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Afghanistan: Sufi Brotherhoods Reemerge After The Fall Of The Taliban

  • Theodor Alexe

Kabul has again become a center for Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, a term used to describe those who are interested in inner knowledge or finding the path toward inner awakening and enlightenment. After the flight of the Taliban, every neighborhood in Afghanistan's capital now seems to have its own Sufi brotherhood.

Kabul, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Sufis of Afghanistan played a significant role in the anti-Soviet resistance, offering followers solidarity and stability without considering the ethnic background of the faithful.

During the civil wars that followed, the brotherhoods of dervishes, or tariqats, slipped out of sight, replaced by various political groupings and ethnic military formations.

The Taliban had an ambiguous attitude toward the activity of these mystical associations. Now, after the Taliban's fall, the tariqats are reemerging in full strength. There are four tariqats functioning in Afghanistan: Qadiriya, Naqshbandiya, Chishtiya, and Sohrawardiya. Each local branch of a brotherhood is run by a pir, which literally means "old man."

Pir Hamidullah is 60-something, toothless, and sports a spotless white turban and a smart tweed suit. As is often the case, Pir Hamidullah has multiple affiliations, belonging to the Qadiriya, Naqshbandiya, and Chishtiya tariqats simultaneously. It is a situation found frequently in neighboring Pakistan, where multiple affiliations by pirs is the rule rather than the exception. Pir Hamidullah's disciples are mostly Qadiris, however.

Hamidullah lives on the outskirts of Kabul, in a dry, dusty neighborhood wedged into the ruins of a district destroyed during the fights between the Hazaras and Ahmad Shah Massoud's forces in 1993.

Hamidullah's mud-brick house is surrounded by high walls, making it look from the outside like any other dwelling in a traditional Afghan village. But the walls also enclose a small orchard, irrigated by a maze of narrow but deep trenches.

In the house, Hamidullah's seven sons attend to him and his guests. They run the economic life of the tariqat. They also organize the practical details of the ecstatic ceremonies, or "zikrs," around which the tariqat revolves. The zikr is held every Thursday evening, as well as during big religious feasts.

The zikr consists of the rhythmic, collective recitation of a series of mystical names given to God. This culminates with the modulated howling of the "shahada," which embodies the main teaching of Islam: "La illaha ill'Allah," or "There is no god but Allah."

This is shouted in unison by the dervishes. The combination of their breathing and physical movements sometimes results in a trancelike state.

The Qadiris and the Sohrawardis perform a vocal zikr, while the Naqshbandis are silent. The ritual of the Chishtiya includes the attainment of a trance through the use of music. The zikr of the Chishtiya brotherhood is always done through common singing.

A pir can foretell the future. He gives advice to the faithful, even about their personal lives. Pir Hamidullah is no exception. He distributes amulets and blessings designed to cure a series of illnesses. When a pir dies, his grave becomes a "mazar," or place of pilgrimage.

The followers of Pir Hamidullah refuse many of the conveniences of the modern world. They don't own radios and televisions, refuse to be photographed or filmed, and keep their use of electric appliances to a minimum. Their greatest modern compromise is the use of electricity in their homes.

During an interview about Sufism with RFE/RL, Pir Hamidullah refused to let his voice be taped, but he answered all questions. One of the dervishes did grant a taped interview, however. He is Mohammad Ismael Siddiqi, an intellectual who used to teach mining techniques at the Polytechnic Institute and who is awaiting the reopening of courses in March. Siddiqi frequents Pir Hamidullah's house because he believes in the power and the sincerity of the holy man.

Siddiqi told RFE/RL that the Taliban tolerated the activities of some of the brotherhoods. Thus, the followers of the Qadiriya, Naqshbandiya, and Sohrawardiya brotherhoods could conduct their ceremonies. After all, it is said that Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, was a dervish of the Naqshbandiya.

But Siddiqi said the Taliban persecuted the Chishtiya.

"Many Sufis hid themselves, especially the Chishtis, because of their use of music. They held their ceremonies secretly. According to the Taliban, music is haram (illegal, impure). The Taliban were not against all the brotherhoods, only against those who held their ceremonies with music."

For Siddiqi, the explanation of the Taliban's intolerance is simple.

"The Taliban did not represent real Islam. They were wicked and explained Islam in a misguided way."

Sufi followers have always encompassed the spectrum of Afghan society, including members of the present interim government. During Taliban rule, Pir Hamidullah was denounced for practicing the ritual of the Chishtiya. Each time the Taliban sent the religious police to his house, however, Hamidullah said he always found his followers among them. He said he would be left alone after a short argument.

Today, the greatest figure in the Qadiriya world is Pir Sayyid Ahmad Gailani, the hereditary head of the Qadiriya in Afghanistan, who is related to exiled Afghan King Zahir Shah by marriage. Gailani participated in the Soviet resistance and was at one point named chief of justice by the mujahedin.

The Naqshbandiya, on the other hand, can claim two of the country's previous presidents as followers -- Sebghatullah Mojaddedi and Burhanuddin Rabbani.

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