Hashish, Sufism and modernity

Published June 14, 2018

In the neighbourhood of Ichhra in Lahore, hundreds of people gather every Thursday night at the shrine of Shah Jamal, a Sufi of the Suhrawardi and Qadiriyya orders (silsila).

Under the sacred peepal trees, devotees sit in a circle to witness and experience the sacred dance: dhamal.

Repetitive rhythmic beats of dhols and correspondingly frenzied barefoot whirling of the devotees create a trance-inducing effect on the audience.

Participants reverently witness the performance, while collectively partaking in hashish-smoking — a derivative of cannabis.

Devotees indulge in hashish intoxication as a communal activity complementing the sacred ritual of dhamal.

Sufi shrine culture in Pakistan is multi-faceted and diverse; while hashish does not feature uniformly across cultures of traditional shrines, hashish-smoking is a visible, communal, and conspicuous activity associated with Qalandari shrines in Pakistan.

Paradoxically, it is also one of the least studied phenomena as meaningful in terms of Islam; despite its prominence in Islamic settings, it is frequently dismissed as merely illegal and representative of the degeneration of Islamic ideals.

Sufis dance outside the Data Darbar during the three-day annual Urs of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh in 2016.─AFP/File
Sufis dance outside the Data Darbar during the three-day annual Urs of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh in 2016.─AFP/File

In the popular imagination, the use of hashish in Islamic settings, and as an Islamic activity, is explained primarily within two discursive frameworks; it is explored through its legal status in Islam or through the category of “folk” or “popular” Islam.

Deeming hashish to be one form of intoxicant, Islamic legal prohibition of intoxicants is extended to censure the use of hashish.

The illegality of the activity serves as the premise for the “un-Islamic” and irreligious characterisation of hashish-smoking.

When explained in non-legal terms, hashish is described as an aspect of “popular” Islam, or particularly “popular” Sufism, representing the beliefs and practices of non-literate masses belonging to the “lower” social strata.

Such phenomenon, by definition, is assumed as self-evidently distinct from proper and official Sufism.

It rests on a trickle-down movement of beliefs and practices, where the activities of “elite” are assumed to be “pure,” which undergo a process of distortion, degeneration, and vulgarisation as they are popularised and lived by the masses.

Under both rubrics, hashish is characterised as intrinsically “non-religious” and devoid of Islamic normativity.

Because such an understanding of hashish is secular, the affiliation of hashish with Islamic thought and settings is rendered meaningless.

It is helpful to note here the modern constitution of the analytical categories of religious and secular, which may not always be applicable to phenomena meaningful in terms of Islam.

Disruptions in the processual constitution of Islam through colonialism and modernism in the 19th and 20th centuries are reflected in the loss of meanings of hashish, poverty, Qalandariyya, and asceticism in the conceptualisation of modern Islam.

Legality of hashish

The history of Islamic legal thought surrounding the status of hashish does not display uniformity in legal opinions.

Franz Rosenthal traces the development of Islamic legal thought on hashish-smoking in his book, The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society.

He notes that while jurists traditionally equate intoxication with inebriation, they reflect far greater diversity of opinions in qualifying hashish as an intoxicant, and thereby, legally impermissible.

Since every intoxicant was deemed forbidden in Islamic law, categorising hashish as an intoxicant was the logically necessary premise in framing its use as prohibited in Muslim societies.

However, it has proven rather difficult to consistently equate the effects of alcohol and hashish.

It has been noted that alcohol largely has the same effect on everyone; its consumers get exhilarated and joyous, numb from the painful sensations and prone to violence.

Read: Sehwan: The undisputed throne of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar

—Farooq Soomro
—Farooq Soomro

Hashish affects its users according to each’s temper and induces trance-like states of silence, calmness, and acuteness. It turns the concerns of its users inward and is conducive to contemplation and meditation.

Considering the different natures and effects of wine and hashish, Islamic jurists have offered legal opinions ranging from strong negative evaluation to its legal sanction.

A highly respected Hanafi judge, Jamal-ad-din al-Malati (d. 1400) issued a fatwa permitting the use of hashish.

However, such opinions remained in the minority, while its legal status was discussed largely in terms of its intoxicating or corruptive effects.

