By Nadeem F. Paracha
26 February 2017
I consider myself a ‘Muslim rationalist.’ Over the years I have devoured the writings of well-known South Asian ‘Muslim modernists’, from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali, Chiragh Ali to Muhammad Iqbal and Fazalur Rehman Malik.
Sir Syed has been a particular favourite of mine. His writings became the road which I eventually took almost 25 years ago when I decided to ditch the rapidly fading and crumbling highway of ‘Marxism.’ As a young man I had taken the so-called Marxist thoroughfare to avoid the twisted, bumpy pathway being constructed by the state and government of Pakistan back in the 1980s. This pathway eventually led the country to a very dark place, haunted by some vicious ideological and theological complications, and, consequently, multiple tragedies born from these convolutions.
The first time I actually managed to discover Sir Syed’s rather remarkable stream of logic (outside of the one-dimensional portrayal of the man present in text books), was through a 1987 tome on Sir Syed by Shafique Ali Khan. Quoting from a late 19th century essay by Sir Syed, Shafique Ali wrote that Syed believed the Muslims of India, after reaching the heights of imperial power, had become dissolute and lazy. When this led to them losing political power, they became overtly nostalgic about imagined past glories, which in turn, solidified their inferiority complex. This caused a hardening of views against modernity and the emergence of a dogmatic attitude in matters of faith.
In 1943, S.W. Cantwell in Modern Islam in India wrote that to Syed, the decrees passed by ancient Ulema were time-bound and could not be imposed in a changing scenario of what was taking place here and now. Syed believed that the codes of belief and spirituality were the main concerns of Islam and that cultural habits (pertaining to eating, dressing, etc.) are mundane matters for which Islam provides only moral guidance because they change with time and place. Syed added that if faith is not practiced through reason, it can never be followed with any real conviction. He insisted that the Ulema were conceiving their world view by uncritically borrowing from the thoughts of ancient Ulema. To him, this had made them dogmatic in their thinking and hostile towards even the most positive aspects of the changes taking place around them.
Yet, during the period in which I had begun to somewhat discover the inner workings of what came to be known as Muslim Modernism, I continued to frequent the shrines of Sufi saints and joyfully partake in ceremonies such as the Dhamal. At the shrines of Karachi, the interior of Sindh and South Punjab, my teachers were the thousands of downtrodden men and women who would come to the shrine in droves, and still do. I had been reading book after book on Sufism, but thanks to what I had learned from observing and talking to the common folk at the shrines, I have always maintained that there was absolutely nothing doctrinal about Sufism.
If one observes South Asia’s ancient shrine culture, he or she will notice that Sufism in the region has always been more experiential than doctrinal. I have wondered, why, as a young man, I used to just walk into shrines to listen to a qawwali or do the dhamaal. I did not belong to the class of people who largely visit shrines. Indeed, I could not help but visit these places weighed down by the baggage of being a member of the urban middle-class and its inherent belief of being more educated, ‘civilised’ and chiefly more informed about matters of the faith than the men and women who throng the shrines.
But the moment I became part of all that goes on in a shrine, I began to understand that ideology had nothing to do with this. Things like the dhamaal and qawwali were cathartic exercises, beyond which lay an attempt by a person to strike a special connection with the Almighty which just cannot be intellectualised or rigidly ritualised.
What I learned from (and about) the many people that I interacted with at the shrines was that the saints struck such a connection by roaming among the masses and then, after transcending regimented rituals, they retreated inwards to reach those parts of the mind and the heart that were not so well-known or explored. From here, they claimed, they could actually experience the presence of the Almighty — a presence whose power and beauty may render a mortal man senseless, and annihilate his ego. The annihilation process in this context (fana) was the price the saints were willing to pay.
Indeed, due to habit, I am still trying to intellectualise all this but at least all those visits to the shrines in my youth did often annihilate my middle-class ego and inherent sense of superiority. Never have I felt the awe-inspiring might and beauty of the Almighty and his many creations, as I did in those less pretentious days of youthful discovery.
I haven’t done the dhamaal for over 20 years now. And I don’t know why. Maybe to continue avoiding middle-class biases and that fabricated sense of superiority which my class carries, I have laden my mind with equally weighty doctrines that stand opposed to such biases? Maybe. But even today, when I listen to a qawwali or watch a group of people doing the dhamaal, I can, just for a moment, still feel that inexplicable burst of spiritual liberation which I used to as a younger man.
So, here’s an advice to those few who, after that terrible terrorist attack at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz last week, rather brazenly began to speak more about the practice of people performing the dhamaal at the shrine, than the attack itself: Do the dhamaal! It just might shake you up and make you remember that over 80 innocent lives were lost in the attack, out of which 25 were children. You may be losing your humanity by sounding the way you are, but try to at least hold on to your soul which is clearly being gnawed away by your fake sense of intellectual and theological superiority.