Sufi Civilities
Religious Authority and Political Change in Afghanistan
Annika Schmeding




July 19, 2018

The midday sun had just begun to warm the backs of the guests seated on padded toshak mattresses under the half-shade of a willowing canopy when Asma Mahjor, a poet and Sufi teacher in her late thirties, took the podium. Her father, an eminent expert on the poetry of Bedil Dehlavi, who had tutored her in the intricacies of mystic allegories and poetic meter, had passed away a year earlier. This was his annual death celebration (urs), an event celebrated for important Sufi teachers or saints. “There are some men who have heroic women and children,” Asma’s brother said in his introduction for his sister who was about to speak, “and there are some daughters who make their father a hero.” Ascending to the podium, Asma greeted the community: “Dear respectful scholars, may peace be with you as I welcome you to the house of Bedil.”

As she launched into her speech on love (ishq) in the Sufi tradition, a middle-aged woman in the audience next to me whispered: “This is the real Afghan civil society,” skewering a buzzword of the Western-funded, English-speaking nongovernmental organization (NGO) scene with its lofty goals of rebuilding Afghanistan’s society in its own image.1 The woman herself had a foot in both worlds, interfacing with international donors and their “transformative” agendas as the director of a large NGO as well as hailing from a traditionally influential family. Her grandfather had been a founding member of the Bedil halqa (circle) alongside Asma’s grandfather. “There’s no funding for this, but it exists and continues nonetheless,” she explained. “It’s the resistance of a nation to organize these social, cultural and religious events, to keep the memory of who we are alive.” Her words hinted at the vital role that Sufism had played throughout Afghanistan’s history along with other types of voluntary associational groups that have long been a feature of social life in Afghanistan. While individuals might have family connections to a pir who led a particular Sufi community, affiliation with a specific order or group was not a foregone conclusion but a voluntary act. It created a group of like-minded people bound together by their common search for knowledge and participation in Sufi ritual practices. As Asma was joined on the podium by a young poet who was a student of the late Mahjor, the woman nudged me out of my private thoughts, declaring: “Look! This is the new generation.”

What a casual visitor might not pick up on, but what was perceptible to discerning community members like the woman seated next to me, was that choosing a leader and embodying authority were not a straightforward question of inheritance. Asma was the daughter of the late teacher, but her status as an authority on Bedil and teacher of Sufi insights remained questioned and disputed. She had organized the urs celebrations, in which she would speak and disseminate the newest publications of her father’s oeuvre, which she had also edited. The event served as an opportunity to demonstrate her ability to mobilize the financial and cultural capital needed to bring these books that honored the memory of her late father into existence. It was a necessary effort concerning the competition for leadership. Her uncle had hosted a competing urs event in memory of Asma’s father on another day by inviting Bedil aficionados for a mahfil (celebration) that many in the community recognized as a competing bid to claim leadership of his brother’s followers.

Threats and challenges to authority were rarely expressed openly in these bids for leadership in Afghanistan. Indeed, in this instance, the dueling events could be shrugged off as just alternative dates for people to come and celebrate in another setting. When I asked Asma about it, she simply replied, “We had already printed the invitations when he decided to invite [community members] on another day.” But from what I knew of the community and the varying contenders’ interactions, it was clear that this discord was not a logistical miscommunication. The choice of guests and speakers, decisions to invite the media or leave it a semi-private affair, the way individual teachers used social media to broadcast or to teach, all lay the groundwork for competing claims for power and leadership. They also embodied very different visions of the community that each contender intended to lead.

The particulars of the Bedil community’s struggles over succession were distinct but hardly unique. They arise in many Sufi communities after the death or departure of an established leader. By the time I witnessed the competing urs celebrations within a Bedil group, I had become aware of similar struggles, transitions and processes unfolding in other Sufi communities past and present. I had returned to Afghanistan to research how Sufi communities navigated transition phases of different types during the periods of conflict, ideological struggle and migration produced by four decades of war. What I realized after spending months at a time, over successive years, among different Sufi communities was that the choice of leadership was intimately linked with the ways these groups understood their changing environment and their own role in it. Leaders needed to respond to these changes, to give guidance, assurance and support to their communities, sometimes shield them or take the brunt of attacks against them. They needed to show their dexterity in dealing with these situations and skillfully navigating tense and changing social and political environments.

Unlike the power of a state ruler that is often enforced by violence or coercion, authority among Afghanistan’s Sufi communities is established through the mutual acknowledgment of teacher and student, leader and follower. If religious authority relies on such interpersonal dynamics, on this continued labor, how could it have not been altered by the intense changes and ruptures that tore through Afghanistan’s societal fabric over the past decades? How could it not be challenged by the varying ways in which Islam became a pawn used by all the factions fighting these wars? How did potential leaders in the communities confront these changes and potential contestation to their authority? The communities I researched seemed to have adapted in manifold ways to their changing environments, navigating in turn external changes as well as internal transitions. Yet when I looked for literature to capture or explain these dynamics, I found little about the particulars of these processes. This book explores how leaders like Asma navigated changing social and ideological environments and how the necessity to adapt to these changing conditions affected the way that religious authority itself was legitimized and constructed.

Sufism and the Study of Islam in Afghanistan

This book is a reflection on the navigational dexterity of Sufi leaders and their communities who weather periods of instability and ideological animosity by adapting to an ever-changing world around them. Sufism is as pervasive as it is often contested in Afghanistan. A focus on Sufism, given its deep historical roots and its local, national and transnational salience, allows us to zoom in on particular aspects of change and continuity within Afghanistan’s past and present. Centering “Sufis”—a multivalent term on whose definitional disagreement I elaborate later—allows for a more complete picture of the changes within discourses on Islam and brings into focus the lived experience of civilians in conflict and postconflict settings who are often targeted for their particular beliefs or practices.2 The community-centered perspective from the ground up that this book espouses challenges the flattened, two-dimensional image of Islam so often applied to Afghanistan.

Much of the literature on Islam and Afghanistan tends to focus on the use of Islam in political ideologies and nation building or its gendered dimensions.3 Islam as a faith is frequently relegated to a position of instrumentalized ideology, especially in regard to the decades-long insurgencies that were often legitimized as a jihad.4 More recently, religion in Afghanistan has been viewed through reference to the Taliban’s version of Islam, particularly after their takeover of the country in 2021.5 However, Islam is lived in diverse ways among Afghanistan’s various Muslim sects—Sunnis, Twelver Shi‘a and Isma’ili Shi‘is—who have historically lived alongside non-Muslim communities of Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians.6 Sufism should not be thought of as a separate sect, like Shi‘ism or Sunnism, but an orientation within Islam, one that is present within any sect. It is better understood as a lens through which Islam is interpreted, thought of and lived in Afghanistan as well as in many Muslim communities worldwide.7 Referred to as tasawwuf or irfan (gnostic mysticism) in Persian, Sufism in its most simplified rendering is the search for the inner meaning of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s message.8 It has been part and parcel of a diversified discursive environment, taught in madrasas as religious education, interwoven into seemingly secular socioeconomic networks, viewed as inspiring courtly artistic flowering and inscribed as an essential element of Afghanistan’s national cultural heritage.

Forays into the history of interregional Sufi networks that ran from Delhi in present-day India through Afghanistan to Central Asia, Iran and Turkey, as well as Persianate literary studies (which cannot be conceptualized without Sufism at its core), point to the far-reaching significance of Sufism’s legacy in today’s Afghanistan.9 However, the lack of contemporary scholarship on Muslim communities and on the nuanced Islamic discourses in Afghanistan has, perhaps inadvertently, played into a “decline hypothesis” that declares Sufism defunct in the contemporary era. In this view Afghanistan had a golden past populated with courtly Sufi statesmen and poets that bears no resemblance to its present state, one characterized by narrow-minded Islamists and suicide bombers.10 In reality, Sufis never left the stage of Afghan history; they simply reappeared in unexpected roles and places: as resistance fighters and aid workers in refugee camps, as politicians and businessmen, as actors and musicians, as university professors and students, mullahs and mobile phone sellers. We might have to adjust our lens, but Sufis are there, and not as mere bystanders but as active agents in their own history.

Sufi Civilities contributes to and builds on the growing ethnographically informed literature on present-day Afghanistan that was reinvigorated post-2001 after decades of a virtual standstill for on-the-ground research in the country.11 Anthropologists have since explored changes in local politics and center-periphery interactions, gender relations, memory, trauma and ethnicity, the reconstruction and development nexus as well as international economic and labor networks.12 With only a few exceptions, significant attention to Islam from an anthropological perspective has been largely absent.13 Indeed, the post-2001 revival of anthropological research on Islam pales in comparison to the meteoric rise of interest among political scientists and international relations and security studies researchers.14 Furthermore, the most recent anthropological accounts of Afghanistan’s Sufi communities, reflecting a reality that many Afghans have had to face, were conducted among diaspora communities in Pakistan and Germany.15 Sufi Civilities builds on their insights while offering a novel perspective on what happened to Sufis who stayed in Afghanistan or those who returned there.

A “Community of Disagreement”

So far I have used “Sufi” as if it were a self-explanatory and widely agreed-upon term and as if Sufi communities had an uncontested position within Afghanistan’s society and the Muslim community of believers (ummah) globally. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it has been suggested that “Sufism” is one of the most complex Islamic terms to define.16 Anyone following the news in recent decades, even cursorily, will have read about a plethora of attacks on Sufis and Sufi infrastructure by fellow Muslims. These attacks are a physical manifestation of fierce debates about what constitutes the core beliefs and boundaries of Islam and, by extension, Sufism. These debates are also finding their expression in the historical and anthropological study of Islam and Muslim communities, transmuted into inquiries into how to study Islam as culturally and locally embedded instantiations derived from universal claims of a singular truth proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad.17 Not surprisingly, the question of Sufism figures prominently in most of these accounts. Shahab Ahmed poignantly remarked that “one might say that the community of Islam is a community of disagreement” over the question of what Islam is.18 These disagreements are more than erudite fistfights. As I argue later, they are at the core of understanding shifts and changes within civil society in many Muslim-majority societies.

But what is being fought over? Attempting to delineate the fault lines in the disagreements and divergences in definitions necessitates a look at the various dimensions at play in conceptualizing Sufism. Defined as a system in which Muslims seek a personal encounter and closeness to God, Sufism is often described as an individual path in which a seeker usually becomes a student (murid) of a teacher (pir, murshid).19 This educational relationship is sealed by a pledge (bay’a) to the pir after which the student officially joins the Sufi order (tariqa) and participates in its rituals.20 Sufis practice within and are connected to a Sufi social sphere at meeting circles (halqas), shrines (ziyarat) and lodges (khanaqahs, in other areas called tekkeh, zawiyahs or merkez).21 There they meet for classes (dars), celebrations (such as the urs of saints or the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) or collective rituals such as zikr (lit., “remembrance” of God). Over the course of centuries, various Sufi orders have developed, differentiating along genealogies of learning, pedagogies and devotional practices. Most Sufi orders trace their origin back to the Prophet Muhammad. Affiliation to one of the main Sufi orders, such as the Naqshbandiyyah, Qadiriyyah and Chishtiyyah,22 which are prevalent in Afghanistan, is not necessarily exclusive; most murids with whom I spoke had been initiated into multiple orders or had experiences in practices from more than one order. Some Sufis do not belong to any particular Sufi order at all but coalesce around particular individual teachers who give classes centered around interpreting Sufi poetry in conjunction with the Qur’an and Hadith, such as Ustad Mahjor and his daughter, Asma.23 Others have built up NGOs as additional outreach. The forms of assembly and the organizational format might change, but common to them is the search for an experiential encounter with the Divine.

