Are Sufis essentially non-violent?

Published: January 18, 2011
The writer is national editor at The Express Tribune

The writer is national editor at The Express Tribune

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.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (28)

  • rehan
    Jan 19, 2011 - 1:03AM

    …and someone monitor the words of our politicians too..Recommend

  • Pakistani Canadian
    Jan 19, 2011 - 1:08AM

    I’m surprised by your weak editorial, Mr. Hussain. This very newspaper printed an article on January 4, 2011 that said the following;

    “More than 500 religious scholars belonging to the Barelvi school of thought paid rich tributes to the assassin of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer on Tuesday and urged ‘Muslims across the country’ to boycott the funeral ceremony.”

    The same article goes on to say that the Deobandi leaders did not agree with Taseer’s murder, even though they did not agree with his views on the Blasphemy laws.

    I think we are beyond asking whether ‘sufis are essentially non violent’. Rather, it is time to disspell the myth that Sufism is the ‘softer’ version of Islam.Recommend

  • Jan 19, 2011 - 2:15AM

    Regardless of the fact what Mr.Mumtaz did you cannot interlink his act with Sufism. You sure need to workout a lot more than just that before pointing out fingers on Sufis.Recommend

  • Usman Butt
    Jan 19, 2011 - 3:33AM

    Mr Hussein,
    this is one of the weakest writings i have read. well just by simply quoting something from the history without any logical relation seems a little awkward. whether they are or not tolerant, your article does not give a good reading…I lost my comprehension after reading your article…..
    PS. take it in a good mood.Recommend

  • Ehtisham+Rizvi
    Jan 19, 2011 - 9:40AM

    Which sect does Alqaida, taliban, lashkar-e-jhangvi, sipah-e-sahaba, lashkar-e-tayyaba etc belong to?Recommend

  • Khalid Irteza
    Jan 19, 2011 - 10:22AM

    The subcontinent had been an abode to Sufism. In the pre-partition India the Salafis were few, whereas majority of Muslims scholars had their linkage with one of the Sufi orders. Most Deobandi scholars were linked with Chisti-Sabri branch of Chishtia order. Present day Sunni Tehreek is no peace loving segment of Brelvis. So, we cannot establish a universal basis about a particular group of people. Its always been the environments which induce people for a hostile act. Here I would like to quote an important episode from Muslim movement in India, the famous Ghazi Alam Din case, who was no religious extremist but was motivated by the speech of Attaullah Shah Bukhari. His case was fought by no other but Quaid-e-Azam. We must admit to the fact that any Muslim has an unequalled reverence for the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that is beyond any logic and justification and in order to establish a peace religious sentiments of majority people could not be ignored in any part of the world.Recommend

  • Khawaja Faraz
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:01AM

    the writer seems Wikipedia Scholour……custrad……these are the people that re creating divide….Recommend

  • waqas
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:36AM

    I am very disappointed to read this editorial.. Its a shame that a muslim calls Sufis extremists and violent… History tells that wotever they did was for the sake of Islam and nothing else. This is the belief of a true muslim which makes him do any act of Qadri’s sort. The true lovers of Hazrat Muhammad (S.A.W.W) just cannot tolerate anything where something nasty is said about Islam or Hazrat Muhammad (S.A.W.W).. Just to quote in the end ” Na jab tak katt maroon main Khawaja-e-Yasrab (S.A.W.W) ki hurmat per….. Khuda shahid imaan mera mukammal ho nahi sakta”

    That should bring Mr. Hussain to his senses…Recommend

  • meru
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:38AM

    Pathetic perception…:(Recommend

  • meru
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:39AM

    Don’t link a person like Qadri with the Sufis…he was not a human, far from being a Muslim…Recommend

  • Ahmed Amanatullah
    Jan 19, 2011 - 12:09PM

    One version which is what we see at Darbars, Urses, graves, music, dance, etc. This is the version used by West for promotion and used by a particular school of Islam to banish everyone in sub-continent.

    Other version which is the purist version of the Sufism, which is known as Tasawwuf is spiritual purification by using repeating words of Allah to be a better Muslim. It is not a sect. It is not a different interpretation of Islam. It is not different from existing schools. It is not a version of Islam. It is not against Quran and Sunnah. Their only mission is to purify our soul so we can be more dedicated towards Allah.

    If anyone has doubt, they can go their lectures and listen online.

    As for monitoring Friday sermons, we should have one sermon in entire country and this should be on current challenges to the nation and their solutions. Recommend

  • Jan 19, 2011 - 12:22PM


    Where was this penchant for “kut marna” when barelvi mosques and shrines were attacked by suicide bombers that resulted in the desecration of these holy places? Why did the Sunni Ittehad Council only stop at peaceful processions? wasnt the explanation at that time, that Islam teaches patience?

