In his recent book, Hidden Caliphate: Sufi Saints beyond the Oxus and Indus, Waleed Ziad examines the development of Muslim Sufi networks across Asia from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Ziad writes about the power and influence of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis, who inspired major reformist movements until the the early twentieth century. As Sufi saints, scholars, popular poets, and jurists, the Mujaddidis were called upon to mediate between elites, subjects, and communities. They led trade caravans, mediated negotiations, and conducted diplomacy. Their texts and mystical poetry helped to define the contours of Persianate Islam from Delhi through Peshawar to the steppes of Central Asia.
In this interview, Waleed Ziad discusses how Mujaddidi Sufis rose to this role and influence, some of them becoming particularly prominent figures in Central Asia; why a good king was a good Sufi disciple; the importance of Bukhara for Sufi networks; and what Central Asian coins tell us about regional connectivity.
An interview with
Waleed Ziad is Assistant Professor and Ali Jarrahi Fellow in Persian Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Formerly a Research Fellow at the Abdallah S. Kamel Center for the Study of Islamic Law and Civilization at Yale Law School, Ziad has conducted fieldwork in over 120 towns across Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan.
“Hidden Caliphate” was awarded the Albert Hourani Prize, the most prestigious prize in Middle Eastern Studies (through the Middle East Studies Association), was shortlisted for the Bloomsbury Pakistan 2022 Book Award, and has recently been shortlisted for the British Association for South Asian Studies 2023 Book Award.
In your book, you focus at length on “a vast, intricate network of scholar-mystics known as the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi (literally meaning “revivalist”) order.” As you write, the Mujaddidis followed a comprehensive “exoteric” curriculum—ranging from Persian poetry, ethics, and logic to medicine and jurisprudence—before graduating to the higher “esoteric,” or “hidden,” sciences. Could you please tell us more about Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufism and its influence on the Muslim world from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries? Was the emergence of this order in some way a response by the Muslim intelligentsia to the end of the Islamic Renaissance?
To understand the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufi network, we need to turn to the fountainhead of the tradition, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624), from the town of Sirhind, located between Lahore and Delhi. His work, I argue, truly transformed Muslim societies from Istanbul to Indonesia. But his contributions are widely misunderstood today.
Sirhindi was part of the Naqshbandi order, which began in Bukhara, and his teacher was the Samarkandi Sufi Baqi Billah who migrated to Kabul and North India. Sirhindi was known as the Mujaddid, or reviver of the second millennium of Islam—and his followers were thus called the Mujaddidis. They became the most widespread Muslim network prior to the twentieth century. Sirhindi is a fascinating figure who in his early career worked with the Mughal administration. He became perturbed by the politicization of Sufism and the careless, cultic use of Sufi practices that he witnessed around him. He critiqued Sufi charlatans claiming spiritual authority, on the one hand, and corrupt, self-serving scholars with no spiritual compass, on the other. In response to these two currents, Sirhindi developed a revolutionary philosophical-practical system.
There are three of his many contributions that define the Mujaddidi order and which spurred the rapid expansion of its networks in the centuries to come. These were the key ingredients of the great revival, the building blocks of the Mujaddidi “hidden caliphate.”
First, Sirhindi was a synthesizer. He effectively bridged the gap between Sufism and sharia, the world of the mystics and that of the jurists. I will not be able to do justice to his philosophical works in this brief discussion, but we can say he insisted that Sufism had to be circumscribed within sharia, and likewise, sharia had to be understood through Sufism.
Second, he systematically laid out the path of Sufi spiritual wayfaring. This inspired a streamlined curriculum combining sciences from hadith studies, law, and logic to breathing exercises and meditation, bringing together the insights of multiple (mostly Central Asian) Sufi orders. His teachings were then disseminated through integrated educational institutions that served as both madrasas (colleges) and centers for Sufi practice. In other words, the worlds of the scholars and of the Sufis were reunited as integral parts of one system.
Third, he had some fascinating ideas on millennial revival and his own role in cosmic millennial transformations—namely that, a thousand years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (1602), the spirit of Islam required renewal, and Sirhindi and his students—the Mujaddidis—were its agents. So Sirhindi and his successors built a paradigmatic Sufi center at Sirhind, one so famous that the city itself became known as the “Abode of Guidance.” This took place over the course of the seventeenth century.
