July issue 2009
Interview: Juergen Wasim Frembgen
Unfortunately, the space for the indigenous folk Islam is now shrinking”
– Juergen Wasim Frembgen
Juergen Wasim Frembgen is senior curator of the oriental department of the Museum of Ethnology in Munich and associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Munich. He is author of the book, Journey to God: Sufis and Dervishes in Islam, and himself a devotee of Sufi saints.
Q: You are the curator of the oriental department at the Museum of Ethnology in Munich and private lecturer on Islamic studies at the University of Munich. As a German anthropologist, what sparked this interest in Islam — and Sufism in particular?
A: There could be several answers to your question, some are rooted in my childhood even, but first let me emphasise that I had been fascinated by Pakistan as a region of transition between South, West and Central Asia and because of the plurality of its ethnic groups and cultures. Isn’t diversity the real spice in life? My interest in devotional Islam, Sufism, and the veneration of saints began to grow gradually in the 1980s. I became curious after witnessing the intense devotional religiosity and worship at the shrines of Sufi saints in the eastern Muslim world between Iran and India, particularly in Sindh and the Punjab. Then, I started reading and studying the basic texts of Islam and of the Sufi tradition. However, it is important to mention that I did not start as a scholar of Islam, but as an anthropologist interested in the social and political history of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. I began visiting the smaller shrines of majzubs and mast babas in the Potohar region of the Punjab, as well as the larger ones of renowned Sufi saints. Finally, over the last few years, I participated in numerous melas and urs with their intense experience of the divine through all the senses. So there were these two angles of visiting minor shrines and mazars as well as attending festivals at larger shrines with their celebratory rituals, including music and devotional dance.
Q: Is Sufism — tasawwuf — an integral part of Islam?
A: In the words of the great scholar Annemarie Schimmel, Sufism has been the core of Islam, although over time this has sometimes become less apparent. Sufis are interested in the esoteric dimensions of the Quran. We observe the development of the Sufi tradition in the lifetime of the Prophet (PBUH) and the development of Sufi orders, especially between the 12th and 14th/15th centuries. It offers a chance for experiencing the divine, to find a personal relationship with God in one’s own heart, without a formalised system of mediators, as we have in the mosque-oriented versions of Islam.
Nowadays, Sufism is undergoing various transformations. For instance, there are transnational networks of Sufi orders — they are very active and also trendy right now in the West, where Buddhism is also being floated as a New Age soft package to satisfy the longing for spirituality, which the materialistic world cannot fill. But, as already noted by Sir Mohammad Iqbal, “Islam is not for the weak.” It is a system of meaning and orientation in life which is taken seriously.
Q: Why is Sufism, then, looked upon with so much suspicion by Muslims themselves?
A: There are a lot of stereotypes and preconceptions about Sufism — first of all from outside the Muslim world, from the so-called Orientalists who viewed dervishes as madmen, as colourful, bizarre and lazy dirty men, almost as lunatics. Of course, within Islam there has been since long a very similar discourse in which Sufism is viewed and judged critically. But we should also not forget that, at times, learned Sufis did become the sought-after advisors of the rulers. In fact, the image of the malang, or the dervish, with the kashkol in his hand and wearing the patchwork robe is, by and large, a marginal trait of the Sufi tradition. Generally, I would like to point out that there is a broad spectrum within Sufism. This is what I have tried to describe and analyse in my latest book.
Q: There is a perception that the West is trying to prop up Sufism as an alternative to radical Islam. Do you agree?
A: I feel generally uneasy with the dichotomous notion of the ‘West’ and the ‘East.’ We should focus more on sharing than on emphasising boundaries and differences. Thus, I observe that not only in Europe and America, but also in Pakistan there are a number of thinkers and politicians who regard the Sufi tradition as a more peaceful and liberal face of Islam — a version of Islam, so-to-speak, which is not directly involved in politics. However, this is, at least partly, an idealistic conception. We know of numerous cases in history where Sufis have been deeply involved in politics, such as in Morocco, Sudan, Iran and Pakistan. There is not always a peaceful side to Sufism — power has been and is still, executed by pirs and murshids. The pious followers of pirs have been quite active in political conflicts. Think, for example, of the Hurs of Pir Pagaro in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, to portray Sufism as a purely peaceful tradition is definitely too idealistic.
In Pakistan, the Sufi tradition has deeply impregnated the localised folk versions of Islam particularly in the rural areas, but also among the urban poor. Normative, orthodox Islam has flourished more in the cities and has been spread through the system of madrassas all over the country. As a museum curator who exhibits Muslim arts and crafts, many modern reformist versions of Islam seem not to offer anything in terms of aesthetics. Consider the effects of Wahhabi-related movements in South Asia and elsewhere: rural mosques with beautiful wood carvings or paintings have been razed to the ground and replaced with concrete structures, devoid of any aesthetic features or embellishments. Sufi shrines, on the contrary, are aesthetic spaces where devotees find sukun or contemplation. They often appear paradise-like with trees, water, animals, free food and a perfect space for prayer and the remembrance of God. They are inclusivist, that is to say they are places of tolerance where non-Muslims are also welcomed. Women are the most regular visitors at shrines, they generally have a strong bond with forms of popular Islam. Unfortunately, the space for this indigenous folk Islam is now shrinking.
