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. PMA says:

    But Eidee Man I hope that you do draw distinction between the Sufi Orders of Islam and the ‘Shrine Culture’. Sufi way of life is a simple and puritanical way of life where as ‘sufism’ as practised at the shrines in South Asia is pure indulgence and ignorance. One more point. Sufi and Moulvi traditionally do not get along with each other. But at the end of the day they both are on the same side of the fence as they both are conservative religious beings. Those who are not into religion have no use for either one of them. Good to see you on-board.

  2. bonobashi says:

    @ Pakistani

    First of all, I note that you allow space for Sufiism in Pakistan, if for nothing else then for therapeutic or for cathartic value. This is useful information.

    I found it very strange, however, that you suggest that “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* (sic) infected radical Pakistanis.”

    Aren’t you painting with a very broad brush? There are Sufi shrines in India, there are Hindu, and Sikh visitors to these shrines, some simple folk seeking gifts like a dearly-desired child, others with a desire to seek themselves, or seek divinity beyond the paths and ways indicated in their own religion, yet others who are drawn to the music and have no other fixed purpose. There is no large-scale conspiracy apparent to foist this on Pakistan, or, for that matter, even on India. There is no apparent common effort with ‘the West’ either, whatever ‘the West’ is supposed to indicate. If there is a belief that India easily and quickly apes ‘the West’, all I can say is that some further research may be instructive.

    [* I am not sure whether you are being serious or funny, whether this refers to the disease that affects dogs and other mammals, or to the Sufi singer Mr. Shergill. In the context, both might apply. If I assume your spelling is at fault, you are serious; if correct, presumably this is a droll remark. A dilemma which defeats me.]

    On this site, there are frequently calls not to aggregate all Pakistanis into one agglomerated mass. Your comment opens with just such a call. Perhaps a corollary to this theorem would be not to apply such agglomeration to others. There is no concerted Indian effort to do Pakistan in the eye in the cultural arena (I except cricket; I admit no Indian will leave any stone – or pitch – unturned to achieve an Indian victory over a Pakistani team, especially on any Friday in Sharjah. In that matter, and that alone, I admit that there is a concerted effort at all levels in India, except for some fanatics and extremists in Bhopal, led by Aslam Sher Khan – significant name, what? obviously a Pathan, obviously, from his actions and words, indoctrinated and extreme in his views – who have a quasi-religious faith in some other sport whose name I don’t remember offhand).

    So where did you get this bizarre notion of an Indian conspiracy to spin out an alternative to beguile people away from a particular brand of Islam? Do you seriously believe it yourself?


  3. Bloody Civilian says:

    An Important Correction

    Where I said “Any slightly literate person and all muslims know that this is a Madni verse” in my last post, I had meant to say “Any slightly literate person can find out and all muslims know that this is a Madni verse.”

  4. Bloody Civilian says:

    Who speaks for Islam? Muslims claim, many proudlly, that there is no room/legitimacy for a professional clergy in Islam, nor an organised, hierarchical church. So non-muslims have either to make a scholarly effort (who has the time!), or continue stereotyping (which is what normal people regularly do) and leave it to the muslims to work on improving their image.

    The Quran says “There is no compulsion in religion.” The present Pope (with all due respect), regrettably, made a pitifully incompetent claim (and he is otherwise a scholar) that this was a Makkan verse (expressing that it was from a time when the muslims were weak and therefore placative). Any slightly literate person and all muslims know that this is a Madni verse (i.e. revealed in Medina, when the Muslim community was strong and dominant). Please, check, re-check and re-re-check if you’ve the slightest doubt. The verse is addressing everyone – non-muslim and muslim. There is no compulsion (physical force or other forms of duress) in the matter of and matters within religion. There are several other verses and even a whole chapter in the quran clarifying the same spirit and concept.. but no room here.

    Zia promoted Wahabi sympathisers and clients in Pakistan (that was the cornerstone of the US-Pak-Saudi plan for increasing recruitment and financing for Afghanistan) because it suited the role for the mullah and religion he had in mind as a street and neighbourhood based danda brigade (which he couldn’t use military – more a sledgehammer – for). He wished to make these mullahs his and the military’s constituency (otherwise the two had no political constituency). Since the normal mullah had historically done pathetically in elections in Pakistan, Zia hoped that an agressive danda yielding mullah might cower the people in to obedience (Zia was mainly interested in political obedience, religion was just a convenient tool). The fact that even Zia’s mullahs failed (and continue to do so) is testament to the fact that Wahabist ideas mostly failed to capture the Pakistani imagination. But Zia’s plans extended further to the kind of divide-and-rule and low level turmoil (to distract people away from focussing on him) that most dictators like. Sipah Shabah and such like started a campaign of violence. The Islamisation which killed several birds with one stone provided recruits for America’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, gave Zia legtimacy in the eyes of the ignorant masses swindled in to thinking he would bring some kind of ideal pax islamica, and his domestically grown militias (what a suicidally stupid thing for a country to do!!) formed an integral part of his (and his ISI followers) delusion that if ‘they’ could kick out the Soviets from Afghanistan they could at least make the Indians very uncomfortable in Kashmir.

    Abdul Wahab and Ibn Saud, both of the najd (n.east s.arabia), made an ‘i scratch your back you scratch mine’ alliance which allowed ibn saud to take over the arabian peninsula and oust the Hashemite (Prophet Muhammad’s tribe) ‘Sharif of Makkah’. The rest, as they say, is history. It is true that non-Bedouin inhabitants of the peninsula, esp the najdis, were very conservative, extremely misogynistic. Although Islam, 1400 years earlier, had modernised them a bit, the progress faltered, as it would on any evolutionary journey, and men like Abdul Wahab pushed them further back. An interesting example is how the Saudis do not feel able to claim that Islam has any problem whatsoever with women driving yet are quite able to say that local tradition does!

  5. Zecchetti says:

    @ Gorki,

    yes, as you can see unfortunatly there are now many versions of Islam. And our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, told us that many different sects will appear, and all will be in the Fire except one, and that is his way: the Qur’an and sunnah.

    We must follow the Qur’an and sunnah. The Qur’an forbids idol worship. It forbids calling upon any one other that Allah for needs to be fulfilled. I would like to ask the readers of intellect on this thread the following question:

    What’s the difference between a sufi who goes to a shrine and calls upon a dead person, and a Hindu who goes to a temple and calls upon an idol?? Is there a diffence? No there is isn’t, because they both involve making created beings and objects into some kind of gods.

    Only God/Allah alone has the right to be worshipped. What is verse 5 of surat al Fatiha?:

    “Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.”

    The sufis don’t seem to do that…

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