Ayesha Siddiqa speculates on the challenges which face this country in future years as part of Dawn.com's launch special 'Flash Forward Pakistan: Where do we go from here?'
Recently, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani lauded the role Sufi Islam could play in keeping the society away from religious extremism. Lest we consider this a personal bias, since he represents the Sufi tradition himself, similar sentiments were expressed by others as well. One such example is the 2007 RAND Corporation paper, Building Moderate Muslim Networks, which identifies Sufi Islam as one of the potential forces within an Islamic society that must be strengthened to fight the rising intolerance, extremism, and violence in Muslim societies. Although the RAND report pertained to the Middle East, it could be equally applied to Pakistan, which suffers from a high risk of religious conservatism often bordering on extremism.
Pakistan, in fact, makes an interesting case study for the battle between Sufi Islam and the much more rabid Salafi Islam for two obvious reasons. First, it is a country with equally dominant traditions and institutions of Sufi Islam that were critical in spreading the religion in the Indian Subcontinent. For that reason, many argue that Punjab, especially southern Punjab, which has drawn international attention particularly after the Mumbai attacks, cannot fall to Salafi Islam because it is a hub of Sufi – or what is popularly known as Barelvi – Islam. The wife of Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Farahnaz Isphani, expressed such views a few months ago in a CNN interview. Second, unlike Turkey, where Sufi institutions were throttled by Kamal Attaturk, or Saudi Arabia, where the state shut down similar institutions to accommodate Salafi Islam, Sufi traditions have continued to thrive in Pakistan.
This raises the question about the viability of Sufi Islam to push back the forces of religious fundamentalism and extremism. Will Sufi Islam ultimately win the battle against Salafi Islam? More importantly, how has Salafi Islam managed to build inroads in areas once considered to be strongholds of Sufi Islam? The prime minister’s own home town Multan and all of southern Punjab have fallen pray to militancy and extremism. So, what is it that has pushed people away from the traditional patterns of faith?
For some scholars of Islam, especially those from the West such as Carl W. Ernst, Sufi Islam is a powerful force. In Pakistan’s society and politics, Sufi Islam represented by the shrines and pirs has always played a critical role. In fact, successive governments including that of Ayub Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq representing different political traditions wooed the pirs or sajjada nasheens. There are many who believe that the rise in extremism is not a reflection on the waning strength of Sufi Islam because a majority of the people continue to owe allegiance to pirs. Quantitatively, Sufi Islam remains part of the popular religious tradition or a religion of the masses. Go to any shrine and you will observe hundreds and thousands of people, mainly the poor and destitute, congregating around the shrine and seeking forgiveness and a passport to heaven stamped by the living saint or pir.
It is precisely in these areas that Wahabism and Deobandi Islam seems to spread slowly but gradually. In fact, southern Punjab, once considered a hub of Sufi Islam, is a region lately making waves in terms of growing militancy. This is not to argue that the influence of pirs has reduced, but that there is a certain vacuum which is now being filled by a more rabid brand of Islam.
The reason for such developments pertains to the various complex socio-political and socioeconomic developments which have changed the face of the society. First, successive governments systematically tried to tailor institutions of Sufi Islam according to their own political needs. According to the scholar of Sufi Islam, Katherine Ewing, General Ayub Khan viewed the pirs and shrines as an impediment to his agenda of modernizing Pakistan and thus tried to control their growth and behavior by establishing alternative institutions such as the Auqaf. The ministry was meant not only to regulate the shrines and bring them under state control, but also use the opportunity to reduce the influence of the pirs and sajjada nasheens.
This objective, however, could not be achieved, as the control of the shrine did not minimize the influence of the pir who was considered by the people as the key interlocutor between them and God.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who followed Ayub Khan, did not directly challenge Sufi Islam as it was the popular religion followed by the masses. However, he continued with the Auqaf with the intent of regulating the influence of the pirs, some of whom were considered as political rivals. The pirs and shrines were so important as part of the indigenous religious tradition that despite the fact that Ziaul Haq subscribed to Salafi Islam, he could not demolish the influence of the pirs. However, the politics of successive governments further co-opted pirs in power politics.
Second, the decade of the 1980s was a major catalyst in providing new direction to traditional and conservative cultures. For instance, the call to jihad to free Afghanistan from Soviet invasion attracted a lot of people from southern Punjab. This influence was predated by the impact of southern Punjabis who had migrated to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries to work. These people brought Deobandi and Wahabi influences back with them.
