Transnationalism and Regional Cults:
The Dialectics of Sufism in the Plurivocal Muslim World
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Introduction: the Problem of Comparison in Sufi Orders
I have been thinking for some time about the possibility of comparing Sufi orders, conceived of as focused, central place organizations, as they exist in different parts of the Muslim world. The challenge is, as I see it, how to formulate a set of analytical concepts to create a theoretical approach that encompasses Sufi ritual and religious movement, and which can be applied to Sufi practice in geographically distant geographical locations, from North Africa in the West to Pakistan and Indonesia in the East. I stress practice as against Sufi cosmology or poetry, since my aim is to understand the sociological and economic dimensions of Sufi orders.
Of course, it cannot be taken for granted in advance that comparison is a valid project. Superficially, even in a single locality, there is an enormously wide range of types and styles of Sufi shrines and saints, from major shrines of great antiquity, managed by descendants of the original saintly founder and guardians of his tomb, to minor saints with a highly localised clientele (see Troll 1989; Werbner and Basu 1998). The question is: if even in a single locality, shrines differ markedly, how much more so if we try to compare, for example, Sufi orders in Pakistan and Indonesia? In the following discussion, I highlight key analytical terms that I believe are crucial for a comparative account of Sufi orders.
One problem in the project of comparison I am proposing has to do with language. In parts of the Muslim world there appears to be a reluctance to use the analytic armoury of concepts developed elsewhere. Hence, Indonesian scholars, for example, prefer to use vernacular concepts to describe the ritual and organisational practices of Sufi orders, and this then leads a description of these cults that seems to imply that they are quite different from Sufi orders and cult practices in Pakistan, for example, or Morocco. One challenge, then, in the project of comparison is to begin to disentangle the meanings of vernacular terms in order to be able to explore if comparison is, firstly, possible and second, where difference lies. I began this project when I undertook a reanalysis of research on Sufi orders in Indonesia, which seemed to expose many unacknowledged areas of possible comparison between Indonesia, Pakistani and North African Sufi orders and the cults they generate (Werbner 2008). While it had been recognised in Indonesian studies that the ideas of Sufi theosophy were shared with the rest of the Muslim world, rituals practices seemed quite different. My reanalysis highlighted aspects of the cults that were described but left untheorised by south-east Asian scholars.
Broadly speaking, charting the differences and similarities between Sufi orders as embodied traditions requires attention beyond mystical-philosophical and ethical ideas, to the ritual performances and religious organisational patterns that shape Sufi orders and cults in widely separated locations. We need, in other words, to seek to understand comparatively four interrelated symbolic complexes: first, the sacred division of labour – the ritual roles that perpetuate and reproduce the cult; second, the sacred exchanges between places and persons, often across great distances; third, the sacred region, its catchment area and the sanctified central places that shape it; and fourth, the sacred indexical events – the rituals – that co-ordinate and revitalise organisational and symbolic unities and enable managerial and logistical planning and decision-making. Comparison requires that we examine the way in which these four dimensions of ritual sanctification and performance are linked, and are embedded in a particular symbolic logic and local environment.
I begin with an example from my own research. The Sufi cult I studied in Pakistan (P. Werbner 2003), was in many senses remarkably similar organisationally to other, non-Muslim regional cults and pilgrimage systems elsewhere (for examples, see R. Werbner 1977). It also fitted the model of Sufi order cults analysed by Trimingham (1971), which was mainly based on his extensive knowledge of Sufi orders in the Middle East and Africa.
During his lifetime, Zindapir, founder of the Sufi order of the saint I studied, established a lodge that extended globally: to Britain and Europe, the Middle East and even South Africa. Emerging as a saint during the 1940s, in the dying days of Empire, Zindapir began his career as an army tailor contractor for the seventh Baluch regiment, and his cult membership expanded through the recruitment of state employees, in this case soldiers and army personnel. These in turn recruited members of their families and, when they retired to civilian life, their co-villagers or townsmen. The cult expanded further as these soldiers went to work as labour migrants in the Gulf or Britain. Disciples were also recruited from among the stream of supplicants coming to the lodge to seek blessings and remedies for their afflictions from the saint, and from among casual visitors curious to see the saint and lodge itself, a place renown for its beauty. Some disciples joined the cult after meeting Zindapir or his vicegerents on the annual Hajj to Mecca. Such recruitment chains form network clusters whose members share either occupational or geographical proximity (or both).
Zindapir’s disciples met regularly to perform zikr at the lodge branches of the order, located throughout Pakistan. They gathered at the central lodge of Zindapir weekly, monthly, and in most cases, annually, at the ‘urs, the three-day ritual festival commemorating the mystical ‘marriage’ of a deceased saint with God. Some pilgrims arrived for the festival as individuals, but most came in convoys of trucks and buses from established branches, travelling in some cases for over 24 hours. The sacred exchange at the cult centre was extensive: the groups arrived bearing with them sacrificial offerings of grain, butter and animals. They returned bearing gifts from the saint – gowns or caps, and in some instances, the sacred soil of the lodge itself. During their three-day stay at the ‘urs, all the participants were fed and nurtured by the saint himself. The hundreds of beasts sacrificed, the hundreds of thousands of baked chappatis and nans, the enormous cauldrons of sweet and pilau rice distributed during the ‘urs, feed some 30,000 people over three days, a major logistical challenge. But the saint also feeds pilgrims to the lodge throughout the year, in what may be conceived of as a form of perpetual sacrifice. The lodge itself has been built with voluntary labour in the name of God, usually in the weeks preceding the annual ‘urs. The crowds depart following the final du‘a, the supplicatory prayer enunciated by the saint himself on behalf of the whole community.
This annual celebration at a saint’s lodge or shrine is known in South Asia as the ‘urs. In North Africa it is known as mawlid. It commemorates the death/rebirth of a saint, the moment of his unification or marriage with Allah. The ‘urs is the organisational hub of sufi saints’ cults. The festival gathers together individual supplicants and pilgrims alongside organised groups of devotees and disciples who visit the festival annually and cultivate a special relationship to the saint and the Sufi tariqa or order he founded. These groups or congregations often travel great distances to attend the annual ritual. They frequently come from different linguistic, ethnic and even religious groups. Although the celebration marks the high point of the year, it cannot be understood apart from the more enduring links that constitute the organisation of the order.
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