is, in fact, so much order in this seeming world of disorder that every experience counts.

Jamila Hashmi studied Islamic history, the politics of Baghdad, even its weather patterns, but more importantly, the inner fire of Mansoor Hallaj that made him surrender his own life.

“Hussain have you gone mad? Don’t you care about losing your life?”

“Why not? I care about life because it is this life that stood in my way. Now I am free. Now Him and I are together like wine and water.”

Ishq Mazrai Gulab hey,
Ishq mazrai zindagi hey.
Love is a bouquet of roses.
Love is a bouquet of life.

Indeed, it is fate that Love becomes a bouquet of flowers for some, and surrendering life for others.

But in 1985, there were hardly any people among the urban intellectuals who were keen to engage with Dasht-e Soos or had interest in what the Andalusian Sufi Muhyi ‘d Din Ibn Arabi’s prayer meant: “Enter me, O Lord, into the deep of the ocean of thine infinite oneness”. In 629 AD, when the Holy Ka’aba was cleaned out of approximately 360 deities, it was turned into a place to worship only one God, the omnipotent from whom we have come and to whom we will return.

According to Martin Lings, the Holy Qur’an was both a book meant for the entire community but also a message to the select. For instance, Surah Fateha that guides towards the straight path is also a message for the Sufi to explore how to embark upon it to attain the ultimate objective. To many, the message of the Holy Qur’an is simple, and to some, it is highly intricate and is worth the life and self to swim through its many layers to reach its utmost depths. While in Islam Sufism is traced to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Islam did not have a monopoly over it as all religious civilisations have it.

Sufism in South Asia
But let me get back to what my mother experienced during the 1980s, and I indirectly through her. The dominant socio-political narrative in those days did not really engage with Sufism. This was not just because it was General Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan where modern religious forms were dominated by the Jamaat-e-Islami, ahl-e Hadith, Deobandi and Barelvi ulema. And while Zia would visit the shrine of Ali Hajveri in Lahore, popularly known as Data Sahib, like rulers before him, the imagination of Sufism and the business of shrines was relegated to under-developed, primarily rural areas meant for seemingly superstitious and illiterate or less educated people.

In fact, Sufism lost its luster after Partition in the urban centers as the state tried to de-empower shrines. Although General Ayub Khan was a follower of the pir of Dewal Sharif, he introduced the Auqaf department to bring all shrines under state control. According to Jamal Malik, the government-paid mujawar posted to the shrines turned indirectly into a kind of counter-weight to the shrine family.

The liberal intellectuals, on the one hand, made their own contribution to minimising the influence of the shrines. To the urban intellectual, piri-mureedi denoted a form of exploitation. During the mid- or late 1970s, filmmaker Mushtaq Gazdar even made a documentary They are killing the horse (1979) highlighting the authoritarianism of the pirs. The right-wing intellectuals, on the other hand, were busy nurturing competitive but more modern religious discourses. The post-1947 discourse in a newly formed Islamic state had little patience for a pre-modern form of religion as it related to development of an Islamic state and society.

As demonstrated by Dr Farzana Sheikh, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who, on the one hand, was mesmerised by Jalaluddin Rumi, on the other hand, considered Sufism redundant in the process of creating a nation-state. Not that the pirs were politically redundant in a post-partition scenario. In his research on Punjab, American political scientist David Gilmartin has expanded on the role that pirs played in Pakistan’s creation and insisted that the new state be ‘Islamic’.

Nonetheless, the socio-politics of the shrines and their belief system was far too complex and diverse to turn it into a centerpiece of state ideology. The four major silsilas – Chishtiya, Qadriya, Suharwardiya and Naqshbandiya – had a religious ethos that was determined by a more hierarchical and centralised form which was dominated by the clergy and was better suited for the purpose. The fact is that nowhere in the subcontinent did Sufism play a dominant role in the formation of modern state structure. The fact that hundreds and thousands of people visit shrines is not necessarily a reflection of Sufism’s political power.

