Research on the Rifa’iyya, a Sufi order in South-Western Asia
As a Sufi order or tariqah, the Rifa’iyya is better identified with its birthplace Iraq, and with parts of Anatolia and the Levant. A living branch of the order, however, that retains its pre-modern organizational structure, is based today in the city of Karachi, with strong connections across the regions of Pakistani Baluchistan, Iranian Sistan-Baluchistan, and the northern coast of Oman. This sub-order of the Rifa’iyya was established in Karachi by Sayyid Zain al-‘Abideen Rifa’i (d.2016) who migrated to Karachi after the partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when he was just seventeen years old. He hails from a line of the Rifa’iyya who originally migrated to the Indian subcontinent some two hundred years ago from Basra and settled in Bombay.
Lyari, a neighborhood of Karachi
The spiritual life of the Rifa’iyya in Karachi is centered around the neighborhood of Lyari, with its mixed Iranian and Pakistani Baluch population. Under the mantle of Sayyid Zain al-‘Abideen, coastal Baluchi communities spanning three countries came to comprise its major adherents. The de facto head of the order today is Sayyida Safiya, Zain al-‘Abideen’s daughter who, as a female head of a non-reformed tariqah, retains a special role in the order’s life.
The scholars Hasan Ali Khan and Aliya Iqbal-Naqvi are contributing their ongoing research on the Karachi Rifa’iyya to the ‘Iran and Beyond. Breaking the Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration’ (IRSSC) project based at the German Orient Institute in Istanbul (part of the Max Weber Foundation – German Humanities Institutes Abroad). After several detailed discussions with Sayyida Safiya and her subordinates, the project was conceptualized, in part, as a monograph that will initially cover four aspects of the Rifa’iyya order emanating out of Karachi across the Persian Gulf:
- The history of the order and the reasons it came to the sub-continent at such a late stage in the history of Muslim migrations from Western Asia towards India.
- The organizational hierarchy of the order, centered in Karachi and spanning three countries, Pakistan, Iran and Oman.
- The special beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and practices identified with the Karachi Rifa’iyya.
- The literature produced by the order, its manqabats, or religious chants, and recitations in the vernacular, primarily in Baluchi. Those are recited at ceremonies, and are regarded as being as powerful as Scripture when used in dhikr.
Which role did the order play in the foundation of Karachi?
Gauging from the oral history of the order, it has come to the attention of the researchers that the initial migration of the order from Basra to undivided India was associated with the settlement of the Karachi neighborhood of Lyari by the Baluchi community, some 200 years ago. In this, the order cut across what have today become two distinct Baluch communities in Karachi: the Iranian Baluch and the Pakistani Baluch. Members of both communities are inhabitants of Lyari and adherents of the Rifa’iyya order. The etymological roots of certain street names in the ‘Baghdadi’ quarter of Lyari give us important clues about the settlement of this oldest area of Karachi by the Baluch, who were neither Iranian nor Pakistani 200 years ago: the original settlement of Lyari by Baluch communities may have taken place under the patronage of the Rifa’iyya. Part of the ongoing research project is to investigate the probable role played by the order in the founding of the city of Karachi itself.
Moving between two modern states with ease and regularity
The order’s connection to Iran is both part of the past and alive to this day. There are old associations via the movement of Rifa’i khalifas back and forth across Pakistani Sindh to the Irani Sistan-Baluchistan province, primarily the adjoining regions of Chahbahar and Lashar. Today, the Rifa’iyya Order remains in a symbiotic relationship with the Iranian Baluch community in Lyari. This group remains a major part of the order’s adherents, each sustaining the cross-border life of the other. Most of the Iranian Baluch of Lyari hold both Pakistani and Irani passports and move back and forth across the two modern states with ease and regularity.
Studying rituals and ceremonies
The research team has begun to study and document the notable rituals of the Karachi Rifa’iyya. A ceremony known as the Bhandara in the local Baluch vernacular, for example, is similar to a ritual practiced in Rifa’i or affiliated communities across the Middle East. The origins of this ceremony may, in part, derive from the Ratib-e Rifa’i ceremony that is common to all Rifa’iyya sub-orders across the broader region. These rituals involve piercing the body and performing other supernatural feats to prove that the order’s beliefs are bona fide. They also resemble the practices described by Trimingham that took place in the time of Ahmad Kabir al–Rifa’i (the founder of the order himself, d.1182 CE): ‘eating living snakes and enter ovens blazing with fires which are extinguished thereupon’ (see Trimingham, 1968, pp./37-38).
The Bhandara (generic: majlis) ceremony is for the purpose of ‘spiritual healing’. In our case it has taken on its own local color: in part resembling the larger zar rituals in the Persian Gulf region, albeit, with stricter and more identifiably Islamic rules. The daf drums used in the ritual are especially prepared for each ceremony with the hide of the goat sacrificed for the sanctified food served afterwards, an act of sadaqa which clears out negative energy. The beating of the drums and the chanting of special Rifa’i formulas serve as the media for the healing process of the Bhandara ceremony. However, there is a divergence from the zar rituals: no pact, per se, is made with any afflicting power. In the vocabulary of the order, these are simply known as the shakhs or, literally, ‘individual’. The Rifa’ikhalifas use frankincense to summon the powers that are to be tamed.
Brown, John P., The Dārvishes, London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968 (centenary edition), pp.115-139.
‘Rifa’iyah, in https://www.britannica.com/ , accessed on 22 April 2020.
‘Rifa’iyya,’ in https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2 (Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition), accessed on 22 April 2020.
‘Rifaiyye,’ in ‘ https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr , accessed on 22 April 2020.
Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Sufi orders in Islam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp: 37-40.
Aliya Iqbal Naqvi, Scholar in Residence, Department of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, Pakistan.
Dr Hasan Ali Khan, Assistant Professor, Comparative Liberal Studies Programme (CLS), School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Habib University, Karachi, Pakistan.