This paper will attempt to show how Sufism, or more specifically the mystical tradition in Sindh, can serve as a counter-weight to the rising specter of extremism and intolerance and strict Wahhabi interpretations of the religious texts, not only in Pakistan, which has suffered greatly (in the ongoing War on Terror) in the last decade, but also in the Muslim world, in the wake of the Arab Spring. The union of Hindu and Muslim traditions in Sindh has made the province more tolerant and harmonious, as is corroborated by substantially higher levels of suicide attacks and sectarian conflict in Punjab, Baluchistan and NWFP. The recent visit of the Pakistani President to a Sufi shrine in India has stirred up the debate, namely how Pakistan, blighted by extremism, should turn towards the more pacifying message espoused in Sufism. In an increasingly fractured world, Sufism provides hope for a better future.
The Rise of Radical Islam
Pakistan has been ravaged by the scourge of extremism. Ever since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror, 35,000 people-civilians, armed forces, police personal- have lost their lives in a conflict that feeds on hatred and injustice. Religious madrassas, over the past decade, have become a byword for religious extremism, as breeding grounds for suicide bombers. These rigid institutions(ironically the only schools for poor families), financed by Saudi Arabia, are designed to ensure conformity to the twisted brand of Islam that they vociferously endorse, one that not only enjoins the use of violence to counter the infidels but in the process also defiles a religion that advocates peace and tolerance. Pakistan, formed to protect the rights of the minority Muslim population of the subcontinent, has ironically treated its minorities-Hindus and Christians-abjectly. I contend that this attitude towards non-Muslims stems from the intolerance and bigotry fostered by orthodox religious institutions and the Wahahabi-Deobandi-Salafi nexus.
The rot (radical indoctrination) begins with the syllabus designed for students that, almost without fail, has references to conspiracy theories being concocted by the Hindus and the Jews. Graduates from madrassas emerge with hatred, resentment, and an intense desire for revenge.
General Zia, in an attempt to consolidate his political authority, began a process of Islamization in the Pakistani society that saw the emergence of radical Islam in the 1980s. Funded by Wahhabi elements and organized by the ISI and CIA, a dangerous conception of Jihad was born. This Jihad makes no distinction between innocent and guilty, between Muslims and non-Muslims (consider the plentitude of suicide bombings that targeted Muslim populations). The Sufi perspective on the Jihad (the real Jihad) is:
“Jihad, according to Sufi beliefs, is purging one’s mind of evils and fighting against them by controlling material desires”.
The inability of these institutions to foster a climate of debate and active engagement serves to explain the rigid outlook that is the culmination of such learning. Any deviance from an already prescribed path is met with stringent punishment, often leading to physically and more importantly, long term psychological harm. One can sense the way in which young children are molded, how their young unsuspecting minds cannot uncover how their mindsets are being altered irrevocably. These are not educational centers committed to equipping their graduates to compete in an increasingly globalized world but instead are ideological factories that manufacture radicalism and intolerance.
Sufism, in stark contrast, focuses on the interior instead of the exterior, the need to perfect one’s faith by fighting with the real enemy, the Nafs.
Orthodox Islam has frowned upon their more liberal counterparts. Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative, a leading proponent of Sufism, preaches the ideals of love, the remembrance of god (or ‘zikr’) and reconciliation, though the Taliban, paradoxically, view him as an apostate, worthy of being assassinated.
It comes as no surprise that the Taliban have targeted the shrines of Sufi saints in Pakistan. On July 2, the Pakistani Taliban conducted a double suicide bombing on Data Darbar, the largest Sufi shrine in Lahore, killing 42 people and injuring 175. Another crucial attack was on the shrine of the 17th century saint Rahman Baba-the national poet of the Pashtun tribe- in northwestern Pakistan. Some Sufis, especially members of the Chishtiyya Sufi Order who considers music to be a potent way to realize God, were prosecuted in Afghanistan. Orthodox Islam frowns upon Sufis with their penchant for music-especially Qawwali, Sufi devotional music, immensely popular in South Asia.
William Darymple, explains the need for inner cleansing and Sufi Islam’s aversion to strict religious dogma, when he writes,:
What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque, church, synagogue or temple, but the striving to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart: that we all can find paradise within us, if we know where to look. Sufism, with its emphasis on love rather than judgment, represents the New Testament of Islam.
