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

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

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

[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


Till the mid-1960s, G.M. Syed’s ideas about mysticism and Joyo’s Marxism still seemed incompatible, as Joyo, a self-declared materialist had little patience with mysticism. Despite their close mentor–pupil relationship, the two men did certainly not agree on everything. Joyo was diametrically opposed to the ‘‘Syedism’’ of his G.M. Syed. Like other reformists such as Muhammad Iqbal and Maulana Maududi, he condemned the devotion to spiritual leaders as a form of idol worship (shirk).

On a personal level, however, Joyo always remained loyal to the man who had made his higher education possible. Joyo’s admiration for G.M. Syed was made easier because G.M. Syed himself dismissed uncritical commitment to the spiritual leader as wrong. His reform of mysticism was a radical one, leading to the rejection of the various Sufi brotherhoods. As Joyo told me in an interview, ‘‘G.M. Syed accepted no guides, only books. ’’In his personal conduct, however, he continued to behave like a Syed, wearing white clothes to express his purity and detachment from worldly matters. Till the end of his life, the peasants working on his lands would touch his feet asking for favors. This was unacceptable to Joyo. When in 1966 his house arrest was lifted, however, G.M. Syed turned to Joyo’s group of young Sindhi students in order to return to politics. This turned out to be mutually beneficial. G.M. Syed gave to his new friends his charisma as a Syed, a social reformer, and a political leader. In return he received the revolutionary enthusiasm and street power of the young intellectuals. This was the beginning of a new twist to Sindhi nationalism, which combined both G.M. Syed’s reformed Sufism and Joyo’s interpretation of Marxism, resulting in a powerful and attractive ideology for many young Sindhis.

GM SyedG.M. Syed encouraged his new friends and ‘‘comrades’’ not to restrict their activities to the university Campus and schools. He sent them to the many shrines of local holy men in the rural areas, especially on the annual Urs celebration, when the holy man’s release from this world is celebrated in colorful festivals that attract many pilgrims. These events were important for several reasons. New intellectuals went back to the rural areas from which they originated, bringing with them a new way of looking at these places of pilgrimage. In the interpretation of G.M. Syed and his group, the holy men were martyrs for the cause of mysticism, Sindh, and the liberation of the peasant. Jam Saqi, the student leader, for instance, wrote a book on one of these local holy men, the eighteenth century Shah Inayat of Jhok, calling him somewhat anachronistically a ‘‘socialist Sufi’’. In Saqi’s reading, Shah Inayat had been the leader of a commune of liberated peasants, for which he was beheaded. This reinterpretation of holy men as social reformers was a potential threat to many local landlords, Pirs, and Syeds, who often claimed to be the descendent (sajjada nishin) of holy men, who had inherited part of their miraculous powers (barakat).

In Sindh, as elsewhere in South Asia, traditional Sufism consists of various brotherhoods of holy men (Pir), their descendent (sajjada nishin), and their followers (murid). As the sajjada nishin are often landlords, traditional Sufism is related to patron–client relations. By way of speeches, songs, and discussions with fellow-pilgrims, however, G.M. Syed and his group criticized this hierarchical structure of spiritual authority based on inherited charisma. They condemned the patron–client relations that were ritually confirmed and reproduced during the traditional Urs. Instead, they tried to turn the local holy men into historical heroes of Sindh and prophets of mysticism, with whom the disciples could get in touch through the traditional practices of music and dance. In these mystical encounters they would be able to find the spirit to free themselves from their oppressors, that is, the landlord families, most of whom supported the military government.

Muhammad Ibrahim Joyo-Sindh Courier
Muhammad Ibrahim Joyo

Although these activities probably did spread some awareness among pilgrims and peasants about the causes of social inequality, the main effect of these activities was a deeper engagement with mysticism and Sindhi separatism among the Sindhi students and intellectuals themselves. The trips to the rural shrines became important rituals for the Sindhi left.

Identifying with the rural fakir and other mystical figures who are so absorbed in the love for God that they are indifferent to pain and fear, they derived from these trips a romantic sense of passion and belonging, which was apparently more compelling than Ibrahim Joyo’s belief in the inevitability of progress.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also a Sindhi, recognized the potential of this reformed Sufism when he founded the Pakistan People’s Party to contest the elections of 1970. He, too, went to the rural shrines, sat down to talk to the peasants and pilgrims, and called himself a fakir. However, whereas G.M. Syed called for the independence of Sindh, Bhutto’s ambition was to rule Pakistan, and when he did, he turned some of the shrines in Sindh into places of national, rather than provincial, importance. Attracted by Bhutto’s rhetoric of socialism and mysticism, some of the Sindhi leftwing intellectuals joined Bhutto, but most of them were soon disappointed and returned to the Sindhi separatist movement of G.M. Syed. In 1973, the latter founded the Jeay Sindh Movement, which, two years after the foundation of Bangladesh, called for an independent Sindhudesh. From then on, G.M. Syed spent most of his life under house arrest. This seriously damaged the Sindhi movement. However, the notion of Sindh’s unique identity rooted in a history of mysticism was spread widely. Today, it is commonly understood in Pakistan that Sindh is a place of religious tolerance and mysticism.

