Sufism expressions in Afghanistan




" The growth of Sufism (from suf, Arabic for wool; possibly referring to woolen robes worn by early ascetics) was another important development in the history of Islam. The great Sufi orders or brotherhoods (tariqa) were first established in the twelfth century by scholars disillusioned in their search for Truth through the intellectual application of the austere practices advocated by the various schools of Islamic doctrine.


A belief in the oneness of man with God is central to Sufism. Sufis seek to achieve a personal communion with God during mystic moments of union brought about by various methods, including meditation, recitation of sacred phrases, breathing exercises, dancing, hymn singing, music, and physical gyrations. Sufi religious life centers around a learned religious leader or spiritual guide referred to as shaykh (in Persian, pir) whose mystical teachings guide students (murids) along the path (tariqa) that leads each to the ecstacy of his own moment of intimacy with God. Relationships between the master and disciple are very close. Many famous Sufi shaykh attracted large bodies of followers, and the sites of their brotherhoods became not only renowned spiritual institutions, but also popular social and cultural community centers providing medical, educational, and welfare services, including soup kitchens for the poor and hungry. These centers oftentimes amassed considerable wealth from gifts from pilgrims and from endowments (awaqf; singular, waqf), an important institution providing community social services. With wealth they acquired social and political power. This building of a sense of an alternative community within Sufism threatened the status of established religious authorities (ulama), undermining their institutionalized perceptions of an universal, unified Islamic community (ummah) following the Shariah, the "straight path" of Islamic law. The orthodox ulama initially declared Sufism heretical, but over time came to tolerate it as long as its adherents abided by Islamic laws.

Sufi practices are found today among both Sunni and Shia communities in Afghansitan, although it tends to be more widespread among Sunnis, perhaps because Shia attach great value to the intercession of saints and most Shia embrace mysticism and encourage emotional responses to God and to Shia martyrs, especially those connected with the tragedy of Karbala which is commemorated on Ashura, the 10th day of Moharram, when dramatic recitations, passion plays (taziya) and street processions, which include self-flagellation, take place. Sufis describe their personal experiences in a vast variety of poetic expression. The poetry of the Sufis is considered the best in the Persian language, and among the most notable of all poetic styles. Particularly honored are Sadi and Hafiz of Shiraz in Iran, and Baydil from the Persian-speaking Moghal court of Delhi. Universally acclaimed Afghan Sufi poets include Ansari (eleventh century) and Jami (fifteenth century) of Herat, Sanayi of Ghazni (twelfth century) , and Rumi of Balkh (thirteenth century), the founder of the order of whirling dervishes, whose Mathnawi is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in Persian.

Islam represents a potentially unifying symbolic system which offsets the divisiveness that frequently rises from the existence of a deep pride in tribal loyalties and an abounding sense of personal and family honor found in multitribal and multiethnic societies such as Afghanistan. Islam is a central, pervasive influence throughout Afghan society; religious observances punctuate the rythmn of each day and season. In addition to a central Friday mosque for weekly communal prayers which are not obligatory but generally attended, smaller community- maintained mosques stand at the center of villages, as well as town and city neighborhoods. Mosques serve not only as places of worship, but for a multitude of functions, including shelter for guests, places to meet and gossip, the focus of social religious festivities and schools. Almost every Afghan has at one time during his youth studied at a mosque school; for many this is the only formal education they receive. Because Islam is a total way of life and functions as a comprehensive code of social behavior regulating all human relationships, individual and family status depends on the proper observance of the society's value system based on concepts defined in Islam. These are characterized by honesty, frugality, generosity, virtuousness, piousness, fairness, truthfulness, tolerance and respect for others. To uphold family honor, elders also control the behavior of their children according to these same Islamic prescriptions. At times, even competitive relations between tribal or ethnic groups are expressed in terms claiming religious superiority.

In short, Islam structures day-to-day interactions of all members of the community. The religious establishment consists of several levels. Any Muslim can lead informal groups in prayer. Mullahs who officiate at mosques are normally appointed by the government after consultation with their communities and, although partially financed by the government, mullahs are largely dependent for their livelihood on community contributions including shelter and a portion of the harvest. Supposedly versed in the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Shariah, they must ensure that their communities are knowledgeable in the fundamentals of Islamic ritual and behavior. This qualifies them to arbitrate disputes over religious interpretation. Often they function as paid teachers responsible for religious education classes held in mosques where children learn basic moral values and correct ritual practices. Their role has additional social aspects for they officiate on the occasion of life crisis rituals associated with births, marriages and deaths. Other religious figures include the muezzin who calls the congregation to prayer and the khadim, the mosque caretakers. Qari are experts at reciting the Quran; hafiz know it by heart. Hafiz are often blind and associated with brotherhoods at important shrines. Qazi, religious judges, are part of the government judicial system responsible for the application of Shariah laws. Ulama is the term that describes the body of scholars who have acquired ilm or religious learning. As such they are seen as the transmitters of religious texts, doctrines and values, as well as interpreters of the Shariah. Maulana and Mawlawi are titles given to members of the ulama and religious dignitaries. Sayyids among both Sunni and Shia refer to descendants of the Prophet Mohammad who enjoy social and religious prestige throughout the Muslim world. Within Sufi networks there are a host of religious personalities in addition to pirs. Among these are various types of mendicants such as malangs who renounce the impermanence of this world and embrace poverty in order to detach themselves from the chains of materialism so as to better realize the divine. Some malang attach themselves to, or swear loyalty to, a particular brotherhood, but others wander alone, often garbed in colorful creative clothing. Some, like faqirs, claim to have been given a Divine mission and miraculous powers. They eschew home, family and worldly goods, sleeping in mosques or graveyards, especially those attached to shrines of saints. In a culture where family and kin are basic to individual psychological and economic identity, anyone who voluntarily relinquishes these ties is considered to have been favored by God with a special mission. As a result, they are respectfully tolerated and often given alms. Veneration of saints and shrines (mazar, ziarat) is not encouraged in Islam and is actively suppressed by some groups. Nevertheless, Afghanistan's landscape is liberally strewn with shrines honoring saints of all descriptions. Many of Afghanistan's oldest villages and towns grew up around shrines of considerable antiquity. Some are used as sanctuaries by fugitives. Shrines vary in form from simple mounds of earth or stones marked by pennants to lavishly ornamented complexes surrounding a central domed tomb. These large establishments are controlled by prominent religious and secular leaders. Shrines may mark the final resting place of a fallen hero (shahid), a venerated religious teacher, a renowned Sufi poet, or relics, such as a hair of the Prophet Mohammad or a piece of his cloak (khirqah). A great many commemorate legends about the miraculous exploits of Ali, the first Imam of Shia Islam, believed to be buried at the nation's most elaborate shrine located in the heart of Mazar-i-Sharif, the Exalted Shrine. Hazrat Ali is revered throughout Afghanistan for his role as an intermediary in the face of tyranny. Festive annual fairs celebrated at shrines attract thousands of pilgrims and bring together all sections of communities. Pilgrims also visit shrines to seek the intercession of the saint for special favors, be it a cure for illness or the birth of a son. Women are particularly devoted to activities associated with shrines. These visits may be short or last several days and many pilgrims carry away specially blessed curative and protective amulets (tawiz) to ward off the evil eye, assure loving relationships between husbands and wives and many other forms of solace.

