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.

A living encyclopedia By Haroon Khalid

Posted in News/Information, Poetry and Literature by Pippa on May 28, 2013

This article originally appeared in The News on Sunday: http://jang.com.pk/thenews/jun2009-weekly/nos-14-06-2009/she.htm#1. It is worth publishing here in full as it highlights the tremendous work done by Iqbal Qaiser on Punjab. Visit the Centre he has set up in Kasur, further details are available: http://punjabikhojgarh.org/.

There is hardly a person who has more knowledge about Punjab than Iqbal Qaiser. Coming from a humble background, he could not afford formal education beyond matriculation but his thirst for knowledge kept him going outside the formal environment. He kept on studying and traveling to learn as much as he could about the land that he adores, and now his expertise in the field is such that he guides people doing Doctorate and Post-Doctorate through their thesis.

Iqbal Qaiser is a historian, anthropologist, poet, story writer, activist, etc. He also happens to be a prolific writer having adventured in numerous fields. What makes this man really special is his unrelenting commitment to Punjabi. Despite the fact that the readership of Punjabi is negligible, and being aware of the fact that one can’t expect to make a living at all by writing in Punjabi, this man continues to serve Punjabi. He says, he knows that if he writes in Urdu, his readership would improve tenfold and also his financial status but he wants to write in his own language. Who else would do it if he doesn’t, he says.

There is hardly any historical site in Punjab which he hasn’t visited or is not aware of. In his late 50s, Iqbal Qaiser is still not afraid to go out in the scorching summers of Punjab. Without a private conveyance, he travels on foot or public transport. With the amount of work that he has already done, one can only conjecture what he would have been able to do if he had the resources.

He is currently in the process of writing ‘A History of Lahore District’, which of course would be in Punjabi but would also be translated into English and in Gurmukhi script. This work of his is an encyclopedia of Lahore, having reached proportions, never even thought of earlier. Perhaps, the greatest contribution so far in noting down the history of Lahore is of Maulvi Nur Ahmad Chisti. This late 19th century work is a must in the library of any person who is interested in Lahore. This book is roughly of around 1000 pages. The Encyclopedia that Iqbal Qaiser is in the process of writing would be divided into five volumes, and each one would include roughly around 1000 pages. Comparing the work of these two scholars, the former would only appear as a shadow to the latter. However, this is not to take away the credit from Maulvi Nur Ahmad Chisti, whose work acted as a beacon of light for Iqbal Qaiser. No stone has been left unturned in the Lahore District. No neighborhood, no village, no personality, site has been spared. This contribution of Iqbal Qaiser would make him immortal in the annals of history.

Simultaneously he is also working on another book, which he would call ‘Historical Jain Shrines in Pakistan’. This would be a survey of all the extant Jain temples across Pakistan. This speaks in volumes about the dedication of a person. Not many people would dare to take such two projects simultaneously, however for Iqbal Qaiser this second project is a piece of cake in his own words.

‘Historical Jain shrines in Pakistan’ is inspired by his own earlier work which got him international acclaim and numerous awards. This book is called ‘Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan’. This book was published in 1998 in Punjabi with a rendition in English and Gurmukhi script. When he was writing this book, he was also a primary school teacher. He says he used to do his field work during the summer vacations. This book covers 175 important Sikh Gurdwaras all over the country, describing their present condition, locality and history. In the project, he has been able to achieve what the Department of Archaeology could not accomplish, even with all the funds.

‘Historical Sikh Shrines’ made Iqbal Qaiser from a parochial writer to an internationally recognised author. He was invited to America and Canada for book launching ceremonies. The Sikh community world over lauded his efforts and bestowed him with various titles and awards. The Punjab Times Gold Medal, Guru Nanak Award, Punjabi Saat Lamparada Award are just tip of the ice berg. He even got the honour to have lunch at the White House because of this book. The recognition that Pakistani Government gave him was harassment from ISI. Today at the Patiala University, a Ph.D programme is being offered on this book by the History Department.

With the money which he amassed from the sale of this book he bought a piece of land in Lalyani and opened a research institute there by the name of Punjabi Khojgarh. This is yet another effort to promote the cultures of Pakistan but things are not working smoothly for the institute at the moment, which is facing water and electricity issues because of shortage of funds but the struggle is going on.