How did these philosophical and institutional developments translate into the public sphere? How did the Mujaddidi Sufis assume transregional socio-political leadership?
This has a lot to do with the politics of the eighteenth century in South and Central Asia. Older imperial structures broke down, many smaller states emerged from the fragments of the earlier empires, and European powers slowly began to encroach in places like Khiva and Bengal. Local ruling elites on both sides of the Amu Darya and Indus, like Bukhara and Peshawar, effectively entrusted scholastic and social services to Sufi orders, especially the Mujaddidis, whose popular authority appealed to the urban intelligentsia and tribal and rural populations alike. These Sufis then formed institutional networks quite separate from the fiscal-military institutions of the state and with a lot more resilience and longevity. Their Sufi centers, madrasas, and shrines formed a superstructure that enabled a transregional knowledge economy and provided coherence to the politically fragmented region. This coherence was made possible through a constant flow of texts, practices, and human capital. In tandem, their rural institutions and land endowments spurred agricultural production.
The Sufi centers were spaces where multiple ethnicities and classes came together. As in prior centuries, ruling elites did not confine themselves to a parallel “secular” space. Rather, they too spent time in the Sufi centers; their participation as patrons and disciples was inextricably tied to the practices of power. A good king was a good Sufi disciple.
As such, my work is an inquiry into the nature of the “fiber,” to use Joseph Fletcher’s term, that held together parts of Eurasia before the twentieth century.
How was this fiber fashioned? Relying on Sirhindi’s pioneering theological interventions—specifically with regard to reconciling and integrating divergent Sufi pedagogies and sharia—the Mujaddidis became a synthetic tradition, one that was both transregional and local. So they were quite easily able to adapt to faraway places and absorb older sacred communities and spaces. A diversified support and capital base meant that they were not restricted to any one region or dependent on localized sources of income.
They became the arch-intermediaries, the proverbial honest brokers. As Sufi saints, scholars, popular poets, and jurists, the Mujaddidis were called upon to mediate between urban and tribal elites and subjects, antagonistic polities, colonial and local authorities, and agrarian and highland communities. They led trade caravans across the Khyber Pass and the Amu Darya, and, when required, even raised armies. Their institutions became public spaces furnishing a suite of social services that went far beyond education, meditation, and popular religious rituals. They were soup kitchens, caravanserais, and safe houses, as well as loci for trade, negotiation, and diplomacy. They were also sites for the production and propagation of poetry and texts—didactic, polemical, and historical—that helped define the contours of Persianate Islam in this period.
With regard to your question about whether this was a response to the end of an “Islamic renaissance,” I would answer that it is more accurate to describe the Mujaddidi intervention as the next stage of intellectual-spiritual development in the broader Muslim world. This was a time when many sciences that had been forming in places like Bukhara since as early as the tenth century, from cosmology to law and literature, started coming together in a much more systematic, institutionalized way. This was a period that witnessed the growth of vast networks, an unprecedented exchange of scholars and scholarship, where students would travel from Siberia to Bukhara, where they would meet colleagues from Peshawar and Kabul.
At the center of your narrative is the very important question of how the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi Sufis inspired major reformist movements and articulated effective social responses to the fracturing of Muslim political power amid European colonialism. Could you please elaborate on your answer to this question? There is a contrary view, at least in Central Asia, that Sufi Islam was a major obstacle to twentieth-century reformist movements such as the Jadids and Young Turks.
Throughout the course of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, virtually every major social movement and even anticolonial resistance movement in Central Asia and its neighbors was connected to the Mujaddidis.
