William Dalrymple on Sufis in Pakistan

William Dalrymple charts Pakistan’s descent into chaos | World news | The Guardian

This appeared in the G2 supplement in the Guardian yesterday. Dalrymple has in general been sympathetic to Pakistan in his writings, pointing out that, for example, the country lacks the grinding poverty which is found in parts of India. This time, he says the Taliban are in the ascendant, particularly in the North-West Frontier Province, and are threatening journalists and lawyers in Punjab as well. This, he blames on the government’s fostering of jihadist groups such as Laskhar-e-Taiba, which they expected to be able to use for their own purposes but who have their own agendas. (More: Br Naeem, Izzy Mo.)

The only province which has not succumbed to the violence, he claims is Sindh, because of its domination by “Sufis” and devotion to various saints and their shrines, and cites the Rand Corporation report as saying that Sufism had a “politically moderating effect” and an “open, intellectual interpretation of Islam”. There are two problems here. First, surely William Dalrypmle could not have missed the large numbers of Shi’ites in Sindh, particularly around Hyderabad? The province, particularly Karachi, has also been no stranger to communal conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites, including massacres and bombings, and Karachi is also the base of one branch of the Bombay mafia which is believed to have been involved in the recent massacre.

Second, it is not true that Sufis are all fluffy saint-worshippers. Actually, the shrines and cults are a form of popular devotion which is an extension of Sufism, but Sufism itself is an Islamic discipline concerned with perfecting worship and character. Sufi shaikhs are supposed to be religious scholars, not pious quacks, and many of them disapprove of the goings-on associated with shrines, and some of it actually is idolatry (shirk). The Deobandi school (the Taliban were originally Deobandi, although not all Deobandis are Taliban) has always been pro-Sufi; their leading scholars had the licence to transmit four Sufi orders and Deobandis have produced commentaries on classical Sufi texts including the Mathnawi.

Also, many people in the regions where this kind of devotional culture holds sway are also devoted to less saintly personalities, including the Bhuttoes. At the time Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I was having online conversations with a woman living in a city near Hyderabad, who told me that she was devastated by the loss of Benazir Bhutto, as if she was a member of her family, and explained this by saying that her people are “Sufis”. I could not understand what that had to do with Sufism, as the Bhuttoes are not shaikhs or scholars, but landowners and politicians. This type of culture makes democracy ineffective, as the same people get elected again and again as a matter of “right” despite obviously being incompetent and even corrupt. It makes solving problems by force, whether in terms of military rule or religious militancy, look attractive to many.

Besides, as a person who has always aligned himself with Sufis and Sufism, I and many of those I know with similar attitudes do not want western government support. Scholars who are associated with the government or with foreign agencies are usually held in much suspicion, and in a country like Pakistan, such support could turn them into a subject of popular ridicule or a terrorist target. Any support should be directed to the Pakistani state; western agencies should keep out of debates among Muslims about theological matters, because they are complicated, and as they demonstrate again and again, they do not know much about them.

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