Sufism in Pakistan – the tolerant antidote?
The Islamic republic of Pakistan is the second most populous Muslim-majority country with a population exceeding 180 million people. Pakistan has the second largest Shi'a population in the world. About 97% of Pakistanis are Muslim. The majority are Sunni, with an estimated 5–20% Shi'a. A further 2.3% are Ahmadis. After Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are the largest religions in Pakistan. About 1.5% of the population each. Bahá'í, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians and a very small community of Jains are also present.
Popular Sufi culture is centered on Thursday night gatherings at shrines and annual festivals with much music and dance. As a form of 'tribute' a photograph of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan accompanies this article.
When traveling in Pakistan, I would often talk about religion with taxi drivers, barbers or people I met in the hotels. When I told them I was Christian, their standard reply would be “I’m a Sufi Muslim. For me, all religions are equal and everyone is OK.” It quickly became clear to me, however, that this statement didn’t really convey what they were, instead, they used it to express what they were not.
Their remark actually tried to explain how they weren’t like the violent groups fighting at the borders of their country to create a rigorous religious society, that they weren’t like the extremists bombing Shia gatherings and that they weren’t like the Mullahs damning everyone to hell because people don't follow Islam and the sharia in one particular way. They wished to tell me that this type of religion simply isn’t theirs.
All too understandably, they were afraid that I, as Westerner, would think that the stuff I see on TV at home is the norm in Pakistan. So they described themselves as ‘Sufi’ because they also think that I, again as a Westerner, see Sufism as the more tolerant version of Islam. And of course, I most certainly agreed that the Islam of the average Pakistani is very different from the aggressive Islamism that has kept their politics hostage for the last few years. But unlike many others, I could not agree that Sufism is the simple oppositional answer.
All over the Muslim world, Sufism has a lot of different faces. As Abdulwahid Van Bommel had told me before when I spoke to him about the secrets of the Masnavi: there’s the Sufism of the people, the Sufism of the middle class and Sufism of the academics. This is certainly the case in Pakistan as well. We can even add the Sufism of the artists and the Sufism of the state.
And yet, even though all these ‘Sufisms’ have been present in Pakistan for a very long time, we also have to keep in mind that the word ‘Sufism’ was quite alien to the vocabulary of Pakistani Islam until some fifty years ago. As the Pakistani scholar and expert Dr. D. Latifa told me, “The word Sufi or Sufiya (the plural in Arabic) was always traditionally used to describe the saints. But the saints themselves would never say ‘I’m a Sufi’. They would say ‘I’m a Muslim’. Or simply call themselves believers. So we talked of people who were given the title, but it was not a part of our self-definition.”
That’s why Dr. Latifa doesn’t speak of Sufism but prefers to call it ‘normative Islam’. The Islam in Pakistan always encompassed a spiritual world view that resonated with the message of the Sufis, but people were unconscious of it being what we now call ‘Sufism’. So the normative Islam of Pakistan was – and still is for the largest part – centered around the Sufi saints. Many people meet at shrines. They sing and dance and they ask the saints for baraka (blessings). This is the Sufism that is frequently shown in documentaries: colorful ritual gatherings infused with heaps of South-East Asian culture. Every Thursday, for example, one can go to the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal and experience the trance inducing beats of the Dhol drums, played by the Saien Brothers.(*) Around them, people whirl into ecstasy – some of them aided by a generous amount of hashish – while the crowd chants the names of saints.
In certain cases, people have actually forgotten whether the saints, whose names they’re invoking, were Shia or Sunni or even whether they were Muslim or Hindu. The only thing that seems to matter is whether they were spiritually evolved people whose message spoke to the hearts of the masses. Across the border, in India, one can therefore find quite similar gatherings, though in a Hindu setting.
Another spiritual phenomenon which can be found on both sides of the border is an abundance of gurus. The Sufi tariqats (a tariqat is a specific school or order) have always had shaykhs of course. They were the spiritual leaders of a specific school or community and some of them eventually became venerated as saints. Yet there are also plenty of ‘Muslim gurus’ in Pakistan. These spiritual teachers are not necessarily connected to any tariqat neither are they a part of the traditional ulema (Muslim scholarship) but still they gather a large following. Nowadays, their following often consists of middle class Pakistanis who seek a deeper spirituality outside the traditional structures. Rafique Akhtar, who can count the upcoming politician Imran Khan as one of his ‘students’, is such a guru figure.(*) His very personal interpretation of Sufism forms the basis of his teaching. Just like other Pakistani gurus, dr. Akhtar strongly emphasis mysticism as the basis of religion.
It’s quite a modern approach, however, to portray Sufism as the (almost separate) mystical and spiritual dimension of Islam. For the split between spirituality (or mysticism) and religion is a conceptual divide that originated in the West. But as the teachings of these gurus show, the concept of ‘Sufism as the spiritual form of Islam’ has, by now, been internalized by the (Pakistani) Muslim community as well.
