Hidden Caliphate: Sufi Saints beyond the Oxus and Indus
by Dr Waleed Ziad
Harvard University Press 2021, 354pp
Reviewed by: Dr Irfan Moeen Khan, LUMS
31 May 2024
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Waleed Ziad has given us the first comprehensive account of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis, or to be precise, the hidden caliphate (“subnetwork”) of Fazl-i Ahmad Ma’sumi of Peshawar (d. 1816), who was a deputy of the Naqshbandi Sufi saint of Hindustan, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624). Geographically, the network of this hidden caliphate included “Hindustan, Khurasan, and Transoxiana” (p. 26), but his “case studies deal with regions as far afield as Kazan, Siberia, and Kashgar” (p. 28), with deputies everywhere playing dynamic roles as “intermediaries” at a time of political fragmentation. During this period of endemic instability, Fazl-i Ahmad’s successors founded khānqāhs and madrasas “from Balkh to Khoqand and Ghazni to Kashmir (p. 26).” The larger part of the work offers a microhistory of this Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi network in Bukhara, Peshawar, Dera Ismail Khan and Ghazni, Ferghana, Swat and Malakand, and Waziristan. It is an impressive undertaking based on the author’s study of vast textual material and extensive anthropological fieldwork. The selected time frame, from the mid-18th century to the late 19th century, is a significant intervention in the historiography of the region by focusing on the “Persian cultural-linguistic tradition and historical memory” (p. 2) of the region—in this case, the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi’s hidden caliphate—rather than subjecting its history and politics to Great Game narratives.

To retrieve the region’s history, the book’s first chapter is about the Persianate cosmopolis because the “Mujaddidis fused Persian, Arabic, and vernacular literary traditions; mystical virtuosity; popular religious practices; and the urban scholastic domain into a unified, yet flexible, articulation of Islam that provided coherence to diverse Muslim communities across wide-ranging territory” (p. 3). Ziad gives an extensive account of the Perso-Islamic synthesis in conjunction with Sirhindian metaphysics (discussed below) that was integral in (re)defining Islamic sovereignty. The development of the Persian language was deeply interwoven with Sufism, which was “further complemented by evolving interactions between Iranian and earlier Islamic political cultures” (p. 31). Persian literary culture was not restricted only to the elites but spread well beyond courtly circles, just as “the composition of poetry and malfūẓāt (discourses) in the Persian language, and the development of musical forms like Qawwali, transformed Persian cultural production into an integral part of popular culture that, in Hindustan and Iran, transcended even religious boundaries” (p. 32). In the political realm, too, the primary language of governance was Persian—the Islamo-Persianate court culture was common among the three empires—and it gave the professional classes a great deal of mobility, “so the flow of knowledge and scholarship between the empires continued unabated despite political contestation on the borders” (p. 33).

In addition to the importance of the Persianate Cosmopolis in sustaining the new model of sovereignty (of the hidden caliphate) is the critical role of the “Muslim scholastic- religious network,” in particular the contribution of Sirhindi, in formulating intellectual responses (among several other social roles the scholars played) to incorporate or appropriate diverse practices within its Naqshbandi fold—all of which is discussed in chapters 2 and 3. The scholastic-religious network was sustained by a circuit of madrasas, khānaqāhs, and shrines committed to producing “a shared knowledge economy and sacred memory” (p. 16).

Most notable in transmitting this knowledge economy was the college at Sirhind, a sacred center for the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidis. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi’s teachings helped reshape the curriculum for the madrasas and khānaqāh networks, through which his intellectual synthesis was disseminated widely. Ziad offers several reasons to explain the success of the Sirhindian intervention and what was distinct about it. Sirhindi’s legacy is seen as “grounding Sufism in the Prophetic example and shari‘a, or divine law, served to circumscribe a new normative yet flexible Sunni orthodoxy” (p. 61). The result was a shari‘a- conscious (minded?) Sufism (“juristic Sufism”) that helped to “reign in Sufis who overstepped scripture and Islamic law” and also convinced egoistical jurists of the necessity of Sufism. Because of this intellectual feat, the curriculum combined esoteric and exoteric sciences and presented the Naqshbandi path as having an “epistemic hegemony over other Sufi traditions” (p. 103). Thus, texts or manuals included meditative practices of other Sufi orders without value judgment, but the Mujaddidi system is nevertheless cast as the most distinguished or “overarching the others.” The understanding in this methodology is that the Naqshbandi path leads to higher levels of experience than other paths could deliver.

The network of licensed deputies (who have received ‘ijāza) of the Naqshabandi- Mujaddids was “linked by a common culture, etiquette, and epistemology” (p. 250). There were the lineal descendants of Sirhindi at the top, with a larger second tier of non-family deputies involved in the transmission and diffusion of Naqshbandi practice and texts. Ziad has described the scholastic network as a “matrix” (p. 249), with each point or “node” in this matrix possessing its unique variation. A combination of deputies, some with regional and others with technical expertise, sustained these nodes, and from this institutional setup in different regions, other subnetworks emerged with “deep roots in the local community” (p. 249) wherever they settled. Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 of the Hidden Caliphate are dedicated to these regional stories, specifying the unique interventions of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi “intermediaries,” active agents in making history.

