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.”