Hashish and ascetic practices

Legal framework alone, therefore, does not get us very far in terms of understanding the supra-legal Islamic value of hashish.

The mystical paths (tariqa) of Sufism, at the basic level, require strict adherence to the Sharia before journeying inwardly to the ascending stages of spiritual perfection and proximity to God.

As anthropologist Jurgen Frembgen points out, well-established mystical paths are known as tariqat-i shariat, implying the close relationship between observance of law and institutional Sufism.

There is, however, a not so small minority of mystics in Pakistan which does not accept this premise, and are distinct, in thought, practice, and identity, from institutional Sufism.

Known by different names, such as qalandar, malang, faqir or malamati, the mystical path chosen by such mystics lie outside the Islamic law (bi-shar), as opposed to “mainstream” ba-shar Sufis (observant of law).

Underlying such an attitude of religiosity is the devaluation of the external world, where social life and norms are considered to be impediments to salvation.

Read next: Old Sufis, new challenges

The grave of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.—Farooq Soomro
The grave of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.—Farooq Soomro

Qalandars live life as ascetics by rejecting social responsibilities, such as gainful employment, family life, and social association.

Ahmet Karamustafa, in his book God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Middle Period 1200-1550, describes renunciation of the world as a “pious religious attitude that foregrounded the effort of the individual Muslim to establish rapport with God.”

Based on the concept of tawwakul (trust and reliance on God alone), qalandars live out the doctrine of reliance on God in its extreme form, by completely rejecting the world in favour of exclusive orientation towards God.

Abhorring property ownership and choosing voluntary poverty as a mode of piety, qalandars offer a “sobering critique of society’s failure to reach God.”

Society inevitably draws and ties the devotee to the affairs of this world to the detriment of complete faith and trust in God.

Qalandar, therefore, strives to achieve independence from the world by rejecting every form of social association and Islamic institutions, in effect becoming “dead” to society, interpreting radically the Prophetic tradition, “Die before you die.”

Accordingly, some mystics follow the practice of uttering “four takbirs” — a reference to the funeral prayers, and live in cemeteries and shrines.

Having rejected the social values and formalism of the external world, qalandars disassociate themselves with the institutionalised forms of Islam, primarily Sharia.

Since law governs external behaviour, Qalandars view inherent in it the danger of riya (self-conceit).

Public adherence to legal and social norms can be a danger to a truly spiritual life, where the performance of public piety may be directed towards audiences other than God.

Such performative piety can act as an obstacle to spiritual purification. Qalandars choose to flaunt and deliberately violate Sharia to attract public blame and censure.

Blame (malama) has a great effect in “making love sincere,” as noted by the Sufi saint Ali Hujwiri (d. 1072-77) — better known as Data Gunj Bakhsh.

As a pietistic attitude, it requires “covering up of one’s laudable deeds and erecting a façade of blameworthy behaviour,” notes J. T. P. de Bruijn.

It allows the mystic to seek the path in a more focused way, by becoming indifferent to public opinion, both positive and negative.

Now read: How shrines helped indigenise Islam and Christianity in South Asia

Followers light incense and candles at shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh during the three-day annual Urs  in 2016.─AFP/File
Followers light incense and candles at shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh during the three-day annual Urs in 2016.─AFP/File

Malamati piety inevitably leads to behaviour censured by the norms and prescriptions of the legal discourse. Acting against legal norms serves a deeply Islamic purpose for qalandars.

Qalandars openly display disregard for prescribed ritual worship, violate public norms of decency by adopting minimal clothing or wearing black woolen cloaks (signifying social withdrawal), and use hashish religiously.

As an active rejection of established social customs and norms, qalandars seek the effacement of the individual or self, which forms the constitutive unit of modern society.

Mahmud Shabistari (d. 1337), one of the most celebrated Sufi poets, writes:

To be a haunter of taverns is to be freed from self,
Self-regard is paganism, even if it be righteousness.

Contravention of legal norms, in such a context, acquires positive meaning while retaining its disrespectability.

It reinforces the separation between society with its worldly concerns and Qalandari mysticism with its Malamati piety.

