Indian Muslim clerics' detention is symptomatic of a disturbing, systematic attack on Sufism in Pakistan

The recent case of the detention of two Indian Muslim clerics shows how Sufi-oriented people and Sufism is being systematically targeted in Pakistan today.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi March 21, 2017 13:25:19 IST
Indian Muslim clerics' detention is symptomatic of a disturbing, systematic attack on Sufism in Pakistan

Finally, the two Sufi-oriented priests and custodians of Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, who had gone on a visit to Pakistan on 8 March and were said to have gone missing, have come back to India.

According to Pakistan’s Samaa TV, their whereabouts could not be traced and remained secret for three days. Then, they resurfaced in Karachi and told media that they had gone to meet their devotees in interior Sindh.

But, shockingly, the two priests were picked up by Pakistani intelligence soon after, over two different charges. First, that they had alleged links with Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – a secular political party in Pakistan. And second, on allegations based on a misleading article in a Pakistani media outlet, calling the two priests "RAW agents" – India's primary foreign intelligence agency.

They were offloaded from their Karachi-bound Shaheen Airlines flight on 14 March, at the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore and were taken into custody by a Pakistani intelligence personnel. They were shifted to an undisclosed location for further investigation.

Notably, Pakistani Urdu daily Ummat, accused the two Sufi priests of being RAW agents run by the well-known international political Islamist outfit, Jamat e-Islami. A report in Hindustan Times quoted Sajid Nizami, son of Asif Nizami, saying that, "Pakistani newspapers carried a report saying Nizamis are working for Indian intelligence agency."

Indian Muslim clerics detention is symptomatic of a disturbing systematic attack on Sufism in Pakistan

File imge of Syed Asif Ali Nizami and his nephew Nazim Ali Nizami. Image source: News18

Tellingly, when the Pakistani establishment admitted to detaining the two Indian Sufi clerics, the Indian External Affairs Ministry rebuffed the allegations.

When Firstpost approached Dargah Nizamuddin officials (khadims) like Ajmal Nizami and Sajid Nizami, they revealed that Syed Asif Nizami, the priest (Sajjadanashin) of Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, and his nephew Syed Nazim Nizami were on a visit to Pakistan’s Sufi dargahs, like the shrine of Baba Farid, who was the spiritual mentor of Hazrat Nizamuddin and that of Hazrat Data Ganj.

They went to Karachi on 6 March, from where they visited Lahore on 13 March to offer chadar at the dargah of Baba Farid – the famous Chishti Sufi saint of Punjab. On 14 March, the two Indian Sufi priests paid tributes and offered the chadar at Data Darbar – another Sufi shrine in Lahore.

From the beginning to the end of this incident, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj showed an avowed courage of conviction to bring back the Indian Sufi clerics. In fact, what we call 'clerics', are actually khuddam, the people who render the service or khidmat at the Dargah.

Clearly, Swaraj did this herculean task with a sincerity that, without exaggeration, earns her a round of applause from the whole country. But many self-styled secularists will mince no words, fearing it might be branded as hagiography for the Indian government.

Politics aside, the crucial question with an ideological implication is: Why Sufi-oriented people and places are being systematically targeted in Pakistan today? The recent bombing of the revered Sufi shrine, Dargah Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan, drew the media attention to the vital geopolitical and ideological dynamics of this case.

A Pakistani judge, Javaid Iqbal, son of the famous Muslim philosopher and poet, Allama Iqbal, wrote in his book 'Ideology of Pakistan' that his father's conception of Sufism was used as a driving force in reformation of the public policies. Sufism was the main intellectual influence behind the creation of the cultural ministries, like the Waqf boards. "The Sufi shrines, which were thought to be the remains of the traditional Islam, were to become catalysts of modernisation," Iqbal wrote.

Perhaps, Pervez Musharraf was the first Pakistani prime minister to call for Sufi liberalism to curb the extremist religious influences in the country, as noted in the book, 'State and Nation-Building in Pakistan: Beyond Islam and Security'. The author of this book wrote: "Musharraf launched the concept of ‘enlightened moderation’ at the 2002 Organisation of the Islamic Conference meeting in Malaysia and emphasised the Sufi teachings as a counter to extremism. In November 2006, Musharraf launched a National Sufi Council amidst great fanfare."

