Pirs and Semiotic Presence

Pirs and Semiotic Presence. A Case of Islamic Anthropology


Manzurul Mannan

Email: monzurul@bangla.net


This paper analyzes some aspects of the cognitive domain and internal thought process of Pirs. The Pirs are the Islamic spiritual persons who are popularly known as Sufis in many part of the Islamic world. The cognitive domain and internal thought process of spiritual persons find its partial expression in their explanation and representation of human body and self. The thought process of spiritual persons has patterns and structures that form the core of Pir ideology in Bangladesh, and perhaps of the South Asian Sufi world [1].

This study is exploratory in nature and attempts to open new dimensions rather than providing an inference to the established practice of Islamic spiritualism. This paper is based on the ethnographic materials and also my long association with the spiritual practice at Maizbhander. Maizbhander become a séance of spiritual persons with the rise of spiritual leader Pir Ahmed Ullah in the last decade of 19th century. Maizbhander spiritualism is one of the latest developments to the Sufi movements of South Asia. This spiritualism has grown to its present spiritual crescendo by synthesizing culture and religion at the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th century. This has further contributed a new flavor to the existing syncretistic tradition (Roy 1983). This paper will proceed on by explaining its theoretical position and the limitations of the semiotic presence. It will, then, discuss and draw a boundary between the theoretical analyses of Man as exists in semiotic anthropology and Islamic analysis of Man [2]. It will, in turn, forward an analysis of Pirs; the spiritual construction of body and semiotic presence in relation to spiritual hierarchy in order to offer a new perspective on spiritual persons.

Theoretical Construct: Islamic Anthropology

The semiotic anthropology flourishes in the western anthropology primarily through the work of Charles Peirce (Buchler 1955). Peirce’s semioticism, the quasi-necessary, is another name for logic and a formal doctrine of sign [3] and signs are divisible by three trichotomies: iconic, indexical and symbolic signs (Buchler 1955:98-104). It yields a theory of self that sees it both as the object and the subject of semiotic systems. It also views that the locus, unity, and continuity of the self would be found in the system of signs, and it will, in turn, create a basis of dialogues between utterers and interpreters of the sign. Inspired by Peirce’s theory, Singer infers man as a “Glassy Essence” (Singer 1980) and considers self as a system of symbols and meaning, which is both a phenomenological and pragmatic conception (Singer, 1980:486). He views Man’s glassy essence consists in his being a symbol and man is a window that frames a vision of the world or a mirror through which the cosmos is reflected (Singer, 1984:3). Other viewed person as a “Fluid Signs” (Daniel 1984) or symbolic construction (Boler 1963; Cornell 1983). A semiotic approach sees consciousness as a product of the body, mind and culture nexus that can be best understood by seeing it from a dimensionality principle (Danesi 1998:253).

This paper examines how sign and symbol construct the spiritual persons within the framework of the religion of Islam. It is, therefore, important not to treat anthropology of Islam from the western anthropology of religion. Islamic anthropology distinctively represents an alternate discourse of religion. Western anthropology of religion aims at constructing a reality. The notion of reality has originated from the word rez, which also means ‘objectification.’ Because of the objectification, the emphasis always placed on visible factors or objects. However, Islam does not recognize reality; what is more important than reality is the notion of huq, that is, Islam searches for “truth.” Huq in most cases is invisible, and thereby, Islamic discourse is about the making of visible of the invisible phenomenon. The attempt to transform invisible factors into visible objects opens up avenues and dimensions that in turn create space for discussion to accommodate consensus and conflict. The continuous creation of space made Islamic discourse more attractive. The use of western scientific terminologies and the methodology in constructing Sufis led to delink terminologies and methodology from discourse. Since discourse is a convention of knowledge that is historical to a civilization, this delinking renders terminology meaningless (Davies 1988:149).

The semiotic study or the study of signs gives a different twist when applied to the context of Islam. The framework of Islamic anthropology opens up a new paradigm on the question of the representation of the inner world of Sufism. While there is a need for Islamic anthropology (Ahmed 1987), it finds its inescapable foundation in the Qur’anic conception of human life and its entailments (Davies 1988:113). Qu’ran recognizes spiritual persons through the following verse:

Can he who was dead.

