Monday, 20 December 2010

Singaporean Pirs, Sufism and the myth of monolithic Islam

Singapore's declaration of the Naghore Durgha sufi shrine as a listed property is part of an effort to protect the island's history. The shrine is under the custody of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
Singapore's Naghore Durgha shrine in 2005, in dire need of restoration
The world may associate Sufism with Rumi's poetry or Konya's whirling dervishes, but Sufi Islam is much more.
Sufi holy men were instrumental in synthesizing Islam with the local cultures that Islam came into contact with around the world. Consequently, Sufis often made Islam acceptable to local cultural traditions. Theirs is perceived to be a less austere form of Islam, relative to the wahabi beliefs propagated by certain national religious authorities.
Through their travels and 'everyman' practices Sufis saints were critical in spreading Islam in areas as diverse as Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. To this day, many Sufi orders exist as dynamic centres of theological learning.

The tomb of Khoja Afaq near Kasghar, Xinjiang, China
Not surprisingly, Islamic extremists have begun to view Sufi orders as a key threat to their version of Islam. The Pakistan Taliban has set its sights on intimidating ordinary Pakistanis steeped in the traditions of Pirs and Fakirs. Just as it is difficult for modern India to legislate away centuries of the Hindu caste system, it is almost impossible for Pakistani Islamic extremists to paint sufi practices as un-Islamic.  
The importance of Sufism cuts both ways.
Following the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic by Ataturk, he immediately set about outlawing the many Sufi establishments sprinkled around the Anatolian peninsula. Like today's extremists, Ataturk understood the importance Sufi traditions play in perpetuating Islamic beliefs.
Despite bearing the full force of the Turkish state since 1926, Turkish Sufi orders continue to thrive to this day.
The real battle for Islam is not being fought in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan or North Waziristan but around the many Sufi mazaars or shrines found in every nook and cranny of Pakistan. If extremist Islam is to be defeated then, by definition, the rich traditions of Sufi Islam must prosper. 
Sufi saint Shah Rukhn-e-Alam's shrine built between 1320-24 in Multan, Pakistan
Now, if the Islamic world were defined as strictly as wahabis would have us, then at the stroke of a pen, many Indonesian Muslims would become unbelievers. To strict wahabis, there is no place for many Indonesian cultural traditions within Islam.
There is little place for religious or cultural arrogance within Islam.
The restoration of a Sufi shrine in Singapore is recognition of the country's diverse Muslim community, a recognition not granted by the state's strait jacketed Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). It is time the Singapore authorities review the relevance of legislation drafted in the 1960s for contemporary Singapore.
AMLA, by accident or design, imposes by fiat Malay cultural traditions upon a heterogeneous Muslim population.


  1. Where is the shrine in Singapore?

    1. The tomb of Habib Noh is located inside a mosque managed by MUIS located at 37 Palmer Road.