Good Sufi, Bad Salafi: Is Pakistan’s Romance with Sufism Backfiring?

With a politicized Barelvism leading the recent protests against Aasia Bibi’s acquittal, has the Pakistani state’s romance with Barelvism, the supposedly soft and Sufi Islam, backfired?


Every Thursday, right before the Muslim holy day of Friday, devotees all around South Asia flock to Sufi shrines. 16th February 2017 started out as one typical Thursday. Devotees gathered at the shrine of the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, a small city in southern Sindh, Pakistan. Devotees numbered in the hundreds. They came from all ages, genders (including the transgendered) and religions (Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Sikh and Christians). Fortune tellers, faqirs and other marginalized groups were present too. All had come to pay their homage to one of the most adored figures in Pakistan’s popular religious culture: Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

While the chanting and the prayers were in full swing, an alleged woman suicide bomber first threw a grenade, then blew herself up. 88 people were killed and over 250 injured, in what was the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan of the last two years. The timing of the attack was by no means accidental. Indeed, it was part of what has been called “Pakistan’s week of violence”. Six different attacks, claimed by different terrorist groups, took the lives of at least 99 people in the space of four days (13-16 February). Looking more closely into these acts of violence, we see that they all targeted people in state-related institutions, all but – apparently – the attack on the shrine (for which ISIS claimed responsibility).

Sufi shrines have been a recurrent victim of various so-called fundamentalist organizations. From the first suicide blast at Pir Rakhel Shah shrine in Fatehpur on March 19th 2005 (in which 46 people were killed) to the bombing at Shah Noorani in Khuzdar, the last one before Sehwan, on November 13th 2016 (where 52 people were killed and at least 100 injured), the blood of hundreds of ordinary people has been shed over those sacred stones.

In trying to understand these attacks, state actors, policymakers and the media – both inside and outside Pakistan – reproduce a ready-made narrative that reads such tragedies as the clash between two profoundly antithetical ways of experiencing Islam. On the one hand is the Islam proposed by militant groups loosely associated with the Wahhabis or Deobandi sect (or, more generally, with Al-Qaeda), who believe in a strict vision of Islam where, for instance, pilgrimages to shrines and the presence of women praying in the same public space as men calls for takfir (the process of declaring someone as a non-believer). On the other hand, there is the Islam practiced in Sufi shrines – usually associated with a particular pir (a religious/spiritual and sometimes political leader) – which is considered tolerant, syncretic and anti-sectarian.

In brief, and to put it simply as most of the headlines like to do, an attack on a shrine is viewed as “an attack on pluralism”, or alternatively, an attack to the “soft face of Islam”. The tension becomes even more strident when it comes to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, because Sindh is widely considered the land of the greatest Sufi saints and one of the most liberal and pluralistic regions in the subcontinent, and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents the epitome of that.  

It is undoubtedly true that contrasting interpretations of “proper Islam” are playing an important role in driving the attacks. But this explanation falls short of identifying the complex politics that regulates the rather ambiguous position of the state vis-a-vis Sufi shrines and, consequently, why they are targeted by Islamist groups not only on the basis of religion, but also because of the role shrines are forced to take up in the national and international narrative. Commenting on the attack in Sehwan, Omar Kasmani aptly summarises this point:

An attack at a shrine is one spectacular manifestation of the ever-diminishing space for dissent and difference in the republic. In other words, the easy idea that one kind of Islam is under threat from another kind of Islam is not only flawed, it is plain shoddy. In limiting the discussion to religion, we refuse to take measure of other forms of pluralism that are equally at risk in Pakistan today. In fact, an over-determined reliance on the paradigm of Islam is analytically futile precisely because it fails to grasp the full extent of what is at stake in Pakistan’s fraught relationship with places such as Sehwan—or to borrow Carla Bellamy’s take on Islamic shrines, with ambiguously sacred places. Here ambiguity, not Islam is the word to take home.

