Interview: ‘Sufism is not a living culture anymore’
Maleeha Hamid SiddiquiUpdated September 18, 2016
Interview with Professor Azfar Moin, author of
The Millenial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam
(Excerpts of interview article - for full text read the url)
The Pakistani state has become riven with sectarian and ethnic divisions. There is the ever-present threat of the puritanical version of Islam and Sufism is projected as a counter-narrative to this version. But your book busted this myth of Sufis being about peace, love, tolerance and inclusiveness since they were used during the Safavid Empire as a means to capture state power. Was that a surprise for you as well?
It was bit of a surprise that Sufis were used that way but there is, of course, that message embedded in Sufi poetry and there is no denying that. Rumi’s poetry is all about finding truth and there are multiple ways to it. The intellectual Sufism and the Sufism of poetry certainly has that message. However if you ask how was that message spread, it was spread through networks of shrines and it was only when Sufism became embedded in very real material nodes in society, where large numbers of people came to listen to devotional songs, was when that message was permeated.
But because saint shrines became centres of pilgrimage where people donated large amounts of money, where agricultural land was donated as waqf to them, they also became centres of power. The devotion of the people allowed the Sufis to act as kingmakers and sometimes become kings.
That is the argument in my book, which sees the rise of Sufism as networks of shrines become a very popular form of religion. Empires begin to adopt those religious forms for kingship during the Mughal era, the rituals are borrowed from saint shrines. It is about piety and meditation but because these messages are spread through these nodes and shrines become centres of wealth and power, they also become centres of politics, which leads to competition, which leads to war and which leads to violence. It is a different form of violence which has very much to do with land, property and people’s loyalties. It is not based on notions of truth and falsehood or of declaring people outside the pale of religion. So it is not as abstract but very much bound to local politics. And that’s one of the things I discovered
How do you see the shifting Sufi culture in South Asia, especially with the rise of Hindutva, Taliban and now the IS?
Historically there were different elements to the Sufi culture. Part of it was ritualistic, located in shrine culture, festivals and pilgrimage. Another aspect was it supported a literate culture that created philosophy, metaphysics, rationalised the place of humanity in the cosmos and thought about how to deal with religious difference. And another aspect of it was it connected to imperial power and notions of kingship and sovereignty.
Slowly, as the empire dissolved, we stopped writing those books and studying those traditions in the 19th century. All that was left was the shrine cults. In the 20th century, whether it was a secular modernist who said all this is rubbish or the Taliban and the IS who started to critique shrine culture saying they are local people and are illiterate, the political and intellectual backing that Sufism had enjoyed for hundreds of years was, and is, no longer there. There is nobody to argue back. In some ways the inevitability of today’s critique of Sufism comes from the fact that in the 18th and 19th century, Sufism retreated into particularist local devotional form of religion. Today it is a relic of the past, we pine for it but it is not a living culture anymore.
But one could say the same thing about the madressah culture. According to historian Barbara Metcalfe, the Deobandi madressah, which becomes the model of the madressah across South Asia, was, in fact, a modern institution.....
What are you working on these days?
I am looking at a number of things: one of them is violence against shrines in pre-modern times, where the shrines were attacked not by people who considered shrine culture to be heretical or innovative but rather by other Sufis. I am trying to understand why there was violence in the age of Sufism, how was it tied to politics, what lessons can be drawn from that and the relationship between religion and politics at the time.