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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 08   01-15 September 2014

Resurgence of Sufism in Afghanistan

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Islam reached Afghanistan in the middle of the 7th century. In the medieval period, the famed cities of Balkh, Khurasan, Ghazna or Ghazni (Ghaznin), Badakhshan and Chisht were flourishing centres of culture, architecture, Islamic learning and Sufism. The historic town of Balkh, located in northern Afghanistan about 20 km from the provincial capital Mazar-e-Sharif, was a well-known centre of Zoroastrianism in the early centuries of the common era. A number of prominent Muslim scholars, Sufis and poets were either born in Balkh or settled there. These included Ibrahim ibn Adham (d. 782), one of the early Sufis, Shaqiq of Balkh (d. 810 CE), Rabia Balkhi, a well-known Persian poet who lived in the 10th century, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Khwaja Muhammad Parsa (15th century) and Ibn Sina’s father, who was a native of Balkh.

The historic region of Khurasan encompassed a vast territory now lying in northern Afghanistan, northeastern Iran and southern Turkmenistan. Another historic region, Sijistan or Sistan, was located between the border region between southwestern Afghanistan and eastern Iran.

Ibrahim ibn Adham was a prince of Balkh, who experienced a spiritual awakening and decided to renounce the throne. Shaqiq al-Balkhi, one of the prominent early Sufis, was a disciple of Abrahim ibn Adham.

One of the best-known Sufi masters of Afghanistan was Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, popularly known as Pir-e-Herat, who was born in Herat (then known as Khurasan) in 1006 CE. He was a descendant of Abu Ayyub Ansari. He wrote several treatises in Persian and Arabic on religious and spiritual themes. The well-known Hanbali jurist Ibn al-Qayyim wrote a lengthy commentary on one of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari’s treatises, known as Madarij al-Salikin.

Shaykh Ali Hujwiri, who wrote the first Persian treatise on Sufism, Kashf al-Mahjub, which is considered a classic, was born in Ghazni. Chisht, now known as Chisht-e-Sharif, is a town some 177 km east of Herat City, was the birthplace of the Chishtiya order of Sufism.

Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Balkh. He received his early education from his father Bahauddin, who was a highly respected teacher and religious leader. When Mawlana Rumi was in his teens, Balkh was invaded and laid to waste by the Mongol hordes. His family fled to Konya, now in Turkey, which was then the capital of the Seljuk Empire. His father was offered a teaching position at one of the prominent madrasas in the city. Mawlana Rumi received his spiritual and mystical training from Sayyid Burhanuddin, who was his father’s close friend. In the course of time, he travelled to Aleppo and Damascus to study with some of the greatest scholars and sages of his time. At the age of 37 he met his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz, who initiated him into the world of divine love and ecstasy. In his 50s Mawlana Rumi composed his celebrated Mathnawi in Persian, which is considered one of the greatest literary and spiritual masterpieces of all times. Mawlana Rumi’s poetry emphasizes the importance of finding the meaning and purpose of one’s life, human dignity and deliverance from life’s agony through selfless love.

According to The Christian Science Monitor and Times Asia Magazine, Mawlana Rumi is today is the most widely-read poet in North America and translations of his poetic compositions in European languages are becoming increasingly popular. A collection of Rumi’s poems has been a best-seller for several months in the United States and Europe, selling more than half-a-million copies. Coleman Barks, an American writer, has made Rumi more accessible by adapting his poems into freer, American English. Some of the celebrated pop singers such as Madonna, Demi Moore and Goldie Hawn have recited his poems.

Unesco declared 2007 as the International Year of Rumi. Unesco’s Director-General Koichiro Matsuura inaugurated the celebrations to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of the sage on 6 September 2007. The celebrations were organised in collaboration with Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey. An international conference on Mawlana Rumi’s teachings was organised as part of the celebrations. This was followed by the opening of an exhibition of books, manuscripts and paintings related to him and his works, and a performance of traditional Sufi music. Unesco also issued a commemorative medal to mark the occasion. Several festivals devoted to the reading of Sufi poetry and music were organised in Europe, Iran, Turkey and India.

When the Mongol hordes overran and devastated almost all the famed cities of the Islamic world in the 13th century, including Khwarizm, Baghdad, Samarqand, Bukhara, Khurasan, Balkh and Herat, a number of eminent scholars, Sufis and poets migrated to Delhi, which was under the rule of the emperors of the Slave Dynasty and where peaceful conditions prevailed. The prominent Sufis who came from Balkh and Ghazni included Nuruddin Mubarak Ghaznavi, who was a disciple and spiritual successor (Khalifa) of Shaykh Shihabuddin Suharwardi and was appointed to the exalted post of Shaykh al-Islam by Emperor Iltutmish, Shaykh Badruddin Ghaznavi, who was a Khalifa of Shaykh Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Shaykh Abdul Wahid Ghaznavi and Burhanuddin Balkhi. During the reign of the Mughal Emperor in the 16th century, a Sufi from Afghanistan, Ahmad al-Faruqi Kabuli, had a large number of disciples in northern India.

