Yoginder Sikand: ‘Progressive Islam’ in Pakistan

Some interesting observations about the tragic irrelevance of secularized Pakistani intellectuals and the tools available for socially progressive activism within Pakistan’s indigenous Sufi tradition.

I’ve always been frustrated by how prominent Pakistani intellectuals always seem to resort to imported Western discourse when advocating justice or reform, even when directly applicable Islamic concepts and terminology are readily available.  Instead of using arguments that could resonate with their Muslim countrymen, far too often they cut and paste from Amnesty International or the like, in the process ceding the public square entirely to their opponents on the far right.

Yoginder Sikand: "‘Progressive Islam’ in Pakistan (HIMAL SOUTHASIAN)  | May – June 2006

Numerous such examples exist of Sufis who continue to be held in great reverence by millions of ordinary Pakistanis. Their teachings provide a rich resource for developing indigenously rooted Islamic theologies of liberation and inter-community dialogue. At the same time, such a movement could effectively challenge the shrill rhetoric of radical Islamist groups, who bandy about empty slogans calling for the ‘Islamic revolution’, but whose actual agenda, many Pakistanis insist, is to perpetuate the stranglehold of the military, the mullahs, and the feudal lords and their American patrons.

“One of the greatest errors of the Left in Pakistan,” says friend Hasan, a Lahore-based activist who describes himself as a ‘leftist Muslim’, “is that we blindly followed Western Marxism. Many of us openly condemned religion, and this earned us widespread public disapproval. The Saudis, egged on by the Americans, pumped vast sums of money into Pakistan to publish literature and patronise the madrasas and mullahs, who branded all Leftists as atheists and anti-Islam.”

By blindly imitating the West, Hasan feels that modern Pakistanis have failed to explore its own traditions for possible counters to the country’s entrenched social problems. “Our own popular Sufi traditions contain enough such resources,” he suggests. “Had we used them in our campaigns, we would not have given our opponents an excuse to brand us as anti-religion. Progressive politics in Pakistan would have had more popular appeal, rather than being seen as a Western import, had we developed an appropriate contextual Islamic theology based on local Sufi vocabulary and idioms.” Hasan blames what he calls the cognitive elitism of the Pakistani Left for ignoring the revolutionary potential of popular Sufi discourses: “They have no real contact with the masses and so can’t speak in their language.”

Despite their powerful history of social critique, however, Hasan does not place much hope in the current custodians of the Sufi shrines either, noting that such shrines have been reduced to centres of pilgrimage and personal mediation rather than centres of instruction. “Popular Sufism has been thoroughly ritualised, shorn of its progressive potential,” he says. “In fact, many shrine custodians have become powerful landlords and maintain strong political connections, and so have developed a vested interest in preserving the system as it is.”

  • Curious

    what kind of Sufism do you guys subscribe to?
    Can you please elaborate?

  • svend

    Honestly dont know how to answer that. Am merely sharing an interesting article.

  • svend

    The simplest answer is that I don’t know how to answer that question briefly.
    Oh, and that I don’t speak on anybody else’s behalf.

  • just watch

    it takes time… the kids who are in the madressas are not stupid – no matter what the “middle class” and “upper class” of Pakistan might think… wait another 5-10 years… these dirt poor madressa kids are will bring an Islamic revolution in Pakistan that will put Iran to shame..
    won’t be all pretty and sufi nice – but it will lead to a far greater system of justice than the American-liberal-progressive Islam these middle classes are clamoring for…
    can’t keep people oppressed forever… and as the article has correctly noted the so-called “liberal-left” in Pakistan is bankrupt (ok not in exactly those terms)…

  • touhid

    *cough cough*

  • Revlolution

    Shrines have become businesses of massive sclae, they fear the mullahs because if they come to power their busunesses will be closed. it’s simple – shame on the brelvies for destroying a once great nation!

  • svend

    Whoah… Spoken like a *pukka* Deobandi!
    As for shrines becoming businesses, Man corrupts all things. Assuming your characterization is accurate–I haven’t observed enough mazars to know–I do not see as a reflection on Sufism or Pakistan.

  • Gulea

    Just Watch,
    Are you sure kids in Madarsa are getting education? Last I check most of them end up sexually molested by their teachers and end up emotionally scarred for life. They are useless to themselves and to their families. But what can one’s parents do when they have to choose between life (enrolling in Madarsa) and death (taking care at home). This injustice will go on until we are able to provide the livelihood to these poor folks.
    P.S. I used to belong to one such family in the NWFP but luckily my father came to Dubai and later I joined him. From there I able to come to the US.

  • deb

    This article touches on something I’ve thought about often (my Dear Husband says, when I ask him about it, that I think too much.) What I have concluded for myself is this: Pakistan is a very young country, and it’s FASCINATING to watch its growth. I hope to not remain forever a spectator, but it’s too soon to tell. These symptoms–imitating the West–are just like small small children who copy the behaviours of older kids they see on the lot, and as the children age, some of what they learned by emulation will stick, and some will drop off. Pakistan will recognise its inner culture; it’s working hard to do so right now. These things take time.