Sufi Performance as Political Intervention

Rafique Wassan

Feminist activist artist Sheema Kermani performing in the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh, Pakistan, 2019

Sufism, the mystical, spiritual tradition of Islam has contributed to the development of an intellectual, artistic and musical heritage in Muslim societies around the world. Progressive Muslim cultural activists, artists and performers get inspired by Sufism as an antidote to a puritanical Islamist worldview. Sufism, therefore, cultivate an alternative voice within Muslim public sphere.

The individuals and groups formally and informally associated with Sufism organise diverse events such as music, dance and literature festivals, seminars, conferences and TV talk shows and thus give impetus to the formation of a pluralist cultural sphere with a vital counter-culture.

The countercultural force of Sufi heritage culture is increasingly acknowledged and praised by both academia and public media. Moreover, Sufi heritage culture is increasingly seen as a site of knowledge production calling for attention to recognize its transformative potential also within humanities research.

Sundar Sarukkai’, in a 2017 essay on the location of the humanities in India, describes a deep distrust of the humanities role as a valuable knowledge system. Meaningful knowledge in society is supposed to be produced in science (meaning the STEM-disciplines) alone. Sarukkai thus calls for a revitalization of the humanities epistemological role. Part of his project to “epistemologize the humanities” includes rethinking the epistemological role of indigenous literatures, languages, religion, philosophy, and artistic expression. Sarukkai calls for treating them as “knowledge systems” in order to acknowledge their meaningful role in society, and therefore their immediate applicability. This would shift the focus from the useless question of usefulness towards the humanities’ applicability.

Given this context, the conceptualisation of Sufism as knowledge system might counter both asymmetrical ideas that knowledge is produced in natural sciences or in traditional academic institutions (including the humanities) alone. The conception of heterodox Sufism as an intellectual tradition and knowledge system contributes to the formulation of inclusive and pluralist identity narratives with powerful urgency against intolerance, polarisation and politics of hate. This inclusion might thus be a fruitful starting point to counter not only exclusivist Islamist narratives but also the exclusionary nature of a dominant Eurocentric politics of knowledge.

My engaged anthropology and ethnomusicology research work with pluralist Sufi heritage performance in Sindh province in Pakistan takes me to interact with, learn and get inspired from diverse people and competing practices.

On the mornings of February 17, 2019, I travelled to Sehwan Sharif, a small old town in Sindh (Pakistan) famous for its heterodox Sufi shrine of the 13th century Qalandari vagabond Sufi Usman Marwandi.  Popularly known among devotees as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, he made this pre-Islamic Hindu site of Shivasthan (now Sehwan) his final abode after travelling from the central Asian city of Marwand (now Azerbaijan). Devotees from all over Pakistan travel to Sehwan, pay devotional homage to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and perform Sufi rituals. Dhamaal, the ecstatic, rapturous dance by men, women and transgender people is the distinct spatial-performative feature of the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in South Asian heterodox Sufi tradition – as is smoking hashish.

Sindhi Folk Sufi performers at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar becomes thus one of the heterotopian, syncretic and inclusive Sufi spaces in Muslim contexts that allow for performances that transcend fixed religious, sectarian, communal, caste and gender boundaries. Along with devotees holding strong belief in the spiritual powers of the saint cult, the modernist-secular political subjects, artists and performers create a social space to cultivate a fluid, hybrid, tolerant, peaceful and democratic narrative in Pakistan. This relates to the idea of ‘space as an essential aspect of the production of culture’ in the perspective of scholars of the spatial turn in humanities and social sciences (Warf and Arias: 2009).

I was attending the annual commemoration event at the shrine, which was organised to express protest for and solidarity with the victims of a violent terror attack on the shrine in February 17, 2017.  As every year, this performative event is organised by Kathak dance artist and feminist activist Sheema Kermani, the leader of Tehrik Niswan Pakistan (Women’s Movement Pakistan), along with Sindhi folk Sufi artists and various civil society and faith group members traveling from Karachi, Hyderabad and other cities. Sheema Ji, as she is endearingly addressed by her fans and friends, initially organised her public performance in the shrine space of Lal Qalandar on the very second day after the terror attack in February 2017 to express solidarity with the victims. Since then, her presence and public performance in the shrine space have turned into an annual commemoration, a protest of solidarity, a voice for human rights, an expression of individual freedom and a statement against hate and violent religious extremism.

