sufi fakirs of Bedil Saen performing at the second Sindh Sufi Melo 2018 at Hyderabad organised by Sindh Ouqaf Department - Sindh Courier

Sufism, Transculturality and the Progressive Islam

sufi fakirs of Bedil Saen performing at the second Sindh Sufi Melo 2018 at Hyderabad organised by Sindh Ouqaf Department - Sindh Courier
Sufi fakirs of Bedil Saeen performing at the second Sindh Sufi Melo 2018 at Hyderabad organised by Sindh Ouqaf Department – Sindh Courier

The transcultural rethinking of cultures cultivates the openness and acceptance towards other cultures and it saves us from the trap of exclusivist, rigid origin conceptions of culture.

Rafique Wassan  

In my anthropology, ethnomusicology and cultural studies for interdisciplinary PhD research project on the progressive cultural production of Sufi heritage in Sindh region of Pakistan, I met with a wide range of wonderful and diverse people in the fieldwork; the generous support they extended to me culminated into profound learning and conceptual accomplishment for me. In the fieldwork, I interacted with many progressive secular (secular – not in the sense of atheism or anti-religion as generally is perceived in Pakistan) modern writers, poets and civil society activists who are actively engaged in the progressive cultural production and politics of the Sufi tradition. This was fascinating; I was curious to hear and learn from them about the Sufi heritage work in multiple ways they were involved in to protect, promote and form a politics of progressive -pluralist Islam.

Akhtar Dargahi presenting
Akhtar Dargahi

Pursuing my object to engage with the progressive writers and artists, one fine day in the fieldwork I travelled to Rohri, a historical town on the banks of Indus River, to meet with Akhtar Dargahi, a poet, writer and music artist. Akhtar Dargahi, a nice welcoming friend, belongs to a literary and Sufi musician family and is a grandson of a female Sufi singer of her age Mai Begum Faqeerani (d. 1987). I am afraid the youth strata of today’s Sindh are familiar with Mai Begum Faqeerani, but Akhtar owns her legacy and carries with him the creative Sufi tradition he inherited from his family. Over the last four decades, Akhtar Dargahi has been associated with the Sufi shrine and thought of Sufi poet Hazrat Abdul Qadir Bedil/Qadir Bux Bedil alias Fakir Bedil Saeen (1814-1873) in Rohri. As a progressive writer and artist, by engaging with Sufi literary and music of Fakir Bedil Saeen, Akhtar Dargahi has played a pivotal role in the formation of the progressive Sufi heritage in Sindh.

Title of a book on biography of Mai Begum Fakirani - Sindh Courier
Title of a book on biography of Mai Begum Fakirani – Sindh Courier

Akhtar Dargahi’s work prominently reckons with the progressive cultural production and secularization of Sindhi Sufi heritage. By secularization I mean to elucidate the two senses that manifest his work and approach to Sufism; the modernist rationalization and materiality of the Sufi heritage and secular Sufi sensibility that cultivates the ideals of open-mindedness, transculturation, religious freedom, tolerance, inclusiveness and pluralism. Before I move on to next discussion, let me briefly explain the transcultural concept of culture premised on the theoretical work on Transculturality by Wolfgang Welsch (1999). Inspired by Welsch’s pioneering essay Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today that appeared in an edited volume Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World (1999) by Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, I try to locate its relevance with Sufism’s transcultural discursive potential to recast the progressive inclusive, heterogeneous Islam and Muslim politics in opposition to the singular, homogenous, exclusivist Islamist concept and movements.

Akhtar Dargahi presenting Sufi song - Sindh CourierOver the years, in classical anthropology – the science of culture and society – the singular, homogenous, isolated and self-contained definition of the concept of culture was the dominant norm that came under attack especially after the 1970s with the emergence of the interdisciplinary, critical, experimental postmodern, transnational and cosmopolitan anthropological theoretical works that sought for the rethinking of the concept and study of culture. The transcultural concept of culture breaks with the old anthropological and folkloric concept of culture in which cultures were interpreted in singular and homogenous whole. Contrary to this old singular, isolated and particularistic concept of culture, the transculturality concept of culture permeates the ideas and practices of heterogeneity, intermixing, exchanges, sharing, interactions, acceptance, inclusion and hybridization. Wolfgang Welsch’s concept of transculturality has the promise of openness, inclusion and heterogeneity contrary to narrowness, exclusion, separateness and homogeneity. It has the conceptual task to think against the polarity of cultures, and instead find commonality and influences and origins of culture from diverse sources, the internal and external, meeting points and the making of shared, hybrid cultures. Most significantly, in the context of exclusivist, singular, particularistic, and extremist conceptions and practices of Islamist politics, Wolfgang’s concept of transculturality that is defined to break away with the mono-cultural standpoints provides a powerful conceptual and methodological resource to engage with the de-colonial study of Islam and Muslim politics and to cultivate the open, inclusive, pluralist progressive politics within Islam and Muslim societies.

