Sufi Islamism in Contemporary Pakistan: Emergence of a new ideology or Resurgence of an old trend?

Authors: Saad Ali Khan

Sufi Islamism in Contemporary Pakistan: Emergence of a new ideology or Resurgence of an old trend?


The article aims to explore the concept and evolution of Sufi Islamism in contemporary Pakistan in context of resurgence of Islamism (Political Islam) in the Muslim world. It is argued that Sufi Islamism is not a new ideology, as being perceived by the world scholars and critics. It is interesting to highlight through history that Sufi Islamism as an ideology surfaced quite often throughout the political history of Pakistan. By diverse responses and affiliation with politics and state, Sufi Islamism manifested distinctive models in Pakistan. Based on historical data and analyzed within philosophical debates of traditional and modern Islam, this article on the one hand unmasks the widely held conception about Sufis that they always remained aloof from worldly affairs (including Politics) and on the other hand it also demonstrates that Sufism has been wielded as a political resource within politics of Pakistan along with other religious resources for different goals. It is observed through the course of history that diversity of responses remained a particular hallmark of Sufism in Pakistan vis-à-vis political affairs. Therefore, it can be concluded that Sufi Islamism in contemporary Pakistan’s politics is not a new phenomenon rather an old trend.

Keywords: Sufi Islamism, Political Islam, Islamism, Sufism, Pakistan, Politics


Sufism, known as mystical, esoteric and inner aspect of Islam, is also labelled as a reformist movement that contributed immensely in propagation of religious ideology across the world. Sufism, since its inception, preached the values of love, tolerance, respect, coexistence and pluralism. These elements constitute the core of Sufi thought and also reflected in Sufi activity. Most of the Sufis, since its beginning, practiced renunciation of worldly desires and preferred attachment with the inner world over the external world. However with the passage of time, Sufism underwent crucial changes and also manifested diversity of thought and action. Sufis involvement in politics and state affairs can be taken as one of the instance of that change that they have manifested over the period of time. Hence within Sufism, some of the Sufi traditions (known as silsilahs,  Spiritual chains/lineages/organizations) pursued active politics and collaboration with the state of the times. On the contrary, there were other Sufi silsilahs that strictly remained aloof from everything associated with the external world.

From the very beginning, Sufism revolted against worldliness, materialism, formalism and reduction of religion into religiosity only. Murray Titus (2005) said that Sufism was a natural revolt of the human heart against the cold formalism of a ritualistic religion. Similarly in South Asia, the presence of Sufis and their contribution in bringing religion to this part of the world is evident through many works of scholars. However, there is less debate over the fact that some of the Sufis silsilahs in South Asia and especially in Pakistan have also participated in politics and state affairs. Sufi-islamism, a termed coined recently, pointed to the fact that Sufis, in contemporary times, are active agents of the society and actively participate within politics. This present article aims to explore that this present trend has historical roots and history of Pakistan has witness diverse responses and models of Sufism regarding politics.

Exploring and analysing the basic question that how Sufi Islamism evolved within political landscape of Pakistan, this article offers critical explanation based on historical evidence. In order to understand the dynamics of Sufi Islamism in Pakistan, politics and Sufism ought to be understood at this initial level. Similarly Islamism as an ideology also needs to be analysed.

The debate regarding the evolution of the term Sufism and the actual meaning of this expression entails dynamic debate not among the Muslims but also among the researchers (authors) and writers of the subject of Islam. Therefore, the exploration and description of Sufism in itself possess the difficulty to be lost in the world of meanings and explanations. The fruition and expansion of Islam in the world have been studied and preserved through various sources.

Shahab Shaikh’s (2016) recent work on Islam, which portrays Sufism as the theory and practice of holistic, experiential knowing of Divine Truth, was, for over a millennium, a foundational, commonplace and institutionalized conceptual and social phenomenon in Muslim civilization.

Similarly, Chittick (2005) elaborated three levels of religion Islam. The external level of religion Islam is related to the activity and doing of right and wrong practice that have been delineated and codified by the Shariah and can be regarded as the body of the religion. Beyond the external world is the deeper level where the religion corresponds to the mind and is traditionally known as Faith. The deepest level pertains to the teachings of Islam that are directed towards humans in transforming themselves so that they may come into harmony with all the beings. This deepest level is known as Sufism (Chittick, 2000). The above two definitions best serve the most appropriate concept of Sufism; nevertheless literature produced over this subject is extremely vast and offers many other conceptual understanding about Sufism.