Evolution of Sufi institutions
Sufism might have drifted further away from the primary intellectual imagination had 9/11 not taken place and the world not started its search for ‘alternative’ Muslim institutions that could bring peace to the world.

It was then that foreign think tanks and policy centers began talking about Sufism and the local elite remembered shrines to be places where music, unconventional traits and ecstasy were found. The dhammal at Sehwan and other places began to look important without people even thinking about what it truly demonstrated. Peace was the new context of Sufism.

What Islamic societies need is a review of how to engage and co-exist with other civilisations but the question remains whether Sufi Islam has the potential to do the needful? Recently, Prof Dr Mohammad Mahmoud Abu Hashim, vice president of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, spoke in Karachi about Sufism’s role in countering extremist tendencies.

Notionally, this may be correct but it does not take into consideration the evolution of Sufi institutions and the process of Islamic revivalism in the world, especially South Asia. Let me be provocative and argue that Sufi syncretic culture today in South Asia is overstated. While tolerance may have been an inherent trait, the Sufi institution has evolved in a manner that it may not be able to deliver on this count. And while Sufi shrines will continue to be populated, their capacity to generate tolerance has serious limits which can be attributed to three factors: (a) the evolution of Sufi institutions and their relationship with power, (b) increasing socio-political and socio-economic modernity has little space for Sufism and (c) the lack of capacity of Sufi institutions to produce a counter narrative.

Like in early Islam, Sufism had a great role to play in propagating Islamic ideology and culture in South Asia. The religion was brought to the region through traders and invaders from three routes: (a) sea, (b) from Persia through Sindh and (c) from Central Asia through Sindh and the Khyber Pass. While there is evidence of Arab interest in expanding into the Subcontinent dating back to 635 AD, any mention of an interaction with it is even earlier. Reportedly, a Hindu sufi by the name of Baba Ratan visited Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) twice and converted to Islam on his second visit. He is mentioned in Arab monographs. Interestingly, he is a figure who is owned by both Muslims and Hindus.

Sufis bridged the communal divide as is evidenced by the reverence the Subcontinent’s non-Muslim population exhibited for Sufi saints. The ordinary people considered these holy men a major source of intervention between some power out there that could fulfill wishes and cure pain and ailments. After all, God is indeed a human need.

Sufism around the world and in the Subcontinent had the depth to connect beyond caste, creed and gender. While we remember the Sufi saint Rabiya Basri in South Asia there were others such as Bibi Tanur (the saint for bakers), Bibi Pak Daman, Bibi Ruqqaya.

But such a wide space does not mean that Sufism has little care for religious norms. It is non-conformist in its ability to experiment with method of praying but not in terms of reverence to God and his Prophet. All Sufis were mindful of Sharia. For instance, Baba Farid, a Chishti saint, was of the view that “tilawat of the Qur’an is the best form of devotion. To read the Qur’an is to converse with God”. Bahauddin Zikriya advocated following the Sharia. In the case of music or Samaa, it was both part of the local culture and was a form of prayer. Even though music was introduced by some Sufi orders such as the Chisti and Qadri, the Naqshbandi prohibit it. In any case, as Ali Hajveri states, in music “the sufi desires not permissibility as the vulgar do, but spiritual advantage”. The Tableeghi Jamaat in Malaysia play guitar in modern-day Malaysia to attract youth towards religion.

The bottom line is that Sufis could mediate with the general public so even if they were not a major source of conversion to Islam, as historian Mubarak Ali argues, they were capable of conversing with the ordinary public in a rural economy more than the rulers could. This gave the impression, as indicated in the detailed history of Sufism in Punjab by Surinder Singh and Ishwar Dayal Gaur, Sufis interacted well with local culture.

This popularity of the Sufis was both its strength and weakness. It turned into weakness when it became institutionalised and sought after by the rulers and the ruling elite. The shrines turned into centers of both spiritual and political power with whom alliance was sought by Muslim and even non-Muslim rulers, not to mention the competition among followers vying for superiority of their saint. With growing interaction between the power centers and Sufi families, the shrines became the power centers rather than the message. Love and passion cannot be inherited.

