Published May 17, 2020
Qawwali singer Aziz Mian with Ijazul Haq, son of Gen Ziaul Haq, sometime in the 1980s. Paracha writes in his book that “Young, aspiring qawwals such as Aziz Mian often bounced between performing Punjabi qawwalis at the popular shrine of sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore, and at private gatherings hosted by military officers, businessmen, bureaucrats and industrialists, where he performed Urdu qawwalis | Photo courtesy Vintage Pakistan
Qawwali singer Aziz Mian with Ijazul Haq, son of Gen Ziaul Haq, sometime in the 1980s. Paracha writes in his book that “Young, aspiring qawwals such as Aziz Mian often bounced between performing Punjabi qawwalis at the popular shrine of sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore, and at private gatherings hosted by military officers, businessmen, bureaucrats and industrialists, where he performed Urdu qawwalis | Photo courtesy Vintage Pakistan

In his book Sawalaat-o-Khayalaat [Questions and Thoughts], the late Professor Karrar Hussain writes that “a vibrant culture cannot be created by conscious efforts, instead its unconscious part is its most important constituent.” In his new book, Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan, Nadeem Farooq Paracha suggests that all efforts by the governments in Pakistan to present Sufism as a counterweight to political, social and religious turmoil — without considering its sophisticated systems developed in a variety of social and cultural milieus — have been unsuccessful. The book discusses the political role of Sufism, used as a means to influence the masses since the time of the Mughal emperors and, later, British imperial power through the 19th century, to present-day Pakistan.

Paracha creates context in the opening chapter by arguing that, whereas vague and biased histories have long cloaked the mystical tradition of Sufism, its inherent complexities left it open to discrete interpretations that have led to confused Sufi discourse. As a result, we have a pacifist, apolitical and inward-looking mystic on the one hand and, on the other, a radical, politicised and outward-looking version of Sufism.

Exploring the origins and evolution of Sufism, the book highlights the roles of economic disparity created by the rapid expansion of the Umayyad empire, and its subsequent conflict with the Abbasids, in supporting Sufism as a doctrine to pacify the masses and address their disorientation. But such a cursory glance at its origins and evolution, along with expressions such as “many historians”, “most European historians” and “many saints” leaves the reader unsatisfied.

The book then delves into exploring the process of transformation Sufism went through during and after the fall of the Mughal empire, with all its social, economic and political underpinnings. According to Paracha, the ulema attributed the decline of Islamic rule to “the flawed manner in which Muslim rulers and their Muslim subjects had practiced Islam.” The Sufi orders responded by revising their practices and positioning themselves closer to orthodoxy and exclusivism. Ironically, the Sufism that emerged as an inward-looking, contemplative reflection while the Islamic empire was expanding, turned into an outward-looking reactionary force with the decline of the Mughal empire in the Subcontinent. Hardly had the Islamic revivalists been appeased by Sufism’s reorientation to Sharia compliance when Muslim modernist Sir Syed Ahmed Khan entered the fray, lambasting the ulema for being rigid and rhetorical and Sufism for being superstitious and irrational.

The Khilafat Movement, according to Paracha, offered the Deobandi ulema and the Barelvi sect the opportunity to directly participate in politics, with the Deobandi ulema supporting the Khilafat Movement alongside the Indian National Congress, following Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as its leader. About Gandhi’s role, the late sociologist Hamza Alavi writes in his book Takhleeq-i-Pakistan [The Creation of Pakistan] that “Gandhi became the saint (Pir) of the Khilafat Movement.” Meanwhile, the Barelvis sided with the All India Muslim League, which kept its distance from pan-Islamism.

Nadeem F. Paracha attempts to trace the evolution of Sufism in Pakistan and how its appeal has often been used by various rulers for their own political ends

The chapter further traces how the Barelvi sect formed the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, which partly morphed into the Sunni Tehreek but could not turn itself into a “successful electoral outfit” until it metamorphosed into the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). It sheds light on how, unexpectedly, the TLP managed to build a significant vote bank in the elections of 2018. The TLP managed to reclaim the vote bank in Karachi which the JUP had enjoyed before the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) had come into being, with all its Barelvi sub-sects behind it and the MQM being cornered.