To whom We gave life.

And a Light whereby

He can walk amongst men

Be like him who is

In the depths of darkness,

From which he can

Never come out?

[Sura VI. An’am, Ayah 122]

The above verse clearly indicates that Allah has infused power of light (An-Nur) in some chosen persons that make them special in comparison to commoners. The semiotic construction of self and body finds expression through interpretation of meanings and meanings within the meanings. To understand the semiotic presence, one has to allow an equation of self; soul, spirit and body centered on the ‘essence’ or he generic quality of body. The essence of a human body has two distinct dimensions: first, living and biological body during one’s lifetime, and secondly, the other body after the death. The existence of living body is a temporary phenomenon, but the ‘other’ body exists after death as a permanent phenomenon in eternal form. However, the manifestation of living body as a temporary phenomenon is nothing but the expression of the eternal one through the medium of evanescent. This process occurs through the continuous representation and interaction between the existing body and the other body in another time. The body continuously transforms from one state to another within a given time frame, but such transformation does not alter the generic quality of body. This essence of body throughout the history remains unchanged and unaltered, but the description of the essence of body has been done with the languages, words, and sentences and linguistic of a particular period and epoch. By that, description of the same essence varied from one epoch to another resulting in the generation of various interpretations and meanings. Such interpretations often contradict and negate each other, although the essence remains the same.

While Qur’an provides the conceptual framework, which shapes, influences and construe Islamic societies, it is important here is to examine how the Qur’anic framework is operationalised by contextualizing spiritual persons in a given time and space. The process of contextualizing has two aspects of actuality and truth. The actuality refers to interacting events among actors that is seen and observable, but the truth is the unseen dimension which only Sufis are able to comprehend. We are dealing with a conceptual fabric of Islam that offers a totality and a whole system of interconnected and interrelated terms that are mutually defining. A way to understand Islamic anthropology is to examine the key concepts like Khalif, Din and Fitrah. Khalif (Sura II, Baqara Ayah 30) stands for human trusteeship as God’s vicegerent on earth. Khalif represents the dimension defining human status and rights. Din stands for the concept of religion as a total way of life in the widest possible sense of the term. The Fitrah is created as a faculty, a disposition, with inherent knowledge. This knowledge encompasses, in conventional Islamic term, both the seen and unseen (Davies 1988:88-89). The possessor of Fitrah has both cultural and spiritual existence. Qu’ran clearly states:

From changing your Forms

And creating you (again)

In (Forms) that ye know not.

[Sura LVI. Waqi’a, Ayah 61]

The verse indicates that there exist at least two human forms of a single living person, which may be conceptualized as physical body in the present world and spiritual body in the unseen world. Thereby, cultural existence of Pir is manifested in his social capacity to attract followers and making new ones with articulated speech, thoughts, reasoning and imagination. It is also the Pir through his spiritual existence inspire followers by linking them to unseen world whereby they experience new sense of power unknown till hitherto. Spiritualism is then trying to give visible expression to invisibility. It is expressed in signs with inner certainty to construct the semiotic presence of Pir and spiritual persons, that is, a `Man’ with spiritual powers. Semiotic presence occurs for regulating a consensus for shaping ideology among Murids (disciples and devotees) of Pirs. Murids‘ perceptions, knowledge, beliefs and analyses, in turn, contribute significantly to construct the structure of Pirs [4]. A semiotic presence is empirically known rather than analytically comprehended, which is felt through the intense verbal and nonverbal human communication among the partaker devotees. The devotees use religious and cultural symbols and signs to construct the symbolic reality of Pirs. Only a direct spiritual experience allows one to explain truth, but the explanation of `that’ experience may easily create problem of interpretation of how one knows the spiritual experience is true? The semiotic presence explains the body (- a biological reality), and self (- a symbolic reality). In general, the body and self are not considered as a separate entity, but a difficulty remains in that the presence of self is itself only subtly distinguishable from body.

