October Issue 2013
A Historical Take
What is Sufism, and who can truly be called a Sufi? For a branch of Islam that is generally (correctly or not) associated with passivity and detachment from organised religion, few questions rouse as much heated debate between people who claim to be knowledgeable on the subject, as the definition of Sufism.
At a lecture organised by The Endowment Fund Trust in collaboration with the Mohatta Palace Museum, French professor of Indian and South Asian Studies, Michel Boivin, said that he was less interested in the definition of who a Sufi is (for him, anyone who calls himself a Sufi is one) and more in the historical spread of Sufism in the subcontinent. “I will not take a position, I am a historian,” Boivin said. And, as a historian of mainly 19th and 20th century South Asian history, particularly of the Indus Valley region, Dr Boivin gave his insights based on his field of academic expertise.
Standing behind a podium that was appropriately draped in ajrak, Dr Boivin divided his lecture into three parts: the beginnings of Sufism in Sindh, Sufism during and post British colonialism and finally, the culture of Sufism.
The lecture was engaging, and many interesting points were brought to light such as: Sufis were among the earliest Muslims to come to Sindh, among whom the first known Sufi was Haji Turabi in the 9th century; the initial Sufis were ascetics and did not belong to any particular school of thought; it wasn’t until the 13th century that Sufis began dividing themselves into different tariqas, the first being the Suharwardia in what is today the Seraiki belt; the next tariqa was the Chistia; finally, the Naqshbandia and Qadria schools of thought arrived in the 16th and 17th century; music, which is commonly associated with Sufism today, was frowned upon within the various tariqas in the beginning; a “new Sindhi elite” and intellectuals began writing hagiographies of Sufi saints in the 20th century, including those of Mansur Hallaj, which recreated an interest in Sufism in Sindh.
As a conclusion, Dr Boivin went back to the initial question of ‘What is Sufism?’ to which, he admitted, there were no clear answers that eveyone could agree upon. However, the use and importance poetry was one common feature of Sufism in Sindh.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.