More on modern fundamentalism

7 07 2010

National Geographic does it again

The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship. Late on a Thursday night hundreds of mostly young men gathered at the tomb of a 17th-century Sufi spiritual leader, or saint, named Shah Jamal. They formed a tight circle around a trio of drummers and a pair of long-haired dervishes, who whirled at dizzying speeds on a tiled courtyard slick from rain showers and crushed rose petals. Hashish smoke drifted over the crowd, along with chants of “Allah! Allah-u!” and the names of various saints. The dervishes collided, and a shoving match erupted. “It’s our version of rave,” a Punjabi friend later explained.

Actually there’s a bit more to it than that. Sufism has flourished in the subcontinent since its arrival centuries ago in the wake of Turkish armies. It centers on the veneration of saints, often with help from qawwals—singers of devo­tional songs whose mesmeric rhythms are said to induce spiritual ecstasy. Famous saints such as the 18th-century poet Bulleh Shah were once persecuted for their liberal and iconoclastic views. Today their graves are pilgrimage sites for millions of steadfast followers…

A self-assured man with an unexpectedly warm smile, the nazim asserted that the ma­drassa was purely a religious institution. But he made no secret of his sympathy for Jaish or its leader, Massood Azhar, whose father founded and runs the school. “It should be a natural desire for every Muslim to follow in his footsteps,” he said. I asked if students were encouraged to take up arms against U.S.-led forces in Afghan­istan. “When they graduate, it’s their own choice if they want to go to jihad or not,” he said. And what exactly did he mean by “jihad,” which can be defined in many ways? “Jihad is fighting and killing.”…

The shrine is not especially beautiful or grand, but its spiritual power over Bulleh Shah’s acolytes was something to behold. As qawwals warmed up their instruments in preparation for the evening crowd, a trickle of visitors—mostly women—approached the saint’s burial chamber in reverent silence. Some sought his blessing by tying colored threads to the chamber’s filigreed stone. A few openly wept.

This report is well worth reading in its entirety.

In thinking of Christianity in the West, people may think that we are immune from this type of juxtaposition between folk religion and politicized religious extremism. Now I will not name names or sound any unnecessary alarms, but I do see some who would align forms of Christianity to various right-wing agendas. These often characterize other Christians who disagree with them as “X in name only”, just as the Taliban-backed schools in Pakistan judge the Sufi folk Muslims as idolaters.

Sometimes I think the only way to keep the peace (or sanity, for that matter) is to jettison all clerical narratives of religion.

Not a believer inside the mosque, am I
Nor a pagan disciple of false rites
Not the pure amongst the impure
Neither Moses, nor the Pharoh

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

Not in the holy Vedas, am I
Nor in opium, neither in wine
Not in the drunkard’s intoxicated craze
Niether awake, nor in a sleeping daze

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

In happiness nor in sorrow, am I
Neither clean, nor a filthy mire
Not from water, nor from earth
Neither fire, nor from air, is my birth

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

Not an Arab, nor Lahori
Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri
Hindu, Turk (Muslim), nor Peshawari
Nor do I live in Nadaun

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

Secrets of religion, I have not known
From Adam and Eve, I am not born
I am not the name I assume
Not in stillness, nor on the move

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

I am the first, I am the last
None other, have I ever known
I am the wisest of them all
Bulleh! do I stand alone?

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

-Bulleh Shah



3 responses

8 07 2010

“La Santa Muerte, perhaps, when not merely invoked by criminals…”

Without the testing and weeding of “orthodox religion”, though, what is to prevent that from happening? Are we to assume people who accept unorthodox saints will insist they only be invoked for purposes approved by “orthodox religion”?

7 07 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I think one aspect that I failed to highlight here is the necessity of having canonized peripheral figures as a means to truly enflesh belief in all circumstances in life. The Sufi saints in Pakistan seem to be anti-institutional par excellence. They wrote poetry that is irreverent, critical of religious hypocrisy, and very risqué in many of its images. In the early modern Catholic world, anti-institutional characteristics could be given to the saints themselves: the saints could be vengeful, jealous, merciful, and even risqué according to one’s attitudes towards them. In the modern period, we have the canonization of bandits, executed criminals, pop stars, and popular historical figures. That is because as the religious elites codify faith more and more, people need an outlet for other aspects of life that the sober modern faith can no longer encompass.

In Pakistan, this takes the form of canonizing Sufi poets. In Latin America, it takes the form of the phenomenon of folk saints. La Santa Muerte, perhaps, when not merely invoked by criminals, is the patroness of such folk religiosity. Where “orthodox religion” can no longer address the complexities of modern life, the people themselves make symbols that can, without necessarily counter-posing these figures to “traditional” religiosity. In an increasingly globalized and unstable world, perhaps the ecumenism of mortality is the only symbol that people can agree upon.

7 07 2010

Don’t make me have to go to Lahore. *grump!*

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