Sufi Islam in South Asia

Posted on January 22, 2009
Filed Under >Fawad, Religion, Society
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Every year, The Economist magazine prints a delightful ‘special holiday double issue” around Christmas. It is filled with unfailingly interesting essays on an amazingly wide array of subjects. This year’s piece de resistance is the essay on South Asian Sufi Islam titled “Of Saints and Sinners”.

The essay is a wonderfully reported depiction of popular Islam as practiced by the millions of devotees of Sufi saints whose tombs and shrines are dotted all across India and Pakistan. These adherents range from the more serious-minded who seek self knowledge as a path to knowing God through contemplation, meditation and Quranic recitations to the far more numerous who flock to these shrines to beseech the saints to answer their prayers, leave offerings of gratitude and to celebrate the popular festivals centered around the urs (death anniversary) of their respective saint. An urs is a festive celebration because the word literally means wedding night to signify the saint’s union with God after death.

The Economist essay is focused in large part on the celebration of the urs of the sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif in Sindh, Pakistan where almost a million people congregate for this 3-day event. (2008 was the 734th anniversary of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s death.) The descriptions of the throngs of devotees, their diversity and tolerance, the ubiquitous scenes of dancing and celebration with non-stop performances of beautiful music and sufi poetry are joyous and heart-warming.

The Economist does not acknowledge it but it would be unfair not to give credit here to Declan Walsh of “The Guardian” who first reported in the Western press on this great gathering in Sehwan Sharif last year and where I first learnt of this incredible festival in rich detail. His two pieces in 2007 called “Devotees go for a whirl at the country’s biggest party” and “The greatest party on earth?” are well worth reading. In particular there is a fantastic audio slideshow that I highly recommend. It has several wonderful photographs from the festival and a very traditional qawwali performance at the shrine in the background.

We cannot move on without sampling some music deeply associated with Sehwan and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The signature performance honoring Qalandar (also affectionately known as Jhuley Lal because devotees believe that he fulfils the fertility wishes of childless mothers) is “Lal Meri Pat Rakhio Bhala Jhule Lalan”. Every major Sufi musician or Qawwal performs this regularly and it is not unusual to end the program with this as a finale as it tends to bring the house down. Here are distinctly different versions of this piece from two of the greatest sufi singers of the last half century. Here is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who is in superb form here:

and here is the inimitable Abida Parveen:

There has been a relentless onslaught in Pakistan against this popular and syncretic form of religion for the last 30 years. Since the beginning of the Russo-Afghan war in 1979, the Pakistani military state, Saudi Wahhabi zeal fueled with petrodollars and American cold war myopia all conspired to promote an intolerant and jihadi Islam that has done tremendous damage to the fabric of mostly tolerant South Asian Islam practiced in much of Punjab and Sindh for centuries. Mercifully, it has still survived in very large pockets because it has roots in the people. Yes, it is superstitious but it is also remarkably generous, tolerant and joyful.

Lahore, where I grew up, is a city full of shrines and mausoleums of saints with each of these hundreds of sites tended to by dedicated keepers and visited in large numbers by devotees, particularly for the annual urs celebration. Each saint has their own legend and mythology and locals keep these traditions alive primarily through oral story-telling. Even when you move beyond the large and well known destinations, like the tomb (‘mazar’) of Data Ganj Baksh Ali Hajveri (the 11th century sufi who is virtually the patron saint of Lahore) or that of Hazrat Mian Mir (the 16th century saint deeply venerated by Jahangir and Shahjehan and whose tomb was constructed by Shahjehan’s son, the poet-prince Dara Shikoh), there is an endless stream of people who visit lesser known but no less fascinating shrines of saints whose stories read like something out of Arabian nights.

There is the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain (which is actually two separate people, the Hindu boy Madho and the saint Lal Hussain, who legend has it were inseparable), the site of the annual Mela ChiraghaN (Festival of Lamps) and a place revered by both Hindus and Muslims. There is the remarkable 16th century mazar of the child saint Ghoray Shah (who died when he was 5) and who, it is believed, loved toy horses so a gift of a toy horse from his followers would result in their prayers being answered. This mazar is crowded with people and you can see the many toy horses that devotees continue to bring for Ghoray Shah. There is also Bibi Pak Daman (Chaste Lady), one of the most popular shrines in the city (not far from Queen Mary’s College) which is reputed to be the sepulchre of Ruqqaiya or Bibi Haj and her five virgin sisters. Again, according to local legend Bibi Haj was from Hazrat Ali’s family and came to the sub-continent in the early 8th century several years after the battle of Karbala. However, the earth opened up and buried her alive after she had been asked to appear in front of the local ruler which the chaste lady did not wish to do. (Historians date this grave instead to the 12th century and surmise that the daughters buried here were those of Syed Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi). And hundreds of these Shehrzad-like stories go on and on in a muddled but tolerant, rich and captivating mix of religion and superstition.

