Volume - 3 : Issue - 4

Published : Oct. - Dec. 2004

Group : Spirituality

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Sindh’s Resistance Against Fundamentalism Through Sufism

by Niranjan Dudani

In the year 711 AD, Sindh was conquered by invading Arabs who introduced Islam in Sindh. For about 200 years, Baghdad ruled Sindh through appointed Governors. The majority of Sindhis who were under Buddhist influence for many centuries prior, continued to remain passive, tolerant and did not embrace Islam. In early 900 AD Al Hallaj - patron prophet of Sufism was supposed to have visited Sindh with some success. The Hindu population had been decimated and those who remained were subject to taxations with punitive measures. But the chaotic Arab rule enabled Hindus, from Rajasthan, to gradually return taking many risks. The Arabs finally gave up, leaving Sindh in chaos where power grabbing local chieftains and military men usurped power in local regions. These usurpers allied themselves with Islamic clergy to consolidate their rule using fundamentalism to coerce Sindhis into submission; to suppress their national aspirations and their culture by resorting to coercion, forcible conversions and persecution of Hindus and the general population. As against the hardcore extremist interpretation of Islam that incited violence, intolerance of other faiths, Sindhis from that time onwards, found Sufism to be consistent with their national psyche.
Earliest example of resistance to fundamentalism comes in the form of legends of Jhulelal and Lal Shahbaaz. In the middle of 10th century with the decline of central Arab authority, a local chieftain Muguarab Khan killed the Arab Governor, Sahadat Khan and installed himself as Marikshah with Thatta in the south, as the capital. He allied with the clergy, carried out forced conversions and at some point gave an ultimatum to the resisting prosperous Hindus - mostly businessmen and overseas traders to either submit to Islam or face a massacre of the male population. The legend states that with prayers Hindus were able to induce divine intervention and a son was born to Ratanrai and Devaki of Luhanas - the predominant Rajput Hindu community. The boy named Uderolal born in 1007 AD performed miracles to frighten the ruler, confound the Islamic clergy and inspire Hindus to successfully resist the ruler. Uderolal, popularly called Jhulelal preached equality of all religions, universalism, resistance against fundamentalism and injustice. A temple to his memory, where an eternal flame was kept alive by Thankurs - descendants of Luhanas exists till this day. It is located on the eastern bank of Sindhu at the entrance to Bhit Shah. The birthday of Jhulelal is celebrated as Sindhi new year by Sindhi Hindus - much more so, after the partition, all over the world.

On the western bank of Sindhu, slightly further up north, stands the monument to Lal Shahbaaz or mast Qalandar of Sehwan. He is worshipped by both Muslims and Hindus as saviour of Sindh from oppressive Muslim rulers about a century later - in 12 century AD. The ruler had been committing atrocities against both Muslims and Hindus when lal Shahbaaz rescued them, preaching universalism, tolerance, love - ideals of Sufism.

Abu Rahain, scholar in the court of Mahmud Ghazni, had travelled to India and Sindh in the 11th century AD and spoke of Sindhis who were not fanatical. He noted that in all consultations and emergencies they took the advice of their women folk. T. L. Vaswani states that Abu Rahain connects Sufi with the word ‘saf’ in Arabic and not ‘suf’ which meant goat’s wool in Arabic. He associated Sufi with the word ‘Sophia’ in Greek i.e. wisdom. According to Prof Schimmel other religions could certainly agree with the first part of the professed faith, “There is no deity save God”. Muslim mystics and orthodox theologians always knew that it is the second half i.e. ‘Mahmud is the messenger of God’ which makes Islam a distinct religion.” However, the Sufis and poets in Sindh always stressed the first half i.e. ‘There is no deity save God.’ that made Sufism acceptable to all faiths and bonded Sindhis together. Its message of tolerance, devotional love, universalism merged with Bhaktivad movement had spread all over India from 8th Century AD onwards. Shah Latif acknowledged that spirit in Sur Ramkali saluting Jogis -the followers of Shiva.

Al Hillaj had proclaimed, ‘Kufir and Imaan’ differ only in name and he propagated unrestricted love rather than legalism. Sha Latif’s heroines, in all his compositions, demonstrated similar unrestricted love - similar to Bhaktivad compositions of poets for centuries in India. Sachal was more explicit.

