Lessons from early Sufi history

April 3, 2016

A Sufi festival due to be held in Lahore was cancelled for security reasons

Lessons from early Sufi history

The spectre of violence has again hit Lahore but after sometime. A Sufi Festival being held at the Alhamra was halted due to the threat, and respect for the dead and injured.

Violence had not abated as regular attacks were reported especially from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but Lahorites had become complacent hoping the worst was behind them. It was another wakeup call and a reminder that the struggle was far from over.

Lahore also celebrated Mela Chiraghan under the shadow of fear last week on the shrine that is being built and built upon, in the area that is totally dug up due to the orange line. Shah Hussain’s shrine, in terms of its structure, had always been unassuming compared to some of the other shrines that had royal patronage like that of Mian Mir. Even Data Gunj Buksh Hajveri too, in comparison, was a modest structure till it was expanded and made quite big about twenty years ago.

The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop in Lahore and Punarjyot in Amritsar had started a commendable initiative some twelve years ago to hold festivals on both sides of the border to promote understanding and tolerance. It was basically a drive to bring the two Punjabs together after the blood-letting of Partition and create conditions where the peoples of the two divisions can devote their time and energy for the betterment of their situation rather than fritter it away on fear, apprehension and schemes to undo the opponent.

All these years, these festivals have been held with great deal of regularity and have created a climate of amity and well-being among the artistic community of both sides. Called Saanjh, the festival could not be held on the Pakistani side as the delegates were not issued visas on time this year.

Since the Pakistani state became hawkish and started to espouse a narrative that courted aggression -- not averse to using violence in getting and achieving a gain -- a parallel narrative has also shadowed it to uphold a mellower and softer approach. This has usually been seen in line with the reading of Sufism as a counter narrative of Muslim societies. So many calls have gone out and so many conferences have been held in the attempt to bolster the softer side of this society.

In a desperate reconnection that signified peace, love, tolerance and inclusiveness, the past is being invoked to strengthen the narrative that decries the use of force.

The early Sufis in the history of religion were those who, disgruntled by the obsessive adherence to power and its trappings, stepped aside and became recluse. This obsession with power and of seeing the capture of state power as necessary for establishing God’s kingdom or word on earth was what they found repellant. At the same time, the fallout of this approach led to violence, shedding of blood, and a hardening division in society.

In a desperate reconnection that signified peace, love, tolerance and inclusiveness, the past is being invoked to strengthen the narrative that decries the use of force.

The Sufis surmised that the teachings of Islam were not necessarily linked to state power and needed an approach that was based on changing people from within rather than being forced through the state institutions and power to follow a certain line. This divide between tareeqat and shariat, with the latter being identified with the power of state and its instruments that impose the order widened. It must have remained so for a long time with the two being seen in distinct light -- one as total withdrawal from the world and the other as a necessary instrument of imposing an order.

In India, however, it was different because the Sufis played a role that was different from the lands in which the majority of people were Muslims. Here they served as an interface between the rulers -- those espousing orthodoxy and the people. Since the vast population did not even follow the faith, the wide gap between the two had to be bridged.

Whether this was done as a matter of policy or it happened out of expediency or day to day requirement of maintaining a peaceful organised order can be left to speculation. There was not one approach but multiple.

The early Sufis in the subcontinent were much more open to adaptability, more inclusive in their approach linking their values to the universal human values than those who followed them later; especially at a time when the consolidation of political power had already taken place. The early Sufis decried state power or were most averse to be seen as an appendage to that. Their entire effort was focused on being viewed as independent entities that had nothing to do with state policy. They did not want to be viewed as junior partners of the might of the state but as an evolving instrument that had the force to survive without the benediction of state power.

But the same thing cannot be said of some other orders that became more acceptable in the later phases and were seen as extension of state power -- very little difference could be detected between the two approaches that are of the later Sufis and the orthodoxy. Many also lapsed into esoteric practices and impressed upon a lineage that distinguished them from other mortals.

It may be said in the same breath that whatever the argument, the understanding, interpretation and acknowledgement of an alternative lifestyle were all based on the assumptions derived from a value system that rested firmly in the medieval worldview. It needn’t be followed or practiced without an uncritical assessment of its worth in contemporary times. There is always the fear of taqlid pasandi as it rules our ethos.

With modernity, the restructuring of the processes of thought with the rise of reason, the coming up of the industrialised and post-industrialised society, all this has to be thought through and reworked in accordance with the extant paradigm.

Lessons from early Sufi history