In the popular imagination, Islam’s Sufi strand is viewed as being apolitical. Characterised by its virtuousness and asceticism, Sufism has been hailed for its pacifism and otherworldliness. But this impression has been punctured by two nascent political movements in the subcontinent, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Indian Secular Front in West Bengal.

This notion of Sufism in the popular imagination isn’t an accident. As Katherine Pratt Ewing noted in a volume titled Modern Sufis and the State, the strategy of pitting mysticism of Sufism against the austere severity of Salafism has been promoted by policymakers in the US and in many countries with large Muslim populations.

This was done “in an effort to discourage the spread of Islamists who may be prone to violence”, she notes.

In an essay in the same volume, Alex Philippon points out that “since the beginning of War on Terror, Sufism, the Sufi shrines and Sufi saints in Pakistan have gradually become the symbols of the fight against creeping ‘Talibanization, which is deemed to threaten the very fabric of the nation. The number of initiatives, often financed by the government, aimed at promoting Sufism have indeed proliferated.”

But the viability of this strategy has been undermined by the upsurge of sectarian Sufi politics in South Asia.

Political Sufism in Sindh

In Pakistan, Sindh has been the crucible of Political Sufism. The idea of Political Sufism of Sindh has been, in many ways, at loggerheads with the idea of Islamic Pakistan. “A Sufi Sindh and an Islamic Pakistan cannot co-exist, [just] as you can’t put two swords in a scabbard,” the prominent Sindhi politician named Ghulam Murtaza Syed had bluntly declared. “If Pakistan continues, Sindh will die. If, therefore, Sindh is to live, Pakistan must die.”

In 1972, Syed proposed the formation of an independent nation for the Sindhis called Sindhudesh. Sindhi nationalists designed their own version of Islam, which allowed them to argue for a separate Sindhi national identity based on what they claimed to be Sindh’s unique experience with Sufism, writes Dutch scholar Oskar Verkaaik. Thus, Political Sufism posed a threat to the nation-building in Pakistan.

Philippon notes that since 9/11 created in a context in which Sufism has been idealised, the Barelvi group has “been equated with ‘tolerant’ and ‘secular’ Islam”. Barelvis, as the Oxford Dictionary of Islam explains, are often called Sunni Sufis because they emphasise “personal devotion to Allah and the prophet Muhammad, adherence to Sharia, and Sufi practices such as veneration of saints”.

The Barelvi tendency had been promoted by the Pakistan People’s Party-led coalition government from 2008.

However, the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek, a Barelvi organisation, has been known for its strong support of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws and for its hard-line support of the death penalty for those accused of committing blasphemy.

It was vocal in its support of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011 after Taseer called for reform of blasphemy laws.

In recent years, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in 2015, has become the most virulent aspect of Political Sufism. The Pakistan government on April 14 decided to ban the radical Islamist party under the Terrorism Act after its supporters clashed with the law enforcement agencies, leaving seven persons dead and over 300 policemen injured.

Country-wide protest

Two days before, on April 12, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan had launched a country-wide protest following the arrest of its chief Saad Hussain Rizvi. He had been detained ahead of the April 20 deadline the Islamists had given to the Imran Khan government demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador for the publication in the French satrical magazine Charlie Hebdo of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad.

“The TLP became the fifth-largest vote-getter in the 2018 general election (and the third for the province of Punjab),” Philippon noted. “The recent acquittal of Asia Bibi, the Christian women accused of blasphemy in 2009 and imprisoned since, led in November 2018 to the TLP bringing the country to a standstill through massive nationwide demonstrations. The party called for mutiny within the army, threatened to kill the judges, and pushed for Bibi to be hanged.”

Around the same time as the election, The EurAsian Times reported that that Khadim Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik had said that if he managed to get hold of an atomic bomb, he would wipe Holland off the world map in response to Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ announcement that he was planning to hold a contest to draw caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

ISF in Bengal

The phenomenon of Political Sufism is also present in India, as is evident from the formation in January of the Indian Secular Front floated by a Pirzada of the influential shrine at Furfura Sharif in West Bengal. In the Indian context, Abbas Siddique has been compelled to camouflage his party’s identity as a secular moderate outfit. But his secular-liberal credentials are dubious.

As Snigdhendu Bhattacharya has written in the Outlook, “...Due to his speeches from religious events, Siddiqui,…has earned the reputation of being a conservative and even a fundamentalist.” Bhattacharya notes that Siddique has previously referred to Nusrat Jahan, the actor-turned-Trinamool MP, as “one who earns showing her body” and said that she should be tied up to a tree and beaten.

After the Delhi riots, he expressed the wish that Allah should send a deadly virus to India. After a schoolteacher was beheaded in France, Siddiqui said that “those insulting the Prophet were illegitimate born” and called for giving them “proper treatment”, Bhattacharya writes.

Of course, as Ewing has noted, “the situations of Muslims in Pakistan and India are very different, and their political possibilities are in many respects incommensurable”.

In India, Muslims are a vulnerable minority in a Hindu majoritarian environment. In Pakistan, debates on Sufi/Muslim politics have been intertwined with struggles to negotiate the type of Islamic state and society that Pakistan aspires to be.

Despite this, Sufi shrines like Furfura Sharif in Hooghly district in West Bengal where Abbas Siddique is Pirzanad, play remarkable roles in shaping political Sufism in both countries. These shrines are fiefdoms of specific families as chains of succession are perpetuated through hereditary descendants who retain the spiritual authority in the pir-murid system.

Political Sufism does not differ with Political Salafism in a notable aspect: both advocate a “revolutionary” strategy of Islamising society through exercise of state power. They are the birds of the same feather; but perched on different trees. As such, they pose a threat alike to democracy, secularism and liberal politics in South Asia.

Faisal CK is an independent researcher who specialises in constitutional law and political philosophy.