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Have Pakistanis Forgotten Their Sufi Traditions? Part – 3


By Rohan Bedi

April 2006

The Philosophy of Sufism

Sufism has historically provided Islam with an alternative to orthodoxy and has won it most of its converts.

The Sufi Islamic traditions evolved over history with a degree of interaction with Hinduism on the sub-continent. It is a school that includes philosophers and mystics. Sufism embraces the Koran and most of Shia and Sunni Islam's beliefs. Sufis believe that Sufi teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The teachings of Sufis prohibit taking the life of any innocent human being.

Sufis generally feel that following Islamic law or jurisprudence (or fiqh) is only the first step on the path to perfect submission; they focus on the internal or more spiritual aspects of Islam, such as perfecting one's faith and fighting one's own ego (nafs). Jihad, according to Sufi beliefs, is purging one’s mind of evils and fighting against them by controlling material desires.

Sufism is a moderate open-minded philosophy that does not reject non-Muslims. To quote the view of a staunch Barelvi “The Prophet stressed the rights of one’s neighbours, and these include non-Muslims, and said that he who gives unnecessary sorrow to his neighbour would go to hell”. Another Sufi says “No religion, properly interpreted, allows for killing innocent people”. A Barelvi Islamic scholar says ‘Killing an innocent Hindu just because he isn’t a Muslim is certainly not a jihad’. In a legitimate Islamic jihad non-combatant non-Muslims must not be harmed. Rather, he says, they must be protected. 23 In Pakistan with the spread of Deobandi Madrasas, this sort of world-view is being negated.

The Sufis focus on personal spirituality. They believe that God can be found in the human heart, an intuition shared by both Muslim and Hindu mystics, that paradise lay within - if you could find it. As the great mystic Jalaluddin Rumi put it:

“The heart is nothing but the sea of light… the place of the vision of God.”

The Sufis believe that all existence and all religions were one, merely different manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty external ritual of the mosque or temple, but simply to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart- that we all have paradise within us, if we know where to look.

The central concept in Sufism is "love". Sufis believe that, love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at itself within the dynamics of nature. Since everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparent ugly, and to open arms even to the most evil one. This infinite tolerance is expressed in the most beautiful way perhaps by the famous Sufi philosopher Mevlana:

"Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times...Come, come again, Come."

The Sufis succeeded in bringing together Hindu 24 and Muslim in a religious movement which spanned the apparently unbridgeable gulf separating the two religions. For Sufism with its Holy Men and visions, healings and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual’s search for direct knowledge of the divine, has always borne remarkable similarities to Hinduism, and from the beginning the Sufis acted as a bridge between the two religions. 25

One of the greatest Sufis Ibn Arabi, who lived more than 700 years ago expresses the universal spirit of the journey: 26

“My heart has become capable of every form:

It is a pasture for gazelles

And a convent for Christian monks

And a temple for idols

And the pilgrim’s Ka’ba

And the tables of the Torah

And the book of the Koran.

I follow the religion of love:

Whatever way Love’s camels take,

That is my religion and my faith”

The Barelvis versus Deobandis

The Sufi-minded Barelvis believe that there is no contradiction between practicing Islam and drawing on the subcontinents ancient religions practices.

For the Barelvis, the holy Prophet is a superhuman figure whose presence is all around believers at all times. Barelvis emphasise a love of Muhammad, a semi-divine figure with unique foreknowledge. The Deobandis, who also revere the Prophet, argue he was the perfect person, but still only a man, a mortal. The Barelvis follow many Sufi practices, including use of music (Qawwali) and intercession by their teacher. A key difference between Barelvi and Deobandi is that Barelvi’s believe in intercession between humans and Divine Grace. This consists of the intervention of an ascending, linked and unbroken chain of holy personages, pirs, reaching ultimately to Prophet Mohammad, who intercede on their behalf with Allah. The Barelvis regularly offer prayers to holy men or pirs, both dead and alive. It is a more superstitious - but also a more tolerant - tradition of Islam in the Indian sub-continent. Their critics claim that Barelvis are guilty of committing innovation and therefore, they are deviated from the true path - the path of Sunnah (the way the Prophet lived his life). 27 ” Deobandis reject Sufi approaches and many are likely to describe this school as ‘Mumbo-Jumbo’ .

The Shias and Sufism

The Shia’s also have a Sufi tradition (though not as strong as the Sunni-Barelvis because of the influence of the conservative Iranian Shias). The founder of Pakistan Muhammed Ali Jinnah was a moderate Ismalia-Shia. Ismalis are clearly identified with esoteric and gnostic religious doctrines associated with Sufism.

Barelvi Sunnis are generally more tolerant of Shia rituals (than the puritanical Deobandi Sunnis) and even participate in their ceremonies. 28

The Northern Areas in Pakistan have an ancient Sufi culture (Shia and Barelvi-Sunni) which is under threat by radicals.