In order to understand the “ambiguity” around Sufi shrines in Pakistan, it is necessary to dig into their tangled historical relationship with the Pakistani nation-state, from its initial conception, to its later inception in 1947 and up until the present. By doing so, this essay will argue that the current aforementioned narrative around these accidents is deeply biased: applying a simplistic reductionist formula that sees Sufism as the answer to tackle radicalisation and to promote a better image of Pakistan in the West (because it endorses “the soft face of Islam”) does not allow us to grasp – but, indeed, does conceal – the broader power dynamics into which the Sufi discourse is caught up.  

Moreover, as it will become clearer in the following sections, what if such an overtly political use of this value-laden ideological discourse by the Pakistani state – backed up by the international community – has the reverse effect of radicalising Sufism itself and, subsequently, deepening intra-religious conflicts? Or even, what if such public endorsements generate a boomerang effect against the very Pakistani state that emboldened Sufi groups to begin with? Recent protests against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi were led by a party aligned with Barelvism, a Sunni sect once thought of as the soft and Sufi form of Islam. The boomerang effect seems to be in play.

Sufism: an Orientalist construct?

What today falls under the term “Sufism” – in its more comprehensive definition as “Islamic mysticism” – is a contested terrain that dates back at least to the eighteenth century and the colonial appropriation of Islamic culture and symbolism. Contemporary discourses that portray Sufism as quietist, tolerant and, above all, non-political bear the traces of that particular Orientalist understanding of Sufi practices.

The renowned Islamic Studies scholar Carl Ernst is categorical on this point: “the non-political image of Sufism”, he states, “is illusory”. According to Ernst, British Orientalists embedded into the term Sufism only those aspects of “Oriental” culture fascinating for Europeans, while at the same time creating a distance between Sufism itself and what they considered as “orthodox Islam”. In fact, they identified Sufism mainly on the basis of literary texts – above all, Hafiz’s and Jalal al-Din Rumi’s – that form what Mark Woodward et al call “philosophical Sufism”. According to Woodward et al, this dimension of Sufism “focuses on attaining insight into spiritual meanings of Islam, the metaphysical foundations of existence and relationships between creator and created”.

These Orientalist scholars did not properly include in their formulation of “Sufism” two others branches: ethical and institutional Sufism. It is here that two important features usually overlooked in public discourses about Sufism are more visible. By looking at the development of ethical Sufism, we see its cross-cutting significance throughout the Islamic sphere (as Woodward et al point out, “even Wahhabis […] are drawn to these ethical teachings”). In institutional Sufism, we see the more politically-oriented domain of Sufi practice that – as Woodward et al’s analysis of Sufism in West Africa and Southeast Asia or Ernst’s account of Sufi “brotherhoods” in anti-colonial movements demonstrate – has historically played a major role in shaping the political destiny of the Muslim world. Thus, Woodward et al conclude their study warning against the alarming tendency to view the peaceful Sufi/violent Salafi dichotomy based on the “theological roots of violence [and, conversely, of tolerance]”, because “theological orientation cannot be used as a predictor of either violent or nonviolent behaviour. […] They can, however, be used to legitimate a priori dispositions towards both”. Besides, such reading of Sufi and Salafi histories is factually inaccurate.

Neo-Orientalist Sufism

Bearing this in mind, it is astonishing how much effort – both in terms of economic and intellectual investment – has been put post 9/11 by the United States in promoting Sufis, especially in Pakistan, as the “natural allies” in tackling radical Islam. From the 2004 Nixon Center report titled “Understanding Sufism and its Potential Role in US Policy” to the more recent 2010 World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) report ‘Traditional Muslim Networks: Pakistan’s Untapped Resource in the Fight Against Terrorism”, several policy think-tanks in the US have been relentlessly portraying a quiet and apolitical Sufi Islam as an effective tool against radicalization.

As their titles suggest, these reports (and there are several like them) re-introduce the Orientalist narrative sketched above. And as Farzana Shaikh points out, “nowhere did these recommendations receive a closer hearing than in Pakistan”, where the post-9/11 world demanded a renegotiation of Islamic identity by the Pakistani nation-state. In relation to Sufi shrines, General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), and the governments who followed him, not only endorsed, but also bolstered – partly thanks to the support so openly expressed by the West – the policies that had been promoted by previous Pakistani governments.