Undergirding this understanding of the spiritual path (suluk) is a cosmology asserting that the ability to access and know the Divine is not evenly distributed among believers.24 In Sufi thought, God’s ultimate truth (haqiqa) is differentiated into many layers, and the Sufi teacher is the guide to a deepened understanding of the Divine with the ultimate goal of closeness to God or ultimate annihilation (fana). Some Sufi literature refers to this hierarchy explicitly, such as Khwaja Abdullah Ansari’s (d. 1089) Stations of the Wayfarers (Manazil al-sayitin), which divides the different levels into amm, khass and khass al-khass—commoners, elect and elect of the elect.25 A thread that runs through this is an epistemological and hermeneutical authority over deeper, hidden layers of existence that are invisible to the uninitiated. In this hierarchy of knowers who traverse the Sufi path, the claim of a higher level of insight can sometimes set Sufi adherents at odds with other Muslims in regard to practices ranging from the use of music, dance or substances in rituals, to the exalted position of the pir as an intermediary with potentially miraculous powers or the visitation of and praying at gravesites.26

This brings us to a tension that often surfaces in Muslim communities attempting to mediate between varying truth claims. Sufis’ claims to higher understanding of divine knowledge that supersedes that of other Muslims, and sometimes nullifies Islamic law itself, sets up a potential competition between shari ʿat and tariqat.27 Some legal scholars have criticized behavior and actions arising from Sufi Islamic interpretations, and some Sufi writers have derided the limited philosophical insight of legalists. This conflict has often been described in simplistic terms and tropes that locate these various positions in mutually exclusive and often antagonistic roles, such as the jurist and the Sufi. Within Orientalist and colonial writing, which also influenced later postcolonial and Muslim reformist writing, Sufism and Islam were separated and located within different personas: the alim who studies the Islamic sciences was set in contrast to the Sufi who sees beyond them.28 In reality the two were not so distinct: most traditional scholars of Islam (ulama) were simultaneously legal scholars (part of what one might consider the orthodoxy) and Sufi thinkers, leaders and guides. Far from being mutually exclusive roles, they were often combined in one person. Indeed, some of my interlocutors, such as Haji Saiqal in Chapter 2 and most members of the Sufi Council in Chapter 5, were both part of the traditional ulama and Sufi teachers and leaders. They did not fit neatly into either of these categories, inhabiting both without any sense of contradiction. Thus, my work contributes and builds on a growing body of literature that challenges compartmentalized depictions through an ethnographically informed look at the heterogenous Sufi sociosphere in which the idea of orthodoxy is not external to Sufism.29

But if not in easily identifiable roles and job descriptions, where are the tension and conflict to be located? Critique can come from many places, both from outside a Sufi community and from within. A particularly productive area of scholarship in Islamic studies has outlined the internal criticism of reformers within the Islamic tradition, even positing that at the very base, religion itself is a way to critique how to live one’s life.30 These scholars are mainly focused on understanding Islam through its long tradition of textual discourses and disputation.31 Others, meanwhile, have pointed toward extradiscursive ways that individuals and communities manifest consensus or dissent on matters of community vision and truth claims, for example, by voicing skepticism and aspirations.32 Indeed, most Sufis I researched with did not explicitly criticize one another. This would have been considered bad form in terms of their own character and spiritual development. I often heard Sufi leaders say that “there are many different paths up the mountain” or “they are different paths, leading to the same goal” when trying to diffuse views that could be seen as critical of another order or pir. They relied on alternative ways of making their stances heard: a choice of one leader over another, for instance; a donation in favor of a particular publishing venture; a disavowal of a particular book that describes a community vision or a shrine built over the grave of one pir next to the abandoned grave of another. All these are also ways to make positions clear and to claim ground, to exalt one teacher and diminish or criticize another. Fault lines within the community of disagreement also run within Sufi communities themselves and between various Sufi groups who do not necessarily agree on rightful conduct, praxis and leadership.

Sufism has also been discursively attacked by Muslims and non-Muslims, reformers and traditionalists, scholars and laymen alike as to whether or not it belongs (wholesale or in part) to Islam.33 Not only fundamentalists have criticized Sufis, as Deepra Dandekar and Torsten Tchacher have suggested; a surprising rapprochement can be found between non-Muslim rationalists and Muslims who criticize shrine visitation as superstition.34 Sufism has been part of Islam’s past for almost as long as the religion has existed, and for just as long questions of whether Sufism should be part of Islam’s present and future have provoked debate that has led to certain Sufi practices being condemned as bid’a (wrongful innovation) or shirk (polytheism).35 This reference to heresy has come recently into prominence for its association with Salafism. According to some scholars, rejecting something as bid’a is a core characteristic of Salafists.36

The turn to increased and strict moral codes in conduct have been researched by anthropologists focusing on the formation of new ethical subjectivities.37 These examples of piety movements focus on what Shahab Ahmed calls “prescriptive authority” based on following the behavior of the Prophet Muhammad and the salaf (the first three generations of Muslims). He notes that, historically speaking, this type of self-cultivation based on the salaf has not been the norm and obscures other modes of religiosity, many of which are part of a Sufi-infused practice and environment that would better be captured by what he labels “explorative authority,” alluding to the historical freedom of Muslims to explore meaning, value and truth through a multiplicity of ways that include philosophy, Sufism or artistic expressions steeped in Islam.38 Drawing on starkly differing understandings of what constitutes a legitimate base for authority fuels debates on heresy and, because the definition of what constitutes heresy has always been highly contentious and Sunni Islam lacks an ultimate religious authority figure who has the power to make such a determination, such debates inevitably remained unresolved. But while critiques of Sufism are opinions and not dogma, this does not stop some of them from inciting violence.

While most media and academic literature cover the conflict between Sufis and Salafis, the more subtle impact of the debate among Sufi communities themselves remains largely unexamined.39 The existence of the critiques that can end in physical violence and destruction is a specter that Sufi communities confront through their own mediation, including the potential restriction and policing of each other’s practices and behavior. This book variously describes adaptations that Sufi communities make to navigate ambiguous and complex environments in which animosity and insecurity can mix in volatile ways. Chapter 5 describes in more detail one response in which a number of Sufi communities in Herat came together under the umbrella of an ecumenical Sufi Council founded in 2004 to respond to the heightened discursive environment in which they have experienced an increase in attacks. The council published information about Sufism to legitimize its practices. However, as I show in the case study, it also criticized other Sufi communities and started to police them for their conduct, especially in their choice of leadership. The community of disagreement is found not only “outside” a Sufi community but also among various teachers and Sufi communities in relation to each other.

Sufism as a Lens on Afghanistan’s Civil Society

One of the arguments this book makes is that a focus on Sufism reveals an unacknowledged sector of Afghanistan’s society. It provides a lens for viewing civility and the seemingly uncivil arguments Sufism often provokes about the boundaries of the acceptable and the desirable, of aspirations and sociability. My own perspective on Sufi communities shifted after hearing the comment of the woman seated next to me at the urs commemoration, deriding the lack of understanding among foreigners about the real Afghan civil society. Why did I see these two—Sufism and civil society—as separate, especially considering that in so many places, the United States and Europe included, large parts of the civil sphere are in fact run by religious groups?40 How did a particular definition of the term “civil society,” influenced by Western Enlightenment definitions and neoliberal development policy, prevent me from noticing the horizontal ties that held these groups together, forming a crucial part of the civil sphere in Afghanistan’s society? To conceive of Sufi groups in their various capacities necessitates a paradigm shift that enables a critical distance toward how civil society has been conceived of mainly in the Enlightenment tradition that influenced the rhetoric of the post-2001 neoliberal peace-building efforts of the international community in Afghanistan.

Civil society has been of special interest in the neoliberal development policy driving the post-2001 state-building process in Afghanistan, financed and directed by leading NATO members. It has been framed as a way to “effectively assist implementation of government liberalization reform and efficiently fill service-delivery functions not sufficiently taken care of by the state or the market.”41 For this reason, as the woman’s joke at the beginning of the chapter suggests, civil society in Afghanistan has been mainly understood as a project championed by the English-speaking, NGO-connected strata of society that was engaged to serve as local implementers in the development and reconstruction sector.42 While this, in itself, is not uncommon in the global development sector, it should be acknowledged that many of these civil society actors and organizations were framed as central to the post-2001 peace- and state-building process. This means that projects and programs were designed to create and support a particular framing of the civil society sphere, and donors supported formally established organizations that could provide services catering to this end. Overlooking a complex, preexisting associational landscape and working with technically oriented NGOs for aid delivery is, of course, not unique to Afghanistan.43 Indeed, a substantial body of critical analysis of such an approach already exists, illustrating how its dependency on international aid can lead to a “rentier civil society.”44 This is not to say that these organizations did not contribute in often meaningful ways to Afghanistan’s society but that our understanding of the full scope of the civil sphere remains limited if it is conceived of only through the persons and organizations connected with the international community.

The guiding concept of civil society is based on a Western Enlightenment framework, which originated with the idea that voluntary institutions play important mediating roles between individual, family and state.45 As an intermediary realm, these associations were seen as connected to particular standards of voluntarism, independence from kin ties and normative criterions of civility, seeing it as something inherently “good” and “civil.” The term “civil” has roots and resonances in ideas of “civilization” and colonial civilizing missions, which also reverberated in the rhetoric of post-9/11 neocolonial development contexts.46 Terms such as “good” and “civil” are, of course, just as much constructions as “bad” and “uncivil” and subject to the set of values used to construct what are seen as inherently positive/productive or negative/destructive characteristics.47 Normative approaches can artificially narrow the focus and exclude other actors in the civil sphere that do not fit into these conceptions, such as the National Rifle Association or the Muslim Brotherhood.48 With the transformation of post–Soviet Eastern Europe, as well as popular struggles against autocratic and pseudo-democratic regimes, especially in the Middle East, the concept has gained renewed traction in recent decades.49 However, the revived enthusiasm it has engendered has also spurred criticism about the applicability of the term in non-Western contexts.50

Formal organizations in the civil sphere have been useful in the NATO-led war of the last two decades. In the attempt to further humanize the war, NGOs were considered by political and military elites in the United States as “a force multiplier” and “an important part of our combat team,” as General Colin Powell stated in 2001.51 In 2011, the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reiterated the decisive role of humanitarian and development actors, acknowledging that development complements the work of “defence and diplomacy” and, as such, supports military gains.52 Building an effective civil society was also part of counterinsurgency strategies intended to show that services were delivered to constituents and cast the international community in a positive light. In regard to foreign policy in Afghanistan, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations built on this approach to the Afghanistan War in their respective national security strategies.

This book argues that Afghanistan was not, and has never been, without its own civil society groups anchored in indigenous movements. Looking to the civil and political movements that emerged in the wake of 2001 shows they have been varied in their political ideologies and religious anchoring and included grassroots civil disobedience movements. Movements, such as the Junbesh-e Roshnayi (Enlightenment Movement), advocated for political and economic rights of Hazaras from 2016 onward.53 The Helmand Peace Convoy, or People’s Peace Movement, marched across Afghanistan to Kabul in 2018 to push for a cease-fire and mediation to end the fighting. The elite youth political movement of mid-career professionals of the Harakat-e Afghanistan 1400 (Afghanistan 1400 Movement) sought to honor victims of war and strengthen democratic values,54 and the Muslim Brotherhood–inspired Jamiat-e eslah wa inkishaf-e ijtemʿai Afghanistan (Association for Reform and Social Development of Afghanistan, henceforth Jamiat-e Eslah) advocated for bottom-up Islamization.55 All of these movements could be rendered as part of Afghanistan’s civil society sphere that do not neatly fit into the NGO formats. What sets them apart from most Sufi groups is that even in their stark differences in terms of ideology or social positioning, all interfaced with the political sphere: over half of the founding members of Harakat-e Afghanistan 1400 were part of the Afghan government, and Junbesh-e Roshnayi as well as Jamiat-e Eslah had clearly defined political demands. Some of these groups also had formal institutional setups, such as Jamiat-e Eslah, which was registered from 2003 at the Ministry of Justice.56 Others, such as many of the Junbesh-e Roshnayi, were active within the NGO scene.57 So while these groups clearly worked within the purview of political organizing, which can—but does not have to—be an aspect of civil society, they also represented a sphere of organizing in which groups or movements came together because of shared values or causes.

