During the previous PPP-led government, plans were afoot to build the world’s first ever international Sufi university near Bhit Shah in Sindh(1).
The main purpose of the institution was stated to promote interfaith and intercultural education to tackle religious extremism in the country.
Such a thought and project could only have come about in Sindh. Especially in the context of what Pakistan has been going through in the last many years.
Not only have the country’s other provinces – especially the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Sindh’s capital, Karachi – become central targets of horrid terrorist attacks by extremist organisations, the Punjab province in particular has been witnessing a steady growth of faith-based conservatism within its urban middle and lower middle-classes.
When extremists (calling themselves ‘Punjabi Taliban’) attacked the famous Sufi shrine, Data Darbar, in Lahore in 2010, economist and political analyst, Asad Sayeed, made a rather insightful observation.
He said that had such an attack on the Darbar taken place 20 years ago, thousands of Lahorites would have poured out to protest.
But not anymore. The attack on one of Punjab’s most popular Sufi shrines was simply treated as just another terrorist attack.
Though it is now clear that extremists from within the ‘Wahabi’and Deobandi strands of the faith have been going around blowing up Sufi shrines frequented by the majority (and the more moderate) Barelvi Muslims, the Barelvi leadership has mostly looked elsewhere, putting the blame on the ever-elusive ‘foreign hands.’
Journalist and intellectual Khaled Ahmed once wrote a telling tongue-in-cheek article about the annual gathering of the Dawat-i-Islami in Multan.
The Dawat is the Barelvi equivalent of the Deobandi Tableeghi Jamat. Both outfits are considered to be non-political organisations that are more interested in evangelising their respective versions of Islam and its rituals.
One should also mention that both these strains of Islam accuse each another of being ‘flawed Muslims.’
Ahmed wrote(2) how after Dawat’s huge congregation in Multan, when police found some bullet-riddled bodies of Dawat members, the outfit’s main leadership simply refused to acknowledge the glaring evidence that pointed towards the involvement of an opposing Sunni sect’s organisation in the murders.
Ahmed adds that Dawat leaders began babbling about ‘outside forces (RAW, CIA, Mossad)’ who wanted to create disharmony between Pakistan’s Barelvi majority and the Deobandi and Wahabi sects.
One can understand the above-mentioned episode as an example of the confusion Barelvi spiritual leadership has gone through since the 1980s.
From its inception in the 19th century(3) and until about the mid-1980s, the Barelvi sect was largely apolitical in orientation, non-Jihadist and followers of some of the most relaxed dictates of the Hanafi madhab.
‘Barelvi Islam’ (as it is sometimes called) is purely a South Asian phenomenon(4) that fuses elements of South Asian Sufism with the folk and populist strains of various cultures that exist in the area.
It is also called the ‘folk Islam’ of the region in which a high degree of tolerance exists between various faiths, sects, classes and ethnicities and in which the puritanical aspects of other Islamic sects are eschewed and even rejected.
The Sufi shrine and an intense reverence of the Prophet play a central role in Barelvi Islam. Its populist and moderate make-up helped it become the majority Sunni sect amongst the Muslims of South Asia.
Two of its leading opponents have been the Sunni Deobandi sect (also a product of South Asia) and the Puritanical Saudi-inspired ‘Wahabism.’
Both have accused Barelvis of ‘adopting non-Muslim rituals and practices’ and assorted ‘heresies.’
In spite of being the majority sect amongst Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, ‘Barelvi Islam’ hardly ever had a coherent political expression in shape of a mass-based political party or organisation.
Its spiritual leadership largely remained pro-Jinnah (unlike most Deobandi organisations of undivided India), and various Pakistani political leaders have continued to appeal to the symbolism and lingo associated with various populist aspects of Barelvi-ism.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was the most successful in this respect.
Bhutto was also one of the first leading Pakistani political figures to popularise the act of regularly visiting famous Sufi shrines in Sindh and the Punjab.
Barelvis are in the majority in Sindh and the Punjab(5) , whereas Deobandis are largely centred in KPK and in the Pushtun-dominated areas of Balochistan.