Limitation of Explaining Semiotic Presence

Cornell (1983) applied the analytical tools of symbolism provided by Peirce to study Sufi spiritualism. This interesting study shows how western logic can be applied to explore the cognitive structure of the non-western religious mind without resorting to dogmatic positivism or denial of objective reality, which often occurs while dealing with alien symbols (Cornel 1983:79-80). However, Islam in anthropological discourse perhaps gains its widespread recognition from the writings of Geertz (1968, 1973, 1993). In western scholarship of anthropology of Islamic spiritual persons, there are tendencies to consider Muslims from two points of view. The first view is that Muslims belong to the peoples of the Book (Geertz 1973:187). By that, Islamic saints are metaphors originating from a contrast between a spirituality, which consists in psychic balance, and one that consist in moral intensity (Geertz 1968:25). Similarly the anthropology of psychoanalysis offers Islamic individual spiritual men as subject (Heald and Deluz 1994: 160). The second view is that the practice of spiritual persons revolves around miracles (Gilsenan 1982:95-115). The Muslims’ beliefs in miracles are considered as hallucinatory contrivances manipulated by clever individuals or the rural Holy men (Geertz 1993:195) in their search for personal power.

The problem with Geertz and other western studies on Islam is that they reduce diversity of religious forms to significant cultural symbols. Geertz’s religion from symbolic perspective is unable to distinguish religious symbols from nonreligious cultural symbols. The religious symbols cannot be understood independently of their relations with nonreligious symbols or of their articulation of social life in which work and power are always crucial (Asad 1983:251). What appears that most of the studies on Islam are unable to forward an analysis on the dynamics of internal ideological and symbolic structures of Islam that continuously produces both religious and nonreligious cultural symbols. These studies are unable to analyze the dynamic interpretation of internal structure of spiritualism that produces events like miracles. One reason of such failure is that these studies are deeply influenced by Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, and Redcliff Brown’s writing’s on beliefs, magic and religion of primitive world (Ahmed 1987: 41-44). Moreover, there is an emphasis in the western self for a concern to be “rational,” exemplified in Aristotelian logic (DeVos et.al. 1985:14). The limitation of anthropological approach to spiritualism is that it naturally ignores people’s everyday experiences whose cosmology is largely implicit in their ritual practice and everyday behavior (Keesing 1985:201). Explanation of body and self must be contextualized within a culturally specific situation so that a cultural anatomy of body and its representation can be made.

Semiotic presence of a body is seen and interpreted in a two ways. First, body has a physical existence and biological form. Secondly, the very physical existence of body is described and interpreted by symbols and symbolic codes. These codes are decoded by language, words, specifically by producing phonetic sounds like “Hu-ha-hum,” “Allah-hu,” “Illal-lah” silence and feelings. The decoding process depends on one’s own understanding of the semiotic presence of Pirs. Constructing and also deconstructing process of the body and self explain an important element of spiritualism. However, the limitation in explaining semiotic presence is both related to the methodology and substance. The semiotic presence of Pir is very much a function of a cognitive process, but we hardly understand the actual operation of this cognitive process that reinforces Sufi ideology. A concern in the semiotic representation of body within the Islamic framework of spiritualism is that the semiotic presence is located not within the semiotic and symbols itself; rather, is located beyond the meaning of signs and symbols in a fashion of what may be termed as formless void.

To avoid initial difficulties in analysis, I propose to view the representation of body as a cultural phenomenon of a knowledge system. By that we wish to raise a basic question on the epidemiology of representation of cultural phenomenon: they are either mental representations inside brains or public representations in the environment of brains (Sperber 1985). By raising questions, we can presume and develop a consensus that we are dealing with a knowledge system and much of that knowledge system is fundamentally non-linguistic (Bloch 1991:186). The non-linguistic aspect of knowledge is formed partly by experience of the external world and partly through the historical accumulation of knowledge transferred from anterior generation to posterior generation. When this knowledge is expressed and explained with one’s own cultural dialect and language of contemporary time and moment, the interpretation and cultural construction of knowledge system may vary.

