Thirty two bodies lay strewn across the parched earth, speckled with drops of blood. Such is the collateral damage left after a young boy branded by the Taliban chooses to blow himself up. All around, what used to be a religious safe haven has succumbed and perished to the tempting mistress we call, chaos. Moreover there are scores of less extremist religious scholars, who belong to the Wahhabi or Deobandi interpretations of Islam that fulminate against the Sufi practices and rituals associated to the Sufi shrines. They claim that the pilgrims who pay visits to these shrines commit acts of Shirk (polytheism or idolatry). On the other hand there are is a sizeable majority in our region that reveres these Sufi saints, visit these shrines and perform various rituals associated with them.. These people usually belong to the Barelvi or Shia sects of the religion. They accuse the critics of Sufi practices as blasphemous and infidels. One sect of Islam accuses the other of being a ‘kafir’ (infidel) and on these bases sectarian wars are unleashed. Another facet of the debate is that of the repressive institution of ‘sijjada nasheen’ (one who sits on the sacred carpet). These ‘sijjada nasheen’ are accused by the critics as being quasi sacred. On the other hand local population worships them.
How often do we listen to the aforementioned narratives and incidences in our society or through media? The people might have become oblivious to all such aforementioned incidences, which take place in our society, but are being directly affected by these incidents I cannot relinquish the thoughts of dwelling into the complex world of Islamic theology or theosophy. Hailing from a rural background where the folk practices of Peeri-Muridi (owing allegiance to a Sufi saint who can be either living or dead), pilgrimage to various shrines, supplicating the saints for intercession, paying them for amulets or ‘spiritual healing’ and the endless veneration to anybody who claims to be a Syed (progeny of the Prophet) are quite prevalent, force one to ruminate over these affairs. A little research on the matter led to the realization that Sufism is not just about saint worship or folk rituals; it encompasses a wide range of philosophical, intellectual metaphysical and mystical realms and is filed that one must study.
Annemarie Schimmel’s Mystical Dimensions of Islam is viewed as one the most pertinent and immaculate guide towards Islamic mysticism by the scholars around the world. Another book which caught my eye was K.K. Aziz’s Religion, Land and Politics in Pakistan: A Study of Piri-Muridi. K.K. Aziz is a renowned Pakistani historian. These two books when read in tandem disabused a lot of misconceptions, queries and qualms that I had about Sufis and the extant form of folk religion in our region.
Mystical Dimensions of Islam not only delineates the salient features of Islamic mysticism but descants deeply into the beliefs and understanding of the mystics. This book helped me built my insight about Sufism and the saints in the ‘right’ perspective based upon rationality and reasoning rather than plain encomiums. A lot of misnomers attributed to the saints are rescinded in the book by the erudite presentation of logical explanation for every act, deed or practice. The book explains all the stages of development, consolidation and institutionalization of mysticism in Islam. One gets acquainted with the lesser known of the early Sufis such as Rabia Al-Adawiyah, Ibn’Arabi, Ibn’Arabi, Hasan Al-Basri, Mansur al-Hallaj, Bayazid Bastami, Attār, Sanā'ī, Shibli, Junayd Baghdadi and many others. These people are credited with the foundation of Islamic mysticism which later travelled to all the corners of the globe, from the rose gardens of the mellifluous Persian, Sindhi, Siraiki and Punjabi poetry to the icy peaks of theosophical debate, from the calm and quiescent Shiraz to the scorching heat of Thal desert, and from the gallows of Hallaj to the feudal lordship of the later sufis. The writer also expounds meticulously on almost all the terminologies of the mystic lexicon. She writes scrupulously on the concepts ranging from the complex issues of marfat, Wahdat al-wajud and wahdat al-shahud, fanaa and baqa, all types of dhikr, wajd, dhamaal etc. All types of Sufi ‘silsilaas’ are described in great detail, by the writer. The section which held my interest greatly was about the saints of the Sub-Continent, their role, character, political and religious ideology and import.