Throughout the expansion and internationalization of religion Islam, contacts and interaction with different cultures, traditions and religions made more and more emphasis on the formal codification of Islamic teachings. This process of codification and formalism in Islam also produced less tolerant behaviour among Muslims and as a result, Sufis insisted and felt the need to approach again the spirit of Quran in their appreciation of other religious traditions. On the contrary, Sufism that emerged as a distinct and homogenous group in the beginning also segregated on various accounts, e.g. on the basis of their approaches, thoughts and respective actions they have.

In case of Pakistan traditionally the role of ulema (religious scholars) and religio-political parties were studied under the broad rubric of Islam and politics. The role of Sufis in political thought and practice never gained any consideration. This was partially because of the fact that it has been assumed that Sufism primarily represents the mystical strand of Islam that gives less, if any, attention to the affairs of the world or the public life. Moreover, the evolution of Sufism in Islam is taken as a minor force that was exclusionist and tended to negate the realities of this world. It seems paradoxical and contradictory if someone thought Sufi is assuming active role and participation in the worldly affairs.

Argument of the Research

Sufism as traditionally understood is not a homogenous ideology rather it contains diversity and plurality of thought and practice. While the Sufis’ inclination towards mysticism and spirituality, their concern for the development, nourishment, and cleansing of souls, their strive for preaching peace, love, tolerance, brotherhood, mutual respect, diversity of thought, freedom of expression, their orientation towards the esoteric and inner self made them bearer of true religious representations on this world. But there have been complexity and multiplicity of action and thought when their relationship with politics and power authorities in this world is being analyzed.

It has largely been assumed that Sufis are not interested in worldly affairs and politics; on the contrary there have been instances from the Islamic history where the Sufis have shown diverse reactions towards the political situations. From being actively engaged in the political struggle to being inert and dormant politically and from forcefully opposing the foreign invasions and protection of their homelands to socially mobilization of masses, there has been a full spectrum of diverse reactions and manifestations. Interestingly, Sufism and its evolution in Pakistan can be analysed with various perspectives and ideologies. Moreover, the Sufis before the formation of state and after the formation of the state have distinct and diverse thoughts and ideas that demonstrated the evolution and transformation of Sufi thought.



This article is analytical in nature. It employs qualitative methodology to anaylse the issue at hand. Sufi Islamism as an ideology in politics of Pakistan has evolved through various phases. It is going through resurgence today. This research explores the historical evolution of Sufi’s interaction with politics and its consequences within Pakistan. To fulfill this purpose, primary as well as secondary sources of information have been consulted.

Conceptual Framework: Islamism and Sufi Islamism

Religion has been visible throughout the world history. Even today, it is very much evident. It is maintained that it is very difficult rather impossible to overlook the presence of religion in public affairs today (Moyser, 2003). Moyser (2003) maintains that the relationship between religion and politics is a complex one. He articulates that politics contributes the collective decision-making process, exercise of power, while religion affects the group of people—on a smaller scale, family, and on a larger scale a nation-state.. More specifically the nation-state concept and its construction of communal identity by religion manifests the closely entangled relation of religion and nation thus religion and state.  He also elaborates the relationship of religion and politics at three distinct levels of the pyramid of power i.e. religion and political parties, religion and pressure groups and religion and mass citizens.

In Islamic organic model,  religious and political authority is exercised by the same leadership. In the model, distinct religious and political structures exist. Political Islam or Islamism is a modern ideology that has been constructed to serve the modern church, i.e. the state.

The Sufi orders have been constructed under the idea of wilayat or spiritual authority. In wilayat, those who follow the pir (master or teacher) submit to his authority. Nevertheless, in Muslim World in which despotism is not only a political reality but also a cultural phenomenon the modern dictators could not tolerate any competitors who could challenge and could mobilize the masses against their ruthless rule. Thus Sufism as a substantial way of life departs from the public sphere, and this paved the way for a fundamentalist interpretation of religion in the absence of reason and love.