A problem with different actors is that when they interpret apparently similar cultural symbols and phenomena, they do so with their different levels of intellectual and mental capacities, specific language and choice of words. These interpretations usually result in the diversity of meanings that may appear: at some point as contradictory, but at other point as complementary. The problem of writing and representing the non-linguistic knowledge is related to the choice of languages and words that one may apply to express and explain similar cultural symbols and phenomena. Thus, the real problem remains forever in dealing with interpretation of meaning of cultural symbols is distorting and producing fiction about reality. The other problem is that non-linguistic symbols may render fragmentary coherence resulting in the confirmation of a religio-centric worldview of the actors. The resultant gap between the linguistic and non-linguistic usually is filled with missing words. Now the serious problem is that missing words supplied by the analyst may be wrong, resulting in a spurious inference by the ethnographer (Keesing 1985:202). However, a proper but dynamic understanding of the semiotic and symbolic presence may reduce the probable danger of a non-linguistic expression.

The application of Peirce theory in understanding man poses serious theoretical limitations. The limitation of semiotics is that it does not explain how the semiotic richness of signs and symbols, which is thought of as practical, becomes expressive and evaluative. A reason of failure of semiotic anthropologists in drawing attention to the relationship between self and metaphoric process in everyday discourse is that this discourse lacks both the cosmological richness that intrigues the ethnographer and the boundedness that makes it phenomenologically compact (Merten 1982:808). It clearly violates the symbolic properties of everyday discourse that shape the meaning of social experience. An individual’s sense of self in a particular social context is constituted by metaphorically transferring qualities or attributes from one cultural domain to another (Merten 1982: 796). It is equally important to know how people construct their own models that are otherwise termed folk models, cultural models, or folk knowledge. These models are at once cultural and public, as the historically cumulated knowledge of a people and the embodiments of a language, and cognitive, as paradigms for constructing the world (Keesing 1987:373).

Further, the risk of not incorporating religion and rituals in symbolic studies is that they isolate symbols from the ritual process; and then they interpret symbols as units containing meaning (Bloch 1989:19). The approach of isolating symbols from religion may justify the theoretical excellence, but it may otherwise negate the people’s way of thinking, analysis and interpretation. Another misnomer in anthropology of the self is that many anthropologists tend to consider the self as an experiential or “emic” concept which is to be distinguished from social “roles” and also from the “ego” as used in an “etic” or externally analytic approach to personality structure (DeVos et.al. 1985:3).

Islamic Construction of Body and Self

Islamic anthropology at the outset enables one to be free from western methodological biases and prejudices (Ahmed 1987:65) only to provide a radical alternate of analysis (Davies 1988). Therefore a new look is required to study body and self of spiritual persons in Islamic society. Islamic construction of body radically differs from what anthropologists are failing to capture. An Islamic anthropology of body emphasizes that body is also a part of ideology and cosmology. Islamic construction of “Spiritual Man” has to be looked from the perspective that many Muslims extend recognition to the orthodox practices of Islam, which radically differ from the non-orthodox, but apparently queer form of religious practices. Beside the representation of Islamic body, it has also to be understood in the backdrop of the prohibition on anthropomorphic and animal pictorial and sculptural imagery (Parkin 1994:54).

The everyday ritual discourse and practice of Muslims are largely influenced and explained by Islamic theology which borrowed its basic principles and ideas from the Qu’ranic source. Sufis recognize that human body is made of earth, air, fire and water; and these elements are retained in body as a container. Human body as a retainer contains both Ar-Ruh (spirit) and Al-Qalb (soul) and the relationship between Ar-Ruh and Al-Qalb is a subtle, but an intricate one. Lexically Al-Qalb means the heart and also the supra-rational organ of intuition; it also corresponds to the heart as thought corresponds to the brain (Ibn’Arabi 1984:143). Spiritual persons locate Al-Qalb in the heart and do not consider it an intellectual intuition but a sentiment. It is largely held that Al-Qalb occupies the center of the individuality. On the other hand, Ar-Ruh may simply mean the spirit as the Qu’ran spells, “They will ask thee concerning the spirit; tell them; the spirit was created at the command (amr) of my lord.” (Ibn’Arabi 1984:144). In Sufism, Ar-Ruh is understood at four levels following its principal significance. First, it is the Divine Spirit, so, uncreated (ar-ruh al-ilahi), and also called the Holy Spirit (ar-ruh al-quds). Secondly, Allah creates it in form of the Universal Spirit (ar-ruh al-kulli). Thirdly, Allah also creates the individual spirit, which more exactly, is polarized with regard to an individual. Finally, there exists the vital spirit, an intermediary between the soul and the body.