‘Sachu Supreme is one- no doubt no question,
Witnesses his own show- resplendent royally,
Sometimes recites scriptures-sometimes Koran,
Somewhere as Christ, Ahmed or Hanumaan,
Astonished and bewildered at all of Himself.’ 

Sindhi Sufism was particularly successful at cohesing Muslims and Hindus together. There were even Hindu Sufi fakirs who preached universalism, lived like Sufis, practiced and preached Sufism having followers in both communities. One was a brother of my maternal grandfather - Kheraj Fakir in Larkana. On his death he had a water burial - no cremation or a grave for burial. Incidentally many followers of Jhulelal also preferred water burial and are called Daryapanthies - worshippers of God of Waters synonymous with Jhulelal.

Prof. Schimmel states that in Arabic poetry, the relation between man and God was expressed as metaphores of man’s longing for a beautiful maiden. In Farsi it was symbolised with love of a man for a young beautiful Shahid. But the Indo - Muslim traditions under the influence of Bhaktivad developed the symbol of woman soul. That form originated in south India among Alvars of Tamil in 8th century AD popularised by Swamini Godha. From there it was Ramanuja in 10th century, later Ramdas, Ravi Chamar, Laleshwari in Kashmir - also known as Lal-e-Arif in the 13 century and later weaver Kabir, Surdas, Meera and Shah Latif in the 18th century in Sindh.

Sachal in 19th century asserted,
‘By no means kalma made me a Muslim,
Nor did Ahmed transmit Faith from Arabia,
Sachu is all Glorious, though a man in human eyes!’

The end of direct Arab rule and usurpation of authority by local chieftains left Sindh in greater political chaos. The Rajput clan of Soomras from Cutch and Rajasthan filled the power vacuum in the latter part of 11th century AD ushering in an era of stability and prosperity to all of Sindh. They were recent converts to Islam-probably the Ismail sect but kept their Rajput customs and traditions. They did not give any political standing to the clergy who tended to pursue coercion and fundamentalism. After close to 300 years Soomras were followed by Sammas - another Rajput clan who continued the same traditions giving close to 500 years of peace, prosperity, stability to all of Sindh. During the later part of Samma rule Sindhi businesses from Shikarpur and Multan extended to Central Asia giving greater economic prosperity to Sindh - truly a golden age for Sindh. Sammas fought valiantly to contain Arghuns leaving the legacy of many braves -Makhdoom Bilawal, Darya Khan and others in mid 16th century. Thereafter came Tarkhans, Afghans, Moghuls and the ransacking by Nadir Shah. Except under early Moghuls like Akbar, Sindh was oppressed by foreigners who used fundamentalism to politically subdue the population. Hindus were subject to persecution, forcible conversions and Muslims were frightened with fatwas in name of the Islam. Under Aurangzeb fundamentalism again came to the fore. The native Sindhi rulers, Talpurs and Kalhoras did not improve much the quality of life but were better than Moghuls.

The native Muslim rulers in 17th century and later, did not trust Sindhi Muslims much and they imported Hindus from Rajasthan and Multan to run their administration, the treasury, the trade. Sindhi businessmen were well versed in Farsi and were invited to become administrators as Farsi was maintained as the court language. A whole new class of educated Hindus came from Multan and Rajasthan who became the backbone of the population and came to be known as Amils. In a way it was the foresight of these Sindhi rulers as Amils were to become foremost Sindhi nationalists - secular in thought, progressive in education- true to the meaning of the word Amil. Earlier Kalhora Sindhi rulers persecuted Sindhi Sufi fakirs and oppressed the peasantry. Shah Inayat of Jhok became the earliest Sufi martyr who opposed the atrocious ruler in Jan 1718. From thence Sufism became synonymous with Sindhi traditions and national spirit.

Sufi poets have continued to caution Sindhis against the evils of intolerance and hatred of other faiths - the hallmarks of fundamentalism. At the beginning of 20th century as the British brought in their policy of divide and rule, Ruhal Fakir, took cudgels against bigotry warning both communities.

