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The State of Pakistan versus the Sufi: How the State Moulded the Identity of the Sufi Saints to Suit Its Politics

By Nadeem F. Paracha

July 09, 2017

Kathrine Pratt Ewing, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, travelled to Pakistan in 1976 to study the interaction of the region’s historical Sufi culture and state-sponsored modernity. She continued to visit the country till the early 1990s before publishing her hefty study in the shape of an excellent book , Arguing Sainthood­­­ in 1997.

Much of the book is an anthropological and even psychoanalytical examination of Ewing’s encounters with Zinda Pirs (living saints) and lower-middle-class families in Punjab. But she also studied the Pakistani state’s response to the social and even political influence enjoyed by these Pirs or the Sajjada Nasheen (the respected keepers of the shrines of deceased Sufi saints).

According to Ewing, from the 14th century onward, Sufi saints, the pirs and the Sajjada Nasheen enjoyed widespread influence over both Muslim and Hindu populations in India. They also enjoyed patronage from Muslim rulers who reigned over India from the 13th century till the consolidation of British colonialism here in the 19th century.

How the State Moulded The Identity Of The Sufi Saints To Suit Its Politics

This, despite the fact, that Sufism was often challenged (as an esoteric doctrine and cultural entity) by traditionalist Muslim scholars or the Ulema and the clerics (mullahs). But as veteran Pakistani historian Dr Mubarak Ali has often mentioned in his writings, the Ulema and the clerics did not have the kind of following as (both living and deceased) pirs did. Ali is also of the view that the Muslim rulers were often weary of politically empowering the Ulema.

A Boston University Professor, Kecia Ali, in her 2016 book Many Lives writes that, in the 19th century, Indian Sufism and the region’s ‘shrine culture’ was squeezed between the ideas of rationality and ‘modernity’ being imparted by the British and the emergence of Salafism among sections of Ulema and clerics. The Salafi accused India’s ‘heterogeneous’ Sufism for the downfall of Muslim rule in India.

This tension gave birth to an exclusive South Asian Muslim sect — the Barelvis — which arose to defend the doctrinal aspects of India’s shrine and Pir culture.

Sarah F. Ansari in Sufi Pirs & State Power (Cambridge University, 1992), suggests that just like the Salafi, the Pirs too were originally hostile towards the British and the ‘Islamic Modernism’ of 19th-century Muslim scholars such as Sir Syed Ahmad and Syed Ameer Ali who had denounced shrine culture as being superstitious.

But as Ansari demonstrates, from 1900 onward, becoming conscious of the influence the living Pirs and Sajjada Nasheen exercised over vast swathes of India’s Muslim population, the British introduced a complex system of patronage and appeasement to ‘control the Pirs.’

Ewing in her study describes the founders of Pakistan as ideological off-shoots of India’s Islamic Modernism first introduced by the likes of Sir Syed and Syed Ameer Ali and then further strengthened by poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal.

South Asian Islamic Modernism explained Islam as a rational faith having the flexibility and breadth to easily incorporate (and even inspire) modern scientific thinking and keep pace with rapid technological, political and social changes.

Ewing wrote that in 1958, when military chief Ayub Khan took power through a coup, his early speeches made it clear that he was not a great fan of Pirs, the Ulema and the clerics. He also detested communists.

Khan proudly explained himself as a Muslim Modernist and in a 1960 speech; he insisted that Jinnah had created Pakistan as a modern Muslim-majority state driven by a rational understanding of Islam’s Holy Book, modern science and industry.

He saw the living Pirs and the Sajjada Nasheen as ‘spreading superstition’, and the clerics and the Ulema as being stuck in a ‘frozen past’. In 1959 his government created the ‘West Pakistan Auqaf’ which put the control of the country’s mosques and Sufi shrines under state control. In her book, Ewing reproduces some of the text which appeared on pamphlets published by the Auqaf during the Ayub regime (1958-69).

The pamphlets presented the lives of popular saints in the light of ‘modernity’, explaining them as wise and sophisticated men who emphasised the importance of worldly and spiritual knowledge (as opposed to superstition). The pamphlets explained the clerics as ‘backward’ but ‘genuine Ulema’ as those who encourage modern learning and the sciences. Most of the texts produced by the Auqaf during this period were derived from the writings of Islamic Modernists such as Dr Javed Iqbal (son of Muhammad Iqbal) and Dr K. Abdul Hakim.

The left-leaning regime of Z.A. Bhutto (1971-77) continued this policy, but with a twist. Ewing in her study of Auqaf texts during the Bhutto era sees the image of famous Sufi saints become more populist. They were now described as men who stood up against injustice and challenged religious orthodoxy and economic exploitation. The clerics were described as ‘being agents of capitalists and feudal lords’ and regressive.

Ewing wrote that due to the expanding powers of the Auqaf under Bhutto, many Sajjada Nasheen began to lose their income. So to compensate for this, they began to join Bhutto’s political party. Ewing also noted that many rituals which were once exclusively the domain of the Sajjada Nasheen(such as laying a Chadar on the graves of Sufi saints) were transferred to government ministers.

During her visits to Pakistan in the 1980s, Ewing saw Auqaf texts changing again, this time during the conservative and theologically intransigent dictatorship of Gen Zia (1977-88). Though the texts continued to harp against ‘superstition’, they now explained the saints as those who were actually Ulema before their images were distorted after their demise.

Former general manager of the state-owned PTV, the late Burhanuddin Hasan wrote in his 2003 book Uncensored that Zia was angered by the way the clerics and the Ulema had been portrayed in Pakistani films, TV plays, literature and the state (under Ayub and Bhutto). Zia’s information ministry issued an ‘advice’ to PTV insisting that the role of a cleric or Ulema in TV plays must always be ‘positive’.

Ewing wrote that the Zia regime tried to merge the Ulema and the Sufi saint. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the saints were now presented as Ulema.

I once had with me a pamphlet published by the Auqaf in 2009 — 40 years after Ayub’s fall, 30 years after Bhutto’s execution and 21 years after Zia’s demise. The text is all over the place. It explains the Sufis as ‘wise and learned heroes who stood up against injustice’ and who ‘worked closely with the Ulema to impose Sharia laws.’ In other words, the Sufi had now become a jack of all trades.