Such developments, I would propose, are central to understanding the recent wave of violence against these sacred places. While the bombings may be carried out in the name of religion, Sufi shrines have become the target as a consequence of specific geo-political agendas promoted by the nation-state and its international allies.

Sufism in the Pakistan Movement

The current fraught relationship between the Pakistani state and Sufi shrines is not a new trend. Instead, it has its roots in the very onset of the Pakistan movement, where the role that Islam (and which Islam) would play in the new nation-state was widely debated.  There were three main actors who modeled the vision of the would-be Pakistan: the social reformer Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), and the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948).

Here, I will briefly consider only Iqbal’s position on Sufism and Sufi shrines, since he is considered “one of the most important thinkers in generating [the] ideology of Pakistan” (for a detailed account of the positions that all three of them had on Sufism, see Katherine Ewing’s excellent essay). In trying to define his notion of Muslim nationalism and Muslim democracy, Iqbal held dear the idea that a reform of the Islamic discourse was necessary so as to, in Alix Philippon’s words, “restore the dynamism of Islam, to exhume its original truths in order to reconstruct the great Islamic concepts and reconnect them with their initial universality”. Although Iqbal was skeptical of the role that Sufism could play in society – particularly because of the excessive mysticism that, at the time, governed Sufi shrines and because of the so-called institution of piri-mureedi in which devotees (or mureeds) were almost enslaved by an excessive reliance on the figure of the pir – he recognized the socio-political value that those pirs had.

According to Philippon, Iqbal wanted to reform such blind faith that, especially in the rural areas, bestowed enormous spiritual and decision-making power specifically in the hands of the pir-zamindars, i.e. those pirs who were also landlords. In order to do so, Iqbal reframed the figure of the pir, stressing the socio-politically active role that he has historically occupied in the Muslim community (for example, as a social reformer), while downgrading the saintly aura that he was believed to possess.

Moreover, Iqbal himself appropriated – after having reworked – Sufi concepts in his thought. The best example is represented by one of his major philosophical poems, Asrar-i Khudi (The Secrets of the Self) where the classical Sufi idea of khudi (the individual self) assumes new light under Iqbal’s political and religious vision. As Ewing aptly points out, “the doctrine Iqbal presented in Asrar-i Khudi connects his interpretation of Sufism with the political action necessary to create a new Muslim community”.

Iqbal, in short, had an ambiguous relationship to Sufism. On the one hand, he believed that the institution of pir-mureedi was a centrifugal force that undermined his vision for a united Muslim community. On the other, he re-cast the figure of the pir and borrowed concepts from Sufi philosophy precisely in order to forge such a united – and politicized – Muslim community.

Post-partition State-Sufi relations

The ambiguity around the role that Sufism and Sufi shrines had to play in the new state remained well after 1947. The initial attempts at imposing state control onto these places were made by Pakistan’s first military ruler, General Ayub Khan (1958-1969). In the newly formed Pakistan – still profoundly divided along ethnic, linguistic, social and regional lines – the main preoccupation for Ayub Khan was to create a strong central government able to uphold development projects and modernisation. In so doing, he hoped to overcome the existing fractures under the ban of a modern, national Pakistani identity – “reinforced”, Ewing points out, “by the bond of Islam and by rapid economic growth”.  

Rural areas were key to Ayub’s strategy. It was here that the aforementioned ties between pirs and their devotees were stronger and more difficult to disrupt. This is why he decided to intervene in the politics governing Sufi shrines. According to Ewing, Ayub “change[ed] the significance of the shrines and of the saints attached to them. He also used the shrines directly as a vehicle for modernization”. His main concern was how to deal with the pir-zamindars and, specifically, with the sajjada-nishins. The latter are hereditary pirs who, ideologically and politically, were tied to the system of land tenure and political control maintained by the British. It was necessary to replace the sajjada-nishins’ control – both politically (for instance, they bore an enormous weight in the election outcomes) and spiritually – with a state narrative oriented towards national unity and identity.

