The Spirit of Qalandar

I have a confession to make. Even though I am deeply troubled by the metaphysical claims of Islam along with the growing religious extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere, I do have this strange affinity for the mystical aspect of Islam. It’s hard to talk about it in public and it’s equally difficult to rationalize it internally. Nonetheless, I find something rather intriguing about Sufism, which I cannot exactly pinpoint at this juncture of my life.

There is a particular Sufi saint, who has been an object of my fascination since 2013. His actual name is purported to be Usman Marwandi but he is more famously known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. I like to call him LSQ for short. Time and again, I find myself gravitated to this saint and end up doing some online research related to him.

As his name suggests, he was a Qalandar. Qalandars were wandering Sufi dervishes. According to one online source, Some Qalandars practiced asceticism and often used hashish, alcohol, and other intoxicants… Particular to the Qalandar genre of poetry are terms that refer to gambling, games, intoxicants and Nazar ila’l-murd – themes commonly referred to as kufriyyat or kharabat. The writings of Qalandars were not a mere celebration of libertinism, but antinomial practices of affirmation from negative action.’

lal-shabaz-qalandar
The Qalandar in contemplation and in the movement of dancing poster. © Museum of Ethnology, Munich

For the last few days, I have been venturing once again into the world of Qalandariyat. In my latest search, I came across an online article titled ‘The Holy Fool in Medieval Islam.’ Following is a passage from the online article:

As a social phenomenon, the origin of the qalandar is yet undetermined, but the concept made its entrance into Persian literature in the early eleventh century as a paragon of spiritual virtue. In contrast to mainstream Islamic mysticism, the qalandars never established a closely reasoned doctrinal scheme but their teachings was centered around a common esoteric orientation emphasizing inner contentment, tranquility of the heart and prevention of self-conceit. Notorious for their coarse behavior, the qalandars attempted to destroy all customs by committing wicked acts, not as an exit out of society, but in order to conceal the sincerity of their actions from the public view. By overturning conventions they strove to expose the hypocrisy of the established order and question its values. For the qalandar, holy foolishness was not primarily an attempt at moral instruction but an ingenious way to fight spiritual pride.

This in turn, naturally, led me to Google the term ‘Holy Fool’ which I found quite unique and equally interesting. I landed up on a book chapter titled The Holy Fool. The chapter was from a book called Majnūn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society by Michael W. Dols.

It was but natural for me to come across a description of the Qalandars, while reading this chapter. Following is what I found on Qalandars while reading the chapter:

In later centuries, some Muslims invited reproach and disapproval by behaviour that was offensive to others. This intentional transgression of social mores became the hallmark of the Qalandars, who adopted many of the teachings of the Malāmatīs. The Qalandarīya were eclectic, also being influenced by other religious traditions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism. They were usually quietists and antinomians, who wandered across the Islamic world, like modern-day hippies, outraging public opinion. Although attempts were made during the Middle Ages to distinguish between the true and false Malāmatī, the Qalandars came to predominate and to usurp the term.

In Muslim India, such a Qalandar was known as a malang, who sought complete dissociation with the external world. These mendicants were remarkable for their use of narcotics, their clothing and hair-styles, their personal ornamentation, and their laxity in adhering to obligatory Islamic precepts.

It seems that Qalandars took the beliefs of Malamatis to an extreme. The logical step for me was to next understand the beliefs of Malamatis. Following is what I found in the same chapter:

According to the teaching of the Malāmatīya, a Muslim should similarly conceal his chaste inner life, thereby avoiding the danger of hypocrisy that the conventionally pious encountered. The recorded teachings of this group of mystics ‘is not a closely reasoned internally consistent system, but rather a number of tenets which centre around the basic Malāmatī doctrine that all outward appearance of piety or religiosity, including good deeds, is ostentation. … In accordance with these tenets, the Malāmatī has to struggle continuously against his desire for divine reward and for approval by man.’ Consequently, the Malāmatī did not participate in the obligatory devotional exercises or those of the sufi orders but prayed and fasted in secret. He did not dress differently from other Muslims or follow a solitary life; he adopted a despised vocation and refused a prestigious one; and he concealed his poverty, so as not to attract communal charity. The elimination of the conventional signs of piety from an individual’s life often left the impression that he was disreputable or impious and, therefore, the object of malām, blame or reproach

qalandar-painting
A painting by artist Ali Abbas depicting malangs. Courtesy: dawn.come/news/1047734

After reading all this, I believe I might have realized my fascination with the Qalandars. The reason I am sharing all these passages is to represent the kind of inner struggle I am facing as a secular human being who, thanks to the onslaught of science and philosophy, has lost faith in Islam. I am equally disturbed by the kind of hypocrisy that characterizes Muslims especially the ones living in Pakistan. They would do a lot in the name of Islam that supposedly has nothing to do with the classical understanding of Islam.

The inner struggle is either to come to terms with the vast nothingness of the cosmos or to find some semblance of sanity and meaning that is so desperately yearned for. This quest of mine can be viewed as “spiritual” by some though I would refrain from using the term spiritual to describe my searching. In some sense then, perhaps, I am a Qalandar. I am a Qalandar insofar as I ridicule outward piety and religiosity and partake in Islamically forbidden activities such as drinking alcohol and eating pork.

As I have blogged before, my apparent heresy is a function of the overt piety and extreme religiosity characteristic of Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular. I am a heretic out of contempt for what Islam has become. I am also in some way an antinomian. I reject socially established Islamic morality since it hinders personal growth and self expression. For an antinomian, faith alone is needed for salvation. For a Sufi, love of God is what truly matters. For a searching agnostic such as myself, self expression is important. It is through self-expression that the inner potential of one’s self is actualized, which, in turn, creates further possibilities of creative unfolding.

I write in the spirit of a foolish Qalandar and will continue doing so. Dama Dam Mast Qalandar!