Photo Credits: Title photo is courtesy of Raja Islam

Credits: Information about Lahore’s shrines are sourced from Yasmeen Lari’s excellent Heritage Guidebook on Lahore.

Originally published at Fawad’s blog Moments of Tranquility.

29 responses to “Sufi Islam in South Asia”

  1. Eidee Man says:

    “It is a few lower class or some very sufi-background families who take active interest in it otherwise in Pakistan it is treated as entertainment nothing more than that.”

    Absolutely disagree with you on that; the effect of the Sufi is not just limited to music and other cultural activities. First and foremost, it is the basic source of Islamic ideology within Pakistan, especially in Sindh and Punjab.

    Unfortunately, most Pakistanis believe that the people in the subcontinent who accepted Islam did so mainly due to the invasions by Arab conquerors; this is not true at all. The real conversions happened due to these sufi travelers who traversed what is now Pakistan.

    I’m not sure about other provinces, but within Sindh (especially interior Sindh) there is absolutely no ambiguity in the fact that their religion derives from Sufi Islam. Perhaps that is the reason why it seems the least extremism-prone province.

  2. Gorki says:

    First of all Thank you, Fawad for the article.

    I read your article and the posted comments with a rising sense of wonderment, understanding and a little disbelief.

    For example the comments from Ramla Akhtar were extremely thoughtful and informative and the web sites her links directed me to had a truly transformational effect.
    Clicking on those links I felt that for a moment a magical carpet flew me into the realm of metaphysics and philosophy rarely associated with what one associates with the Islam that one reads in the mainstream press, especially in the United States.

    For example the Jihad of Sufism that Akhtar reports in her web site is light years apart from the caricature of Jehad that say the Taliban and Al Qaeda is waging in the name of all Muslims in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

    This then brings me to a question;

    @ Ramla Akhtar, Pakistani, PMA, Zecchetti and others posting here:

    Which Islam is the real Islam? The Islam of Rumi and Bulleh Shah or the one in whose name Osama bin Laden declared the war on the west?
    I have read post after post in the columns of the ATP recently declaring that the Taliban version is not Islam.
    But what about the Wahhabi version of Islam?
    Is what passes for Islam in Saudi Arabia and Sudan the real Islam?

    When a lay, non-Muslim person like me reads about Islam one is stuck by a common theme of compassion and justice reiterated in it over and over again yet it is unclear whether this compassion extends to non Muslims as well?

    More importantly which version of Islam do most educated and contemporary Muslims identify with?

    What version do most modern day Pakistanis believe?
    Do the faithful believe that it is their holy duty to convert all Hindus Kafirs into believers or is there any room for co-existence for these

  3. Pakistani says:

    Relax people, sufism is not going to affect Pakistanis who don’t suscribe to it. It has been in Pakistan for centuries.

    It is a few lower class or some very sufi-background families who take active interest in it otherwise in Pakistan it is treated as entertainment nothing more than that.

    But yes, the West and India have been trying really hard to promote their version of Sufi Islam for the past couple of years to supposedly neutralize the 170 million rabbies infected radical Pakistanis.

    Isn’t it a coincidence that lately a lot of Indian songs have the mention of Allah and Khudda in them and associating them with their idol worship? One of such singers is none other than Himesh Rashemiyah.

  4. PMA says:

    Anwar: Turkey is big on ‘sufi shows’ with costumed men going round and round on stage head thrown to the side. It is usually presented as a ‘cultural show’. West is now repeating the same experiment in poor countries like Pakistan as well. Every journalist is busy writing some story on ‘wonderful sufism’. This time it is being reintroduced to our young urbanites on twang of electric guitar. As the Western money flows in there will be more of ‘sufi mela’ in Lahore and Multan as well. Even though Western Orientalists define ‘sufi’ as an ‘islamic mystic and ascetic’, the word has different meanings now. The Greeks called their wise-men as ‘sophos’ and hence words such as ‘philo-sopher’ and ‘sophisticate’. How ‘sophisticate’ our ‘urban sufis’ will be only time and strength of dollar will tell. But in the meantime stay tuned for more ‘hera mundi style dhamal’. Oh I miss Alam Lohar.

  5. Anwar says:

    PMA – after the Rand report was published, State Department geared up to promote Sufi Islam as an anti-venom serum for Wahabi Islam… As a result cultural exchange programs were instituted with the help of Turkish government to take academicians and other influential people to a week long tour of Turkey including the village of Rumi, his school etc… plus close encounters with peace loving Turkish people. Stream of stage shows by “Whirling Dervishes” was also a part of this scheme. Two years in a row I have kept my travel package but could not avail the opportunity because of busy schedule. Those who are interested may get additional information from Istanbul Cultural Center in Atlanta. Be aware that although room and board is free while in Turkey, you may have to buy your own airline ticket to Turkey and back – there are however some exceptions….
    My only concern is that few years down the road this “new Sufi Islam” may also backfire like the American product i.e “jehadi Islam.”

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