An interesting claim of the work is the nature of spatiality attributed to the Mujaddidi matrix, which functions as part of the local dynamics yet remains above it. For example, in the tribal politics of Yaghestan, “They lived and intermarried within their host clans, but remained outsiders to the Afghan tribal organisational framework” (p. 225). The idea is that this duality gave the Mujaddidi matrix a unique or privileged vantage point from which to assert its influence. Furthermore, in tracing the various contours of the scholastic network, the circulation of texts in Fazl-i Ahmad’s hidden caliphate shows how Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi spread their mystical practices across different regions. The didactic manuals were for the use of Mujaddidi deputies to guide their followers. According to the author’s analysis of the two manuals (Makhzan and Risala) examined, “[such] texts enable the Mujaddidi order to absorb localised shared practices and institutions, while maintaining a stable shared system” (p. 92). Also, these texts sought to establish a correlation between prescriptive rituals and meditative exercises and Sirhindi’s metaphysics and ontological concepts.

The book aims to uncover a subnetwork of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis and through it to rewrite the history of a vast region from the inside. However, it is equally about the influence of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi in the history of Islamic reform and revivalism. Sirhindi’s ideas on millennial revival (tajdīd-i alfi) earned him the authority to bring about the desired transformations in Sufism. Building on Ibn ‘Arabi’s theory of the “Perfect Man” (insān-i kamil), the Shaykh introduced the cosmic office of qayyūm, superseding the role of all saints, “an intermediary between God and all of creation” (p. 79). Between the sacred kingship claims of the Mughals and the Safavid and the popular Mahdavi movement, Sirhindi’s ontological intervention—in introducing the cosmic office of qayyūm—laid the foundation for a new model of sovereignty that became the basis for the hidden caliphate.

After the collapse of the two empires, the new political entities that emerged lacked popular legitimacy. Thus, the role of Naqshbandi-Mujaddids became pivotal in sustaining the “sacerdotal” sphere. Instead of civilisational decline, the concept perpetuated by colonial historiography, Ziad shows that even at a time of fragmentation, the followers of Sirhindi were not concerned with statecraft (ẓāhirī caliphate), as usually held to be the case, but with “synthesizing, reformatting, and disseminating existing pedagogies through institutions that harmonised revealed, rational, and esoteric sciences” (p. 21). In other words, their activism (as important intermediaries) was only to ensure stability for their real project of “spiritual guidance, travel, and wayfaring” (p. 222). Therefore, contrary to the earlier perception of the Naqshbandi Sufis, the book argues that their ultimate purpose “was to guide humanity to realize their potential to become vicegerents of God” (p. 253).

This hidden caliphate of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidis is presented as a new model of sovereignty in central and southern Asia. One of the significant differences with earlier models of sovereignty was the clear (“strict hierarchy”) division between the manifest (ẓāhirī) and hidden (bāṭinī) caliphates, with the latter responsible for “higher metaphysical functions of governance, while the manifest caliphs are purely responsible for the material, worldly aspects of governance” (p. 12).

As such, the work is a corrective or revision of earlier scholarship that views the Naqshbandi order as deeply invested in political power. Several studies have been written about the proximity of Naqshbandi leaders to power during the Timurid and Mughal rule. In these studies, the order is characterized by its political concerns to ensure that the rulers respect the primacy of religious law. Ziad gives us a different way to think about the nature of this relationship—the religious authority of scholars and the political power of the rulers In short, the primary purpose of the Mujaddidis, in the case of the regions studied by the author, was not “statecraft” but inner spiritual transformation. Sirhindi’s metaphysics emphasised this spiritual dimension of Naqshandi practice over and above other concerns. Sirhindian ontology combined the esoteric and exoteric with an emphasis on the Prophetic example that, in turn, produced a class of scholar/jurist-Sufis for administering the “sacerdotal sphere” (p. 3). These scholars were perceived as appointed by the Divine, possessing hidden knowledge. Besides the better-known ones, many others were anonymous. This was the sphere of the hidden caliphate, which, according to Ziad, is a “new model of sovereignty.” In this model, compared to the traditional model, the monarchs became participants in the khanaqah spaces.

Ziad’s work is a notable contribution to Naqshbandi studies (or history of Sufism). However, while Sirhindi was not the first scholar in Islamic history to offer a middle ground between concerns for sacred law and what was seen as the excesses of Sufism, his prophetology was a unique intervention. Some discussion on the epistemological tensions between the legal culture and Sufi rituals would have been helpful. The work is rich in ethnographic detail, but there is little in terms of its departure from Buehler’s contribution to the study of the Naqshbandis. Moreover, the notion of the network of scholars serving as intermediaries during periods of political fragmentation reminded me of John O Voll’s article “Islam as a Special World-System,” (Journal of World History 5.2 (1994), pp. 213-226), in which he wrote about the importance of tariqas and networks of scholars in providing cohesion after the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate. As for the claim concerning the new model of sovereignty (seemingly like the traditional model but different in “substance”), the argument for situating the “hidden” caliphate only among the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi network is not a convincing one. For instance, Sirhindi’s ontology can be read as responding to such claims of esotericism in society and attempting to undercut them through his complex prophetology. Therefore, the notion of a hidden, esoteric Sufi saint as the outcome of specifically Sirhindian ontology is incorrect or requires more deliberation.

The book is divided into nine chapters, excluding an introduction and a conclusion, a total of 261 pages with two appendixes (entitled “Key Reigns and Events by Region, 1700- 1900” and “Patterns of Reproduction of Practical Sufi Handbooks”), notes, acknowledgments, and an index. The author must be commended for his quest for Persian, Arabic, Chagatai, Tatar, Urdu, Pashto, and Sindhi sources, listed in Appendix B.

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2024

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