Mawlana Nuruddin Abdur-Rahman Jami, one of the celebrated Sufi poets of Persian, was born in the town of Jam in Khurasan in 1653 and died in Herat in 1492. He was affiliated to the Naqshbandiya order of Sufism. He wrote several treatises on religious and spiritual themes in Persian, including Haft Aurang and Lawami’. One of his well-known works is Nafhat al-Uns, which contains brief but succinct biographies of prominent Sufi masters.

The most prominent and influential Sufi orders in Afghanistan are the Naqshbandiya, Qadiriya and Chishtiya. The Qadiriya, one of the oldest of Sufi orders, was established by a distinguished scholar and Sufi shaykh, Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (or al-Jilani). He was born in the Persian province of Gilan in 1077. He was a follower of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence and was widely respected by his contemporaries for his erudition and piety. He headed one of the most prominent madrasas in Baghdad and also set up his khanqah in the city. His sermons and public discourses were attended by thousands of people, including eminent scholars, Sufis, high officials, students and the general public. He passed away in 1166. Three of Gilani’s books continue to enjoy great popularity among Sufis in general and in the Qadiriya order in particular. These are Futuh al-Ghaib, a collection of his essays on Islamic doctrines and Sufi principles compiled by his son, Al-Fath al-Rabbani, his sermons and discourses, and Ghunniyah al-Talibin, which deals with Islamic tenets, Islamic law and principles of Sufism.

Following the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, the Qadiriya order began expanding to far-flung regions, including Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Turkey, Iran, Hijaz, North Africa and South Asia. In the course of time it reached Indonesia, China, Afghanistan, Somalia and East Africa. In the 12th century the Qadiri order was taken by Arab merchants to the kingdom of Bulgar on the Volga and to Turkestan. Sufi shaykhs of the Qadiri order played a highly important role in the expansion of Islam in Africa, especially in Sudan.

The Naqshbandiya order, one of the most influential and widespread transnational Sufi orders, was founded by Baha al-Din Naqshband al-Bukhari (d.1389). The distinguishing features of the order include strict adherence to the principles of Islamic shariah, leading a normal life in the midst of society, social and political engagement and involvement, a preference for silent zikr (dhikr) and avoidance of mystic music (sama’). A well-known Naqshbandi aphorism says, “dil ba yar, ast ba kar” (The heart with the Beloved (God), and hands occupied by work).

The Naqshbandiya order spread across large parts of the Islamic world, including Central Asia, Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Ottoman Turkey, South Asia, Daghestan, Siberia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Volga-Ural region. During the time of Khwaja Ubaydullah Ahrar (d. 1390), the Naqshbandiya became the dominant order in Central Asia. Around the 15th century, the Naqshbandiya order spread to Xinjian in China. Khwaja Abdullah, one of the prominent Naqhbandi Sufis, entered China in 1674, propagated the order there, and died in Guizhou in 1689. Ma Laichi (1673-1753), who played a key role in the expansion of the Naqshbandiya order in China, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and from there travelled to Yemen and Bukhara, where he met many Sufi shaykhs and studied several Sufi orders. He was particularly influenced by an Indian Sufi, Maulana Makhdum. Upon his return to China, he propagated the order for 32 years before breathing his last in 1766 at the age of 86. Another branch of the Naqshbandiya order in China was established by Ma Mingxin (d. 1781). In the Hejaz, some of the disciples of Shah Ghulam Ali, a prominent Naqshbandi Sufi shaykh of Delhi (d. 1824), such as Muhammad Jan al-Makki, Ahmad Said and Muhammad Mazhar, played an important role in the spread of the Naqshbandiya order. Muhammad Jan al-Makki (d.1852) initiated many Turkish pilgrims into the order, who subsequently established branches of the Naqshbandiya order in Ottoman Turkey. Ahmad Said and Muhammad Mazhar initiated people from Turkey, Daghestan, Kazan, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Malaysia into the Naqshbandiya order.

Khwaja Muhammad Parsa (d. 1420), whose mausoleum is in Balkh, was one of the principal disciples and successors of Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband (d. 1389). The Naqshbandiya-Mujaddidiya order, named after Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624), popularly known as Mujaddid Alf Thani, whose mausoleum is in Punjab, India, became highly popular in Afghanistan.

The Chishtiya order was founded by Abu Ishaq Shami (d. 940 CE), who was directed by his mentor Shaykh Mamshad Dinwari (d. 298 AC) to settle in Chisht. Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, the most outstanding and influential Sufi saint of the Chishtiya order, was born in Sijistan. He visited almost all the famed cities of the medieval Islamic world, including Balkh and Ghazni and appointed his Khalifas in Balkh.

The teachings of Shaykh Muinuddin Chishti are suffused with deep humanism, compassion and tolerance. He is reported to have said that a Sufi should possess “generosity like that of the river, kindness and affection like that of the sun, and humility like that of the earth.” He stated that the highest form of devotion to God consists in redressing the hardships of those in distress, fulfilling the needs of the helpless and feeding the hungry.

