Hashish, Sufism and modernity


In the neighbourhood of Ichhra in Lahore, hundreds of people gather every Thursday night at the shrine of Shah Jamal, a Sufi of the Suhrawardi and Qadiriyya orders (silsila).

Under the sacred peepal trees, devotees sit in a circle to witness and experience the sacred dance: dhamal.

Repetitive rhythmic beats of dhols and correspondingly frenzied barefoot whirling of the devotees create a trance-inducing effect on the audience.

Participants reverently witness the performance, while collectively partaking in hashish-smoking — a derivative of cannabis.

Devotees indulge in hashish intoxication as a communal activity complementing the sacred ritual of dhamal.

Sufi shrine culture in Pakistan is multi-faceted and diverse; while hashish does not feature uniformly across cultures of traditional shrines, hashish-smoking is a visible, communal, and conspicuous activity associated with Qalandari shrines in Pakistan.

Paradoxically, it is also one of the least studied phenomena as meaningful in terms of Islam; despite its prominence in Islamic settings, it is frequently dismissed as merely illegal and representative of the degeneration of Islamic ideals.

In the popular imagination, the use of hashish in Islamic settings, and as an Islamic activity, is explained primarily within two discursive frameworks; it is explored through its legal status in Islam or through the category of “folk” or “popular” Islam.

Deeming hashish to be one form of intoxicant, Islamic legal prohibition of intoxicants is extended to censure the use of hashish.

The illegality of the activity serves as the premise for the “un-Islamic” and irreligious characterisation of hashish-smoking.

When explained in non-legal terms, hashish is described as an aspect of “popular” Islam, or particularly “popular” Sufism, representing the beliefs and practices of non-literate masses belonging to the “lower” social strata.

Such phenomenon, by definition, is assumed as self-evidently distinct from proper and official Sufism.

It rests on a trickle-down movement of beliefs and practices, where the activities of “elite” are assumed to be “pure,” which undergo a process of distortion, degeneration, and vulgarisation as they are popularised and lived by the masses.

Under both rubrics, hashish is characterised as intrinsically “non-religious” and devoid of Islamic normativity.

Because such an understanding of hashish is secular, the affiliation of hashish with Islamic thought and settings is rendered meaningless.

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