The Middle East and indeed much of the Islamic world is on fire, driven by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and worsened by their politicization of Sunni and Shia communities. As Muslim communities come under increasingly radical influence, it sometimes seems to those from other regions that the Islam–at least as seen in the Middle East–is especially austere and harsh. In order to overcome this, one solution advocated by some is the “Turkish model,” which not only attempts to create a secular state but uses the state to intervene in and rework religion to suit the state’s purposes. Yet this too has deleterious effects.
But the world of Islam is not monolithic, nor is it limited to the Middle East, as is often pointed out. The largest population of Muslims in the world lives in South Asia. Per a 2009 survey, an estimated 484 million Muslims live in South Asia, mostly in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, more than the 315 million inhabitants of the Arab world. Over half of Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region and a third of all Muslims are South Asian. India and Pakistan together have as many or more Shia than Iran, and some of the largest Sunni populations in the world. Sunni-Shia tension was rare in South Asia until a few years ago and grew due to increased Saudi influence in mosques. Nonetheless, pluralism is highly valued by South Asian Muslims, 97 percent of whom believe it to be a good thing for there to be freedom of religion for different faiths. This is the greatest percentage of Muslims who believe this in any region of the world, including the West.
While Southeast Asian Islam, primarily represented by Indonesia, the largest majority-Muslim country in the world, is considered culturally and intellectually peripheral to the Muslim world, with few scholars or thinkers of influence and no major centers of Muslim world wide learning, South Asia is, on the other hand, along with the Middle East, the most important region of the Muslim world in terms of influence and importance. There is a very large corpus of religious literature in Urdu. The South Asian tradition of patronage and pilgrimage led to a large presence of Hindustanis, as the Persians called them, and Hindis, as the Arabs called them, in the port cities of the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. Soon enough, these South Asian Muslims came to Mecca by the 19th century, where they constituted 20 percent of the population.
Because of these connections, the Islam of the subcontinent has global influence, and influence in the Arab world, which often sets the tone of Islamic life. South Asian Islam has a unique charm that could and should be influential in the greater Islamic world, both because it maintains practices that have declined elsewhere and due to its unique characteristics. One such practice is its interpretation of Sufism.
Sufism is a mystical understanding of Islam that complements outward practice (regulated by Sharia), and not an independent branch: most Sufis are formally members of one of the Sunni or Shia schools. Sufism is often quite formalized, consisting of many orders (tariqas) led by masters or guides (pirs) in a chain (silsila) that goes back to Muhammad and his esoteric teachings. Almost all major Sufi orders trace their chain to Muhammad through Ali, his son-in-law and the first Shia imam. Incidentally, most Sufis are Sunni due to the nature of demographics. This places Sufism in a unique position to bridge the gap between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Sufism, especially the Sufi orders, are especially strong in South Asia compared to the Middle East: the region is so diverse and heterogeneous, and political power so diffuse and split along familial lines, that social and political attempts to homogenize its many groups are bound to fail. In other parts of the Muslim world, both secular and Islamist governments have persecuted Sufi orders, and not only for theological reasons, such as the common Sufi practice of visiting the shrines (dargahs) built around graves of religious figures. Turkey, for example, moved against Sufi orders after Ataturk came to power, because it saw them as regressive, anti-rational (mystical), and as an alternative source of power, due to their command structure. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Sufi orders were hounded in Iran.
Culturally, South Asian Islam has been heavily linked to music, much of it praising saints or the leading figures of Islam, often featuring dancing. Music also features prominently at weddings. Much of this is alien to large parts of the Middle East, along with figurative art. These traditions are meshed completely into Islamic culture in South Asia and are thus legitimized rather than viewed as secular activities. The idea that countries have to either choose the way of Turkey or Saudi Arabia—secular embrace of modern arts or austerity—is thus disproven by the living South Asian religious tradition.
It is important to note that many of these practices are not necessarily sanctioned by Islam itself and many scholars also oppose them. But they are still largely prevalent in South Asia, in a way they are not elsewhere in the Islamic world, which has either become overly secular so as to lose its tradition or overly puritanical. South Asian Islamic scholars for the most part defend the traditional practices of Islam in their homeland, with the majority being part of a movement known as the Barelvi movement, which was founded in the early 20th century as a reaction against the encroachment of Wahhabi ideas in South Asia, which lead to a puritanical reaction in the 19th century: the Deobandi movement.
Nobody should get to claim the prerogative of claiming some version of Islam or the other is the true Islam. This is a trap that both Muslim progressives and radicals fall into. But, South Asian Islam, the world’s largest grouping of Muslims, and thus the home of the most prevalent customs associated with that religion, is definitely a pleasure to behold compared to the state-enforced Islams of Saudi Arabia and Iran or the Islam of Turkey, drained of much of its life by the state. The continued demographic might and influence of South Asian Muslims, even in places where South Asian Islam is under siege like Pakistan, ought to continue. This is because South Asian Islam needs to keep alive its practices and structure so it can help revive and reteach traditions that have fallen away in the Middle East, traditions of mysticism, pluralism, culture, art, and music.