In other words, Sufism is not only an esoteric interpretation of religion, but it was also a historical reservoir of how to co-exist with others who may not share the same belief system as yours. In other words, the internal factors minimize the role of intellect in the Muslim World and the external factors such as modern state system rooted out institutions of Sufism across Muslim World. To put it differently, if we agree that philosophy is the manifestation of reason and Sufism is the expression of peace and love than how would we interpret their departures from the public life. Fundamentalism/ extremism/ radicalism/ sectarianism and all other excessive movements are due to the absence of reason and love which have paved the way for one-dimensional interpretation of religiosity.

Needless to argue that Muslims today seems to insist upon visible religiosity in their societies and the political expression of this will is called political Islam or Islamism. However, this insistence should be balanced by the democratic inclination. Many scholars consider that Islamism is equal or synonym to Islam, but this is not completely true. Islamism is a new ideology which has been constructed on the modern basis by serving the new church, i.e. state. The more burning concern is that what form of Islamism is desirable and more in tune with the democratic spirit of the social organization. Hence the contemporary times have seen the resurgence of Sufi-Islam in South Asia as one of the expression of Islamism. It is, however, significant to note that this kind of association of Sufism and Politics is not new rather has a history going back to pre-independence movement of Pakistan.

The newly incepted state of Pakistan began to look for its identity, and Pakistan’s nationalism began to coalesce positively around Islam and negatively around India as argued by Ahmed (2011) when he traced the ongoing sectarian rift between Shia-Sunni Muslims in Pakistan and its links to the Middle East. The construction of the religious identity of the state thus started a new debate and created a division in the society on the element of orientation and identity of the state. Similarly, Ewing (1997) notes,

“The idea of a distinctive ‘Pakistani Islam’, the principle of difference that is the rationale for the founding of a nation-state separate from other nation-states, was inconsistent with the universality of Islam at the ideological level and with the diversity amongst the practitioners of Islam who were to be subsumed under the signifier ‘Pakistani.” (p. 35)

It is of extreme concern and highly disappointing fact that the perpetrators of violence and terrorism are claiming and justifying their acts within the framework of Islam. The masses in general and the ulema, in particular, have rejected this extremism and terrorism. There is still much to be done to stop and eradicate this menace from the state and society of Pakistan.

The relationship between the state/ political authorities and Sufism remained a two-way interaction in which both have affected each other in negative as well as positive manner. While Sufis have been accommodating in their approach and response towards the state to reform and positively improve the public affairs, the state appropriated the Sufis and their support in legitimizing their rules. On one hand, there have been Sufis that remained indifferent and aloof from politics; on the other hand, there have been Sufis who have actively participated in politics. While in some extreme cases there have been confrontations between the state and Sufis where the state due to its ambivalence and suspicion used force against the Sufis and the Sufis revolted and instigated mass agitation against the corrupt, unjust, ruthless rule of the political leaders. There has been another aspect of this relationship that regards the state appropriation of Sufism and instrumental and political use of their ideologies, tariqas, shrines and their texts in political dispensation for the interests of state and political authorities.

Sufi Islamism in Pakistan: Historical analysis

This legacy of the two-nation theory was taken further after the creation of Pakistan in the case of identity formation of the state. The major question was whether it would be religious state or secular. In fact, the debates between diversity and purity in the Islamic fold, and between modernization, westernization and strictly Islamic institutions, have never been completely resolved (Mehta & Schaffer, 2002). The religious identity of the new state was favored, endorsed and taken by the ulema who, previously, held anti-Pakistan formation stance. But now, Islam was seen as the founding and unifying ideology of the nation.

Rozehnal (2007) articulated the dynamics of piety and politics in contemporary Pakistan. His inquiry of the said issue is based on his first-hand experience and knowledge derived from the Sufi Shrines in Pakistan. The book particularly focused on the relationship of a Sufi Order, i.e.Chisthi Sabri with the society in Pakistan where he maintained the argument that these Sufi orders have been playing a critical role in constructing a dynamic ideological framework for the society while interacting with modern issues. He maintained the opinion that Sufism must not be taken as static, homogenous philosophy rather than it should be considered as a thriving ideology that cannot be taken apart from its context and its texts.

