Hidden Caliphate: Sufi Saints beyond the Oxus and Indus

Reviewed by: Mazhar Farid Chishti



In a path breaking work combining social history, religious studies, and anthropology, Waleed Ziad examines the development across Asia of Muslim revivalist networks from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. At the centre of the story are the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis, who inspired major reformist movements and articulated effective social responses to the fracturing of Muslim political power amid European colonialism. In a time of political upheaval, the Mujaddidis fused Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and Indic literary traditions, mystical virtuosity, popular religious practices, and urban scholasticism in a unified yet flexible expression of Islam. The Mujaddidi ‘Hidden Caliphate,’ as it was known brought cohesion to diverse Muslim communities from Delhi through Peshawar to the steppes of Central Asia. And the legacy of Mujaddidi Sufis continues to shape the Muslim world, as their institutional structures, pedagogies, and critiques have worked their way into leading social movements from Turkey to Indonesia, and among the Muslims of China.
The book’s historical narrative revolves around a single character named Sirhandi. Sirhandi importance as a name and a title must be understood here. In 1564, he was born in Sirhand, one of the richest towns in the Mughal era. Mujaddad Alf Sani-the second millennium revivalist, or Mujaddad or Mujaddidi, was the moniker given to Ahmed, known as Sheikh Ahmed Sirhandi. Among Muslims, the notion of revival is widely accepted, and it is said that Prophet Muhammad was the first revivalist; born in 570 AD. According to the author’s narrative, the birth of Sirhandi had astrological importance, as many historians felt it did because of the notion of millennium consciousness and anticipation of cosmic transformations. Sheikh Abd al Ahad Mujaddidi, Mujaddidi’s father, was a Chishti Qadri Sufi teacher and a major Sufi scholar in Sirhand. Mujaddidi, on the other hand, was drawn to the Naqashbandi School and became a disciple of Kwaja Baqi Billah, a Naqashbandi master, in 1599. The author investigates the growth of Muslim revivalist networks throughout Asia that combines social history, religious studies, and anthropology. This book is a landmark in the field of interdisciplinary research. The Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis are at the heart of the narrative since they were the ones who sparked significant reformist movements and articulated successful social solutions to the fragmentation of Muslim political authority brought on by European colonialism. A cohesive yet adaptable form of Islam was developed by the Mujaddidi school of thought at a period of political turmoil. This school of thought combined spiritual virtuosity, popular religious rituals, and urban scholasticism with Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and Indic literary traditions. Diverse Muslim populations from Delhi to Peshawar and all the way to the steppes of Central Asia were brought together under the rule of the Mujaddidi ‘Hidden Caliphate,’ as it was known. And the legacy of Mujaddidi Sufis continues to affect the Muslim world, as their institutional structures, pedagogies, and criticisms have pushed their way into prominent social organizations across the Muslim world, from Turkey to Indonesia, as well as among the Muslims of China.
Sufis are credited with establishing the largest Muslim revivalist network in Asia prior to the turn of the twentieth century. This network was responsible for the flourishing of Persianate literary, intellectual, and spiritual culture while also helping to bring a politically fractured world together. Ziad presents an alternative concept of Islamic sovereignty, which involves refocusing attention away from court politics, colonial players, and the conventional storyline of the ‘Great Game.’ At the same time, he illustrates the indispensable role that the Afghan Empire played in the maintenance of this massive inter-Asian web of academic and commercial interaction. Hidden Caliphate reveals the long-term influence of Mujaddidi reform and revival in the eastern Muslim world. It does so by bringing together seemingly disparate social, political, and intellectual currents from the Indian Ocean to Siberia. The book is based on extensive fieldwork conducted across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan at madrasas, Sufi monasteries, private libraries, and archives.
The book deftly dismantles restricted concepts of territory and sovereignty and casts aside binaries such as those of Sufis and Ulema since he is armed with an excellent collection of primary materials. After that, he provides us with a beautiful vision of a Persian cosmopolis that was kept together during the politically volatile eighteenth century by thriving networks of Naqshbandi Sufis. This monumentally significant text ought to be studied in a wide variety of academic fields. It takes us through an area that is held together by the networks that the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis have created in this creative and well-written book. The author is the first person to spell out their huge effect over Central Asia, Afghanistan, and northwest South Asia, and in the process demonstrates how limited the understanding of the colonial powers in the Great Game actually was.
In the Sufi traditions Mujaddidi Sufi networks across the eastern Islamic world, from Siberia to India, in the 18th and 19th centuries are examined in this groundbreaking book. Before and during colonial dominance, Muslims across the wide region benefitted from the intellectual and social coherence afforded by this religious order’s doctrinal, ceremonial, and institutional components, as shown in Hidden Caliphate. The Mujaddidi Sufis used ecstatic Sufism and local rites to create a foundational authority that united disparate populations of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and South Asia. Hidden Caliphate, tells the story of how long, the Middle East has only been seen through the prism of European imperial history. A magnificent trans regional research that makes important strides forward in the field of Persianate studies by examining the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi scholastic-religious networks (the batinikhilafat) in Khurasan, Hindustan, and Transoxiana. The author explores the networks of cultural and economic interaction as well as the leadership structure that helped preserve some degree of stability at a time of political decentralization. He does this in order to show how these networks helped maintain some degree of equilibrium. Everyone who has even the slightest interest in Sufism, the Persianate domain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the history of the Afghan empire should read this book.


by Waleed Ziad

–The writer is assistant
professor at Lahore Garrison University, Lahore. al-farid@lgu.edu.pk

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