Afghanistan also has a long tradition of informal, resourceful civic engagement that long predates formalized NGOs, in which people come together in their communities on a volunteer basis to improve local infrastructure (ashar), support people in need (khairat) or mediate disputes through councils (shuras and jirgas). Neamatollah Nojumi terms these intermediaries as part of “grassroots democratization” that enables participation and democratic representation.58 These forms of collective organization, however, come into view only when the definition of “civility” is expanded to include both informally organized and religion-based civil groups.59

My approach to Sufism—as a lens through which we can better understand Afghanistan’s society—builds on work by anthropologists who have questioned the narrow usage of the term “civil society” and opted instead for an expanded definition of “civility.”60 The term itself might be misleading when viewed only as morality, manners or an attitude of holding civic virtues, although anthropologists have pointed out alternative genealogies of the civil originating in adab—represented in the ethically correct-acting Sufi adherents who live faithfully.61 However, in analyzing Sufi communities as actors in the civil sphere, I do not aim to measure their level of virtue or morality but to aspire to locate an alternative notion of civility that “is based on bottom-up embodiments and social understandings of the respectable, the debatable and the disreputable.”62

Expanding the view on civil society and civility to include informal interpersonal groups that work neither as neoliberal development providers nor necessarily as proponents of democratization, we can perceive these groups as creating social networks of trust that in turn define identities and belonging. They fulfill important functions for socialization and social cohesion, public communication of ideas, social security and resource distribution, as well as mediation and conflict resolution.63 Recently, Armando Salvatore has argued that Sufi orders, with their horizontal networks, vertical hierarchies and translocal connectedness, were a “versatile source of civility” in the history of Islam.64 Spiritual experiences anchored within ritualized collective practices also facilitated wider social bonds, such as between master and disciple (what he calls vertical and dyadic) and between murids (horizontal and transversal).65 Sufi lodges historically served as nodes for long-distance travelers and were often considered sanctuaries. Pirs were regularly recruited to mediate problems in local communities and to intercede in conflicts, either to resolve them or to at least prevent their spread. Ultimately, Sufi orders proved able to connect a wide variety of individuals belonging to a diverse set of social classes, regions and economic backgrounds. That remains so today, as the case studies in this book show.66

An examination of this historical background offers an understanding of the types of communities that Sufis have built over centuries and how they became a locus of civil interactions. This understanding can then in turn inform an ethnographically embedded analysis on how Sufi communities engage in societal self-organization that is vital for horizontal structures of participation, accountability and exchange. Furthermore, it provides a vantage point from which to observe how change is introduced in ways that are seen as socially acceptable.

The example of Sufi teachers such as Asma Mahjor, whose speech began this Introduction, points to the civic sphere in which Sufi leaders and their communities are active and sets the parameters that differentiate them from their NGO counterparts. As a teacher and leader, Asma engaged in the “typical” activities of a Sufi leader—organizing yearly Sufi celebrations, offering Bedil lessons and publishing books for the spiritual nourishment of her followers. But she was also active in service-delivery functions, which are often seen as the purview of formalized organizations or institutions. In 2022, she collected donations online to drill a well and make safe drinking water available to the mountainside community residing close to her father’s grave. Unlike that for formal organizations, however, the construction was not financed through approved international grants but crowd-sourced from the wider Sufi community inside Afghanistan as well as its diaspora. Once the drilling and construction of the well had started, the estimated costs doubled and superseded the amounts that Asma had at her disposal. She thus reached out again to her wider community:

Because I didn’t have that money to pay, I asked the circle of friends of the Bedil school, with whom we are working. I published it on the Facebook page, and I told them that it is the right time to help people. We always say this, that we are patriots, that we love our country, and we love humanity, and now is the time that you show humanity and help those people. I told them, I will post your name, I will share the contact details for the company that is digging this well and everything will be transparent. And so, happily, they helped.67

The accumulated donations were, in the end, more than what was needed for the well. A Malaysian company donated a substantial sum, which Asma decided to gift to the imam of a nearby mosque to install solar panels, demonstrating that the financial circuits accumulated by the Sufi leader extended beyond her own community and reached into the wider religious community. When asked by a neighbor, an army general who had previously unsuccessfully attempted to establish a well on the mountainside, how she had managed it, Asma recounted that “it was a good deed, and maybe it was that our intention as a good deed for the people is why we got the water.”

Asma’s horizontal approach to funding and implementation set her apart from the broader NGO-ized civil society milieu. The publication of donor names online was not meant to advertise the goodwill of those who had contributed, as is often the case with donor-funded projects in the development sector. “It’s not about getting acclaim,” Asma told one of her donors. “It is about transparency. I have rivals, and because I am posting it on Facebook, these rivals will say that I am taking money out of it for myself. But that is why I posted everything there.” As a teacher and leader in her community, she was aware that civil action did not always produce civil responses, particularly in the embattled sphere of Sufi authority, where such actions could also be interpreted as bolstering one’s own position as a leader.

Navigating those complexities is no easy task. On the one hand, Sufi Civilities sees individual groups as potential sites for understanding civility and civil action, but I also argue that a look into present-day Sufi communities offers a wider scope for understanding the discourses and disagreements in which these communities are enmeshed and how they pertain to many other aspects of Afghanistan’s society. These include changes and continuities in areas of religious education, questions of how national heritage is negotiated, ideas of how authority is constructed, the waxing and waning of the ability to voice divergent opinions and tolerate coexistence, as well as strategies for keeping communities safe when the state turns predatory. Crucial in this perspective of how communities are positioned are their teachers and leaders.

Navigational Dexterity

The anthropologically grounded literature on authority in Afghanistan has focused mainly on secular political leadership, as it arises, is maintained and contested.68 The position of religious leaders, by contrast, is often taken for granted, and their roles are determined by the titles and the reverence (or lack thereof) ascribed to them.69 But apprehending how religious leaders are positioned in relation to the community can be difficult to determine. David Edwards argues that, unlike secular leaders who received titles based on an individual’s tribal, kin, occupational or regional affiliation, religious leaders in Afghanistan historically had “the power to name themselves rather than having a name imposed upon them.”70 Religious titles such as “Ustad,” “Pir,” “Sahib,” “Mawlawi” or “Akhund” that are accorded to learned teachers with a following tell us little about how the authority of specific individuals was established, projected, submitted to or challenged, let alone what changes might have occurred within religious communities in the past decades.71

Ignoring such complexities belies the fact that there is a significant difference between how authority might be imagined and how it works in practice. Authority, as Hannah Arendt remarked, “is commonly mistaken for one form of power or violence” because it always demands obedience.72 However, in Arendt’s rendering, where force is needed to materialize it, authority has failed. She therefore defines “authority” as a hierarchical relationship that is seen as rightful and legitimate by both those exerting it and those submitting to it. In short, authority hinges on recognition and acquiescence—it is relational and contingent.73 If prospective Sufi students do not recognize a teacher as their rightful pir, they will not follow the person as a leader and teacher.

Theorists have disagreed about the qualities and characteristics of such authoritative relationships and whether authority is lacking if it can be questioned or if it is dependent on persuasion.74 Within Sufism, an ideal type of mentoring relationship is that of total dependence of the student on the teacher. The jurist and Sufi Al-Ghazali described this unquestioned reliance as the disciple accepting that “the advantage he gains from the error of his sheikh, if he should err, is greater than the advantage he gains from his own rightness, if he should be right.”75 In reality, however, a teacher’s authority rarely goes unquestioned. As Muhammad Qasim Zaman notes in his study of modern Islamic thought, authority is not only often questioned, but “it is often recognized as being questioned.”76 He points to the historical dimension of the crystallization of authoritative structures such as the legal schools in Islam that took time and effort to coalesce. Equally, individuals can seek different legal scholars’ input and fatwas to decide on questions they seek to resolve.77 Authority is therefore “not a stable endowment but one that is always exposed to implicit or explicit challenge,” as Zaman puts it, and “waxes and wanes in response to the pressures bearing upon it.”78

This description of authority is helpful in pointing to its malleability, but it runs the risk of reducing authority to a spontaneous by-product of challenge and response. In his work on authority of Islamic religious leaders in Indonesia, Ismail Alatas stresses that the production and maintenance of relationships of authority and discipleship involve a process of continuous labor.79 For him, the role of authoritative leaders is to connect with the Prophetic past and adapt it to manifold locally situated communities in the present.80 Through a focus on the process of establishing religious authority, transmitting teachings and cultivating a community, he steers the analysis away from a Weberian understanding of religious leadership imbued through charisma and cemented through routinization. He intimates that charisma as a dialectic emotional relationship between leader and follower might be more useful in understanding the founding of a community rather than the labor required of a postfoundational religious authority.81 Indeed, there is considerable labor involved in establishing religious authority, especially in a Muslim ummah where the correct way to interpret and live according to the Sunna is subject to multiple, competing visions. It is not a particular leader’s charismatic aura or competence alone that produces the individual’s authority. Authority is also derived from the interplay of taking on responsibility for the care of others and, in the process, coming to represent the social world and its structures.82

The cases in this book build on these approaches to offer an on-the-ground perspective of how religious authority is established and challenged in Afghanistan. Focusing on how individuals and communities have navigated transitional moments, both historically and contemporaneously, brings processes of authority into sharper relief. What capacities, within and beyond Sufi communities, are needed to negotiate these tumultuous times? I contend that the question of authority becomes particularly salient in moments of transition. Much like a rite of passage, with phases of separation, transition/liminality and incorporation, the process of succession can leave a community changed.83 Similar to other liminal times, the open-ended question of who takes on the leadership role next lays bare both the rules of the game and the ways in which these rules can be subverted. This is the reason why attending to succession within Sufi communities helps us understand how communities and likely contenders navigate transitions and attempt to establish legitimate authority. In Sufi communities, neither the existence of a male biological heir nor a highly learned student marks either out as an automatic successor. In spite of this reality, most of the literature presents the process retrospectively, as if the outcome were never in doubt, without inquiring into the process of deciding on that leader. In a rare discussion of the different ingredients that need to come together to mark out a successful successor, Mark Sedgwick notes that lineage alone cannot make a leader (even if it can work as an “endorsement”) nor can the possession of charisma, divine baraka (blessing, grace, “beneficent force”) or scholarly erudition.84 Instead, “a shaykh’s authority often derives more from the preconceptions of his followers than from any quality of his own.”85 This is produced by the contextual interplay between “followers’ expectations—of what constitutes sanctity, of what constitutes piety, of what the Sufi path is—[which] prove more influential [than the written literature of the order].”86 This shows, again, the importance of understanding the situationally produced, relationally negotiated and context-bound nature of the recognition of authority. But the reverse is also true: we can learn from their preconceptions how ideas about authority have been influenced and transformed by the shifting discourses of the changing times that produced them.

