New Age Islam
Fri Jun 14 2024, 05:17 PM

Islamic Culture ( 23 Jan 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

One of the Greatest Sufi Poets Waris Shah in America

By Waris Husain

Dec 16-22, 2011

Imagine if one bright shining morning, Waris Shah, one of the greatest Sufi poets, was resurrected and came to life. If he was left in Pakistan, he would likely launch a campaign against the Wahhabi mullahs that have taken hold of popular discourse and fatwas would be issued against him within hours. His life would likely be in danger and the state would do little to protect him. However, if Waris Shah learned about the modern condition of societies across the world and was given a choice on where to live, he would likely choose a Western country with a heterogeneous population and an open discourse amongst faiths.

Dr Manzur Ejaz has aptly argued that the founders of the Sufi tradition came from mixed urban populations, and their ideals of tolerance were born out of a daily interaction with people of other faiths. While such conditions may no longer exist in Pakistan, Western nations are populated by people of all faiths, from Jews to Sikhs. Thus, there is a great deal that Pakistanis living abroad could learn from the writings of Waris Shah and his enlightened brethren. In fact, Sufism could be an ultimate solution to the identity crisis plaguing Pakistanis in Western nations, allowing them to respect their heritage while also comfortably assimilating in their heterogeneous society.

Identity Crisis for the Diaspora Community:

As a first-generation Pakistani-American, I have seen most of my peers undergo severe self-examinations and breakdowns based on one question: am I Pakistani or am I American? This black-and-white way of looking at one's identity is greatly effected by the definition of Pakistani. A vast majority of Pakistanis, both at home and abroad, conflate their definition of "being Pakistani" with being Muslim, specifically the Wahhabi school of Islam which preaches intolerance and chauvinism.

The hijacking of this definition robs Pakistanis of the immense philosophical and cultural history that has existed in their country outside the scope of conservative Islam. However, one cannot blame Pakistanis abroad for teaching this concept to their children, as they were influenced themselves by the Wahhabism spread by Ziaul Haq through education and the media. The efforts of the General and his bearded cohorts were successful in erasing the ideas of Sufi mysticism from the people's lexicon, and this has trickled out to the communities living abroad.

Without a full exposure to the spiritual traditions of their homeland, many Pakistanis abroad adopt medieval Islamic concepts. These intolerant ideals make them feel alienated in an open and mixed American society. Which brings us to the next conflated definition: what does it mean to be "American"? Those who feel alienated in a mixed society due to their religious intolerance would define being American the same way a person living in Pakistan would - materialistic, war-mongering, and evil.

That is not to say that every Pakistani-American believes in a chauvinistic form of Islam, indeed, there are those who have rebuked both their Islamic and Pakistani identities in order to feel included in their new society. Many of these individuals are agnostic or atheistic and blame Islam for the poor condition of Pakistan, not realizing that they have only been exposed to a small sect of Islam by their parents.

Therefore, one sees that the character of the Pakistani-American is conflicted where the American feels unattached to their cultural heritage, and the Islamist feels uncomfortable in a society with open mixing of genders and religions. This feeling of unease has resulted in many micro-Pakistani communities popping up across the US. Through the power of Dish Satellites and a close social network, these Pakistanis hermetically seal themselves away from interacting with American society on any level. From the food they eat, to the friends they have, to their political beliefs, these individuals detach themselves from the mainstream society and forgo any of its potential benefits.

On the other hand, there are those who reject their Pakistani heritage, which they see as tarnished by chauvinistic Islam, and submit themselves completely to the American way of life. These individuals forsake the stimulating ideals and vibrant culture of their homeland, because all they see is a small form of Islam enacting hate and violence throughout Pakistan, and the world.

The dichotomous us-versus-them mentality supported by Wahabi Islam and its followers has created a stark division of identity amongst the Pakistani community, to the point that the two sides have little interaction or debates. However, the answer is not to rule in favor of one side or the other, but to realize that they have both adopted their ideals based on limited information, which must be supplemented before they consent to following a faith or political ideal.

Sufi Tolerance and Multicultural Principles:

Dr Manzur Ejaz stated that the tolerance that Sufis advocated for on a spiritual level has been accomplished by many Western societies based on a practical need. With capitalism rising in the industrialized world, there was a need for a labor class, and distinctions based on gender, religion, or race became less important than profit. Thus, capitalism brought a mix of religions to urban centers, which caused many of the divisions between cultures to collapse. While a Pakistani and Indian may curse one another in their respective countries, this becomes far more difficult when they have a Pakistani neighbor or Hindu coworker whom they interact with each day. This is primarily because they see a breakdown of their prejudices and realize the shared humanity in their counterpart.