Phillipon (2011) researched the emerging trend in Pakistan’s religio-political landscape and coined a novel terminology of ‘Sufi-Islamism’. While the role of Sufis and Pirs in the politics of Pakistan remained pivotal, there is a new trend that emerged from the liaison of political Islam and Sufism, argued by the author. She highlighted the role of PAT (Pakistan Awami Tehrik led by Tahir-ul-Qadri), a religio-political party in Pakistan as emerging Sufi-Islamist party and articulated the austere nature of politics pursued by the party in contemporary times.

Her study critically highlighted the contribution of Sufis in the political domain in Pakistan. The role of PAT in mainstream Pakistan’s politics had been minimal, and various sections of society are also questioning the political credibility of the party. Moreover, the politics pursued by the traditional Islamists in Pakistan have been dynamic and diverse, where militancy and violence can be highlighted as a significant tool in promoting their agendas.

Heck (2007) critically analyzed the role of Sufism and Politics. For much of the recent history, Sufism, in his opinion, has been ignored from the scholarly consideration of politics of the Muslim world. This ignorance and ambivalence surfaced because the definition of Sufism entails a diversity of thought and action and lacks intrinsic cohesion and homogeneity. The soundness of inquiry into the politics of Sufism thus remains open to question.

He maintained the belief that Sufism is Islamic spirituality that cannot be ignored as a political resource in the world as it has been actively playing its role in pre-modern and modern societies across the Muslim world. There have been stark differences in approaching the political sphere by affiliates of Sufism and by the Islamists. The Sufis and their followers do not tie the validity of Islam to control of the political sphere.

What has been the role of 'local collaborators' in creating and sustaining European colonial empires? In this book, Ansari (1992) addressed the question of ‘local collaborators’ and colonial empires. She examined the system of political control constructed by the British in Sind during 1843 and 1947. In particular, she explores the part of the local Muslim religious elite, the Pirs or hereditary Sufi saints, who had long acted as mediators between rulers and the ordinary people of the region.

Using a wealth of historical material, Ansari (1992) looks at the development of the institution of the Pir its power base and the mechanics of the system of control into which Pirs were drawn. The overall success of the political system depended on the willingness of the elite to participate, and the author argues that, on the whole, it worked well in Sind. This enabled the British to govern while allowing the Pirs to adapt to colonial rule and later independence without serious damage to their interests. The author demonstrates how, only in the heightened nationalist atmosphere of the 1940s, did the system seriously break down. Then, the most powerful pir rejected the notion of shared interests on which collaboration was based and only force could re-impose law and order.

Naeem (2009) compared the Islamic revivalist paradigm of both these intra-Sunni oppositional groups in colonial India. He examined the role of ulema and Sufis from these religious centers as significant motivators and elements in subsequent years. This “alim-Sufi amalgam,” as constructed and understood by the author, played an increasingly pervasive orientation in post-classical Islamic history and remained central to understanding Islamic revivalism in the modern period.

The influence of sipirtual authority and sufi order on population has been well researched by Buehler (1998). He specifically dealt with the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order in colonial India and elaborated the transformation of spiritual and mystical Sufi lineage. He elucidates the institutional structure of Sufism and analyzed extended configurations of personal Sufi authority and details how and why revivalist Indian Naqshbandis abandoned spiritual practices that had sustained their predecessors for more than five centuries.

Rehman (2010) delineated the role of identity formation as deceiving element in politics of Pakistan. The article not only dealt with the instrumental use of religion in Pakistan’s political landscape termed as “politicization of religious identities,” but also highlights the role of the popular religious culture of the society in Pakistan that is being perceived as pluralistic. The basic premise of her article is that the “Pakistani governments use Islamic ideology to tie up support for their political agendas by influencing the educational system as well as other important institutions of the country.” The author addressed the issue of politicization of religious identities in Pakistan and maintained the important fact that the religious mosaic of the society is heterogeneous.

In his renowned article, “Past Present: Is Sufism Relevant to our Times?” Mubarak Ali (2010) writes that there are some people who, given the present religious extremism, believe that if Sufi teachings are revived, religious intolerance and fundamentalism may be controlled. The attempt to revive the past system and old ideas is not a new phenomenon. Those societies which are backward and have no creative and innovative capability to come up with new ideas and thoughts in response to new challenges look around and search for some old and used ideas as tools to solve their problems (Ali, 2010). In short, he doesn’t agree on utility of Sufism against extremism.


