Sufism To Counter Fundamentalism
By Prahlad Shekhawat
28 May, 2011
The Urs or death anniversary of the greatest South Asian Sufi Saint Khwaza Moinuddin Chisti is marked in Ajmer, where not only Muslims from South Asia but Hindus and others converge to offer “hazri” or be present, seek blessings and ask for boons and miracles. Sufism is a liberal, tolerant and inclusive form of Islam which has interwoven in its tapestry the fabrics of local and folk cultures and elements of spiritualities in many parts of the world. Through its poetry, music, dance, unique aesthetic sensibility, advocacy of peace, love and mysticism, the Sufi tradition seeks and celebrates direct love and communion with God which mirrors a deep connection with one’s own humanity. Moinuddin Chisti was a follower of the Chisti Sufi order founded in East Afghanistan which has now become the epicenter of violent fanaticism
The Sufis arrived on the scene around 800 years ago, and were originally pious devotees, whose poor woolen clothes showed their humility: "Sufi" comes from the Arabic word for wool. Above all, the Sufis sought the divine reality or ultimate truth that stands above all the illusions and deceptions of the material world. In order to achieve ecstatic union with God, they incorporated techniques of sound and movement -- chanting and music, swaying and dance. Believers joined in tight-knit brotherhoods or tariqahs, each following a charismatic leader (shaykh). They presented an Islam that incorporated local traditions and worship styles, including Christian saints and Hindu gods.
Sufis offer great hope for pluralism and democracy within Muslim nations. The Sufi religious outlook has little of the uncompromising intolerance that characterizes the fundamentalists. Their brotherhoods cherish intellectual exploration. Progressive Sufi thinkers are quite open to modern knowledge and science. People organize processions, they seek healing miracles, and women are welcome among the crowds. While proudly Islamic, Sufi believers have always been in dialogue with other great religions.
Sufis neither condemn unveiled women nor censure modern means of entertainment. For them the distinction between virtue and vice is determined by intent, not by appearance. According to Maulana Wali Rehmani Mongeyri, it is the fusion of spirituality and modernity which creates the unique aesthetic experience that is so appealing to the young and that is what makes them reject extremism. In the West and especially in America the popularity of the Sufi poet Rumi is greater than ever before. In Morroco the young people find that the Sufi norms of beauty and humanity allow them to enjoy the arts, music and love without giving up their religious or social obligations, As Ahmed Kostas an expert on Sufism and director of Morocco’s Ministry of Religious Affairs points out “Progress and change are basic tenets of Sufi philosophy making this old spiritual tradition so popular among the youth”
It is often said that the recent rise of terrorism and other conflicts are related to violent extremism in Islam. The idea of Clash of Civilizations also emphasizes this point but this notion ignores the diversity within Islam and wrongly identifies fundamentalist groups within Islam with all Muslim people. The diversity within the Sufi traditions steeped in local cultures themselves is a case in point. Critics of both Islam and Mahatma Gandhi say that Gandhi had followers among all religions except in Islam, which is considered by many to be in some way inherently violent. This thesis was disproved by Khan Gafar Khan called the Frontier Gandhi who led a peace movement comprising of 150000 tribesmen during the Indian Independence movement against the British rule in the North West Frontier region, now in Pakistan bordering. Khan Gaffar Khan, a Pathan known as fierce fighters, spent a long time as a close and loyal follower of Gandhi. Today a small Palestinian group has adopted the Gandhian path which has intrigued and made anxious the Israeli authorities. Before Arabian Wahhabism and Soviet Russians invaded Afghanistan it was a patchwork of diverse tribes and ethnic groups coexisting through local codes and norms of folk Islam with a history of Sufi influences
The great Mughal emperor Akbar was a keen follower of Khwaza Moinuddin and made annual pilgrimages to his tomb in Ajmer, India. He married a Hindu princess, gave her due respect and her son inherited the throne. He was fond of organizing Sufi dances and musical concerts. His empire extended from Kabul to parts of Burma. As Amartya Sen points out in his book “The Argumentative Indian” that Akbar, although a devout Muslim evolved a composite multi-culture and encouraged rational enquiry and inter-faith dialogue to promote understanding and social harmony. Akbar founded a new all faith forum called “Dine Ilahi” where scholars and spiritual leaders from all faiths were invited to dialogue and learn from each other’s point of view. In his autobiography “Akbar Namah” he affirmed: “The various religious communities are treasures entrusted to us by God. We must love them as such. It must be our firm faith that He blesses every religion. The Eternal King showers his favors on all men without distinction”
The Wahhabi movement emerged in the 18th century in Arabia, and in modern times it has built a worldwide presence on the strength of Saudi oil money. In its radical form this exclusive tradition rejects knowledge that is not clearly rooted in the Quran and Islamic legal thought, and regards other religions and cultures as dangerous rivals lacking any redeeming qualities. Al Qaeda and its affiliates represent an extreme and savage manifestation of this creed.
