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Islamic Society ( 18 March 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Sufism and Religious Nationalism

By Momina Farooq Khan

March 8, 2019

According to Carl.W.Ernst, the term Sufism was coined by British Orientalists living in India, as the appearances of fakirs and dervishes had added to the curiosity of European travellers during the nineteenth century. They viewed them as exotic curiosities. The European Scholars used the term Sufi only for the literary aspect of the term and were impressed by the poetry of Jalal-al-Din Rumi and Hafiz and constituted them as separate categories from the Islamic religion. As for these Scholars the wine drinking and the poetry of these sofeees could possibly not be framed within the categorization of Islam as a religious discourse. They were seen as freethinkers by these scholars, people who had really less association with the Islamic discourse of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) as they had more common strands of philosophy with Christianity, Greek, and other forms of Mysticism in the India Vedas.

 So the ‘term’ Sufism in itself was a construction of certain parts of the culture that the Orientalists found appealing. Following that, Sufism can be taken as a term that did not need to be outwardly expressed into one category; it did not need to be distinctly characterized as a separate entity. There is a problematic scenario of the object being identified by the subject; the identity of the Sufis – who are the ‘objects’ in this case, is being framed on intellectual curiosities of the European Orientalists- who are the ‘subjects.’ It is rooted in their world view, hitherto, Bayarts suggests that in Iran the words Ketman and Taqiah had a regionally specific meaning, but when it is translated in the western imperial language it means trickery, where as in accordance with the Shia and Iran narrative, it is justified to do so if the state or religion is under threat from the external world.

Carl Ernst writes, before the advent of the nineteenth or twentieth century, the ‘Sufi’ did not have to categorically project their identity. There was more of an emphasis on inwardness in the realms of ‘Sufism’ that made interactions and assimilations on a ‘personal’ basis. They did not have to ‘outwardly’ characterize their ‘rituals’ or their ‘identity with relation to a specific religion.

They did not need a pronouncement of their relation to Islam; it was mostly a personal discourse that was rooted in a ‘performativity’ of the acts rather ‘pronouncement’ and categorization of those acts. It was the criticism of the orientalists that made it obligatory for the ‘Sufi’s ‘to confine themselves to scriptural sources. Prior nineteenth century, there hadn’t been a criticism that had questioned the ‘internal’ realms of the ‘Sufi’ world and created a separation between a discourse of ‘religion’ and ‘Sufism.’ In which ‘Sufism’ was aligned with ‘poetry’ and Islamic religion’ was seen as an outside realm. There is a divergence of epistemological grounds and they way each side interprets the ‘meaning’ of a certain ‘object.’

In Pakistan in 2001, more than a hundred devotees died in a stampede at the shrine of Baba Farid- Ganj Shakar during the yearly pilgrimage, which originates from the Chishti Sabiri order. In which the ideology of the order is conversed through the relationship between the master and the disciple and is marked by a performativity of rituals. During the annual Urs of their saint, they were crushed by the stampede in trying to enter gate of heaven (Bhishti Darwava), as per the ritual. After the tragedy, the state, the Diwan authorities and the devotees pronounced the differences of interpretation and ideology. The local state authorities blamed the local shrine custodians and vice versa. The governor of Punjab declared that the tragedy that prevailed was not indicative of the real Islam and accused the custodians of the shrine as profiteers. While, the disciples response was more of an inward one. This tragedy made the disciples go into an inward plain and engage is self introspection.

As one of the prominent Shaikh’s grand son had also passed away in the stampede, it was a huge personal and political loss that had to be dealt with. Most of the disciples of the order opted for a spiritual explanation for the event as to ‘what could have been the reason for such an event to occur on such a ‘sacred’ gathering? It had to have a ‘meaningful’ explanation, with regards to what was the reason for such an incident to take place? This event was interpreted in close relation to the events of Karbala, in which the family of the Prophet (SAW) suffered by worldly powers. This whole incident was seen as indicative of an inward change that needs to take place and certain things that as humans, they have to embrace.

This very ‘divergence’ in the way of interpreting the event demonstrates the issue. The devotees and the disciples come from a different epistemological ground; in one sense, it shows the collision of two worlds; so the question that needs to be posed is how can the state which is coming from a ‘different’ world view and is a product of an external realm control the internal politics of that ‘world?’ Also, for the disciples, the state demonstrates a ‘worldly’ reality, which is focused on greed and for them ‘their’ personal is their world. Which is indicative that for them the ‘personal’ is ‘political.’ There is no binary between the personal and the political.

The state has tried to appropriate ‘Sufism’ for the reasons of ‘nationalist identity’ of Islam and has several times tried to promote it as a form of ‘liberal Islam.’ But the government official claiming to say that it was not the ‘true’ form of Islam and that in itself creates a problematic situation.

As the state’s ideology stems from postcolonial culture, which took the relationship between the master and the disciple as authoritarian in actuality, not acknowledging that it stems from a completely different ideology that did not need to reaffirm or ‘justify’ itself; as Carl Ernst suggested that it was the Orientalists who constructed this term and it was in the nineteenth Century that they had to lend a scripture to ‘categorize’ themselves with Islamic religion. Their identity was not confined to a categorization, which is for the ‘Fakirs’ or the ‘dervishes’ to confine their ‘identity’ into a singular dimension that is associated with a ‘religious’ identity.

There is ‘identity’ politics tied with in these narratives. They are trying to construct their ‘self’ and in doing so are defining the ‘other’ as the ‘demon.’ As Kinvall, with the increase of globalization, coming into a plural world, there is a simultaneous need to reaffirm ‘self’ identification. The destabilizing effects of globalization lead to a feeling of homelessness and alienation of the self with the other. It forms the other and constructs securitized subjectivity, which forms the self. Which involves the construction of a stranger: other and the self takes form by demonizing that stranger. In today’s narrative, the culture of Sufism is being promoted as a shield to overcome the terrorist ideology; in the words of Ghazala Irfan (a philosophy professor at Forman Christian College), Sufism is anything that involves the ethos of devotion that could be in the form of Qawwali, or a Dhammal. It is anything that involves embodiment of spontaneity.

Momina Farooq Khan is completing her Master’s at SOAS University of London, in South Asian Studies (Intensive)