What sword fails to do, soulful qawwali does: How Sufism works in tandem with Wahhabism


On 5 July 2022, a video of Ajmer Dargah Khadim Salman Chishti surfaced on social media platforms in which he announced a bounty on the head of former Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Nupur Sharma. In the video, Chishti said that he would hand over his house to anyone who brought Sharma’s head.

The statement has shocked many people whose idea of Sufism is a joyous jamboree of people of different faiths listening to soulful qawwalis, and dancing with complete abandon in a spiritually surcharged milieu. The ‘Sar Tan Se Juda’ notion of Wahhabism seems an antithesis to the Sufi way of life. It is widely believed that while Islamic states expanded their wings in India through the might of the sword, Sufism took Islam to the masses through love and peace. However, looked closely, the story isn’t that simple and straightforward: Sufism and Wahhabism often worked in tandem, complementing each other. In fact, there was a pattern in which the two moved: First, a sword-wielding Islamic army would conquer a territory, and then Sufis would enter to complete the unfinished agenda of Islam. Sufi’s Islam actually spread under the patronage — except a few exceptions — of a sword-wielding Sultan!

Before one finds it too revolting to believe, it’s sagacious to look at history. Sufism had since the beginning treaded a fine line between orthodoxy and syncretism. Sufis were syncretic till the time they didn't come in the way of the ulema. One needs to ask oneself how many times Sufi masters rebuked Sultanate rulers such as Iltutmish or Alauddin Khilji for their massacres of Hindus. Did they object to the rampant destruction of Hindu temples? The answer, sadly, is ‘No’. They kept quiet during those dark days. Worse, in many cases, they sided with the oppressors. The Naqashbandi Sufis, for instance, had good relations with Aurangzeb, and one of them even termed the execution of Sikh leader Guru Arjan Dev a great Islamic victory.

Oh, but these poor Sufis might have been scared to challenge Aurangzeb, knowing too well his puritanical views and authoritarian outlook, one may wonder. If so, let’s go back in history, at the time when Mahmud of Ghazni was standing in front of the splendid Somnath temple, whose Shiva-linga was so majestically placed that it appeared to be hanging in the air without any support. Fariduddin Attar, a well-known Sufi, writes in Mantiq-ut-Tair, quite approvingly of the Sultan’s stand when the latter didn’t let go the Shiva-linga by refusing to accept the offer of the Brahmins to redeem the idol with its weight in gold. Mahumd of Ghazni replied: “I am afraid that on the day of judgement when all the idolaters are brought into the presence of God, He would say, bring Adhar and Mahmud together; one was an idol-maker, the other an idol-seller.”

The Sufis, who travelled to India after the Delhi Sultanate came into existence in 1206 AD, were the hidden hands of Islamic imperialism. Sita Ram Goel, in his book The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India, finds them akin to “the latter-day Christian missionaries” who adopt some of the obvious Hindu appearances but retain hatred for the indigenous way for life.

Historian MA Khan, in Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversions, Imperialism and Slavery, exposes the true nature of some of the ‘benign’ Sufi saints. He writes, “Moinuddin Chishti and Nizamuddin Auliya were the most unorthodox and liberal amongst India's Sufis. Annoying the orthodox, they had adopted musical sessions (sama) and dancing (raqs) in their rituals. However, when it came to the real question of Islam, they never took a stand against classical orthodoxy; they always put the ulema ahead of them in religious matters.”

Moinuddin Chishti first came to India alongside Mohammed Ghori to fight against Prithviraj Chauhan. He had, in fact, credited himself for Prithviraj’s capture, writing, “We have seized Pithaura (Prithviraj) and handed him to the army of Islam.” During Iltutmish’s time, he arrived in Ajmer and after seeing a number of temples near the Anasagar lake he vowed to raze them to the ground.

Nizamuddin Auliya was even more categorical in his assessment of Sufism vis-à-vis Islam. “What the ulema seek to achieve through speech, we achieve by our behaviour,” he would say, adding quite emphatically: “What is forbidden by law (Sharia) is not acceptable.” In fact, for all his liberalism, Auliya saw no redemption for Hindus. “On the day of Resurrection when unbelievers will face punishment and affliction, they will embrace faith but faith will not benefit them... They will also go to Hell, despite the fact that they will go there as believers.”

And when Alauddin Khilji sent an expedition to South India under Malik Kafur, he gave his blessings and said: “I am waiting for further victories,” Auliya would happily accept gifts from Alauddin Khilji from the spoils of jihad! And Amir Khusrau, who is today extolled as a Sufi singer and poet, wrote son after Alauddin Khilji massacred 30,000 Hindus in Chittor: “Praise be to God that he (Sultan) ordered the massacre…” (Khazain-ul-Futuh; 1311 AD).


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If this was the case with ‘unorthodox Sufis’ like Moinuddin Chishti and Nizamuddin Auliya and a Sufi singer and poet like Amir Khusrau, one shudders to think how others would have colluded and collaborated with political Islam that was waging a war against civilisational India. Nasiruddin Chiragh, for instance, purged “deviant aspects” of the Sufi practices, and as per Prof KA Nizami, “brought Sufi institutions in harmony with Sunnah” (The Life and Times of Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Delhi).

Divided by border, united by ideology

In 2020, Pakistani author Nadeem Farooq Paracha came up with a book, Soul Rivals: State, Militant and Pop Sufism in Pakistan, which began with an interesting anecdote: Of an academic paper, published in 2014, making a strong case for “branding” Pakistan a “Sufi country”. Authored, interestingly, by a Pakistani and a Chinese national, the paper sought to resolve Pakistan’s “image problem” by “searching for a middle-ground between religious extremism and overt secularism by proposing a contemporary reworking of one of Islam’s most ‘moderate’ and esoteric strands: Sufism.”

The image makeover attempt, Paracha believed, couldn’t have been an easy task, though. For, in Pakistan, as in India, Sufism has been “a deeply contested space”; it was neither apolitical nor pacifist.

Paracha punctures Sufism’s apolitical, pacifist claims with a series of examples. One of them being Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a self-confessed Sufi follower who would ideally have taught “peace, love and tolerance, preferably through a qawwali at a shrine or at least through an impassioned song in Coke Studio”. Instead, Rizvi was seen “spouting profanities at the state, the prime minister and the judiciary, and demanding that a traumatised working-class Pakistani-Christian woman and the Supreme Court judges who declared her to be innocent be hanged for blasphemy”.

Rizvi is no exception. Paracha recalls how the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), which follows the Barelvi school of Islamic thought against the Deobandis and had considerable influence in Pakistan in the 1970s, saw Sufi saints as “pure Muslims”. The JUP, in the 1970s, was one of the three main religious outfits in Pakistan to demand the ouster of the Ahmadiyyas from the fold of Islam.

In India, as in Pakistan, liberal, pacifist Sufism is a myth. It is just another arm of Islam, projecting itself to be benign and benevolent. But in reality, what the sword fails to do, the soulful qawwali does. Sufis are liberals till the time they don’t have to dispute the ulema. And when that situation arises, the Sufis and the ulema become one, inseparable whole, as we see in the Nupur Sharma episode: Both are baying for her blood!

In this backdrop, to look for a secular, liberal Sufism would be as elusive as searching for religious syncretism in the Mughal harem where Hindu girls were forcibly introduced. Or, to make Aurangzeb look secular just because he employed a large number of Hindus in the higher bureaucracy.

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What sword fails to do, soulful qawwali does: How Sufism works in tandem with Wahhabism
What sword fails to do, soulful qawwali does: How Sufism works in tandem with Wahhabism
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