Dhikr (zikr) and Sama: Symbols of a Religious Institution, Expressions of Love and Annihilation (fana)

When this Earth was not there

When this heaven was not there

And the when secret of Haq was not revealed

And there was nothing here

But there was only You, and You, and You, ALLAH HOO!

(An Urdu mystical Qawwalli by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)

Dhikr and sama are two of the most visible symbols of the Sufi tradition.  Dhikr simply means recollection of God, and may involve repetition of divine names or religious formulas either silently or aloud, and quite often with a captivating rhythm.  Sama refers to a mystical concert or dance to achieve wajd, which literally means “finding”, but in Sufi contexts it metaphorically implies ecstasy in the realization and presence of God[i].  The following paper argues that beyond being very important symbols of institutionalized Sufism, dhikr and sama  are also very important meditative techniques that address the heart of the Sufi philosophical and mystical tradition.  In fact it is most likely that, because dhikr and sama offer possibilities for contemplation of the fundamental Sufi metaphysical concerns of love and annihilation, that they have indeed become the most visible symbols of the institution.  The paper primarily discusses two themes: first how the genres of dhikr and sama have been vehicles for contemplation of love and annihilation; and second, how dhikr and sama may have contributed to the enormous success of the Sufi Islam in the Muslim world, and its continued popularity among the overwhelming majority of the Muslims world wide.

Dhikr is the distinctive ritual and free prayer of the Sufi.  It is considered by many as the most important pillar in the path to God because one cannot reach God without constantly remembering Him[ii].  Love is the last station on the mystical path and fana is the end of that path.  The origins of Sufi preoccupation with the love of God can be traced from the prayer ascribed to the prophet, as quoted by Schimmel[iii].

O God, give me love of Thee, and love of those who love Thee, and love of what makes me approach Thy love, and Thy love dearer to me than cool water (p. 131).

The other starting point could be the following Hadith Qudsi, again as quoted by Schimmel[iv].

My servant ceases not to draw nigh unto Me by works of devotion, until I love him, and when I love him I am the eye by which he sees and the ear by which he hears.  And when he approaches a span, I approach a cubit, and when he comes walking I come running (p. 133).

In light of the above, the Sufis consider an all encompassing and all consuming love of the One as a necessary prerequisite for a mystical experience.  Dhikr and sama play a very important role in instilling this love of God in the mystics.  One cannot really love somebody and not remember him or her constantly.  Love, expression of love, and remembrance of the beloved cannot be limited to the ritualistic five prayer times or any other prescribed occasions, they have to be constant, intense and all consuming.  Dhikr leads to complete spiritualization, for God has promised in the Hadith Qudsi, as quoted by Schimmel, ‘I am the companion of him who recollects Me[v].’  Dhikr is generally divided into two branches—vocal recollection (dhikr alaniya, jali, lisani) and the recollection in the heart (dhikr khafi, qalbi).  The later is recognized as superior to the former, as Schimmel quotes Kharraz[vi]:

A recollection with the tongue not felt by the heart—that is the usual recollection; a recollection with the tongue in which the heart is present—that is a recollection seeking reward, and a recollection when the heart is wandering in recollection and lets the tongue be silent, and the worth of such recollection is known only to God (p. 171).

Dhikr was later theoretically formalized, e.g., Schimmel describes Sha’rani’s seven fold formulation: dhikr al-lisan—with the tongue; dhikr an-nafs—which is not audible but consists of inner movements and feelings; dhikr al-qalb—when one contemplates God’s glory in its inner recesses; dhikr al-ruh—when mediation leads to perception of the lights of the attributes; dhikr as-sirr—in the innermost heart, when divine mysteries are revealed; dhikr al-khafiy—the vision of the light of the beauty of essential unity; and finally, the dhikr al khafi–the most secret, which is the vision of the Reality of the Absolute Truth (haqq al-yaqin)[vii].  There have also been more formal and elaborate formulations of dhikr among the various silsilas (Sufi orders).  The recitation of the various names of God and the meditation on those names has been a particularly popular mode of dhikr with most Sufi silsilas, again with the intention of expressing one’s intense love fo rthe One and in a constant quest for His companionship.  It also may not be out of place to mention here that some of the most beautiful poetry in the Islamic world, e.g., that of Maulana Rumi, Shah Abdul Latif and Sultan Bahu in South Asia, has been a mode of dhikr.  In fact, some of the most captivating musical genres in the Islamic world, including my personal favorite—qawwalli—are basically just modes of dhikr.

The ultimate objective of a Sufi is to attain fana (annihilation), and dhikr is also useful to that end.  As mentioned in one of my earlier papers on Sufism, in the philosophical and legalistically disposed schools of Islam, humans and God are two separate entities and their relationship is like that between a slave and a master, or a lover yearning for the beloved.  According to these legalistic orthodox schools of Islamic thought, humans can only meet God upon death, while in the Sufi conception of things, one can encounter God, while still living and breathing in this world.  Humans and God are not necessarily separate entities, and the object of Sufi contemplation is to try to regain union with the One infinite God.  The mystical life for the Sufi, as described by Schimmel, is a permanent striving to[viii]:

return to one’ origin, that origin that was in God and from which everything proceeds, so that eventually the mystic should reach the state, “in which he was before he was.”  That is the state of the primordial covenant (sura 7:171), when God was alone and what was created in time was not yet existent.  Only then can man perfect tawhid; only then can one witness the God is one from eternity to eternity (p. 58).

