Reforming Mysticism: Sindhi Separatist Intellectuals in Pakistan

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

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a rebellious movement emerged in Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan, which protested against the military regime, and later, after the first democratic elections in the history of Pakistan, called for the independence of Sindh. Although Pakistan is now widely associated with radical Islamist movements and authoritarian military regimes, this Sindhi movement does not fit in this picture at all. Its two main ideologues were a neo-Gandhian, wearing white clothes while writing treatises on the meaning of mysticism, and a Marxist struggling for the moral and social elevation of the local peasant population. The name of the former was G.M. Syed, the latter was called Ibrahim Joyo. The former was a well-known politician during the times of independence and a member of an aristocratic landlord family. The latter was the son of a peasant and one of the very few of his generation who had got the opportunity to pursue higher education. They had several things in common, for instance their physical appearance, which resembled the humble, homespun fashion of a disciplined vegetarian cultivated by Mahatma Gandhi. Both of them were concerned with the place of Sindh within Pakistan, and together they located the basis of the province’s unique position in Pakistan in a reformed Sufism for which they were themselves responsible. Their reformulation of Sufism was a radical break with traditional Sufism, just as most forms of Islamic reform radically differ from tradition. This contribution focuses on these two intellectuals, the peculiar form of Islamic reform they developed, as well as the context in which they operated.

I take Islamic reform as a response to a globalizing trend that starts with European colonialism and imperialism and continues after de-colonialization. Part of this globalizing trend is the distribution of ideas, often in modern educational institutions. Islamic reformists have made use of these ideas while rejecting or criticizing them and they continue to do so. While there is increasing academic consensus on these general views, less work has been done on the emergence of intellectual networks or milieus, which critically engage with the influx of new ideas and ideologies. In this paper, I am especially interested in the emergence of new networks of political activists and Islamic reformists in relation to the introduction and spread of secular education.

This article is structured as follows: after some introductory remarks about the relationship between secular education and new forms of contentious politics framed in the language of Islam, I briefly discuss the setting of my case study, which is the province of Sindh in Pakistan. I introduce the various forms of Islamic reform in Pakistan and how these are related to the discourses of nation and ethnicity in Pakistan and particularly in Sindh. Next, I look at the secularization of education during the colonial period. The next sections focus on the main leaders of the Sindhi separatist movement, namely G.M. Syed and Ibrahim Joyo. By way of short life stories, based on written sources and interviews I had with Joyo, relatives of G.M. Syed, and followers of both men, I illustrate how these men formulated a reformed notion of Sufism, which radically differed from the folk Sufism of the rural areas, and which became the basis of a Sindhi separatist movement that gained much influence among the Sindhi population in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout these life stories I will pay specific attention to how these two men used and reformed education as part of their political struggle.


Of crucial importance for the rise of Sindhi separatism4 was the introduction and spread of secular education. In that respect, it resembled the development of other forms of Islamic reform. Indeed, secular education, as a major vehicle for modernization, has had many unexpected consequences, including the rise of political Islam. As Oliver Roy has argued for recent trends in Islamic reform, the ‘‘the cadres of the Islamist parties are young intellectuals, educated in government schools following a Western curriculum’’.

The link between Islamic reform and secular education is not new. The success of Islamism in universities and other institutions of higher education in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, and Turkey is rather the most recent manifestation. In fact, this is not surprising, since one of the main aspects of Islamic reform is the democratization of religious authority. Throughout the Muslim world, Islamic reform since the nineteenth century has been initiated by intellectuals not belonging to the milieu of the traditional ulama, that is, the body of lettered men who dominated education and intellectual production in theological schools and universities known as madrassahs. Whereas these ulama adhered to one of the four established legal schools (Shafii, Malik, Hanafi, and Hanbali), Islamic reformists in the nineteenth century called for the right to individual interpretation (ijtehad) of the founding texts of Islam (Quran and the Sunna) without regard to the tradition of these four legal schools.

Reformists were equally critical of the Sufi brotherhoods (silsilah), which to them also constituted traditional authoritative bodies responsible for the decline of Muslim power and culture. Islamic reform, then, generally took place only outside the madrassahs and the brotherhoods. Its main protagonists were intellectuals educated in modern educational institutions.

The study of Islamic reform in Pakistan primarily focuses on two such traditions. First, the interpretation of Islam as an essentially progressive religion, which, in its truest form, promotes Muslim nationalism, social equality, and scientific inquiry, has become highly influential in the Pakistani intellectual, political, and military elite. This tradition harks back to the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, later University, of Aligarh in north India, established in 1875, and also to the works of Muhammad Iqbal, the intellectual founder of Pakistan. Second, the interpretation of Islam as essentially opposed to nationalism and secularism has informed anti-elitist, Islamist groups and parties, calling for the sovereignty of the shariat and for Islam as a total way of life. Although intellectual developments are never unilinear, this tradition is influenced by the theological academy (dar-ul-ulum) of Deoband, north India, established in 1867, and by the writings of Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamiat-i Islami.

