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PIR. A word of Persian origin meaning “old man,” the term pir (Ar., pir) has been taken up into Sufi discourse as a common title commonly for a Sufi teacher, particularly in South Asia and neighboring areas. The pir is the revered elder who initiates disciples (murids) into a Sufi order. In popular practice, however, the term pir encompasses a complex and controversial array of social practices, relationships, and institutions that, though having their historical roots in Sufism, are regarded by some Muslims as distinct from it.

At certain periods in the history of Islam overt antagonism has existed between the modes of teaching and scholarship espoused by `ulama’ and by Sufis. Major religious scholars have worked actively to reconcile and synthesize the two approaches, which are often distinguished as the external (zahir) teachings of the Qur’an, and the inner (batin) teachings known through the spiritual experiences of the Sufi master and spiritually transmitted from pir to disciple. In the modern period, reformist `ulama’ such as those at the highly influential Deobandi school (see Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900, Princeton, 1982), have also been pirs but have sought to eliminate from Sufi practice what they regard as popular superstitions. [See Deobandis.] In reformist discourse, which is common among urban middle-class Muslims today, the term piri-muridi is often used in a derogatory sense to characterize forms of popular practice that are deemed to violate the Qur’an and sunnah (practices of the Prophet) and to be typical of the uneducated. Reformists are highly critical of the pir who has no knowledge of Sufism as it is articulated in the literary Sufi tradition but rather derives his status and his ability to confer the blessing (barakah) of God on disciples merely through descent from a pious Sufi ancestor. The devotee of a pir may attribute supernatural powers to him and typically asks him to write amulets, cure diseases, and solve problems, often in return for a financial contribution to the pir or to the shrine to which he is attached. Reformist pirs, though retaining practices such as writing amulets for followers, place a heavy emphasis on shari`ah in their teachings and stress that, when selecting a pir, the potential disciple should focus exclusively on the piety of the pir and his knowledge of and adherence to shari’ah.

Pirs, their practices, and their links with shrines of past Sufis continue to be a focus of controversy, particularly in Pakistan, where the effort to articulate a relationship between Islam and the state is an ongoing struggle. Some of these hereditary pirs are major landholders and retain a considerable following, especially in rural areas, although direct control over the major shrines has been appropriated by the government (see Katherine Ewing, “The Politics of Sufism: Redefining the Saints of Pakistan,” Journal of Asian Studies 42 [1983]: 251-268). Pirs have played an influential role in contemporary Pakistani politics, frequently taking a stance in opposition to efforts at social and religious reform by political parties such as the Jama’at-i Islami, who argue that the whole idea of a pir is against Islam and that all practices associated with pirs and shrines should be eliminated. Many concerned with modernization and development have also denounced popular belief in pirs, but even among the educated elite the search for a pir to be one’s spiritual guide and the publication of Sufi works appear to be widespread and even growing phenomena.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in South Asia; Sufism, article on Sufi Thought and Practice.]

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ewing, Katherine. “The Sufi as Saint, Curer, and Exorcist in Modern Pakistan.” Contributions to Asian Studies 18 (1984): 106-1 I4. Lewis, P. Pirs, Shrines, and Pakistani Islam. Rawalpindi, 1985. Descriptive overview of popular beliefs and practices, including an eclectic treatment of recent scholarship.

Sherani, Saifur Rahman. “Ulema and Pir in the Politics of Pakistan.” In Economy and Culture in Pakistan, edited by Hastings Donnan and Pnina Werbner, pp. 216-246. New York, 1991. Represents one Pakistani perspective which sharply distinguishes pirs from Sufis and is critical of the role of pirs in Pakistani society and politics.

KATHERINE P. EWING

Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/pir/
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  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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