Source: Herald Dawn
BY Zahra Sabri
In a variety of Islamic political contexts around the world today, we see ‘Sufi’ ideas being invoked as a call to return to a deeper, more inward-directed (and more peaceful) mode of religious experience as compared to the one that results in outward-oriented political engagements that are often seen as negative and violent. A hundred years ago, it would not have been uncommon to hear western or West-influenced native voices condemn Islamic mysticism (often described problematically in English as ‘Sufism’) as one of the major sources of inertia and passivity within Muslim societies. Yet new political contingencies, especially after 9/11, have led to this same phenomenon being described as ‘the soft face of Islam’, with observers such as British writer William Dalrymple referring to a vaguely defined group of people called ‘the Sufis’ as ‘our’ best friends vis-à-vis the danger posed by Taliban-like forces.
We seem to be in a situation where journalistic discourse and policy debates celebrate idealised notions of Islamic mysticism with its enthralling music, inspiring poetry and the transformative/liberating potential of the ‘message’ of the great mystics. These mystics are clearly differentiated from more ‘closed-minded’ and ‘orthodox’ representatives of the faith such as preachers (mullahs), theologians (fuqaha) and other types of ulema.
On the other hand, when we trace the institutional legacy of these great mystics (walis/shaikhs) and spiritual guides (pirs) down to their present-day spiritual heirs, we find out that they are often all too well-entrenched in the social and political status quo. The degree of their sociopolitical influence has even become electorally quantifiable since the introduction of parliamentary institutions during colonial times. Pirs in Pakistan have been visible as powerful party leaders (Pir Pagara), ministers (Shah Mahmood Qureshi) and even prime ministers (Yousaf Raza Gillani). Even more traditional religious figures, such as Pir Hameeduddin Sialvi (who recently enjoyed media attention for threatening to withdraw support from the ruling party over a religious issue that unites many types of religious leaders), not only exercise considerable indirect influence over the vote but have also served as members of various legislative forums.