Besides being a historian and anthropologist, Iqbal Qaiser also happens to be a Punjabi poet. Inspired by the Sufiyana kalam, Iqbal Qaiser has two collections of Punjabi poetry to his credit, one of which was given the Bulleh Shah Award by Majlis Bulleh Shah. During Zia’s Martial Law, he was sent to jail for having read one of his poems at a conference condemning the Martial Law. This poem was called ‘Aaj boodh dardiya boodh vai’. This poem was dedicated to Bhagat Singh on his death anniversary, 23rd of March when these people dared to organize a Bhagat Singh day.

Besides writing books and finding jobs to make a living, Iqbal Qaiser writes for Indian Punjabi newspapers Ajeet and Nawa Zamana. Unfortunately, here too he is not properly compensated for his efforts, as the newspapers are Indian and the governments don’t allow them to pay him. He prefers to write in Indian newspapers over Pakistanis because there is greater reverence for Punjabi there than here, where it has become a second if not third language.

Iqbal Qaiser is an inspiration for any person who wants to do something but believes that certain factors are holding him/her back. He teaches us to face all difficulties head on without fear through his persistence in doing what he wanted to do. Iqbal Qaiser says in one of his poems:


‘Kaal jithe se Baba muya

Mein utho he panda choya

Mein khure hun kithe marna

agla panda kine karna’.

‘Yesterday where our predecessors ended their journey

I have begun from there

Now I don’t know where my journey will end

And who would pick up the thread’.


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Raziuddin Aquil, ed. Sufism and Society in Medieval India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010

Posted in Book reviews by Pippa on November 14, 2011

Reviewed by Usha Sanyal (Queens University of Charlotte)

This is an interesting collection of essays on aspects of Sufism during the twelfth through eighteenth centuries by well-known scholars in the field, such as K. A. Nizami, J. M. S. Baljon, and Simon Digby, among others. All nine essays have been published previously. They are brought together here, along with an introductory essay by Raziuddin Aquil, the editor, as part of Oxford University Press’s Debates in Indian History and Society series. Thematically, many of the essays are concerned with the role of Sufis in the subcontinent in Islamization and conversion of Hindus to Islam, with the authors taking different stands on the issue. Subsidiary sets of issues relate to Sufis and their relation to the state and to possession of wealth and property, as well as relations between different Sufi orders and between Sufis and scholars of Islamic law (the ulama), language, and social class. One essay, by Richard M. Eaton, deals with the role of women’s songs in transmitting Sufi ideas to illiterate villagers in the seventeenth-century Deccan.

Aquil frames the primary concern of the book, namely, the roles that medieval Sufis played in the conversion of Hindus to Islam, in historiographic terms by focusing on the perspectives of the essay writers themselves. Broadly, Aquil sees three distinct scholarly positions: those whose “writings … emphasize the pluralistic character of Indian society and the commendable role of Sufis in providing a practical framework for communal harmony” (essays by Nizami, S. A. A. Rizvi, and Carl W. Ernst, in Aquil’s view, belong in this group); those who adopt “a more empirically sustainable approach even while remaining committed to the idea of secularism and such other virtues expected from historians in Indian academia” (in this group, he places the contributions by Eaton, Digby, and Muzaffar Alam); and those who take “a Muslim separatist position” (the only example in the volume is the piece by Aziz Ahmad) (p. x). On the one hand, Aquil expresses strong disagreement with Ahmad, writing that he “offers a somewhat cynical interpretation marred by his separatist outlook, which, in turn, was influenced by the post-Partition Muslim predicament in the Indian subcontinent” (p. xv). On the other hand, Aquil feels that Nizami, for example, is prone to making broad generalizations, characterizing the ulama as “conservative and reactionary theologians,… [leaving] the Sufis to rise to the occasion, releasing ‘syncretic forces which liquidated social, ideological, and linguistic barriers’ between Hindus and Muslims for building a ‘common cultural outlook.’” In contrast, Aquil clearly esteems the work of those he terms “empiricist,” describing the essay by Alam, for example, as a “balanced and empirically dense argument on the question of community relations” (p. xvi). Seen in this light, the essays not only offer different perspectives on the roles of Sufis in medieval India, but also illustrate different academic approaches, over the past fifty years, to that history.

Read full review: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=32240

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