To do so, Ayub Khan promulgated a new administrative policy in 1959: the West Pakistan Waqf Properties Ordinance, which was superseded in 1961 by the West Pakistan Waqf Properties Ordinance (waqf, plural auqaf, is a property dedicated to religious purposes). The policy brought Sufi shrines under the direct control of the state.

Nonetheless, the major problem was the power in the hands of the sajjada-nishins. As Ewing aptly notes:

Only by changing the religious significance of the pir and the world-view of his followers could any real political reorganization be effective. Thus the removal of waqf land from the control of the sajjada-nishins was equivalent to the breaking up of the lands of major landlords, but one more step was required: the religious hold of the sajjada-nishin also needed to be broken.

To undercut the specific pastoral authority of the sajjada-nishins, Ayub’s government pursued what Ewing terms “a twofold strategy”. Firstly, having acquired the property of the shrines, the state had to demonstrate that it could take care of those spaces much better than the previous owners, that is the sajjada-nishins. Secondly, it had to undermine the almost magical power attributed to the sajjada-nishins. The first task was definitely the easiest: in fact, the Auqaf Department undertook a series of development projects that were meant to make the shrines not only a place of worship, but also centres of a more general social welfare. Hospitals, libraries, schools and any other sort of facilities that could improve the life of rural people were set up at these shrines. By doing so, the state tried to shows its willingness to improve those spaces and undercut the authority of the sajjada-nishins (indeed, the hospitals were in direct competition with them, for sajjada-nishins claim to possess spiritual powers to cure the devotee’s disease with amulets and other formulas).

On the other hand, the second task required a more complex approach. The government launched a massive mass media campaign in which a carefully managed image of the pir was produced, one in which a detailed description of the historical life and context of the saint – clearly stressing his political and social activities, rather than his spiritual gains – was presented. Here, Ayub Khan’s government took inspiration from Iqbal, who himself tried to undermine the spiritual leadership of pirs and sajjada-nishins by emphasising their original role as poets and social reformers.  

An extensive body of literature, mainly in the form of pamphlets, took shape according to exactly these norms. They depicted not only the saint as a political activist, but also as a social reformer whose interests were very much in line with the politics pursued by Ayub’s government. Above all, the pamphlets sought to reposition the figure of the pir into a national discourse that Ayub Khan advanced for Pakistan.

Moreover, Sufi festivals were also nationalised and amply publicised in the media – the ’urs celebration, on the death anniversary of a particular saint, being the major one. These celebrations were also attended by government officials themselves, in order to make such festivities part of the national narrative, instead of a regional one, and to show the high regard in which the state held Sufism.  

Sufism after 9/11

Ayub Khan’s approach to the Sufi question set the path followed by much of his successors. According to the different needs of their own governments and to the changed political context that they had to face, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977), Zia-ul Haq (1977-1988), the Sharif-Bhutto interregnum in the 90s, Gen. Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and the PPP-led governments that followed all pursued Ayub Khan’s agenda in dealing with these spaces.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the US called on Pakistan to take a stronger approach against Islamic radicalisation in its borders. In the policy pursued first by Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation”, and then by the later PPP-led government, Sufism (or a particular construction of it) was key. Sufism was repurposed as one of the main ideological tools for the government to use against rising “Islamic terrorism”. Heavily backed up by US-based initiatives (some of which I mentioned earlier), this approach cultivated a kinder, softer face of Islam (embodied in Sufism) that could combat “fundamentalist Islam”. The terrorism problem was reduced to a mere clash between two different religious strands. In short, Mahmood Mamdani’s “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” mutated in this context into the “Good Sufi, Bad Salafi”.

