The road from Ajmer leads nowhere

In his article, “ >A Sufi message from a Pakistani President” (April 9, 2012), Saeed Naqvi not only seemed to eulogise Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to India, especially his participation at the annual congregation at the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinudin Chishti at Ajmer, but also to propose the idea of the state and political forces partnering with Sufi Islam. This is certainly not an original idea as a number of western analysts and policymakers have expressed similar enthusiasm for co-opting Sufi Islam as a source for bringing peace in the Muslim world. Even a RAND Corporation report identified Sufi Islam as an alternative institution which the West must partner to check the Deobandi and Wahabi forces. A couple of New York Times news reports have also highlighted the significance of pot-smoking disciples at the urs of a prominent Sufi saint, Shehbaz Qalandar, in Sindh, as being more inclined towards peace in their immediate world and with the outside world. Such people definitely don’t look like those who would engage in suicide bombing.

The tunes of Sufi music sung by Abida Perveen or the mystic-romantic poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi and Omar Khayyam excite a lot of liberal-progressive elements in the subcontinent. Surely, it is exciting to discover the possibility of pluralistic dialogue within a religious framework. It’s a fact that Islam expanded in the subcontinent mainly due to the efforts of the hundreds of Sufis who were willing to accommodate local culture and eccentricities. The Sufi does not give a fatwa. However, there are two critical questions that must be asked of Mr. Naqvi or anyone who offers the formula of co-opting Sufi Islam. First, do we even know the current status of Sufi Islam? Second, even if this is the preferred option, should the state even consider partnering with any kind of religious form to fulfil its political ambitions?

Starting in the reverse order, the current state of affairs in the form of terrorism and radicalism is the harmful result of state actors co-opting religion to carry out political ambitions.

While highlighting how the nature of the Pakistani state has been affected due to the use of religion during the Afghan war of the 1980s, or even earlier during the creation of the state, Mr. Naqvi ignores the fact that co-opting religion for politics is generally a bad recipe. Even mysticism can get politicised, a fact borne out by the whirling dervishes of Turkey or the Sufi movement in Sudan (1945-89) being the driver of political unrest and rebellion. Moreover, mysticism is not restricted to a particular school of thought as there are mystics among the Deobandis as well. In fact, there is an ideological affinity between Deobandism and Barelvism. The latter is usually considered the “peaceful” form of Islam.

As for the first question, the fact is that the sociology of Sufi institutions has undergone a tremendous change which is most obvious from the exploitative instinct of the pirs of the subcontinent, irrespective of where they come from. A Sufi believer will get seriously disappointed during a visit to Nizamuddin Auliaya’s dargah in Delhi due to the intrusive and annoying behaviour of the pirs at the shrine. Meditation is certainly out of the question due to the constant and bothersome interruption by the keepers of the shrine who are more interested in extracting money from the visitor. Ajmer and other places are no different, nor are the shrines in Pakistan.

Sufism in the subcontinent changed when it morphed into an institution which would readily partner with the state. Contrary to the basic principle of Sufism that appreciation in the eyes of God — who is perceived as the ultimate beloved — depends on the hard work of the disciple, the form which evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries turned the shrine into the nucleus that was dominated by a hereditary system. The pirs‘ hard work of spiritualism was marketed through his family, with the son taking over from the father and so on. Bulleh Shah, a great Sufi saint in Pakistan who raised his voice against all forms of power — both religious and secular — would turn in his grave if he knew how his successors had partnered with the state. Sarah Ansari’s work on the pirs in Sindh has explained the political corruption of Sufi institutions in the province. The British had a policy of distributing land among the pirs in return for endorsement of their policies and public support.

One of the major problems with this formula is that it reinforces exploitation rather than allowing for spiritual reassessment. For instance, like the pirs of Ajmer, those in Pakistan such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pir Pagara, Yusuf Raza Gilani and others have no capacity to offer a competing narrative. They do not offer a varied view on blasphemy or issues for which the radicals provide evidence from the scripture or sharia. Not to forget their vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Hence, it is not surprising that pockets of radicalism have emerged and been strengthened in south Punjab and now Sindh, both areas known for their Sufi saints. The south Punjabi tradition of accommodation and of creating space for women to make choices is rapidly being replaced by the phenomenon of “honour” killing.

The fact is that the narrative of modernity represented by Deobandism and Wahabism is challenging the modern day pir without fear of a credible response. The radicals and militant forces not only have access to modern technology for dissemination of their message, but they also have a modern textual context to what they have to say. They are offering empowerment of the individual through direct access to the holy text rather than the roundabout method offered by the pir. Put another way, the potency of the pirs is compromised by the new found ideological modernity.

According to the Pakistani sociologist, Hamza Alavi, Sufi and Barelvi Islam represent the peasant’s religion, a form which is getting rapidly challenged due to increased urbanisation and socio-economic development. Sufism cannot catch up with this trend unless it offers an alternative narrative in a convincing and modern way. Under the circumstances, I would only ask Saeed Naqvi to reassess his conclusion and discover for himself that the road from Ajmer leads nowhere.

Note: This article originally published here.