Sufism in the Indian subcontinent that started from 12th century and diminished by the early twentieth century cannot be resurrected in its previous form as a dimension of religious paradigm.
Without getting into a fastidious debate, one can summarise that Sufism was born and evolved while the feudal state and organised religion were taking root. It was a counter-ideology to dictates and formalism of the organised religion and a response against repression by the feudal state based on the sweat of the masses. As a matter of fact, as S. Sharma, a renowned historian, elaborated, the feudal state originated with land grants to religious institutions and to people of high priest cast, Brahmans or Pundits, in the subcontinent. It was not different from Europe where the clergy was feudal and part of the state’s ruling institutions. Therefore, the organised religion and repressive feudalism were always hand in gloves.
However, we should not confuse Sufism with classical Punjabi poets, because neither all Sufis were poets nor all poets were Sufis. Therefore, the current reverence for Punjabi poets, some of whom were Sufi, is an appreciation of literature, whereas, Sufism itself is an ideology or philosophy with diverse and sometimes conflicting offshoots.
With Muslim invasions, as explained by famous historian Al Beruni in Al-Hind, Pundits were pushed out of Punjab during Mahmud Ghaznvi’s conquest. A similar pattern was probably repeated (i.e. pushing Pundits southward) for the most part of Northern India. The potential feudal class of Pundits was cleansed and, hence, one does not see any prominent role played by Pundits in Punjab after 12th century like they did in the south.
Feudalism evolved a bit differently during Muslim period, however, the religious land grants to monasteries continued and expanded throughout the Muslim era. The British changed the laws of land-owning, resulting in consolidation of the heirs of monasteries taking feudal roles. That is why we see so many Syed feudals in Punjab and Sindh.
Sufism, idealised as a liberal, progressive, and all-inclusive humanist ideology, was limited to a few orders, while the others were closer to organised religion and allied with the Delhi court. In the earliest Muslim period, the Chishtia order was an anti-establishment (anti-organised religion and feudal state) followed by Qadarias in the later periods. The Suharwardia order, led by Baha-Ud-Din Zikria Multani, was closer to a formalistic religion and for about 800 years, the sect’s leaders have allied with the rulers whether they were Muslim monarchs or British Viceroys. Therefore, when we talk of a progressive Sufi ideology, we should know that it is a discussion of Chishtias, Qadrias and a few others.
The progressive Sufis adhered to some religious practices of Islam like prayer and fasting (most of them never preformed Hajj) but mostly tried to synthesise all religions in the subcontinent for the down-trodden people of lower casts who have been oppressed for thousands of years. They were also addressing millions who were pushed into slavery by Muslim invaders: Lahore and Ghazni had become thriving slave markets where the supply was so abundant that the price of slave and a goat were the same.
Humanist Sufis pushed the following points that one calls them their agenda for the convenience:
1. They attacked the Mullah-monarch and Pundit-Raja alliance in asserting that organised religion is nothing more but a collection of rituals to serve the clergy and control the masses for the protection of feudal state. They preached that God or Bhagwan loves his creatures and no one needs intermediaries (Mullahs or Pundits) to please them. No one should fear the Creator: the Mullah/Pundit scare believers of dreadful hell or nark (hell) or temptations of heaven. And, since no one needs intermediaries for the Creator, the Shaaria or Munno’s rules (for Hindus) of organised religion are irrelevant. Furthermore, if religion is a private affair between humans and the Creator, worldly matters should be left to human-made rules. This is how they, indirectly, preached secularism.
2. Since the Sufis’ interest was to promote people’s cause and unite them in a humanistic ideology, they adopted, rather pioneered the people’s languages. Therefore, it is no wonder that pioneers of Punjabi, Hindi and other North India languages were all Sufi poets from the progressive sects that we have mentioned above. They also synthesised the art (music, painting etc) with the indigenous traditions. Consequently, great singers and artists were produced under their patronage and influence.
However, with the passage of time the progressive thrust of enlightened Sufi orders started waning. When the Chishtia order’s fifth Khalifa, Mahmud Charagh Dehlvi, refused to nominate anyone as his heir, it meant the spirit of this order was coming to a close. However, the same spirit continued in various forms producing greatest poets of Punjabi language like Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah and Khawaja Fareed. However, during the Mughal era and even in Ranjaeet Singh’s empire, Sufi monasteries continued getting land grants.
By the time the British left the sub-continent most of the proponents of Sufism had become Sajjada Nasheen feudal. Just count the number of legislators in the National assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies and you may be surprised that the Syeds may outnumber all other casts or will be among the top. These Syeds are all descendents of Sufis but presently take their due share in the corruptions and other crimes. Overall, the so-called traditional Sufi sects are ritualistic just like Mullahs. They are all incorporated in Sunni Tahreek and their actions are hardly different from Salafis.
Sufism being a product of a multi-religious society cannot be resurrected in Pakistan where Islam is a monolith, casting shadows over the small patches of minority religions. During the middle and early modern era religion was the only ideology: Even an ideological opposition was possible through a counter-religious ideology such as Sufism. This was the limit of human thought process at a certain point in time. However, now the goals of progressive Sufis, equity, art, culture or promotion of people’s languages can be achieved through other ideologies. Let me give you a hint with this episode.
Pathany Khan, not popular yet, used to visit a progressive group in the Punjab University, Lahore, who promoted him and helped him to get on TV and other platforms. Someone asked him, being a strong devotee singer of Sufis, why does he stay with these non-religious people and he replied “Sain eeh bare Allah wale lok hun!” (Sir, these are really men of God!).
Dr. Manzur Ejaz is a poet, author, a political commentator and a cultural activist. He is a Doctor of Economics and currently lives in Washington DC.