Dhikr is also an important way of getting to the primordial covenant as Schimmel again describes, that in response to God’s query alastu birabbikum ‘Am I not your Lord?’ the man answers[ix]

 with words of glorification, until in permanent recollection he may reach the stage in which the subject is lost in the object, in which recollection, recollecting subject, and the recollected object become again one, as they were before the Day of Alast.  What has been created disappears, and the only tru subject, the everlasting God, is as He had been and will be (p. 172).

Sama is particularly pertinent in this respect of the attainment of fana.  The quest to gain freedom from oneself by attaining wajd or ecstasy of finding the One through, singing, dancing and even narcotics, formed the practice of sama or mystical dance and music.  It was a very controversial mode of meditation especially with the sober legalists who frowned upon music anyway.  Some of the more sober orders like the Naqshbandiyya followed the example of the theologians and the legalists in banning the use of dance as a form of religious worship, but other, e.g., the Chishti orders in South Asia encouraged it and the Mevlevi order of the whirling dervishes went so far as to institutionalize it[x]Sama is understood by the Sufis to be an expression of their ecstatic love for God and a metaphoric action of breaking the fetters of the body as a step towards unfettering the soul, which wants to fly off and reach the communion with the beloved.  Rumi the most famous advocate of sama describes the dance as ‘movement induced by the vision of the beloved, who himself may dance on the screen of the lover’s heart in the hour of ecstasy’[xi].  Abu Hafs Suhrawardi has described the significance of sama as follows[xii]:

 Music does not give rise, in the heart, to anything which is not already there; so he whose inner self is attached to anything else than God is stirred by music to sensual desire, but the one who is inwardly attached to the love of God is moved, by hearing music, to do his will . . . [to the spiritually perfect] through music, reveals Himself unveiled (p. 182).

With the crystallization and formalization of sufi brotherhoods or Tariqahs starting in the tenth and eleventh century, Sufis also got their own places of worship and meditation known as khanqahs or zawiyahs.  These places were often called samakhanas, where Sufis could listen to music and dance.  Often the place for these khanqahs or zawiyahs was the tomb of the founder of the Sufi order or other important personalities in the order.  It was partially this spatial concentration of the Sufi activities that was to later prove instrumental in the acceptance of the Sufi Islam by the masses.  It is to the discussion of the role of dhikr and sama in the resounding success of the Sufi Islam in the general populace that we now turn.

Dhikr and sama provided an outlet for the religious emotions of the pious, a need which was not necessarily fulfilled by ritual prayer.  It was this informal and more passionate aspect of the Sufi fraternities that attracted the masses[xiii].  The paradox that the subjective, ineffable, and deeply personal experiences of Sufism could become a basis for social life and become historically decisive, and the fact that the most personal and esoteric form of piety should become most popular, can be partially explained by the prevalence of dhikr and sama among the Sufi fraternities[xiv].  In many of the pre-Islamic religions of the present lands of Islam, unstructured worship, meditative techniques, music and dance were integral part of religious and spiritual life[xv]Dhikr and sama provided an outward sense of continuity to the ordinary people of these areas with their religio-cultural traditions and acted as a bridge between the old and the new.  The obvious Sufi piety, the institutional strength of Sufism in the form of fraternities, and the hierarchical structures of the fraternities in the form of the pir (master) and murid (disciple) institution made the whole enterprise very attractive to the general public.

Dhikr and sama were also the main means by which, the Sufis were able to combine their spiritual elitism with a social populism.  Dhikr and sama sessions of the Sufi fraternities were not just limited to the active disciples, they were open to the ordinary people, at time of all religious persuasions, who attended for the sake of pious edification or a sheer blessing[xvi].  This was also coupled with a remarkable tolerance of the Sufi masters towards other religions and the ability to see something good in all of them, e.g., Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi whose pious humanistic teachings had a very wide appeal among both Hindus and Muslims.  Each of the Sufi fraternities cultivated their own peculiar brand and mode of dhikr and sama, and that served the purpose of distinguishing each of the brotherhoods, as well as an attractive outward symbol of their collective spirituality to the lay public.  Perhaps it was precisely because of the Sufis’ universalistic Islamic messages eased the transition of the new converts from one religion to Islam that they were so successful in gaining converts.  It is often said, for example, that metaphorically speaking all Indonesians are mystics.  If that held true in pre-Islamic days then it is hardly surprising that it was the Sufis who were the main channel for the propagation of Islam in South East Asia.

It takes more than just a logical argument or two, or strict rationality and reason to get people to abandon their religion and cosmology developed over thousands of years, in favor of a relatively upstart religion like Islam.  Sufis by bridging the gap between the old and the new through their transcendental spirituality did an enormous service to Islam.  I am constantly struck in my study of Sufism by the similarities between its spirituality and the spiritual underpinnings of other great religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.  Dhikr and sama have been the most potent instruments in the hands of Sufis for both a deeper and emotional understanding of their own spirituality, as well as for communicating it to the lay public.  Love and fana underlie the Sufi spirituality and also define it.  To draw a somewhat crass analogy for lack of a better one, just as scientists seek truth about the nature of things through the scientific positivist method the Sufi spirituals express their love and seek fana through the techniques of dhikr and sama.  It can be a subject of debate as to how much the true Sufi message pervaded the batin (hidden) life of the ordinary people who profess to be followers of various orders, but there can be no doubt that dhikr and sama are the two of the most obvious ways in which the people’s lives and their cultures have been enriched.   Dhikr and sama by their communal nature, and consistency with preexisting cultural traditions in many societies, are the most obvious ways for people to have something of a spiritual experience.