In fact, it was not only sharia-compliance that Islamic revivalists demanded of the Sufi orders, which the book focuses on as the sole factor that caused the Sufi orders to react by adopting orthodox ways of practising religion. The ulema also sought to, as K.K. Aziz writes in his book Religion, Land and Politics in Pakistan: A Study of Piri-Muridi, “supplant the pir with their own person, with the argument that every Muslim should, instead of following the pir’s orders, adopt an aalim [scholar] as his definitive and final guide in religious law.”

In the section ‘State’, the author does not go beyond Gen Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Gen Ziaul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf and leaves out how Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif viewed the mystical tradition. With the exception of Z.A. Bhutto, the section discusses the military heads of state reinventing the ‘soul of Sufism’ that suited their world of politics. Ayub’s nationalisation of shrines and his view of the sufi as a social reformer and not as a cultist, Zia’s idea of the sufi as a Sharia-abiding orthodox aalim and, finally, Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” that interpreted the sufi as a peaceful, tolerant and passive figure, all reflected the rulers’ political requirements at the time.

About all these attempts Paracha concludes, “The state’s idea to model Sufism in its own image seems to have exhausted itself.” However, the discussion falls short of explaining the reasons behind the successive failures of the state to get a hold of Sufism for gaining popularity among the masses to avoid crises which led, eventually, to the downfall of those at their heads.

Soul Rivals ends with looking at the use of culture to promote Sufism, from the music enshrined in the history of Sufism, such as qawwali, to state-owned morality plays written by Ashfaq Ahmed and the broadcasting of folk music on the national network PTV. Although mass media was used to popularise Sufism in various forms, its political branding could not last long in the hearts of people. The only instance of a pinch of satirical humour in the book is found in the section ‘Pop’, when the author — while describing a scene from Sangram, an Urdu film released during the Zia era — writes, “the holy man succeeds in converting Sangram to Islam and renames him Mohammad Ali — a scene marked by a flash of lightning across the night sky on a perfectly sunny day.”

Soul Rivals tells the tale of how populist Sufism has been used to address the existential crises of the distressed and provide peace to the perplexed, turning into an instrument in the hands of state and political actors to gain leverage over their adversaries. Cutting across the petit bourgeoisie, the urban middle-class and elite versions of Sufism, the book seems to be struggling to explain in detail the phenomena around the esoteric tradition. The journey that started from solitude and self-catharsis, aimed at communion with the Divine, did not fare well under the patronage of the state that made conscious efforts to use Sufism for political interests.

The reviewer teaches English literature and linguistics at Greenwich University

Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan
By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Vanguard, Karachi
ISBN: 9789694026220

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 17th, 2020


Biden’s world
Updated 27 Jan 2021

Biden’s world

Biden’s America is not going to be one that once again throws open visas so that the world’s brightest can easily immigrate.
The PDM’s predicament
Updated 27 Jan 2021

The PDM’s predicament

The interests and stakes of the parties in the alliance are too diverse for them to maintain unity of action for a longer period.


Updated 27 Jan 2021

Pemra’s powers

The right to freedom of expression has been curtailed to such an extent that it invites comparisons with martial law times.
27 Jan 2021

Increasing debt

THE numbers released by the State Bank regarding the government’s domestic debt stock and servicing at the end of...
27 Jan 2021

Women in conflict

“WHEN the guns fall silent, it does not mean the suffering of women and girls stops. The suffering and abuse that...
Pakistan-US ties
Updated 26 Jan 2021

Pakistan-US ties

The US remains the world’s most powerful country, one Pakistan cannot afford to ignore.
26 Jan 2021

NAB not impartial

NAB CHAIRMAN retired justice Javed Iqbal has claimed that his organisation is an unbiased anti white-collar-crime...
26 Jan 2021

Pakistan-South Africa series

IN what is seen as a rare instance, Pakistan start as the underdogs on their home turf when they take on South ...