To explore these questions, my work begins with the premise that authority is not static but under constant negotiation in the interactions with each other, be they potential followers, their community, other contenders or outsiders, and it applies the lens of social navigation. The term “social navigation” has been used variously in social scientific writing, often as an undefined shorthand for acting in a particular, rapidly shifting environment or as a description of how actors seek to escape confining situations. Inspired by Ralf Dahrendorf’s concept of “life chances,”87 as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s “theory of practice,” Henrik Vigh has explored the term as an analytic lens to grasp the life choices of people caught in situations of uncertainty and change.88 In contrast to terrestrial images of a physical landscape in which navigation functions akin to map using, Vigh argues that fluid environments emphasize “the construction of tentative mappings and a constant dialogue between changing plots, possibilities and practice”—a process of mapmaking in which both movement and the map “are constantly shaped and attuned to each other.”89 Such social navigation is not a matter of whether or not one lives in a war zone—everyone navigates social situations—but the heightened intensity, fluidity and speed of social change produced by an unstable environment requires more vigorous, creative and sometimes desperate maneuvers to manage.90 Social navigation thus shows the interaction of two kinds of change: the change of social formations as well as the movement of social agents.91

Not all is fluid in social interactions, and some ideas and social formations display a remarkable longevity. In his study of Muslims in Central Asia, David Montgomery investigates how his interlocutors are also constrained by organizational forms, pressure from peers or political and moral restrictions.92 Following a Barthian approach to knowledge, Montgomery applies the idea of social navigation to how Muslims in Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan) manage their everyday by drawing on social organization (the economic and political structures), different forms of knowledge transfer (oral, textual and experiential) and a corpus of knowledge (schooling, profession, frames of reference).93 Montgomery’s addition to Vigh’s approach shows how Muslims draw on a socially embedded tradition of knowledge and a rich past to weather the present and create a future. It is useful for my discussion of how different social and cultural “tools” are used by my Sufi interlocutors. Publishing, poetry recitation, the format of the shura, dream divination and technologies as divine vehicles are all used to position contenders for leadership within moments of transition.

In Montgomery’s analysis, authority can stem from different sources (orality, literacy, community history as well as prestige from external sources). But the actors he describes are positioned as rather stable and established.94 By contrast, none of the contested positions in the communities I researched were automatically passed on through titles, and all required community engagement and approval before they became stable. These situations required an adaptational dexterity not only to navigate particular situations but also to craft new possibilities.

It might be tempting to describe Sufi communities and their leaders as resilient. After all, in the face of various governments, power brokers and insurgents, internal challenges and challengers and external shocks, didn’t they “survive”? But the framing of “resilience” as the capacity to rebound, returning to its past form, unchanged by the shocks just weathered, is problematic. Emerging in the 1980s as a keyword in ecology, economy, psychology and characteristic of political systems, “resilience” is thought of as a complex adaptation or as “the capacity of a system to undergo disturbance and retain its basic structure and function.”95 Discourses on resilience have been particularly criticized for obscuring the role resilience plays in neoliberal economies, in which individuals are expected to withstand ever-greater challenges to their physical and mental well-being in order to “make it through.” If they fail to do so, they are blamed for not being resilient enough—a move that focuses on the individual capacities of victims while distracting from the structures of violence that act on their everyday life.96 In the humanitarian sector, resilience fetishism can lead to a kind of justification that individuals and communities can adapt, or can be made to adapt better, and therefore do not need an amelioration of circumstances or wholesale political change.97 In the securitized post-9/11 world, some authors have argued that resilience talk has led to a conservative stance of keeping the status quo at all cost, stifling political imagination of how things could otherwise be.98

While some suggest retaining a revised version of resilience that does justice to these various layers of the term and its discontents,99 I argue that using a lens of resilience runs the risk of obscuring two salient dimensions. First, the adaptations of Sufi communities are more than mere scraping by and surviving; they show the agentive existence of these communities that do more than resist erasure; they mark a presence and keep cultural identities alive.100 More than survival, through their adaptational dexterity, Sufi communities I research demonstrate a plurality of ways to navigate, the potential for an otherwise and the ability to not only keep but also create community in a civil sphere of their own making. Second, a look at their navigational dexterity shows that there is an interdependence that comes from the mutual influence on both the ones who are navigating and the very thing that is being negotiated (ideas about authority, community, belonging). Both agents and ideas emerge potentially changed from the encounter.

While this argument might seem abstract, it comes alive when delving into the various worlds the communities inhabit, navigate and craft. Consider the example of Sufi poetry: Muslims in the Persianate world learned about Islam not only through authoritative texts such as the Qur’an and the Hadith but also through the poetry of Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz. It was a regular component in madrasa education, entering the oral realm through memorization and informing the everyday socioreligious experiences of Muslims.101 While a Sufi poetry teacher’s authority was based on the elucidation and interpretation of the text, which was traditionally acknowledged as part of Islamic education in Afghanistan, Sufi communities were also actively involved in crafting Sufi poetry as a national intangible heritage through cooperation with musicians and politicians. They could then claim this cultural heritage as a basis for their authority (see Chapter 3). The link between a particular understanding of Islam through Sufi poetry was not only retained but also transformed into various, more widely circulated mediums. These in turn influenced conceptions of authority within the wider religious civil sphere.

Another example of these varying sources of authority is the opportunity for Muslims to personally participate in divine revelation provided through revelatory dreams.102 Dreams have an important, albeit contested, place in Islamic cosmology: they are mentioned in original sources (Qur’an,103 Hadith), and Islamic dream theory has been developed by writers over centuries.104 In one of the Sufi communities portrayed in Chapter 5 the collective negotiation of dreams influences a wide range of decision-making, from establishing a new Sufi order and changing zikr practices to ordaining a new Sufi leader. Dreams, dream induction (istikhara) and inspirational visions were the ways in which the community navigated the subtle shifts and granular decision-making both for their individual lives and their community. While dreams are often thought of as solitary experiences of a mind immersed in the imaginal sphere, an ethnographically grounded perspective on the negotiations within this Sufi community shows the relational aspect of establishing authority through dreams. A potential next leader needed to show that he had developed the inner capacity and the spiritual levels of perception and readiness to receive the dream. Community members needed to acknowledge his capacity in various realms of Sufi authority, recognizing it to be on the right level to both lead the community and receive such a guiding dream. While dreams have been part of orthodox Islam throughout its history, they have become contested in reformist readings and are today challenged from several vantage points—so much so that the dreams of leadership have become a new realm of contestation among various Sufi communities in the civil sphere.

Following the processes in these communities, I show not only how potential leaders adapted to constant political change but also how, in their ways of navigating their surroundings, a multiplicity of authoritative discourses emerged in the daily lives of Sufis in Afghanistan. These include how poetry is perceived and lived as an expression of Islam and how dreams guide the actions of believers, sometimes even through the anticipation of dreams that have yet to reveal themselves (dreams-in-waiting). The individual chapters of this book focus on various mediums, such as poetry, zikr or dreams, in which Muslims explore realms of the Divine, stake authority in guiding others through their expertise of these spheres or contest other leaders’ claims.

Communities and Methods

The problematics of what Sufism is, who is a Sufi and who is excluded from this category does not end with book-length explorations. Nearly every interview that I conducted over the course of several years touched on this question, with each interviewee giving me a different definition of “Sufism.” In writing an account of various Sufi communities, I am not claiming to give a complete overview of all forms of Sufism in Afghanistan or of all the different Sufi groups.105 There are limitations and a selective bias of which communities I portray in my cases: all of them are set in urban Afghanistan, mainly in Kabul and Herat. The observable spatial, gendered and security patterns might therefore be different from those of rural areas. There are also other urban areas that are well-known historically for Sufi activities, such as Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar and Ghazni, which offer future anthropologists the opportunity to extend this research. I initially started my research focused solely on Herat because it was known as the khak-e awliya (earth of the saints) due to the many mystic luminaries whose graves and shrines dot its urban landscape.106 I reasoned that its history of a strong Sufi presence in the past would make a good comparison to contemporary changes and continuities within Sufi communities there. However, after considering security concerns, I decided to adapt the research to be multisited, as this allowed me to lighten my physical footprint by traveling between both cities on a more itinerant basis. What had initially been a decision based on security concerns turned out to be beneficial for my research, as I was able to explore the interconnections between Sufi communities in each city.

I have often been asked how numerous the Sufi communities are as well as how many Sufis exist in Afghanistan overall. Both are questions that I cannot conclusively answer for the following reasons. Afghanistan has never conducted a comprehensive national census, and even if it did, I doubt the state would consider the category of Sufi one to measure. More significantly, the very question of what makes someone a “Sufi” is (as I have argued earlier) a matter of contestation and negotiation, not a public badge of identity. For example, when I saw only thirty followers attend the weekly zikrs, leaders estimated that there were hundreds of thousands nationally, assuring me that individual local groups had a few hundred to a few thousand members. While one could discount those numbers as exaggeration, they could also very well represent individuals who are connected to followers of the path and are influenced by a particular leader, even if they do not actively participate in every week’s activities. Most groups usually had a dedicated core of followers and a more fluid outer circle of students. I myself was surprised, for example, when I attended a conference of the Faizani community at Kabul’s Polytechnic University. I had usually seen about thirty to fifty women in the weekly zikr meetings. However, at the conference the whole auditorium was filled with men and women connected to the Faizanis.

The Sufi communities that we meet in the following chapters belong to a wide range of socioeconomic, class and ethnic groups.107 While most of the interviewees were native Dari (Persian) speakers, some of the interviewees spoke Pashto at home and conversed with other community members in Dari. Most interviews and conversations were held in Dari, though some interviews were conducted in English. The interviews in Kandahar as well as with former Taliban officials were conducted in Pashto (for my use of research assistants and translation, see discussion later). Socioeconomic standing and class varied among community members and teachers of the communities, from working class (shopkeepers, cobblers, clerks, soldiers) to middle class (imams, schoolteachers, university professors, students, government workers).108 They appeared at the elite level as members of the politically prominent Mujaddidi and Gailani families who had provided the leaders of politically powerful Sufi orders at the national level for well over a century and held elevated governmental positions in the post-2001 government. Education or affiliation with the internationally financed state, as well as migration and life abroad, sometimes translated into class mobility. However, connections to the international community through work in international organizations seemed rarer in these communities than in other circles of Afghans who focused on upward mobility through learning English, studying abroad or working for international NGOs, NATO countries or the UN.

All the communities I researched were well educated. Sufi affiliates (both students and teachers) had usually attended primary and high school; many of them had received higher education or held university degrees. This high level of education was remarkable in a country with an education system in shambles after decades of war and with an urban illiteracy rate of 43 percent.109 Most of the men and women studied, worked or did both. They attended Sufi gatherings in their free time with primary gatherings on weekends (Thursday and Friday). My main interlocutors were Sunni Sufis, although one of the groups that I researched had both Sunni and Shi‘a followers in the past and claimed to still have followers of each affiliation. My research, however, focuses on Sunni Sufis in Afghanistan. A proper study of Sufi beliefs and practices among Shi‘a communities in Afghanistan is therefore still lacking.110

This book is largely based on ethnographic observations, interactions and conversations (also called participant observations) as well as formal interviews. First contacts with the communities happened through myriad and often serendipitous connections and channels. Having worked and researched in Afghanistan since 2011, first as an intern to the Afghan government, then in the NGO sector and in research, I asked everyone in my extended network of friends, former coworkers and acquaintances whether they knew people who considered themselves Sufis or who might be knowledgeable on Sufism. They usually first said they did not but then remembered an uncle, a cousin, a driver, a work acquaintance who might know. I asked fellow Afghan academic friends as well as journalists to introduce me to anyone who had knowledge of Islam and Sufism in Afghanistan. Many introductions led to lengthy back-and-forths but were ultimately unproductive. Others led to kind referrals and introductions to Sufi teachers and their followers.