Maulavis, especially those trained at the Wahhabi oriented Deoband School in India (whose teachings have inspired most of the fundamentalists in Pakistan and Afghanistan) who go to towns and villages all over South Asia and elsewhere to teach the so called pure Islam of Arabia. They ask Muslims to wear salwar kameez, burqa, speak Urdu and keep away from their traditional grass roots, folk Islam and mixed shrines which have over hundreds of years which has given them a sense of community and belonging in the local multicultural Hindu-Muslim milieu. At a drought relief work site in a village in Jaisalmer on the India-Pakistan (Sindh) border I found all except the Muslim women had veils. When I quizzed them a Muslim woman said in the local Rajasthani dialect; “what is the need of purdah , everyone in the village is a relative” A senior Maulavi at the fundamentalist Deoband Islamic academy in Uttar Pradesh State, whom I interviewed did not hesitate to declare that the Sufi philosophy of Khwaza Moinuddin Chisti was not Muslim enough and did not meet the test of pure Islam. A similar process of conversion to the so called “pure” Wahhabi Islam fueled by Saudi oil money and madrasas aided by it has been fiercely taking place in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere
A woman from Iran who was making a film on different religions and inter-faith dialogue asked me for advice and when I told her that apart from others she should meet Maulana Wahaduddin, a highly respected liberal Muslim, who lives near the tomb of the Sufi; Nizammudin Aulia in Delhi, her spontaneous reaction was “but he is a Sunni”. Sufism can provide an inclusive openness and ecumenical intra-faith dialogue within the Islamic streams and sects as well as inter-faith dialogue with other religions for more tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. I could not believe that the Iranian woman making a film on inter-faith dialogue was from the same wonderful land as the world class Persian poets with Sufi leanings like Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam. Rumi’s poetry resonates the Sufi way as opposed to rigid dogma and seeks formless fluidity. In his poem ‘Infidel Fish’ he writes: “In the world full of shape / there you are without form”
The most interesting historian of South Asian Islam; William Dalrymple writing in the New York Review of Books (Pakistan in Peril , February 12, 2009) narrates that during his last visit to Pakistan, it was very clear that while the Wahhabi-dominated North-West was on the verge of falling under the sway of the Taliban, the same was not true of the Sufi-dominated province of Sindh, which currently is quieter and safer than it has been for some time. In southern Pakistan, on the Indian border, Sufi Islam continues to act as a powerful deterrent against fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs,
Visiting the popular Sufi shrine of Sehwan in Sindh recently he was amazed by the strong feeling expressed against the mullahs by the Sindhis who look to their great saints such a Lal Shabaz Qalander for guidance, and hate the Wahhabis who criticize the popular Islam of the Sufi saints as a form of shirk, or heresy: "All these mullahs should be damned," said one old Sufi William talked to in the shrine. "They read their books but they never understand the true message of love that the prophet preached. Men so blind as them cannot even see the shining sun." A friend of William who visited shortly before him met a young man from Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, who said he had considered joining the militants, but their anti-Sufi attitude had put him off: "No one can deny us our respected saints of God,"
William observed that the Saudis have poured in a lot of money in Wahhabi madrasas in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, with dramatic effect, radically changing the religious culture of an entire region. The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism. William proposes that “Here is an entirely indigenous and homegrown Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with deep roots in South Asian culture. It is one of the few sources of hope left in the increasingly bleak political landscape of this strategically crucial country”.
A leading Iraqi intellectual, a former minister and a Fellow at the Princeton University Ali Alawi argues in his book; Crisis of Islamic Civilization (Yale University Press, 2009) affirms that Sufism is integral to the revival of Islamic civilization which is facing grave threats on the one hand from Modernist Islam and on the other from Wahhabi Islam which is against heterodox and individualist folk Islam like Sufism
The RAND Corporation came out with a major report in 2007, called "Building Moderate Muslim Networks," which stressed the Sufi role as moderate traditionalists open to change, and thus as potential allies against violence. The British government is befriending the Sufi orders, and has made groups like the British Muslim Forum and the Sufi Muslim Council its main dialogue partners in the Muslim community. Philip Jenkins a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, makes a plea that “Sufis, better than anyone, can tell disaffected young Muslims that the quest for peace is not a surrender to Western oppression, still less a betrayal of Islam, but rather a return to the faith's deepest roots”
Kashmir at one time was at the heart of Sufi cross roads and where many Sufi saints are revered and the Sufi shrine of Charar-e- Sharif still inspire both Muslims and Hindus. Can the enlightened Muslim leadership persuade the alienated youth in Kashmir and Muslim youth everywhere to learn from their own Sufi traditions and follow a more liberal and tolerant version of Islam and carry out their struggles through peaceful means therefore with greater moral force? More support needs to be given to the teaching of Sufi principles and outlook in madrasas and Muslim schools and colleges. Can we carry forward the message of ‘aman’ or peace and spirituality for common humanity preached by the “Garib Nawaz” or the one who cares for the poor; Khawaza Moinuddin Chisti, the most revered Sufi saint of South Asia? Can we then wait for a miracle of peace to happen in our times of fanatical terror and truly say Salam Valekum?
Prahlad Shekhawat is Director, Alternative Development and Research Center,Jaipur.