Every Breath for the Ecstasy of Qalandar: Sufism in Pakistan

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Could Sufism help diminish Islamic fundamentalism through integration within the modern, global civilization?

Sufism, founded on the pursuit of spiritual guidance, is the esoteric school of Islam. This spiritual guidance refers to the ultimate self-understanding, which expands to the understanding of the Sacred. It refers to an array of beliefs, with the crux being the internal quest for personal illumination, in unification with God.

It is believed that Sufis integrate practices of sound and movement in their lives, so as to attain an elated union with God. However, whilst the most visible expressions of Sufism are rituals involving poetry and mystical dance, it is a movement that traces back to the last thousand years of Islam, around the year 800. Sufis were modest, pious devotees who wore woollen clothes, which reflected the origin of the word suf – Arabic for wool.

People of the Suffe

In the era of Prophet Muhammad, there was a collective of scholars called the ahle Suffe – the People of Suffe. They were taught by the Prophet and engaged in dialogue regarding the truth of Being, and their quest for the path that would lead them to spiritual contentment.

The philosophical notion of Sufism is founded on these fundamental laws of Being – laws distant from dimensions of place, and free from the boundaries of human qualities. Technically, Sufism is a branch of Islam, often referred to as the mystical denomination. However, there are individuals from an array of cultural backgrounds, traditions and faiths who call themselves Sufis and search for a shared passage to everlasting and transcendent truth.

Many Muslims shun Sufism and want to distance its affiliation with their faith, because to them, Sufis draw on practices foreign from the Quran. A common notion expressed by Sufis is that all religions offer a platform to enlightenment and regardless of how it is attained, true awareness of God surpasses the boundaries and categorization of any religion.

In Pakistan, Sufism has been practised for centuries. In an interview with Fair Observer, Dr. Marcia Hermansen, director of the Islamic World Studies Program and professor in the Theology Department at Loyola University, Chicago, aptly describes how Sufism spans across Pakistani society: “[F]rom a mystical philosophy that explains and confirms a sense of tawhid (the unity of the divine intent and presence) in all manifestations of life, to the conviction that benevolent saintly presences, past and present, may be invoked to protect … individuals and communities in times of need.”

Sufism has been expressed through a musical channel known as Qawwali. This Sufi-devoted music spirals from mystical leaders who convey their desire for the Divine through hypnotic rituals and an element of entranced spirituality. This platform is centered on the celebration of Sufi leaders, with followers meeting at shrines praying for baraka (blessings), chanting poetry and dancing to trance induced traditional drum beats.

For Sufis, who frequently inhabit meditative retreats, the extreme branch of fundamentalism is the root of Islam’s negative view in the media and it is synonymous to religious violence. 

Sehwan, a town situated on the banks of the River Indus, in the country’s south eastern province of Sindh, sees an annual event where a few hundred thousand Sufis congregate. This three-day festival is home to prayer recital aimed at the saint’s shrines, where men and women dance together in ecstasy, with intoxicating incense swirling in the air. The devotees summon drums to celebrate the life and death of 13th century Sufi saint, poet and philosopher. Sufi rituals such as these were initially exercised by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmi in an attempt to awaken the sleeping God in the human heart.

The saint’s shrines is intricately decorated with brightly colored tinsel and covered with Quranic verses. Through the festival, a labyrinth slowly forms around the shrines, with thousands of dervishes, donkeys and water buffalos meandering in and out of the lanes. Festivals of this sort are known as Urs, the Arabic word for marriage, indicating the unification of the sublime Sacred and the practicing Sufis.

Influential Remedy

Qalandar, whose name was Usman Marwandi, was given this specific title by his followers to differentiate himself from the other saints and imply his advanced standing in the hierarchy of saints. He was self-abnegating and known to tie a rock around his neck so as to continuously be prostrating to Allah. Qalandar belonged to a collective of spiritual leaders who reinforced Islam’s presence in this region of Pakistan. In modern day Pakistan, there are many shrines dedicated to the mystic figures, traversing Punjab and Sindh, two of the country’s most densely inhabited provinces.

Sindh has always been an intersection for trade and it has acted as a religiously “liberal” region. The Sufi practices, which span across the province, have been an influential remedy to Islamic militancy that has swept over other parts of Pakistan. The subjective, experimental approach to Allah followed by Sufis, is in direct contradiction with the more concrete and straightforward approach of the Taliban fundamentalists. The Taliban oppose the free expression of Sufis, their open relishing of Islam and their use of music. Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban has stated “We have a large number of fighters in Sindh […] We will target everything which is against Sharia (Islamic law).”

