The Barelvi enigma and the contested space of Sufism in Pakistan

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The Barelvi enigma and the contested space of Sufism in Pakistan

A paper published in the 2014 issue of Journal of Place Management and Development enthusiastically built a case for ‘branding’ Pakistan as a ‘Sufi country.’ The authors, a Pakistani, Salman Yousaf, and a Chinese, Li Huaibin (both from China’s Dongbei University) sought to resolve Pakistan’s ‘image problem’ through an intense branding exercise (undertaken with the support of the country’s state and government). The exercise was meant to dial up the region’s historical and cultural association with Sufism.

The authors of the paper hoped that by doing this, Pakistan’s image — ravaged by the rise of religious extremism from the 1980s onward, and especially in the last decade or so — could be reversed without the need for exploring more secular narratives which often trigger extreme reactions from those politico-religious segments of the society that were empowered through various controversial constitutional amendments and clauses between 1974 and the late 1980s.

The paper was searching for a middle-ground between religious extremism and overt secularism by purposing a contemporary and modern reworking of one of Islam’s most ‘moderate’ and esoteric strands, Sufism. The fact that the Islam practiced in South Asia has had a lengthy historical relationship with Sufism seems to have been the main inspiration behind Yousaf and Huaibin’s suggestions.

This combination explains Sufism as an entirely pacifistic, apolitical and deeply esoteric strand of Islam which eschews fanaticism and bigotry and has an intense lyrical and poetic relationship with the Almighty.

The intention of the paper was noble. But despite the paper positioning itself as a pragmatic resolution to a complex and disturbing ground reality (i.e. Islamic extremism), it was actually a rather naive document. It seemed to have been ignorant of the fact that the state and various governments in Pakistan had already repeatedly tried to formulate what the paper was suggesting. More importantly, such experiments have largely been a failure due to another factor that the paper completely ignored: i.e. Sufism in Pakistan is a deeply contested space.

The Sufism that the paper was suggesting is a combination of the state-sponsored idea of Sufism and the Sufism manufactured by the country’s contemporary pop culture. This combination explains Sufism as an entirely pacifistic, apolitical and deeply esoteric strand of Islam which eschews fanaticism and bigotry and has an intense lyrical and poetic relationship with the Almighty.

But this description is not universally accepted in Pakistan. There have always been those who reject the description and insist that Sufism does not negate radical politics or action. They see it as a fighting force which was aggressively battling Islamic sects and sub-sects opposed to Sufism as well as secularists and a state populated by ‘fake Muslims.’

Apart from the fact that unlike the TTP, the TLP is not a religious insurgency, confusion emerges within many urban middle-class Pakistanis brought up on the combined state/pop-culture manufactured idea of Sufism, when they see men such as TLP’s Khadim Hussain Rizvi describing himself as a staunch follower of ancient Sufi saints.

The most current example in this context is the Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). It is interesting to note how its radical brand of politics has confused so many young Pakistanis, even though instinctively they do understand that there is a difference between TLP and, for example, the Thereek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Apart from the fact that unlike the TTP, the TLP is not a religious insurgency, confusion emerges within many urban middle-class Pakistanis brought up on the combined state/pop-culture manufactured idea of Sufism, when they see men such as TLP’s Khadim Hussain Rizvi describing himself as a staunch follower of ancient Sufi saints.

Such a follower of Sufi saints according to the state and the pop-culture’s perception of Sufism, should be preaching peace, love and tolerance, preferably through a quwaali at a shrine or at least an impassioned song in Coke Studio. But what they see is a man spouting profanities at the state, the sitting prime minister and the judiciary, and demanding that a traumatised working-class Pakistani-Christian be hanged for blasphemy and so should those who judged her to be innocent.

Those who call Rizvi ‘a fake Sufi’ must realise that this is exactly what he calls those whose understanding of Sufism was shaped by the state and later by the country’s pop culture.

It is not the purpose of this article to investigate which of the two strands of Sufism are correct. But in the face of TLP’s sudden political rise and the potential violence that is inherent in the way the party conducts its politics, it is important to understand why the Sufism space in Pakistan is so intensely contested.

Over the years, a large percentage of analysis penned on the issue of religious radicalisation in Pakistan, has almost squarely concentrated on the proliferation of the more belligerent strands of the Muslim Sunni Deobandi and of Wahabi sub-sects.

It is equally important to also understand why this decades-old contest is only now emerging in the mainstream political discourse, and baffling so many Pakistanis.

Over the years, a large percentage of analysis penned on the issue of religious radicalisation in Pakistan, has almost squarely concentrated on the proliferation of the more belligerent strands of the Muslim Sunni Deobandi and of Wahabi sub-sects.

Even though both are minority sub-sects in Pakistan, they began to enjoy strategic state support from the 1980s onward — especially when Pakistan became a frontline state in the insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.

The Sunni Barelvi sub-sect that a majority of Pakistanis belong to, did not have any historical tradition related to armed jihad. Therefore, the state of Pakistan, with help from the US and Saudi Arabia, forked out millions of dollars to pull in radical Deobandi elements from the fringes and put them in the mainstream.

The Barelvis emerged as a Sunni sub-sect in the late 19th century. It was a reaction against the theological onslaught of the Deobandis against the traditions of the majority of India’s Muslims, who, during the 500-year Muslim rule in India, had merged various elements of Sufism with the rituals of pre-Islamic creeds existing in India.

Ever since 19th and early 20th centuries, both Deobandis as well as Wahabis had histories of organising themselves during uprisings enacted in the name of jihad. The Barelvis did not.

The Barelvis emerged as a Sunni sub-sect in the late 19th century. It was a reaction against the theological onslaught of the Deobandis against the traditions of the majority of India’s Muslims, who, during the 500-year Muslim rule in India, had merged various elements of Sufism with the rituals of pre-Islamic creeds existing in India.