In a bid to correct the violent interpretations of Islamic texts in the Pakistani madrasas, the government of Pakistan also sought help from the Sufi-minded scholars of the Pakistani education board, Tanzimul Madaris.

In his book, 'Sponsoring Sufism: How Governments Promote Mystical Islam in Their Domestic and Foreign Policies', Fait Muedini also referred to Musharraf seeking to "promote Sufism – a mystical branch of Islam – as a mechanism to alter the violent behavior of terrorist actors."

Even before Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto was also advocating this approach to counter the religious fanaticism rising in Pakistani societies. Though a Shia Muslim in faith, Bhutto chose to become a lifetime member of the global Sufi organisation Minhaj ul-Quran, founded and led by the Pakistan-origin Canadian Sufi scholar, Dr Tahirul Qadri.

No wonder then, both Bhutto and Musharraf visited Sufi shrines in India, particularly the Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, in their bid to enhance cultural ties with India during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Thus, in Pakistan as across the globe, an inclination was shown towards the revival of Sufism to fight radicalism. Every successive Pakistani ruler sought to resort to Sufism, claiming to curb the challenge of religious extremism. They believed that Sufism could help them stem the tide of Talibani fanaticism in the country.

But a reversing phenomenon is emerging today, in the wake of the neo-Talibanism and sectarian extremism playing havoc across the country. Pakistani Muslims are gradually 'disfavouring' Sufi Islam. Sufism is now castigated as a 'corrupted form of Islam', not only in circles of the clerics and mullahs, but also in the government, military, and bureaucracy.

Not only the Pakistani people and intellectuals, but even the military and bureaucrats are now showing their disinterest in Sufism. The religious ministry (Awqaf) is taking control of the Sufi shrines in the name of 'reforming the dargahs'. Thus, Pakistan is curbing the ideological influence of the Sufi leaders and Dargah attendants (khuddam), particularly the biological descendants of the Sufi saints (Sajjadanashins).

In fact, the current Pakistani regime is creating an 'ideological state apparatus' by replacing the traditional leadership of the Sufi shrines with that of the pro-government committees at the dargahs. If this situation remains unchanged, Sufi shrines, which are still promoting a synergetic culture in the country, will turn into political platforms for the state to further its endeavours to induce its ideology into the masses.

KK Aziz has written in his book, 'Religion, land and politics in Pakistan', that since Ayub Khan, the visit of Sufi shrines by the Pakistani state officials has become "an official formality, a ceremonial act, a required observance, a prescribed regulation, and almost a state function."

Thus, it is not difficult to see why the Pakistani government was not affected by the worst attacks recently launched on the Sufi shrines and their visitors in Pakistan. On 16 February, Pakistan witnessed the deadliest strike on Sufism in the country. Over 100 Sufi devotees participating in a spiritual session, dhamal at the dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, were brutally killed and more than 200 were injured. Not only Sufi devotees, but people from other faith traditions, who visited Qalandar's shrine to seek blessings, were also killed.

Deplorably for Pakistan, while the common Muslims celebrate Sufism and its narrative of counter-extremism, the home-grown jihadists are freely pursuing their mission to eliminate the entire Sufi tradition from the country. Thus, it appears that the perceived interest of the Pakistani policymakers in Sufism has backfired. In fact, it has placed the Sufi followers in the line of fire, forcing them and shrine-visitors to fear for their own survival, religious freedom and security.

Hussain H Zaidi writes in the Pakistani daily The News: "Sufism [in Pakistan] stands in marked contrast with the fanaticism, intolerance, bigotry and militarism of the Taliban, their mentors and like-minded individuals – who, on their part, look upon it as heretical. According to the Taliban ideology, ‘the heretics’ deserve only one type of treatment: death. The militants regard bombing the shrines and killing the pilgrims who visit these places as a religious duty. Not surprisingly, several shrines in Pakistan have been soaked in blood by the militants. Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the implication of mysticism – consisting largely of political quietism – has been more pronounced than its teachings of love, compassion and tolerance."

The author is a scholar of classical Islamic scholar, cultural analyst and researcher in Media and Communication Studies. He can be reached at

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