However, it is often overlooked that Pakistan has produced a third variety of Islamic reform, which is the reform of mystical traditions, or Sufism. Although Sufism is notoriously difficult to describe – it has been labelled as the ‘‘esoteric’’ dimension of Islam and the ‘‘folk’’ tradition of Islam – Sufism in South Asia mostly relates to brotherhoods (tariqa) connected to the shrines of holy men, which have been, and still are, important centers for popular piety. As such, Sufism is widely seen as juxtaposed to the reform and modernization of Islam. Yet, precisely in the process of defining Sufism as the quintessential tradition of south Asian Islam, Sufism ceased to be merely a religious practice and became an object of intellectual activity. This intellectual trend, then, rejects the two other forms of Islamic reform as foreign, and looks instead for an indigenous, folk, sometimes ethnic, form of Islam. Downplaying the transnational character of Sufi brotherhoods, such an indigenous Islam is found in reformed Sufism.

In the 1960s and 1970s, this reformed Sufism was a powerful ideological force behind left-wing and ethnic movements that protested the modernizing and centralizing policies and ideologies of the state, including the independence movement in East Pakistan that led to the founding of Bangladesh in 1971. In order to prevent the fragmentation of Pakistan in various ethnic groups, the central government, during the early decades of Pakistan’s existence, deemed it necessary actively to promote a modernized form of Islam as the basis for a national identity. Hence, the infamous one-unit scheme, which brought the provinces directly under the rule of the central government, went hand in hand with efforts to purify Islam from what was condescendingly seen as regional folk traditions, superstition, and non-Islamic elements. Particularly the well-known institution of the pir – that is, the descendent of the founders of Sufi brotherhoods, who embody the mystical powers attributed to these founders – was seen as a hindrance to the spread of a modern Islamic mentality. These pirs, often claiming to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad, often held powerful positions as spiritual leaders as well as landlords. In order to undermine their authority, the modernizing elites condemned the spiritual and healing practices of the pirs as backward and impure forms of Islam. The Sindhi turn to folk Islam, then, was partly a matter of reversing the stigma of backwardness. In the process, however, folk Islam was no longer seen as primarily connected to the power of the pirs, but reformed and refashioned into a deep-running inclination towards mysticism and Sufism.

In the late 1960s, the combination of ethnic identity and Sufism proved to be attractive to student activists and others critical of the military regime. The flirtations with the folk, the traditional, and the mystical formed a powerful critique of the modernism and authoritarianism of the central government. The Sindhi movement was one of the main contributors to the popular protest that led Pakistan into a major crisis, resulting in the first democratic elections in 1970 and the foundation of Bangladesh in 1971. Following the model of the Bengalis, the Sindhi movement led by G.M. Syed called for the independence of Sindh in 1973.

Confronted with similar ethnic movements in other parts of the country, the winner of the 1970 elections, the Pakistan People’s Party, headed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, acknowledged ethnic identity as a legitimate form of loyalty within the context of Pakistan, partly giving in to the demands of the ethnic movements. This was a break with earlier state discourse in which ethnicity and Islam were seen as incompatible. In this respect, the Sindhi movement has remarkably influenced state ideology, even though the separatist parties have never managed to win real power.

The Sindhi separatist movement represents a particular form of Islamic reform because its main proponents were popular intellectuals. That is to say that they neither belonged to the ranks of traditional religious leaders nor to the mainly city-based middle-class intellectuals who had been engaged in earlier forms of Islamic reform. Furthermore, the Sindhi separatist intellectuals emerged on the scene after independence, when Islamic reform, itself developed in reaction to European colonialism and orientalism, had left its mark on the dominant ideology of Pakistani Muslim nationalism. Sindhi separatist intellectuals therefore had to frame their protest within the limits set by Muslim nationalism. Even in rejecting Pakistani Muslim nationalism, the Sindhi separatist intellectuals adhered to the notion that Islam constitutes the basis for national identity. Within these restrictions, however, they designed their own version of Islam, which allowed them to argue for a separate Sindhi national identity based on Sindh’s unique experience with Sufism.

In terms of the themes central in this volume, this paper looks at how Sindhi separatist intellectuals appropriated certain aspects of official state discourse in order to pursue their own anti-state activities. Whereas dominant Muslim nationalism left no room for ethnic identity within the Pakistani nation, the Sindhi intellectuals challenged this view, not by rejecting the importance of Islam in political discourse as such, but by interpreting Islam in terms of mystical traditions, subsequently linking this mysticism with loyalties of homeland and kinship. Besides appropriating state discourse, they also used and transformed various other discourses present in South Asia, notably Gandhian or theosophical notions on the shared core of all religions, as well as vaguely Marxist notions on feudalism and class struggle. In doing so, they also became cultural innovators producing a new language of ethnic politics eventually adopted by the Pakistani state. As most of these popular intellectuals were educated at institutions of secular education, I will now look at the modernization of the educational system in Sindh. (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


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