The focus of Sufism is concentrated then not on the body itself, but on substance or essence of which body appears as an element only. Here the concepts of Ar-Ruh and Al-Qalb are considered crucially important since through these concepts men become part of Allah, ie, his An-Nur. An-Nur means the divine light or energy. In metaphysics, it stands for the divine light indicating the source of existence (Ibn’Arabi 1984:144). An-Nur is known as God’s pattern since it provides a vital linkage between men and God. Allah who has an omnipresent existence is a gender-neutral concept and is indicative of a source of ultimate power. God’s pattern is in fact the manifestation of His Energy, which has made man numinous in essence (Amini 1988:19). This God’s pattern is recognized by the prophet Muhammad (s) who said: “He who knows himself, knows his Lord” (Ibn’Arabi 1984:117). Thus, Sufi theosophy claims, “man is infinite in the finite; in other words, he is a God in the form of man.” (Haq 1975:54). The spiritual persons equate the nature of Allah with Pirs so that no difference or separate entity can exist between the two. However, this does not imply the plurality of God. God is manifesting himself through the diverse phenomena of the universe, but remains to be one without undergoing any changes: “Say not that the plurality of phenomena is contradictory to unity. View thou the reality of things – all is He (Haq 1975:65).”

Islamic scholars view that there exists an intricate relationship between body and soul that is subjected to ranking of three substances: `Aql’ (Intellect), `Nafs’ (Soul) and `Jism’ (Body). These three substances, although all partaking of the light of Being, remain in the domain of cosmology as separate entities which propose a rank in the hierarchy of being. The substances are organized and ranked from higher to lower scales in the following manner: Separated substances; Form; Body; and Matter (Nasr 1978:200). This notion of scaling of substance to matter is a uniquely dominating theme that exists throughout the Islamic Sufi world. However, the scaling of substance is manifested in the polarity of Bateni and Zaheri forms of body only to mean “the Interior” and “the Exterior” Qu’ranic Names of God. Western scholars again misconstrue these two terms as inside and outside worlds in that the words Batin and Lair (synonym for Bateni and Zaheri) refer, on the one hand, to the felt realm of human experience; and on the other to the observed realm of human behavior (Geertz 1993: 60-61). Another scholar provided a closer meaning of Bateni as the hidden or the Inner Secretes (Gilsenan 1982:116-124). In Sufi mysticism, a body has two manifestations. It has external, but visible manifestation, which is known as Zaheri form of body. At the same time it has internal, but invisible form which is know as Bateni form. Both Zaheri and Bateni forms are the opposite sides of the same coin. Every man has outward Zaheri form, but the Bateni form is hidden and a few persons master the art of manifesting their Bateni form.

Pirs and the Construction of Spiritual Body

The appellation Pir is a Persian word, which means elderly persons and saints. In practice, it also means a teacher who can guide one for spiritual attainments; salvage one from worldly sins; protect one from evil; and enlighten oneself with the wisdom of Allah. Pirs have spiritual powers with which they can heal incurable diseases like cancer or AIDS; make one rich from the poor; and can do or undo, make or unmake from anything to everything. This accreditation of Pirs with spiritual power means the Pirs have phenomenal extra-sensory perception and gift of prophecy. In the eyes of commoners and devotees, the Pirs are “super human beings” who possess knowldge both on Ilm-i-Tasawwuf (science of mysticism) and Elme-Ludunni (esoteric knowledge). The possession of esoteric knowledge gives Pirs access to and command over “Lawh-Mahfuz.” [5]. However, Pirs have differential access to Lawh-Mahfuz which depends on their attainment and degree of spiritual powers and knowledge.