The Best Bet

Since Pakistan’s creation, Barelvis, who make up 60% of the population, have been the most effective obstacle against Islamic radicals. Richard Kurin, an American academic, studied life in a Pakistani village and provided some interesting insights into the lesser known and more liberal/tolerant side of the population. Mainstream Sunni Barelvis have been conspicuous by their absence from militant organisations. With rare exceptions, Barelvi groups, as a matter of rule, are non-violent 29

The Governments Approach to Sufism

The post-colonial Pakistani government put Sufi shrines under the control of the Auqaf Department (the government department of religious endowments) seeking to weaken the powers of the spiritual heirs of the saints.

      The pamphlets published by the department expunged the miraculous from the legends, repainting the lives of Sufi saints in a conservative light. The powers of the department were expanded over time and the same policy remains today..

      The Auqaf Department, under then President Zia, preferred graduates of the DeobandiSunni school and hundreds of mosques that were being run by Barelvis thus fell into Deobandi hands.

      Similarly Deobandis were given preference as preachers in the military.

      Distribution of zakat funds were lopsided in favour of Deobandi, Ahle-Hadith and JI madrasas (Zakat, according to Qur’anic injunctions, cannot be used for mosques or educational projects like madrasas)

The Auqaf Department and puritanical Deobandi-Salafi-JI Sunni movements have considerably weakened Sufi Islam and its Barelvi component; despite this effort it still has the largest following.

27 on Barelvi Islam

28 The state of sectarianism in Pakistan, ICG, Asia Report No 95, 18 April 2005

29 Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military, ICG Asia Report No 36, 29 July 2002 as amended on 15 July 2005

The Governments Approach to Minorities 30

The US Department of State’s ‘International Religious Freedom Report’ , November 2005. provides a grim picture of Pakistan’s treatment of minority faiths. The extracts below highlight that a serious problem of discrimination against minorities exists in Pakistan perpetuated by the Government itself:

      “The Government fails to protect the rights of religious minorities. Discriminatory legislation and the Government's failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice a different faith fostered religious intolerance and acts of violence and intimidation against religious minorities.”

      “Sunni Muslims appeared to receive favorable consideration in government hiring and advancement. All those wishing to obtain government identification documents as Muslims have to declare an oath on belief in the finality of the Prophethood, a provision designed to discriminate against Ahmadis.”

      “Religious minorities, including Shia, contended that the Government persistently discriminated against members of their communities in hiring for the civil service and in admissions to government institutions of higher learning. Promotions for all minority groups appeared limited within the civil service.”

      “Members of minority religions volunteered for military service in small numbers, and there are no official obstacles to their advancement. However, in practice nonMuslims rarely, if ever, rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to politically sensitive positions.”

      “A chaplaincy corps provided services for Muslim soldiers, but no similar services were available for religious minorities.”

      “The blasphemy laws were routinely used to harass religious minorities and liberal Muslims and to settle personal scores or business rivalries.” [In spite of this the government has not had the will to push through reforms albeit an attempt was made.]

The above opinion is the official view of the US Government, which regards Pakistan as a key ally in its global war on terror. It is an unbiased view underscoring that the government of Pakistan needs to set a better example of ‘enlightened moderation’ .

Besides the above, the Pakistani administration has run a ruthless programme from 1988 to turn the Shias into a minority in the Northern Areas through resettling Sunnis from Punjab and the NWFP. The Shia revolt of 1988 was brutally crushed by Musharraf himself purportedly with help from Osama bin Laden 31 .

8. Other Key Issues

Nationalism – Punjabi Domination

Importantly, the history of Pakistan suggests that most of the secessionist/ autonomy movements whether the Bengalis (Bangladesh), Sindhis, Balochis, Mohajirs, Seraikis or the Pukhtoons are a reaction to the attitude of Punjabi Muslims who have dominated the political landscape and the army. Even Kashmiri Muslims are now wary of Pakistan for the same reasons. This trend needs to be reversed as this environment breeds extremist Islamic parties.

ISI – A Key Player

The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is a very powerful Islamic institution that is often accused of being “rogue”. However, its efforts to back the Taliban and to foster the Kashmiri insurgency were state-approved. In neither case was the ISI proceeding without the sanction of the military and political leadership. The fact that many of the senior officers do not work in the organization on a permanent basis, but are seconded from the army, clearly works in Musharraf’s favour and limits the growth of an institutional ‘ISI view’ . Since the ISI was supplying and training Islamic radicals who had been active in Kashmir, there are bound to have misgivings with regards to Musharraf’s current policies though there is no indication that they are attempting to overturn these policies.

30 International Religious Freedom Report, US Department of State, November 2005

31 Musharraf’s Ban: An Analysis, South Asia Analysis Group, 18 January 2002


URL of Part 1:

URL of Part 2:–-2/d/102197