The Dawn: Nov 27, 2015

Punjab Notes: Sufism: commoditising of what is not a commodity

Mushtaq Soofi 

We live in a ‘white age’ where everything material and spiritual, tangible and intangible has been put on sale. The sacred, if not priced, becomes worthless and thus profane. The profane, if priced, becomes worthwhile and thus sacred. In other words, we live surrounded by modern day sacred profanities in a state of deceptive joyfulness.

The latest entry in the ever-increasing list of sacred profanities is Sufism, the ways of thinking and living associated with some of the great Muslim philosophers, poets, seers and ascetics. Sufism as perceived by state officials, politicians, scholars, corporate executives and managers of non-government organisations is ‘in thing’. It’s much celebrated and touted as a panacea for all kinds of socio-political ills that plague our society and the world. But if you discern this hallowed vaudeville, it exposes itself as a fistful of sand which imperceptibly slips out leaving you empty-handed.

Sufism, to begin with, is a misnomer simply because it’s not something homogenous. It’s not only heterogeneous but also carries contradictory ways of thinking and living if we look at its historical development in the subcontinent, especially in Punjab. Individuals now branded as Sufis neither used such an epithet for themselves nor felt shy of concealing the intellectual and spiritual differences, and at times contradictions which existed between their world-views and practices. So to lump them together is misleading.

There are different schools of thought in the realm of ‘Sufism’ and in each school we find people with different socio-spiritual practices. So when we talk of Sufis we must qualify what type of Sufis we are referring to. Some, spiritually inclined, are inclusive and thus reject the hierarchy-based exploitative socio-economic structure. They openly denounce class oppression and debunk the myth of inequality whether it’s economic, social and racial or faith-based. Their focus is on individual that in their opinion is a microcosm of the world and thus having an organic link with the collective is receptacle of divinity. And some, religiously inclined, are exclusive, elitist and pro-system. Their focus is also on individual but the one that conforms and accepts the given and thus concedes inequality as something natural. Salvation, in their opinion, lies in submission, not in defiance of the pre-existing. And thus a chosen few, not all, are endowed with the flame of divinity. These two positions are diametrically opposed.

Just one example will suffice to show how different two Sufis can be. Baba Farid Shakar Ganj and Bahauddin Zakariya Multani are highly venerated figures. But one cannot find two so dissimilar contemporaries in thought and practice in the intellectual and spiritual history of Punjab. After being installed as the head of Chishti School, Baba Farid left royalty-infested Delhi and settled permanently in a small but ancient town of Ajodhan now called Pakpattan, a hundred and twenty miles from Lahore. He built his monastery and seminary with mud and reeds which was open to all irrespective of caste, class, creed and faith. He renounced all his worldly possessions which were few in any case. His family ate from the monastery’s kitchen (Langar) that welcomed all and everyone. The kitchen offered the simplest food one could imagine.

He admitted everyone, poor or rich, to his seminary who wanted to be educated. None was accorded the preferential the treatment.

Baba Farid lived extremely simple and austere life, setting an example for his disciples and followers. He never accepted royal favours even when offered and kept his distance from the powerful. Though well-versed in Arabic and Persian, he wrote poetry in the people’s language, i.e. Punjabi. His choice of writing in the people’s language proved to be an act of far reaching historical significance. He came to be celebrated as the illustrious founder of modern Punjabi literary tradition.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bahauddin Zakariya, though a great scholar, rolled in wealth. He and the members of his family lived like royals. His monastery, huge and palatial, was open only to the sons of the elite. In his view, the society stood reformed if the children of the ruling elite were given proper education. No poor student could ever enter his seminary. His huge dining table was known for its culinary delights which no uninvited guest could dare touch. He happily hobnobbed with the rich and the famous, got royal grant of revenue free lands, solicited costly gifts and played an important role in the power politics of his time.

So it’s not only wrong but patently unjust to put Baba Farid and Bahauddin Zakariya in the same league. They were in fact polar opposites in terms of thought and practice. Baba Farid was like Saint Francis of Assisi who strove to attain the bliss of sublime poverty while Bahauddin Zakariya was like the Pope enjoying the pleasure of God’s plenty; worldly and non-worldly. The former lived surrounded by the human flotsam of the society while the latter was held in high esteem by the power wielders.

The trend to treat the ‘Sufis’ of different persuasions with the same stick has nothing spontaneous about it. It’s a calculated and well-thought out move underpinned by a host of politico-economic motives. Our state needs to create a semblance of social harmony and tolerance in order to brush aside the real and concrete issues of conflict-ridden society that is almost in a state of free fall.

The so-called Sufi message of peace comes handy as a prop. Corporate sector with its insatiable lust for expansion smells a chance to make quick money. It advances its covert agenda by sponsoring the so-called Sufi festivals, Sufi poetry recitals and Sufi music in the name of spiritual and cultural development. Convergence of state and corporate interests discreetly aims at taking the sting out of the world view and way of life of extraordinary poets, saints and thinkers who found salvation in a constant struggle to create a space on the earth where ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. —

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