Paracha believes that there’s a concerted attempt in Pakistan to ‘discover’ its Sufi links that will help counter its pariah image without giving in to any secular narrative, writes Utpal Kumar.


Nadeem Farooq Paracha’s book, Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan, begins with an interesting anecdote: of an academic paper, published in 2014, making a strong case for “branding” Pakistan a “Sufi country”. Authored, interestingly, by a Pakistani and a Chinese national, the paper sought to resolve Pakistan’s “image problem” through an intense PR exercise undertaken with the support of the state and the government. The entire endeavour was aimed at “discovering” Pakistan’s Sufism connection to counter its pariah image without compromising to any secular narrative. As the author writes, “The paper was searching for a middle-ground between religious extremism and overt secularism by proposing a contemporary reworking of one of Islam’s most ‘moderate’ and esoteric strands: Sufism.”

The image makeover attempt couldn’t have been an easy task, though. For, in Pakistan, as Paracha emphasises, Sufism is “a deeply contested space”, and has neither been apolitical nor pacifist. In fact, “Pop Sufism”, as the author describes Pakistan’s experiment to co-opt Sufism in its image makeover, was hardly a new phenomenon. The process had started during the Ayub Khan regime when the state-sponsored literature projected the saints to be “enlightened and forward-looking men”, as opposed to the orthodox and reactionary ulema. The literature published during the Zulfiqar Bhutto period described them as “populist figures” who opposed Bhutto’s “Islamic socialism”. It was during those days that Sufi music genres such as the qawwali was made popular on TV, radio and films.

As for Sufism’s pacifist claims, Paracha punctures them with a series of examples. One of them being Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a self-confessed Sufi follower who would ideally have taught “peace, love and tolerance, preferably through a qawwali at a shrine or at least through an impassioned song in Coke Studio”. Instead, Rizvi was seen “spouting profanities at the state, the prime minister and the judiciary, and demanding that a traumatised working-class Pakistani-Christian woman and the Supreme Court judges who declared her to be innocent be hanged for blasphemy”. The TLP has always made it clear that Sufism never dissuades people from violent struggle.

Rizvi is no exception. The author recalls how the Jamiyyat-u Ulam-i Pakistan (JUM), which follows the Barelvi school of Islamic thought against the Deobandis and had considerable influence in Pakistan in the 1970s, rejected the idea of Sufism as projected by the Ayub and Bhutto regimes. It, instead, saw the Sufi saints as “pure Muslims”. Paracha then quotes Syeda Abida Hussain’s book Power Failure to show how JUP “used the anti-Shia card” in Punjab’s Jhang region during the 1970 elections. “In 1974, the JUP became one of the three main religious outfits to demand the ouster of the Ahmadiyyas from the fold of Islam.”

Nadeem Farooq Paracha.

There is no denying that the Barelvis had traditionally opposed extremist groups led by Deobandis and Wahabis/Salafis. But, at the same time, they vociferously opposed any attempt by the state to project them in liberal hue. The book adds another dimension to the story when it takes the reader to the 19th century when the tussle between the Barelvis and the revivalists forced the former to adopt some of the religious rigidities of their opponents. A case in the study is the Chishtiyya order which “gradually altered its inclusive disposition and adopted a more Islamist demeanour in the face of a backlash that Sufism had begun to face from the ulema”. In fact, a Chishtiyya Sufi master, Noor Muhammad Muharvi, laid the condition that only those who strictly followed Shari’ah laws would be allowed to join the Chishtiyya order. There were even calls from this order for a ban on the singing and playing of the qawwali at shrines.

This transformation in the 19th century and after was a far cry from what Sufism projected itself, especially in regions like Sindh. Paracha mentions how as late as in the 15th century, the Sindhi pir Sadruddin authored a book, Das Avatar, highlighting similarities between Islamic and Hindu luminaries. It was this syncretic outlook, tactical or otherwise, that helped convert some influential Hindus of Sindh and nearby.

What Paracha doesn’t mention too overtly is that Sufism had since beginning treaded a fine line between orthodoxy and syncretism. For answers, one needs to look at how Sufi masters behaved in the wake of reckless killings and plunders by Muslim invaders? Did they object to the destruction of Hindu temples? The answer, sadly, is ‘No’. They kept quiet during those dark days. Worse, in many cases, they sided with the oppressors. The Naqashbandi Sufis, for instance had good relations with Aurangzeb, and one of them even termed the execution of Sikh leader Guru Arjun Dev a great Islamic victory. In fact, these pirs and saints almost always and invariably acted as the vanguards of the Islamic order on the peripheral lands such as Bengal.

Soul Rivals is a wonderful book. Like Paracha’s previous work, Points of Entry, it makes us think. It makes us look at what’s gone wrong in our immediate neighbourhood in the west. But he does it all in his own humorous, cheek-in-tongue, journalistic style. The author also deserves a special appreciation for his audacity to venture where very few in Pakistan want to tread.