Sufi chants and revolutions — by Dr Manzur Ejaz

If one reads Punjabi classical poetry, with no presumption of Sufism, it is just good poetry of a certain period that has withstood the test of time. I do not know anybody who would claim that just reading and singing of this poetry would bring social change

One of our reputable progressive historians asserted in one of his recently published column that chanting Sufi songs cannot change the situation: one needs a modern theory or model to address contemporary problems. I agree with the main assertion but strongly disagree with the intent he has put forth in his argument. His formulation lacks historical perspective of which he is supposed to be an expert.

I do not know who he is referring to when he claims that a change in the contemporary situation cannot be brought about by merely chanting Sufi songs. What is wrong if certain groups study Punjabi or other classical poetry, make musical compositions and sing? Did they make a public bid for revolution that we are requiring of them? Do they come in the way of those who want to bring socio-economic change applying ‘modern’ theories or models? Obviously they do not. However, in the absence of activist groups or individuals, they become the victims of expectations that they never intended to trigger.

Before coming to any any conclusions we must examine the interface of activist groups/parties and what we categorise as, rightly or otherwise, the Sufi doctrine itself. It is not incidental that the majority of left-wing activists in different Pakistani regions have been sympathetic to indigenous literature, which happens to be written by those whom we call Sufis; probably, anyone engaged in the articulation of new ideas was put under that catchall title. From old progressive groups to Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and all others in-between, they have all been admirers of indigenous classical literature. On the contrary, almost all religious formations and conservatives have been either indifferent or opponents of an indigenous intellectual discourse.

Conservative religious schools and many academics have been, mistakenly, categorising Sufis of all kinds with one broad brush. The conservative-minded had their own agenda in doing so, but many enlightened historians or social scientists have not appreciated the dynamic and dialectic of the indigenous intellectual discourse either. The latest such misplaced analysis — taking Sufis as a monolithic group — has been made by the progressive historian I have mentioned above.

The two major pioneering Sufis schools, Chishtia and Surharwardia, have had very different ideologies, with irresolvable mutual contradictions: Chishtias were mostly anti-status quo while Suharwardias were closely linked with the Delhi darbar. Chishtia leaders from Khawaja Moeen-ud-Din Chishti to Nazam-ud-Din Aulia refused to meet with the rulers while Bahauddin Zikria Multani accepted the official tile of Sheikh-ul-Islam. The Chishtias’ disliking for Suharwardias was so intense that once Baba Farid’s grandson Arif Daria Mauj, who was the gaddi-nashin, took a shower after he had to embrace Suharwardia Rukn-e-Alam. The latter had returned from Delhi after meetings with the rulers and was not requested to stay at Pakpattan as he had wished.

The Suharwardia school was formalistic, with its ideology close to Mullah Shahi of that period. They had a strong aversion to indigenous languages, cultures, and followers of other religions. The Chishtias were open to all people and it is not a coincidence that they, from Baba Farid onward, pioneered writings in indigenous languages. They promoted indigenous music and other forms of arts as well. It is also not a coincidence that almost the entire Punjabi classical literature was created by the leaders and the followers of the Chishtia and Qadaria schools. Therefore, there is no doubt that they inspired humanism and sometimes revolts by the oppressed classes.

The Chishtia also inspired reformist and nationalist movements like the one led by Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus. This is the main reason that Baba Farid’s poetry is included in Guru Granth Sahib. Of course the Chishtia had no well-formulated theory of revolution in the modern sense of the word or overtly preached the overthrow of oppressors. But they were not fronts for the rulers as claimed by our honourable historian: most rulers, being conservative Sunnis, used Mullah Shahi for ideological purposes. It is a historical fact that Baba Farid’s life was made miserable by a joint front of Qazi, Mullahs and the ruler of the city of Ajodhan (Pakpattan).

Now let us describe the writings referred to as Sufi chants. Baba Farid’s poetry is humanistic with, of course, religious undertones. Guru Nanak’s writings are diverse, encompassing philosophy, historical commentaries and everything else in-between. Shah Hussain’s kafis comprise the best kind of poetry, which is sung quite often. Waris Shah’s epic Heer and Bulleh Shah’s kafis are staunchly anti-establishment and anti-Mullah Shahi. Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and Maulvi Ghulam Rasool wrote in the form of masnavi or epic stories. Khawaja Farid’s kafis are lyrical with a unique description of the natural landscape of the desert.

Some of these poets were not even traditional pirs and were just following their intellectual pursuits. As a matter of fact, if one reads Punjabi classical poetry, with no presumption of Sufism, it is just good poetry of a certain period that has withstood the test of time. I do not know anybody who would claim that just reading and singing of this poetry would bring social change. However, the question is: can we bring change without mental enrichment by the indigenous literature and culture?

If human beings are not programmable robots, then what goes into the matrix of learning that produces individuals who can bring modernistic change? Coming from a generation of progressives who really struggled to change the socio-economic order through organisational work (not mere Sufi chants!), without much grounding in indigenous sources of learning, we have learnt that much more goes into the make up of a revolution than mere good hearts and theories developed somewhere else.

The writer can be reached at

Source: Daily Times



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