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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

On June 29, an amateur video of PTI chief Imran Khan and his wife, Bushra Maneka, arriving at the shrine of Sufi saint Baba Farid Ganjshakar went viral. But the video did not go viral for their visit. There is nothing out of the ordinary in Pakistan about a politician visiting a Sufi shrine.

In fact, many politicians and even heads of government and state make sure to do so in the presence of the media and onlookers. In South Asia, for hundreds of years, the practice of visiting Sufi shrines has been a popular activity. Khan’s video went viral because of a shot of him prostrating near the adorned grave of Baba Farid Ganjshakar.

Many took to social media to accuse Khan of committing shirk (idolatry) by prostrating in front of a grave. And yet, even though Khan responded by claiming that he was only ‘kissing the floor’, his act was not unique. Many Muslims in Pakistan and India have been doing so for centuries.

The PTI leader’s act of reverence at a Sufi shrine has led to a media ruckus. But until recently, nobody would have batted an eye at it

The scorn that Khan received was mainly due to him being a prominent public figure whose political support is largely sustained by the backing of the urban middle-classes. Many from this class in Pakistan view the practice of visiting Sufi shrines as superstition, even “un-Islamic.” Their censure was an extension of the criticism of the whole idea of visiting Sufi shrines that began to emerge in the region years ago.

The practice was common during Muslim rule in pre-Partition India. Between the 13th and 19th centuries, most monarchs associated with the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rule overtly patronised Sufism, according to M.Q. Zaman’s brilliant study presented in the e-book Islam in Pakistan (Princeton University, 2018). This esoteric strand of Islam, after coming into contact with the diverse social and spiritual ethos of India, evolved into becoming the main populist ‘folk religion’ of the Muslims of South Asia.

However, by the 19th century, some Muslim scholars had begun to criticise the many indigenous rituals that this strand had developed.

This criticism first materialised not in South Asia, but in Arabia where, in the mid-18th century, a theologian, Abd al-Wahab, partnered with a local ruler, Ibn Saud, to rid Arabia of the “heretical religious innovations” that, in their opinion, had entered Islam.

Muin-ud-Din Ahmad, in his 2012 biography of the early 19th century Indian Muslim reformer Haji Shariatullah, wrote that some Indian Muslim ulema returning from Arabia after performing Hajj began to use Wahab’s assertions to develop a narrative. This narrative explained the decline of Muslim rule in India as a consequence of the Muslim departure from “true, pure Islam.” Soon after, ulema based in the Indian city of Deoband also began to question the beliefs related to the populist strand of the faith that had developed in India.

But unlike Wahab, most Indian ulema did not attack Sufism as such. Instead they proclaimed that Sufism was in need of reform and thus purged of its many ‘questionable rituals.’ This attracted a fervent reaction from men such as Ahmad Raza Khan. Raza belonged to the Qadiri order and vehemently defended the many rituals of India’s ‘folk Islam.’ He became the father of South Asia’s ‘Barelvi’ Sunni sect.

The vicious polemics which flew to and fro between the Deoband ulema and followers of Raza Khan were mostly to do with a particular ritual: that of prostrating in front of a saint’s grave. The Deoband ulema as well as early political Islamists, such as Abul Ala Maududi, declared it to be contrary to “true Islamic beliefs.”

But author, journalist and member of the Chishtiya order Khwaja Hasan Nizami, in his 1920 tract Murshid Ko Sajda, wrote that “God himself had set the precedent by commanding the angels to prostrate in front of Adam.” He added that many famous ancient Sufi saints had allowed their followers to bow in front of them. Nizami wrote that criticising the ritual would be like criticising the wisdom of these saints.

Unlike the ulema, the ‘modernist’ Muslim scholars were willing to be more accommodating. According to M.Q. Zaman, their problem was more with ‘living saints,’ many of whom they believed were frauds and profiteers.

Zaman explained that even while trying to promote a more rational and modernist approach towards deen (religion) and dunya (world), modernist reformers such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali, Muhammad Iqbal and Khalifa Abdul Hakim, drew from Sufi imagery to explain the “true, dynamic spirit of Islam.” They understood well its power among the Muslim masses.

They often idealised ancient Sufi poets and figures, such as Hafiz and Rumi. The modernists’ antipathy was thus more towards political Islamists and living pirs. This is best demonstrated by Hakim’s 1953 tract Iqbal and Mullahism and Dr Fazalur Rehman Malik’s 1966 book Islam. Also, regimes of modernists such as Ayub Khan, Z.A. Bhutto and Gen Musharraf used an equal degree of Sufi imagery in their attempt to blunt the ‘Islamists.’

A week before Khan’s video went viral, an English weekly reported that his wife told a foreign journalist that the walls of Khan’s house in Bani Gala “spoke to her.” She also claimed to be in contact with the jinns in the house.

To Khan’s large urban middle-class fan base, this sounded ridiculous. But M.Q. Zaman in his book points out that just decades ago such talk was not always seen as being preposterous.

For example, senior bureaucrat and intellectual (late) Qudratullah Shahab in his autobiography Shahabnama, openly talked about having been visited by revered Islamic luminaries in his dreams and how he was haunted by spirits in a house and then approached by a mysterious entity, called ‘Ninety’, which led him towards Sufism.

In his book, Imdad-al-Fatwa, the famous Islamic scholar (late) Ashraf Thanvi wrote that ‘it is conceivable for a woman to bear a child even if her husband was away because the husband could have been carried to the wife by spirits and jinns.’

According to M.Q. Zaman, even till the early 1960s, such talk was accepted, if not entirely believed. But a combination of modern scientific sensibilities, on the one hand, and the permeation of the more puritanical strands of the faith on the other, has now rendered such talk absurd — even though, the ‘puritanical’ strand replaced it with its own set of fantastical imagery. For example, in a 1987 booklet Jihad Kahani, the unnamed author (a self-proclaimed Salafi) wrote that in the 1980s, Afghan jihadists blew up Soviet tanks by standing unarmed in front of them and simply chanting the Muslim article of faith.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 8th, 2018