Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy - Clinton Bennett

Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy - Clinton Bennett

5. Anti-Saint or Anti-Shrine?: Tracing Deoband's Disdain for the Sufi in Pakistan

Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy - Clinton Bennett

Charles M. Ramsey [+-]
Forman Christian College, Lahore
Charles M. Ramsey has lived and worked in the Indian Sub-Continent since 2000. He is currently Executive Assistant to the Rector (Special Projects) and Academic Director, Centre for Dialogue & Action at Forman Christian College, Lahore. He is an active member of the Common Word Movement and an advisor to the National Peace Committee for Interfaith Harmony in Pakistan.  He is working on Ph.D. research under Dr. David Thomas at Birmingham University, and previously studied Asian Studies and Religion at Baylor University, where Dr. Clinton Bennett mentored his MA thesis. Co-editor with Dr. Bennett of South Asian Sufis (2012), he also attended graduate studies in the Centre for Development, Environment, and Policy at University of London (SOAS).


Today it is broadly accepted as axiomatic that the Deobandi in Pakistan are unequivocally antagonistic towards Sufism. Deobandi is the umbrella term for those affiliated with the system of madrassas (Dar ul-‘ulum) that originated from the grass roots movement at Deoband in pre-partition India. Grounded in Hanafi tradition, the movement has grown to become one of the most significant strands of Sunni Islam in South Asia. The group has been described as a form of post-tariqa Sufism and a middle of the road compromise between anti-Sufi Salafis and the pro-Sufi Barelvis. However, in Pakistan this description does not seem to hold. There is no shortage of evidence for Deobandi disdain for the Sufi in popular writings and sermons and the vitriol has resulted in an inventory of bombed Sufi shrines across the country. Success in the recent national election of the Jamiat ‘Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), a party associated with the movement, adds immediacy to the political implications of this topic. The movement’s historical Sufi ties give rise to the nature of the rhetoric and violent reaction. We prepare the way for this enquiry by briefly tracing the origins of the Deobandi movement in Pakistan, particularly its establishment in the fertile soil of the Northwest frontier prepared by the reforms started by Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi’s nineteenth century Mujahidin Movement that shifted the focus away from local shrines towards an ideological spirituality focused on the Prophet of Islam, and expressed not in the shrine but in the public square. The quest then turns to contested versions of Deobandi thought prevalent today. Here we present a more nuanced understanding of the movement in its response to Sufism. Far from homogeneous, there is considerable diversity of response towards the various facets of spiritual praxis many of which are consistent with those foundational in the movement. From within this spectrum, particular attention is given to those most virulently opposed to Sufism. We will seek to understand the underlying reasons for this. It is theorized here that by probing the historical development of the movement in Swat and culturally Pashtun areas, it may be found that regional sensitivities and political struggles have significantly tempered the trajectory of the movement. The research questions how a theological movement whose founding leaders were Sufi could evolve what seems to be its antithesis? Who and what reflect the characteristics described as Sufi? What are the real issues of contention: which doctrinal or interpretative elements are most troubling, and why? And, finally, in the space vacated by these forms of spiritual expression, what other practices have arisen in their place? The research will draw from historical sources in English and Urdu on the development of the Deobandi movement in Pakistan and in the Kkyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) region. We will consider the adjustment of the spiritual and nationalist literature of leading voices such as Khushal Khattak, Rehman Baba, and Bacha Khan within revivalist reforms and trace their adjustment in the current rhetoric. The research will also be strengthened by participatory ethnographic research and interviews with ‘ulama, political leaders in the JUI, and with those who describe themselves as Sufis in the Swat and Kkyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

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Ramsey, Charles. 5. Anti-Saint or Anti-Shrine?: Tracing Deoband's Disdain for the Sufi in Pakistan. Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. 103-120 Jul 2017. ISBN 9781781792216. Date accessed: 22 Oct 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.27397. Jul 2017

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