The idea of ‘Sufism’, which in its present form has little to do with saints and their teachings, has long mutated with the association of those helming shrines purely by virtue of heredity with corrosive power, patronage, and vanity
When Mardan Shah, better known as Pir Pagara, died in 2012 in Pakistan’s Sindh province, it ended his around five-decade career of ever-changing political alliances. A power broker, he drew his influence as Sufi saint Hazrat Muhammad Rashid’s ‘spiritual heir.’
Shah grew close to Ayub Khan when the latter ended the political turmoil to become Pakistan’s first military ruler in 1958. He claimed credit for introducing to politics populist leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a fellow Sindhi whom Ayub Khan handpicked as his foreign minister at 35 in 1963.
Shah sided with Zia-ul-Haq when the army chief overthrew democratically-elected prime minister Bhutto, who was later executed in 1979 on trumped-up charges. He had his way when Zia nominated Muhammad Khan Junejo, another Sindhi, as the prime minister. Shah later fell out with both Zia and Junejo as the ‘spiritual’ leader’s politics of convenience continued.
Shah, who also enjoyed influence among Muslims in impoverished areas in the western Indian state of Rajasthan bordering Sindh, merged his party with that of military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2004. He later made another dramatic political volte-face and allied with Musharraf’s bete noire, Nawaz Sharif. Shah deserted Sharif again to ally with Musharraf in 2010.
Alien To The Idea
Shah’s politics mirrored the machinations and the coziness many so-called Sufi heirs have enjoyed with whosoever is in power. Several such heirs have used their ‘spiritual lineage’ to further their political ambitions and amass wealth. Many of them are also feudal lords, whose ostentatious lifestyles and corrupt practices are alien to the idea of Sufism.
The idea has long mutated with the association of those helming it purely by virtue of heredity with corrosive power, patronage, and vanity. ‘Sufism’, in its present form, has little to do with Sufi saints and their teachings.
Most Sufi saints traced their lineage to the Caliph Ali, who is seen as the Prophet’s spiritual inheritor. They drew a bulk of converts to Islam in places such as the Indian Subcontinent, home to the world’s 25% Muslims, who consider Ali as one of their holiest figures.
A majority of Muslims in South Asia venerate Ali and the Prophet’s family. Ali, whom Sufis see as a foremost basis of spiritual knowledge, was the first Sufi disciple and the source of the esoteric wisdom that Sufism is based on.
The Sufis celebrated Ali for his chivalry, bravery, generosity, justice, and grandeur of soul and sought to emulate him. They see these values as the true essence of Islamic piety.
A majority of the Sufis were Sunnis. Their teachings prompted inter-sectarian as well as inter-religious harmony. Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi is symbolic of this.
Ghazi is believed to be a relative of the sixth Shia Imam Jafar al-Sadiq, who came to what is now Karachi from Baghdad. Shias consider imams as the only rightful heirs to the Prophet, which makes Ghazi a revered figure as a relative of al-Sadiq.
The shrine has been a salad bowl and has brought people together for centuries irrespective of their sectarian identities.
Five women believed to be from the Prophet’s family, including a daughter of Ali, are buried at Lahore’s Bibi Pakdaman. A plaque at the shrine marks the place where Lahore’s patron saint, Ali bin Usman Al Hajveri, spent 40 days in meditation.
Shrines such as Bibi Pakdaman and Abdullah Shah Ghazi mark the blurring of the sectarian lines that are erroneously presumed to be deeper than they actually are.
A stream of Sufi mystics such as Hajveri settled in the Indian subcontinent from the 10th century onwards. His shrine is the oldest in Lahore, where he attracted a following through his inclusive mysticism that was based on egalitarianism and equality before God.
Dominant Spiritual Stream
Sufism is the dominant spiritual stream among Muslims in the subcontinent and an esoteric expression of Islam.
Sufis believed that there are outer and inner meanings to the Quran and the prophetic traditions and revere those whom they believe can grasp the more inward meaning.
