The specter of extremism raised its ugly head in Pakistani society during the 1980s. Internecine conflicts among different denominations of Muslims in India were common before the arrival of British Rulers. Members of different sects have, at one time or the other, declared all other sects to be heretical non-Muslims. At the time of Partition, a majority of Pakistan’s population belonged to the Barelvi or Sufi school of thought, a syncretic belief system indigenous to the Indian subcontinent that was formalized by a religious scholar from the town of Rai Bareli (in UP, India). The rest of Pakistan’s Muslims where either Shia or Deobandi (a puritanical school of thought established by scholars based in Deoband, also in UP).

In the 1980s, state patronage to Deobandi Madrassahs (religious schools) and reliance on students of these schools started, to wage a war first in Afghanistan and later in Kashmir. Adding fuel to fire, Saudi money poured in the country, establishing Madrassahs affiliated to the most puritanical movement in recent history: Wahabbism. Both Deobandi and the Wahabi traditions emphasized a need for physical Jihad, literal interpretation of holy texts, opposition to Shias and revival of early Islamic era glory. They are classified as High-Church Islam while Barelvi tradition is classified as Low-Church Islam.

The schism between Deobandi and Barelvi Ulema extended to the political sphere. During the Khilafat Movement in India, Barelvi Ulema refrained from investing their energies into restoring the Ottoman Caliphate due to a doctrinal difference. When All India Muslim League provided Muslims of India with a platform to gather and push for a separate homeland, most Deobandi Ulema opposed this initiative wholeheartedly. Barelvi Ulema, on the other hand, gave their blessings to Project Pakistan. Following partition, there was apparent unity among the ranks of Ulema, as witnessed by the 22-points that were jointly prepared to provide a guideline for future constitutions. During the 1953 Anti-Ahmaddiya resistance, the doctrinal differences were set aside to target Ahmedis. The atmosphere of cooperation across the sectarian lines prevailed till the 1980s.

Pakistani state policy during the Afghan war and Kashmir Insurgency favored Deobandis, tilting the favor in their balance. This initially resulted in sectarian warfare during the 1990s and all-out terrorism after that. In the years after 9/11, Deobandi/Sufi Islam was projected officially as a means to counter the Deobandi tide. Musharraf was an early convert and in time, even the yanks took the bait. As a result, Sunni Ittehad Council (an umbrella group of different Barelvi organizations) received $36,607 from Washington in 2009 under the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Programmes for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This pales in comparison to the sums dished out by Musharraf government on “cultural activities” and “National Sufi Council” headed by Ch. Shujaat Husain.

The thinking about Barelvis and their supposed non-violence changed in the aftermath of Governor Salman Taseer’s assassination. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was a devout Barelvi. Sunni Ittehad council, among others, led demonstrations across the country in support of Mumtaz Qadri. The notion is still flouted in popular media and on social media by popular anchors and columnists that Sufi Islam is the panacea to the problems thronging Pakistani society. Dr. Mubarak Ali questioned this narrative on historical basis in the following words: “In the subcontinent, the Sufis emerged during the medieval period to support the Muslim rule by preaching religious tolerance among the Hindus and the Muslims. Later, Sufi shrines became the centre point for disciples and common people to gather and pay homage to Sufi saints; as well as pray for fulfillment of their wishes and desires. Based on the assumption that they inherit spiritual powers from their ancestors; the successors or sajjada nashin of the Sufi saints assumed a position of authority, became spiritual leaders and earned themselves a high status in the society.

Becoming political leaders, winning elections from their constituencies and getting into the parliament is not difficult for them as they have a secure vote bank in their disciples who vote for them irrespective of their ability or merit. If Sufi culture was revived, these individuals would be at a further advantage. Considering the above, will the revival of Sufi teachings really eliminate religious extremism from our society?”

Sufi culture in the subcontinent was a product of the agrarian, feudal society. Attempts to “revive” that culture is no different from the effort of Islamic revivalists who want to take us back to the 7th century.

Aakar Patel rejected the notion that “Sufism can fight the Taliban” in no uncertain terms, “Sufism can no more fight the Taliban than Mickey Mouse. Sufism cannot fight because it makes no demands, and it has no daily ritual. It also respects Sharia, and can live besides it quite comfortably. The great Chishti Sufis of Delhi were namazis.”

History informs us that most Sufi orders have a history of conformist reconciliation to authority. Such dissenting voices as Sarmad Shaheed or Shah Inayat have been few and far between. In modern times, Sufism has been reduced to charlatans faking spiritual experiences and forming an entourage of devotees who aid and abet the “Sufi” or “Pir” in hoodwinking ordinary folk. Barelvi Islam, with its folk origins, is not exactly a non-violent tradition. For Deobandis, the rallying cry is “Jihad” while the Barelvis can be riled up with the cry of “Blasphemy”. It is dangerous to choose one over the other; the options include a rock and a hard place.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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