Zulfiqar-Ali-Bhutto_1A brief note, then, on the question why Bhutto could successfully use the reformation of Sufism for his own project, while the separatist movement of G.M. Syed failed. Due to the Anglo-Saxon system of democracy, in which people vote in districts according to the Winnertakes-all principle, people in Pakistan tend to vote for local power brokers rather than along ideological lines. In this way, landlord families have become the most powerful political class in Sindh. The Pakistan People’s Party, in particular, relied for many years on the brokerage of local landlords within their districts. It is mainly for this reason that Sindh’s new intellectuals and radical politicians have not been able to become an important political factor, even though many people in Sindh were sympathetic to their dual agenda of social reform and the revival of mysticism. Till recently, it was not uncommon for Sindhis to have a portrait of G.M. Syed in their house, often alongside a portrait of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto or his daughter, Benazir. The former was widely admired as a true Syed. When it came to voting, however, most people opted for his rivals, the Bhutto family of the Pakistan People’s Party. After one of the many elections he lost, G.M. Syed remarked about the people of Sindh:

‘‘They sing and dance for me, but they don’t vote for me.’’

The lack of electoral success may have been the reason why the Sindhi separatist movement disintegrated into various smaller parties from the 1970s onwards. Nonetheless, the Pakistan People’s Party adopted the discourse of peasant liberation and mysticism, for which G.M. Syed and Ibrahim Joyo were largely responsible. In the hands of the Pakistan People’s Party, however, this discourse, once meant to bring to power an up-and-coming class of new intellectuals within an independent Sindhudesh, served to confirm the political power of landlord families within Pakistan.


The new intellectuals I have described called themselves secularists because of their rejection of Muslim nationalism. Following G.M. Syed’s distinction between religion and mysticism, they rejected the political relevance of religion, that is, religious doctrine and ritual, as well as the authority of the Ulama, the Mullahs, and the Pirs and Syeds. I have, nonetheless, called their ideology a specific form of Islamic reform or revival. Whereas some Islamic reformers revived the tradition of Ijtehad or the individual interpretation of Islamic sources, and others returned to the sovereignty of the Shariat or Islamic law, the Sindhi movement built upon the Sufi notion of Wahdat ul-wajud or the oneness of being. Like the other variations of Islamic reform, the claim was to return to the original meaning of the concept, to rationalize it, and to purify it from the corruption of later innovations (bidat). In practice this meant an attack on the hierarchy of religious authority. Whereas other forms of Islamic reform undermined the authority of the Ulama and the mullahs, the Sindhi form criticized the Sufi brotherhoods and their leaders, that is, the Pirs and Syeds who claimed to be the descendent of the founder of the brotherhood. In Sindh, the Pirs and Syeds used to be the most powerful religious specialists, more important than the Ulama.

In this article I have focused on the network of new intellectuals responsible for this peculiar form of Islamic reform. For want of space I have not analyzed the wider debates on Islam, nationalism, and ethnicity as they have evolved after independence in the process of nation and state building. Like most other Islamic reformists, the students, teachers, lawyers, journalists, poets, and social workers who joined the Sindhi movement received their education in secular educational institutions.

Most of them were among the first of their social milieu to be trained in these institutions. Their secular education took them out of their environment and into the city – the Sindh madrassah in Karachi and, after independence, the University of Hyderabad. Moreover, they did not only benefit from new education opportunities, they also actively promoted secular education as a means to reform society. Apart from politicians and intellectuals, they also were, and self-consciously wanted to be, teachers, founders of schools and boarding houses, and educational reformers.

Secular education enabled them to look at the villages from which they came in a new way. It also gave them the tools to develop their own kind of Islamic reform. Of particular importance was the reformation of the Urs celebration at local shrines. For the new-leftist intellectuals, the Urs no longer was an occasion in which the authority of the landlord qua Pir or Syed was confirmed. For them, it rather became an event to commemorate the martyrs of Sindh and its peasants.

Although critical of the state and the state ideology of Muslim nationalism, the Sindhi intellectuals were influenced by other forms of Islamic reform as well as the discourse that links the nation to the religious community. In their own unique ways, they were searching for the essence of Islam, finding it in mysticism, and defining the distinct character of the Sindhi nation on the basis of this mystical essence of Islam. They were, in Gramsci’s term, on the defensive, that is, responding to a dominant discourse of religious nationalism, appropriating it to argue for the uniqueness of the Sindhi people within Pakistan. They did so in opposition to an authoritarian regime, initially a military government, followed by a democratically elected regime that was, however, hardly less oppressive than the military rule that preceded it – witness G.M. Syed spending years under house arrest.

However, state oppression was not the main factor that rendered the Sindhi movement powerless. Paradoxically, the movement suffered more from the gradual incorporation of its ideas into official nationalism. In the 1970s, the Pakistan People’s Party under the leadership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto managed to cut the grass from under the feet of G.M. Syed and his followers by reconciling the latter’s ideas on ethnicity and mysticism with the notion of religious nationalism. This perhaps shows how close G.M. Syed and Ibrahim Joyo remained to the dominant discourse of Muslim nationalism and Islamic reform, despite their efforts to show that Pakistan was a mistake and despite the uniqueness of their interpretation of Islamic reform. In their opposition to state discourse they remained inextricably connected to it. (Concludes)


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-IPart-II, Part-III,  Part-IV