[i] Schimmel, Annemarie, 1975. Mystical dimensions of Islam, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid. p. 131.

[iv] Ibid. p. 133.

[v] Ibid. p. 168.

[vi] Ibid. p. 171.

[vii] Ibid. p. 174.

[viii] Ibid. p. 58.

[ix] Ibid. p. 172.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. p. 185.

[xii] Ibid. p. 182.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Hodgson, Marshall G. S., 1974. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Vol. 2, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA.

[xv] Schimmel 1975.

[xvi] Hodgson 1974.


Nasir al-Din Qunawi and Objectives of Sufi Thought

I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creatures that I might be known. (Chittick, p. 60)

To start it would be useful to review the statement by Abu ‘l Hasan Fushanja as quoted by al-Hujwiri: “Today Sufism is a name without a reality, but formerly it was a reality without a name . . .[i] ”  The statement begs the obvious questions as to, what is Sufism? and what constitutes its reality?  A number of scholars have tried to address the question but among the original texts very few come close to the pertinence, clarity and conciseness of the three treatises of Nasir al-Din Qunawi, as translated by William C. Chittick.  Instead of going into deep philosophical proofs and heavy weight theosophy and theology, Qunawi in a very pleasant and light manner relates his understanding of the goals and praxis of Sufism, with extensive use of poetry and references from other Sufi thinkers.  In his three treatises he uses the word Sufi only once, partially owing to the stigma attached to the name, as is evident from the above quote from Fushanja.  He instead refers to Sufis as the people who use gnosis and revelation to gain a deeper understanding of God.  With this indirect reference, Qunawi then proceeds to address the questions of what is Sufism? and what is its relationship to Islam?  The answers he gives, and Chittick further elaborates, are no different from the answers that other Sufi masters e.g. al-Hallaj, Rumi or Ibn al-Arabi would have given.  The other masters however would have never felt the need to address the question because they could not distinguish between Sufism and Islam, Islam was Sufism and vice-versa.  As we shall see Qunawi comes to essentially the same conclusion.

Nasir al-Din Qunawi was the step son of the great Sufi master Ibn al-Arabi and a close friend of the foremost Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi.  Although it is not entirely clear if Qunawi was indeed the author of the three texts: Rising Places of Faith, Clarification for Beginners and Reminders for Advanced, and The Easy Roads of Sayf al-Din, the texts are still valuable because they provide a perspective on Islam that treats Sufi thought as integral and even central, to the broader Islamic religion[ii]2.  Qunawi uses many references to texts by other Sufi masters as well as to various hadith qudsi, but unlike a muhaddith (an authority in the science of hadith) he is careless about the authenticity of the hadith.  His approach like most Sufis is that of a muhaqqiq (verifier) and an arif (Gnostic)–he establishes the truth of the sayings through unveiling and direct experience.  In other words he has been there himself and has tasted the truth, and he does not care much about proving anything to himself or to anybody else[iii].

Qunawi starts by distinguishing people into two categories: the people of the creed, i.e., the ones who follow the prophets and their shariahs; and the people of the companions of the schools, who rely solely on rational mental faculties to understand the nature of things.  The companions of the schools have logical proofs and reasoning that conflict in the extreme and consequently make them subject to heresy[iv].

Let your natural reason go

before your soul assumes

the form of every heretic’s imaginings

through logical proof.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 36)

The people of the creed on the other hand are subdivided into three groups[v]:

  1. the people of faith in the unseen, who accept the revealed word by the prophet and the Quran unquestioningly.
  2. the ulema and people of heedfulness and consideration, who concern themselves with the details of the Shariah and try to lead a righteous life in the light of the Quran and the sunnah.
  3. and the friends of God and possessors of the unveiling (or simply Sufis), who are intoxicated in his love and contemplation of the alast, the primordial covenant[vi].

Qunawi perceives the faith in God, as symbolized by the statement[vii] “There is no power and no strength but in God” as the first rising place of faith.  The first rising place has three stars: the knowledge of the essence, true knowledge of the attributes, and true knowledge of the acts.  The second rising place, or tier of faith, is the faith in prophesy, which has its own three tiered sub-structure.  And the last tier of faith is the faith in the day of judgment, again with its own two tiered sub-structure.  He squarely places himself within the third group of the people of the creed and identifies four authorities for them: the Book of God, the sunnah of the Messenger, the consensus of the Community, and the heart.  By the heart he means the heart described by a hadith qudsi, “My heaven embraces Me not, nor My earth, but the heart of My faithful, gentle, and meek servant does embrace Me.”[viii]  It is this fourth authority of the heart that distinguishes Sufis from ordinary Muslims and as he goes on to discuss in his second treatise, he cannot imagine a full understanding of Islam without this authority.

