Punjab Research Group

Barelvis are important political entities by Raziuddin Aquil

Posted in Articles by Pippa on January 21, 2014

Courtesy of The Sunday Guardian: http://www.sunday-guardian.com/analysis/barelvis-are-important-political-entities

As custodians of shrines, especially mazars of leading Sufi figures of the past, the Barelvi leaders command a lot of respect.

Taslima Nasreen’s latest struggle with some Barelvi Muslim leaders is a most unfortunate affair. Still carrying the psychological wounds of an atrocious religious decree, Taslima had hastily tweeted condemning Arvind Kejriwal for hobnobbing with the Barelvis, who follow traditional Islam — culturally inclusive, but politically separatist. As custodians of shrines, especially mazars or dargahs of leading Sufi figures of the past, the Barelvi leaders command a lot of respect and authority, which, in turn, makes them an important political entity.

The Barelvis — a somewhat derogatory epithet derived from the foremost ideologue of Sufic Islam in the 20th century, Ahmad Raza Khan of Bareilly — identify themselves as Ahl-i Sunnat wal Jama’at, in short, Sunnis. Following the Hanafi interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, they consider themselves more pious than fundamentalist groups such as the Deobandis and Wahhabis — an extreme section of which is represented by the Taliban. In their devotion to the family of Prophet Muhammad, especially his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the Sufi-oriented Barelvi Muslims appear closer to the Shias, but the latter’s inherited memory of violence in early Islam constitutes a distinct ideology.

The Sufis are known for their intense love for the eternal God, surpassing that of a mad Majnun for his lovely Layla, for their aspiration to follow the path of the Prophet, for service to entire humanity and not Muslims alone, as well as for maintaining a critical distance from social and political injustices. The medieval Sufis’ spirituality was also about controlling the body and cultivating the soul at a time when a materialistic milieu celebrated a life lived with gay abandon. Thus, acquiring a position of great authority in society, not stooping before the ruling dispensation of the time, and occasionally asserting their power, the Sufis could carve out an independent space for themselves. The Sufi fraternities continue to practice and preach love and peace at a time when most forms of Islam are, often wrongly, identified with terrorism. Tolerant, assimilative and popular branches of Sufism, such as the Chishti order, originating in Afghanistan, a country now caught in the vortex of violence, have historically shown that it is possible to lead a good Muslim life and reach out to a larger community — drawing people from diverse backgrounds to one’s fold without using force or political power. No wonder Sufi shrines have flourished in contexts in which mosques could be destroyed at will, state machinery permitting. A wide range of people, including the hapless poor, dangerous thugs, wily politicians, corrupt ministers, superstitious movie-stars can all be seen prostrating and offering ritual Sufic chadars at the shrines. The ability of the Sufis to speak in local idioms and dialects, and their perceived paranormal powers have been attracting followers — some for practising the ways of the Sufis, but mostly for blessings and benedictions. A living legend in his time, Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi had opened the doors of his hospice to all and sundry. For him, making some difference in the lives of the devotees by appealing to their hearts and bringing out the best in them was of prime importance.

The popularity of Sufism also stems from qawwali and related musical genres. The Sufis have in the past fought bitter struggles with the ulema (theologians), who contested its legitimacy. For the orthodox guardians of Islam, music was haram, or a forbidden act; for Sufis, on the other hand, it remains one of the most effective and valid ways to remember God and achieve ecstasy. One may recall here Amir Khusrau’s significant contribution to classical music, notwithstanding some ambivalence about the use of instruments and the participation of women in musical assemblies (mahfil-i sama).

In more recent times, Sufism has been under attack from reformist Islam of various hues, including the self-righteous and pietistic Tablighi Jama’at and the actively political Jama’at-i-Islami. Adaptations from Hindu mystical traditions such as yogic practices and any other innovations in the Indian environment are condemned. The Sufis’ claims for spreading Islam in the subcontinent are also ridiculed.

Further, though extremist or militant forms of political Islam generally draw on the Wahhabi kind of reformism or Islamism, followers of devotional Islam or Sufism are not innocent in terms of international politics. Historically, in hostile political contexts, they could be as aggressive as the others, just as culturally they might not scruple to compromise with the demands of their time and space. However, contemporary Sufi leaders lack political acumen, astuteness, and influence of the kind enjoyed by their medieval ancestors.

A more sagacious Nizamuddin Auliya, for instance, could tell a reckless Delhi Sultan: hunuz Dilli dur ast. And as history bears out, the ill-fated ruler could never return to the capital. However, the patron saint of Delhi would never indulge in a public spat with a lady. In all likelihood, he may have politely urged his senior contemporary, the venerable Bibi Fatima Sam of Indraprastha, to take her seat first, pahle aap.

One Response

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  1. afzel said, on January 21, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    This is misleading, mixing up Sufism with Brailvism. Might work for a foreign reader or the trendy interpretation of Sufism in Religio-Cultural Studies departments, which the likes of Carl Ernst have propagated, but beyond that it inflicts another kind of violence, of identity mistake, and thus misses the point that Brailvis can be as extremist or violent as the other extremist, and not just politically exclusive but more so culturally, while accommodating politically, contrary to Aqeel. If his analysis has any validity it loses ground as soon as it crosses border across Pakistan.

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