This impartial and dispassionate analysis of the Sufis made me realize that why their esoteric beliefs and practices were opposed and castigated by the clergy. A simple answer to the question would be that the clerics had codified the Islamic jurisprudence and theology in a stringent manner. It was not convenient for the illiterate and rustic folks to practice such a stern interpretation of the religion thus the need for a ‘convenient’ version of Islam arose. Thus the fundamentalist scholars belittled Sufis as heretics and innovators. They claimed that Islam had no room for mysticism and it was a strict religion which forbids any sort of innovation or diversion from the tenets of Islam. On the other hand Sufis adhered to their beliefs vehemently and continued the dissemination of their message. Some of them had to face dire consequences for their unconventional preaching. The epic of Mansur al-Hallaj is the acme of sacrifice for one’s beliefs. The orthodox khilaafat government executed Hallaj for his daring words that ‘I am truth’. Due to his extraordinary display of courage on the passage to the gallows Hallaj is still revered in the region as a martyr and a God loving personality by the sufi followers. Thus the book helped me understand the reasons for the opposition of Sufism today by the extremists.
K.K. Aziz’s book Religion, Land and Politics in Pakistan: A Study of Piri-Muridi highlights the egregious diversion from the mighty ideals of the Sufis to the present day practices of these believers. The prevalent form of Sufi practices is a stark contradiction to the preaching of the great Sufi saints. Today the believers have lost the message and essence of the deep esoteric mysticism. The Sufi saints toiled in asceticism and worshiped their Allah to attain a degree of nearness to Him, by forsaking all temporal needs and relations. On the contrary today the impressive ideals have been reduced to mere saint worship and pilgrimage to the shrines and performance of some rituals. The descendants of these saints have institutionalized Peeri-Muridi and have exploited people over the decades on the name of their pious ascendants. The descendants of the saints claim that they are ‘sijjada nasheen’ of the saint and have a constant link with him through which he gathers blessings of God by the intercession of the dead saint. In addition to this the ‘sijjada nasheen’ sells dreams to the people of eternal bliss in the hereafter if they perform ‘bait’ (swear allegiance) to him. He does not allow the innocent people to question his authority or legitimacy by blackmailing them on the name of religion; he suppresses their access to both worldly and religious education so that they do not emancipate themselves out of his clenches. Contrary to the ascetic life style of the sufi saints the present day ‘sijjada nasheen’ live a lavish life, marry several times, abuse the women and exploit the resources of the common man. The question is how is he able to achieve all this? He does this quite shrewdly. On one hand he maintains his grip over the people by citing Islam and disseminating the view that he is sacred and above accountability because he carries the legacy of a Holy Saint. On the other hand the ‘sijjada nasheen’ maintains a cordial relation with the feudal lords, state officials, emperors and rulers. The rulers also invest in him for two reasons. Firstly they can demonstrate their pious side to the public by supporting a saint so sacred to them. In addition to this they can sway their hold over the public through the ‘sijjada nasheen’. Although most of the Sufi saints, especially of the Chisti order (most prevalent in Sub Continent), remained aloof of the imperial court, in fact they did not accept a single penny from the state. But their descendants have been obsequious servants of every imperial establishment.
Thus, it is established that the Sufism is deeply entrenched in the Sub Continent. These two books have helped me differentiate between the original Islamic mysticism and the modern day practice of this very profound metaphysics. The cultural norms and rituals overtly exhibit the impact of the Sufi beliefs and practices on the folk culture and people. People not only revere the saints but have a very deep emotional and spiritual relationship with the saint. There is nothing wrong in this but when the believers do not believe logically then all sorts of people can blackmail and exploit them. This is what is happening today. The people only believe they do not think. Even though there must be some illegal or unIslamic activities taking place in the shrines but decimating a place so dear to millions is totally unjustified and uncalled for. The only solution to make the people believe logically is through the spreading of education and awareness.