Laal: Fighting fundamentalism with Sufi thought

Laal's latest video aims to rediscover a progressive strain of Sufi thought, but is it playing along US policy?

Sonia Qadir November 09, 2010
Clad in black, the darwaish twirls and twirls on his bare feet, so enthralled, so totally immersed as if he was about to whirl himself to a parallel dimension. A child in rags stands nearby, eyeing him gleefully. His eyes shine: he wants to join in.

A group of women gather around, clapping, singing, laughing, almost in a trance themselves. The shrine of their patron Saint lurks in the background: the perfect catharsis for the wretched, the refuge of the forsaken!

Filmed not long before the bomb-blast at the Pakpattan shrine, Laal’s latest video “Fareeda” pays homage to the Sufi saint, Baba Fareed Gunjshakar. Put to music, his simple yet profound poetry is a delight. Hailed as the first known Punjabi poet, and father of the language, Baba Fareed is an iconic figure in the history of the subcontinent, and especially that of Punjab. He gave up life in Dehli to settle in the small town of Pakpattan and despite being well-versed in the official languages (Arabic and Persian) he went against the literary grain and chose to write in the vernacular.  His thought endeared him to Muslims and Hindus alike; it is no small feat that the scared scriptures of the Sikh faith include Baba Fareed’s poetry!

A red shade of tolerance

For Laal, a band from Lahore that has become popular for bringing revolutionary music to the forefront, this song was not only an attempt at rediscovering Baba Fareed’s heritage as a Punjabi poet and condemning the recent string of attacks on shrines and the loss of innocent lives, it also meant re-discovering a strain of Sufi thought which has a special significance for South Asia: a more progressive strain which, according to the band, promotes inclusivity, harmony and is perhaps less rigid and much more sensitive to women’s rights etc than the more austere or “fundamentalist” versions in vogue today.

Good Muslims, bad Muslims, American agenda

There seems to be a catch to this story though. Post 9/11, promotion of Sufism over what is considered the more “dangerous” aspects of Islam, seems to have become the official American imperialist policy.

Everyone seems to be jumping on the Sufi bandwagon, without any understanding of the issue whatsoever. Countries like Morocco and Algeria are said to be fighting militant Islamic insurgencies with Sufism because the latter is "devoid of any political ambitions". A neat dichotomy is thereby fashioned, a dichotomy between the 'Good Muslim' who is modern, secular and supports US imperialist and interventionist policies versus the 'Bad Muslim' who is pre-modern and thereby resists such interventions.

The inconvenient truth about Sufism

In two recent articles published on various online blogs, Qalandar Bux Memon, editor of Naked Punch, problematised this fascination with Sufism. He points out that as experienced today by the majority of our population, Sufism is linked to a deeply hierarchical and exploitative system whereby descendants of the Sufis exert total social, economic and religious control over the poor masses. It has also developed fatalist and escapist tendencies, which ensure that people accept their fates and never question the status quo. Which of course perfectly suits the designs of the Empire as well as those of local elites!

Not every Sufi is a saint

Laal’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Taimur Rehman, who is also a Professor of Political Science at LUMS, agrees. He points out that what Laal is attempting to emphasise are the progressive aspects of Sufism, perhaps what Qalandar Bux Memon identifies as “true Sufism” i.e. the philosophy of the local saints like Baba Fareed themselves, as distinct from its present pro-elite and pro-imperialist manifestations. And this philosophy may contain ideas that undermine the edifice of imperialism and the “war on terror”: a call to arms against exploitation and occupation and in support of social justice and people’s rights over their lifeworlds. Such aspects of Sufism prescribe active rebellion against religious and economic tyranny alike. It is a far cry indeed from the apolitical and docile philosophy that the imperialist powers and its cronies are trying to promote.

Laal’s video includes a dedication to the “plurality, diversity and all the colours of Islam”. Sufism as a whole may or may not be “better”, but perhaps that is the wrong question altogether, says Taimur Rehman. All colours of Islam should be respected, and the problem with “fundamentalism” is precisely that it denies this plurality and this respect for other traditions within or outside Islam. According to the band, there is also a dire need to preserve these shrines and the original thought of these saints as our scared cultural heritage, and their video is an attempt to bring this to the attention of mainstream media.

Us versus us versus us

The sort of collective amnesia we engage in is troubling to say the least. It takes a skewed view of history and defines it as fact, ignoring other, equally or perhaps way more legitimate narratives in the process. The history of South Asian Sufism as a revolutionary political and cultural force is exactly such a narrative.  The Empire’s cultivation and use of “fundamentalist Islam” against Communism thirty years ago precisely because exclusivist, violent and conservative ideas were useful then for its mission , and now of fatalist, escapist and apolitical Sufism against the same “fundamentalist Islam” because of its changed priorities is another such example.

Our crucial task then is to snap out of this convenient feel good amnesia, and re-discover other narratives of what can only be called, other histories. In this process, we need to be careful not to fall into the Imperialist trap: the project of re-discovery needs to be done for the people, by the people and as a form of resistance to the exploitative status quo and in order to open up new spaces for religious, cultural and (most importantly) political maneuvering rather than at the behest of the Empire and the local elites which are simply out to preserve their own interests.
Sonia Qadir A law student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
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