The degree of power also categorizes Pirs into two categories [6] of mystic Pirs: Ba-Shara and Be-Shara (Khan 1960:53-54). These two categories of Pirs represent two interrelated spiritual orders, namely, “Nobuyot” and “Belaiyat” orders. Ba-Shara Pirs are representatives of “Nobuyot” order that deals with human well being and a material world. The Ba-Shara Pirs are known mainly as orthoprax Pirs because of their practices of conforming Islamic Shari`ah (teachings of Prophet Muhammad). They are also known as Saliks. Saliks are representatives of Nobuyot order and assigned with tasks to orient their disciples and followers according to the teachings of Allah, Quaran, Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad (S)) and Shari`ah. Their main purpose is to prepare, guide and enlighten the commoner’s narrow world view into the path of spiritualism set by Allah and his prophet Mohammed (S). The most powerful Salik with highest spiritual authority and power is recognized as Gaousul Azam.

On the other hand, Be-Shara Pirs belong to the “Belaiyat” order and they control nature’s vagaries, rain, flodd, calamity, weather, environment, Jinn (angels) and a mystic world. The Be-Shara Pirs are known as heteroprax since they have own self-innovative styles and their practices do not conform to Shari`ah. They are nihilists in their relation to Islamic Shari`ah as they nakedly move in public and follow their own appetites and passions, eat and drink whatever they fancy. They also occasionally lead disreputable and scandalous lives. Although they wander around naked, they are universally accredited for the possession of supernatural and spiritual powers. These Pirs are unmindful and indifferent toward earthly matters and affairs. They are also known as Majzubs. The Majzubs represent the Balaiyat order, and their main tasks are related not with commoners’ well being and worldly etiquette, but related with control of the invisible system of nature. The most powerful Majzub with highest spiritual authority is known as the “Kutubul Aktab.” However, the early Pirs of Bangladesh appeared to be orthodox Muslims. And in spite of their greater attention to mysticisms (Tasawwuf), they managed to observe the religious duties prescribed by the “Shari`ah” (Islamic Law). However, in course of time, around the 15th century, a heterodox type of mystic Pirs has emerged (Khan 1960:53).

The devotees’ construct Pirs by extending recognition of spiritual powers to the body of Pirs, which in turn relates the body to the genre of Allah. However, much of the semiotic meanings, symbols and signs are associated with Majzubs. The significant difference between the Saliks and Majzubs is that Saliks provide lexical interpretation of Islam and Majzubs provide etymological interpretation of Islam. Saliks interpretation of everyday discourse is based on the holy Qu’ran and Hadith, but the Majzubs’ interpretation goes beyond the lexical Qu’ranic interpretation. They deconstruct and reinterpret the standard Qu’ranic interpretation only to justify their action by the verses of Qu’ran. This, in turn, reproduces a deep but new meaning of Qu’ran. The reproduction of meanings by Mujzubs may appear very weird to normal religious understanding. For example, Saliks suggest their followers to follow standard Islamic practice to pray five times a day. On the contrary, Majzubs think that there is no necessity to pray five times a day, because a holy person is always praying by remembering Allah. General belief is that the desire of Majzubs, in reality, is the desire of Allah. Allah’s image is reflected through Pirs. Pirs’s talk, his eye, his behavior in essence is Allah’s talk, words, eyes, behavior and existence. There exist no separation and separate entity between Pirs and Allah, since Pirs contain in their body the element of Allah’s An-Nur. This is why Pirs especially Majzubs, Gausul Azam and Kutubul Aktab are parts of Allah’s An-Nur as they are inseparable from Allah’s entity and existence. This line of interpretation is rooted in the Islamic idea that man is the vicegerent of God. The idea of vicegerent is so central in Islam that it has generated a debate, which polarize Muslim world into two antipodes. The first view is that Allah has created man and appoints a Khallifa on earth. The second view is that God’s decision to appoint a Khallifa is nothing, but through man God is prescribing His own image (Idris 1990:99-110).