Diverse models of Sufi Islamism in Pakistan

The dynamic relationship between Sufism and politics demonstrates a diverse and heterogeneous spectrum of thought and action. While Sufism transformed and evolved through various phases, the political discourse of Sufism also changed. Sufism as a pluralistic, dynamic and universal strand of Islam has been appropriated by the state of Pakistan and by various political authorities for their interests. Today, there is an explicit resurgence and active participation of Sufism in the political domain.

State appropriation and construction of any religious identity, may it be Sufism, especially in today’s Pakistan where state had been bearing the religious identity and its drastic consequences, results in unfavorable consequences. The domain of Sufism has been contested and represented by diverse spectrum of thought and action. The politicization of religious ideology or Islamization of state would lead to further disintegration and division in the society.

The dynamics and interaction of Sufism and politics in Pakistan presented a history of assorted reactions and implications of grave significance. The pattern of interaction being identified through the course of Islamic history between Sufism and politics will be supportive in conceptualizing the pattern of relationship in Pakistan. There have been different stages through which Sufis and Sufism related with the political setup in sub-continent.

Before the formation of Pakistan, the Muslim in sub-continent followed and promoted Sufism and Sufi values in large numbers. The interaction of Sufis of that time with the political authorities and rulers were both accommodating and confrontationist in nature. While Sufis reacted against the corrupt and deviant policies of rulers, on one hand, the state patronizing of Sufism remained another aspect of the relationship.

During the independence movement of Pakistan, the modernist discourse and political leadership remained ambivalent about the prevalent Sufism in the Muslim society. The leaders of the independence movement started the reformist agenda towards the Sufi thought to place it in the milieu of modernity and state identity. The Sufi orders on the other hand not only remained accommodative towards the cause of separate state for the Muslims but also supported the independence movement in their respective manner by mobilizing support for the inception of the separate state.

After the state formation, the issue of state identity remained pivotal, and the religious authority played a significant role in it. The orthodox clergy sorted alliance with the political leadership that resulted in the marginalization of Sufism in Pakistan. The subsequent history of the relationship between Sufism and State in Pakistan has mostly exhibited the appropriation of Sufism for the state interests and political purposes. Thus, Sufism never emerged as an explicit political thought or resource in Pakistan, and the state appropriation of Sufi ideology further complicated the situation in Pakistan.

Diverse responses of Sufi Islamism in Pakistan

The Sufis have shown the complete diversity of their reactions dealing with the political authorities. Some sorted and allowed political engagement with the state and its representatives they positively affected the behaviour and state affairs. There have been many examples where the specific orders of Sufis have played a significant role in associating themselves with the political authorities of their times. Similarly, the state and political authorities have also considered the support and expertise of Sufis time and again in different matters confronted by them. These associations of Sufis and state ranged from official patronage and support to sorting support or counsel of Sufis in different matters.  The pattern of accommodation and cordial relationship that has been discussed above was not only the sole manifestation of this relationship; rather there has been instances of severing confrontation and complete rejection of dealing and assisting with the political realm.

During the initial years of Pakistan after independence, the political leadership faced twin challenge of political development of Pakistan and construction of state identity. In the pursuance of their ideas, they concluded the involvement of religious clergy in the political matters of state and the policy of avoiding engagement with the local Sufism. The question of interpretation of Islam thus contested and taken over by the orthodox religious clergy and the political elite and leadership consented to their authority.

This conclusion of political leaders, not to defy the authority of clergy in the interpretation of rite, Islamic identity of state stemmed out of their ambivalence towards the local Sufis and Pirs that were now considered to be corrupted and deviant appearance of Islam. Besides that, the political leadership had never been assumed the task of interpretation of Islam in the pursuit of state’s identity and this domain was considered to be solely belonging to the people having religious knowledge and command. Therefore the lack of specific knowledge of political leadership with their suspected attitude towards local Sufism paved the way for an alliance of High Church religious authority with the political power.

The political leadership, confronted by the Islamism formidable challenges, searched for a religious support that would favour their policies and narratives. They tried to engage with the local Sufism that has been the popular religion of the society. Their engagement was marked with hesitation about the nature of prevalent Sufism in the society that had been opposed by both modernists and religious groups on the pretext that it represents both primitive, traditional, naïve and non-religious phenomena. It marked the onset of a new relationship between Pakistan’s modernist elites and popular Sufism (Ewing, 1997).