The Sufi thought is directed towards:[ix]

  • true knowledge of the creator, His essence, attributes and acts;
  • understanding the reality and properties of the stages of friendship with the creator and the stages of prophecy;
  • and true knowledge of this world and the next world.

In the first instance of gaining knowledge of the creator the Sufi is seeking to spiritually, even existentially, experiencing God.  The Sufis take the above quoted hadith qudsi about God being a hidden treasure, quite literally.  The object of the exercise is to remove the veils that hide this hidden treasure and to witness oneself the glory, the true tawhid, only to discover that there is no tawhid to be expressed[x]

None recognizes God but God.  None says God but God.  He who supposes that he has expressed tawhid has associated others with God.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 70)

This brings us to the level of friendship with God.  The ultimate goal of all Sufi thought is to attain annihilation in Him, which is Unity and not admixture.  “The Gnostic recognizes the infinite Essence of the Real in Its attribute of being the Eternal Refuge, and comes to know the realities and mysteries of majesty and generous giving.”[xi]  The Sufi seeks to attain this annihilation by occupying himself/herself exclusively with God, to the exclusion of everything else,

When people occupy themselves with Me, I send to them what I created for them.  But when they occupy themselves with what I created for them, I veil them from Myself.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 77)

The annihilation as a goal is the end of the road on the path of friendship with God.  It is manifested by a realization of the wahdat al-shahud and wahdat al-wujud[xii]

When the majesty of this nearness casts its shadow upon the Gnostic, he sees that Mustafa, Gabriel, the Lote Tree, the person of faith, the truth concealer, an ant, and a gnat are all equally near to the Self-subsistent Being.  This is the meaning of You see no disparity in the creation of the Merciful (67:3). To God belong the East and the West–whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God.  God is All-embracing, All-knowing (2:115).

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 83)

The friendship is not equal to the station of prophecy because prophets once having witnessed and being annihilated, turn around to call people to God, Sufis on the other hand are more self-indulgent:[xiii]

O desire

of the desirous,

take me from myself

to Thyself!

Love for Thee took away

my we-ness and I-ness–

Thy love leaves

no choice but selflessness.

This group has no share in the tastings of prophecy, and they are not made to busy themselves with calling people to God.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 91)

One of the most important methods for attaining this goal of annihilation is content dhikr (zikr in urdu) of the God’s beautiful names and contemplation of the essences of those names, for the names are “all meanings, standpoints, relationships and attributions.  They are identical with the essence inasmuch as no existent thing can be found there other than the essence.”[xiv]  As for other specific methods and practices, Qunawi seems to stress certain practices and attitudes of mind on the path to annihilation.  Qunawi does go into an extensive description of the practices required of a Muslim, but for a Gnostic on a path to annihilation his prescription is fairly simple

God looks not at your forms or your works, but He looks at your hearts

In the heart

keep no more than one.

In the house

let there be a thousand.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 96)

The ultimate goal of annihilation seems universal for all Sufis, the method may differ in outward form, but at the deeper spiritual and psychological level there can be little difference.  Of course Qunawi considers the dictates of the Shariah very important and almost indispensable in the path, but he also adds the dimension of the tariqah, which of course could vary in outward form, but not in fundamentals.  Without love of God and all encompassing preoccupation with him, it seems difficult to imagine how any Sufi could approach the goal.

An investigation of the place of Sufism on the map of Islamic thought takes us back to the three levels of Islam, islam, iman and ihsan.  As discussed in my first paper, all of these categories build upon each other, and the one who has ihsan necessarily has achieved islam and iman.  The Sufi is concerned with the attainment of ihsan, the highest level of perfection, and has therefore necessarily achieved the iman  and islam.  Within ihsan there are the additional dimensions of ikhlas and taqwa and if one were to ask which perspective in Islamic thought allows one to have a general overview of all three, ihsan, ikhlas and taqwa, the answer would inevitably have to be Sufism.[xv]  The goal and methods of Sufism have no comparison with the orthoprax Islam of the Shariah because it is concerned with the higher dimension of Islamic religiosity and would therefore necessarily incorporate them.

It is a misconception that Sufism is an esoteric and peripheral appendage to the ‘real’ Islam of the experts in jurisprudence and theology.  It is also a misconception that Sufis in their quest for union with God can ignore the revealed will of God through Shariah:[xvi]

I want union with Him

but He wants separation from me–

I abandon what I want

for what He wants.

How does one know what God wants if one does not have ‘direct and intimate knowledge of God?’  Muslims reply that the Shariah tells you what God wants.  Sufi Muslim add that God also wants people to follow the tariqah, but in His mercy, He does not place a burden on them that they cannot bear.  God charges a soul only to its capacity (2:286).

(Chittick p. 172)

The tariqha demands the most serious commitment and the highest level of dedication, beyond what can be expected of the general multitude.  Since its objective is perfection—ihsan–it is obviously much more rigorous, but much more desirable as well.  Therefore people seeking the path of perfection may be few in numbers, but to marginalize them based on their numbers, and difficulty of their path, is inconsistent with Islamic teachings.  The entire religion of Islam is geared towards improvement of humanity, submission to God, and those who seek to take that mission to its logical conclusion cannot be anything but central to it.  To conclude, Chittick (1992: p. 178) articulated the place of Sufism better than I ever could:

In other words, their (Sufis) concerns are directed toward full submission (islam) to God on the three levels of works, faith, and perfection.  They try to make all their acts, all their ideas and concepts, and all their psychic and spiritual states conform to the Real.  Tawhid, taken to its fullest expression, means that nothing in the human being stands outside a relationship with God.  The Sufi is the person who is fully aware of this and draws every necessary conclusion.  The verifier is the person who lives this as his or her own personal and objective reality.

