Are Sufis essentially non-violent?

Is orthodox Islam essentially violent and Sufi Islam non-violent? My answer is, ‘no’.


Naveed Hussain January 18, 2011

Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of Salmaan Taseer, is said to be associated with the Dawat-e-Islami, a non-violent, non-political, Sufi-inspired group of the Barelvi school of thought. The Barelvis are mainly pacifists, having little or no militant tendencies, while most jihadists and militant groups, with few exceptions, believe in a more puritanical version of Islam where veneration of Sufi saints and rituals and devotional music and dances at their shrines, are considered apostasy.

So does this mean orthodox Islam is essentially violent and Sufi Islam non-violent? My answer is, ‘no’. Blanket generalisations are wrong in either case. Neither are all orthodox Muslims militants, nor are all Sufis pacifists. Many would disagree with the latter part of my thesis because they believe Sufis are peace-loving, proselytising preachers. But I say, not essentially.

Before going further, let’s first see what exactly Sufism is. Islam has an exoteric and an esoteric dimension. The exoteric, or outer, dimension is scriptural and normative. The esoteric dimension, on the other hand, is liberal, spiritual and pluralistic and hence characterised by humanism, tolerance and accommodation of differences. Sufi masters have described fighting one’s ‘evil self’ as a greater jihad than armed struggle. Nonetheless, all Sufis weren’t and aren’t non-violent. Read history. Sufi sheikhs and dervishes led revivalist movements, fighting foreign rule as well as the ‘tyranny and oppression’ of Muslim rulers.

In 1240, Baba Ilyas-i-Khorasani and Baba Ishaq, two popular Sufi sheikhs, mobilised nomadic Turkmen against the Seljuk rule in what is modern-day Turkey, demanding a revival of ‘pure’ Islam. And in the 15th and 16th centuries, several Sufi masters led armed uprisings in the Ottoman Empire against the ‘lax’ official Islam.

In modern times, most rebellions, led by Sufi masters, were targeted against the British, French and Italian colonialists. The Sanusiyya — a Sufi order widespread in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and the Sahara — fought against the Italian colonialists. And the Muridiyya order, founded by Amadu Baba, fought the French in Senegal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sufis from Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya orders fought jihad against ‘godless’ Russian tsars and the Soviets.

In the region now called Pakistan, Sufis, dervishes and mullahs pioneered several millenarian and revivalist movements directed against British colonialists. Mirza Ali Khan, better known as the ‘Faqir from Ipi,’ a hermit from the Waziristan region, led his disciples in a successful rebellion against the British. And the Hur movement of the late 19th century in Sindh was also mobilised by a saintly figure, Sibghtullah Shah Badshah.

Having said that, I think Qadri’s act shouldn’t be a surprise. Qadri, in his own words, was motivated by a sermon of a local imam. The government should, at least, monitor Friday sermons at all mosques. This is essential to check hate-preaching and extremism which has become an existential threat for Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th,  2011.

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COMMENTS (28)

Andy Martin | 9 years ago | Reply | Recommend As an American I am curious how do you define violence. Pakistani friends tell me that Islam spread in the subcontinent by Sufis and that Sufis are pacifists, then question arises: Why the natives who learned a set of spiritual practices had to change their names to the names belonging and making sense in distant alien culture and language? Why did they start hating and demanding their not yet converted brothers, sisters and neigbors? When I visited Delhi and other places I found that Muslim were concentrated in some areas and were not found in other areas and showed off their Muslim identities more than their Hindu counterparts. Why Muslims disowned their mother tongues nad adopted alien Persian, Arabic and Persianized & Arabized Urdu? Why so much reverance to alien languages and culture? Why subcontinental Muslim appears more violent than a typical Hindu? Why Sufi Pakistani soldiers massacre 3 Million and rape 0.5 Million Bangalis (mostly helpless Hindus)? Why new converts want to forget the local native ancestory, history and culture once he is converted by Sufis? I ask these questions because I have studied Buddhism and how it spread to China, Japan and rest of the world without asking the natives to change their name, language and lose their culture and history. Spirituality needs to spread like Science and Technology. One can say Jimmy Carter as Sufi Christian or American, just because he visits with medicine in hand Saddam and before destruction of Iraq in 2003. But the truth is very different. He does not want and not able to prevent the violence and destruction of Iraq based on a lie told in UN about Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction. Carter is yet another weapon of mass DECEPTION.
Khalid Khan Jadoon | 9 years ago | Reply | Recommend Its a basic human right to struggle for freedom and if Sufis did this against the oppressors, how come its not acceptable to the learned writer?
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