Sufism in Pak in contested space

Sufism in Pak in contested space

Book Title: Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan

Author: Nadeem Farooq Paracha

Ranjit Powar

Nadeem Farooq Paracha might have well picked another name for his tongue-in-cheek narrative, Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan. The Church and the State have always been joined at the hip. The soul connection deepens and becomes all the more interdependent in theocratic states. The study of relationship between religion and state has always been a matter of conjecture, but has taken on a new urgency with the emergence of religion-inspired terrorism over the world.

One would like to think that with the dawn of the twentieth century, human rights, democracy and rule of law would have taken precedence over the dictates of the holy word, but that is not so in many countries. There are states which brashly stand up and admit to being theocratic and religion centric; and also those which don the mask of secularism, but are dictated by the clergy in social, cultural and political domains. The present globalisation and economic interdependence has placed them at difficult crossroads. Not self sufficient enough to stand alone, they are forced to seek international acceptance, leaving them torn between conflicting identities of appeasing the religious fanatics at home and appearing to be respectably secular to the world.

In Pakistan, a confusion about the identity of the state has persisted with the country being on a see-saw with many dictators and governments painting and re-painting its visage in different hues. Nadeem Farooq tries to decipher the hit and miss attempts made by military dictators and elected governments of Pakistan to legitimise and make up radical Islamic personage of the country by whitewashing it with the more globally acceptable, non-threatening and benign colours of Sufism.

Sufism has been widely perceived to be an esoteric and mystical branch of Islam. However, it is not a sect of Islam as such and is a rather loosely defined doctrine. According to Nadeem, Sufism in Pakistan is a deeply contested space. Much as some would like to explain Sufism as a pacifistic, apolitical and esoteric strand of Islam, others insist it does not negate radical politics or action. Majority of the Pakistanis belong to the Sunni Barelavi sub-sect of Islam, which holds considerable social influence in the country.

The Barelavis venerate deceased and living saints as pirs, affording them much socio-political power. Influential Barelavi clerics and theologians formed the Jamiat-i-Ulema Pakistan (JUP) in 1947 which gathered enough steam by the 1970s to demand oustering the Ahmadiyya sect from Islam. The state and various governments re-modelled religious narratives according to their own current agendas. The Ayub Khan regime undermined the influence of the pirs by forming a department called the Auqaf which re-wrote the histories of South Asian Sufi saints to show them in a more progressive light as opposed to the cleric’s reactionary stance. The consecutive regimes of ZA Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, all painted a new picture of Sufism forwarding their own needs and agendas of the time.

Right from the British times, the governments sought to control people through the pirs and saints. The British government doled out land to the Sindhi pirs to control the militant ‘Hur’ through them and later threatening to withdraw their privileges if they joined the Khilafat movement. In 1961, the Ayub regime brought all mosques, madrasas and shrines under state control, putting a noose around the pirs and clergy. ZA Bhutto, who initially formed the Pakistan People’s Party in 1966 on a progressive socialist ideology, himself became a quasi pir later, promoting Islamic socialism, describing the earlier Sufi saints as egalitarian. General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the Bhutto government and re-painted Sufism in context of Sharia laws.

Music could not escape scrutiny of the Islamic lens either. The Sufi devotional qawwali was not much acceptable to the state for reflecting a more esoteric strand of faith and being related to shrines. After violent clashes during the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of 1953, the State tried to use qawwali as a medium to spread Iqbal’s ideas on Muslim nationalism to combat the political challenges posed by theological groups. Urdu qawwalis started gaining popularity through PTV and the radio.

Folk artistes portrayed a highly romanticised version of Sufism rooted in love, spirituality and innocence, attracting more people to shrines. Films did their own bit in creating Pop Sufism and it soon captured the imagination of youngsters through a heady mix of modern elements wearing a veil of spirituality and abstract Sufism. For those interested in the socio-political forces affecting South-East Asia and the incredible hold of religion in Pakistan, this is a readable book indeed.