Sufism in Pakistan

Sufism has always been a contested space in Pakistan. Successive governments, political parties and religious organisations have attempted to coopt it or reject it to suit their own political agendas. Since the turn of the millennium, however, the Pakistani government has made a conscious effort to recast Pakistan as a ‘Sufi country’—a whitewashing endeavour.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha's Soul Rivals discusses the many strands of Sufism (State, Pop and Militant) that have emerged in the course of the country’s attempts to reimagine Sufism. 

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of the book.

With the gradual rise of European colonialism and the subsequent decline of Islamic empires from the eighteenth century onwards, Sufism came under attack from two quarters. On the one end were ‘Islamic modernists’, inspired and influenced by the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and the ‘Age of Reason’. They wanted to advocate the importance of ‘scientific thinking’ among Muslims—a pragmatic adoption of social modernity and a rational interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts. They understood Sufism as an irrational and superstitious impediment to their desire to guide the Muslim world towards a new, modernist future.

On the other end were the Islamic revivalists, who in their critique of the fading Muslim empires took to task the role played by Sufism in facilitating ‘corrupt’ rulers and distorting Islam. The revivalists did not necessarily attack the Sufi saints, but they were vehement in their criticism of various beliefs and practices of this strand of Islam. They too lamented that Sufism had been ‘adulterated’ by its many followers who had adopted ‘non-Islamic’ beliefs and rituals. But such critiques were not entirely new. The ‘orthodox’ ulema had never been comfortable with how Sufism had been evolving, so much so that in the twelfth century, the Islamic scholar Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali had tried to reconcile Sufism with Sharia laws in a bid to bridge the gap between Sufism and the Islam of the ulema.xviii The tenth-century Islamic rationalists, the Mu’tazila, too had denounced Sufism ‘for serving the interests of the ruling elite’.1 But the Mu’tazila were equally critical of the orthodox ulema.

Similar theological tensions emerged once again during the twilight of Islamic imperialism in the eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, the modernists and revivalists were locked in heated scholarly and theological battles. Sandwiched between the modernists and the revivalists, and criticised by both, Sufism tried to rebound and reform itself. On occasions, it admitted that over the centuries, Sufism, due to no fault of its own, had been made to distance itself from Sharia laws and obligations by some of its followers, patrons and figureheads. Many Sufi orders in the Muslim world agreed to discourage certain ‘un-Islamic’ practices and bring Sufism closer to ‘true Islam’. Its admirers and practitioners pointed out that Sufism was inspired by the ‘mystical verses’ in Islam’s sacred book, the Qur’an, and therefore was rooted in the Sharia. For example, in the nineteenth century, some Sufi orders banished the playing of music during festivals at Sufi shrines.2

During this period, Sufism seemed to have been impacted more by the criticism thrown at it by the revivalist ulema than by the modernists. Sufi literature produced by certain Sufi orders in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries insisted that Sufism had always been the champion of Sharia rule and had opposed rulers who had been oppressive and un-Islamic. This literature claimed that it was the ulema who were patronised by such rulers and served their theological and political interests. Indeed, many ulema had enjoyed political and economic patronage, but so had most Sufi saints. Therefore, what the latter-day Sufi literature and narrative were claiming was largely revisionist in nature, produced to present Sufism as a theological force that had been working for the imposition of Sharia rule.

In the nineteenth century (in India), tensions between the revivalists and supporters of Sufism resulted in the emergence of a whole new Sunni sub-sect, the Barelvi. In a bid to safeguard the economic prestige and political influence of living Sufi masters and/or the pirs, and because a majority of the Muslims of the region were still followers of various Sufi orders, the Barelvi counterattacked the revivalists for being ‘fake Muslims’, who did not understand the more esoteric and mystical aspects of Islam. They insisted that they (the Barelvi) were the ones who were at the forefront of ‘saving Islam’ from Western ideas such as secularism and from the beliefs of ‘wayward Muslim sects’.

Throughout the twentieth century, Sufism continued to be pushed into a corner. On many occasions, it became no more than a quaint artefact put there by modernism and then by radical Islamic revivalism. In South Asia, especially in Pakistan, it largely took the shape of Barelvism, which aggressively reacted against the criticism that ‘Sufism in South Asia had adopted non-Muslim and even un-Islamic practices’ from Hinduism. As a response, Barelvism began to gradually adopt the ideas of Islam advocated by the orthodox ulema and fused them with Sufism.

1. Ibid., 236.
2. Tahir Kamran, ‘Unpacking the Myth of Barelvi Eclecticism’, Re-Thinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective, eds. Bilal Zahoor and Raza Rumi (Folio Books, 2019), 77.




This is an excerpt from Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan written by Nadeem Farooq Paracha and published by Context. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Nadeem Farooq Paracha is a well-known cultural critic, historian and columnist. He is associated with Pakistan’s largest English language daily, Dawn and also the author of four best-selling books on the social history of Pakistan: End of the Past, The Pakistan Anti-Hero, Muslim Modernism: A Case for Naya Pakistan and Points of Entry: Encounters at the Origin Sites of Pakistan.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.