    Why attack someone like Salman Taseer, who didnt even do a fraction of the desecration that has been done out by Taliban suicide bombers?

    Is it only because the taliban can hit back with suicide bombers while the liberals cant?Recommend

  • Quratulain
    Jan 19, 2011 - 1:36PM

    I agree with the 2nd last statement. The Govt needs to monitor the friday sermons just as it is done in KSA and the Middle East countries. Considering the high illiteracy rate of our country, this is the only regular platform when guidance on how to live can be provided in mass. Recommend

  • myja
    Jan 19, 2011 - 3:52PM

    Thanks to the new worl order the american intellectual machinery has been on its toes to find allies in its so called war on terror against the resistance putforth by the indigenious people in general …In order to give morality to its agression it has been looking for support among the natives trying to isolate the resistance in the name of religion by buying in the support among the religious classes. As a part of its efforts secterian divides were highlighted where shias were depicted more agressive than the sunnis and then from within the sunnis singling out deobandis as the belligerent ones. Rand corporation some time back came up with research studies which underscored the divide among differnts sects especially between the two schools of thought that is Brelvi and Deobandi and proposed sufism as a means counter the influence of deobandis in the jihad doctrine and presented it as it was a differnt version of islam…since Taliban represented Deobandi school or atleast draw their inspiration from it hence it was concluded that sufiism could be the answer…grants were disbursedfor the beautification of mazars by the american diplomats, conferences were arranged to promote sufism however detached from the reality ignoring its very essence. The fact is teachings of Islam remain same for all the sects be it the resistance against the opression or be it the love of prophet…muslims belonging to differnt sects have responded to them as muslims irrespective of their academic or so called secterian differences… so good luck to those who fell victim to the fallcies of desktop research and drawing room gossips Recommend

    Jan 19, 2011 - 3:58PM

    @Quratulain / Naveed Sahib: Even if the Government monitors Friday sermons it has neither the spine nor the courage of conviction to stop the Mullah from spouting venom from the pulpit.

    The fact is that in today’s Pakistan you need to only sprout a beard and wear a turban and you can kill maim and murder anyone, say anything and cannot be held accountable. That is the unfortunate truth of the matter.Recommend

  • Yaseen Baig
    Jan 19, 2011 - 4:32PM

    the story is disconnected and scattered….. In first you are establishing a fact( I think you will prove in later part of your column), then in major part of your assertion you are describing the struggles of sufis in history against oppressors and tyrant rulers.while your conclusion is totally irrelevant to above theory. i differ you in following aspects.

    1) Mumtaz qadri belongs to Dawat-e-islami,as you stated, and it is a fact that Dawat-e-Islami has no link to sufism. They may have some common ideological grounds , but the purpose and mechanism of groups is totally different
    2) Sufism in Indo-Pak is recognised through their silsalas( Like qadriya, naqshbandia etc).. I think dawat-e-islami is not any silsla yet registered in sufism…….
    3)if Friday sermons is the problems then it is not the thing restricted to sufis, brelvis but it is a common to every sects of Muslims……….so acting on your advice government must have to institute “Friday Sermons Check Agency FSCA”. these people must visit mosques on Friday and seize the “culprits”…..
    5) problem is not that Mumtaz Qadri belongs to a certain sect or group. but the real issue is he belongs to an oppressed group known as “Awam” and he is shooting a member of “Oppressor community” who is presumably exploiting them. This state of affair is causing the diminish of tolerance and research to probe something in order to carry out this.Recommend

  • yusufzai
    Jan 19, 2011 - 4:37PM

    i do not have time to write a long critical analysis of your “informative” article…so i’ll just rant.
    just because an alleged killer associated himself with some form of ideology/group does not mean your accusation to the relative group/ideology is valid.
    I mean by this ideology… Islam is militant, promotes civilian mass murders, promotes violence etc since according to the media the 911 “terrorist” were all muslims and supposedly practiced Islam. Recommend

  • Ghafar Ali
    Jan 19, 2011 - 4:39PM

    The writer considers fighting against opression is violence and the opressors as non-violent. What a logic?Recommend

  • M M Malik
    Jan 19, 2011 - 5:52PM

    Monitor sermons? We ignored or lets say tolerated citizens being wajab-ul-qatal for decades. Recommend

  • Jabar Khattak
    Jan 19, 2011 - 6:48PM

    Mirza Ali was not a Sufi, and had no disciples.He is known as Faqir of Ipi ,and not Faqir from Ipi.He was Imam of a small mosque,in village IPI,in North Waziristan.He led a rebellion for 12 years (1935-47),against British,but was not successful.Recommend

  • -A-
    Jan 19, 2011 - 8:09PM

    Very well written Mr. Naveed. It is high time that we dispelled the misconception that violence is restricted to certain parts of our society alone. Violence has seeped into every nook and corner of our society and unless we can get out of this defenders-of-Islam-enemies-of-the-west sort of attitude, we are going in a downward spiral towards self-annihilation.Recommend

  • Jan 19, 2011 - 10:47PM

    well sufi-ism is an ideology. The ideology itself is based on love for the mankind and not only mankind but all of the creations of God and God Himself. It must be taken into consideration that it is for an Islamic state. The behaviour may or may not be same for non-islamic state or oppressive non-islamic state or foreign invaders on the Islamic state. Plus to judge an ideology from the way people follow it is not a very good approach.

