When Sufi saint Hazrat Muhammad Rashid’s spiritual heir, Mardan Shah, aka Pir Pagara of Pakistan’s Sindh province died in 2012, it ended his around 50-year political career of ever-changing alliances. A power broker, Shah was close to military dictator Ayub Khan and claimed credit for introducing populist leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to politics in the 1960s. Shah sided with Zia-ul-Haq when he overthrew Bhutto and executed the democratically-elected prime minister in 1979. He had his way when Zia nominated Muhammad Khan Junejo as prime minister before falling out with both. Shah’s politics of convenience continued when he merged his party with that of Pervez Musharraf in 2004 and later allied with the military ruler’s bete noire, Nawaz Sharif. He deserted Sharif again to ally with Musharraf in 2010.
The politics of Shah, who enjoyed influence among Muslims in Rajasthan’s impoverished areas bordering Sindh, mirrored cosiness many Sufi heirs have enjoyed with whosoever is in power. Several pir families have for decades used their spiritual lineage to further their politics cutting across party lines in Pakistan. Most 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. This makes it a bit far-fetched to suggest that Sufism, in its present form, can be an antidote to extremism.
The recent attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in Pakistan has revived this simplistic assumption. The glory of the Sufi past is something to be proud of. But it would not help much in dealing with nihilistic ideologies that drive terrorist groups like IS. 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 exceptional scholars of Islam too. 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 to counter extremist ideologies? Far from it, they have antagonised 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. Let us face it, 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?
Moinuddin Chishti must have turned in his grave regarding the slugfest over who would get Pakistani leader Asif Ali Zardari’s Rs 5 crore offering at his shrine in Ajmer in 2012. The claimants argued for months over whether it should go to the khadim (attendant) who helped the Pakistani leader with rituals or be shared with an elected body of hereditary khadims and a government-appointed administrative panel.
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 Sufi is believed to have originated from “Suf” (Arabic for wool) denoting Islamic mystics’ association with coarse woollen 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 century). 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 a real antidote to extremism, Sufism has to return to its essence of selfless service.
In any case, you do not have to be a Shia, Sunni, Sufi etc. to recognise the evil that terrorism is. The tendency to divide Muslims into the so-called good and bad categories is counterproductive in the fight against the menace. The fight is as much theirs as anyone else. In Iraq, top Shia cleric’s call that united the country to give a bloody nose to the IS may have a lesson or two for the rest of the world to emulate.