Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Pakistan – A State of Denial

My conversations with louisprandtl have forced me to try and organize my own thoughts on Pakistan.  The current state of affairs in Pakistan can best be described by stating that Pakistan is not a religious state, or a democratic state… it is, quite simply, a state of denial.  It is a state that simultaneously denies it’s glorious history (and it does have a most glorious history), and the less-than glorious events of recent years.

In my previous diary , I presented the obvious contradiction between the secular words of an overtly secular lawyer, and his deed (that of separating people on the basis of religion).  In this diary, I will simultaneously try to grasp the problem, and to offer a solution.

Pakistans’ glorious past

Pakistan does have a glorious past.  In the annals of history, the land that is now called Pakistan has been witness to some of the most advanced civilizations in history.  I have previously diaried about the Kushans, but there are other examples.

The most notable example, which is directly relevant to Pakistan’s current predicament, is the Sufi tradition.  You may have heard that India’s Muslim population is relatively modern (even though it is very large in size), compared to the Muslim populations of the middle east, for instance.  You may have heard various theories for that ~ India is democratic, free will, etc etc.  But underlying all that, there is a very simple explanation for why India’s Muslim population is so different.  

And the underlying reason is that Islam did not spread to India by force alone (yes, I acknowledge that there were several instances of forced conversions etc., but those were relatively minor in scale.  Absent the other reason, the forced conversions would not have been enough to sustain Islam in India).  Rather, Islam was brought to India by a group of preachers ~ the Sufi Saints ~ who were rather unique in the history of the world.

Sufism is a branch of Islam that emphasizes that philosophy is universal.  Some people believe that Sufism predates Islam, and most modern religions.  Likewise, some Muslims believe that Sufis are not true Muslims.  

The Sufis who spread Islam in India were of the  Chisti Order with Sheikh Salim Chisti being the most famous example.  

So what made the Sufis so great ?

In the annals of human history, the Sufis of northwest India & and Pakistan were really quite unique  (If anyone knows of any other examples like them, I would be most interested in hearing about those.)  They were unique because they preached a brand of inclusiveness that was stunning in it’s scope.

Their inclusiveness was not the modern equivalent of “tolerance”.  Rather, their brand of inclusiveness worked on the following logic: (a) no one religion.. not even Islam… has all the answers. (b) every religion… including the idolatric religion of Brahminism… has something to offer.  Therefore (c) one should seek out and practice every religion… and acquire answers from them all.

If you think of it, the Sufi formula for inclusiveness is the only acceptable formula for inclusiveness.  Our modern equivalent of “tolerance” is really quite ridiculous by comparison.   If you consider it, you will agree (I hope) that Sufism teaches respect, while “tolerance” breeds a superiority complex (” I will tolerate your right to exist, and your right to have an opinion, but you are really quite worthless.  Furthermore, my superiority is proven because I am tolerating you even though you are quite worthless”).

The Sufis preached a brand of Islam that invoked local customs, even including local Gods.  They preached a brand of Islam that actively sought out other religions for answers.  As an example, I will cite Akbar, the Great Mughal Emperor , whose rule coincided with Elizabeth 1 in England.  I remember visiting Akbar’s fort with my Swiss friend, and watching his stupefied reaction when he saw a Star of David (along with the religious symbols of all religions)  boldly engraved in his court.  Can you imagine John Ashcroft sanctioning the image of Allah (yeah I know… bad example), or Gautama… in the Department of Justice ?  For that matter, can you imagine Barack Obama taking his oath on the Quran ?

Such was the power of the Sufis (and a parallel “Bhakti” movement that had also sprung up within Hinduism… for the sake of convenience, I am deliberately merging the two), that the masses reached over the aisle (so to say), to fight over them.  The best example of this is provided by

 Legend has it that when Kabir died, the Hindus and Muslims fought over his burial rites (they both claimed his as one of their own), and discovered that his body had disappeared.

The Sufi philosophy can be somewhat gauged by the following “Doha” from Kabir

O SERVANT, where dost thou seek Me?

   Lo! I am beside thee.

   I am neither in temple nor in mosque: I am neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash:

   Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga.

   If thou art a true seeker, thou shalt at once see Me: thou shalt meet Me in a moment of time.

   Kabîr says, “O Sadhu! God is the breath of all breath.

   -SONGS OF KABÎR, translated by Rabindranath Tagore, New York, The Macmillan Company 1915)

[Note:  unlike the Sufis before and after him, Kabir was substantially more critical of all religions, and religious practices]

As another example of the power of the Sufis, you can consider the custom of childless women (particularly those without a male heir) praying on bended knees at the tomb of a Sufi saint.  I can personally attest to this custom being prevalent even today, even amongst the non-Muslim population of India ~ my parents (who are not Muslim) performed this prayer!

What does all that have to do with modern Pakistan ?

It is quite simply this: the glorious history of Pakistan is associated with it’s Sufi tradition.  The land that is now Pakistan was great when it was dominated by the Sufis.  However, in it’s recent embodiment, Pakistan has chosen to become a homeland for Muslims who cannot possibly live in a Hindu dominated India.  The recent embodiment of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a complete rejection of all that made that land great.  Pakistan literally means the land of the pure ~ those who are pure of heart in theory, and of pure religion in practice.  Sufis represent a diluted brand of Islam, and has been rejected by the state.

Instead, the state has promoted a more radical brand of Islam (Salafism), consistent with Pakistan’s mission as a safe haven for the Muslims.

The result has been a state that suffers from state level schizophrenia.  

What can be done ?

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the state, the Sufi tradition is very much alive in Pakistan today.  Pakistan’s current Prime Minister is said to be a Sufi follower himself.  The shrines of various Sufi saints continues to be pilgrimages for the masses.  The mind may have forgotten, but the body remembers it’s past.

And so, the answer to Pakistan’s current problem with radical Islam lies not in “secularism” (as louisprandtl advocates in his diary ), but in the universal religion preached by the Sufis.


  1. …to match your diary Lotusbloom. I’ve always liked what Sufist traditions I’ve encountered, and I wish its traditions were more prominently recorded when – especially after 9/11 – every commentator seemed to become an ‘expert’ on Islam.

    Because of a minority sect, the Western (and particularly the American) mind associates Islam almost exclusively we the ‘We love death’ shahid hyperbole of Bin Laden and other Salafists. Imagine 2000 years of Christianity, reduced to the inane hateful comments about New York after 9/11. This reductionism sucks, and has been deeply polarising in the last decade. I think its roots go back to certain thinkers in the 1990s, who needed to create Islam as the next enemy after the fall of communism. We need so much education, an diaries like yours are important to that end.

    On the secular/sufi future for Pakistan. I’d love to see a secular future there, but the track record of secular nationalists both there, and in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt, is not very edifying. And though the US is technically a secular state, the role of Evangelical christianity plays there can be lamented, reformed, but hardly ignored.

    Promoting the resurgence of a more tolerant and kindlier face to Islam in Pakistan seems a much more realistic and stable mid term objective than to expect secularism to triumph in current conditions. In a sense the mystic monastic tradition of St Francis was a precursor of the Reformation in Europe, and then the Enlightenment validation of human rights. Who knows? Perhaps a gentler more mystical version of Islam might lead to greater recognition of human rights in Pakistan, especially those of women and non believers.  

  2. creamer

     Pakistan seems to be at war with itself, caught between sharia and secularism. The Sufi tradition you reflect on would seem to be a place to start, though it seems in conflict it becomes hard to be a moderate.

Comments are closed.