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.

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Ethnography as Gift Exchange

A critical workshop recapitulation

Zainabu Jallo

Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper’s view on gift exchange. Episode “The Big Bang Theory, Episode “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” (2008)

Sheldon: Wait! You bought me a present?
Penny: Uh-huh.
Sheldon: Why would you do such a thing?
Penny: I don’t know. ‘Cause it’s Christmas?
Sheldon: Oh, Penny. I know you think you’re being generous, but the foundation of gift-giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation.

The conversation above, from an episode of The Big Bang Theory, reveals Sheldon Cooper’s displeasure over a Christmas present Penny got him.  His distress does not stem from the gift itself but the obligation of reciprocity that is associated with gift-giving.

Penny: Now, honey, it’s okay. You don’t have to get me anything in return.
Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me. It’s no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.

Sheldon illustrates one of Anthropology`s oldest conundrums; Gift-giving as an object of study as well as a quagmire researcher`s grapple with in the field. In what is considered the foundational social theories of exchange, Marcel Mauss, in The Gift (1925), begins his inquiry via two questions: first, what are the standards by which a gift received must be repaid? Second, what intensity of meanings is contained in the gift given that obliges the recipient to reciprocate? From his findings in North West America, Melanesia and Polynesia, Mauss states that every gift given is constituent of a structure of reciprocity in which the respect of giver and recipient are involved. The exchange of gifts in this sense, is not reduced to generating economic profit but in establishing and maintaining social relationships, according to Mauss, “a total social phenomenon”. There have been quite a number of diverse theories on gift-giving after Marcel Mauss, of course, but we wouldn’t want to open a can of worms here.

Let`s face it, we are in one way or the other entangled in the quagmire of reciprocity, from friendships, workplace and social etiquettes and even gestures as mundane as smiling back at someone on a bus.

But it does get even more intricate with researchers in the field! My colleagues and fellow anthropologists converged with our musings at the workshop, “Ethnography as Exchange: Power, Money, Debt” organized by Prof. Heinzpeter Znoj, Director of the Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern at Schlöss Ueberstorf from September 20-22, 2018. The workshop set out to explore the myriad ways Anthropologists engage with their research partners. It provided a platform for Ph.D. researchers to share and analyse various intricate situations where an equilibrium in reciprocity with research partners is attempted. Can both parties hold an equal number of aces?

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THoR’s Take

Ruramisai Charumbira & Michael Toggweiler

Welcome to THoR, also known as Taking the Humanities on the Road!
THoR is an Ideas-and-Action Lab at the interdisciplinary Walter Benjamin Kolleg (WBKolleg). The WBKolleg is part of the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Bern. The lab leaders launched THoR in 2018 as a politically and intellectually independent bottom-up working group to increase the visibility of research in the humanities and the social sciences and to demonstrate their continued critical importance of innovation and engagement.

Politicians and certain media circles increasingly question the practical and economic usefulness of the humanities. Technological and other innovations coupled with life changing knowledge production at the dawn of the 21st century, in such discourse, are mostly linked with the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (plus Medicine), the STEM disciplines in everyday parlance. At least, on a superficial glance, these natural, physical and health sciences and engineering indeed seem to have harnessed information technologies to make their disciplines applicable to most people’s private and public everyday lives while the humanities have seem to lag behind. This, of course, is not to suggest that all STEM disciplines have found better, or the best, ways of communicating the meaningfulness of their research and have, therefore, entirely eclipsed the humanities as spaces for innovation and making and finding meaning. The humanities are still present in the media, although scattered among many ressorts. It is also not to suggest that the humanities have lost their credit in the opinion of the general public; Philipp Burkard from Science et Cité believes the humanities are still held in favorable view, as the Science Barometer Switzerland, a yearly survey asking what the Swiss think about scientific issues, does not show otherwise.
Rather, THoR notes the irony that the humanities are about how humans drive innovation in pursuit of meaning – in the past and present – yet, the humanities disciplines seem to have found themselves both flatfooted and misunderstood in their responses to some of the loudest cries of the humanities’ irrelevance in society. Markus Zürcher, Director of the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW), articulated this humanities conundrum for a Swiss academic framework succinctly when he wrote that:

“At least since the turn of the millennium, science and knowledge are recognized as key production factors that contribute significantly to value creation, productivity, economic growth and welfare. However, with regard to the humanities in particular, this … added value escapes the superficial view.”  

— Zürcher, Markus, Gegenstand, Relevanz und Praxis der Geisteswissenschaften, in: SAGW (2016), Swiss Academies Communications 11(5)

Martha Nussbaum, in 2010, took this a step further, articulating an American as well as a global perspective on the importance of the humanities. She wrote:

“The humanities and the arts are being cut away in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.”

— Nussbaum, Martha, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010

These country specific, and general developments in academia emerge within a global academic governance that ties utilitarianism to education and training according to “strategic” institutional aims. This, in turn, raises pressure for humanities scholars to increase their visibility and public outreach in order to attract students and third-party funding, and/or to evaluate their research achievements along quantifiable criteria. All this, it could be argued, is done in order for universities and colleges to be internationally competitive in a market-like situation that conceptualizes knowledge and meaning as commodities with quantifiable value.

Of course, here in Switzerland, there have been responses by Swiss humanities scholars and institutions. For example, some five years ago, the SAGW launched discussions and publications to boost the humanities in Switzerland. There have also been articles in mostly Zurich-based newspapers defending the usefulness and relevance of the humanities in the 21st Century against attacks of right wing media, as well as initiatives such as the Blog Geschichte der Gegenwart, initiated by Philipp Sarasin and others with its decidedly critical stance.

ThoR’s own take is that there are many ripe opportunities for the humanities to respond to explicit or implicit demands and critique coming from internal and external stakeholders. Indeed, THoR argues that though the humanities have sometimes seemed to be at a loss for words when asked to justify the continued existence of anthropologists, historians, philosophers etc., it is imperative that we (humanities and social sciences scholars) tap into our varied traditions of bringing forth the basic questions that all disciplines, old and new, grapple with today. THoR is inspired by, among others, scholars like Mikhail Epstein who call for focused and intentional responses to these demands for pushing back the humanities by turning into “avenues of conceptual creativity” in academic institutions in general. As he puts it:

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