Once in touch with them (often initially through formal interviews that lasted between one and two hours, followed by invitations to their events and meetings, as well as informal gatherings), I asked them whether they knew other communities, gatherings or teachers. Such an approach is of course fraught with bias, as I met, spoke with or interviewed only the people who were reachable through this personalized snowball approach. However, dealing with groups that can be relatively secretive about their actions within their own society made working through trusted introductions a necessity. While I interviewed and interacted mainly with people who were explicitly affiliated with Sufi teachers and Sufi communities, I also spoke to imams without Sufi affiliation; with teachers within the religious field, such as members of the Jamiat-e Eslah; as well as with politicians from former Afghan governments, such as the Communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) of the 1980s, Mujahidin fighters from the 1980s and 1990s and the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of the late 1990s. For these interviews I relied on professional contacts from befriended foreign and Afghan journalists. These were, however, one-time-only interviews in contrast with those of the Sufi communities, whom I not only interviewed but also spent time with at their urs celebrations, at their zikr meetings and in the homes of Sufi students and teachers. Several Sufi students and teachers became friends during this time, and we met each other for tea, lunches and dinners. However, some chose to retain distance and maintain more formalized relationships throughout my research.

Most of the ethnographic research in Afghanistan was conducted between 2016 and 2021, with two full consecutive years (2017–2019) spent in the communities in Herat and Kabul with follow-up visits in 2021 and 2022. I frequented different Sufi poetry circles (halqas), such as the one of Ustad Haidari Wujudi in Kabul’s public library and the circles associated with the late Ustad Mahjor and his family. I also researched different Sufi orders (Qadiriyyah, Naqshbandiyyah, Chishtiyyah—now Salwatiyyah) through visiting their weekly gatherings and teachings, attending their annual urs celebrations and partaking in some of their nightly or early-morning zikr sessions. Visits to khanaqahs and zikr halqas that were ultimately not included in the book nonetheless offered rich implicit comparative material for the cases that I present. Many of these occasions gave rise to discussions and informal conversations. Some of them led to close relationships with Sufi teachers and students that offered me the opportunity to spend time in their homes and with their families, sharing meals, doing sports together, visiting graves, drinking tea and discussing books. I videotaped and photographed speeches, recorded and traded MP3 recordings of zikr sessions and lectures with other students and delivered newly published books to followers abroad when I was traveling, which offered opportunities to talk with the members of the diaspora of these Sufi circles. While the latter are not the main focus of my research, they inform my understanding of the communities and my analysis. In addition to these informal occasions, I also conducted (often repeated) semistructured interviews with Sufi teachers and students as well as religious preachers that lasted from one to three hours. I supplemented these oral sources by collecting and selectively translating books that the Sufi teachers had published, videotapes of celebrations and copies of newspaper articles that covered events at the khanaqahs or religious foundations. I also analyzed the online presence of the teachers through social media.

In between visits and stays, I remained in touch with community members and leaders online, who shared with me photos and videos of celebrations and news from the community. I also shared chapters of the book as it was developing with individual teachers and community members and discussed the material with them, taking into account their feedback and concerns, which gave rise to additional discussions that inform my understanding of situations and dynamics. This dialogical approach to research and writing has become increasingly utilized as a way toward participatory research and accountability.111 The comments from individual teachers on my writing, for example, the feedback of Ustad Momena and Ustad Manija on the chapter about their community (Chapter 4), made me aware of implications and alternative readings of particular phrases that I had not considered previously. We engaged in dialogues about sections that could be misunderstood by various audiences, particularly in the fast-changing political environment that they navigated, and I made changes accordingly to the text. I also discussed with individuals in the groups themes and topics that could be considered compromising for their security setup, and we decided together which parts to exclude.

As will have become clear in this overview, my main research was conducted in Afghanistan’s NATO-supported Islamic Republic (2001–2021) before the renewed governmental takeover by the Taliban. The main descriptions in this book reflect the situation of Sufi communities in the time before these political changes. However, I have updated viewpoints, sensibilities and realities of the communities, where possible, guided through online conversations and in-person visits in late 2022. While I reference these changes selectively in the chapters, in the concluding chapter I reflect most on the current realities that these communities and their leaders face. It is clear that the ongoing challenges of economic decline/depression, closures of khanaqahs through the de facto governmental authorities and attacks on congregational places and spiritual leaders make up another chapter in an ongoing struggle to preserve communities, their culture and learning.

Security, Belief and Layers of Positioning

Security, or the lack of it, was a constant concern for me, the people who helped me in my research and my interlocutors. Anthropologists have long worked in highly unstable environments, from Guatemala to Iraq, Sri Lanka to Cambodia.112 This has prompted Leah Zani in her work on military waste and contamination to suggest that “war zones demand their own cultural and area studies.”113 Far from fetishizing research in potentially dangerous environments, this call actually points to the long-term social and cultural impact of war, dismantling the binaries of war and peace to discover how conflict is intertwined in the ongoing processes of social change even in moments of relative peacefulness or in “postconflict” settings.114 This call for seeing commonalities between war zones also points to the global military industrial complex that produces interlocking structures of militarized oppression.115 On the methodological level it attests to the fact that research in such settings is deeply influenced by the many constraints that such an inquiry needs to adapt to in order to keep everyone involved safe.

The parameters of what was safe for either me as a researcher or the people I talked to and spent time with constantly changed as violence escalated in its various guises. Direct risks such as bomb and suicide attacks, targeted killing of religious personnel as well as a generalized danger of kidnappings mixed with the threat of being associated with a foreigner or being seen as foreign funded. While bombs can hit anyone indiscriminately, kidnapping was a particular threat to wealthy Afghans as well as foreign nationals. Herat was dubbed the “kidnapping capital in Afghanistan,” with the children of Afghan businessmen or politicians being especially under threat for extortion through kidnapping.116 A responsible research setup also needed to take into account that short-term research stints for interviews are qualitatively different endeavors than setting up long-term research within communities. This meant that I kept an open dialogue with interlocutors, whether long-term contacts or one-time interviewees, about what they considered safe ways of interacting with each other, as they often had a much better sense of the constantly changing security scenarios. The associated difficulties and ethical quandaries help explain why longer-term ethnographic research conducted in Afghanistan over the past twenty years was still a rarity in comparison to that in other disciplines.

As a response to this environment, I changed my research to multiple sites and varied my daily routine and travel routes. Becoming a “moving ethnographer” meant a loss of detailed engagement with only one group (a pursuit on which most traditional anthropology prides itself).117 But it turned out to be a fitting strategy to follow topics, themes and opportunities as they arose. Frequenting multiple Sufi communities in differing time intervals also had its own risks, opening up questions about whether I was a spy—a suspicion that was usually shared with my research assistants more than with me.118 Given anthropology’s complex disciplinary history with European colonialism and foreign governments, but also the wider structures of violence in the “War on Terror,” this accusation was not too far-fetched.119 While anthropologists have worked with the military and government agencies, this practice has also been sharply criticized within the discipline.120 Regardless of the researcher’s position, scholarship on Islam of the past twenty years is embedded in the geopolitical realities of the post-2001 “War on Terror,” which continues to shape lives with its ongoing structural, physical and epistemological violence. This also impacts the research and those whose work does not directly confront it. Muslim communities have been surveilled and targeted, both within the wars spurred by the “War on Terror” as well as the increased surveillance apparatus in Western countries.121 One Sufi community decided to discontinue our conversations because they feared the combination of my being a woman and a foreigner could compromise them ethically in local eyes and lay them open to the charge of being foreign funded, an accusation that could potentially not only discredit but also endanger them.

I tried to respond to this complex environment by being as transparent as possible about the scope and rationale of the research, as well as the dangers that I saw in it, so that individuals could make an informed decision about whether and how to participate in the research. Often this seemingly straightforward dictum was difficult to achieve. As an international researcher with a Western passport I was aware that I could leave at any time, but my interlocutors were mainly not part of a passport elite who could extract themselves if the situation turned on them for my association with them.122 Furthermore, the security environment kept changing, and increasing numbers of teachers with whom I interfaced experienced threats or were targeted for their teaching and preaching overall. While I recorded the interviews, there was usually an unrecorded time after the interviews, if sensitive data were shared with me, in which I discussed whether interviewees wanted their name or other identifiers mentioned or which information they wanted associated with themselves and what should be used anonymously. For the book I am using the real names only of leaders and public personas who gave me permission to do so, many of whom are also publishing under their own names in Afghanistan. The names of any of the murids or other community members have been categorically anonymized in my account.

In Herat, where gendered segregation in the public sphere was stricter and more socially enforced in a city with a much tighter social network than Kabul, I partnered with a local media and civil society organization to set up a living-working arrangement. During my three years of repeated stays I financially supported the office of their organization and in turn used it as a meeting place so that it oscillated between being a public place (through its function as an organization’s office) where I could meet men on my own, because I was not inviting them to my own private place, and simultaneously a more private venue than a café or restaurant, because the office was used only for workshops and meetings that were prearranged and thus offered a calm meeting place. As it was situated in a nondescript apartment complex, interviewees could attend meetings without any further association with an organization that could otherwise put them at risk.

Researching within predominantly male groups, my experience oscillated between experiencing my gendered emplacement as an asset or liability.123 Many of the male groups accommodated my requests to attend all-male zikr sessions, talk with them individually and in groups or to visit their homes. Especially in communities where I researched long term, I often experienced a successive integration in which both I and the communities I researched came to accommodate each other. I was invited in, one door at a time, seated where it seemed appropriate and incorporated in manifold, often kind ways.

Working with research assistants was an asset in navigating different places and groups. While I worked with a female research assistant in the all-women’s groups, my male research assistants formed a socially acceptable contact point in most formal interview settings in which the more conservative male interlocutors seemed to feel more comfortable not only by having present a fellow Afghan man but also in addressing him when speaking. I used the group of research assistants as a sounding board for questions about security and safety as well as feedback on how they experienced aspects of the communities we visited. Research assistants helped with translations, particularly in the beginning when I was still learning more of the specialized vocabulary and including those from Pashto. Our conversations teased out the nuances and multilayered references, particularly when discussing recordings of interview sessions. My research assistants were not part of the Sufi communities I researched, but they were interested in Sufism, and I learned from their views as non-Sufi Afghan Muslims about the communities we researched.124

One of the questions that both I and my research assistants had to answer repeatedly was the status of my personal beliefs and whether I was a Muslim or aspiring to become one. The inquiry into my status ranged from well-meaning, supportive questions directed at a foreigner who showed interest in another religion, to more outright dismissal evidenced in several refusals to meet and talk, as when a Chishtiyyah murid replied that since I was not even a Muslim, how could I then claim to understand or write about Sufism? These attitudes—apart from the general proselytizing thrust—underlie another specific idea about understanding. It might be particularly pronounced for Sufi adepts because “the experiential character of the Sufi path means that its knowledge becomes embodied in those who have traversed it.”125 But knowledge is always situated, and, as will become clear in later chapters, there are many different types of knowledge.126 William James makes this point in quoting al-Ghazzali’s instruction on the different types of comprehension: “Knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself. You remember what al-Ghazzali told us in the Lecture on Mysticism—that to understand the causes of drunkenness, as a physician understands them, is not to be drunk.”127 Taking al-Ghazzali’s words to heart, I am therefore not speaking from the point of a believing practitioner, but I take practice as well as doctrine and belief seriously.