Sufism from this point of view, is simply full and complete actualization of the faith and practice of Islam.  The verified Sufi is the perfect Muslim.  To become a Sufi in the true sense is to become a muwahhid, one who establishes tawhid or asserts the unity of God, not simply with the tongue (which is the domain of works), but also with the understanding (faith) and the whole being (perfection).  By this definition, Islam without Sufism is an aberration from the Koranic norm.

[i] al-Hujwiri, Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi, 1967: Kashf al-Mahjub, The Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufiism, New Edition, by Reynold A. Nicholson, London, UK, p. 44.

[ii] Chittick, William C, 1992: Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA, p. xi.

[iii] Ibid. p. 26.

[iv] Ibid. p. 36.

[v] Ibid. p. 37.

[vi] Schimmel, Annemarie, 1975: Mystical Dimension of Islam, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA, p. 24.

[vii] Chittick, p. 38.

[viii] Ibid. p. 54.

[ix] Ibid. pp. 63-97.

[x] Ibid. p. 70.

[xi] Ibid. p. 68.

[xii] Ibid. p. 83.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 91.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 72.

[xv] Ibid. p. 165.

[xvi] Ibid. p. 172.

Sufism and its Place in Islam

“Well, everything I know, he sees[i]

The above quote by Avicenna, an eleventh century philosopher and a scientist, after a long conversation with a Sufi Shaykh Abu Sa’id Abi’l-Khayr is a good beginning point to explore the inter linkages of Sufism with Islam, and the place of the Sufi tradition within the broader Islamic thought.  The deceptively simple quote can be contextualized within the three dimensional structure of the religion Islam as described by the Prophet Muhammad: Islam (submission), Iman (faith) and Ihsan (virtue)[ii].  One enters the religion of Islam by Islam, i.e., verbally proclaiming to submit to God’s will and following His message as revealed to Prophet Muhammad.  Entering Islam at the very least involves practicing the five pillars–bearing Shahadah (bearing witness) and saying the kalima there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, offering prayers five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, paying Zakat (alms-tax), and performing Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) if one has the means to do so.  Once having entered the circle of Islam one has to establish iman (faith) in tawhid (the assertion of God’s unity), nabuwwa Prophet hood of Muhammad, and ma’ad (the Return to God).  And the third dimension of Islam is ihsan which can be literally translated to mean beautiful and good but is meant to signify perfection of virtue[iii].


The above diagram represents my understanding of the tripartite structure of Islam as described by the Prophet.  The first dimension of submission has traditionally been the domain of Islamic jurisprudence.  The jurists are those ulema who are experts in the five pillars and other activities prescribed by the Shariah (literally the way, but practically jurisprudence, as interpreted by the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence).  This level also forms the basis of Islam.  One can have islam without the iman but one cannot have iman without islam.  One can also attain iman without attaining ihsan, but one cannot attain ihsan without attaining both islam and iman.  So the three dimensions of the religion can be thought of as a three tiered pyramid.  Sufism has traditionally been associated with the contemplation of iman and ihsan.  Of course locating the object of Sufi contemplation within Islamic thought begs the follow-up question, what is Sufism? and who is a Sufi?

The word Sufi is derived from the root suf, which means a woolen cloth.  In popular conception Sufis are mystics who are careless about worldly trappings and lead a simple life, symbolized by the woolen cloth that mystics wear, and which is their only property.  Moving on from why Sufis are called Sufis, which was a function of their life style in popular conception, one wonders what is so different about their contemplation of the religious matters, and what distinguishes them from philosophers and theologians?  Sufi ontology and epistemology both distinguish them from the better known schools of religious philosophy and theology.  Annemarie Schimmel’s quotation of a famous story by Rumi is instructive to understand the Sufi ontology[iv].

. . . the blind men . . . when they were made to touch an elephant, each described it according to the part of the body his hands had touched: to one elephant appeared like the throne, to another, like a fan, or like a water pipe, or like a pillar.  But none was able to imagine what the whole animal looked like. (p: 3)

Speaking in terms of the above metaphor, Sufis want to be rid of the blindness afflicting the general multitude and like the philosophers, want to understand the real nature of the proverbial elephant–Islam–in its entirety.  However the mystical Sufi conception goes even beyond the physical existence of the elephant–Islam– and actually seeks to understand the essence behind its physical or intellectually comprehensible form.  This is what Annemarie calls the ‘mysticism of infinity’, where the world is considered to possess only finite reality–wujud –which is conditionally derived from the necessary reality of the infinite divine being–wajib al-wujud.

