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.