Reforming Mysticism: Sindhi Separatist Intellectuals in Pakistan – Part-II

Examining the revival of Sufism and mysticism by Sindhi separatist movement in Pakistan

[This article explores the emergence of a network of young intellectuals from rural and mostly peasant background, and focuses on two pioneers of Sindhi nationalism and Sufi revivalism: G.M. Syed and Ibrahim Joyo.  Influenced by Gandhian as well as Marxist ideas on social reform and national identity, these two leaders transformed the annual urs celebration at local shrines into commemorations of the martyrs of Sindh. The article traces their relationship as well as their pioneering role as political leaders, education reformers, and teachers. Analyzing their ideas as a particular form of Islamic reform, the article discusses the way they adapted and innovated the existing cultural ideas on Islamic nationalism, ethnicity, and social justice]

By Oskar Verkaaik


When the British conquered Sindh in 1843, they found that the Syeds played a crucial role in education as men of learning and education. The Syeds claim to descend from the Prophet’s grandsons, Hasan or Hussain.

Syeds had an extraordinary powerful position as religious specialists and men of learning in Sindh. The status of the Syed community had been enormously enhanced in the eighteenth century when the Moghul influence in Sindh was on the decline and Baluchi kings took over power.

These kings relied heavily on the support of the Syeds and Pirs and granted them various privileges in return. For this reason, the Syeds and Pirs enjoyed a much higher status as religious specialists than the ulama did. The latter are associated with theological seminaries, of which there were only few in Sindh prior to the British rule.

Before the colonial conquest, the Syed community ran the madrassahs where Arabic and Persian – the latter being the language of administration – were taught. In total, there were six of these madrassahs, which were the apex of the Sindhi educational system. Apart from these madrassahs, there were Muslim primary schools, teaching the Quran, as well as Hindu primary schools, where Khudawadi, the language of commerce, was taught. In addition, many landlords employed private tutors for their children, of which some of the village children could also benefit. Private tutorage and primary education were often funded privately by local landlords and notables and they generally survived the British takeover of power. However, the madrassahs were state-funded, and these funds stopped soon after the British conquest. After five years of British rule, Sir Richard Burton, who then worked as an official interpreter for the British colonial government, remarked that ‘‘it is a matter of regret to me that under our enlightened rule, we should have suffered the native places of education to become all but deserted for want of means to carry on the system’’.

By the time Sindh was conquered, the controversy about the language and education policy in British India had already been decided in favor of those who preferred English, rather than an oriental classical language, as the language of administration and higher education. A new education system was introduced based on the Bombay tradition, meaning that primary education was in the vernacular, while higher education was in English. As a result, Persian lost its status as the language of administration and learning. However, the British did little to promote higher education in Sindh. It was left to the missionaries to establish English schools, which it reluctantly did, particularly in Karachi, which, however, was primarily a colonial city and hardly accessible for most Sindhis. As a result, students who wanted to pursue higher education were forced to travel to Bombay.

Thanks to local initiatives, this situation gradually improved. In 1885, a Sindh Islamic madrassah was founded in Karachi on the model of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh. Although the school was for Muslim students only, and its name may suggest a traditional Muslim curriculum, in practice it was meant to promote modern secondary education in English. Many of the teachers were in fact Hindus, from Sindh as well as from Gujarat and Bombay. Nonetheless, Sindhi students still had to travel beyond the borders of Sindh for higher education. Till independence, it was common practice for Sindhi students to finish their education in Bombay, the Muslim princely state of Junagadh in neighboring Gujerat, or in Aligarh.

As the highest place of education in Sindh, the Sindh madrassah played an important role in the creation of a new group of intellectuals who would form the core of the left-wing Sindhi separatist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the first generation of students from non-elite village backgrounds who acquired modern education. These students came from Muslim families who had benefited from social transformations during the colonial period. Some had fathers or uncles who had been hired as village government servants (tapedars) by the colonial government. Others were from families who had recently managed to purchase some land, often from Hindu traders and moneylenders. Thirdly, the sons of village headmen (wadero), who acted as intermediaries between the landlords and the peasants, also got access to modern education. All these village boys started their education at village level, sometimes receiving private education from a local Hindu schoolteacher or at a village mullah school (makhtab). If they were lucky, there was a primary school in the vicinity to which they could go, where they received education in Sindhi for up to seven years. To be able to go on to the Sindh madrassah in Karachi, it was essential to have good contacts with traditional patrons such as landlords and Syeds. As a result, only a few students who were not from high-caste (ashraf) family backgrounds managed to make it to the Sindh madrassah prior to independence, but of those who did several would join the Sindhi movement that emerged after 1958.

After the British conquest, Sindh had been ruled from Bombay, but in 1936 Sindh gained provincial autonomy, with the result that the education system and opportunities in Sindh improved. This continued after independence, despite the fact that many Hindu teachers left for India. Primary education was made compulsory in 1940. More primary and secondary schools were opened throughout the province. In 1947, a few months before independence, a university was opened. Originally located in Karachi, the Sindh University was moved to Hyderabad in 1951.

The establishment of the Sindh University was the major step in the secularization of education, a process that had started with the British conquest that destroyed the local education system in which the Syed community played a crucial role. As the West Pakistan Gazetteer of 1968 remarked, ‘‘throughout [the colonial period] the [local] mullah schools or makhtabs were treated very much as the Cinderellahs [sic] of the educational world’’. The Syed-run madrassahs or places of secondary education also suffered from lack of funds. Instead a secular system based on the British model was established, a task for which the British colonial government showed little interest, leaving it to the Sindhi cultural elite to set up new schools and colleges. For this reason, the reconstruction of the educational system along secular lines was only seriously taken in hand between 1936 and 1947, when Sindh was no longer ruled from Bombay.

The secularization of the education system continued after independence, when the British system became the model for the new education system introduced throughout Pakistan. As the following sections show, the institutions of secular education would become meeting places of new intellectuals, relatively independent of the traditional political and religious elite. They would adopt and reinterpret ideas about freedom, social equality, and social reform, which prevailed throughout south Asia, turning these ideas into a new and powerful frame of contentious politics, which consisted of a combination of Sindhi nationalism, Sufi reform, and Marxism. (Continues)


Oskar Verkaaik is Assistant Professor at the Research Center for Religion and Society, University of Amsterdam, and head of the branch office of the International Institute for Asian Studies. He is the author of A People of Migrants and a popular book in Dutch based on his experiences in Pakistan.

Courtesy: The International Institute of Social History, one of the largest archives of labor and social history in the world. Located in Amsterdam

Click here for Part-I


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