Whereas the philosophical and theosophical epistemologies employ reason and some mysticism in limited doses, Sufi epistemologies rely heavily on revelation or direct knowledge given by God, which is called by names like Kashf  (unveiling), dhawq (tasting, Urdu zhawq), shuhud (witnessing), and basira (insight)[v].  Sana’i contrasted the Sufi with the Kufi, the learned lawyer Abu Hanifa from Kufa.  Whereas one relies on books and intellectual arguments and reasoning to understand the nature of things and of Islam, Sufi relies on contemplation and gnosis and often throws away the books once having reached the goal.

The ontological and epistemological differences between philosophical and theosophical schools and the Sufis imply radically different conceptions of human interaction with God.  In the philosophical and theosophical schools, humans and God are two separate entities and their relationship is like that between a slave and a master, or a lover yearning for the beloved.  In the philosophical school humans can only meet God upon death while in the Sufi conception of things one can encounter God while already in this world.  Humans and God are not necessarily separate entities, and the object of Sufi contemplation is to try to regain union with the One infinite God.  A common theme in Sufi thought is rejection of heaven or hell, dismissing them as incidental to the real purpose of mystical striving, which is to seek that communion with God and God alone.  The mystical life for the Sufis, as described by Schimmel, is a permanent striving to[vi]:

return to one’s origin, that origin that was in God and from which everything proceeds, so that eventually the mystic should reach the state “in which he was before he was.”  That is the state of the primordial covenant (Sura 7:171), when God was alone and what is created in time was not yet existent.  Only then can man perfect tawhid; only then can one witness that God is one from eternity to eternity (p. 58).

Hallaj the great Sufi martyr phrased the same project in the words that “it is enough for the lover that he should make the One single”–i.e. the lover’s existence is an impediment to that final union and therefore must be removed from the way to consummate the love.

Over time Sufism developed from austere asceticism of the early year into a mystical creed of selfless love of the One with a theory of intuitive knowledge of God ma’rifa, or gnosis, as opposed to ilm (discursive learning and knowledge).  Arif, people who have attained ma’rifa according to Dhu’n-Nun are defined in following words[vii],

They are not themselves, but in so far as they exist at all they exist in God.  Their movements are caused by God, and their words are the words of God which are uttered by their tongues, and their sight is the sight of God, which has entered into their eyes.  So God Most High has said: “When I love a servant, I, the Lord, am his ear so that he hears by Me, I am his eye, so that he sees by Me, and I am his tongue so that he speaks by Me, and I am his hand, so that he takes by Me.”

The above emphasis on the possibility of a living human to have the mystical experience suggests that the codified, and latter ossified Islamic law and societal norms did not always bind the practitioners of the Sufi way.  Whereas on the one hand this provided wonderful opportunity for individuals to strive for their own communion with God it also opened the door for people who had pretensions to being mystics but had no substance to their claims.  The earlier reverence that the general public had developed for the wisdom and piety of the Sufis was cashed upon subsequently by many a deranged and at times even sane people pretending to be deranged, whose apparent lack of regard for social norms was considered to be a sign of their mystical credentials.  So prevalent did this practice become from tenth century onwards that even genuinely pious people at times winced at being called a Sufi, lest they should be identified with the fakes.  Unkempt appearance and incoherent talk were mistaken as signs of mystical powers, and many a street fools were raised to the pedestal of Sufis by the general public.

As with the quote at the beginning of the paper, Sufism is an alternative system of inquiry into the subtleties of spiritual Islamic life, with different ontologies and epistemologies from the dominant and better known philosophical modes of inquiry.  Being able to internalize a certain concept to the extent of proverbially seeing it, as opposed to just knowing it, may involve a higher level of consciousness and proximity to the truth but one cannot falsify what another sees.  And therein lies the major pitfall of Sufism.  It may offer a universe of spiritual possibilities, but it is so personal, and shall we say so mystical, that nobody can really tell the true mysticism from pretense.  So it is hardly surprising that for every true Sufi over time, we observe scores of pretenders.

[i] Avicenna, as quoted by Chittick, William C. 1992: Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA, p. 18.

[ii] Chittick (1992: 2).

[iii] Chittick (1992).

[iv] Schimmel, Annemarie 1975: Mystical Dimension of Islam, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

[v] Chittick (1992).

[vi] Schimmel (1975).

[vii] Schimmel (1975: 69).

Ladies and Gentlemen–Behold the Saviour!

Imran Khan is the greatest sportsman that Pakistan  has produced. One can  also only admire his accomplishments as a philanthropist  in building  and then running the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital. There can be  little doubt about Mr Khan’s sincerity towards his country and his  desire to  see Pakistan better than it is. Like most people who are much  blessed in so  many ways, Imran Khan also has the curse of a monumental  ego. And that ego has  led him into politics. Egged on by that other of  god’s charges to Pakistan, the  F-sectory/Defence/Gulberg/Hayatabad  elite, Imran has become a spokesperson against Pakistan’s ongoing fight  against the Taliban and extremism. Imran has religiously maintained  moral and political ambivalence in the face of Taliban’s inhumanity and  has instead unhelpfully laid all the blame at the foot of—who else—but the Americans.