At the outset, we may ask two questions to set the tone for discussion. First, how can we investigate Sindh’s progressive secular writers’ Sufi work and the transcultural concept of culture? And, how do Sindh’s progressive writers’ engagement and cultural production of Sufism contribute to the transculturality within Islam?  I think the straight answer to these questions would be self-explanatory when we look at the way Sindh’s progressive secular modernists which include a wide range of interlocutors i.e. the writers, poets, artists, journalists, human rights, feminists, practicing Sufis, university students and other related political activists, have been/are involved in the progressive practice of public Sufism in the form and use of creative artistic practice and pluralistic-inclusive interpretation of Sufi thought that counters the rigid, monolithic worldview of theocratic clerics. I will respond to the argument of Sufism and transculturality at the end of this piece.

Akhtar Dargahi presenting Sufi song - Sindh Courier-0The history and heritage of Sufi poetry and music enacted by the contemporary Sindhi writers, poets and artists forms a significant cultural text in the formation of Sindh’s progressive identity discourse. When I met with Akhtar Dargahi, in the interview he opened the discussion on the history of flourishing culture of music in his hometown Rohri-Sukkur and neighbouring Shikarpur. In the first instance, in the interview Akhtar Dargahi ensued the discussion on the thriving music culture in Rohri and Sukkur before and after the partition and the way he grew up with the remnants and still the flourishing presence of music in the town and his family. Akhtar establishes the argument on the flourishing musical heritage that he thinks has played a pivotal role in the formation of Sufi tradition. In fact, the contextual opening discussion of the history and heritage of music informs his progressive position as a poet, writer and artist. The interpretative framing of Sufism by Akhtar Dargahi is clearly embedded in the literary and musical upbringing and his practical engagement with it over the years since his school days in late 1970s.

Akhtar Dargahi - Sindh Courier-0Crucially, in his sharing Akhtar reflects on the historicity of the flourishing culture of musical patronage in and the musical identity of Rohri. One idea that emerges prominently in Akhtar’s discussion of the flourishing presence of music in Sukkur-Rohri reckons with the patronage of the musical families and the music maestros’ residencies by the art lovers and patrons. Akhtar Dargahi identifies one such music-loving patron Baba Munwar Ali Shah (d.1961/2) in Sukkur who himself was a learned musician. Before partition in the 1940s, Baba Munwar Ali Shah had supported and arranged a musical residency for Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan. Many current musician families in Sukkur-Rohri area were the students of Baba Munwar Ali Shah. Among these musician families who were initially the students of Baba Munwar Ali Shah included Ustad Seengar Ali Saleem, Ustad Barkat Fakir, Master Loung etc. Baba Munwar Ali Shah, it is said, owned a large property which he expended in his love and patronage of the music.

A second key feature in the flourishing music history and heritage in Rohri Akhtar Dargahi prominently discusses was the development and presence of music clubs established by different musician families and maestros. In Rohri, there existed a music club named Saaz Awaz club. The music maestro Ustad Rasool Bux Abro had established a music club. Another music maestro Ustad Khursheed Ali Khan (d. 1985), a student of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, came from Lahore and settled in Rohri until his death, had established a separate music club. This all made Rohri-Sukkur the thriving center of the music, states Akhtar. Then, he describes gradual decline after the 90s. Akhtar tells that until the 90s the music thrived in the Rohri town and he personally experienced and listened to the music maestros. Akhtar recollects his family musical memories and Sufi cultural belonging. He revisits the musical memories and inheritance’ ‘our grandmother Mai Begum Faqeerani was a famous Sufi Raagi. Our Otaq (guest room) had cultivated a musical environment. My father was also a poet and musician. In our family we inherited poetry, music and Sufism. Every now and then, the Sufis, dervishes and artists would visit our Otaq. Abida Parveen and her father would visit my father. Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Ustad Niaz Ali (father of Zulfiqar Ali and Mazhar Ali) a great music composer of Hyderabad had also visited our Otaq’.