Sheema Kermani performing at the 4th International Sufi Conference in Karachi, April 2018, organized by the Sindh Culture Department

In her conceptual public performances Sheema deploys and displays ideas of human unity, individual freedom and resistance, tolerance, non-violence, interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence – all of which are part of a pluralist-humanist Sufi discourse. Most significantly, as a feminist activist dance performer, her public embodiments articulate resistance against patriarchal controls and other forms of discrimination, hate and violence against women. Sheema is well informed and immersed in the popular Sindhi Sufi public culture.
When I talked to her, she explained that the annual public performance of solidarity at the shrine is meant to transport a message of resistance and defiance, to express her right to perform the Dhamal – the ecstatic Sufi dance peculiar to the antinomian Qalandari Sufi tradition in which gender segregation gets suspended temporally. Sheema is very vocal in her political opinion on her public performance at Lal Shahbaz Qalanadar:

You see as a performer, as a dancer, I think it is very important for me to connect with people in order for them to understand that dance is not something alien, but something which has been and still is part of peoples lives. You see, when they do the dance, do the Dhamal, it is like part of their life, they come and dance, and then as a woman, as a feminist it’s very important for me also to make the statement here, that men and women are equal. In this space there is no difference between men and women, there is no difference between people of different religions, different classes, and that’s why it is very important to come and say this needs to continue, and this is the place where we connect with each other, this is the place where women can be free. Nobody can stop them to do the dance.

Thus, Sheema’s performance expresses Sufi specific agency to resist violent extremism rooted in hardcore Islamist clerical interpretation.

Alongside Sheema and her group, Sindhi Sufi folk artists performed the poetry of Hafiz Nizamani, a poetry containing Sufi humanist-centric messages opposing the hate politics of extremist religious ideology. The Sufis lyrics celebrated the core Sufi idea of love for humanity:

Ko Aa Rehman Jy Paasey Ko Aa Baghwan Jy Paasey
Munhjo Sajido Unhaee khy Aa jeko Insan Jy Paasey

Some worship Rehman [Muslim God], the others adore Bhagwan [Hindu deity]
But I venerate all humanity

This consciously organised and performed solidarity event and deliberate marking of political presence by civil society activists might well be what Iranian American sociologist Asef Bayat’s (2011) meant by his conceptualization of a ‘politics of presence and art of presence’ in his analysis of social movements and acts of democratisation in the context of Middle eastern political experience of authoritarian regimes and Islamist opposition. Mainly focusing on Iran and Egypt in the article under discussion, Bayat coins down the concept of ‘art of presence’ when looking at the everyday expressions of vocal contentions and acts of social protest and dissent for human rights, equality and justice. For Bayat, the art of presence is the ability to create social space under difficult and adverse political circumstances, which demands a protracted strategy and endurance to advance and influence socio-political change.

Philosopher Alva Noe’s work Varieties of Presence (2012) offers a slightly different conceptualisation that could also be fruitfully related to the public presence and performance by Sheema and Sufi folk performers at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.
For Noe, the phenomena and varieties of presence correspond to the ways we access the world; by making presence, by embodying thought, experience, perception and consciousness, the world shows up to us. As an illustration, Noe mentions hisco-created performance work with dancer and choreographer Nicole Peisl What We Know Best in a dance festival in Frankfurt Germany in 2010. The idea behind What We Know Best, Noe explains, was “to make oneself present on the stage, for the others.” Reflecting on Noe’s conceptualisation of presence to access the world around us, the protest performance by Sheema Kermani, folk Sufi artists and civil society participants correspond to the idea of consciously engaging with and experiencing the world and, most importantly, to ‘make the act of protest and resistance present’. Creating a social space in order to take a political stance by performing dance and playing music – the two ontological sources of heterodox Sufi epistemology – thus resonates with both Bayat’s and Noe’s conceptualizations of presence.