The shrines
The patronage of Sufi shrines by power centers – starting from the Mughals and leading up to the British – weakened the institution. Dr Sarah Ansari’s seminal work on pirs in Sindh lays out a picture of how the British gave hundreds and thousands of acres of land to the pirs and included them as part of the agriculturist class defined through the Alienation of Land Act 1901. The same happened in other parts of the subcontinent. To quote historian K. K. Aziz: “The British noticed this, as had the Mughals before them and the Afghans before the Mughals, and used the zamindars and the land-pir to keep the imperial harness in place”.

Post 1947, shrines competed for greater share and attention of their respective states. In India, shrines won the autonomy to dominate and operate in their sphere. In Pakistan and later Bangladesh, Sufi families were absorbed in power politics instead of Sufism, transforming the face of the institution into what I would call shrine-mafia. It was a class of people that were part of the elite and, in fact, represented, local power hegemony, political, economic and intellectual. They were agents of the state that interceded on behalf of both the state and the people. The more conscientious pir gave more to the masses but an inward looking one was just the opposite. If not directly in power, these ‘spiritual landowners’, that Ansari calls them, became power brokers. Shrines were where powerful people gathered and added to their patronage power or negotiated with other power centers. Thus, from Ayub Khan to Imran Khan shrines and those touting as representing the Sufi tradition have a role.

But as Mian Muhammad Baksh said in Saiful Malook:

Jis yari wich lalach howay, kadey o tour naheen chardee,

Chaddar leer-o-leer Muhammad, kundiyan naal jo ardi.

Sufism and modernity
This brings me to my second point about modernity challenging the influence of the Sufi institution. This pertains to competitive ideologies emerging in the subcontinent. While the various sufi orders anchored from 12th to 18th centuries, revivalists movements also emerged from their midst represented by Sufi scholars such as Ahmed Shah Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah. Belonging to the Naqshbandi Sufi order, they not only questioned the concept of wahdatul wajud, but also had influence in the Arab world.

Shah Waliullah, who is considered as inspiration for the Ahl-e Hadith movement, was himself trained and mentored by a Sindhi sufi scholar from the Naqshbandi order, Hayat al-Sindhi from Adilpur, Sindh. This is a critical relationship in the evolution of Sufi thought in the subcontinent as Hayat Sindhi himself was trained, initially in Thatta, but later in Medina under the tutelage of Ibrahim al-Kurani.

Almost all Medinian scholars of the time were influenced by Naqshbandi-Ashari thought compounded with the desire to revive Ahmed bin Hanbal and Ibn Taimiyya. Al-Sindhi also taught Muhammad ibn abdl Wahab how the concept of shrines was antithetical to Islam. The emphasis, hence, was on both the Holy Qur’an and Hadith. Sindhi was indeed a known and established muhadith.

In the subcontinent at that time there was reaction to Akber’s Din-e-Elahi, an effort to merge faiths. This was a deviation not syncretism. The resultant revivalism naturally questioned Sufi traditions that had morphed into newer forms. Ideologically, Sufism in the subcontinent, like the rest of the Muslim world had shifted from its emphasis on asceticism to pantheism and neo-Platonic influences.

This influence toed and froed between the subcontinent and the Arabian peninsula to inspire the more modern ulema moments in the beginning of the 20th century. The Deobandi, Ahl-e Hadith, Barelvi and even Ahmadi movements were revivalist in nature and were embraced by a generally embattled Muslim population. While preaching greater conformism to set rules, these above-mentioned movements also catered to growing socio-economic modernity and the need to draw distinctive lines between communal cultures.

Although the process of centralisation and streamlining of communal identities was started during the British, it was carried over into the new post-colonial states which needed centralisation much more. Under the circumstances, Sufism as an institution was forced to merge itself into a ulema-based Barelvi movement. What we see today is a Sufi-Barelvi hybrid.

However, even this combination could not sufficiently cater to the needs of socio-economic modernity. While Pakistani sociologist Hamza Alavi was of the view that this hybrid form represented ‘peasant’s religion’, he believed that this would change in terms of greater space for other identities even with changes in agricultural implements. What he meant was that a more literate middle class would seek other religious formulas. Over years, this proved true.