Q: Was Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) the first Sufi, as he was the only man to have undertaken the journey to the heavens during Shab-e-Mairaj?
A: If we see Sufism as a movement of divine rapture and of love, of the discovery and development of love for God and for human beings, then this was definitely the message of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as well. If there is no love, there is no life. In his love for God, the Prophet (PBUH) has become the insaan-e-kamil, the ‘perfect man,’ as well as an absolute role model for Muslims. Let me emphasise that Sufism allows individuality, whereby Islam otherwise focuses more on the collective, the ummah. Such a focus on society is not found to this extent in cultures of the western hemisphere. Communal prayers, Hajj, fasting and other rituals reflect collective ideas and experiences which are so important for the development of society. To become complete human beings, we have to combine the individual side with the collective of the Shariah. Both are intertwined and one should not leave this collective path as a Sufi, either.
Q: Why does the Sufi path embody a veneration of saints whereas tauheed is the main pillar of Islam?
A: I look at Sufism as a concrete religious practice from an anthropological perspective, not from that of an Islamic theologian. In my opinion the main question is: Who has the right to define Islam? The concept of tauheed means unity of God, but aren’t there several ways to reach God? The biggest challenge for Islam seems to be the accommodation of differences. From an orthodox and legalistic perspective of Islam, the veneration of Sufi saints may be bordering on shirk. But within pragmatic everyday Islam, masses of people visit the shrines and request the saints to act as mediators in conveying their wishes and needs. The saints’ power, barkat, is thought to help. This is where the Sufi tradition blends with popular Islam. Prayer is one way to get relief, but there is also the idea of wishes being fulfilled, such as receiving good luck and fortune, being healed or having fertility problems solved. Some saints have been said to cure certain diseases.
Q: Has there ever been any study undertaken which proves that miracles have been performed by Sufi saints?
A: Miracle stories evolve from the charisma of the saints; they are basically legends and mythical in nature. Devotees in the past have attributed miraculous powers to their saints and continue to do so even today. On the one hand, saintly charisma can be inherited, as Max Weber, the famous sociologist of religion, has documented. Thus, there were famous saints in the 13th and 14th centuries who are said to have performed miracles and their charisma has been inherited by their male descendants, the sajjda-nasheens. On the other hand, personal miraculous charisma can be passed on as a form of energy to others through close contact with the living saint. Ordinary people feel this power of the saint transferred onto them. As an anthropologist, I think that when this belief and practice of veneration helps people in their daily life, then this facet of religion has a value in itself.
Q: Do you think that people are aware of the tremendous role that the early Sufis played in the spread of Islam?
A: Their contribution in the spread of Islam should be made more public. In some parts of the Muslim world, particularly in the subcontinent, Sufi saints wandered over vast areas and spread the message of Islam in a very peaceful way. By sharing food with former untouchables, they lived the ideals of Islam — of justice, brotherliness and generosity. Thus, common ground was emphasised, not the boundaries between different religions.
Since the late 18th century, and particularly since the middle of the 20th century, we have seen the emergence of reformist Islam, of looking at Islamic identity in a more austere and often intolerant manner. Forms of local folk Islam have been condemned and even attacked, which is a very purist and puritan way of looking at the religion. In fact, it is an attempt to wipe out religious and cultural diversity and to create a monochromatic society.
Q: Why has a distinction been made between different categories of Sufis, dervishes, malangs, etc.?
A: Not only scholars, but homosapiens in general are obsessed with classifying and categorising, and in reality, there is a rich diversity of religious types to be found in the spectrum of Sufism. There is the malamati, the malang, the majzub, the mast baba and the Sufis and dervishes of the various orders. In reality, some of them blend with each other and are often not easy to differentiate. I know malangs who are received by orthodox Sufi scholars, who run a madrassa for instance. In Afghanistan or in central Punjab, many Sufis have their own madrassas and they have no problems welcoming malangs, as they know they lead an ascetic and devotional life dedicated to God. They might not follow all the prayers but they are still accepted.
Q: What about the fakes among them?
