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Tracing the roots of Sufi culture

The mysticism and influences of Sufi culture in Pakistan and India hold a fascination for French scholar Michel Boivin

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Michel Boivin’s interest in Sufi culture began in the late 1970s when he was at university studying contemporary history.
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French scholar and anthropologist Michel Boivin has extensively researched and written about the Sufi culture in Sindh, Pakistan and other parts of South Asia. A research fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies (CEIAS) in Paris, he has written or edited about 15 books.

Pakistan’s south-eastern province of Sindh has a rich history of Sufi culture that goes back centuries. “Sindh was under the Islamic influence since the 8th century during the Umayyad empire,” Boivin tells Weekend Review. “As soon as Muslim and Arabs came to Sindh, there were Sufis. It is said that in the army of Mohammad Bin Qassim, there were Sufi already. Even now in southern Sindh, you can find a small dargah (shrine) where it is said that the saint who is buried came with Mohammad Bin Qassim, and that was in the year 711.”

Boivin prefers to use the term “Sufi culture” rather than Sufism. “The very word Sufism of course was built by Western orientalists,” he says. “It was made like Hinduism — all these words ending with ‘ism’. I published a book, Historical Dictionary of the Sufi Culture of Sindh, and I started by asking a single question: ‘What is Sufism?’ With this word we never really know what we are talking about because there are some Sufi we can call philosophers. Take as an example Ibn Arabi, a very complex thought. Then you have this practice related to magic to some extent, and that is why to some extent I prefer to refer to Sufi culture, because it focuses on culture. It is more relevant for me.”

Boivin’s main working language is Sindhi which he learnt at the University of Sindh. He also works in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Gujrati.

His interest in Sufi culture began in the late 1970s when Boivin was at university studying contemporary history. He wanted to travel and the first country he visited outside of Europe was Morocco. He visited some places related to Sufism, especially Tamegroute in southern Morocco, which was a very important Sufi centre for centuries. When he returned to France, he started to read books about Sufism. He also specialised in the history of the Muslim world.

In France at the time, there were some scholars and orientalists working on Shiite Islam. “There is a French scholar, his name is Henry Corbin. He wrote a lot of books, including one, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Boivin says. “For me it was a discovery, what Henry Corbin used to call Islamic philosophy.” The book devoted a large part to Shiite philosophy, and within that there was a section on Ismailism, a branch of Shiite Islam.

When it was time for Boivin to start his PhD he wanted to work on the Ismailis, and in the early 1980s he went to South Asia, which was an important location for the Ismaili community. First, he went to Mumbai and then Karachi, devoting his PhD to the third Agha Khan Sultan Mohammad Shah at the Sorbonne in Paris.

But Boivin always maintained an interest in Sufis. “There are many bridges between Ismailism and Sufism, especially in the South Asian context,” he says. While doing field work in Gujarat and then in Sindh, Pakistan, he would come across Sufi places. Eventually, in early 2000, he decided to focus on Sufi culture.

Boivin is a regular visitor to both India and Pakistan and his methodological tools include a combination of researching archives, interviews and observation at Sufi sites.

“I think it is a very French expression, we call it historical anthropology,” he says.

Boivin focused his research on the issue of Sufi authority and local elites. He has worked on a collective project at Sehwan Sharif, where the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Sindh’s most famous saint, is located.

“Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is said to have come from Persia,” he says. “There is poetical work which is attributed to him, what we call a diwan. It is in Persian. Today I think he is the most popular Sufi saint in Pakistan and one of the most popular all over South Asia.”

How does Boivin explain his enduring appeal? “It is very difficult to explain,” he says, “but the first reason is that we have very few historical sources about him. Most of the sources are very recent. Before there are a few mentions; for example he is mentioned, but not with this name of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, because his first name was Usman Marwandi.”

“It is mentioned by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century but only a mention. You can find two or three mentions before the British came to South Asia, so it is very difficult to explain when this ziyaret (pilgrimage) started, but according to what I can say, I think that finally it became popular not so long ago. But why? I don’t know.”

At the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan Sharif, in the Pakistani province of Sindh, he came across a power struggle. “What I call the Sehwen system is under the control of one family who are Syed — their name is Lakari Syed — and so I was most interested in also interviewing these people to understand what is the source of their authority and how they exercise their authority. There is something very important also, that in 1960 under Marshal Ayub Khan, a number of Sufi shrines in Pakistan were nationalised. They were put under the control of the state.”

The shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was among them. “It means that now these Syed are a little bit expelled from the dargah proper,” he says. “They are allowed to perform some rituals but they are not controlling all and everything in relation with ziyaret to Lal Shahbaz. I was especially interested in understanding how there is a kind of balance between these Syed, between the state, and between the ziyareti.”

There are two main Syed families in Sehwan who are in competition. “Each family claims to be the true heir of Lal Shahbaz — the true Sajjada Nashin (hereditary administrator),” he says. “Of course, if one family is recognised officially as the true Sajjada Nashin, it will have more money. The real challenge is about money,” he says, adding that it dates to when the British were in control. “These two families in Sehwan, the Lakari and the Subzwari, went to court because they both claim to be the true heir of Lal Shahbaz. And until now it is still not resolved.”

Such power struggles are common in Pakistan and India. “The people who have power most of the time are [from the] Syed family and they are running the dargah,” Boivin says.

At the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar there is a special type of dance ritual performed called Dhammal by different Tariqas (Sufi orders.). The Dhammal is performed by Sufis or “fakirs” as they are locally known and come from places called Khanqahs. “The first time you see it you remember the whirling dervishes of Rumi because it is a dance where they are turning, where they are whirling. It is the main ritual, and everyday people, ziyareti, are supposed to perform this ritual.”

One of the strong Sufi influences in Sindh and other parts of South Asia came from Jalal ad-Din Rumi.

“He is well known in South Asia because Persian was the literary language of the 19th century, all the Sufi from Sindh and from other parts of South Asia, used to learn and know Persian,” he says. “Rumi was very influential, especially for these Sufi not only from Sindh, but also Punjab and even Bengal — all the provinces of South Asia.”

Boivin says another major influence was Ibn Arabi with the famous wahdat al wujud (unity of existence) which is very important in South Asia. “The majority of the Sufi from the Qadariyah, from the Suhrawardiyya, from the Chistiya — they are what we call Wujudi — they follow this principle of wahdat al wujud. Only the Naqshbandi are not followers of wahdat al wujud.”

Are there any noticeable differences between the Sufi cultures in India and Pakistan?

“No,” Boivin says. “It is a shared culture. If you go to the important Sufi places in India, for instance in Ajmer, or in Delhi, Nizamuddin and so on, it is really the same culture. And for example, Sufi poetry is sung by musicians and the repertoire is the same. If you are in Sindh, if you are in Pakistani Punjab, if you go to Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, there is a shared repertoire and the main rituals are similar.”

Sufi culture, however, is not just restricted to Islam. Boivin is now interested in Sufi Hindus. “Since partition [of India] in 1947 and especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a process, both in India and Pakistan, of rigidification of religious identity,” he says. “It was the case with Islam in Pakistan, but it was the case with Hinduism in India. Before, a Hindu used to go to Muslim shrines, Sufi shrines. Now it is different.

“In Sindh, many Hindus still go to the Sufi shrines and it is related to this principle of the wahdat al wujud. The local interpretation of wahdat al wujud means that you can belong to a given religion, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, but the final goal is God. And God is unique. There is only one God.”

“In India, you still can find Hindus who go to the Sufi shrine but due to this rigidification of religious identities, it is a little bit less now.”

In 1947, many Hindu Sindhis migrated to India, and a number of them were Sufi. “They call themselves Hindu Sufi, and when they migrated, they started to create Sufi Hindu shrines,” he says.

In Pakistan, Boivin has also noticed a change. “When I started to go there many years ago, in the Sufi shrine you might find a number of objects. After some time, they were declared to be Hindu and they were removed. For example, at the main entrance of the shrine there were bells. When you entered the shrine, you were supposed to ring the bells. And so in Sehwan they were removed because it was said that it was a Hindu custom.”

Boivin is currently completing a book on the Sufi path among the Sindhi Hindu of India.

“I am trying to look [at] how Hindu Sufi in India in this time of religious rigidification of religious identity are still able or not to transmit this Sufi legacy to the new generation.”

With such deep research on the subject, did Boivin himself become a Sufi?

“No I am not a Sufi,” he says. “I don’t know if I can answer this question. I think if I spent so many years to study Sufism, of course I have a deep personal interest. But frankly speaking I cannot say more.”

Boivin does, however, have an interest in Sufi poetry. “I love to read Sufi poetry, not only from South Asia. For me, a Sufi poet like Rumi are among the greatest human beings in the world.” says Boivin.

“If you have devoted your professional life to a topic, I think it is not by chance,” he says. “There is always a kind of metaphysical reason if you are attracted by this or that, so I don’t know why some people working on Sufism need to become Sufi, and others don’t feel they need to become Sufi. I feel it is a very individual process.”

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.

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