My introduction into the world of Afghanistan’s Sufism began in 2015, over lunch with my friend Rohullah, the director of a research institute in Kabul. I had been working in Afghanistan in various sectors from government to nongovernmental jobs, and had returned to explore topics for a PhD that I had embarked on, a year prior.
I asked what had happened to Afghanistan’s Sufis. Were they all gone? Afghanistan had, after all, once been the cradle of mystic interpretations of Islam, the place of origin of Mawlana Jalaluddin Balkhi, known in the West as Rumi. Had the Sufis disappeared in the exodus precipitated by successive wars that had engulfed Afghanistan since the late 1970s? Or had they been replaced by more radical and austere forms of Islam, as some analysts speculated? Rohullah laughed. ‘They are still here,’ he said. ‘You foreigners just don’t ask about them. All you care about is gender, counter-insurgency and nation-building.’
Any cursory look through titles in bookstores or newspaper headlines on Afghanistan substantiated Rohullah’s insight: Western policymakers, journalists and most researchers tended to nurture the kinds of knowledge about Afghanistan that informed policy, and for that purpose Sufis were not particularly useful. But even when searching regionally for literature on Afghanistan’s Sufis, all I could find were texts on the historical prevalence and importance of Sufis, though nothing about their present-day lives and struggles.
On occasion, Sufism still burst onto the public stage, for instance in 2016 when Iran and Turkey tried to claim the Masnawi Ma’navi, Rumi’s magnus opus, as their joint cultural heritage (the poet died in Konya, in present-day Turkey, in 1273 – and wrote in Persian, a language spoken in both Iran and Afghanistan). Western scholars and pundits barely took notice but, in Afghanistan, public intellectuals such as the poet laureate and Sufi poetry teacher Haidari Wujodi argued that ‘Maulana belongs to present-day Afghanistan and yesterday’s Khorasan. It is the responsibility of the Afghan government to take swift action about it to protect our heritage.’ An online petition decried the attempt to lay claim to Afghanistan’s cultural legacy while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held talks with UNESCO over the perceived slight. And Atta Mohammad Noor, the then governor of the northern province of Balkh where Mawlana’s family originated, penned a letter to the UN condemning Iran and Turkey’s ‘imperialistic’ attempts to appropriate Rumi and disregard Balkh as the esteemed poet’s ‘motherland’.
This ‘diplomatic frenzy’, as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty called it, revealed Afghan pride in Sufism and that it still has the power to spark intense debate. Sufis in Afghanistan never really fit into Western narratives about the Taliban or the war and occupation. So, Sufism was ignored. The chaotic US military evacuation in 2021 and the sweeping Taliban takeover, with all the scenes of suffering and human rights abuses that followed, have made it even more difficult to imagine an Afghanistan where Sufi scholars debate the finer points of Islamic ontology and poets ruminate on the infinite ways to lose oneself in the beauty of God’s creation. It requires a real stretch to remember that Sufism, in its multifaceted incarnations, has been a central thread in the tapestry of Afghanistan’s historical, artistic, educational and political life. [Continue reading…]