Sunnis of the Hanafi School The Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence was founded by Abu Hanifa, one of the earliest Muslim scholar-interpreters to seek new ways of applying Islamic tenets to everyday life. He died in Iraq in AD 767. Abu Hanifa's interpretation of Muslim law was extremely tolerant of differences within Muslim communities. He also separated belief from practice, elevating belief over practice. Sunni are found throughout Afghanistan. Ithna Ashariya (Twelver or Imami) Shia Religious succession is basic to Shia/Sunni differences, and also divides the Shia. The two major Shia communities in Afghanistan are the Ithna Ashariya or Twelvers, also called Imami, and the Ismaili, sometimes called the Seveners. The Imami Shia recognize twelve successive Imams, beginning with Ali and ending in AD 874 with the disappearance of the twelfth who will return as a messianic figure at the end of the world. The most numerous Imami Shia groups in Afghanistan are the Imami Hazara living in the Hazarajat of central Afghanistan, and the Imami Farsiwan of Herat Province. Mixtures occur in certain areas such as Bamiyan Province where Sunni, Imami and Ismaili may be found. Imami Shia are also found in urban centers such as Kabul, Kandahar, Ghazni, and Mazar-i-Sharif where numbers of Qizilbash and Hazara reside. Urban Shia are successful small business entrepreneurs; many gained from the development of education that began in the 1950s. The political involvement of Shia communities grew dramatically during the politicized era during and following the Soviet invasion. Politically aware Shia students formed the hard core of the Afghan Maoist movement of the 1960s and early 1970s After 1978, Shia mujahidin groups in the Hazarajat, although frequently at odds with one another, were active in the jihad and subsequently in the fighting for the control of Kabul. During the political maneuvering leading up to the establishment of The Islamic State of Afghanistan in 1992, the Shia groups unsuccessfully negotiated for more equitable, consequential political and social roles. This heightened profile created a backlash among some Sunni groups, notably those associated with the Hezb-i Islami of Mawlawi Yunus Khalis and the Ittihad-i-Islam of Professor Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Violent sectarian confrontations took place, particularly in and around Kabul Ismailis The Ismaili Shia are also known as Seveners because in the eighth century their leaders rejected the heir designated by the sixth Imam, Jafar al Sadiq (d.765), whom the Imami accepted. The new group instead chose to recognize Jafar's eldest son, Ismail, as the seventh Imam and the Shia community split into two branches. Ismaili communities in Afghanistan are less populous than the Imami who consider the Ismailis heretical. They are found primarily in and near the eastern Hazarajat, in the Baghlan area north of the Hindu Kush, among the mountain Tajik of Badakhshan, and amongst the Wakhi in the Wakhan Corridor. Many Ismaili believe the line of Imam ceased when Ismail died before his father in AD 760; others believe he did not die but remains in seclusion and will return at the end of the world. Ismaili beliefs are complex and syncretic, combining elements from the philosophies of Plotinus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, gnosticism, and the Manichaeans, as well as components of Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religions. Ismaili conceptions of the Imamat differ greatly from those of other Muslims and their tenets are unique. Their beliefs about the creation of the world are idiosyncratic, as is their historical ecumenism, tolerance of religious differences, and religious hierarchy. There is a division of theology into exoteric (including the conservative Shariah) and esoteric (including the mystical exegesis of the Quran which leads to haqiqa, the ultimate realty). These beliefs and practices are veiled in secrecy and Ismaili place particular emphasis on taqiya meaning to shield or guard, the practice that permits the believer to deny publicly his Shia membership for self-protection, as long as he continues to believe and worship in private.

Taqiya is permissible in most Shia, and some Sunni, sects. Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically. The pir or leader of Afghan Ismailis comes from the Sayyid family of Kayan, located near Doshi, a small town at the northern foot of the Salang Pass, in western Baghlan Province. During the Soviet-Afghan War this family acquired considerable political power."
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