Over the years, a large percentage of analysis penned on the issue of religious radicalisation in Pakistan, has almost squarely concentrated on the proliferation of the more belligerent strands of the Muslim Sunni Deobandi and of Wahibi sub-sects.
Even though both are minority sub-sects in Pakistan, they began to enjoy strategic state support from the 1980s onwards — especially when Pakistan became a frontline state in the insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.
The Sunni Barelvi sub-sect, that a majority of Pakistanis belong to, did not have any historical tradition related to armed jihad. Therefore, the state of Pakistan, with help from the US and Saudi Arabia, forked out millions of dollars to pull in radical Deobandi elements from the fringes and into the mainstream.
The Sunni Barelvi sub-sect narrative has been moulded by changing state narratives but have also met resistance
Ever since 19th and early 20th centuries, both Deobandis as well as Wahabis had histories of organising themselves during uprisings enacted in the name of jihad. The Barelvis did not.
The Barelvis emerged as a Sunni sub-sect in the late 19th century. It was a reaction against the theological onslaught of the Deobandis against the traditions of the majority of Muslims, who, during the 500-year Muslim rule in India, had merged various elements of Sufism with the rituals of pre-Islamic creeds existing in India.
The Barelvi were never an organised lot. For example, when in 1919, the Deobandi clerics organised themselves into a large political party in India — the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Hind (JUIH) — the Barelvi figureheads (pirs) instead joined various non-religious political outfits.
For example, instead of forming a party of their own, they first joined the Union Party (in Punjab) and then, in 1945-46, Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League. However, a year after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, a group of Barelvi clerics formed the Jamiat-i-Ulema Pakistan (JUP).
But according to Dr Mujeeb Ahmad in his essay in State and Nation Building in Pakistan: Beyond Islam and Security edited by Roger D. Long, the JUP hardly registered on Pakistan’s political landscape till 1970.
Nevertheless, Alix Phillipon, in the same anthology points out that even though the Barelvi majority was politically scattered, its social influence was not lost on the state of Pakistan.
In her book Arguing Sainthood, Prof Katherine Pratt Ewing charted in detail how the state of Pakistan (and various governments) moulded and remoulded religious imagery related to Barelvi beliefs to fit whatever or however the state, at the time, was demonstrating as the contents of Pakistan’s nationalist-existentialist narrative.
Since the veneration of the deceased as well as living saints is a central plank in the Barelvi belief system, the state tried to monopolise the writing of the histories of the saints. Ewing demonstrates how, on the suggestion of Dr Javed Iqbal, the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69) neutralised the pirs (and also clerics) by bringing under state control the country’s Sufi shrines, mosques and madressahs. This was done by forming a department called Auqaf.
Then, the history of various famous South Asian Sufi saints was written by Auqaf in the light of how the Ayub regime was expressing itself. According to both Ewing and Phillipon, the literature produced by Auqaf during the Ayub era described saints to be enlightened and forward-looking men as opposed to the clerics whose literature presents itself as being reactionary. The saints were presented as ancient projections of Ayub’s ‘modernist’ approach towards Islam.
The saints’ personalities went through another rewrite during the ‘socialist’ Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77). Analysing the literature published by Auqaf during the Bhutto period, Ewing noted how the saints now became populist men who opposed oppressive kings, feudal lords and ‘their agents’ (i.e. the orthodox mullahs). Phillipon suggests that this was done to bring the histories of the saints in line with Bhutto’s idea of ‘Islamic Socialism’.
It was also during the 1970s that the JUP became a lot more political. Its leaders rejected the idea of Sufism that was formulated by the Ayub and Bhutto regimes. Dr Ahmad writes that the JUP saw the saints as being ‘pure Muslims’.
In her book, Power Failure, Syeda Abida Hussain writes that the JUP “used the anti-Shia card” in Jhang during the 1970 elections. In 1974, the JUP became one of the three main religious outfits to demand the ouster of the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam.
The Barelvi majority was eventually overwhelmed by the political rise of Deobandi militancy during the Zia dictatorship. However, Ewing’s study demonstrates that the conservative Zia regime, too, remoulded the image of the Sufi saints. They were now explained as being ‘Islamic scholars’ and imams.
But as the rise of state-backed Deobandi militancy in the 1980s eventually led to the formation of various anti-state militant groups, the Musharraf government (1999-2008) revived the idea of using state-sponsored Sufism to colour his regime’s ‘modernist’ disposition.
A National Sufi Council (NSC) was formed and then a Rumi Forum. Both generated academic, promotional and cultural paraphernalia promoting Sufi philosophy, poetry and music. This time, Sufi saints were explained as being men who promoted the ‘true elements of Islam’: peace, love and tolerance.
Interestingly though, Phillipon writes that from within this narrative, “wittingly or unwittingly”, also emerged an idea which equated this version of Sufism with Pakistan’s majority Sunni sub-sect, the Barelvi.
It is true that the religious Barelvi leadership was staunchly against extremist groups of opposing Sunni sub-sects. But what was overlooked was that they were equally opposed to the idea of Sufism being formulated by the state. This was first demonstrated by the JUP, and later, more belligerently, by outfits such as the Sunni Tehreek.
The radical Barelvi finally discovered their crusading niche by becoming the self-claimed protectors of the Second Amendment and Ordinance (regarding the ouster of the Ahmadiyya from Islam), and the 1986 clause of the blasphemy laws in the Pakistan constitution.
Their distaste towards the state-backed image of Sufism erupted more prominently in the shape of the radical Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP). A sympathiser of the outfit told Phillipon that Sufism (formulated by Ayub, Bhutto and Musharraf) was ‘Washington’s agenda’ and that Sufism doesn’t dissuade people from violent struggle.
This can be seen as the current strand of Barelvi radicalism looking to transcend its old image of being apolitical, ‘peace-loving spiritualists’. Should the Pakistan state start to worry? I’ll leave that for the state to answer.