Whirling dervishes. Photo: iStock

There are no two opinions about effecting change in the rigid matrix of Pakistani society. A major chunk of the population bent on toeing the line, yet another is buying the much-touted slogan of “change” without understanding that it is the individual who must change.

Discrimination on the basis of caste, gender and religion is rampant. The elements of intolerance and religious fundamentalism have been manipulated in a way that has resulted in an extremist mindset. This mindset has its foundations deep in the negligence of character reform in general religious discourse. Unfortunately, despite having inherited the centuries-old philosophy of Sufism, Pakistani culture and society have been overshadowed by certain narrow-minded, rigid and absolutist ideologies.

Sufism is generally hailed as a mantra of love and ecstasy. Its appeal is worldwide, since it calls for embracing diversity and negating biases, of all forms. However, one aspect is lesser known: It transcends the convention-ridden ideologies. It is a formidable force that invigorates the struggle against narrow-minded, orthodox and repulsive traditions and norms. The exotic traditions of Sufism in South Asia are evidence of this.

The time of one of the most acclaimed Sufi poets of Pakistan, Baba Bulhey Shah, was marked with communal and sectarian strife, but he emerged as a beacon of peace and love. He stood against religious discrimination and exposed the fault lines in society’s convention-ridden faith. His poetry echoes his universal ideology.

You’ve read thousands of books,

But you’ve never tried to read yourself,

You rush into your temples, into your mosques,

But you have never entered your own heart,

Futile are your battles with the devils,

For you have never tried to fight your own desires.

At present, in Pakistan, a Sufi reformist movement is gaining traction.

On January 26, the Sufi order Silsila-i-Azeemia held the 24th annual Spiritual Workshop in Karachi. Around 1,500 people participated in this Sufi gathering. Besides Pakistani nationals, people from Australia, Russia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, India, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom were also participants in the workshop.

This Sufi gathering is scheduled annually to bring various nationalities and ethnicities on to one platform to contemplate various topics related to self-cognizance, neutral thinking, and interfaith harmony.

In these gatherings, the participants hold discussions in groups conducted by a coordinator. The coordinator facilitates and drives the group to think, contemplate, and arrive at a unified conclusion. The aim is to build a self-aware, strong yet neutral force of people who will bind this world through the language of the heart.

At last month’s workshop, the vice-president of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, Muhammad Mahmoud Abu Hashim, was the chief guest, and a former education minister of Pakistan, Zubaida Jalal, was the eminent speaker. One day before the workshop, Abu Hashim also participated in a dialogue on “Modern Challenges to the Muslim World,” organized by the Sufi order at the Karachi Press Club.

Abu Hashim gave a message to the Muslim world that negating biases toward other ideologies can counter extremist tendencies. He said, as reported in the newspaper Dawn, that “Sufism can and is playing an effective role to counter extremist tendencies in the Muslim world because it teaches its adherents tolerance towards followers of all faiths and ideologies.”

Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi has been striving toward creating the awareness that only neutral patterns of thinking set the mind free from the structure of rigid beliefs and limited experiences. Meditation and contemplation within are catalysts to expand expand the consciousness of man

The founder of the order, Muhammad Azeem Barkhia, maintains that a nation that lacks universal and neutral thinking cannot acquire universal knowledge. In the same vein, the patriarch of the Sufi order, Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi, has been striving toward creating this awareness so that such an impartial and universal outlook should be adopted. He has been providing a platform for various nationalities and mindsets to come to a common table and offer their individual points of view. He holds these workshops to set the mind free from the structure of rigid beliefs and limited experiences and become a catalyst to expand the consciousness of man and tune it to his real power and strength – the universal language of peace – love.

All the workshops conducted by Khwaja Shamsuddin Azeemi for nearly four decades have led to just one conclusion: Man is the best of all creations in this universe and has been bestowed with the knowledge and wisdom needed to effect change within himself, and through him in the entire universe. And also that mankind in its entirety is but one family.

A participant from India, Anuradha Kamath, a behavior and self-empowerment coach, shared her experience at the gathering: “This world needs us to operate through our hearts, not minds, and this workshop brings forth the need for transition and offers a platform as a stepping stone toward world peace, through the people of Pakistan especially.”

Atif Nawaz, a Pakistani working as a civil engineer in Qatar, commented, “These workshops bring the people of various religions together and direct them toward a better understanding of self and mankind.”

Silsila-i-Azeemia holds many gatherings that are scheduled throughout the year in the network of 60 meditation halls working inside and outside Pakistan. These meditation halls are transforming into a force that has the potential to convert extremist elements into constructive, peaceful constituents of Pakistani society.

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Ume Farwa

Ume Farwa is a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

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