The Mullah, Sufi Paradox: Of Mullahs and Sufis

Crossposted from

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.

On needs to understand the essence of Sufism as being the mystical and non-violent tradition which has been present since the inception of Islam. The very word “Sufi” derives from the word “wool/Suuf in Arabic” which represented the coarse woolen clothes worn by Prophet’s (PBHU) companions. One of the earliest peers of Sufi tradtion, Rabia Al Basri was a female who was an exponent true “Love”. On the other hand, the extremist element with-in Islam has been present for centuries and its recently evolved form can be termed as talibanization. One side has always advocated a softer, more liberal and spiritual version of Islam beyond sects, creed, color and even religions. The other side, however, claimed everyone except their followers as heretics and infidels. One side attracted a huge following in not only Muslim but Non Muslim communities (Rumi is the top selling poet in US for years now) because of its tolerant approach to religion as being a personal matter. The other side waged a war against everyone not coherent with their beliefs. The notion of Islam being spread by sword was negated when Sufis entered sub-continent and inspired millions with their humility, piety and spiritual interpretation of Islam, and thus the number of Muslims multiplied and it became the second most popular religion in the region. Pakistan and Sufism share an inseparable and ingrained connection with one another which is still far more popular than the extremist version, having millions of followers and hundreds of shrines of revered saints through out the country. (very recently Urs of a famous Sufi saint attracted 300000 people as compared to Mullah Sufi’s address which had around 3000)

Whilst Sufis preach to see God in everything and everyone, respect other belief systems and try to self-evaluate before preaching, Mullahs tend to enforce their version of Shariah, by hook or crook. The latter aim to establish puritanical form of Caliphate that neither recognizes nor tolerates any other school of thought. They despise democracy, secularism, women’s rights and propagate an extremist mindset more strident and hard lined than any of the known traditions of Islam. However, it should be noted here, that over the years appearance of pseudo-Sufis has considerably maligned the beauty and essence of true Sufism and deviates from Islam in its practices. The dope smoking wanna-be Sufis who get money for spiritually helping someone are even more dangerous than contemporary extremism. These fake Pirs or Guides distort the real Sufism to gain personal benefits.

Often misunderstood for their use of metaphors, Sufis claiming to be drunk in the wine of divine love, don’t cherish anything material or worldly as they long for re-union with their beloved and on the other hand, the militant clergy always found guilty of feeding their curvy bellies and reaping monetary as well as political benefits from their version of “Jihad” which not only includes public butcher of who so ever dares to speak against them, but also burning down schools and snatching every right of women in this modern world in which more than 50 % population comprises of the fairer sex.

The Sufis were always aloof of intrigues, despite of a bigger following and by denying riches and power over the years, they won hearts rather than conquering lands and shedding blood in the name of religion, which in the long run – did more damage than good to Islam on the whole. The famous Sufi of Shiraz, Sheikh Saadi seconds the view:

Dominion of world from end to end
Is worth less than a drop of blood on earth

The recent attack on a Sufi saint’s (Rehman Baba) shrine in Peshawar points at an inevitable battle of ideologies and juxtaposition of an already paradoxical rift between fundamentalism in Islam and Sufism. We would witness the climax, if these Jihadis enter the more populated and more tolerant provinces of Sindh and Punjab, where Sufism has a tremendous following and urs of famous Sufis like Shahbaz Qalandar and Ali Hajveri attract millions. How would the tolerant crowd counter the violent backlash of misinterpreted shariah? Only time will tell.

The same paradox in contemporary times is underlined by Aitezaz Ahsan in “Kal aj aur kal” when he says:

On one side, (Sufis) Sachal and Bahu
On the other side, (Mullahs) clergy and tradition

West, after helping in creating the extremist version of Islam now contemplates to counter it through propagating pseudo-Sufism, which would further deteriorate the state of affairs in the Islamic world. Hence, we Muslims need to be more aware and pro-active, as our society is still in painful transformation and it will still take years for a stable and peaceful Islamic world. We need to denounce extremism in all its forms and manifestations and also, condemn the notions of pseudo Sufism because very soon, we will have to make the choice. On one end is Mullah Sufi declaring everything except his way “Haraam” whilst on the other Maulana Rumi propagates tolerance:

Come, come, who ever you are,
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
It doesn’t matter!
Ours is not a caravan of despair,
Come, even if you have broken your vow a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come!

Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi

7 thoughts on “The Mullah, Sufi Paradox: Of Mullahs and Sufis”

  1. I love your blog. How nice to hear a rational (and interesting) voice on the subject of Islam. I am subscribing.

    I have also taken something from your blog to post on my own blog. I hope it is okay. If not, I’ll remove it. I so fell in love with the poem “Rose,” I want to share it with my readers too.


  2. Lovely post. I identify strongly with the sentiment.

    We’re also battling the rise of the venomous mullahs here in my country (the Maldives), but it’s increasingly feeling like a lost cause.

    It’s depressing to see the battle between a good, non-violent and tolerant belief system, and a violent, rigid ideology that won’t stop at anything to spread its tentacles.

    1. The key here is to not lose patience. Pakistan is surrounded by so many things incl. the stamp of a terrorist state, plagued government, and much more… But believe me, most of us haven’t lost the hope yet. We are on the right path ,we just need to find a good leadership and make a change within ourselves first. Also, instead of blaming others of our day-to-day terrorizing events we need to find the fault within ourselves. In other words, finding a cure to this cancer.

      May Allah protect everyone. Ameen!

  3. This is awesome…
    i love the poem of Bullah Shah about mullah.
    Its is so true that mullah cant be happy even if we (Pakistanis)start to kill ourselves in front of mullah.
    even then, these mullahs will say that “Those who die without donating the property to mullahs is KAFIR”…
    We need to stop these FATWA INDUSTRIES.

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