Home Mysticism Reforming Mysticism: Sindhi Separatist Intellectuals in Pakistan – Part-III

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

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

[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


Let me now turn to the main figure in this paper, who is Ghulam Murtaza Syed – generally known by his initials in Sindh and Pakistan. He was in many ways a remarkably productive, original, and largely autodidact intellectual, creating his own personal interpretation of Islam out of a range of intellectual influences such as nineteenth-century Islamic reform, Darwinian evolution theory, theosophy, eighteenth century Sindhi poetry, Marxism, classical Sufism, German idealism, and probably more. He successfully managed to present this eclectic mix of ideas as the authentic and age-old Sindhi tradition of Islam. At the same time he was an experienced politician, at some point the main protagonist of the Muslim League in Sindh, while later becoming the most vocal and radical critic of Pakistan nationalism. But he became the intellectual leader of a rather small group of intellectuals from village backgrounds – an avant-garde or vanguard to some of its members – who, often thanks to G.M. Syed’s patronage, were the first of their generation to pursue higher education outside their village or district, and who became his most loyal supporters.

When he died in 1995 at the age of ninety-one, Syed had become Pakistan’s most controversial political figure. He had published books and interviews in which he had called Pakistan a mistake. He had argued that Islam acknowledged no borders between Muslims; therefore Islam could never be the basis of a modern state. However, he continued, it is a natural fact that Muslims are divided in historically and geographically determined cultures, but the advocates of Pakistan have not accepted this natural fact.

He had criticized the founding fathers of Pakistan – Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah in particular – for their un-Islamic behavior. He had condemned animal sacrifice, circumcision, and the circumbulation of the Kaaba, that is part of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, as pagan practices that had perverted the original message of the Prophet. He had called Islam a stage in the evolution of human spirituality rather than the final word of God. He had accepted Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, Jalalludin Rumi, and the eighteenth-century Sindhi poet, Shah Abdul Latif, as prophets of mysticism (tasawwuf ), which he considered the final stage of this spiritual evolution. Passages from the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Torah, and the Shah-jo-risalo (the collection of verses of Shah Abdul Latif) were read at his funeral. He had been arrested many times and had spent twenty-eight years under house arrest without trial, including twenty-two years between 1973 and his death in 1995. In the Sindh Museum, located on the campus of the Sindh University near Hyderabad, he is remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of Sindh.

G-M-Syed-Sindh-CourierAccording to Hamida Khuhro, a leading historian of Sindh and at some point a political ally of G.M. Syed, ‘Syedism’ was his first and most constant ideology. G.M. Syed was born in 1904 as the son of a Syed landowner in a village known as Sann on the west bank of the Indus. After his father had died when he was two years old, he was brought up with the idea that a Syed is a spiritual leader to his people, that is, the peasants (haris) working for him. Rather than the people of flesh and blood working on his fields, however, he soon took the hari as an abstract or imagined category including all landless Muslim peasants in Sindh. He saw the haris as an exploited and backward people, who needed to be freed and uplifted. To him, this was the main task of the Syed. The organic bond that he felt existed between the Syed and the hari was grounded in a shared spirituality rooted in the soil. This reinterpretation of the Syed’s task from a local patron to a social reformer was enhanced further when he met Gandhi in 1921, who had come to Sindh to campaign for the Khilafat Movement, expressing solidarity with the Turks in their fight against the European powers. Gandhi advised the seventeen-year-old Syed to wear khaddar (home-spun cloth) and identify with the local people, as Gandhi himself did with the harijan (‘untouchables’). Another role model was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, often called the Frontier Gandhi, who led a campaign of civil disobedience mixed with social reform in the rural and tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier Province.18 As a junior politician and a member of the Congress Party, G.M. Syed had access to these anticolonial leaders.

The Khilafat Movement meant his entrance into anticolonial politics. But true to his ‘Syedism’, his first political act was to found a Syed committee to urge his fellow Syeds to take their leading tasks seriously. Next, he founded a hari committee to protect the peasants from exploitation from Muslim landlords and Hindu moneylenders. At that time, Sindh administratively belonged to Bombay and in 1928 a movement was launched to call for provincial autonomy for Sindh. This movement was crucial for fostering a Sindhi political identity. As initially both Hindus and Muslims were involved in this movement, which was supported by the Congress Party and the Muslim League alike, the arguments raised to prove Sindh’s cultural uniqueness were not based on Islam. One rather referred to Arabic historical sources that identified the Indus delta as a separate country between Persia and Hind (India). The archaeological discovery in 1926 of the remains of the Indus Valley civilization in a site known as Moedjo-Daro were also presented as proof of Sindh’s historical uniqueness as the land of the Indus. In other words, a Sindhi nationalism already existed prior to the introduction of Muslim nationalism in the late 1930s and 1940s. This influenced G.M. Syed’s notion of Pakistan when he allied himself with the Muslim League in 1938.

