History of Sufism in Sindh discussed

Published September 25, 2013
Prof Dr Michel Boivin speaks at the Mohatta Palace Museum. - Photo by White Star
Prof Dr Michel Boivin speaks at the Mohatta Palace Museum. - Photo by White Star

KARACHI: An enlightening lecture on ‘Sufism in Sindh’ was delivered by eminent scholar Prof Dr Michel Boivin at the Mohatta Palace Museum on Tuesday evening.

The talk was organised by the Endowment Fund Trust and the Mohatta Palace Museum.

Dr Boivin stated at the outset that he was a historian by training. His talk was divided into three parts: (1) Sufism in Sindh (2) influence of colonial British rule on Sufism in Sindh (3) the culture of Sufism. He commenced his lecture by asking the question ‘what is Sufism’ and commented there could be different answers to it.

Dr Boivin said Sufism in Sindh was similar to Sufism in other parts of the Muslim world. There were signs, discovered through inscriptions and figures, that the first Sufi in Sindh was Haji Turab (9th century). Up to the 13th century Sufism was mainly ascetic in nature. Sufis didn’t belong to any schools of tareeqat. Not before the 13th century that the four branches of tareeqat — Suharwardia, Naqshbandia, Chishtia and Qadria — were found. In India the first important school that was formed was the Suharwardia in south Punjab (13th century). It was an already established school in Baghdad, Iraq. From Iraq they started sending Sufis to India, the first one of which was Hazrat Bahauddin Zakrya who sent other people to Sindh to create more Sufis. Zakrya could be found in different narratives. He played a fundamental role in spreading the Sufi message in the Indus Valley. The Suharwardias were close to the Tughlaq dynasty of the Delhi sultanate.

Dr Boivin said that in the 16th century two more forms of tareeqat — Qadria and Naqshbandia — were introduced in Sindh. The former had its roots in Sheikh Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jilani while the latter came from Central Asia. Here he strove to describe Sufism as ‘a mystic path in Islam where the goal is to become closer to God and the way to do that is meditation’. In South Asia, however, mediation was also practised in different ways. The Naqshbandia did it silently whereas others performed it loudly in the shape of zikr. The most important tareeqat in India was the Chishtia developed in Delhi in the 14th and 15th centuries. It attached importance to music, the samaa, which was equivalent to zikr. But in the beginning of Sufism, it became controversial as some argued music was not allowed while others thought otherwise.

Dr Boivin said the British colonized India in the 18th century. He mentioned the name of a British Orientalist William Jones who was inspired by Sufism in Persia, especially by the poetry of Hafiz. The British didn’t care much about Indian Sufism. When the British came to Sindh in 1843, one of their commissioners in Sindh, Bartle Frere, proved instrumental in many fields. He ordered his officers to learn and develop vernacular language, and learn Sindhi. But Sindhi had a number of dialects and 12 scripts, so to unify a standard dialect was difficult. It was during that time that books had also begun to get published. In the 1850s another prominent Englishman Richard Burton wrote a book in which he mentioned that every Sindhi could quote a verse from Shah Latif’s poetry. Therefore the job of translating Shah Jo Risalo was also undertaken. In the 1860s two versions of Shah Jo Risalo were published in Bombay and Karachi.

Dr Boivin said in the 19th century there was a burst of new elite in Sindhi society who were well-versed in Sindhi and other disciplines such as science and English. They took interest in Sufism and started writing about it. But they were more of ‘hagio-biographers’ of Sufi saints. In the 1880s books devoted to Sufi figures were published in which Sufis like Mansoor Hallaj were named (as Sachal Sarmast often quoted Hallaj). In the beginning of the 20th century Fateh Mohammad Sehwani came out with the first book on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The word tazkira could be read in its first edition but not in its subsequent editions. There’s a chapter in the book devoted to dance, although the word dhamaal was not used in it.

Ending his lecture Dr Boivin reverted to the question he had raised at the start as to what Sufism was. He then said it had different interpretation and in Sindh’s Sufism importance was given to poetry.

Earlier, EFT’s Abdul Hamid Akhund introduced Dr Boivin to the audience. He said the EFT would soon release a set of CDs on Shah Jo Raag: 32 surs sung by Abida Parveen. He thanked Jehangir Siddiqi for helping the EFT in its efforts and mentioned that if anyone approached the EFT for the purpose of restoring Frere Hall, the trust would extend its help and bear the expenses.

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