More often than not, an inquiry by my interlocutors into my own motives for this research and my own background in terms of belief led to intriguing comparisons as research interlocutors tried to place me vis-à-vis themselves, often gauging whether my research was driven by a personal quest to convert. While I might have disappointed quite a few interview partners with my lack of interest in conversion, our different experiential backgrounds made for stimulating discussions. As a daughter of a Catholic mother and Protestant father, we often discussed how splits in Christianity varied from the ones in Islam. I had married into a Muslim family, and many knew my husband, who visited me at my field sites, which made for quizzical joking whether he would not be cross with me for not converting yet. Some discussions also led us to discuss influences of Buddhism in Afghanistan because of my own extended familial ties to Thai Buddhism through intermarriage. While for some it was unusual that a Western non-Muslim was interested in Islam to such an extent, at the same time it also seemed self-explanatory to many of my Sufi interlocutors. In their view it was the right path and made sense that I would be interested in exploring it. These conversations resulted in acknowledgments of how personal affiliations are multifold and how spiritual pathways can be complex. Often, the openness to discuss our personal backgrounds informed our way of approaching a topic.

Chapter Overview

The following ethnographic accounts examine the different navigational strategies employed by a variety of Sufi leaders over the past four decades. While aspiring leaders drew on customary socioreligious tools embedded within a range of Islamic traditions, the social legitimation strategies they employed left room for maneuver and contestation. The question of who was supposed to lead a community was far from a foregone conclusion, despite retrospective justifications that attempted to portray it otherwise. The individual chapters offer a view into how Sufi leaders react to moments of transition and outside change within a highly insecure environment in which the very foundation of Islamic authority is contested.

Chapter 1 lays the groundwork for understanding how Sufi leaders and their communities were positioned in the recent social, cultural and political history of Afghanistan in relation to the state. In the past four decades, Afghanistan has undergone drastic political changes. While there is no univocal approach of Sufis to politics per se, Afghanistan’s historiography shows Sufi communities have remarkable dexterity in their ability to adapt. The chapter is not an exhaustive overview but instead focuses on strategies that Sufis adopted toward the state. Focusing on state alignment, resistance and what I term strategic distance, the chapter shows how the three approaches have been adopted circumstantially as environments shifted and changed over the course of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.

The next chapters zoom in on how individuals and groups in the post-invasion reconstruction era after 2001 employ a variety of religio-cultural tools to legitimize their claims of authority, including Sufi poetry as Islamic education and heritage, publishing as spiritual service, investigation of the Self as an exploration of God and dream divination. Each chapter highlights a different community and its particular struggles while also focusing on a specific realm of navigation.

Chapter 2 focuses on the case study of an imam from Kabul’s Soviet-built Microrayon neighborhood, who was tasked with taking over leadership of one of Kabul’s oldest Sufi lodges (located in the old city, part of Asheqan-o-Arefan) when its pir fled the country during the 1990s Civil War. The case shows how the situation of war, insecurity and consecutive migration brought about new patterns of authority and enabled new alliances between Sufis and a lower class of ulama (religious scholars), who stepped in to protect Sufi orders and shrines. The chapter questions the prevailing narrative in Central Asian and Middle Eastern studies of the antagonism between ulama and Sufis by contextualizing its formation in colonial narratives and its impact on multiple discourses among Muslim reformers, as well as how local communities utilized these perceptions to shield themselves during times of discursive change and violent attacks. Narratively following the imam and his friend, the caretaker, in how they used these conceptions to shield their newly acquired congregation from harm, while having to sometimes look on as the lodge was looted and bombed, I tease out the navigational tactics of such an alliance and their impact on the rendering of Sufi authority in an environment of insecurity.

Chapter 3 examines the purported conceptual splits between orthodoxy and Sufism, lived Sufism and Sufism as literary heritage and the different types of authority they engender. Historically, Sufi poetry used to be one of the most significant forms of transmission of Islamic knowledge in Afghanistan. Paired with authoritative texts such as the Qur’an and the Hadith, the poetry of Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz was a regular component in madrasa education, entering the oral realm through memorization and informing the everyday socioreligious experiences of Muslims. While Sufi poetry as Islamic education has become contested, groups of literary students keep this tradition alive. The chapter follows Sufi poetry circles whose teachers not only taught individual students but also worked on crafting Sufi poetry as intangible national heritage through collaborations with musicians throughout the twentieth century.

Chapter 4 integrates themes of the previous chapters of state-Sufi relationships, as well as the use of poetry and literature, to show how the navigation of authority in all of these realms is also gendered. While drawing on similar aspects of Sufi knowledge as their male counterparts, female teachers and zikr leaders navigated restrictive norms that limit women within Islamic leadership positions. Through the case study of a Qadiriyyah Sufi order in which women not only practiced zikr but also taught it to other women and became speakers and teachers in the civil society arm of the order, I investigate community processes to legitimize their role. Taking a community-centered view illustrates that female leaders’ agency was embedded in the community’s strong ethos of male allyship and its oral history of the inclusion of women by their deceased pir, who still served as a moral exemplar directing contemporary behavioral patterns. The community overall adapted gender-segregated meetings for spiritual practices in Afghanistan (although not in its diaspora chapters). Yet discursively they engaged in an overt argument of spiritual equality that stood in contrast to the exclusion of women in the institutionalized religious sphere in Afghanistan. The community legitimized women’s participation through recourse to the spiritual psychophysiological organ of the heart, rendering divine connection a nongendered endeavor that transcends social categories.

While the previous chapters deal with attempts at continuity, struggle for leadership and development of new Sufi teachers, Chapter 5 takes the reader into the heart of an extended moment where a community either reinvents itself or dissolves. The case study concerns a succession debate within a Sufi community of former Chishtiyyah Sufis in the western city of Herat. The community attempted not only to transition to a new leader divined through dreams (ruya) but also to establish a new Sufi order altogether (the Salwatiyyah). We encounter the devotees and potential future leaders while waiting for a dream—which needed to be received by the chosen leader and confirmed by dream insights through other members of the community—to ascertain the authority of the future leader. Developing the thread of navigating Islamic learning and mystic insight, the chapter investigates the power of divine dreams to establish authority. These decisions become a public negotiation in the wider Sufi sociosphere when Sufi adepts publish a community history that is evaluated by the local Sufi Council.

The cases highlight various scenarios of transitions within Sufi communities and how they draw on different socioculturally embedded religious resources to negotiate their place in a drastically changing environment. The Conclusion and Epilogue offer an overview of how various groups and individuals of the Sufi civil sphere have coped with the political changes post-2021 and life under the Taliban de facto government. These ongoing challenges are part of the struggles that communities in Afghanistan face and navigate. While ongoing and ever changing, many have their origins in earlier tensions and developments. The next chapter analyzes the navigational strategies of Sufis toward the state and power brokers in the last decades.


1. Namoraadi refers to a young person dying and being buried along with all the person’s desires and wishes.

2. Mashhad refers to a place of martyrdom, such as the western city of Mashad in Iran, which is the spot where Imam Reza’s grave is located.

1. The terms “Afghan” and “Afghanistan” are contested. Critics in some ethnic groups, particularly the Hazara and Uzbek, note the terms’ historically Pashtun origins and argue that they are exclusive of other ethnic groups. Other terms, such as “Khorasani” and “Afghanistani,” have been proposed though have not yet gained large-scale traction domestically or internationally (Mousavi 1998; Faridullah Bezhan 2008; Abbasi 2015: 275). Throughout this book, I have used the terms “Afghan” and “Afghanistan” for two reasons: they remain the internationally accepted terms for the country and the people who call it home; and my interviewees and interlocutors themselves used these terms to denote national identity, without ethnic connotations.

2. Individuals and communities who identify as Sufi have been targeted for their religious persuasions, but as I am analyzing Sufis as a civil society, Marika Theros has aptly pointed out that the conflicts since 1978 can be read as a “long war against civil society” (2019: 148) because of the deliberate targeting of the educated elite, prominent community figures such as religious and tribal elders, artists and poets and others in the civil sphere.

3. F. Ahmed 2017; Barfield 2010; Dorronsoro 2005; Nawid 1999; Olesen 1995; Roy 1984; Tarzi 2017; particularly on gender, see Ahsan-Tirmizi 2017, 2021; Baldauf 1989, 2017; Bergner 2011: 95–144; Billaud 2009; Brodsky 2011: 74–89; M. Mills 2011: 60–73; Sultanova 2008, 2011.

4. Bergen and Tiedemann 2012; Coll 2018; Giustozzi 2000, 2008, 2019; Griffin 2001; Johnson 2010; Maley 2001; P. Marsden 2002; Magnus and Naby 1998; Rashid 2008, 2010; Roy 1990. For a critical appraisal of the varying notions of jihad, see Olesen 1995.

5. The term “religion” has been amply critiqued and deconstructed in the past decades, particularly concerning its historic genealogies (Asad 1993) and the impact of its application to non-Christian faiths (S. Ahmed 2016: 176–201). For an overview of the various categories of definitions of religion, see C. Martin 2009. What “religion” and “religious” come to mean varies significantly, but I am generally using the terms in the way that my interlocutors and their communities referred to them.

6. See Adelkhah 2011; Aharon 2011; Arify 2021; Baiza 2014, 2015; Brauer 1942; Bonotto 2021; Canfield 1973; Edwards 1986b; Emadi 2014; Koplik 2003, 2015; Monsutti 2010; Mousavi 1998; Perennes 2014; Shinwari 2002. However, Nile Green (2017: 31) argues that a recent process of dediversification has led to Afghanistan becoming one of the least religiously diverse Muslim-majority countries worldwide.

7. Afghanistan lies within what Shahab Ahmed called the “Balkans-to-Bengal complex” (2016: 83), where Sufism was an integral part of the way Islam was lived historically. However, Sufi communities can be found all over the world. For various global explorations of Sufism, see Corbett 2017; Diouf 2013; Ernst and Lawrence 2002; Bazzano and Hermansen 2020; Ogunnaike 2020; Piraino and Sedgwick 2019; Raudvere 2002; Raudvere and Stenberg 2008; Rozehnal 2007; Sharify-Funk 2018; Strothmann 2016; Xavier 2018; Werbner 2003.

8. Irfan is sometimes translated as “mysticism,” “gnostic mysticism” or “Gnosticism.” These terms are often used interchangeably; however, the differentiation between them is often followed in Afghanistan by an implicit evaluation of one form as a noble, metaphysical, gnostic form of inquiry (irfan), whereas the notion of Sufism (tasawwuf) has come to be associated with popular forms of belief, superstition and sometimes even antisocial behavior. For analogy in Iranian history, see Knysh 2017: 36–38.

9. Can 2020; De Bruijn 1997; Ahsraf Ghani 1988; N. Green 2012, 2017, 2019; Edwards 1993, 1996, 2002; Haroon 2007; Lewisohn 1993, 2018; Nasr 1999; Ziad 2017b, 2019, 2021.

10. Most poignantly remarked in N. Green 2017: 26; also see Edwards 2017. However, in the case of Afghanistan, the absence is largely not due to the decline hypothesis, as espoused in earlier accounts in which scholars attested to a decline of Sufi orders (Arberry 1942, 1968; Geertz 1971; Gellner 1981) but to a total lack of scholarly attention to these groups.

11. Notable exceptions for work in country in the 1990s are Baldauf 2017 and Monsutti 2005. For an overview of themes and structures of the field of anthropology pertaining to Afghanistan, see Monsutti 2013.

12. For local politics and center-periphery interactions, see Coburn 2011; Coburn and Larson 2013; Schetter 2013; Sharan 2011, 2013; Sharan and Heathershaw 2011; Sharifi 2019. For gender relations, see Ahsan-Tirmizi 2017, 2021; Billaud 2009, 2012, 2015; Chiovenda 2020; Wimpelmann 2017. For memory, trauma and ethnicity, see Kerr-Chiovenda 2014, 2015, 2018; Dossa 2014. For the reconstruction and development nexus, see L. Martin 2021; W. Osman 2020; Mojaddedi 2016, 2019. For international economic and labor networks, see Coburn 2016, 2018; Lin 2021; Monsutti 2021.