My book focuses on the career of one particular Mujaddidi Sufi based in Peshawar and Bukhara, named Fazl Ahmad, who died in 1816. (In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Peshawar, now in northwest Pakistan, was one of the two capitals of the Afghan Durrani Empire founded by Ahmad Shah Durrani.) As I immersed myself in Fazl Ahmad’s story, and physically followed his footsteps across the Indus and Amu Darya, it appeared that he was connected to almost every major mystic, intellectual, political figure, and social movement in the Afghan Empire, Central Asia, Tatarstan, and India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The famed Uzbek state-builders of Bukhara, the kings Shah Murad and Amir Haydar, were not just his disciples but his licensed Sufi deputies, who were assigned by him to teach meditative practices to their own students. They reignited the Bukharan academic scene. Several Afghan kings were his disciples; they relied on Fazl Ahmad for transregional diplomacy and on his successors to help them mobilize against Britain. The notorious English agents and Great Gamers William Moorcroft and Alexander Burnes depended on Fazl Ahmad’s son to get them into Central Asia for the first time. These were the first English forays into Central Asia. Fazl Ahmad’s deputies in Peshawar led the charge against the Mujahidin movement in the 1820s. This is a fascinating moment: the Mujahidin movement was the first attempt to set up a Wahhabi-type puritanical state in the eastern Muslim world. And Fazl Ahmad’s deputies were successful in driving these radical ideologies out of the region and preventing their entry into Central Asia.
Fazl Ahmad’s son in Khoqand was a patron saint of the kingdom. His disciple was none other than Muqimi, one of the pillars of Uzbek poetry. His famous madrasa there is now a museum dedicated to Muqimi. Yet another of Fazl Ahmad’s family members was the Khoqand ambassador to St. Petersburg, who conducted a very important negotiation with Tsar Nicholas on behalf of the kingdom. Shahab al-din Marjani, regarded as a fountainhead of the Russian Tatar intellectual awakening, was a deputy of another of Fazl Ahmad’s sons, who was based in Bukhara.
A third son, meanwhile, mobilized thousands of tribal auxiliaries in a decisive battle against the Sikhs of Lahore, who had looked poised to occupy Afghanistan in the early 1800s. Yet another disciple was the Akhund of Swat, an incredible ascetic of the Afghan highlands who set up a famous Sufi state in the mountains of the Swat valley in present-day North Pakistan and who led campaigns against colonial forces in the 1860s. The custodians of Mazar-e Sharif, the sacred epicenter of Central Asia, where Imam Ali is believed to be buried, were also disciples of Fazl Ahmad. One of them penned his biography. Several of the great Sufi-scholars of Siberia were likewise from his lineage. One of the largest madrasas in Xinjiang, the Chong madrasa, was part of his lineage via Osh in Kyrgyzstan.
And yet, Fazl Ahmad’s name is all but forgotten. Through his story—and he is one of thousands of these transnational Mujaddidi Sufi figures—it becomes clear that this vast Inner Asian world was entirely interconnected: the pastoral nomads of Central Asia, the urban centers, the ungovernable highlands, and the rural breadbaskets. So at the time of the fracturing of the great Safavid, Mughal, and Uzbek empires in the eighteenth century and the rise of small states, khanates, and the Afghan empire, Fazl Ahmad and his Sufi contemporaries were a force that kept this world together.
With regard to the Young Turks and the Jadids, it is true that many of their critiques centered around the role of Sufi orders in preventing progress. But we should keep in mind that Kursavi and Marjani were both Mujaddidi Sufi shaykhs. Plus, as scholars argue, major reforms in the late Ottoman empire, like the Gulhane edict that launched the Tanzimat reforms, directly reflected a Mujaddidi ethos. In addition, these modern movements inherited many of their critiques of corrupted Sufism from the Mujaddidis.
How do you see Sufis in general—as more of a political network or an intellectual (spiritual) one?
One of the key interventions that this book makes is recognizing that prior to the twentieth century, Sufism was at once spiritual, intellectual, and political. Although Sufis’ primary concern was spiritual development, their efforts reached much further.
First, of course, we have to rid ourselves of the notion of Sufis being recluses. Undoubtedly, all of the protagonists of my book spent a significant amount of time meditating and wandering. Most also passed through spiritually intoxicated phases, lost in contemplation of the divine. But the Mujaddidi Sufis—and, frankly, most of the Sufi schools—did not see God-intoxication and being reclusive as sustainable in the long term. The true guides were meant to be connected to the world and their communities. They were to be those who could practically guide others in their spiritual journey and their worldly affairs.
