Asif Ali Zardari must be applauded for choosing to visit the shrine of Chishti at Ajmer at a time of rising extremism in India and Pakistan.
That Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will visit Pakistan at a suitable time is important news, of course. But, put it down to my personal bias if you like, the loftier symbolism of the visit lies elsewhere. The appearance of such a large Pakistani delegation at the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti's shrine in Ajmer will strike a chord with an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who are more comfortable with the soft, humane message of the Sufis compared with the vengefulness that Hafiz Saeed represents.
Disconcertingly, his ratings in Pakistan have shot up in an atmosphere of high voltage anti-Americanism. In this atmosphere, an American bounty even on the head of the devil would give him championship in the popularity stakes. That is why Mr. Zardari's Ajmer mission deserves applause.
Contrary to popular perception, the rapid spread of Islam across the length and breadth of India was primarily the handiwork of Sufis. At a time when Rahul Gandhi and his cohorts are wondering how to win friends and influence people, the Sufis offer an excellent model. For the model to gain traction, the first requirement is a message which can be simply put across. The message the Sufis sought to communicate offended nobody: oneness of Being (Wahdat ul Wajood), equality of men, Love as a universal value.
Rungs of the stratified Hindu order found the egalitarianism of Sufi Khanqahs, ashrams, hospices, compelling. The first-time visitors to the hospice were overwhelmed by the hospitality. The cuisine was custom made for universal consumption. It was not just vegetarian but care was taken to avoid garlic and onion too which some Hindu sects abstain from.
If there was one dogma the Sufis lived by, it was their total aversion to Kings and Sultans or those who sat at the top of the feudal heap. Since they would not visit the Sultans as a matter of principle, there were instances of the rulers who, overawed by the saint's boundless popularity, expressed a desire to visit them at their hospices.
“If the King enters from the front gate, I shall leave by the backdoor” Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia once famously said. They lived by the Biblical dictum: it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. So, the poor and the intellectually precocious flocked to them.
It was not just their charming temperament, demeanour and belief which attracted the people to them. It was part of their spiritual training to harmonise totally with the cultural environment of whichever place they had made their home. They accepted and adopted the local culture.
Their contribution therefore to folk, popular and classical art forms was immense. For instance, Hazrat Amir Khusro, principal disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, invented the sitar, tabla, ragas. And, by experimental fusion of Hindvi and Persian, he virtually laid the foundation of what later came to be recognised as Urdu. For popular participation, there were always the Qawwalis, with trance inducing rhythms deftly employed between spiritual and romantic lyrics.
It was in pursuance of the trend set by the Sufis that every great Urdu poet proceeded to strengthen sub-continental syncretism. Hasrat Mohani always followed up his “haj” by a visit to Barsana for a “darshan” of Radha, because it was a belief he fancied that God had sent prophets to every country and the one he sent to India was Lord Krishna! It can only happen in the subcontinent: Maulana Hasrat Mohani was a member of the Communist Party and a member of the Constituent Assembly. He refused to sign the Constitution because it was “anti-people”. He is an icon in modern Urdu ghazal. The famous ghazal sung by Mallika Pukhraj, “bezubaani zubaan na ho jai” (hark! Silence begins to have voice) is the Maulana's composition.
Quite naturally, the rapid expansion of this spectacular, colourful Islam, far removed from the arid rigidity of Najd in Saudi Arabia, invited a puritanical reaction.
There were one or two schools of Sufism, like the one to which Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi belonged and which deviated towards puritanism divorced from the colours of India. He was principally opposed to Moghul Emperor Akbar's effort at forging Din-e-elahi or a common religion of God. Later, Shah Waliullah opposed the syncretic excess which leaned too much on the arts, music and dance as a path towards spirituality.
Darul Uloom at Deoband became the centre for puritanical reform within Islam. The effort to bring the faithful back to the straight and narrow continues. Unfortunately, politicians in search of vote banks find Deoband and one or two Imams of mosques, the only Muslim middlemen they know.
These institutions have been plodding away for decades. However, it was the war on terror painting Muslims as terrorists which generated anger in the community, enabling Deoband to marginally augment its reservoir.
By and large, Islam in Afghanistan, Kashmir, North West Frontier Province, other parts of Pakistan and India has, for years, been cloaked in colours of Sufism. But it was the manufacture of Wahabism in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union which was at the bottom of recent Islamic upheavals, of which 9/11and its aftermath are landmarks.
Basically, a strand of Islamic extremism has been in Pakistan's DNA since the country's inception but it was only a strand. The Munir Commission in 1953 investigated what is true Islam and came to no conclusion. But a backlash from the Afghan war reached its crescendo with the fall of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in 2007. Extremism has remained on a plateau since, helped by U.S. policies and the military establishment in equal measure.
Hafiz Saeed is currently the most high profile representative of this extremism which is linked to Wahabism first manufactured in Afghanistan in 1980. In India, Deoband is a harmless reform school. But in Pakistan, Deobandi/Salafi alliance is embarked on a vicious Jehad for the soul of the nation.
It is for this reason that Mr. Zardari's pilgrimage to Ajmer has symbolic value for Pakistan and beyond.
(The writer is a senior journalist, television commentator and interviewer.)