Behrouz Ghezel

New Sufism and the Unexpected Effect of Fundamentalism in Central Asia

Date of publication : December 28, 2016 15:30 pm
New Sufism and the Unexpected Effect of Fundamentalism in Central Asia

In “Sufism” literature and in historical studies related to different periods of the communities’ tendency toward mysticism, Sufism and Sufi order (though specialists in this field distinguish between these terms), the important characteristic is the concurrent governing spirit of defeat, public oppression and despair in social groups and the growing tendency to these schools of thought and behavior. In other words, mystical beliefs, Sufi monasteries, and the Sufi behavior in different historical periods have served as a haven for the suffering and disillusioned people. However, the great Sufi scholars, relying on the powerful mobilizing force of these trends, at times abandon their passive position and become active. The result of their activities is recorded in different geographical regions of the Islamic world and in the main and marginal background of historical developments.
Central Asia, including a large part of the ancient Khorassan, is the home to many Sufi elders and to powerful movements of Sufism that, as mentioned, is both the host of historical and contemporary political and social frustrations and an active institution in the past and present cultural, social and political dynamics of the region. But what distinguishes the present Sufism from what it had been throughout the history is its individuation and persistence in the context of cultural and political life strongly influenced by the religious fundamentalism and religious extremism. In other words, the persistent Sufi movements and even the revival of some Sufi trends in Central Asia (by expanding its inclusion to Afghanistan and Pakistan) have emerged in the neighborhood of the Salafi religious movements. No need to mention that this neighborhood paves the way for their interaction and interplay.
In discussing the rebirth of Sufism, it seems that most existing radical movements in Central Asia stem more from Pakistan than Afghanistan. Sufi seminaries and monasteries in Pakistan have been able to pave the way for the rise and development of multiple religious movements with Sufi background and mystic claims in the relatively quieter atmosphere of this country influenced by its different cultural and political-security space, and have created a new wave of Sufism called “neo-Sufism” by relying on new promotional and guiding approaches in the form of their particular hierarchy that in most of these groups ensures the easy attraction of disciples, on the one hand, and the complete subjugation to upper levels of the hierarchy, on the other hand. It is interesting that the titles and addresses used in these new groups’ conventional discourse are Pakistani and even Indian rather than Arabic or native Central Asian.
For example, the case of “Seifi order” is seen in the “Naqshbandi areas” of Central Asia, including East Turkmenistan, urban areas in Tajikistan and many areas of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan whose leader is a man named “Saif-ur-Rahman” living in Pakistan who is called “Mubarak Sahib” by his disciples. The second place in the hierarchy of authority and subordination to the group is called “Naeb (assistant) Sahib” including a number of very close relatives and the attributed people of “Mubarak Sahib” who are often appointed for each country or different geographic divisions. “Khalifa (Caliph) Sahib”, as the third place in this group which is not based on a permanent basis and depends on the “caliph’s” influence, is appointed for each city or monastery. In inner circles, “Khalifa (Caliph) Sahib” is also addressed as the Naqshbandi Sufi leader (pir) (It should be noted that here what is meant by “perfect Sufi leader” is the same “Mubarak Sahib”). But the fourth place in this hierarchy which is the most important and distinguishing feature of this group is “Vice-Khalifa Sahib” or the “qualified Sufi leader” whose most important duty, in addition to the conventional conduct in these groups, is to go to the people, and promote the ideas of the group and attract new followers. This is a difficult phase of bearing sufferings and compensating for the possible sins the “qualified Sufi leader” (who is about to become a Caliph in a monastery) may have committed in the life before his “devotion” to the group and its hierarchy. He who “may” have misled a lot of people when he had “gone astray”, now must pave the way for the guidance and prosperity of many people to have his “heart” prepared for promotion and conduct. In next place, there are the disciples and believers to this group (which, of course, there is an internal hierarchy in this place, but this issue will not be discussed here).
As seen, the head of the group is a person residing in Pakistan (his successor is also from Pakistan), and the official titles and addresses used - by stating “Sahib” - are derived from the culture of this country. It is worth mentioning that all finances (from fundraising and “blessings”) also go to this person residing in Pakistan, and all people in the hierarchy who have reached the position of caliphate, if possible, should at least visit Pakistan and re-pay allegiance to him once a year. Also, some people in this group, who are engaged in trade as well, are considered as the major agents of importing goods from Pakistan to their home country and distributing them.