Maybe  a history lesson is in order for our good friend, because  while he was an international  star, yours humbly was doing research in  central Punjab. During that time,  Imran Khan’s ex-guru General Hamid  Gul was also in the neighbourhood addressing  rallies of thousands of  Lashkar-e-Tayyaba recruits in Shorkot, Multan,  Khanewal, Mian Channu  and so on. Those were also the days when every other day  a mosque  congregation was being gunned down or blown up in central Punjab. That  was also the time, when dispossessed, oppressed and exploited rural  masses in  southern Punjab were seeing their children finding a semblance of dignity  through their association with the Kashmir Jihad.  Young men, who could not  raise their eyes in front of the landlords and  Police, could walk down the  streets of Kabirwala brandishing weapons  with no fear of interference from the  civilian state machinery. Arms  caches were openly being maintained in  seminaries all over southern  Punjab. One could not go to a mosque without being  accosted by a  Lashkar, Sipah or other jihadi outfits’ recruiters.

I often say to people that I am more optimistic  about Pakistan today than I have  ever been in my adult life. This is  because my adulthood was synchronous with  the post-Zia dawn of  democracy in the country and the earnest beginnings of the  Kashmir  Jihad. Anybody with even one eye could see our intelligence agencies  piloting the country towards an abyss. Collection pots everywhere for the  jihad, bearded zealots cruising around in twin cabs brandishing  weapons, known  sectarian assassins, e.g., Masood Azhar being sprung  from police custody by men in shalwar  kameez and military  haircuts, Qiyas and Diyat bill, Islamization and so on. Well folks  twenty years of our military and civilian elites’ exertions bore fruit  in the  shape of Punjabi, Pathan and Afghan Taliban and something called  a strategic  depth for Pakistan.To  digress a little, as a geographer who knows a thing or two about geopolitics and in fact even teaches it to goras,  I am absolutely  stupefied at this notion of strategic depth. In my  classes, we spend some time  debunking these old early twentieth century  geopolitical myths as largely atlas  gazing nonsense. Our military  intellectuals, however, have apparently not  updated the curriculum at  the Command and Staff College, Quetta or the National  Defence University in decades.

But  returning to the optimism part, on the American  dictate — which was absolutely  the wrong reason for doing the right  thing — we reversed twenty years of  self-destructive Afghan and Kashmir  policy. Finally today, Pakistan is  confronting its demons of its own  creation, and by God it is painful. But then  what did we expect it to  be? Poor people in central Punjab, women in Khyber  Pakthtunkhwa and  families in Kashmir have been paying the very real price of  our jihadi  adventures for the past two decades. Now it is time for the  politco-military elites including the wily mullah diesel to pay the  price of  their misdeeds. In this moment of reckoning and painful  national exorcism Imran  Khan is telling us that we shouldn’t have  picked a fight with the Taliban at  the American’s behest. He is correct  we shouldn’t have — we should have picked  a fight with them and  destroyed them long before the Americans had ever asked  us. Even with  one less after the death of Osama bin-Laden, we cannot  morally  or practically afford Imran’s way.

From Bengal to Balochistan with Love

Late Dr. Eqbal Ahmed would relate the most interesting story of the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore, the iconic Bengali poet and intellectual, and the Indian nationalists in the 1920s and 30s. Robi Thakur—as Tagore was known among his admirers, was deeply hostile towards what he saw as a decidedly western model of nation states, and its underlying nationalist ideologies. In fact, he went on to declare that the unspeakable slaughter of World War I, was very much a symptom of a European disease–nationalism. It is then quite an irony that India and then Bangladesh chose Tagore poems as their national anthems.

Indian nationalists, including the Muslims, while aware of his hostility to their agenda, paid due homage to Tagore as a cultural giant. Tagore was against the British rule not because it was by the white man but rather because it was unjust. He flatly declared that the Indian nationalist project was based upon a politics of difference. Eqbal Ahmed quotes him as saying, ‘today you make a distinction between the white man and the brown man. Tomorrow you will make a distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim; the day after you will make a distinction between the North and the South. There is no end to the politics of difference’. He was prophetic, because that is indeed what came to pass. One could add that the day after Pakistan was created, we made a distinction between Muslim and Ahmadi, the day after we drew a line between West Pakistani and Bengali, the day after we drew a wall between Sunni and Shia, and now the Baloch nationalists want to repeat the odious formula one more time.

Robi Thakur wanted to see a decentralized India with the British perhaps as part of its future on an equal footing with its other inhabitants. He wished for an India whose ethnic and linguistic diversity was reflected in the flexibility and multiplicity of its political structures and institutions, with an underlying universal principle of social justice. Robi Thakur failed as did another messenger of equality through diversity, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—but that is another story. Instead victory belonged to the centralized Nehruvian state model, of which India and Pakistan were the first specimens followed by the entire post-colonial world.

Balochistan has legitimate grievances, but its grievances are no more urgent and legitimate than the grievances of poor farmers, workers, rag pickers, women and ethnic and religious minorities in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan or Azad Kashmir. Punjabi landlord, bureaucrat or general is no more kindly disposed towards the Punjabi labour activist, tenant farmer, or dissident artist or writer than the populace of Balochistan. The whole Okara Seed Farm fiasco is a useful piece of more recent anecdotal evidence to keep in mind.