A: There has always been a discussion about Sufis being fake pirs or charlatans; in fact, this mistrust has been there since early Islam. Such people were often accused of not being ‘true’ Muslims (whoever seems to have the right to define what is ‘true’ or not). There was disgust with the decadence of the Sufis in almost every age. It has been quite fashionable to talk in this way. I have been frequently living among malangs and devotees for many years now. There could be criminals hiding at the shrines, who mingle with the crowds at melas. But I have travelled with malangs, such as my friend Arif sain, for instance, whom I have described in a book just published in German — it is a narrative of my experiences during several pilgrimages to Sehwan Sharif. Arif sain is a half-naked malang with a patchwork cap and lungi, who has visited shrines since the age of 16 and who is now around 60, and I trust that he will take good care of me and all my belongings. There are very respectful and dignified persons among these dervishes, although they appear to live on the margins of society.
Q: As a foreigner in Pakistan, did you ever experience any fear?
A: People in Germany, at times, asked me if I was a madman to be travelling to Pakistan. In reality, things in Pakistan are very different from the distorted view of this country and of the Muslim world in general. The diversity of Islam and its plurality needs to be emphasised again and again to avoid portraying this religion only as a monolithic bloc. I do avoid certain places in Pakistan, but I have hardly felt any danger during all these years doing ethnographic field research. I try to blend in with the people by wearing the local dress and conversing in Urdu. Finally, coming annually to Pakistan for the last 30 years, this country has become my home, probably more my first than my second home, in fact.
Q: Where have your travels taken you in Pakistan?
A: In the early 1980s, I usually travelled to Nager and Hunza in the Northern Areas to pursue my fieldwork for a PhD; then I did research in Harban, a remote valley close to the Nanga Parbat as well as in the NWFP. Later on, my interest was drawn more and more to the Punjab and since a couple of years, Sindh. This research has been supported over the years by the Museum of Ethnology in Munich, which grants me [unpaid] leave to pursue my work. A few years ago, one of my sons, Milan Nadeem, accompanied me to the mela of Baba Bulleh Shah in Kasur. Right now he works in Lahore.
Q: Why are there so few women Sufis in modern times, while in the past there have been very powerful female Sufi saints such as the legendary Rabia al-Basri?
A: There is a chapter on women and Sufism in my book. There have been women Sufis since the inception of Sufism as a religious movement. We find female Sufi saints in Morocco, Egypt, Sudan and also in Pakistan. However, as you point out, they are not found commonly. Perhaps because there is the male perspective that female Sufi saints are in contradiction to the purity of a saint. But, I have at times, come across malangnis, the female dervishes. What should be noted is that the majority of devotees of the Sufi saints are female, so the aspect of female religiosity cannot be underestimated. If the mosque is a space predominantly for men, a shrine is, by contrast, a place where women can find peace and solace.
Q: Your book cites a story of a 27-year-old female Sufi saint in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Is it uncommon to find such young Sufi women?
A: Personal life stories play a very important role in the makings of a Sufi. Sometimes, there is an event which marks a turning point, such as an illness, which led that particular female dervish to the Sufi path.
Q: It seems that the western world, more than the East, is interested in Sufism as a religious movement. How do you foresee the future of Sufism?
A: This is hard to foretell. Nevertheless, we should note that there is an increased interest in the East — take Pakistani music as an example. The Pakistani young generation finds interest in Sufism through the music of Junoon, Mekaal Hasan, the great Sufi poets and their interpreters such as Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers and, of course, through Abida Parveen. The younger generation can find their identity reflected [in the music]. In Germany, there are a number of Sufi groups, but the public appears much more interested in Buddhism, partly because of the hype around the Dalai Lama who has become a kind of pop star. Anything related to Islam, on the other hand, is unfortunately viewed with suspicion. Sufism has a more positive image, but it is often not considered part of Islam. Consider that Rumi’s poetry has been a bestseller in America, but people are then shocked to hear that Rumi had been a Muslim. So there is just a superficial reading of some poetry, but not a deeper study of Sufism and Islam in the West, even though it is being spread by some transnational Sufi orders.
Q: Annemarie Schimmel (who had been your mentor), yourself, Max Weber, Richard Hartmann, they were all German …
A: A lot of German scholars have done extensive work on Islam, but usually from a theoretical and textbook perspective, not as it is practiced today, not in its concrete forms and manifestations. My book, on the contrary, offers an account of Sufism from the perspective of the ethnographer as much as that of the historian. What I have tried to avoid is the ‘top-down’ perspective of textual Sufi theorists. Instead, I have emphasised on lived ‘popular Sufism’ in the Muslim world, between West Africa and the subcontinent, with a special focus on Pakistan.
Q: Is there any one incident that stands out during your journey as a Sufi devotee?
A: Yes, when I had the chance to accompany the malang Arif sain and his group of devotees on a pilgrimage to Sehwan Sharif. This was a great experience and personal challenge for me. I was living there as part of the kafila, as a devotee and as an anthropologist. This, in combination with ecstatic music played continuously at the darbar of Qalandar Lal Shahbaz, opened a space for experiencing the divine for me.
Q: So would you call yourself a Sufi?
A: I have, at best, done half a step and I would never dare to call myself a Sufi!