The Sufi Way
Sufis make no distinction between mankind, as everything that exists is a manifestation of the one Divine reality, a reflection of his Attributes, his creation. The Truth is one, and anyone who realizes it is welcomed. Love for the beloved, who remains both hidden and manifest, translates into love for all people, without discrimination or difference. This all encompassing nature of Sufism bodes well for peace and interfaith dialogue in a world increasingly being fractured by genocide and sectarian violence. As Rohal Faqir beautifully articulates:
“On one side there were Hindus and on the other side there are
Muslims, in between they created hatred and difference. They are blind;
who is going to tell them the truth, Rohal says that when I looked
around and saw different paths of the Beloved, I found out
that God among them was one and the same. Where can I keep my feet
when lam sleeping in the center of Ka’aba”
The Sufis emphasize on love, in finding God in the human heart, in the belief that salvation lies within the confines of the human soul. Sufis also contend that because the Divine reality is one, religions are varying manifestations of the same one reality. The concept of infinite tolerance is encapsulated by Rumi:
Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a
caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times…Come, come
Everything in existence points to Him; He created all that exists, and therefore, everything is beautiful in its duality: light and darkness, day and night, desire and forbearance. A Sufi cannot harm or belittle His creation, even the non-Muslims. This is a marked departure from Wahhabism that encourages open confrontation with the infidels. A Barelvi Islamic scholar says ‘Killing an innocent Hindu just because he isn’ t a Muslim is certainly not a jihad’
Ibn Arabi expresses how Sufism incorporates all religions, as all are reflective of the one Divine Reality:
“My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles
And a convent for Christian monks
And a temple for idols
And the pilgrim’s Ka’ba
And the tables of the Torah
And the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of love:
Whatever way Love’s camels take,
That is my religion and my faith”
Sufism in Sindh
Sindh (also called Bab-ul-Islam) is the birthplace of Sufism in Pakistan. Sufi saints were instrumental in spreading Islam with its message of tolerance and forbearance. Sufi saints of Sindh(known as ‘the land of 124,000 saints and dervishes) have a large and devoted following among both Hindu and Muslims and it is striking that many Hindus cross the border from India to pay homage at the shrines, despite political obstacles and social stigma associated with stepping into “enemy” terrain. As Sachal Sarmast, a Sufi saint, downplaying the religious divide, says:
“Sachu Supreme is one- no doubt no question,
Witnesses his own show- resplendent royally,
Sometimes recites scriptures-sometimes Koran,
Somewhere as Christ, Ahmed or Hanumaan,
Sindh has been under the grip of the land owning feudal class, who have amassed power in their own hands and shamelessly oppressed the peasantry. Amidst this backdrop, Shah Inayat (the Mansur of Sind) launched a campaign against feudalism, calling for greater social justice and equality. He proclaimed, much to the collective anger of the ruling elite, “Land belongs to God and its yield to the tiller.”
This proclamation made the saint a threat to the ruling élites. By attempting to transform a feudal society into an agrarian egalitarian society, he earned many enemies. On the orders of the King, Shah Inayat was executed, becoming an iconic figure in the history of Sufism in Sindh.
In Sufi shrines, all ethnic, class, religious, social distinctions are blurred; everyone prays, sings and eats together. Sufi saints emerged as the savior of the masses, providing charity freely, speaking up for the rights of the impoverished and rebelling against the feudal class system.
Sufism offers the prospect a society without sectarian, ethnic and communal differences. The pervasive influence of Sufism in Sindh has translated into a populace that is more tolerant, accommodating and compromising, much of which explains why extremism is markedly less pronounced in Sindh, as opposed to other provinces. Hindu-Muslim union in Sindh provides modern day lessons for policy makers, striving to battle against the rapid spread of extremism.
Sufi saints have, time and again, challenged the Mulleh community, who espouse a strict reading of religious texts and who consider the Sufis as being non-Muslim, deviant individuals, basking in music, which for them is Haram. Now, I shall cite the poems of Sufi saints that clearly show acceptance of the fact that the Divine Reality is one, which in turn has engendered a degree of tolerance in Sindhi people.
Shah Latif (greatly influenced by Rumi) is one of the greatest poets of Sindh- his work is replete with calls for religious tolerance and adoption of humanistic values. There is also a degree of pluralism in the recognition that while the path to the reality may be plentiful; the destination is same for all. As he writes:
From one it became many, from many it became one.
Reality is in unity, you should not forget this
That there is unity behind diversity.
There ore lahks of your forms, you are one with them,
but having different forms. Oh my beloved!
How many signs of your beauty am I going to count.”
Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai was against religious dogma, as is manifested in the following poem:
“If you are seeking Allah,
Then keep clear of religious formalities.
Those who have seen Allah
Are away from all religions!
Those who do not see Allah here,
How will they see Him beyond?
Consider the case of Gulan, a dancing girl who came to Shah Latif seeking guidance. The considerate Latif blessed her, and the girl later married the ruler of Sind. This story showcases how the saints did not condone or berate sinners, but rather, out of mercy and compassion, pray that they are shown the Right Way. The Taliban could learn a lot from this short example.
Shah Latif encapsulates his teachings in the below text:
“The Truth is one, the Beloved is one, why fight over names? They asked him: “Oh Latif, what are you, a Shiah Muslim or a Sunni one?” He replied: “Between the two.” They said: “But between the two is nothing.” “Yes, yes,” he replied, “that `nothing’ I am.”
Blighted by conventional thinking, priests and the ulema decried the message of these Sufi saints, calling them heresy and Kufr (with a special emphasis on the Sufi penchant for music). The priests of Islam said, “Satan is the worst of the damned.” Latif defied them. “Satan is the only lover, all others are prattlers. Out of the great love of the Lord, the shining one (Satan) embraced disgrace.”
In his recognition of Unity of the Lord, he came to associate every form of Creation with the Divine Essence:
“This and that, life and death, beloved and lover, enemy and friend are all one.”
Sachal, another great poet, in the same vein as Shah Latif, criticizes formal religion when he articulates.
“Love forgives all religion. The Lover never entangles himself in either Islam or Hinduism”
The Mullas read traditions and the Koran,
They look like Mussalmans,
They are the very devil,
These will defeated die
In the poetry of Sachal Sarmast, one finds examples of Sikh references, which is a token of his profound tolerance for spiritual teachers, casting religion aside. Some of his poems manifestly are on Sri Krishna and Hindu Yogis. The Union of both these elements in his songs helped foster harmony and a mutual appreciation of each other’s culture. As Sachal writes:
Again and again he emphasizes this, “neither a Muslim nor a Hindu”. The priests could not tolerate this, but Sachal poured ridicule upon them. “Look at these priests! How sanctimoniously they read lengthy prayers merely to fill their stomachs. “For a trifle of bread they cry their prayers, with uncomely faces, with ugly beards, these raw ones read blessings! To the world they boast they keep fasts, in reality they are great eaters
A crucial element of the evolution of Sufism in Sindh (and the lesson it provides for today’s divided world) was the blurring of religious lines, in that there were even Hindu Sufi fakirs who preached tolerance, practiced Sufism and enjoyed a large following, of both Hindu and Muslims. Even during the partition of 1947, Sindh was not engulfed in communal tensions, of the levels seen in Punjab and Bengal. In the political arena, fundamentalist parties have fared poorly in the province.
The central essence of Sufi thinking, as preached by saints over the ages, has been to reform orthodox Islamic thinking. The conjoining and assimilation of both Hindu and Muslim cultures in Sindh has not resulted in an intolerant and bigoted society.
Ruhal Fakir, in his assertion that God is one, downplays the religious divide that breeds hatred and resentment:
‘In Kufir and Islam they are out of step,
One Hindu, the other Musalmaan and third enmity in between,
Who can claim truly that the blind can’t find darkness,
Ruhal, on the path of Beloved, realise its vastness,
God was only one- no traps, no twists,
Where can she point her feet in the abode of Allah!’
The Way Forward
The raiding of the Red Mosque (Lal Majid) by the Pakistan army in 2007 marked a crucial juncture in the rise of extremism in Pakistan (or the state’s response to clamp down the rising tide of fundamentalism). I have lived in Islamabad for about 15 years, close by to the Mosque, which I frequented for the Friday sermon, and have witnessed, the descent of the sector I lived in (not the city as a whole) into the abyss of radicalism, tied intimately with intense resentment at American presence in Afghanistan, the promise of salvation (Jihad against an infidel imperial superpower) used to brainwash unsuspecting (also unemployed) youth to join their ‘”holy” cause. From what I have observed, extremism is a mindset, an ideology, a state of mind. The clergy at the mosque were overwhelmingly passionate, as they made abundantly clear in their sermons, fully convinced that they were on the “Right” way. However, I subscribe wholly to the notion that the real Jihad is to fight against one’s own Nafs. Sufism, with its tolerating message and all encompassing nature, does provide the solution for a country ravaged by war and sectarian tensions (especially the example of Sindh that has not descended into violence even as the entire country burns).
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