Sufism and Pakistan

Jordan keeps mentioning that he's going to send me William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal. In between now and then, however, Dalrymple has a piece up in The New York Review of Books. "Pakistan in Peril" details the mounting challenges faced by Pakistan and especially the current government's inability to handle the insurgency in its North-West Fronteir Province. By and large, it's a gloomy article, but there are moments of optimism, such as when Dalrymple notes the relative stability of the south:

A third factor, which Rashid does not discuss in this book, is somehow finding a way to stop the madrasa- inspired and Saudi-financed advance of Wahhabi Islam, which is directly linked to the spread of anti-Western radicalization. On my last visit to Pakistan, it was very clear that while the Wahhabi-dominated North-West was on the verge of falling under the sway of the Taliban, the same was not true of the Sufi-dominated province of Sindh, which currently is quieter and safer than it has been for some time. Here in southern Pakistan, on the Indian border, Sufi Islam continues to act as a powerful defense against the puritanical fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs, which supports intolerance of all other faiths.

Visiting the popular Sufi shrine of Sehwan in Sindh last month, I was astonished by the strength of feeling expressed against the mullahs by the Sindhis who look to their great saints such a Lal Shabaz Qalander for guidance, and hate the Wahhabis who criticize the popular Islam of the Sufi saints as a form of shirk, or heresy: "All these mullahs should be damned," said one old Sufi I talked to in the shrine. "They read their books but they never understand the true message of love that the prophet preached. Men so blind as them cannot even see the shining sun." A friend who visited shortly before me met a young man from Swat, in the North-West Frontier Province, who said he had considered joining the militants, but their anti-Sufi attitude had put him off: "No one can deny us our respected saints of God," he said.

Nicholas Schmidle's recent piece in Smithsonian picked up on that optimism. Referencing the same conflict between the North-West Frontier Province and Sindh, he writes:
I asked Carl Ernst, an author of several books about Sufism and a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whether he thought Pakistan's Sufis could survive the wave of militant Islam sweeping east from the region along the Afghanistan border. "Sufism has been a part of the fabric of life in the Pakistan region for centuries, while the Taliban are a very recent phenomenon without much depth," he replied in an e-mail. "I would bet on the Sufis in the long run." This summer, the Taliban attracted a few hundred people to witness beheadings in Pakistan's tribal areas. In August, more than 300,000 Sufis showed up to honor Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.
Moments of optimism indeed. But speculating a moment longer, Ernst's point about Sufism's deep roots in Sindh brings up an interesting idea: In thinking about the interplay of the past and the present, one might argue for a renewed examination of the built environment, asking questions like How are cities built? and How do people make use of their buildings? Never having been to Pakistan, I have no sense of the relative character of Peshawar and Karachi. My sense, however, is that Islamabad is a newer city, one built in response to the rapid demographic changes that Pakistan has seen in the past sixty years. Karachi's history - and its built environment - might well be much deeper, and there may be a way in which the age of that city insists upon or imposes a different kind of religious practice.

A while back, I took a course on Islamic radicalism where the professor insisted that Islamist movements cannot simply be understood as reactionary, conservative or fundamentalist. Those descriptions, he suggested, obscured the modernist orientation of many of these movements (he cited al-Qaeda in particular). Might Islamabad, with its built environment, be more amenable to Islamist movements? By the same token, might Karachi, with its comparatively rich past and current practice, encourage a more pluralist perspective on the present?

Honestly, probably not, inasmuch as positing some causal relationship between a place and the people who are from there is problematic. All the same, it's an interesting line of thinking.


Jordan M said…
I keep telling you I'll send it to you as a reminder for me to finish it.

Dalrymple is quite a fan of Sufism. Here's an article from TimeAsia. Another recent one about Pakistan in general is here and one about madrasas here. One of the ones regarding Pakistan I continue to go back to is this one about representations of India and Pakistan in the media.
welshcyclist said…
Sorry tamerlane, nothing to do with your post, which I enjoyed, but the picture of the bridge on your home page, where is it located?
Jordan M said…
I could be wrong but I think T took it in le Turkey?
Timur said…
The bridge is in eastern Turkey - a little ways east of Rize, on the Black Sea coast. Let me know if you want any more specific location than that, as the name of the particular valley is eluding me right now.

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