For him, Pakistan was the restoration of a historical-geographical entity, a Greater Sindh, which he argued had once existed on the borders of the Indus and its tributaries. Sindh won its provincial autonomy in 1936. Muslim–Hindu riots first occurred in Sindh in 1939. G.M. Syed was arrested for being the leader of the rioting Muslim population of Sukkur, a town in Upper Sindh. Later he became the Minister of Education in the provincial government of Sindh and a leading figure in the Muslim League. He also established a school, including a boarding-house for students, in his home village, which became the first Anglo-vernacular school in the vicinity, where both English and Sindhi were used as languages of instruction. Over time, however, he became more of a politician than a social reformer. In his autobiography, which he wrote in the form of a deposition for the court, he mentions several mentors who warned him not to forget his task as a social reformer and spiritual leader. But he admits that he did not yet listen. In 1945 he left the Muslim League, but he remained part of the Sindhi political elite, that almost exclusively consisted of landlords, Syeds, and Pirs, together with a few representatives of the up-and-coming Muslim trading castes (Memon, Khoja, Bohra) who had settled in Karachi – the port city, established by the British, and isolated from the province’s heartlands by desert areas.

It was only in 1958 when G.M. Syed, in his own words, left party politics behind and returned to his true ‘‘faith’’ of spiritually and economically liberating the rural poor. For some commentators, the incentive for this came from the memory of an unhappy love affair with a Turkish woman known as Mademoiselle Taraki, whom he had met in Bombay. G.M. Syed himself indeed often told his visitors that he learnt his first lessons about true love (ishq) from her, subsequently sublimating this worldly kind of love (ishq-i mijazi) into a higher state of love (ishq-i-haqiqi) for Sindh and the divine. He gives a more profane explanation in his autobiography. The military takeover in 1958 banned all political activities and several politicians, including G.M. Syed, were put under detention. For seven and half years he was under house arrest. In retrospect, he considered this a blessing in disguise as it made him leave ‘‘the thorny field of politics’’.

He made a study of the history of Sufism in Sindh, which resulted in the publication in 1967 of a book called Religion and Reality – originally written in Sindhi, but translated into English and Urdu. In this book he presents an evolutionary theory of religion, distinguishing various stages such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, ‘‘science’’, and finally mysticism (tasawwuf) or ‘‘natural religion’’, which fully acknowledges the oneness of being (wahdat ul-wajud). In his interpretation, mysticism goes beyond doctrine and ritual. Hence, there is a mystical core in any religious tradition that remains essentially the same. Mysticism, being universal and eternal, can never be the basis of nationalism. Religious nationalism in any form is a mistake and creates false communities. Although the love for mankind as a whole is the truest form of love, akin to the love for God, mysticism accepts the loyalty to one’s family and homeland as genuine incarnations of love. Naturally, nations are based on a shared love for the homeland. Sindh is therefore a natural nation, but Pakistan is an artificial nation. Moreover, he calls Sindh the cradle of mysticism with a long history of religious tolerance and revolt against the tyranny of the ulama and mullahs. In other words, it is Sindh’s vocation to protest false nationalism and promote mysticism.

The book caused a scandal and met with several fatwas as well as legal persecution. Nonetheless, it became the basis for the Sindhi revolt against the military government in the 1960s, when groups of students and intellectuals took to the streets to call for free democratic elections. After G.M. Syed was released from detention in 1966, he continued his political activities by promoting Sindhi literature, culture, and language. It was a threefold campaign. On ‘‘the cultural front’’ he founded the Sufi Society of Sindh (bazm-i sufia-i Sindh). He also initiated a foundation to promote Sindhi language and literature (Sindhi Abadi Sangat). Finally, he tried to arouse ‘‘political and social awareness’’ among Sindhi students. He noted that ‘‘nations had been defeated politically and economically but their intellectuals, working from the fastness of civilization, literature and culture, not only converted political and economic defeat into victory but also overcame their victors’’. These intellectuals, whom he called his ‘‘friends’’, did not belong to the political establishment. They were rather the first generation of students from peasant and artisan background educated in the new secular educational institutions for which G.M. Syed himself was partly responsible. A central figure in this network of young intellectuals was Ibrahim Joyo.


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, Part-II