Akhtar Dargahi - moderating a session on Sufism and Shaikh Ayaz in 2018 Ayaz Melo organised by Khanabadosh Writers Cafe, Hyderabad, Sindh
Akhtar Dargahi moderating a session on Sufism and Shaikh Ayaz in 2018 Ayaz Melo organised by Khanabadosh Writers Cafe, Hyderabad, Sindh

In the literary and music related circles in Sindh, Akhtar Dargahi is mainly identified with his affiliation with and contributions to the promotion and patronage of the Sufi heritage of Fakir Bedil Saeen. After his sharing on the flourishing culture of music in his hometown, Akhtar turns to a discussion that informs his work on Bedil Saeen’s Sufi Fikir (thought and music) that makes him an important progressive interlocutor in the formation and continuity of Sindh’s pluralistic Sufi heritage.

First, Akhtar delves into the background information of the Sufi shrine of Fakir Bedil Saeen that entails the processes and dynamics of the progressive cultural production in the form of the rationalization, materiality and transformation of the Sufi heritage. In this process of Akhtar Dargahi himself emerges a key interlocutor. The significant turning point for Akhtar was the year 1990 when then newly transferred Deputy Commissioner of Sukkur Kamran Lashari had organized a three-day Sindh Mallah Melo -Sindh Fisherfolk festival at the River Indus in which Akhtar had worked with the festival team by representing his Mallah fisherfolk community. The artistic aesthetic idea of this festival was to celebrate the life of Fisherfolk and the Indus River. After this meeting and work with art and culture loving DC Kamran Lashari and his wife (Akhtar told she had some Fine Arts related education degree) Akhtar met him again in the next festival at the shrine of Bedil Saeen – this festival came close after the Fisherfolk Indus River Festival. And, in the same year, on the occasion of the Sufi festival of Bedil Saeen, Akhtar organized a Literary conference in which scholars had been invited from different parts of the country including the music artists. The famous Seraiki Sufi singer Pathaney Khan was also invited first time in Rohri.

The foundations of the textual material cultural production of Bedil Saeen’s work were laid in the pre-partition British India Sindh’s early decades of 20th century in the form of manuscript publications, books, biographies, articles and essays. In 1940, the first Sindhi compilation of Bedil Fakir’s Sufi work under the title ‘Dewan-e-Bedil’ was produced by a local Sindhi Hindu writer Devan Gidu Mal. A few biographical essays and articles on Bedil Fakir by Sindhi Hindu writers had appeared in Sindhi magazines even before 1940. For instance, in a Sindhi book Hazrat Abdul Qadir Bedil (2011) Engineer Abdul Hussain Mosvi has noted a Sindhi Hindu writer Naarin D. Girnani’s article titled Bedil Fakir which was published in 1922 in a magazine of DJ College Karachi, Sindh.

Akhtar Dargahi - Sindh CourierIn the post-partition Sindh in Pakistan, the indispensable role of Akhtar Dargahi in the process of transformation and new development in the formation of the progressive rationalization and materiality of Bedil Saeen’s Sufi tradition – both the literary and musical – appears after 1980s in his college days.

Due to the space limitation, I conclude the article with the central idea and question of Transculturality, Sufism and the prospect of progressive, inclusive pluralist Islam. As I mentioned in the beginning, Wolfgang’s theoretical concept of transculturality opens up the possibility of conceiving the cultures in heterogeneous, inclusive terms contrary to separateness and singularity of cultures. This means to think through the pluralist, diverse and open ways and terrains of cultures; cultures are never singular and isolated but plural, hybrid, shared and intermixed. This transcultural rethinking of cultures cultivates the openness and acceptance towards other cultures and it saves us from the trap of exclusivist, rigid origin conceptions of culture. To me, the concept of transculturality also contains and expresses a conceptual resource to deploy de-colonial/decolonizing thinking within Islam especially against the rigid, singular, extremist religious groups and tendencies within Islam.