    Secondly, the factor to be considered is that it would vary from person to person. Some people may still retain there senses while in Love while others get too ‘intoxicated’ by this love. In order to support this argument there are two examples from the history of Sufi Islam. First is that of infamous Mansoor Al-Hallaj who got too intoxicated in his love that he did not care about the reaction of people and said what he internally believed while and had to pay with his life. Second is that of Ibn Arabi who pretty much believed in the same thing, but so-to-say did not get too intoxicated to directly say what he believed. Ibn Arabi said pretty much the same thing but in such a way that it did not raise too many eye-brows.

    Then if somebody believes that as per sufi teachings the importance of armed jihad is ignored (especially if it is for freedom struggle) for internal jihad against the self. the person most certainly is misled.

    Lastly to the authors attempt to equate Qadri or his supporters with sufi Islam or its teachings is most certainly shying away from the real problem. The problem here is not sufi Islam or orthodox Islam, the problem is illiteracy of the masses. illiteracy both in traditional sense as well as being not educated properly of the principles of Islam and its scriptures which are in Arabic. While of the masses not even 1% would have even basic knowledge of the language. This makes them dependent upon Mullahs. For these masses Islam is what the Mullah tells not what the Quran says or the hadith says for that matter. Then it has been established that Qadri was psychologically a little de-ranged so to say plus as you said that he was motivated by friday sermon in local mosque. So these circumstance putting a blame on sufi Islam or any orthodox Islam would be mis-placed to say the least.Recommend

  • shah
    Jan 19, 2011 - 11:02PM

    It sounds like the author is saying that those sufis (muslims) fighting against the colonist and oppressors is a bad thing. Our religion tells us not to oppress anyone and do not be oppressed by anyone. So fighting in the way of HAQ is what Islam teaches us. Secondly, as far as the taseer issue goes, i would like to ask all my muslim brothers that recently there were two cases of women being gang raped and paraded naked in the streets. Is there any true muslims who is going to uphold the islamic values and punish those wealthy criminals? The answer is no, no one gives a damn about those poor girls, and if someone allegedly says something bad about our prophet we kill them. Ninety percent of those people in the rally’s dont know first thing about islam. They read Quran but they dont understand it. How many of them actually read the translation and tried to understand it. We listen to some fiery speech from a mullah and go on acting on it…Does anyone try to do there own research about what our religion truly is, and what our prophet teaches us? Answer again is not, most of us dont, beacause we are one lazy people. we trust the word of mouth but we dont take out some time and do our own research. May God bless all and bring peace to pakistan.Recommend

  • yusufzai
    Jan 20, 2011 - 4:25AM

    in my opinion, authors secret agenda to ridicule sufi islam… again and again people fail to see the beauty that lies in this approach. No offense, but the reality is the masses are too shallow to fathom the depth of it…. hence, it does not make sense to them as it does to us. The ideology, that we do not need Mullahs/muftis to reach/understand the beauty of Islam is threatening for the cultures that survive because of it by brainwashing the “illiterate” masses.

    p.s. thankyou for shedding the lime light to the real problem which is millions n millions of these people do not even understand arabic yet recite it daily as repetitive as it come without ever reading/understanding the meaning of what they are actually reading. Because for that they have mullahs/muftis available. There is so much hatred so much of demonizing other groups/sects in their words that one begins to wonder… r these sermons part of their propaganda to fool the masses and incite hatred so they can divide and conquer?Recommend

  • Junaid Alam
    Jan 20, 2011 - 12:53PM

    A very absurd description of the whole matter.. you better had defined the boundaries of Sufism before commenting on it.. if it preaches tolerance, on the other hand it also supports the idea of standing for the truth.. linking this event to the Barelvi sect or Sufi school of thought is inept and pointless.Recommend

  • Jan 21, 2011 - 9:48PM

    Pretty pathetic comments – majority is just taking it as an attack on their sect and missing the whole point!Recommend

  • Khalid Khan Jadoon
    Jan 22, 2011 - 4:42AM

    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?Recommend

  • Andy Martin
    Jan 23, 2011 - 6:39AM

    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. Recommend

More in Opinion