The many journeys of Sufism

Niharika Pandit | Updated on June 12, 2020 Published on June 12, 2020

New masters: Paracha chronicles how Pakistan’s military leaders have appropriated Sufism for their ideological devices   -  SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

A new book by journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha charts the historical and political journeys of Sufism in Pakistan

Pakistani journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s latest book Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan begins with an interesting vignette of a journal article co-written by two academics, one Pakistani and the other Chinese, who hope to rebrand Pakistan as a Sufi country, to supplant its existing image of a nation ravaged by religious extremism. Sufism, these academics argue, offers a germane middle ground between religious extremism and Western secularism. “The paper was searching for a middle-ground... by proposing a contemporary reworking of one of Islam’s most ‘moderate’ and esoteric strands: Sufism.” But for Paracha, such an argument, like much of the popular thinking on Sufism in Pakistan, glosses over its contested history. It is these contestations within Sufism — its historical evolution, sociopolitical use by State leadership and cultural production in Pakistan — that animate Soul Rivals.

Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan; Nadeem Farooq Paracha; Westland; Non-fiction; ₹499


Like his previous books that variously trace the histories of Pakistan by exploring Islamic modernism or the role of iconoclasts in shaping nationalism, in Soul Rivals, Paracha carefully traces the historical origins of Sufism in the Indian subcontinent. It was with the growing influence of the Islamic empire outside of Arabia that Sufism is thought to have begun to gain foothold as an eclectic and mystic practice to attract people of other faiths. Had Sufism not emerged then, it would have led many, including Muslims who held mystical beliefs, to turn to other religions, argues Paracha while also foregrounding Sufism’s centrality in moulding the sociopolitical landscape of Pakistan.

This, in fact, makes Soul Rivals not simply about the history of Sufism but also how Sufism can offer an entry point to chronicle the entwined postcolonial politics and cultures of Pakistan. This is seen in the role played by Sufism and Sufi pirs (saints) in anti-colonial mobilisation and subsequent creation of Pakistan. For instance, with the decline of Islam as an imperial force, many men of Sufi orders fought the British East India Company in the 18th and 19th centuries. Later, Paracha notes how the All India Muslim League in Sindh and Punjab asked Barelvi pirs for their support for Pakistan.

Soul Rivalstraces Sufism’s historical evolution in Pakistan through the State, its military history and the pop culture of the country. The first two sections reflect on the many ideological battles between Islamic revivalists, modernists and socialist intelligentsia in Pakistan, and how these political debates fed into the changing nature of Sufism. Amid rapidly evolvingpolitics in and around Pakistan, Sufism largely espoused by Barelvism in South Asia shed ‘un-Islamic’ Hindu practices and adopted ideas of Islam advocated by the orthodox ulema.

What is fascinating is how Sufism has been mobilised by Pakistani leaders across the ideological spectrum — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Muhammad Ayub Khan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, among others. While military dictators deployed Sufism for their political ends, with Zia reimagining Sufism as congruent with religious orthodoxy, Bhutto’s Sufism had a tinge of Islamic socialism in it. For instance, Paracha notes how the Musharraf government deployed State-sponsored Sufism to portray his regime as ‘modernist’. These variants of Sufism nonetheless remained transient. Paracha could have examined this impermanence as a way of further reflecting on the book’s central narrative of Sufism’s contested nature and its effects on contemporary politics. However, such links remain uncharted.

In contrast, the final section on pop Sufism is gripping as it delves into the cultural production of Sufism in Pakistan. Pop Sufism gained momentum during the Ayub regime when qawwali, among other cultural motifs, were broadcast on radio, television and films to bring Pakistani youth closer to Islamic modernism. Such cultural production was not simply about qawwalis at dargahs, whirling dervishes or Sufi dancers, as Bollywood would have us believe, but rather the infusion of Sufism into popular culture was an assemblage of varied ideas of modernity, religious enlightenment, bourgeoisie sensibilities and neoliberal politics — with the TV music show Coke Studio Pakistan exemplifying this. Paracha writes, “This can be seen in the immense popularity of the TV show Coke Studio, which reworks known folk songs and qawwalis with the help of the most modern musical instruments and recording technologies and is enthusiastically funded by a cola giant.” But, for many, such as playwright Ashfaque Ahmed, popular culture became a means to unravel modern bourgeois hypocrisy, reflecting the deeply contested nature of Sufism within Pakistan.

The three sections of Soul Rivals distinctly establish the various social, political and cultural contestations that inhere in Sufism in Pakistan. However, the book does not explore the links among them, the push and the pull, the compounding or nullifying effects of these varying realities. Little is known of the role Sufism plays in shaping present-day Pakistan. Indeed, those in power — the clerics, political leaders, cultural gatekeepers — continue to mobilise Sufism for distinct political gains, but how does this travel in everyday politics? Nevertheless, Soul Rivals complicates the popular and often fetishised imagery of Sufism with a careful focus on its contested histories and politics that continue to shape Pakistan.

Niharika Pandit writes on gender, military occupations, conflict and representation.

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Published on June 12, 2020
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