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7.6.15

Folk Islam

Smokers’ Corner: Economics of spirituality by Nadeem F. Paracha, dawn.com

‘Folk Islam?’ Yes, Folk Islam — the strand of faith that still drives the everyday lives of millions of Pakistanis, especially in the country’s vast rural and semi-rural areas. And yet, till about 35 years ago, its social and cultural dynamics were intertwined with large segments of the country’s urban milieus as well.

Folk Islam, or the version that is present among Muslim populations in Pakistan and India, is that strand of the faith that emerged when — from the 12th century onwards — Muslim generals and monarchs from Central Asia, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan began to invade India.

While setting up their respective kingdoms in the region, they brought with them not only soldiers, ministers (wazirs) and clerics. With them and during their rule, also came a steady stream of Sufis.

The majority of their subjects in India were Hindus. But instead of trying to do the impossible by converting such a large population into accepting Islam, most of the Muslim rulers began to heed the advice of the Sufis who wanted to interact with the Hindu majority.

How economic well-being can affect centuries of faith and belief in just a few decades
This was an exhibition of political pragmatism on the part of the rulers who managed to ‘Indianise’ their presence through the cultural and theological interaction and intellectual exchange between the Sufis and the Hindus of India.

This interaction and exchange eventually began to evolve a rather unique brand of Islamic faith among the Muslims of India. Various non-Muslim traditions and ideas (that, to the Sufis, did not contradict the main beliefs of Islam) were adopted and as they evolved they weaved themselves into the social and economic fabric of everyday life of the Muslims of the region.

To put it briefly, on most occasions than not, following a more orthodox strand of Islam (by the Muslims) actually began to invite social isolation, and consequently, economic problems.

This was most apparent during the long reigns of three Mughal kings, Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan (16th-17th centuries), who were ardent followers of Sufi saints and adopted the strand of Islam that had been developing in the region.

This strand was never put down on paper and defined as a concrete philosophy as such. It was too tied to the daily ethos of the common Muslim folk of the land — a religious ethos that repulsed the more orthodox Muslims.

This indigenous strand of Islam that developed in the region between the 12th and 16th centuries helped the Muslim rulers of India to maintain a social contract of sorts between them and the region’s Hindu majority.

But more importantly it was the economic aspect in this regard that was also one of the main factors that helped this Folk Islam of the period to thrive and grow. It was supplementing the politics of the ruling elite; it worked well with the resultant social, economic and cultural dynamics of the period’s agrarian society and economy.

But all this began to change with the slow and painful decline of the Muslim empire in India from the 18th century onwards. As British colonialists began to strengthen their grip in the region and introduce political ideas derived from mercantilism, Muslim thinkers of the period became despondent because they had no idea how to face such a challenge, especially on political and economic levels.

As a consequence, after some 500 years of ruling India, these Muslim thinkers for the first time became conscious of the fact that they were a minority in India. In the 19th century a string of Muslim scholars and ideologues emerged. The moderate ones first tried to rekindle the pride and the past of their bygone empire and at the same time asked the Muslims to adjust their intellectual and economic dispositions according to the new ideas being introduced by the British colonialists.

Though such pleas attracted the small numbers of urban Muslims, the battle for the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims in India was initially fought between two distinct groups of religionists. These would eventually evolve into becoming two new indigenous Sunni Muslim sub-sects in the region.

One group emerged from the Islamic seminaries of the Indian town of Deoband (and became known as Deobandis). Their analysis concluded that the Muslim empire in India collapsed because the rulers continued to distance themselves from the tenants of ‘true Islam’ and (thus) fell victim to the decadent and deviant spiritual concoctions.

Instead they advocated the undoing of what passed for Islam among the Indian Muslims and the infusion of more orthodox strands of the faith.

But the system of belief ingrained for 500 years in the ways of the Muslims of the region was just too deep to exorcise the way the Deobandis wanted to. As a reaction, some Islamic scholars appeared from the Indian town of Bareilly (hence called the ‘Barelvis’), who mounted a hefty polemical and doctrinal defense of the beliefs of the common Muslims of India.

Though the Muslims who had been urbanised and impacted by the colonial mercantile capitalism of the ‘British Raj’ became either ‘Muslim modernists’ or began to drift towards what the Deobandis were advocating, the majority of Muslims who were still tied to agriculture remained attached to Folk Islam because it now became attached to powerful landed Islamic spiritual leaders (the pirs).These pirs became essential elements behind the agrarian Muslims’ economic well being.

After the creation of Pakistan, so-called Barelvi Islam was allowed to prosper in Pakistan and some of its traits, like its spiritual music-forms (such as the Qawaali), colourful rituals (adopted and augmented from certain indigenous regional rituals) and traditions also became popular among the urban working-classes and segments of the middle-classes.

During the government of Z.A. Bhutto in the 1970s these became politicised when the government began to express its populist tenor by using the traditions of visiting Sufi shrines (to mingle with the masses) and adopting popular Sufi anthems as party songs at rallies.

Nevertheless, this strand of the faith gradually began to erode when the same government also opened up brand new avenues of employment for Pakistanis in the oil-rich Arab countries.

Here the Pakistanis came across a dryer and more puritanical strand of Islam and by the early 1980s, much of the country’s urban middle and lower-middle-classes had begun to shun their folk pasts.

This past, it was believed, was not suitable to sustain the kind of economic tendencies that more and more Pakistanis were now embroiled in, especially after earning in Riyals and Dirhams.

The nature of the new money that began to pour into Pakistan from the pockets of those who had worked in or were still working in oil-rich Arab countries was such that it came with an undeclared condition: This money will only benefit you if you mend your distorted religious beliefs.

Since society was becoming polarised into groups that would prefer to only interact with their own kind, pragmatism demanded that one (even superficially) adopt the faith of those with money to spend and invest.

When most Pakistanis came into contact with their Arab employers, they were initially disoriented by what they saw and felt was a somewhat dry strand of the faith.

Never before had the Pakistani working and middle-class folk (who managed to travel to countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the 1970s), made the kind of money that they began to make in those spiritually dry but materially rich lands of the limousine-driving Arabs.

However, more than these Pakistanis being persuaded to give up their old version of the faith and take up what their Arab paymasters insisted was ‘true Islam,’ it was the money that they made and the sudden rise in their social status back home, is what convinced them to shed their old beliefs.

After all, the old beliefs now reminded these Pakistanis of days that may have been more fun and open-ended, but these were also days when they had struggled to own their own TV set, freezer, air-conditioning unit and refrigerator.

In other words, the shedding of folk traditions and the adoption of a new strain of the faith also became a kind of a badge exhibiting a person’s enhanced economic status and social standing.

Nevertheless, in the last three decades, this is changing. But to what? For this one will have to find out what spiritual exhibition and disposition is now guaranteeing economic well-being.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 7th, 2015