13. Anthropologists David Edwards and Omar Sharifi have paid sustained attention to religious texts, the oral history of charismatic Islamic leaders and religiously coded celebrations around Newroz. See Edwards 1986a, 1986b, 1993, 1996, 2002, 2017; Sharifi 2019. A recent foray has also been made by Ahsan-Tirmizi 2021. When anthropological research on Afghanistan blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s, researchers mostly focused on rural and tribal religiosity. See Baldauf 1989; Einzmann 1977; Canfield 1973; L. Dupree 1976; Frembgen 1994; Penkala-Gawecka 1992; Rzehak 2004, 2007; Wilber 1952.

14. N. Green 2017: 26; Monsutti 2013.

15. Edwards 1996; Lizzio 2014; Wieland-Karimi 1998.

16. Ridgeon 2015: 1.

17. Much recent anthropological scholarship on Muslim communities developed in reference to the generative work of Talal Asad (1986), who proposed to conceptualize Islam as a discursive tradition. Based on Alasdair MacIntyre’s formulation of tradition and a Foucaultian concept of “discourse,” Asad’s approach has given rise to the rich theoretical exploration of the production and transmission of authoritative textual and oral Islamic discourses (MacIntyre 1988: 12). For an overview of discourse according to Foucault’s understanding, see S. Mills 2003: 53–66; also see Foucault 1978, 1995. For explorations based on these approaches, see Bowen 1993; Messick 1993; Soares 2005.

18. S. Ahmed 2016: 147.

19. I limit my discussion of Sufism to the Islamic tradition. In recent years, Sufism has become a trend as well in the West, often coupled with New Age instructions, which do not see embedding into Islam as a mandatory precondition to becoming and being a Sufi. While this development has opened up new vistas for scholarship (Geaves 2014), I am focused on how my interlocutors in Afghanistan understood Sufism as part and parcel of Islam and as intense devotion as a Muslim.

20. The term comes from Arabic tariqa and is used in the Arab-speaking world most often with the plural turuq. However, this pluralization is less common in Persian. Most of my interlocutors pluralized the term as tariqas.

21. Papas 2020.

22. Usually, an enumeration of Sufi orders in Afghanistan includes Suhrawardiyyah as well. However, historical sources already show that this strain was comparatively weak, and apart from a few scholars who maintained that they had read Suhrawardiyyah texts, their prevalence was relatively circumscribed. I did not conduct research in any community that defined themselves as Suhrawardiyyah Sufis in Afghanistan. For more on the Suhrawardiyyah in South Asia, see Huda 2005. For brotherhoods and their founders, see N. Green 2012: 84–91.

23. There are of course also Sufi mendicants, wanderers, who are often called malang. They often only loosely associate with a particular order, although they might visit khanaqahs and ziyarats. The term malang can overlap with other categories. Homayun Sidky points to the spectrum that the term malang can refer to “madaree (stage-magicians), fakir (either beggar or holy-men), qalandar (wandering Sufis), jadoogar (sorcerers who, in some instances, are indistinguishable from shamans), charsi (hashish addicts), divana (possessed madmen) and palang dar libasi malang (lit., tigers in malang clothing: impostors and charlatans)” (1990: 290).

24. Knysh 2017: 71–73.

25. Anārī al-Harawī 2011; Beaurecueil 1988; Dallh 2011, 2013, 2017.

26. Masud, Salvatore and Bruinessen 2009: 125.

27. S. Ahmed, 2016: 20–26. However, one of the most frequent sayings I heard among Sufi students was that shari‘at and tariqat were two sides of the same coin, binding them together for a holistic understanding of Islam.

28. Elphinstone 1815: 215–216, 220, 272. See Chapter 2 for a more in-depth discussion of this split. While I single out these writings, there is of course also a history of writing in Sufi poetry such as Mawlana Rumi’s, which makes fun of mullahs and jurists, using their positionality to outline the limits of knowledge acquisition through particular pathways.

29. Ingram 2018; Ziad 2021: 18–20.

30. Zaman 2002, 2012; Ahmad 2017.

31. Asad 1986.

32. N. Khan 2012.

33. While I am going to name and analyze a few of the positions critical of Sufism, the list is by no means exhaustive, as a full historical, ideological and geographical spread of criticism is outside the scope of this work. Criticism could also be analyzed from the Mu’tazila, the Almohad, Kadizadeli and others who contested Sufi beliefs, rituals or organizations. The following overview represents broader trends and groups who have criticized Sufi ideas and practices. For further reading, see Sirriyeh 1999; Knysh 2017: 36, 176.

34. Dandekar and Tschacher 2016: 7.

35. The Arabic lexical translation for “innovation” is bid’a, which is theologically seen as “a belief or practice for which there is no precedent in the time of the Prophet.” While the term bid’a itself is not mentioned in the Qur’an, variations of it are, and there are several Hadiths attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that speak to innovations as misguidance and error (Qur’an 2:111–117, 6:101, 57:16, 57:27). For more on bid’a, see Robson 2012.

36. For an overview of the term and its applications, see Ali and Leaman 2008: 55; Robson 2012: 1199; Rispler 1991: 321; Kamrava 2011.

37. Saba Mahmood (2011) and Charles Hirschkind (2006) explored the ethical subjectivity of pious Muslims in Cairo who attempted to craft virtuous selves through bodily practices, listening to cassette sermons and adhering to strict moral codes. The study of revivalist movements has antecedents in research on the intersection of Islamism, modernity and secularism (for example, Gellner 1992; Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Kepel 2012).

38. S. Ahmed 2016. Recent works that grapple with these questions for Islam in general, Islamic authority and Islamic art are Alatas 2021; Burak-Adli 2020; Hill 2018; Mittermaier 2011; Shaw 2019; Taneja 2018.

39. For examples in media reports, see Pollock and Wehrey 2018; Specia 2017; Ayoob 2019; Risemberg 2019; Conesa 2018.

40. This list could be extended to other places and times, for example, by pointing to the Catholic liberation theology in Latin America (Büschges, Müller and Oehri 2021; Wilde 2016). Although it is not uncommon to perceive Muslim groups as antithetical to civil society, few might be so glaring as Ernest Gellner’s (1994) claims of Islam as a “rival” to civil society.

41. Borchgrevink 2007: 13.

42. The civil society mapping by the United Nation’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) revealed that while the main focus continued to be service delivery, especially in education (47 percent) and agriculture sectors (33 percent), there is a significant increase in the number of CSOs working on governance, rule of law, policy advocacy, transparency, accountability and human rights monitoring (24 percent)” (European Union 2015: 25).

43. Howell and Lind 2009; Orjuela 2008; Konings 2009. For a critique of this process, see Borchgrevink et al. 2005; Borchgrevink 2007; Nojumi 2004; Harpviken, Strand and Ask 2002, 2005.

44. Howell and Lind 2009: 718. This trend has also been called a “Civil Society Industry.” See Theros 2019: 143.

45. For an overview of the idea of civil society, see Seligman 1992. Also see Arato and Cohen 1992; Hagemann, Michel and Budde 2008; Hall 1995; Keane 1988. The concepts inherit particular assumptions as well as historic connotations: Alexis de Tocqueville saw the proliferation of voluntary organizations as a core strength of American democracy, and Robert Putnam attributed the variable strength of democratic society in Italy to the social capital developed in horizontal ties of trust that could provide mutual assistance. In a later study, he lamented the erosion of American civil engagement, stating that Americans had abandoned bowling in teams to go “bowling alone” (Putnam 1994, 2000; also see Tocqueville 2003). However, Robert Hefner presciently remarked that “these Enlightenment experiments in democratic civility failed to extend rights of participation to whole categories of people, including, most famously, women, the propertyless, and racial and ethnic minorities” (1998: 26).

46. Volpi 2011. Indeed, John Keane points out that “civility was a privileged discourse of the privileged; it supposed and required the exclusion of whole categories of the world’s population because of such ‘inferior’ characteristics as skin colour, gender, religion or lack of upbringing” (2003: 190). However, Keane also argues that the term has undergone a marked connotative change toward “peaceful plurality of morals” (190). Margrit Pernau (2016) remarks that the ashraf in India took up civility as a distinguishing feature of a progressive class.

47. Glasius 2010. For a view into ongoing discussions about the concept of civil society, particularly in South America, see Biekart and Fowler 2022.

48. For a questioning of the civil sphere and its normative preconceptions and modernity, see Deeb 2006. Recently the term “uncivil civil society” or “uncivil society” has been used for “manifestations of civil society that challenge liberal democratic values” (Glasius 2010).

49. Norton 1995; Hefner 2000; Sajoo 2002; Wolff and Poppe 2015.

50. Seligman 1992; Weller 1999.

51. Powell 2001.

52. US Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations 2011: 5.

53. Bizhan, Ibrahimi and Bose (2019) outline three Hazara-led movements, starting with the Tabassum Movement (Junbesh-e Tabasum, 2015), the Enlightenment Movement (Junbesh-e Roshnayi-e, 2016–2017) and the Uprising for Change (Junbesh-e Rashtakhiz-e Taghir, 2017). On the Enlightenment Movement, see also Kerr-Chiovenda 2018; Jawad 2020.

54. The founding members of the Afghanistan 1400 Movement were a group of well-educated individuals who also held positions in government, NGOs and private companies or were students and civil society activists. Ibrahimi 2017: 137; see also S. Kazemi 2012; Reid 2021.

55. B. Osman 2014, 2015a; Ibrahimi 2017.

56. Ibrahimi 2017: 12.

57. Afghanistan 1400 was not formally registered, but it gained a highly visible public profile due to the political affiliations of many of its members.

58. Nojumi 2004: 22. Theros refers to non-formalized groups as “value-based networks” (2019: 150). For local organization structures, see also Murtazashvili 2016.

59. Theros 2019; Volpi 2011.

60. Weller 1999: 16; Hann and Dunn 1996. On tracing the origins of the term, see Hefner 1998. The term has also been taken up to describe a virtue in political conduct (Peterson 2019).

61. For the genealogy in social thought on civility, see Elias 1998; Shils 1991. For an alternative construction of adab as civility and of Sufi communities as establishing an urban civility, see Kostadinova 2018.

62. Volpi 2011: 838.

63. Borchgrevink 2007: 37. Resource distribution used to be a more pronounced part of khanaqahs, in which large langars, or communal kitchens, fed travelers and murids.

64. Salvatore 2016: 74.

65. Salvatore 2016: 88.

66. Salvatore 2016: 83–89; Levtzion 2002: 110.

67. Interview, Kabul, November 2022.

68. Azoy 2012; Barfield 2010; Christia 2012; Malejacq 2017, 2020.

69. In his study on power relations in Afghanistan, G. Whitney Azoy, for example, argues that authority in Afghanistan manifested “in individual men who relate to each other in transient patterns of cooperation and competition” rather than in institutions or permanent corporations. While he generally acknowledges Islam as a strong unifying force in Afghanistan, he argues (in contradistinction to his general approach), that Islam’s “capacity for providing a unity of norms is more than offset, however, by its failure to structure institutions through which authority can work” (2012: 25, 26–27). Noah Coburn, however, points to the influence of religious leaders relative to maliks, the local government and commanders in the competition for resources (2011: 116–123).

70. Edwards 1996: 140–141.

71. There are particular religious titles that are more strongly circumscribed. The title “Sayyid” is reserved for descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and “Hazrat is used for descendants of the second Islamic caliph Umar. However, other names and titles are less strongly predetermined. On the historical social and economic position of village imams in Afghanistan, see Edwards 1996: 134.