In the eye of devotees, Allah is not separated from the Pirs. For example Qu’ran‘s begins with three letters: `ILIF’, `LUM’, and `MIM’. Though Qu’ran and Hadith are silent about the possible interpretation of `ILIF’, `LUM’, `MIM’, the spiritual persons went on by proving their own interpretations of these three letters. But, when one recites Qu’ran, it pronounces as ILIF-la-mmim. The heteroprax Pirs interpret differently and say that `ILIF’ means “Allah”; `LA’ means “No” and `MIM’ means “Mohammed (s).” It also means, Allah, Gabriel and Muhammad (s) are the one, but they have different expression and meaning. This simultaneously produces two separate meanings. First, Allah cannot exist without Muhammad (s) since Muhammad (s) is everything. Secondly, it also stands to reason that Allah does not exist without Mohammed, that is, Allah, indeed, appeared as Muhammad (s) himself. By that, it is all about men and many cite the sayings of Allah’s: “I am men’s mystery and men are mystery to me.” In the anthology of Maizbhander, one mystic rhythmic song sings:

Manush Rheke Khoda Bhoz E Montrona Ke Deache . . .

(Who has given you the idea to pray to Allah by denying the existence of men . . . ).

Thus many devotees, instead of asking Allah, pray and request directly to Pirs for favor or fulfill their prayer. On many instances, we have witnessed that diehard devotees request their Pirs with certain demand to be fulfilled by his miracle power. The Pirs may turn down follower’s prayer by saying, “I wish Allah will fulfill your desire and I am praying for you to Allah.” The devotee sharply replied, “You may request to your god whom I have never seen, but I am asking my god (that is, you) to solve my problem.”

The domineering practice of spiritualism establishes the idea that the Pirs are Allah’s genus. The essential qualities of Allah are metaphorized in Pirs, although Pirs might not be the Allah. This is a problematic understanding for one because it immediately leads one to produce a generic image of Allah in Pirs. That is why we see occasionally the semiotic presence of Pirs is constructed as a “concrete image” which is contrasted with “abstract image” of Allah. This image of Pirs relates to Allah’s genus. Again to partakers the construction of a concrete image is a real construction. Devotees believe that Allah reappears in human body, but such reappearance varies [7] from one epoch to another. Allah in guise appeared as Prophet Muhammad (s) at Mecca; as Gausul Azam Abdul Quader Zillani appeared at Baghdad; and as Gausul Azam Ahmedullah appeared at Maizbhander.

One Body and Two Forms

Devottes make continuous effort to prove that Pirs body has definite linkage to Allah. Allah is an infinite concept whereas man is a finite one. Devotees thus describe body as a part of continuity toward infinity. As has already been pointed out men as a part of God have two forms: Zaheri and Bateni. By that, the outward Zaheri form of body is temporary and perishable, but the inward Bateni form is eternal and everlasting. Men are the one with God and again God will be one with men. Zaheri form is only manifested in current world while one is alive. One’s present existence is the outcome of a temporary cessation from his everlasting abode in God (Haq 1975:55). But the Bateni form continues after the death of human beings, which suggest the existence of two parallel worlds.

The two forms of Zaheri and Bateni are nothing but a representation and expression of one body in plurality. The plurality is expressed in two forms, which is manifested through the concept of ME. Although the ME is the concept of totality, but such construction of human body, thereby, produces the concept of “TWO ME” [8]: first ME and second ME, that is, two forms of body within a single body. The first ME is the microcosm reflected in small world and second ME is the macrocosm with a big world. It is precisely the second ME which represents the God in Bateni form. The outcome of the Bateni form is the “Effacement in the Essence of God” (Valiuddin 1987:81). The two forms of Zaheri or first ME and Bateni or Second ME can be represented by following causal diagram.