From the early years of Islam, Sufis and scholars provided leadership to the Muslim world and beyond. This is not a new idea. The notion of the Hidden Caliphate, which I introduce in my book, is a very old concept. For both Sunni and Shia Muslims, after the tragedy at Karbala, political and true spiritual authority were no longer fused. The rulers were not expected to be spiritual guides. Among most Muslims, there was an understanding that true authority lies with the ones of gnosis: imams, jurists, academics, and especially Sufis. These people of gnosis were the Hidden Caliphs, supposedly the true inheritors of the Prophet. The kings and khans were simply the Apparent Caliphate: they provided day-to-day governance and kept order, but purely in the temporal realm. The Hidden Caliphs were the ones who were supposed to guide hearts and provide moral leadership.
In your book, you pay great attention to Bukhara as the center of Sufi networks. Why did Bukhara remain at the center of these networks, what was so unique about it, and what is the legacy of the Sufi orders in this city?
Several chapters of my book concern Bukhara, which is a pivotal node in my study. The establishment of the Mujaddidi order in Bukhara in the late eighteenth century, via the Afghan Durrani Empire, transformed Bukhara into not just a center of scholarship and mysticism, but also a Sufi scholarly-cultural hub linking Siberia and Kazan with North India.
In the 1770s, the main protagonist of my book, Fazl Ahmad, settled in Peshawar, which was one of the two capitals of the Afghan Durrani Empire. From Peshawar, he embarked upon five journeys to Bukhara, where the celebrated khanate-builder of Bukhara, Shah Murad, and his son Amir Hayder became his devoted disciples. Contemporary sources tell us that Fazl Ahmad’s disciples numbered in the thousands on both sides of the Amu Darya, and he appointed over 600 deputies to run centers and manage communities of disciples. Many of these deputies belonged to ancient sacred lineages of Central Asia—Dahbidis, Ahraris, and Juybari Khwajas—thus forging scholastic bridges between Transoxiana and the Mughal and Afghan Empires.
In Bukhara, Fazl Ahmad witnessed Central Asia’s last scholastic renaissance. After decades of political and environmental crises in the early eighteenth century, the Manghit khans of Bukhara fought to reconsolidate Bukhara’s position as a political and academic capital. Starting in the mid-eighteenth century, Bukhara’s own scholarly class received considerable patronage. Students traveled from Bukhara (and Khoqand and Khiva) via reinvigorated trade routes to study with teachers in Afghan territories. Soon afterward, scholars from the Afghan and Mughal Empires came to Bukhara. These migrants included Fazl Ahmad, who was awarded the Mirakon Sufi center at Qarakul gate, where he met the young khan Shah Murad two years after his coronation in 1787.
The Bukharan sources tell us that Shah Murad was deeply committed to Sufism and hadith study. They tell us thatt he lived like a dervish, wearing patched garments, and engaging in manual labor; and that he even refused kingship until pressured by the community. The Peshawari sources, meanwhile, give us detailed accounts of his daily practices at Fazl Ahmad’s Sufi center. We learn that he spent up to four hours a day at the Mirakon Sufi center with his master, Fazl Ahmad.
The sources also give us detailed accounts of the range of sciences taught at this Sufi center, from jurisprudence and scriptural study to poetry, methods of meditation, and spiritual travel through the lata’if (metaphysical energy centers corresponding to points on the body).
Eventually, we are told, Shah Murad excelled in spiritual practices to the extent that he—and later his son Amir Hayder—would become deputies of Hazrat Fazl, with permission to guide their own students.
These sources also reveal that under the influence of Mujaddidi Sufis like Fazl Ahmad, a new ethos of kingship emerged in Bukhara. The kings in fact refashioned themselves as theologians and Sufis. We have detailed correspondence between Amir Hayder and Fazl Ahmad in which the king takes advice from his teacher on how to train his own disciples, on meditative practices, and on questions of adab.
