There are some people who, in view of the present religious extremism, believe that if Sufi teachings are revived, religious intolerance and fundamentalism may be controlled. The attempt to revive the past system and old ideas is not a new phenomenon. Those societies which are backward and have no creative and innovative capability to come up with new ideas and thoughts in response to new challenges look around and search for some old and used ideas as tools to solve their problems.
Marx’s comment in this regard, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is very relevant. He writes that “And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”
Thus, those who argue about the usefulness of past, fail to realise that every system is the product of a specific time and space. It plays its role and, after that, becomes redundant. Changing circumstances require new and fresh responses to meet the emerging challenges.
In the subcontinent Sufism flourished in the 13th century almost at the same time as the establishment of Turkish rule in India. It was the period of struggle against the local rulers who were fighting to check the political domination of the invaders. At this critical juncture, the Sultans of Delhi needed the spiritual support of the Sufis to inspire their soldiers to fight against the infidels. That’s why they supported the Sufis and sought their blessing in case of war as well as in any crisis.
Two leading Sufi orders Chishtiya and Surawardiya played an important role during the Sultanate period. Their philosophy of wahdat al wujud created religious tolerance and checked religious conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims. The same policy was followed by the rulers who fully realised that they could not sustain the occupation relying only on military power. The subjugated people need to be assured that they would be treated with tolerance. The khanqahs and shrines of Sufi saints established a parallel system to keep the people satisfied with the political system.
Generally, Sufis do not incite the people to rebellion or encourage them to protest against the rulers. They exhorted the people to endure sufferings and seek spiritual salvation for their worldly problems. Submission and obedience were principles which were observed by their disciples. Realising their spiritual importance, Sultans and the nobility built monasteries for them and financially supported them to maintain their establishment. The Sufis always relied on the donation of the rulers or nobles. This is how the Sufis of the Sultanate period supported the political system and never raised a voice against it.
However, the situation changed during the Mughal period. Once Akbar extended his empire and consolidated the power of the Mughal dynasty, the Mughal Emperors didn’t need the support of Sufi saints and their blessing. Akbar briefly expressed his devotion to Shaikh Salim Chishti and Khawaja Moinuddin, but he did not involve them in his political affairs. He brought the Hindus and Muslims together politically and socially following the policy of sulh-i-kul or peace with all. It created a shared culture and shared history in which both communities equally contributed. It continued throughout the Mughal rule. Thus, tolerance was achieved politically without any assistance of the Sufis, putting the Sufis in the background rather than in the forefront. The emperors were not pursuing them for any blessing. Dara Shikok’s interest in Sufism was more academic than a means to apply it in practical politics. And we can see that his Sufi mentors did not save him from his disaster.
Interestingly, with the decline of the Mughal Empire the institution of Sufism also declined. During the later Mughal period when there was political anarchy and social breakdown, a large number of fake Sufis emerged who were fooling people with their tricks. With the collapse of the political system and social values, both the rich and the poor, in a state of helplessness, began to believe that Sufis, who impressed them by keeping long hair, wearing saffron coloured dress and numerous stone rings on their fingers, would solve their day to day problems through their spiritual power. However, the whole scene changed during the colonial period and establishment of their political system. Political stability relegated Sufism to an insignificant position.
Those in Pakistan, who are interested in fighting against religious extremism, should first understand it in the present context and then encounter it with fresh ideas to change the political and social structure of the society. Society can neither be reformed by reviving old and rusted ideas nor by delivering sermons and reciting Sufi poetry.