While Sufis often believe that saints, frequently referred to as piirs, or spiritual advisors, have a specific aura which gives them special access to Allah, more conventional followers of Islam, or mullahs, consider this to be shirk (the sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism). They express that such beliefs are unorthodox and a refutation of Islam’s fundamental statement of belief: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.”

Conflict Between Sufis and Islamic Fundamentalists

This conflict is a critical clash of civilizations, not one between the Orient and the West, but a periodical battle within Islam itself. It has become a global clash of ideals regarding the foundations of religious custom. The previous century and a half, Sufism and Islamic fundamentalism have established equally antagonistic discourses and customs. For Sufis, who frequently inhabit meditative retreats, the extreme branch of fundamentalism is the root of Islam’s negative view in the media and it is synonymous to religious violence.

Islamic fundamentalism has originated from the hegemonic religious discourse of the Salafi movement. This sect within Sunni Islam claims to return to the purest, simplest form of Islam as taught by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. In its most extreme form, the select movement regards other faiths and traditions as being treacherous rivals and it dismisses facts that are not evidently rooted in Sharia law or the Quran.

Dr. Arthur Buehler, a scholar of trans-regional Sufi networks and senior lecturer at the University of Wellington, New Zealand informs a Fair Observer correspondent on the presence of Islamic fundamentalists: “The present-day fundamentalist agendas are eminently modern developments posing as the “pristine” Islam of the Prophet Muhammad, [who] want to take bulldozers to destroy those who disagree with their narrow interpretations of Islam […] Look at it as spiritual deforestation […] These well-meaning fundamentalists are blinded by their emphasis on a drastically simplified version of Islamic practice focusing on a mindless following of rules and ignoring the open heartedness that permeated the practices of the Prophet and informs how most Muslims still live today.”

Attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan came as a shock to many. It seemed as if despite history of attacks on mosques associated with either Sunni or Shia Muslims no one could imagine that such incidents could occur in Sufi shrines too. 

In addition to Sufism acting as a vital antidote to the branch of fundamentalist Islam, it operates as a significant source for responding to the challenges posed by modernity. Through popular public opinion and mass media, the notion of “Islamic fundamentalism” has generated harmful connotations and has come under escalating condemnation. This refers to the contemporary religious-political dialogue surrounding the foundations of the faith as developed by extreme Muslim scholars. Due to the increase of contemporary fundamentalism traversing the globe, the confrontation to the spiritual aspect of Islam has come to the foreground, whilst in the past it was confined to the frontiers of Islamic consensus.

Attacks on Sufism

Sufism has been as a target in countries traversing the globe, not only in the guise of ideological struggle but also in the form of physical violence. In recent years Africa has seen an array of attacks to their Sufi population. In 2012, Islamic militants in Mali destroyed saints’ mausoleums, Sufi cemeteries and universities in the capital of the Timbuktu region. Whilst further north of the continent in Egypt, since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, various municipalities have forbidden zhikr (remembrance of God); a chanting ritual often expressed by Sufis. However, the most brutal attacks have occurred in Pakistan. In April of 2011, the third attack of the year on Sufi shrines occurred during the annual three-day Urs near the Sakhi Sarkar shine in Punjab, where 41 devotees were killed during a suicide bomb by the Taliban.

In conversation with Fair Observer, an Associate at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenghagen, Dr. Uzma Rehman documents how “attacks on Sufi shrines in Pakistan came as a shock to many. It seemed as if despite history of attacks on mosques associated with either Sunni or Shia Muslims no one could imagine that such incidents could occur in Sufi shrines too. Sufi shrines have often been considered peaceful sites of devotion where people adhering to a diversity of religious schools of thought could visit without fearing opposition.”

Whilst there have been vituperative conflicts between Sufism and Islamic fundamentalists, there can also be noted an element of continuity between the two branches of Islam. Fundamentalism emanated out of pre modern Sufi reformist traditions which adopted a direct reliance on testaments and at time engaged in Jihad against indigenous Westernised rulers and colonial powers.

With these challenges and continuities, both branches have helped construct one another as contemporary subjects in the current socio-religio-political discourse of Islam and the Islamic world. In contemporary society where the Orient and the Occident often find themselves in conflict, one wonders whether incorporating Sufism and a balance between the scriptural and spiritual aspects of Islam could diminish the fundamentalist path to the radical field, thus aiding a smooth integration within the modern, global civilization.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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