The Chishti order has certain distinctive features which set it apart from other Sufi orders. First, the pursuit of divine love is regarded as the ultimate goal of the Sufi. Second, the Chishti Sufis emphasize that the adept should make sustained efforts to cleanse himself of all base, unworthy qualities such as anger, jealousy, pride and vanity, and replace them with noble, sublime qualities. Third, service to humanity, regardless of the narrow considerations of class or creed, is the surest way of earning divine pleasure. Fourth, the Chishti Sufis scrupulously avoided the company of kings and rulers and refused to accept any grants of land or endowments from them. The Chishti Sufis are very fond of mystic music, which is regarded as a means of intensifying and deepening man’s higher faculties.

For the past several decades, Sufi leaders in Afghanistan have played a prominent role in matters of state and politics. They actively participated in the two Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-1880) and (1879-1880). Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s last monarch (ruled 1933-73), was proclaimed king after Hazrat Nurul Mashaikh Mujaddidi, a prominent Sufi leader of the Naqshbandiya order, placed the ceremonial turban on his head. Afghan Sufis were active in the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance was led by two prominent Sufi leaders, Pir Sayyid Ahmad Gilani of the Qadiriya order, and Hazrat Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, head of the Naqshbandi order. The latter became the first interim president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 1992.

During the oppressive rule of the Taliban (1996-2001), Sufism was suppressed and Sufis were hounded and persecuted and many of them were driven underground. The Taliban directed their ire particularly at Sufis of the Chishtiya order for their advocacy of devotional music. The Taliban considered any form of music forbidden (haram).

Sufism has been an integral and vital part of Afghan society for centuries and Sufis have been held in high esteem. Afghanistan’s mountainous, rugged terrain is dotted with the mausoleums and shrines of Sufi saints. Thousands of people, men and women, villagers and townsfolk, continue to visit them, especially during the annual death anniversary (urs) of the saints. Sufi adepts are to be found in the ranks of the intelligentsia, the professional classes and high officials. Sufi gatherings devoted to zikr (repeated invocation of divine names) are regularly held across the country. Kabul’s historic Shah-Do-Shamshira Mosque is well-known for such gatherings.

There has been a marked revival in Sufism in Afghanistan in the past few years. This revival should to be seen in the context of the present political, economic and cultural scenario. The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted for nine years, from 1979 to 1989. After the Soviet troops were driven out by the Mujahidin forces, the country was plunged in a violent and protracted civil war, in which almost 400,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. There are an estimated 2.7 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and Iran.

The Soviet war and years of civil war have left deep scars on the country. Afghanistan has the highest proportion of people with disabilities – an estimated one million people. Almost 80,000 people have been disabled as a result of landmines. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a GDP per capita of $1,100. Almost 40% of the country’s population of 30 million live on less than $1 a day. The economy has ground to a halt and the unemployment rate is almost 40%. There is a complete absence of foreign direct investment, thanks to violence, chronic instability and widespread corruption. Afghanistan has been ranked as the third most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

Afghanistan has one of the worst human development indices in the world. The average life expectancy is less than 50. The overall literacy rate is about 28% and almost 90% of Afghan women can neither read nor write. Afghanistan has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, estimated at 1,400 deaths per 100,000 live births. It also has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. One in ten Afghan children dies before attaining the age of five. There are an estimated one million drug addicts in Afghanistan, including some 60,000 child drug addicts – the highest figure in the world. Women and children make up nearly 40% of drug addicts.

Political stability continues to elude the country. The results of the bitterly fought presidential elections, held in April this year, have been challenged by one of the contestants, Abdullah Abdullah, who has alleged electoral fraud and has demanded an audit of the vote, which is underway. The internationally-monitored audit will cost the country a whopping $5 billion. There is an American-mediated proposal to form a national unity government with the participation and involvement of Ashraf Ghani, who has won the vote, and his rival Abdullah Abdullah.

Afghanistan is an ethnically diverse country, comprising the Pashtun (42%), Tajik (27%), Uzbek (9%), Hazara (8%) and smaller groups like Aimaq, Turkmen and Baloch. By and large, Sufism has been a positive force in Afghan society. Sufi leaders, whose followers are found among most ethnic groups, have sought to weld them together as a cohesive nationality and have infused them with Islamic consciousness and identity. They have dissuaded their followers from indulging in violence and saved them from falling into the abyss of drug addiction, which would have ruined their lives and devastated their families. They took exception to the Taliban’s retrogressive views and their high-handedness. Sufi gatherings provided the adepts with a sense of belonging and identity, fortitude to bear hardships and an anchorage in the face of life’s inevitable uncertainties and anxieties.

The Afghan government is keen to involve Sufi leaders in putting an end to reckless violence, restoring peace and political stability in the country and in forging a national consensus on the reconstruction of the economy, polity and society, which have been ravaged by three decades of lawlessness, political and ethnic conflicts and violence. Since Sufi leaders have a large following across the country and are widely respected for their moral integrity and their commitment to peace and tolerance, they will hopefully play a significant role in saving Afghanistan from the precipice of disaster and ruin.

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