72. Arendt 1968: 93. Hussein Agrama (2010) has explored through the case of fatwas how authority has become seen as synonymous with coercion, particularly as obedience is pitted against free will in the contemporary liberal notion that “the true self is the free self.”

73. Krämer and Schmidtke 2006: 2.

74. Arendt 1968: 93; Raz 2009: 141. While Hannah Arendt sees it as a general feature of authority, Joseph Raz sees it as a key characteristic of legitimating authority, or what he calls “preemptive” authority.

75. Cited in Schimmel 1975: 103–104.

76. Zaman 2012: 30 (italics in original).

77. Zaman 2012; Hallaq 2001.

78. Zaman 2012: 33.

79. Ismail Alatas builds on the Arendtian differentiation between labor and work, in which work denotes economic production and labor is seen as “the ongoing and recurring life-reproducing activities characteristic of farm or household” (2021: 5).

80. Alatas 2021: 60–61.

81. Alatas 2021: 4–5. On charisma as an emotional bond, see Werbner and Basu 1998; Lindholm 1990, 2013.

82. Miller 2017.

83. Gennep 1960: 11.

84. Baraka is often translated as “blessing or grace.” It is a sanctity associated with individuals, places or objects and can be transmitted through proximity. See Knight 2020; Safi 2000.

85. Sedgwick 2005: 3.

86. Sedgwick 2005: 225. While charisma is often described as an innate quality of a person, Charles Lindholm has argued that “unlike physical characteristics, charisma appears only in interaction with others.” Therefore, charisma is a relationship between the one who possesses it and others who perceive it and are affected by it (1990: 7). Lindholm also remarked that charisma in religious groups can have inverse valences, either through disrupting institutional settings or solidifying the social structure (2013: 8). See Werbner and Basu 1998 on the embodiment of charisma in Sufi groups.

87. The German political sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf builds on the Weberian idea of “social options” that are open to an individual in the person’s positioning within society. As Henrik Vigh explains the connection between Dahrendorf’s approach and social navigation, “Life chances are, in Dahrendorf’s perspective, constituted by social options and ties. . . . When these are combined in an analytical perspective, they grant us the possibility to investigate situated action” (2007: 14).

88. Pierre Bourdieu’s “theory of practice” posits that people and groups act in different, overlapping and interpermeating “fields.” He describes the concept of a field as a structured social sphere or space of action. See Bourdieu 1977: 41. For the Bourdieuian field, see Fuchs-Heinritz and Koenig 2005: 76.

89. Vigh 2009: 428–429. Vigh compares this to approaches (such as Tim In-gold’s) that use navigation through transposing physical landscapes onto social terrains, which implicitly assume the navigation of social, cultural or ethnic landscapes with layered topographies.

90. Vigh 2007: 13.

91. Vigh 2009: 420.

92. Montgomery 2016: 156.

93. Barth 2002; Montgomery 2016.

94. Montgomery 2016: 107–120, 124, 125, 133, 157, 166–169.

95. O’Brien 2017a: 281. The concept of resilience has also been critiqued particularly in its emergence as a twin binary with trauma. See Moghnieh 2021a, 2021b.

96. Walker and Cooper 2011. For a particularly sharp critique of the usage of the term, with an incisive overview of its application with subaltern studies, see Bracke 2016, who reads the term against the grain in light of Gayatri Spivak’s development of the term “new subaltern” (Spivak 2000: 324).

97. Barnett 2013.

98. Neocleous 2013, 2015.

99. For an overview of these discussions, see Fraile-Marcos 2020. For the argument of retaining an altered version of resilience through her conception of “broken resilience,” see O’Brien 2017a.

100. This debate also draws on and is indebted to prescient insights from North American indigenous critiques such as Gerald Vizenor’s argument on Survivance. See Vizenor 2009.

101. Shahrani 1991. Herat-born Sunni theologian and Sufi poet Jami famously called Mawlana Rumi’s magnus opus, the Masnawi, “the Qur’an in Persian language,” which elevates it to “Qur’anic exegesis by other means.” See Schimmel 1993: 367, 369, quoted in S. Ahmed 2016: 307. Shahab Ahmed traces “around 4,500 direct citations of verses of the Qur’an (quite aside from allusions thereto) as well as more than 700 Hadiths” (2016: 307).

102. Amira Mittermaier’s (2011) work in Egypt in particular opened the doors for more widespread anthropological explorations of dreams within the anthropology of Islam.

103. John Lamoreaux argues that the Qur’an contains dream narratives; however, “it nowhere enjoins Muslims to interpret their dreams, nowhere suggests that God regularly communicates with Muslims through dreams, nowhere makes the interpretation of dreams one of the duties of Muslims” (2002: 108). Nonetheless, Lamoreaux shows that Hadiths complemented the Qur’an as “proof text” (116). Dream interpretation was not a fringe part of Islam “but at the center of the concerns of the ulema” (133). All of the canonical Hadith collections devote whole chapters to dream interpretation: Bukhari’s Bab al-ta’bir (Bukhari Sahih 9:37–58), Muslim’s Kitab al-ru’ya (Muslim Sahih 15:6–35), Ibn Majah’s Kitab fi ta’bir al-ru’ya (Ibn Majah Sunan 2:1286–1294), Abu Daud’s Bab fi al-ruya (And Dawud Sunan 4:304–306), Tirmidhi’s Kitab al-ru’ya (Tirmidhi Jami 4:532–543) and Nasa’i’s Kitab al-ta’bir (Nasa’i Sunan 4:382–392).

104. Dreams have been a powerful medium in Muslim communities, embraced by the full spectrum of the varying interpretations of Islam, from Sufis to jihadists. However, dreams have been confronted by a rationalist-leaning public that doubts their validity. See Edgar (2011: 65–78), who analyzed jihadist dream interpretation and dreams of Al-Qaeda members in online messaging boards.

105. The term “community” is complex and has been questioned concerning its usefulness for describing groups of people, particularly as their social affiliation, scalar and spatial patterns vary (Amit 2002). From Ferdinand Tönnies, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, to Benedict Anderson, Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, the term has been used by social analysts for analyzing processes of social cohesion and transformation. In this book the term is used for groups such as Sufi orders and poetry circles but also for the wider networks that follow the guidance of Sufi teachers.

106. For a detailed and comprehensive overview of Herat and its manifold connections to Sufis, see Noelle-Karimi 2014.

107. Contrary to many studies on Afghanistan that focus on ethnicity, I decided not to record data on ethnic belonging, and it did not surface as a salient category in my interviews and interactions. For studies that focus on religiosity among particular ethnicities, see A. Ahmed 1976; Canfield 1973; Caron 2016; Baldauf 1989, 2017; Kopecky 1982, 1986.

108. Class formation is a crucial and cross-cutting issue of social analysis, yet we know little about it in Afghanistan. Some literature addresses class implicitly through focusing on the urban poor in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps or the excesses of the political elite, but it is devoid of theorizing. This might be due to its anchoring in neoliberal humanitarian work that is embedded within the drive to develop Afghanistan with a particularly uncritical approach to modernization. For accounts that directly address class as a category, see Marsden 2018; W. Osman 2020. For accounts that directly address class through critically viewing the place of landownership, see Murtazashvili 2021.

109. According to UNESCO figures, the overall literacy rate in Afghanistan for the adult population over fifteen years old is 43 percent. While this is an overall increase since 1979 from 18 percent, a closer look at the gender as well as rural/urban divide shows stark differences in who has received education in the past decades. Overall male literacy is 55 percent, with a male literacy rate of 68 percent in Kabul and 41 percent in Helmand in Afghanistan’s south. The general female literacy rate is lower at 29.8 percent. The regional breakdown shows an even starker difference, with a literacy rate for women in Kabul of 34.7 percent, but plummeting to 1.6 percent in Afghanistan’s south. For numbers from 2018, see UNESCO 2023; Central Asia Institute 2018.

110. For a discussion of the sectarian divide and the question of nomenclature pertaining to Shi‘a Sufis in Iran, see Knysh 2017: 36–38. For new anthropological research on Shi‘a Sufi communities in neighboring Iran, see Golestaneh 2022, 2023.

111. For more on dialogic ethnographic approaches, its prospects and challenges, see Brear 2019; Caretta and Perez 2019. For an exploration of dialogic approaches as part of writing feminist ethnographies, see Sanger 2003.

112. Al-Dewachi 2017; Al-Mohammad 2015; Aretxaga 1997; Daughtry 2015; Daniel 1996; Dewachi 2015, 2019; L. Green 1999; Henig 2012, 2020; Kwon 2008; Lin 2022; Navaro 2012; Nordstrom 2004; Nordstrom and Robben 1995; Rubaii 2020; Scheper-Hughes 1992; Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004; Uk 2016; Zani 2019.

113. Zani 2019: 8.

114. Zani 2019: 6. See also Henig 2012, 2020.

115. See, for example, Rubaii in Hannun, Lin and Schmeding 2022 for shared military technologies in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.

116. Rasmussen 2015. This point was also not lost on the Taliban, when they hung four presumed kidnappers as one of their first acts of deterrence in Herat in September 2021. See Talmazan 2021.

117. Billaud 2015: 22, adapted from Marcus 1995.

118. A suspicion of spying probably led to the death of Italian Cambridge University graduate and PhD researcher Guilio Regeni in Egypt in 2016. See BBC 2019; Walsh 2017.

119. Anthropological knowledge developed in an environment of European colonial expansion; however, as Talal Asad points out, its role in imperial domination was relatively unimportant as it was often deemed “too esoteric for government use” (1991: 315). As regional comparisons show, the use of anthropology and ethnography in Colonial rule varied (Steinmetz 2003). See also Gupta and Stoolman 2022; Said 1989; Stocking 1991; Price 2016. For reflections on the impact of the wider environment of the War on Terror on knowledge production in the social sciences and humanities, see Hannun, Lin and Schmeding 2022.

120. For a more recent involvement of anthropologists with the military and intelligence gathering, see contestations around the Human Terrain System in Albro et al. 2012; Joseph 2016; McFate and Fondacaro 2011; Manchanda 2017: 183.

121. Bayoumi 2015.

122. On spatial exclusion and passport elites within Afghanistan, see Fluri 2009.

123. Other female researchers have expressed annoyance at the question of whether their gender was a liability or restricted their research because men are rarely asked to account for the impact of their gender on their research (Jackson 2021: 19). I would argue the opposite though, hoping that the discussion of positionality, which both enables and restricts certain research avenues, would become a normalized feature of any social scientist’s inquiry regardless of the gender of the researcher.

124. My group of research assistants had all worked in different capacities with international organizations and were fluent in English, some even in German. They were in their twenties and thirties and studying at universities (medicine, international relations) or working independently on projects (as filmmakers, consultants, research managers, journalists).

125. Pinto 2002: 4. Also see Pinto 2010. The question concerning the observer’s position in the study of religion has also provoked vehement anthropological debates in the past. While the anthropology of Islam is focused, among other things, on the study of Muslim societies and cultures or Islamic traditions and practices, there have been calls for an “Islamic anthropology,” premised on Islam as the base and paradigm for research, privileging Islamic history and theology as the frame for analysis. This approach, which was most vocally proposed by Akbar Ahmed, developed as a response to the experience of the intertwining of colonialism and anthropology, of Orientalist depictions of “the Other” and as a native way to speak back. These approaches have received ample criticism because they were perceived to be reducing the scope and methodology of a discipline to an ideology. See A. Ahmed 1984: 2, 1986: 210; Tapper 1995: 191; Marranci 2008: 48.

126. Haraway 1988.

127. James 1902: 488.