The Awqaf (ministry of endowments) was established under the discretion of General Ayub Khan that aimed at transforming local Sufism from traditional to modern ideology. This development was, on the one hand, intended to reform the local brand of Sufism and on the other hand, was used to gain support and legitimacy (from local religious Sufism against religious establishment). It was never intended to project Pakistan as a “modern” Sufi state; instead, the aim was to mould local Sufism and bring it in line with a state whose modernity would continue to be informed by a broadly Islamic reformist agenda.

So in the early years of Pakistan’s political development, there have been instances that marked the contestation of religious groups for real identity of the state.  The local Sufism was used by the state under the project of modernity to legitimize their policies and regime (Talbot, 2005). This, in return, created a direct rift and opposition between the Sufis and Religious Establishment. The Sufis were used as the symbols of modernity by the secularists to represent and legitimize their position as leaders of Muslim democracy. These leaders strove to enhance the shrines and the Sufi origins of these shrines for the glorification of Islam and Pakistan on the one hand and sought to strip the hereditary pirs of their traditional functions on the other.

Pakistan’s democratic journey started after the military rule of General Ayub that stained the political history of the new state with the blots of Islamism and military rule in the state affairs. These early developments were taken by the successive leaders in their political ideologies and were reflected time and again through various political regimes. The time and context of their policies were complemented and influenced by the international political climate as well. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who hailed from the rural area of Sind, was seen to represent a break with “Iqbalian modernism” (Verkaaik, 2004). The symbols of Islamic nature and rhetoric have increasingly emerged in Pakistan public sphere since late 1970’s.

Another element that proved to be decisive in bridging the gaps between the state and Sufism under the rule of Bhutto was that he also significantly engaged with the local and regional identities rather than relying on Islamic identify alone. It is perhaps no coincidence that under Bhutto one of the most potent manifestations of this relationship came to rest with the iconic Sindhi Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Sehwan Sharif, whose shrine (dargah) has been described as the “geographical center of Bhutto’s political spirituality” (Veraaik, 2004).

Analyzing his appropriation of Sufism in justifying his project of Islamic socialism, it has been observed that he was criticized actively by both modernists and religious establishment. Similarly, he instrumentally employed the Awqaf ministry to participate in the publication of brochures promoting the so-called egalitarian philosophy of Sufis and their constant care for the conditions of the masses to link the reformist angle of the "genuine" classical Sufis with the actions of his own "socialist" government. But in its takeover bid, the State strengthened more than it reformed the shrine culture. It spent money on renovating shrines, and the recurrent presence of officials during festivals heightened their prestige among the population.

The process of Islamization, when analyzed under the global and domestic context, demonstrates that it was never meant for the application and service of religion rather religious tenets have been used for gaining legitimacy to military rule domestically and fighting the global jihad in Afghanistan against Soviet infidels. The onset of Islamization in Pakistan by Zia through strict doctrinaire and formalism approach to Islam strengthen the hold of Deobandi Ulama but also of a Sunni bourgeoisie that claimed to speak on behalf of the common man against corrupt bastions of rural power—Sufi pirs and landed magnates—who were seen to be symbiotically related (Zaman, 2000).

The democratic political governments of Benazir and Nawaz Sharif during the 1990’s had confronted a complex political situation, varying their alliance with the Sufism as a tool of legitimacy and rule. While the religio-political interaction was centered on the state’s true Islamic identity, the role of Sufism was taken by the Democratic leaders in new revival and engagement.  These challenges took by the democratic leader Benazir Bhutto with resolve while creating new avenues of interacting with the realities of the state and society. Inheriting the legacy of the populist venture of egalitarianism and Islamic Socialism with the projection popular Sufism from her father, she revitalized the lost interest in Sufism.

Her policy to revive the teachings of Sufism originated not only from the legacy of her father but also emerged from a background rooted in rural Sind and Punjab. She precisely combined the secular politics of her Pakistan People’s Party with a zest for Sufism. She not only authorized the celebrations at holy shrine but also visited the holy places like that of her predecessors. This state’s veneration of Sufi places has been aptly remarked by K.K Aziz in his book that this activity had "become an official formality, a ceremonial act, a required observance, a prescribed regulation, and almost a state function (Aziz, 2001).

