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Sufism: a South Asian delusion

[Oh Khusro the river of love flows in a strange way/Whoever jumps in

drowns, and whoever drowns gets across]

Writing at the turn of the 13th century, Amir Khusro was just one of many Sufi saints to espouse the notion of love as the ultimate human emotion – the essence of one’s connection with Allah. From Al Ghazali to Rumi, Hafez to Bulleh Shah, sufism has had an impact on the practice of Islam across the Muslim world throughout the centuries.

The teachings of such saints have been revered as seminal interpretations of the essence of Islam and of the Qur’an itself: the Divan-e-Hafez, for example, is present in almost all Iranian households.

Columbia University recently hosted a conference, ‘Sufism in India and Pakistan: Rethinking Islam, Democracy and Identity’, in order to better understand the ‘role’ that sufism plays in South Asian identity politics. Some of the west’s most esteemed academics on Islam and South Asia presented papers on a wide-array of subjects – from barelvis in Pakistan to inter-religious relations at Delhi’s Firoz Shah Kotla dargaah. Academics discussed and debated the various meanings and interpretations of sufism across the Subcontinent at the theological and political levels, concluding that sufism is somehow more conducive to modern secular beliefs.

In fact, a visit to India or Pakistan may uncover exactly the opposite phenomenon. There is a distinction to be made between the ideas of Sufi saints and scholars and the practice of ‘sufism’ – however loosely defined that term is. Although Khusro travelled the Subcontinent teaching love through the Quran, his ‘sufism’ can barely be seen anywhere in the fabric of Pakistani or Indian society. Asceticism is different than poverty; religious ecstasy is different than hallucinations. As a trip to Data Darbar can show, ‘sufism’ in South Asia has taken, in some ways, the same route as the more radical interpretations of Islam – it concerns itself more and more on the ritual, at the expense of the spiritual.

Data Darbar – the dargaah of Ali Hajweri – is arguably Pakistan’s most popular sufi shrine. Hundreds of men and women flock to the shrine each day to ask for the saint’s help with everything from getting a job to conceiving a child. However, despite its religious significance, Data Darbar is known amongst many Lahoris for the drug addicts, drug peddlers, and prostitution that are found around it. Just steps from the door of one of the most sacred shrines in Pakistan can be found some of the most sacrilegious acts, yet somehow many of these people surrounding the shrine have an affinity for it.

Dargaah culture extends far beyond the common myth of ‘folk’ and ‘uneducated’ practice. In fact, members of all social classes – politicians, businessmen, and maalis included – believe in the power of the shrines and of the sufi pirs of past and present. It is not uncommon for people to visit pirs in order to solve problems, from health to finance. Unlike what the academics at the conference tried to prove about sufism – that sufism would somehow encourage ‘modernisation’ – its current practice in many ways undermines progress.

A paper presented at the conference dealing with traditional forms of psychiatry and healthcare in sufi shrines provided empirical insight into the workings of modern ‘sufism’. The paper explores the relationship between the state, shrines, pirs and psychiatrists in Gujarat, India and effectively shows how only through state-sponsored intervention, some shrines in India have been forced to include modern psychological practices into the fabric of traditional healing. Yet ritualistic fanaticism is, in many cases, favoured over modern medical care.

But what exactly is traditional healing? Is it the common inter-religious practice of prayer? The use of herbal remedies? Or is it the practice and use of rituals? Evidently, traditional healing has different meaning for every individual. However, amongst the common ‘sufi’ practices in South Asia, it can entail much more than frequenting dargaahs. Often men and women frequent pirs to seek medical, emotional or psychiatric help. The pir-industrial complex, therefore, thrives mainly on the use and abuse of people’s mental states in order to profit from continued suffering. People pay hundreds, thousands and sometimes lakhs of rupees to seek help from the pirs who are scattered around every village, town and city across South Asia. Mental problems are seen as supernatural effects of kala jadoo or jinns, further stigmatising the practice of psychiatry in the region.

Seen in this light, ‘sufism’ in its current forms cannot serve as a modernising agent for South Asia. Indeed the ideas of the Sufi saints of a bygone era may seem appealing to people at one of the most turbulent, chaotic junctures in South Asian history, but the ritualistic emphasis of sufism in India and Pakistan today only serves to further inhibit progress. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan may have sung of his halka halka suroor, but most people do not experience it. The ideas of the saints do promote tolerance and acceptance; in fact, Rumi once famously noted that:

[On the seeker’s path, wise men and fools are one./In His love, brothers and strangers are one.

Go on! Drink the wine of the Beloved!/In that faith, Muslims and pagans are one.]

But those ideas have been lost in a swarm of ritualistic practice. Oh Khusro, people are drowning, but are they getting across the river?

Email: mrr2168@columbia.edu

Mahir Rafi Riaz, "Sufism: a South Asian delusion," The News. 2015-10-06.
Keywords: Social sciences , Islamic scholars , Sufism-Study and teaching , Sufism-Social aspects , Sufism-Rituals , Islamic aspects , Religious aspects , Amir Khusro , Bulleh Shah , Ali Hajweri