At a library in Peshawar is a fascinating set of letters between Amir Hayder and Fazl Ahmad’s deputy in Peshawar, Hafiz Daraz, who was one of the foremost scholars of the Afghan Empire. Amir Hayder’s letter to this scholar contains 17 highly technical questions—ranging from logic and law to metaphysics and medicine—to which Hafiz Daraz responds.
Both Shah Murad and Amir Hayder patronized education, such that Bukhara boasted 80 madrasas by Amir Hayder’s time and sources claim that over 30,000 students were supported by the state. Amir Hayder often sent personal invitations to the principal scholars of the Afghan and Mughal Empires, like Bibi Sahiba Kalan, the great female scholar and the head of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order in Qandahar, Afghanistan, who is the subject of my next book.
For their part, the Afghan kings began offering stipends for students to study in Bukhara, and by 1800 an extensive academic exchange had developed between Peshawar and Bukhara. Each city had 100 institutes of higher learning, drawing students from as far afield as China and Dagestan.
Fazl Ahmad began appointing his own deputies from the Mughal intellectual centers of Punjab and Peshawar to Balkh, Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, where they were provided for by local elites. These include, among others, a scholar from Punjab who in a matter of years became known as La’l Beg Samarqandi. His shrine and that of his son were revered in Samarkand until the early twentieth century.
Besides Hidden Caliphate, you have written In the Treasure Room of the Sakra King: Votive Coinage from Gandhāran Shrines, which explores copper currency from the Sakra region in northwestern Pakistan, dated from ca. 550 to 1100 and corresponding to the Nezak, Turk Shahi, Hindu Shahi, and Ghaznavid periods. What motivated your research into Sakra coinage? Do you have any interest in Central Asian coinage?
This is actually a book about Central Asian coins! The very idea that Central Asia, and Central Asian empires, were somehow particular to Russian-occupied Central Asia north of the Amu Darya has prevented us from recognizing the scope and connectivity of states like the Kushans, the Hephthalites, the Western Turks, and even the Timurids.
The book focuses on a cave temple and associated sacred sites in the highlands in northern Gandhara (northwest Pakistan) that were inaugurated under the Central Asian Kidarite dynasty in the fourth century and persisted well after the Ghaznawids. This cluster of sacred sites produced hundreds of fascinating copper coins meant to serve as temple offerings for pilgrims; these combined Hellenistic, Saiva, Vaisnava, Zoroastrian, Middle Iranian, Turkic, and even Byzantine iconography.
The period that I cover in this book spans several great kingdoms, most of which had Turkic roots: the Kidarites, the Hephthalites, the Nezak, the Turk Shahis, the Hindu Shahis, and the Ghaznawids. The type of political and religious symbols that appear on these coins will be very familiar to any scholar of Central Asian coinage: tamghas, deities like Anahita, sacred animals that carry divine grace, the fire altar, and Sasanian-style three-quarters facing or facing portraiture of the kind that one typically finds in Sogdiana. Some coins even feature the tamgha of Sogdiana. In fact, one of the first coins I discovered from the site features a Hephthalite tamgha and a duck carrying pearls in its beak, surrounded by a beaded border. This is the earliest datable representation of this sacred animal, which famously appears on the murals of Afrasiab and is now a symbol you will find painted on walls in various locations across Samarkand. Like Hidden Caliphate, this book is also about cultural and religious exchange across what we now call the Turkic, Iranian, and Indic worlds.
How well do you think Central Asia is connected to South Asia, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan? What is particularly interesting in our shared history? How might we strengthen our intellectual links?
In my work, I conceive of all these regions as one interconnected space. In fact, I would argue that treating them–following modern politics–as three separate geographies prevents us from adequately understanding the history of this vast interconnected and rich zone. Across this whole region, the Persian language was a binding agent, along with many vernacular tongues that were inspired by Persian literature. There were shared sensibilities around kingship, faith, and adab. I argue that Sufi networks sustained this sphere well into the early twentieth century.
So in order to understand the Durrani capital cities of Peshawar or Kabul, one has to look to Bukhara, Khoqand, and Yarkand. These regions have a deep interconnected past, whether in the Mughal period, the Kushan period, or the Achaemenid period. Scholars, priests, literary figures, and armies constantly moved back and forth.
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