The whole article is originally published at Moon over Medina. Only part of it is posted here.
Some people say that he fell in love, left home, became a phenomenon and came back to marry the woman who had been refused to him earlier. There is no way of knowing whether the career of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai of Sindh actually paralleled the Count of Monte Cristo so closely (and we need to be careful about apocryphal stories woven around the lives of great saints), but there are other testimonials to the warmth of the heart that throbbed in him.
The most astonishing is the way his work captured the spirit of a new age that was coming up not only in the Muslim world but also outside.
Bhittai was born in 1689 and died in 1752. This was when the Muslim world seemed to be awakening to the realisation that a universal ideal could be manifest in regional forms. Hence Abdul Wahhab in Hejaz set out to distinguish between the crux of Islam and historical accretion while Shah Waliullah of Delhi taught that the traditional model of Islam was an application of its ideals in the context of the seventh century Arabia and many other applications were possible in other contexts. Surprisingly, the new ideals that started developing in Europe around this time also converged on regional states.
Truly, Mullah Sufi is an intriguing name. Intriguing because Islamic history is full battles between Sufis and Mullahs, both critical of each other to every extent possible One would like to meet Mullah Sufi of the Swat-fame and inquire as to what are his thoughts regarding this undeniable clash between mystical and orthodox Islam. He might give a fatwa therein declaring Sufis as heretics and non-Muslims or He might claim to be a bridge between the two extremes. The latter seems very ambitious after his recent comments on who-so-ever disagrees with the system he proposes, so one would stick to the first assumption till of course, further clarified or one is publicly hanged in Jinnah Super market for defaming and degrading the Holy Amir that is if his Talibs manage to Talibanize Islamabad.
In this temporary world, opposites play out their part in light and darkness, in pain and laughter, in hate and love, in evil and good, in difficulty and ease, and in midst of it we have been asked to establish the good measure i.e “ mizan “. Ever since the first human was crafted out of clay, God had injected the skill to discern between two extremes, and asked His “Vicegerents” to maintain balance.
There has been a bombardment of articles on national and international level debating on how Sufism can be used as an anti-dote to the venom of Talibanization. The debate though old, now has a new dimension and is receiving unprecedented attention because extremism has never threatened Islam they way it does now.
Sufism is not a sect, but a mystical side of Islam – a personal, experiential and spiritual approach to Allah, which contrasts with the rigid, doctrinal approach of fundamentalist Islam popular in Taliban, and its offshoots. Sufis – commonly known by their spiritual poetry, prose, miracles and Sufi orders have had reservations against the segment of Muslim community claiming to be caretakers of Islam for them Mullahs deem whatever necessary to impose their version of Islam. Usually referred to as “Mullah” in their poetry, which symbolizes a bearded – greedy for wealth and fame- clergy having studied Quran and Sunnah in its literal form, without insight and understanding the inner meaning.
Dr. Muhammad Iqbal who was ardent follower of Rumi, perhaps the greatest Sufi poet of all time, openly criticized the self-proclaimed guides of the religion. However, it is satirical that mullahs of the same breed quote verses of Iqbal to support their pose, yet his poetry is filled with open disapproval of them. Here he bashes out at Mullahs in his famous “The Mullah and the Paradise”
When in a vision I saw
A mullah ordered to paradise,
Unable to hold my tongue
I said something in this wise:
‘Pardon me, O Lord
For these bold words of mine,
But he will not be pleased
With houris and the wine
He loves to dispute and fight
And furiously wrangle,
But paradise is no place
For this kind of jangle
His task is to dis-unite
And leave people in the lurch,
But paradise has no temple
No mosque and no church
It is also interesting to note here, that apparently, Iqbal’s acclaimed “Reformation of Religious Thought in Islam” is banned in Saudi Arabia!
Bulleh Shah, the famous sufi from Punjab was quite innovative in his scathing about them and here, compares and un-enlightened “Mullah” with a dog!
[He] Read a lot and became a scholar
But [he] never read himself
[He] enters into the temple & mosque
But [he] never entered into his own heart
He fights with the devil every day for nothing
He never wrestled with his own ego
Bulleh Shah, he grabs for heavenly flying things
But doesn’t grasp the one who’s sitting at home
Religious scholars stay awake at night
But dogs stay awake at night, higher than you
They don’t cease from barking at night
Then they go sleep in yards, higher than you
They [dogs] don’t leave the beloved’s doorstep
Even if they’re beaten hundreds of times, higher than you
Bulleh Shah get up and make up with the beloved
Otherwise dogs will win the contest, better than you
Another famous couplet:
The mullah and the torch-bearer
Hail from the same stock;
They give light to others,
And themselves are in the dark.
Though Sufis only used their words to denounce extremism, from the other end there was a more violent reaction and they were persecuted, denounced, exiled, imprisoned and in some cases even hanged or killed. Most of the times for political benefits when kings feared massive uprising of the public owing to enormous following of Sufis, they preferred to wipe out Sufi leaders but never managed to completely root out Sufism. Sufis always managed to inspire crowds by their deeds, and that is what differentiated them from theologians and jurists. A Famous Sufi was once guilty of breaking air (fart), as a woman visited him for advice. The Sufi was so cautious of making her feel uncomfortable, that he pretended to be deaf not only in front of her but all his remaining life. As neither would she find out, nor would her heart break. There are other countless examples of their humility and height of religious piety, so much so that books of history are full of miracles associated with them.
Mullahs on the other end, claimed to be the final authority what-so-ever on religion. Their interpretations of Quran and Sunnah were more literal, thus making Islamic Law quite extreme. They never matched Sufis in humility and deeds, and wasted more of their time in instigating violence by preaching hatred than love amongst the various segments of society
Islam was spread by practical example, and thus the Sufis played a pivotal role in attracting people to Islam. However, the popular support of Sufis among the common people raised eyebrows in the ranks of clergy as it challenged their authority as caretakers of Islam. The bias between inner and outer understanding of the true way of Islam, aroused clashes between orthodox religious scholars and the Sufis, both claimed to follow the true path, but their understanding differed, and therefore their schools of thought became exclusive. The clashes were often recurring and which symbolized the polarity of the outer law and the inner reality. Because everything is created in pairs, outer perception cannot be perfected without inner reality, and therefore, a dive into inner reality can only transform the outer understanding. Islam also lays importance on “acknowledging with heart” before “acting with the limbs” which underlines the importance of recognizing the truth and reality of faith in the deepest realms of human awareness. After inner-awareness one is asked to articulate the inner faith to rational speech. And the last stage of this process, “acting with the limbs” is the domain of jurists, which cannot be perfected if two steps mentioned above are not perfected.