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The Barelvi were never an organised lot. For example, when in 1919, the Deobandi clerics organised themselves into a large political party in India — the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Hind (JUIH) — the Barelvi figureheads (pirs) instead joined various non-religious political outfits. However, some Barelvi clerics and pirs did form the All India Sunni Conference in 1925, but it was never as politically crucial as JUIH.

For example, a majority of influential Barelvi pirs joined the Unionist Party (in Punjab) and then, in 1945-46, Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League. However, a year after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, a group of Barelvi clerics formed the Jamiat-i-Ulema Pakistan (JUP).

But according to Dr Mujeeb Ahmad in his essay in State and Nation Building in Pakistan, the JUP hardly registered on Pakistan’s political landscape till 1970.

Nevertheless, Alix Phillipon, in the same anthology points out that even though the Barelvi majority was politically scattered, its social influence was not lost on the state of Pakistan.

Ewing demonstrates how, on the suggestion of Dr Javed Iqbal, the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) neutralised the pirs (and also the clerics) by bringing under state control the country’s Sufi shrines, mosques and madressahs. This was done by forming a department called Auqaf.

In her book Arguing Sainthood, Prof Katherine Pratt Ewing charted in detail how the state of Pakistan (and various governments) moulded and remoulded religious imagery related to Barelvi beliefs to fit whatever or however the state, at the time, was demonstrating Pakistan’s nationalist-existentialist narrative.

Since the veneration of the deceased as well as living saints is a central plank in the Barelvi belief system, the state tried to monopolise the writing of the histories of the saints. Ewing demonstrates how, on the suggestion of Dr Javed Iqbal, the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) neutralised the pirs (and also the clerics) by bringing under state control the country’s Sufi shrines, mosques and madressahs. This was done by forming a department called Auqaf.

Then, the history of various famous South Asian Sufi saints was written by Auqaf in the light of how the Ayub regime was expressing itself. According to both Ewing and Phillipon, the literature produced by Auqaf during the Ayub era described saints to be enlightened and forward-looking men as opposed to the clerics whose literature presents itself as being reactionary. The saints were presented as ancient projections of Ayub’s ‘modernist’ approach towards Islam.

The saints’ personalities went through another rewrite during the ‘socialist’ Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77). Analysing the literature published by Auqaf during the Bhutto period, Ewing noted how the saints now became populist men who opposed oppressive kings, feudal lords and ‘their agents’ (i.e. the orthodox mullahs).

In her book, Power Failure, Syeda Abida Hussain writes that the JUP “used the anti-Shia card” in Jhang during the 1970 elections. In 1974, the JUP became one of the three main religious outfits to demand the ouster of the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam.

Phillipon suggests that this was done to bring the histories of the saints in line with Bhutto’s idea of ‘Islamic Socialism’. It was also during the 1970s that the JUP became a lot more political. Its leaders rejected the idea of Sufism that was formulated by the Ayub and Bhutto regimes. Dr Ahmad writes that the JUP saw the saints as being ‘pure Muslims’.

In her book, Power Failure, Syeda Abida Hussain writes that the JUP “used the anti-Shia card” in Jhang during the 1970 elections. In 1974, the JUP became one of the three main religious outfits to demand the ouster of the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam.

The Barelvi majority was eventually overwhelmed by the political rise of Deobandi militancy during the Zia dictatorship. However, Ewing’s study demonstrates that the conservative Zia regime too remoulded the image of the Sufi saints. They were now explained as being ‘Islamic scholars’ and imams.

But as the rise of state-backed Deobandi militancy in the 1980s eventually led to the formation of various anti-state militant groups, the Musharraf government (1999-2008) revived the idea of using state-sponsored Sufism to colour his regime’s ‘modernist’ disposition.

A National Sufi Council (NSC) was formed and then a Rumi Forum. Both generated academic, promotional and cultural paraphernalia promoting Sufi philosophy, poetry and music. This time, Sufi saints were explained as being men who promoted the ‘true elements of Islam’: peace, love and tolerance.

It is true that the religious Barelvi leadership was staunchly against extremist groups of opposing Sunni sub-sects. But what was overlooked was that they were equally opposed to the idea of Sufism being formulated by the state. This was first demonstrated by the JUP, and later, more belligerently, by outfits such as the Sunni Tehreek.

Interestingly though, Phillipon writes that from within this narrative, “wittingly or unwittingly”, also emerged an idea which equated this version of Sufism with Pakistan’s majority Sunni sub-sect, the Barelvi.

It is true that the religious Barelvi leadership was staunchly against extremist groups of opposing Sunni sub-sects. But what was overlooked was that they were equally opposed to the idea of Sufism being formulated by the state. This was first demonstrated by the JUP, and later, more belligerently, by outfits such as the Sunni Tehreek.

The radical Barelvi finally discovered their crusading niche by becoming the self-claimed protectors of the Second Amendment and Ordinance (regarding the ouster of the Ahmadiyya from Islam), and the 1986 clause of the blasphemy laws in the Pakistan constitution.

Their distaste towards the state-backed image of Sufism erupted more prominently in the shape of the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP). A sympathiser of the outfit told Phillipon that Sufism (formulated by Ayub, Bhutto and Musharraf) was ‘Washington’s agenda’ and that Sufism doesn’t dissuade people from violent struggle.

This can be seen as the current strand of Barelvi radicalism looking to transcend its old image of being apolitical, ‘peace-loving’ spiritualists.

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1 Comment

  1. Waqar Khan November 17, 2018

    Nadeem Farooq Paracha Sahab (Photo Editor) little knowledge is danger. Please you are required to study much before publicizing such article. You really mix facts and edit paid words.

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