For reasons that can be the topic of multiple dissertations, the Pakistani state relatively early decided to recast its nationalist ideology in the mould of right wing unitary religious identity and culture. That recasting resonated with the middle class migrants from India and then the Punjabi middle class of government servants, businessmen and industrialists, but had no traction with any of the other groups in the country. Ethno-nationalist movements in Pakistan, including Punjabi ethnonationalism, have always been aligned with the political left. It is little wonder then that because of that political chasm, a debate on political ideology and state formation descends into a vapid separatist discourse. The Baloch nationalists are as much to blame for this state of affairs, as is the Pakistani state.

Today Baloch nationalists voice the legitimate concerns of the poor and dispossessed Balochs in the language of separatism–and that too ironically from their high walled mansions in Karachi Defence. There are perhaps more Balochs working in Sindh and Punjab than live in the entire Pakistani province of Balochistan. The economies and societies of Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan are so intertwined that to speak of severing the connections is doing the ultimate disservice to the legitimate underlying message of local autonomy over local resources—yeah right—as if anywhere else in Pakistan has achieved that blessed state.

So in a free Balochistan there will be no appropriation of people’s resources by the elites? There will be no distinction between Baloch and Brahvi? Brahvi and Pashtun? Pashtun and Hazara? Would there be a repeat of the holocaust that was the India Pakistan partition? This is insane! The disenfranchised and oppressed Baloch will find no separate peace from the disenfranchised and oppressed Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtun or Kashmiri. Whatever we are, inner, outer, material, spiritual we are in it together. We have drawn lines and found that there is no separate national nirvana—votaries of Baloch separatism would do well to remember that.


Picking up any piece of writing, engaging in any casual conversation in Pakistan, nostalgia is almost like the invisible additional presence in any conversation. Times are just not the same any more. Military people are not the same clipped (fake) goras as before. The classy bars in hotels and military messes were such hotbeds of social rest and they are not anymore. The peace and liberality that prevailed before don’t exist anymore. Women could walk unmolested in Karachi and they can’t anymore. Islamabad was a leafy village and Pindi a classy Anglo town and they are not anymore. Or in a more historical mode–how great were the Muslim empires and look where we are now. How we wish we could revert to our (fictitious) Arab = Muslim roots. The list of things that Pakistanis across the political spectrum can get nostalgic about from food, to roads, to religion or even the weather is just endless.

I feel lucky to be alive at the same time as one of the greatest Urdu satirists, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. As an academic who dabbles in intellectual gymnastics such as post-structuralism and historical materialism, I am in awe of Yusufi Sahib’s sophisticated mind and his ability to proffer the most complex and serious thoughts about the most mundane topics in an exquisite comedic wrapping. With due apologies for my temerity, to all discerning Urdu readers and writers I translate below a text on nostalgia from Yusufi sahib’s Urdu book ‘Aab-e-gum’ (p. 17-18).

When a person finds the past more attractive than the present, and the future becomes altogether invisible–one can be sure that the person has gone old. It must be remembered that this enervating (youth-sapping) attack of dotage can happen at any age, especially during the prime of  youth. If opium or heroin is not available, the person can always find gratification in the last refuge of the tired and defeated–fantasies of the past. Just as some enterprising people can create their own future with their sagacity and hard work, these people can deploy their imagination to create their own past . . .

Sometime nations can impose past upon themselves as well. In fact, if one were to look closely, the real villain of the South Asian drama is the past. A nation’s level of moral, material and spiritual bankruptcy is typically in [direct geometric proportion] to its tendency to glorify and repeatedly recite its past. In every hour of difficulty and trial such a nation reverts to its past. And the past that it hearkens to is not the one that actually existed but the one that it has created and embellished as per its current biases and needs–an aspirational past! In this illusory context the peacock like dance of a bruised ego is spectacular–that the peacock does not just invent its dance but also the jungle in which it dances. And as it dances away there comes a magical moment when the entire jungle starts dancing itself and the peacock just looks on in stunned silence. Nostalgia is the tale of such a moment.

To add anything to the above would be sacrilege, beyond the one I have already committed by feigning to translate Yusufi sahib’s exquisite Urdu prose, but I will do it anyway.

Who are the purveyors of our aspirational past? Almost every non-academic Pakistani, especially of the right wing variety, echos the fantasy Islamic history by Naseem Hijazi. It is an article of faith with most Pakistanis that Muslim rule was always just, and glorious and Muslims were the receptacles of all the virtue and wisdom in the world. Muslim’s downfall came from softening of civilization and disunity, and in particular sexual indiscretions. This is generally the officially sanctioned perspective on Pakistan’s history. This perspective has on the one hand spawned almost an industry in nostalgia and on the other hand the pan-Islamic exertions of our defenders of the faith in the shape of Jihad in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Philippines and Central Asia. But the jungle we created has started dancing itself–in the shape of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and fellow travelers. Stunned silence is in the face of this dance is not an option.

Hello world!

This is my first attempt at a blog. I hope to use this blog to talk about cultural and political issues mostly pertaining to South Asia, but also to the world. Many of the posts will be from my writings for some Pakistani newspapers such as Islamabad Dateline and Dawn. I stopped writing for those papers because Dawn started censoring me. Evidently my views conflicted with the great Pakistani drawing room wisdom!

I am a Reader in Politics and Environment at King’s College, London. So advanced apologies if some of my writings are too insufferably academic. Point those out and I will be happy to amend. Look forward to keeping touch and hearing some critical feedback on my writings.