Third, part of the process of the co-option of pirs by the state was the increase in their political power. Traditionally, the rulers cultivated the pirs through award of land and similar rewards. So, the pirs were effectively also major landowners of their area. Gradually, the pirs of their families began to take part in state politics as well, hence, becoming part of the hegemonic order in their areas. A pir was not just a spiritual leader, but also a major economic and political stakeholder.
Greater power not only enhanced the greed for more power but also resulted in corruption of the Sufi order. The spiritual control of people was used to manipulate the public in order to maintain political and economic power. Thus characters such as Pir Pagara used their following to build their political strength, which, in turn, was used to manipulate the state and gain greater personal dividends. The manipulation worked both ways. For instance, Ziaul Haq installed his hand picked man as the sajjada nasheen of the shrine of Bari Imam to influence the followers. The original family of pirs was thrown out and a new pir installed who was under greater control of the military dictator. Moreover, since, even powerful political people visited the shrines, these turned into places where important negotiations were carried out with the pirs acting as interlocutors. Senior bureaucrats and government officials would visit pirs who were frequented by top political leaders. The pir of Golra Sharif is one such example.
While the pirs became part of a hegemonic order that concentrated power in the hands of a few, a new class began to emerge which can be termed as the new capital. The trader-merchants in the rural areas, in particular, who represent the middle class, have the money but not the political capital. Their anxiety to gain political power emanates from the fact that the political system has no space to renegotiate power. This class then is critical in supporting and aiding the Wahabi and Deobandi forces through funding madrassahs and militancy. Contrary to the view that religious seminaries were always part of the local tradition, the new generation of madrassahs that are critical in encouraging militancy are a new phenomenon. Most of these began to grow under Ziaul Haq’s reign and were initially known for fanning sectarian hatred that then evolved into encouraging extremist values.
The madrassahs and militant outfits attracted pockets of lower class and politically and economically dispossessed people who did not have a future due to the hegemonic system. Since the pirs were also the hegemons, the Wahabi and Deobandi clerics could not only build a case against them, but also against Sufi Islam.
Hence, purely in qualitative terms, Wahabi and Deobandi Islam appear an alternative to the dispossessed, especially the youth. While the educated ones amongst the younger lot of the population see Salafi Islam as a way of challenging the hegemonic order, though unconsciously, others are attracted to this brand of Islam due to the sense of empowerment it provides and its comparative modernity. In a hegemonic system where access to God is based on the whims of an individual, Salafi Islam appears attractive to many, as it does not pose such conditions. The path to God and spiritualism also means that people can only get access through the pir, which in turn means negotiating through the cronies or khalifas (religious assistants) of the pir. This is certainly an arduous task as compared to what Salafi Islam offers – the route to God and forgiveness can be obtained through martyrdom. Further, martyrs contribute to transforming the future of other Muslims, which ensures that they would be rewarded in the next life. In addition, the martyr would earn greater rewards such as 70 hooris, a crown of gold and jewels, and the ability to seek forgiveness for seventy other people. Interestingly, the visualization of jihad is about freeing helpless Muslim women from brutal un-Islamic governments.
Furthermore, Salafi Islam appears much more modern in outlook. For instance, the militant outfits use published literature, CDs, and DVDs to disseminate their message. The pirs on the other hand depend on word of mouth and traditions to attract people. In any case, the pirs and sajjada nasheens are limited in their capacity to reach out to people. While they seek offerings from the disciples, they hardly use modern techniques to reach out to the people.
Sufi Islam certainly has a lot of potential in stemming the tide of extremism in the country. It is also a much more tolerant and secular form of religion that reaches out to all sorts of people irrespective of their caste, creed, ethnicity, colour, or race. However, the fulfillment of this potential is another matter. In the coming decade, more and more people will continue to drift towards Salafi Islam due to a lack of options.
Dr.Ayesha Siddiqa is an independent security analyst and strategic affairs columnist for Dawn. She obtained her Doctorate from King's College London in 1996 and held the 'Pakistan Scholar' chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 2004-2005. Her most recent book, Military Inc. was released in 2007 and is considered one of the foremost academic works on the Pakistani defense establishment.