‘In Kufir and Islam they are out of step,
One Hindu, the other Musalmaan and
third enmity in between,
Who can claim truly that the
blind can’t find darkness,
Ruhal, on the path of Beloved,
realise its vastness,
God was only one- no traps, no twists,
Where can she point her feet in the abode of Allah!’

From the start of the 20th century the British put their policy of Divide and Rule playing Muslims against Hindus, into effect. Even prior to the launching of Muslim League, initiated by late Agha Khan - the head of Ismailis, the seeds and the directions for the communal frenzy were laid down by R. F. Burton. In his book ‘Sindh - Revisited 1877’. Scott Levi quotes Burton, “The Hindus of Sindh - their rascality and their philoprogenitiveness’ from where I extract this passage about banias-pp 283-84. ‘he then takes his place in the shop, where if you please we shall leave him to cheat and haggle, to spoil and adulterate, and to become as speedily rich by the practice of as much conventional and commercial rascality, barely within the limits of actual felony, as he can pass off upon the world.” Scott Levi goes on to say, “he launched an extraordinary virulent attack against the character of the Hindus of Sindh, which enormously influenced officials as well as non-officials. However, he started a trend and the long term impact of such stereotypes have been important.”  Scott and Cheeseman in 1997, contradict this anti - Hindu argument based on the claim that a large scale transfer of land took place into the hands of Hindu banias.  Cheeseman further adds that banias were traders not interested in the earning of money lending and that it was not lucrative for them to become landowners. Yet, the British and Muslim politicians took up this refrain with the backing of the clergy to whip up communal frenzy, to instigate communal riots for furthering their political aims. Scott also stresses that there was no record of how much land was owned by Hindus prior to this tirade by Burton.

The young leaders of the Muslim League in Sindh embarked on the communal path in early twenties. Their populist outpourings conveniently left in the dark the role of Muslim landowner, Wadero, and that Banias were just a small minority of Sindhi Hindus. Even in 1941, populist Muslim leaders did not appear to have been aware that major portion of the wealth of banias was derived not from exploitation of the peasantry in Sindh, but from international trading and financial dealings - in particular the Banias of both Shikarpur and Hyderabad. Exception to such rabid communalism of the Muslim League was Allah Bux Soomro.  He abhorred the use of communalism, the fatwas of clergy and the use of Holy Koran by populist Muslim leaders in Sindhi politics. But he was gunned down in 1943 when he opposed the plan of the Muslim League for partition of the country under fallacious ‘Two-nation theory.’ In 1946, the Muslim League launched their Direct Action not against the British but against Hindus, brazenly mobilising the fundamentalist forces, letting loose a frankstein causing a civil war like situation in many parts of British India. Fortunately Sindh did not suffer that cruel fate prior to partition as the communal tensions of 1939-41 were dissipated - thanks to Sufi spirit among both communities.

Mr. M. A. Jinnah discarded the two nation theory the day Pakistan became a reality when he asked the Muslims in India to remain where they were and to remain faithful to their country. A death blow to that theory was rendered in 1971 when Bangla Desh emerged. Yet the hierarchy in Pakistan has continued to exploit that philosophy in Kashmir with strong support from the fundamentalists, in turn terrorizing the local population. In Sindh, after the recapture of power by the military under Gen. Zia and execution of Z A Bhutto, a new phase of fundamentalism was let loose. Sindhi national spirit, nurtured by Sufism came into direct conflict with the military fundamentalist regime in 1983-84 when thousands of Sindhi students in Sakrand were mercilessly run over by army jeeps and shot. The death of Zia brought a brief period of democracy, elections and freedom. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and US intervention that resulted in unashamed support of fundamentalist Taliban, a haven was created for Al Qaida.  USA had to suffer Sep 11 attack from Osama and his fundamentalism that has emerged as its main enemy in the 21st century.

During the 2002 elections in Sindh hardly any support was generated by fundamentalist parties or their candidates.  Sindhi Sufism remains a vigorous manifestation of Sindhi aspirations - the legacy of love, tolerance, universlism and a beacon of peaceful relations among all faiths and communities.

Fundamentalism cannot countenance Sindhi Sufism, synonymous with national spirit and aspirations of Sindhis.