For the Pakistani state, the political gains from this move are various. First, on the international scale, Pakistan’s image is greatly improved if it poses itself as the advocate for the “right” kind of Islam (that is to say, as mentioned at the beginning, an allegedly quietist and non-political version of Islam). Second, this simplistic formula allows the Pakistani government not to take any direct responsibility for the rise of the Taliban (that are clearly born out of a structural problem deeply rooted in the particular socio-political conditions of, for instance, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border). And third, the state is able to garner respect amongst its citizens because it is perceived as trying to respond to terrorism while endorsing the most popular and loved form of Islam in Pakistan. As Philippon aptly puts is, “this recourse to Sufism does not constitute a return to a naïve traditionalism but rather to an ‘ideological re-traditionalisation’”. In a strange twist of events, Sufism has political value because of its supposedly depoliticised character.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the so-called “institutionalisation of the ‘Sufi ideology’” occurred through a wide array of devices: festivals, conferences, TV programs, shows as well as literary productions of various kinds. In most cases, these were all state-sponsored. From a political point of view, the setting up of the National Sufi Council in 2006 (replaced by the Sufi Advisory Council in 2009) meant that a growing number of Sufi leaders were not only part of the mainstream political discourse, but received a national platform to express their views and opinions.

Despite the presence of political parties openly Sufi (for instance, the Barelvi Jamiyyat-e Ulama-e Pakistan, “the party of the pirs”), belonging to a Sufi order does not necessarily pre-determine one’s political ideology or party. Pirs can be found in all Pakistani parties. It is precisely this cross-cutting feature, intrinsic in the very nature of Sufism itself, that threatens to reinforce – rather than resolve – the intra-religious tensions in Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan has already experienced violent drawbacks brought about – both directly and indirectly – by the overtly political version of Sufism strengthened in recent years. For instance, the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was killed by the member (Mumtaz Qadri) of an emboldened Barelvi Sufi order for his open support of Aasia Bibi, charged under the “blasphemy law”.

On the one hand, I share with Farzana Shaikh the fear that “the latest attempt to empower Sufism could prove to be a dangerous gamble that spells the polarization of an already deeply divided society. Far from healing religious conflict, it could embolden groups like the Barelvi […] to use the opportunity to promote Sufism as a way of settling scores with their Deobandi rivals”. But the events surrounding the recent acquittal of Aasia Bibi point towards a different trajectory. As soon as the Supreme Court’s decision was made public, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – another Barelvi political party – called for national protests and demonstrations to force the government to reverse its decision. Its plea was readily accepted by other religious political sects, namely the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) and the Jamiat Ahle Hadith among others. In a strange twist of events, the “soft face of Islam” (at least in its Barelvi form) embraced and promoted by the government was turning against the government itself, while allying with those very hard-core religious groups that it was supposed to challenge. Sectarian violence gave way to inter-sectarian unity against the government.


As a way of conclusion, I would like to come back to where I started off. The attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine was part of “Pakistan’s week of violence” that involved five other attacks, all on state-related institutions. By now, it should be clear that the attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine – and, more generally, any targeting of Sufi shrines – can fit into the same bill as other state-oriented attacks. It is not simply about religion.  

Sufism and Sufi shrines have had a complex and ambiguous relationship with the Pakistani state since its inception. Framing the recent wave of violence against these shrines as just a religious conflict means reproducing a flawed, biased and historically inaccurate narrative sponsored both by the Pakistani state and the international (read: American) community, largely driven by political agendas. Instead, targeting a shrine can mean contesting the specific use of this charged ideological tool by the state (often seen as not much more than a pawn in the hands of the West). It can also denote an opposition to the ascending political power of certain Sufi leaders or parties. Finally, it can also aim to challenge the religious stance represented by those places.

If all these elements are not carefully considered, it will not be possible to rightly understand the logic and dynamics behind these attacks. Without a correct understanding, we cannot draw up an effective strategy to deal with them. Without an effective strategy, lives will continue to be lost. 

Carlo Ceglia is currently a postgraduate student in the MA Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation program at the University of Sussex, UK. Prior to this, he earned an MA in South Asian Area Studies at SOAS, University of London. His main interests lie at the intersection of contemporary cultural and development discourses in India and Pakistan.