The Sufi message was increasingly confined to rural areas where it still has traction for numerous reasons not connected with either the desire for Ishq nor an understanding of the Sufi message. This is not to argue that literate and urban people do not go to shrines but that Sufism currently lacks the narrative which socio-economic modernity demands.

The new religious forms are based much more on an identifiable narrative and textual evidence. Modern Islam is also not individualistic but builds a community and a firmer identity. It is also much more egalitarian than the Sufi institution – to an ordinary mind, piri-mureedi is a struggle through an individual who is surrounded by layers of minions and khalifas, but the soldier of God and the act of martyrdom does not require intercession or negotiating patronage. A crown of jewels, 70 hooris and forgiveness for 70 pious people.

Modern-day Sufism
Let me now present my final point about the lack of narrative in South Asian Sufism. But first let me take you back to my own story that I started from regarding my research on Sufism. What I find intriguing was that wherever I went into the Sufi landscape I found faces of radicalism and terror. My question was that how could it happen in Sufi lands. It is the same question that till today baffles many of my Sindhi friends. Most won’t imagine that the syncretic landscape is no more. They view extremism as an implant which is certainly the case but implants do not take time to take root if there is a demand for it. The educated Sindhi middle class, who does not get answers from shrines, now looks elsewhere. Furthermore, the political accommodation of the JUI in Sindh has contributed tremendously in shifting the goalpost.

As I looked closely I realised that the Saint had merged with the Sinner and the self-styled Soldier of God. The pir had lost his capacity to bring peace to society because of his inability to introduce his own narrative.

While the politics of the state has a large part to play, the fact remains that the Sufi institution in South Asia is quite moth-eaten. The state of moral and ethical degradation and internal power struggles have not only divided the shrines but also diverted attention towards other issues not related to the spirit of Sufism. Some research that I started to do but have not concluded yet, involved looking at the economic power around three shrines in South Punjab. The result was that now these centers are no longer controlled by Sufi-lovers or even Barelvis. The weaker a shrine family, the greater likelihood of Deobandi and Ahl-e Hadith control. While in other parts of South Asia such as India and Sri Lanka, the monopoly of religion by communal leaders allowed for greater exploitation of the follower, in the Islamic states of the region there was a total moral abandonment of the message by the Sufi leadership. In any case, there is moral deprivation and degradation in the shrine families which has not been captured in our literature.

Politically, the pirs do not offer a counter-point. In fact, they have succumbed to the forces of religious modernity. When Lal Masjid’s Maulvi Abdul Rasheed died it was the pirs of the area who were falling over backwards to lead his funeral prayers. The pirs of Khwaja Farid seek appointment from Hafiz Saeed and invite Maulana Fazlur Rehman to the Farid mela. The pir of Golra has used Deobandi militants for years to control contested land ownership. And mind you, these are not just stories from Punjab. The scene is the same wherever you go.

Even in Turkey, political modernity knocked down the Sufi institution but in South Asia, particularly the Islamic states there has been a huge gap in revising the Sufi narrative to a point where there is none remaining. There are no centers of learning around shrines to ponder and educate. The modern pir did not even have the capacity to stand apart from Maulvi Khadim Rizvi, who has now, in fact, dominated the Sufi message. But let’s be clear that he is not a lover and his message is not love.

Therefore, I would challenge the professor from al-Azhar regarding his conclusion that Sufism can draw us back towards peace. This is a theoretical notion that is deprived of any reality. We no longer have the capacity to differentiate between the exploitative madness of the religious clerics and Sufi love. In fact, when we speak about Sufism in South Asia we are talking about shrine and shrine families. Ishq is not arrogance and what we have around us is arrogance not submission. We have no one to tell us that the idea of Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is not destruction but peace. A new narrative is needed, a new direction is needed where we could go back to understand that:

Alif Allah, ratta dil medda, menoun bey di khabar na kaye,

Bey parhiyan kujh samajh na avaay, lazzat alif de aye. #KhabarLive

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