Sufis in Pakistan: Missionaries, Warriors or Statesmen?


Every Thursday in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, home to the second largest Muslim population in the world, the nation witnesses celebration of its popular Sufi culture. There are gatherings at the shrine, there is music, there is dance and there is Qawwali. The festival of ‘urs’, Arabic word for marriage, symbolizes the union of Sufis with the divine; Sufis can be seen traveling from one shrine to another, more so during this festival.

Sufism has a lot of different faces in the world and the one in South Asia is certainly very peculiar. In the wake of increasing religiously motivated violence and not-so-rare attacks on the shrines in Pakistan, the argument exists if Sufism is just a tolerant, mystical practice in this Islamic state or it’s a weapon that has the potential to backfire, further wounding rather than healing the domestic stability in Pakistan. 

And there’s always a debate vis-à-vis the foreign policy towards the most immediate neighbor, India. Media calls it ‘normalization of bilateral relations’ every time Pakistani pilgrims get visas to visit Ajmer Sharif Dargah in India, and visa denial to Qawwali singers strains the bilateral relations immediately. Besides the political and economic diplomacy, does Sufi diplomacy exist as well between the two neighbors?

Pakistan is a key regional actor so far as security and broader economic landscape of South Asia is concerned. There is radicalization of religious beliefs, there is sectarian conflict, and there is power play between civil and military. The question arises, how do Pakistanis act and react in these circumstances; can Sufism, the guiding and counseling faith come to rescue?
But there’s more to Sufism than just its mystical syncretic aspect. Its interpretations vary based on Mohammed Iqbal’s ideology to the political endeavors of the National Sufi Council and the doctrinal struggles between the different sects like the Deobandis and Barelwis. 

For a country caught in the war against terror, the drumming and dancing never stops, not even for the call to prayer! 

Besides drumming and dancing, there are other ways for Sufism’s message of moderation and inclusiveness to be conveyed to the general populace. That’s music! Rohail Hyatt, the music director of Coca-Cola in Pakistan, said in an interview, how he hoped to leverage some of his cultural influence and access to corporate cash to convey Sufism's message. He said “He used to work for Pepsi, but Coke is way more Sufic”. He produced a series of live studio performances that paired rock acts with traditional singers of qawwali. One of the best-known qawwali songs, we all know is "Dama Dum Mast Qalandar," or "Every Breath for the Ecstasy of Qalandar" in the honor of the most popular Sufi saint Lal Qalandar. 

In Punjab and Sindh, generally known as the heartland of Sufism, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh population visit and pay tribute to the Sufi saints regardless of their own religious identities, because Sufism is not a sect, like Shiism or Sunnism. It is a personal approach to God - strikingly visible in Turkey, where whirling dervishes and their millions of followers embrace Islam as a religious experience, not a social or political one. 

On the domestic front, Sufism’s enormous influence over its followers continued to attract the attention of the ruling class. The Bhuttos most prominently, Benazir and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were great at amassing Sufi support. Qalandar's resting place became the geographical center of Bhutto's political spirituality. As Benazir Bhutto began her first campaign for prime minister, her followers would greet her with the chant, "Benazir Bhutto Mast Qalandar" (Benazir Bhutto, the ecstasy of Qalandar). On Bhutto’s assassination, Anwar Sagar, a Sindhi poet, wrote, “She rose above the Himalayas; immortal she became; the devotee of Qalandar became Qalandar herself”.

In his inaugural address, Mohammad Ali Jinnah made his commitment to secularism in Pakistan very clear when he said,

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.

Yet, politics and religion including Sufism remain so mystically and terrifyingly entangled.

Ever since Pakistan was established, religion has been the principle determinant of the country’s social and political environment. The question of Muslim identity has remained an unresolved issue which even creation of nation-states failed to resolve.

What is needed today is a propagation of the underlying values of Sufism - love, harmony and divine reality. At Sufism's core, lies an embrace of the world which is easier said than done for a country where poverty, corruption and the daily toll of the global war on terrorism simmer together in a volatile brew. Sufism represents the strongest indigenous force, but Western countries have paid no heed as they, since 2001, spend millions of dollars on other initiatives to counter extremism.

One thing is clear: as the Sufis in Pakistan preach faith and ecstasy, the whirling dervishes also have a role to play in the complex geo-political games of Pakistan. Only time will tell how Salafi Violence and Sufi Tolerance unfold in Pakistan; what lies ahead for Pakistanis.



Nikita Singla is an International Affairs Consultant, engagements spanning Regional Cooperation, International Trade, Economic Integration and Overseas Development Assistance with a focus on South Asia. She is an Engineer from Indian Institute of Technology Delhi and Masters in International Economic Policy from Sciences Po Paris. She blogs@ and tweets @nikitasingla17.