But aside from the mentioned structure of this group, these groups’ shared ideas and the results of their performance are also interesting - the present paper highly focuses on them. These groups have introduced themselves as Sunni followers of the Hanafi jurisprudence, but their beliefs are not in full compliance with Maturidi Kalam. This feature provides a proper ground for the growth of these groups in Central Asia, because new beliefs (at least in name only) are presented in the form of their accepted religion and jurisprudence, and many Central Asians, affected by their isolation from the rest of the Muslim world and the erosion of religious knowledge in the past decades, are both unaware that they are Maturidi (in spite of the presence and influence of this theological school in their religious life), and are ready to accept new readings.
Most of these groups introduce themselves as the followers of eunuchs’ traditional dynasty. A dynasty that many people attributed to it are from the civilization of Iran and Khorassan, and some of them are prominent poets writing in Persian and Turkish. These groups follow the legacy of these eunuchs, and in particular, Imam Rabbani Farooqi Sirhindi (the reviver of Islam at the beginning of the second millennium of Islamic history), and coordinate with his (two-volume) book called “Maktubat-i Imam”. Their propaganda is also attractive, because it revolves around the rebirth of Islam in every millennium (as a divine transformation and great blessing) and in every century (due to the divine providence). Each of these groups often introduces their current leader as the reviver of 1400 century (AH) who announced himself as the savior of Muslims and believers, and all true believers must purify their beliefs and behavior by identifying him as the “Imam of the Age”, and using his teachings (transmitted through the hierarchy and thus valid), and this will be their only way to achieve salvation [!].
Another very important feature of this neo-Sufism is giving the elite place to its followers. They consider themselves to be in the true path of Islam, and generally call people outside their group as “qarachy” (meaning “careless” or “unaware” which is a degrading term). Even a minor from this group dares to address the scholars and elders of his community by these titles. This new Sufism gives its followers a powerful source of new and reliable identity which the people of Central Asia seem to highly welcome it.
In addition to these features, a different and distinctive element of this type of Sufism, as compared to its historical types, is the belief in an unquestionable commitment to the religious manifestations and the law (Shariah). These manifestations are originated from the behavior and conduct of the “righteous predecessor” presented in the form of tradition. These unconditional requirements range from how to stand up and sit down, how to use personal belongings, how to earn money, socialize with people, read the Quran, and pray to how to spend the leisure time, and etc. Some important points about these groups should be mentioned here: one point is that among all these doctrines, the principle of “unquestioning compliance with the hierarchy headed by the perfect Sufi leader” is strongly emphasized upon, and even the criteria for the nature or a change in a religious ruling related to a phenomenon is his Ijtihad and inference. Another point is that the faith of the people, who are not committed to these manifestations and do not observe them, is under question. In other words, “qarachy” people are the misguided that, in some stage of the spiritual journey, one should even avoid socializing with them. No need to mention that these “misguided” people, in case they conflict with these “elite groups” and if they seem not fit to be guided, deserve to be destructed [!].
Based on what is said, “new Sufism” has found proper opportunities for its rise and development in the appropriate historical context in Central Asia caused by the ideological vacuum, economic and social problems and suffering and the poverty of religious knowledge, along with the occasional support given by the official institutions to movements claiming Sufism (as possible rivals to Salafi fundamentalism). These groups, claiming to be the heir to the legacy of Sufi ideas and orders, and paying attention to observing some of their manifestations and behavior, can recruit and expand their networks much easier and with less sensitivity than their rival movements. It is easy to join these groups. Promoting the ideas of the group is a part of the mandatory task of a number of trained people in the group. The unquestionable compliance with the hierarchical commands as the “code of conduct” is a non-negligible requirement. The group, enjoying an internal cohesion and group behaviors in monasteries, has a considerable source of identity for Central Asian Muslims who apparently lost their identities. Individuals, since entering the group, enjoy a clear distinction from those outside the group, and the group gives them the sense of being superior and always right.
These groups, though so far have not raised any political claim, and it also seems far-fetched to predict that they will become politicized (based on the conventional definition of politicization), show some sign of their tendencies toward extremism, and it is clearly visible that the Salafi ideas have penetrated in their beliefs. The special mobilizing power of these groups also cast a doubt over their future behavior. But in the end, we can speculate that the new Sufism in Central Asia, perhaps in future, will go through the same path as the Salafi extremism, and even will provide a context for the regional and trans-regional actors’ political exploitation. Thus, in the coming years, perhaps, it is not that fanciful to witness the birth of a new actor, of course with a more cohesive organization than other religious movements in Central Asia - an actor who can create new political and security challenges in the region, and can become the focus of attention.

Behrouz Ghezel, a PhD student in Central Asia and Caucasus Studies at University of Tehran, is the managing editor at IRAS.
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