This realization was exactly what Sufi mystics attempted to embody in their philosophies as they themselves lived in multicultural societies, where some of their followers were Sikh, Hindu or Muslim. Bulleh Shah famously stated "Somewhere he is called Ramdas and elsewhere Fateh Muhammad/ this dispute is from the eternity/Once the quarrel between them was settled/ something else came out of it." Bulleh Shah breaks down the divisions between Hinduism and Islam to claim that all holy men belonged to the human order and should thus be embraced by all humans equally. Sufis belonging to the Christian School held such a tolerant and inclusive view, that some of their writings were included in the most holy of books for Sikhs.

Thus, the principles of Sufism came to life in Western industrialized societies not by spiritual design, but out of necessity. There is no doubt that Waris Shah would critique capitalist societies for their focus on material wealth and excess. Still, Waris Shah would reflect on the mix of temples, churches, and mosques that dot the American landscape and feel his ideas of tolerance and common-humanity came to life. He would believe that this environment gives Pakistani Muslims living abroad the chance to exchange ideas and engage in a critical examination of their own spirituality, which is a central tenant of Sufism.

Sufi Rejection of Rituals:

In many ways, the Wahhabi Islam adopted by many Pakistanis living abroad focuses greatly on the rituals of the faith rather than attempting to espouse the spirit of their religion. Many of the rituals carried on by Pakistanis alienates them from their society, for example, a visible sign of Wahhabi Pakistanis living in the US is their long beard or raised shalwar/pants. These styles focus on outward appearance rather than on a spiritual introspection. In response, Bulleh Shah would yell, "burn the prayer mat and lota (earthen pot)/ Don't take the prayer rosary and holy stick/Lovers are announcing over and over/Leave the kosher and eat non-kosher. Oh Bullah drink wine and eat kebobs, burn the fire of your bones under [them]. Rob the robber of robbers". Rather than merely adopting the rituals and appearances of piety, Sufi mystics would say that Pakistanis living abroad should emulate the ideas of equality and love for humanity that their Prophet (PBUH) imbued.

While some imams in Western Countries are finally calling for interfaith meetings with leaders of other faiths, Sufis were far ahead of their time as they accepted any faith into their fold. The Sufis' interfaith exchange could be resurrected to encourage those living abroad to engage spiritually and socially in their multicultural society. This rejection of rituals as a means to enlightenment is a concept that could greatly serve those living in the US. Not only would this improve the life of the person by allowing them to take benefits of being part of such a society, but it would give them the ability to critically examine their own spiritual beliefs rather than relying on dogma or rituals.

Sufi Separation of Mosque and State:

Lastly, there is a political ideology that has accompanied the Wahhabi form of Islam that is popular in the Diaspora community. This political ideology is steeped in anti-Western beliefs, especially critical of the separation of Church/Mosque and State as being a concept that violates Islam. The Western response to this argument is that the State cannot be dirtied by the hands of spiritual unelected individuals who could, rightly or wrongly, be claiming divine right.

Sufism turns this critique upside-down by agreeing that the Mosque and State must be separated, but not in order to preserve the State, but in order to preserve religion or spirituality itself. Shah Hussain stated: "Kings are busy in their kingdoms, the moneylenders are collecting their debts and the tiller is concerned about his village. We only seek the pleasure of our Saint (Lord, Beloved)." Thus, rather than relying on the political Islamic ideologies that have alienated individuals from their newly adopted countries, Sufis would encourage Pakistanis abroad to separate their politics from their spirituality in order to maintain purity of both.


Waris Shah would certainly condemn Western societies for its innumerable vices, especially the materialistic way in which the culture operates. However, with a mix of different faiths living side by side, and a government that allows for an open exchange of ideas, Waris Shah would likely thrive. Even without Waris Shah's resurrection, Pakistanis living abroad could learn a great deal about living in Western societies from Sufi thinkers. Rather than relying on a ritualistic form of militant Islam that creates identity crises, the Pakistani Diaspora community should study the tolerant and open ideas of Sufi mystics. Not only would this bring greater prosperity to the Pakistani community abroad, but it would allow the first generation children to respect their heritage and draw from its immense wisdom while also comfortably engaging with their mixed society.

Waris Husain is based in Washington DC, holds a jurist doctorate and writes on legal affairs in Pakistan and the United States

Source: The Friday Times, Lahore