How to think through Sufi transcultural concept then? Let’s reflect on this question by looking at the case study of Akhtar Dargahi’s progressive pluralist Sufi work. In the progressive Sufi thinking of Akhtar Dargahi – as a writer, poet and musician- his use of creative artistic expression exhibits a transcultural potential of Sufism. In gender sensitive and equality terms, he is egalitarian and open to the legacy of her grandmother Sufi musician. As a progressive Sufi writer and artist, Akhtar Dargahi strongly believes in the Sufi philosophy of Wahdat-ul-Wajud – and he applies it to the social thought and derives values of human equality and human oneness against the division, communalism, discrimination and hate politics.  And most importantly, he never reduces and delimits Sufism within the homogenous bounds of Islam. Instead, he is open and inclusive to other religions. He embraces the heterogeneous and inclusive idea of Sufism in which he includes the Hindu/Sikh Sufis and their shared influences. His view of Islam through Sufism is very inclusive, plural and heterogeneous that contravenes the unreasonable singular impositions of Islamic homogeneity, sectarianism or communalism. To sum up, in the following passage, I reproduce Akhtar Dargahi’s thought that reflect the progressive Sufi culture concept and can provide a cultural capital to think through the Sufi transculturality within Islam.

‘In Sindh, this (Sufism) is the only shared Fikir (thought), Hindu-Muslim shared Fikir. Nowadays, Dargahoon (shrines) have become changed, they are now divided into sects and display sectarianism. They are distracted from the original center – the one which engenders pluralism/collectivism, unites all people, one which contains Oneness and denies all kinds of stratification, no classes. Once I had a discussion with one scholar of Sindh, I shared with him about my new book that was under progress titled ‘Sindh Ja Sufi Danishwar – The Sufi Intellectuals of Sindh’, that also contained Hindu/Sikh Sufis of Sindh Sami, Dalpat, Vasan Shah, Paaru Shah. He said that they are not Sufis and there could only be a Muslim Sufi’.

bedil saeen's poem - Sindh CourierAt the conclusion, I would like to share few lines from the poetry of Bedil Fakir that defines the realness of Sufism.

Laa Mazhab Takrar Sufi, Har Mazhab Khaan Aa Bezaar Sufi

Kay Tha Sunni Saaf Sadaa’en, Kay tha Shia Paak Kouthaa’en

Geet Hamu’o Jo Aashiq Gaa’en, Ishaq Jo Aala Aa Israr Sufi

(Sufi panders in no religious conflict; Sufi is disinterested in all religions

Some people claim to be the purist Sunni; and others the purist Shia 

Aashiqs (Believers) only sing the song of Oneness, Sufism is the highest expression of Love (Fakir Bedil Saeen)

In this creative critical Sufi lyrical expression, the Wahdat-ul-Wajudi Sufi Fakir (thought) Bedil Saen deconstructs and disrupts the purist, singular, homogenous, particularistic and rigid religious sectarian Sunni and Shia within Islam and speaks truth to religious conflict. He declares that Sufi is non-religious in character and the Sufi Aashiq only believes in the oneness and unity. I think, the critical dialogical consciousness expressed by Sufi Fakir Bedil in this lyric manifest the Sufi’s openness and a revolt against the singular and purist religious cultural beliefs that create division, communalization and hatred in society. The Sufi tends to reject the singular, monolithic concept of culture and instead espouses the transcultural imagination that acknowledges the shared, hybrid, interactive and inclusive conceptions of culture. Thus, I argue that the creative expressive Sufi Wahdat-ul-Wajudi tradition in Islam has the critical dialogical and contestation capacity to espouse the transculturality of cultures rather than the singular and separateness of cultures. It exhibits the sociopolitical agency to deploy to build the bridges and connections between cultures than to separateness and exclusions.


Rafique Wassan-0The writer is an anthropologist and currently a PhD research student at Bern University, Switzerland.

3 thoughts on “Sufism, Transculturality and the Progressive Islam

  1. Nicely written, worth referencing make it so authentic, rafique is doing a very gud job, it would be remembered as remarkable work in sindh.

    1. Well articulated and interpretative article about the progressive sufism in Sindh, Pakistan. Your ethnographic field work has explored the new trends of progressive Sufism in Sindh and has opened new window for further debate on the sufisim scholarship in Sindh.

  2. Well written Rafique Saain, No doubt Sufism has enough potential to replace outdated religious ideologies and teachings in today’s modern age,
    There is a unique and marvelous culture at sufi’s shrines, which is the only way to get attention of people towards amazing harmony,
    In spite of religious interdiction, Sufi singers use to sing their poetry over musical instruments and making every one to have transcendent experience. People like Akhter Dargahi are the need of contemporary age who have devoted their life for promoting sufism
    I would like to say something regarding Bedal, that I dont know any other sufi poet with that much amazing approach in God case which can be perceived in these lines of Bedal
    “Paaan to paida kayo kinn mu chayae Insaan karr
    Ghurj pae tukhy ghani kinn mu chyae Ahsaan kr”

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