Historian Nile Green observes that hashish “was lent religious value as evidence for renouncing the world and as an instrument for reaching the other world.” It was “attributed with moral value and epistemological meaning.”

Hashish turned the seeker away from the lower passions related to this world, and elevated his concerns to matters of spiritual importance.

It purified the seeker’s devotion, by turning away from this world to prepare for the inner flight to the Divine.

A verse by a medieval poet, Al-Is’irdi (d. 1222-1258), on the spiritual meaning of hashish puts it as:

It is the secret. In it, the spirit ascends to the highest
Spots on a heavenly ascent (mira’j) of disembodied understanding

Modernity and transformation of hashish

In Pakistan, Qalandariyya traces its roots to the 13th century saint, Sayyid Uthman Marwandi (d. 1274), popularly revered as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

Qalandars, faqirs and malangs, as “holy men,” operated in relative autonomy from the norms of social institutions.

Such radical embodiment of asceticism and renunciation came increasingly under attack with the advent of modernity through European colonialism.

Nile Green notes that through colonial laws, moral and scientific discourses, modernity displaced the foundations of Qalandariyya as constitutive and representative of Islamic values.

The capitalist ethos of the colonialists could not accommodate the values of asceticism, and in turn, sought to de-emphasise Islamic valourisation and understanding of “voluntary poverty” and homelessness.

Next: Why ‘Sufism’ is not what it is made out to be

Reducing it to its material aspect, poverty was characterised, not as symbolic of spiritual wealth, but as evidence of the downfall of Muslim societies.

Victorian morality denigrated hashish as “profane,” opposed to “religion.” It conveniently conflated Islam with colonial conception of religion.

Colonial critics criticised faqirs’ drug use, and explained the behaviour as “not the result of devotion to and absorption in God, but instead as the voluntary degradation of the work-shy addict.”

Scientific discourse was instrumental in associating drug use with criminality and insanity, through efforts such as the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission of 1893-1894.

Colonial construction and representation of qalandars and faqirs as symptomatic of the decay of Muslim society was, in turn, fundamental in justifying the moral authority of the colonial order.

Muslim reformers of the 19th and 20th centuries — troubled by the eclipse of Muslim rule in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere — embraced colonial criticism against Muslims practicing corrupted and denigrated forms of Islam.

The decay of Muslim political rule was explained through the anti-work ethic, antinomian practices, and other-worldly piety of qalandars and faqirs.

Seeking to re-form Islam to bring it in harmony with the modernist values of progress, reason, and law, Muslim reformers marginalised those modes of religiosity and piety which protested against such a worldview.

—Haseeb Amjad
—Haseeb Amjad

In terms of Qalandari mysticism, hashish was meaningful and instrumental in dissolving the self (fa’na) through detachment and antagonism towards the “World of Exile” (i.e. material world).

It represents a radical interpretation of Islamic themes such as salvation, poverty, fa’na and tawwakul.

Orientalist and reformist categorisation of hashish as profane demarcated it from religion proper, rendering it meaningless in the constitution of modern Islam.

For Muslims of Pakistan, the transition from the colonial order to the post-colonial was marked by the insistence upon an Islamic identity of state. Islam was defined through the state as primarily law.

Katherine Ewing notes that the relationship between traditional Sufi shrines and saints attached to them, and the state of Pakistan has been geared towards reforming the image of the Sufi saints as “originally” ulema, reflecting the stress on conformity with Sharia.

Up next: Sufi saints and their descendants: part of the solution?

Hashish as a ritual, as performed in the Sufi shrines associated with the Qalandari path of Islamic mysticism, represents “pockets and currents of resistance” to the modern conceptualisation of Islam, with its unprecedented privileging of legal and prescriptive discourses as primarily and exclusively definitive of Islamic values and meaning.

Liberal reframing of cannabis against its legal prohibition in terms of its medicinal and economic benefits, as recently echoed by Shashi Tharoor, merely reinforces the secularisation of hashish, despite noting the traditional use of cannabis in Hindu rituals.

In the context of such loss of meaning of bi-shar mysticism in modern Islam, Pakistani academic Hasan Ali Khan notes that the spiritual centre of the Qalandariyya, Sehwan in Sindh, represents its “last remaining bastion in this world.”

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