The coup of General Pervaiz Musharaf once again disrupted the democratic political development of Pakistan. The search for legitimacy for his rule started since his taking over the state’s machinery. His rule was supplemented by the events of 9/11 that had severely transformed the global situation and new era of struggle began.  This time with the narratives of US vs THEM, the war on terror, the alignment of Pakistan with the USA was decisive in the future directions. During Musharraf regime, several politicians have also tried to popularize Sufism with varying degrees of success. In 2006, as he faced political and military challenges from the resurgent Taliban, Musharraf established a National Sufi Council to promote Sufi poetry and music. "The Sufis always worked for the promotion of love and oneness of humanity, not for disunity or hatred," he said at the time (Schmidle, 2008).

The post Musharraf democratic government of PPP  was, once again, confronted with the complex political situation once again. The legacy of populist agenda of Bhutto in the form of Islamic socialism as the mode of development and face of modernity in Pakistan coupled with the project of Benazir in promoting democratic and secularist trends prompted the PPP government to more openly engage with the resource of Sufism. This pronounced engagement with Sufism was taken with great eagerness to harness the government’s stance against the fundamentalist and terrorist Islamist agenda adopted by al- Qaida and the Taliban. The PPP’s engagement with Sufism can be well analyzed with the rationale that explains the party’s internal composition as well as the arbitration of state in deciding Sufism as the right Islamic identity in Pakistan.

It is interesting to note that the dynamics of Sufism in contemporary Pakistan is much more complex and heterogeneous than what it has been perceived. The emergence of explicit political thought of Sufism in Pakistan has been approaching the state policies with much confrontation than accommodation. Similarly, the violent attacks aimed at holy shrines of Sufis in Pakistan and the rise of sectarianism also pose serious threats to very foundations of this claim that the state once again Islamize the society through employing Sufism as the right version of Islam.


In the contemporary situation of Pakistan, the state and society are facing immense challenges from extremist, fundamentalists, and terrorists who have been pursuing their respective goals and ideas through the religious mechanism. State’s appropriation of Sufism as a true religious identity would cause complications because Sufism is a multidimensional and heterogeneous concept as it has been analyzed in the paper. Moreover, the understanding of Sufism both as religious as well as non-religious identity has been articulated by the scholars and researchers who have been studying this school of thought.

Thus, it would be equally harmful in the present situation of Pakistan that Sufism is being constructed as religious or the non-religious identity of the state. If Sufism is being constructed as religious identity, then it will alienate and instigate reactions from others school of thought of Islam and reactions from secularists, extremists and other religious minorities can also be predicted.

Sufism, when analyzed with the politics, has also made clear the multitude of responses that further affix to the complexity of the situation that whether Sufism can be projected as religio-political identity of Pakistan. Nonetheless, Sufism can restore and promote peace in the society on two levels, i.e., societal and international. At the societal level, the values of Sufism should be projected and promoted more with greater fervour and zeal. The scholars of this subject should be engaged in the promotion of Sufism and the ideology of Sufism in the society. Furthermore, the involvement of Sufis and their followers in the process of de-radicalization of society can contribute tremendously.

The process of Sufism promotion should take the form of Sufi Social movement against the movement of radical Islamists who have used the tactics of violence and force against their citizens and faithful followers. The promotion of Sufi literature, inclusion of their ideas and contributions in the curriculum, initiation of scholarly debates on Sufism with the participation of Sufi and mystics, media’s involvement in highlighting the trends of Sufism of love, tolerance, universalism, diversity and arrangement of festivals of these Sufi saints, all will contribute in the restoration of the society

Nonetheless, Sufism has proven that it is capable of adapting, resisting and renewing itself. It has proven its ability to survive and endure.  The vast majority of rational milieus, communities and societies in a world infused by modernity and secularism have witnessed a return to the sacred religion, individually and collectively, as a reaction to the tyranny of the technology culture and all that this civilization has spawned in terms of materialistic values and consumption patterns.




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About the Author


Saad Ali Khan  is a Lecturer in Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad. He is also a PhD candidate at National Institute of Pakistan Studies currently pursuing his research in dynamics of Gender and contemporary Sufism in Pakistan. He can be reached at