Sufi saints enjoyed a special status that comes from their esoteric knowledge and their proximity to God. The spiritual essence of the saints is a source of grace that continues to bless their followers even after the saints die.
Sufi shrines were places to which believers felt a deep sense of spiritual and emotional attachment.
Sufi saints are esteemed as special intermediaries between humans and God and capable of interceding to secure divine healing. The saints are believed to be capable of interceding to secure divine healing, blessing, favour, and forgiveness, even for devotees whose daily religious habits may not have been the most diligent.
Moinuddin Chishti, South Asia’s preeminent Sufi saint who traced his lineage to Ali, celebrated the Caliph’s son Hussain as a protector of religion who ‘gave his head but not his hand to Yazid.’ This alludes to the refusal to legitimise an unjust ruler and preferring to die for upholding foundational Islamic ideals— egalitarianism, piety, and justice.
The shrine in Karbala of Hussain has stood for centuries as a representation of the values and a rallying point against tyranny. Saddam Hussain restricted religious rituals centred around the shrine over his decades-long rule when Karbala emerged as a bastion of resistance against him. He was not the only ruler to fear the symbolism attached to the shrine.
Karbala is seen as an ’emblem of suffering and solace’ and the refusal of ‘true Muslim authority to be caged by pragmatic considerations and its willingness to challenge illegitimate authority.’ It was the nerve centre of the resistance against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The glory of the Sufi past is something to be proud of. Sufis were practitioners of love, who won over people with their selfless service to humanity, aversion to materialism, and distance from the corrupting influence of power.
They were also exceptional scholars of Islam. Kashmir’s patron saint, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani, for instance, wrote Dhakhirat al-Muluk in the 14th century, guiding rulers on how to be just to their subjects irrespective of religious differences.
How many present-day ‘Sufis’ have written books or have even basic training in theology? Far from it, they have antagonised, for instance, in India many right-thinking people with their tendency to keep on the right side of the powers that be no matter how inimical they may be to the larger community.
Sufi shrines have become easy sources of money for those claiming descent from the saints to support their lavish lifestyles. When you have it easy, why bother with the rigours of scholarship?
12th-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, the founder of the biggest Sufi order globally—Qadiriyya—studied the Prophet’s traditions, Sufism, Arabic philology, theology, and jurisprudence as per the Ḥanbali School of jurisprudence.
Amid growing materialism and immorality as the Abbasid Empire was fragmenting, the Sufi movement expanded Islamic mysticism. Gilani considered it his religious duty to work for society’s welfare and particularly for the weak and vulnerable. He considered the service of mankind a spiritual duty.
Moinuddin Chishti’s teaching and life mirrored that of Gilani. He must have turned in his grave over a clash between hereditary attendants at the shrine and another group at his shrine in January 2023 over some slogan shouting while they turn a blind eye to much worse.
The attendants have a long history of shenanigans that have them working at the behest of the powers that be howsoever contradictory it may be to the values that the shrine symbolizes. They got involved in a slugfest over who would get Pakistani leader Asif Ali Zardari’s $6,00,000 offering at his shrine in Ajmer in 2012.
The claimants argued for months over whether it should go to the khadim (attendant) who helped Zardari with ‘rituals.’ A body of khadims and a government-appointed administrative panel argued it should be shared with them. The fight was symptomatic of what Sufism has been reduced to — a far cry from its essence of being divorced from worldly pleasures.
The word Sufism is believed to have originated from Suf (Arabic for wool) denoting Islamic mystics’ association with coarse woolen garments as opposed to the expensive clothing of the worldly.
The mystical strain emerged in response to the materialism of the Umayyad Caliphate (seventh and eighth centuries). Over the centuries, Islamic mystics fanned across the world, preaching the concept of the unity of being.
Among them, the most successful saints of the Chistia order were particularly known for maintaining a safe distance from the state. To be their real heirs, those claiming to be so, have to put their money where their mouth is and return to the path of the essence of the teaching of the saint—selfless service.