IS SUFISM RELEVANT TO OUR TIME?
By Mubarak Ali
There are some people who, in view of the present religious extremism, believe that if sufi teachings are revived, religious intolerance and fundamentalism may be controlled. The attempt to revive the past system and old ideas is not a new phenomenon. Those societies which are backward and have no creative and innovative capability to come up with new ideas and thoughts in response to new challenges, look around for some old and used ideas as tools to solve their problems.
Marx’s comment in this regard, in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, is very relevant. He writes that “And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never existed, precisely in such periods 0f revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language”
Thus, those who argue about the usefulness of past, fail to realize that every system is a product of a specific time and space. It plays its role and, after that, becomes redundant. Changing circumstances require new and fresh responses to meet the emerging challenges.
In the sub-continent Sufism flourished in the 13 century almost at the same time as the establishment of Turkish rule in India. It was a period of struggle against the local rulers who were fighting to check the political domination of the invaders. At this critical juncture, the Sultans of Delhi needed the spiritual support of of the Sufis to inspire their soldiers to fight against the infidels. That is why they supported the Sufis and sought their blessings in war or in any crisis.
Two leading Sufi orders, Chishtiya and Suharwardiya played an important role during the Sultanate period. Their philosophy of Wahdat al Wujud created religious tolerance and checked conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The same policy was followed by the rulers who fully realized that they could not sustain the occupation relying only on military power. The subjugated people needed to assured that they would be treated with tolerance. The Khanqahs and shrines of the Sufi Saints established a parallel system to keep the people satisfied with the political system.
Generally the Sufis do not incite the people to rebellion or encourage them to protest against the rulers. They exhorted the people to endure suffering and seek spiritual salvation for their worldly problems. Submission and obedience were principles observed by their disciples. Realizing their spiritual importance, the Sultans and the nobility built monasteries for them and financially supported them to maintain their establishments. The Sufis always relied on the donation of the rulers or nobles. This is how the Sufis of the Sultanate period supported the political system and never raised a voice against it.
However, the situation changed during the Mughal period. Once Akbar extended his empire and consolidated the power of the Mughal dynasty, the Mughal emperors did not need the support of the Sufi saints and their blessings. Akbar briefly expressed hjs devotion to Sheikh Salim Chishti and Khwaja Moinuddin, but did not involve them in his political affairs. He brought the Hindus and the Muslims politically and socially, following his policy of ‘sulh-e-kul’ or peace with all. It created a shared culture and shared history in which both communities equally contributed. It continued throughout the Mughal rule. Thus tolerance was achieved without any assistance of the Sufis, putting the Sufis in the background rather than in the forefront.The emperors were not pursuing them for any blessing .Dara Shikoh’s interest in Sufism was more academic than a means to apply it in practical politics. And we can see that his Sufi mentors did not save him from his disaster.
Interestingly, with the decline of the Mughal Empire the institution of Sufism also declined. During the later Mughal period when there was political anarchy and social breakdown, a large number of fake Sufis emerged who were fooling the people with their tricks. With the collapse of the political system and social values, both the rich and the poor, instate of helplessness, began to believe that Sufis, who impressed them by keeping long hair, wearing saffron colored dress and numerous stone rings on their fingers, would solve their day to day problems through their spiritual power. However, the whole scene changed during the Colonial period and the establishment of their political system. Political stability relegated Sufism to an insignificant position.
Those in Pakistan, who are interested in fighting against religious extremism, should first understand it in the present context and then encounter it with fresh ideas to change the political and social structure of the society. Society can neither be reformed by reviving old andrusted ideas nor by delivering sermons and reciting Sufi poetry.