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Sufis and the separatist identity

Different perspectives in scholarship

Sufis and the separatist identity

Generally, the creation of Pakistan is attributed to the political struggle launched by the All India Muslim League under the leadership of Quaid-i-Azam. Among serious academics, Muslim League and Quaid-i-Azam both represented Muslim modernism, inaugurated by the Aligarh Movement during the second half of the 19th century.

Sir Syed Ahmed was the harbinger of Muslim modernism which largely was anchored in changed circumstances wrought by the colonial modernity. I have argued in some of my write-ups that soon after Pakistan’s establishment, its foundational story was re-scripted in the light of fundamentalist ideology which contravened in a big way the very essence of Muslim modernism. The waning space for Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in our national narrative provides testimony to the creeping influence of exclusionary and fundamentalist streak drawn from religion.

Books like Ulema and Politics by Prof. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi have specifically highlighted the role of such clerics, who were steeped in literalist interpretation of religion. That book identifies those individuals from among the Deobandi clerics, who were positively disposed towards the idea of a separate state for the Muslims of the subcontinent. By doing so Qureshi tried to set at rest, the narrative insinuating Deobandis as anti-Pakistan.

Thus the political instrument of Muslim separatism, as projected in our national narrative, has been either Muslim modernists or the literalist ulema like Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, Mufti Muhammad Shafi and Zafar Ahmad Ansari. Subsequent to the secession of East Pakistan, Maulana Maududi too was added to the coterie of such people.From 1949 onwards, these clerics started asserting themselves, the impact of which resonates to this day.

What remains to be properly investigated even to this day, is the role of supposedly more ‘eclectic’ and ‘inclusive’ section of the ulema with Sufi overtones in an extremely complex process of securing a separate state for the Muslims of North India. In this particular regard, Mujib Ahmad’s book Jamiyyat Ulama-i-Pakistan: 1948-1979 is a commendable effort, which sheds light on the role of such section of the Sunni Ulema in the earlier part of his book; however, far more research is required to properly bring their contribution into a scholarly focus. He does not deal with the Sufis per se.

Much of the scholarship on Sufism tends to study it from an anthropological prism, thereby discounting their political contribution towards pushing the separatist agenda. David Gilmartin s magnum opus, Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan is the first and undoubtedly the foremost scholarly venture that investigates the socio-cultural influence of the Sufis and Mashaikhs on to the separatist ideology of Muslim leadership, aspiring for Pakistan. From the particular perspective of Sind, Sara Ansari’s widely cited book Sufi Saints and State Power rivets its attention on the scarcely studied political role of the Sufis. Like Gilmartin, Ansari has opened up a new vista of scholarship by entwining socio-cultural currents with the politics.

Another myth that has been called into question is the inclusive and peaceful disposition of the Sufis and dargah as the site of mystic spirituality. As they are demonstrated in these texts, Sufis had been politically oriented with separatist tendencies and at times they resorted to violence. That is true not only of Sufis belonging to Naqshbandia Order, which is considered prone to religious literalism but Chishti Sufi (taken in as peaceful and eclectic in their ideology) were no different.

Hussain Ahmad Khan employs the term neo-Sufism to make sense of ‘the tendencies among nineteenth-century Sufis in Punjab’. To them Sikhs and British posed threat to the existence of Islam. In the situation of political decline of the Mughals, the Sufis assumed the role of moral reformers and propounded the notion of Khalifa or Imam for the Muslims. They also resorted to purify the religion as they, like the Ulema, thought deviation from the righteous path had caused the political decline.

Thus the separatist identity of the Indian Muslims had its initiation among the Sufis by ‘Othering’ the non-Muslims. Strangely enough no commonality could be struck even with the Sikhs, the creed embedded in the local Sufi tradition represented in the poetic articulations of Baba Farid Ganj Shakar.

Khan also argues that Hagiographic literature mentions several reasons for the violence that Sufis resorted to, but importantly enough; the Sikhs were suspicious of Sufi circles because of their close nexus with the Muslim power centres. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Hafiz Jamal and his followers fought against the Sikhs, along with the army of Nawab Muzaffar Khan, the ruler of Multan. Similarly a Sufi, Mian Muhammad Afzal spearheaded the revolt against Sikhs and was killed along with scores of his followers.

One may argue here that Sufis, despite inclusive nature of their message, were at a loss to come to terms with the situation in which they did not have political patronage from the rulers. Was their existence contingent on the royal patronage? Another worth asking question is the amenability of the Sufis towards non-Muslims. The much-trumpeted good will that Sufis had enjoyed from non-Muslims stands contested if not entirely exploded. The Jihad Tehreek led by Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Shah Ismael Shaheed is also mentioned in this regard. However, one may question the Sufi dimension of the religious practice that these fellows professed.

Coming to the militant Sufis, one can quote Shah Ghulam Ali (1743-1824) of Shahjahanabad (Delhi) and Fadl-e-Haq Khairabadi (1797-1861). Later was a Sufi scholar from Awadh. He waged jihad against the British in 1857. Haji Imdadullah Makki (1817-99) is yet another example of such Sufis who fought against the British and as a consequence had to flee away to Arabia into self-exile. By that time, neo- Sufism seemed to have taken the centre stage. Religious literalism, the primacy of the text and aggressive methods of proselytization became the principal features of religious discourse of which the traditional Sufism was merely an appendage.

The fact however remains that the general impression about Sufis and Sufism must correspond with historical reality and that contravenes the former. 

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

2 comments

  • The article reveals the ‘other’ Sufi, the militant variety, that is often not highlighted. But I would remind Mr Kamran that Sufi militancy does not emerge only during the Sikh rule in Punjab, but can be witnessed earlier, e.g., when Pir
    Budhu Shah of Sadhaura, an admirer of Guru Gobind Singh, fought with his 700 followers alongside the Guru (in the Battle of Bhangani) against the Hindu Hill Rajas. This is an important subject that needs further exploration.

  • The problem of a “militant Sufi” or “Neo Sufism” highlighted arises in the first place because the discourse itself is binaristic, drawing a line between Sufi and Salafi Islam. Such a divide is too simplistic. One must also take into account the long-held claim by most authentic interpreters of Islam that the religion’s comprehensibility lies in it’s tripartite configuration of Shariat, Tariqat and Siasat. Ignoring any of the three leads to a skewed understanding of Islamic, historical personages. Most Sufis are seen as political figures in the 19th century because they were up against a brutally oppressive system of colonization and the original intent was not fighting the fellow Sikhs. Syed Ahmed’s invitation through a letter to Hindu Maharaja of Gwaliar(?) to join him in his Jhad against the British reveals clearly it wasn’t just about religion. So when we read about their “politics” it fails to fit into the binaristic framework of our pre-knowledge. Thank you Dr Kamran for an engag

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