Furthermore, it resonates with Diana Taylor’s work on the political aspects of performance. Her book Performance (2016) brings into focus the contentious political power of performance and artistic practices that challenge authoritarian regimes and oppressive power structures in the context of the Americas. Most significantly, and relevant to the political performance during the commemoration event by Sheema Ji, Taylor introduces the idea of “Artivists” – Art-Activists, meaning artists who create politically informed art practices and performances. Taylor refers to latinamerican Artivists confronting regimes of power, violence, militarism and intimidation, as for example Regina Jose Galindo, a Guatemalan performance artist who uses her body to create contentious performances against violence, and thus – although maybe not at first sight – paralleing Sheema’s Sufi public performance at the shrine of Lal Qalandar.

Sheema Kermani doing the Dhamal, a Sufi dance

In this light, the Sufi public performance by Sheema, her group, Sindhi folk Sufi performers and civil society participants in the shrine space of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is a political act of resistance against religious extremism and violence, a stance for and a marking of presence of a feminist position within Sufism, which is often made obscure in modernist critiques of Sufism. Most significantly, the participation of civil society, human rights and faith-based groups in the commemorative event not only advances a progressive-pluralist Sufi heritage narrative in Pakistan; it also debunks the assumption of a modernist-secular – religious-sacred divide propagated in Eurocentric orientalist representations of so called Eastern/Muslim societies.  

And lastly, Sufism’s intellectual cultural heritage in South Asia – this is my firm believe – can become an “argumentative tradition” in the words of Indian scholar and Noble Laurate Amartya Sen, a critical voice in engaged scholarship within the humanities, not only in South Asia but on a global scale. And the humanities – this is my conviction as a social anthropologist as well – have to increasingly engage with pressing socio-political issues, take a political stance and mark presence themselves.

Reference

Bayat Asef (2011): The Politics of Presence. In: Frederic Volpi (ed.): Political Islam. A critical reader. Routledge.

Clinton, Bennett and Sarwar Alam, Eds (2017): Sufism, Pluralism and Democracy. Equinox Publishing Ltd UK.

Dudgeon, Hamza A. (2018): The Counter-current Movements of Andalusia and Ibn ʿArabī. Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn’Arabi Society. Vol 64

Karamustafa, Ahmed T (2015): Antinomian Sufis. In: Lloyd Ridgeon (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Sufism. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge University Press.

Malik, Jamal and Hinnells John. (Eds). (2006): Sufism and West. Routledge.

Noe, Alva (2012): Varieties of Presence. Harvard University Press.

Sarukkai, Sundar (2017) Location of Humanities, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol.37, No. 1, Duke University Press

Sen, Amartya (2005): The Argumentative Indian. Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity. Penguin Books.

Taylor Diana (2016): Performance. Duke University Press

Warf, Bareny and Arias Santa (Eds) (2009): The Spatial Turn. Interdisciplinary perspectives. Routledge

4 Comments on “Sufi Performance as Political Intervention

  1. quite thoughtful narration with the modernist approach , Sufi thought, Sufi culture and narrative seems to be moving towards a new paradigm where the dance performer is depicted as Art-Activist.

    • Thank you Rukhsana Ali for sharing your views on my article. In fact, it aims to streamline and generate new knowledge about peripheral South Asian heritage and traditions in humanities research.

  2. I really like the idea of artivists and artist/ religious/ cultural politics of presence as acts of protest and resistance under adverse political circumstances. There is also hope in this for the humanities to make themselves present by engaging with such politics of presence in theoretical, methodological and practical terms. Thanks for these thought-provoking ideas!

    • Dear Pascale, Thanks for sharing the forward-looking opinion. As you have rightly pointed , the very idea presented in this piece is to make visible the politics of presence through creative heritage, artistic practices and narratives in South Asian/Muslim contexts and to advance the engaged South Asian humanities research practice

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