It’s exactly because so many people have internalized the split between spirituality and religion that taxi drivers could tell me they’re Sufi instead of calling themselves simply Muslim. The writings of Muhammad Iqbal show very clearly however that Sufism always was an inherent aspect of Pakistani Islam and therefore never something ‘different’. Iqbal was the ‘ideological founding father’ of the Pakistani state.(*) However, being a poet himself, Iqbal would also frequently refer to the mystical teachings of Rumi and his view of Islam was full of concepts pertaining to the tradition of the Sufis. Nonetheless, his ideas were of enormous influence on the way the Pakistani state envisioned its own Islamic foundation. It became a state Sufism, if you will – though of course, it was never termed that way because it doesn't fit nicely into the contemporary view of Sufism.
Needless to say, the writings of Iqbal have been the subject of much academic research. So have the poetry of Waris Shah, Amir Khusrow, Bulleh Shah and many others. As such the Sufism of the academics came about. Professors and researchers write many pages to theorize about single verses that contain the heartfelt longing of a soul for God and their books sometimes find a way into Western spiritual literature as well. As such they strengthen the idea of Sufism as the mystical side of Islam. But the verses of the saints are not the academic discovery of some hermetic wisdom, they're on the lips of all the Pakistanis.
In fact, the words of the poets and the saints and their expression of longing for the divine are often more easily approached by Pakistanis as well as Westerners through Pakistan’s musical culture. The great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan introduced Qawwali to a much larger audience in the West and as such made Westerners listen to the old poetry that constantly speaks of separation, love and unity. People like his nephews Muazzam and Rizwan Fateh Ali Khan(*) or the renowned qalam singer Abida Parveen(*) continue this tradition, uplifting the hearts of people all over the world.
And therein lays the essence of the present day schizophrenia of Pakistan's Islam. For these artists are Pakistan’s biggest cultural ‘export product’ although they are Shia. For decades Shia and Sunni have lived and worshipped together. Communal divisions were of little concern to neighbors who would all join in the celebrations of one another. Nowadays, however, almost no Ashura (the annual remembrance of the battle at Karbala and the martyrdom of Husayn) can go by, without Sunni extremists bombing a Shia community somewhere in Pakistan. Arabisation erodes the Pakistani culture and strengthens the opposition between a supposed ‘classical Islam’ and ‘Sufism’. Caught in a web of geo-politics, political abuse of religion and socio-economic difficulties, their society is split up in confrontational fractions. The unity that their beloved saints and poets spoke off remains a longing in the heart of most Pakistanis, but finds little ways of expressing itself in the daily reality.
So is Sufism truly the antidote or the counterpart of an all too rigorous and violent interpretation of Islam? It depends.
For one, Sufism certainly isn’t devoid of problems. Iqbal, for example, often criticized the passivity of the people that was the result of seeking solace in spiritual practices which didn’t question the social and political situation of their country. He didn’t think that a bit of worship at a shrine and singing songs would bring the needed change when injustice ruled society.
The role of shaykhs and gurus isn’t always very beneficial either. In theory they preach about spirituality, but in practice many of them have strong links with politicians and businessmen. The rule of the country is therefore certainly not only in the hands of people with a ‘different’ and ‘unpakistani’ view on Islam. The Sufism of the middle class, the gurus and the state is inextricably linked. On top of it, when gurus claim to be Sufi, they know they’ll be more readily accepted in the West. In other words: Sufism isn’t free from power play.
The different ‘types’ of Sufism I have outlined aren’t totally separated compartments, therefore. The artists perform at the rituals of the general public, the general public turns to the gurus for advice and the gurus are in touch with the politicians. There’s overlap and influence on all sides. And exactly because for many people in Pakistan Sufism is in fact the ‘normative Islam’, there is also much overlap with the more puritanical groups. Whenever someone with a certain authority tells the people what is or what isn’t Islam, they’ll listen. Whether the people they listen to claim to be Sufi or not, doesn’t really matter. They listen because they’re Muslim. Steadily therefore, the violence of discrimination and the oppression of a Muslim monoculture creeps further into the Pakistani society, alienating the people even further from their traditional understanding of Islam.
If, on the other hand, we simply define Sufism as the teachings of the Sufi saints, then, perhaps, we could agree more easily that Sufism might be an antidote since the message of peace, love and compassion that was spread by the saints certainly contradicts the rigorous religion that is enveloping Pakistan. Yet, in a sense, it’s actually of little concern whether or not it can truly succeed in countering the contemporary violence. For to follow the example of people that transcended their ego in search of God is always good in itself, no matter how many people join the effort and regardless of its possible effect.