The first ME, with human flesh and biological form, has a physical boundary, but exists within the second ME. We could only observe the first ME – which has a figure, color, creed, physical appearance, boundary and obvious fact. In this sense, the first ME has limited and narrow time span; and it would dilapidate and disappear with death after representing certain time and period serving the humanity and present world.

First ME is visible, but inseparably connected with second ME. The second ME could be explained with an invisible and unexplainable structure shaped by the idea of infinity and continuity that exists as a part of a continuum process. Thus, it does not have any physico‑biological configuration, shape, color or creed. During one’s lifetime, one as first ME, represent the present “time” in present “space” (i.e., world) [9] and could possibly be able to develop a relationship with second ME. This could be possible through the practice of spiritualism. The Pirs are able to develop their own second ME through their strict practice of spiritualism and meditation while they exist in their first human form, i.e., first ME. The second ME continues to exist after one’s death with the dilapidation of first ME.

A problem exists in defining the second ME: whether it is Allah’s An-Nur or the replica of first ME. Hardly anyone could provide concrete answers; but the lack of clarity is much to do with the nature of semiotic presence. However, “time,” “space” and “matter” are important factors in understanding the ME concept. Men originate from infinity in the past from Lawh Mahfuz and enter the present world through the womb of mother. That is, persons are born into present time; and with death they proceed further into the future and end their travel either in hell or heaven in the direction of infinity. So, the birth and death are two nodal points in person’s life continuum. The three time elements – past, present and future – though they have different expressions, still remain a part of the same essence of a single continuum process.

Pirs, as first ME, represents a time or period. After their death, performing worldly duties and providing service to humanity, they mix and merge with second ME. The death event related with Pirs obituary is known as Urs. The events of Urs confirm Pirs’ return to the essence, that is, to Allah’s own genus. Therefore Urs is not a sad event, rather a happy occasion. Pirs after death returns to Allah’s An-Nur. Since Allah has an omnipresent phenomenon, he exists everywhere. So do the Pirs! After death, they exist in their second form, that is, second ME.

The second ME, after his death, contacts his devotees and provides spiritual guidelines. The second ME appears more frequently in dream, vision, imagination or a real appearance. Dreaming the Pirs is not a dream, neither a vision nor a hallucination! It is, irrespective of whether Pirs is dead or alive, a real construct. For example, in rare occasion, some devotees claim that they have seen their Pirs after their Pirs death. Actually we presume that they have seen the second ME or came across with the imaginary construct of Pirs. Whatever may be the thought construction of disciples, such belief in Pirs provides a sense of driving force as they feel their whole existence, body and mind are encompassed and influenced by the presence of their Pirs.

Pirs are the experts of the mystic world as they know how to control and operate invisible mechanisms and the system. Their invisible mechanisms and systems are, as understood, beyond the commoners’ apprehension. Pirs as first ME may be considered as a window through which one can reach to unknown but the real world. When I requested one to explain real world, he replied: “It is like a television. One can only see the pictures in a TV screen, but one cannot understand, but perceive, the real mechanism behind the TV screen. Only an electronic expert knows the real mechanism.”

In one sense, Pirs intercede between these two forms of the world. They argue the present world is an artificial one and is not a real one, but it may be seen as an important element in the continuity. They try, in their ritual and spiritual practice, to enter or seek access to an unknown, but the real world. This real world lies behind the artificial world (i.e., present world) of ordinary objects given in our normal awareness. The present world – as such – does not exist, but it is only a fraction of the continuum whole. Present world is a pulpit upon which representation of body occurs.

Semiotic Presence and Spiritual Hierarchy

The semiotic presence is materialized through the spiritual hierarchy. Allah is placed at the apex of this spiritual hierarchy. Pirs followed by Khallifs and the devotees are placed at each successive lower ladder of hierarchy. The logic is that Allah is close to Pirs; Pirs are close to Khallifs; and Khallifs are close to devotees. The relationship between Khallifs and devotees is conceptualized as Pir Bhais (spiritual kin). Pirs give preferential treatment to Khallifs like Allah’s preference for Pirs. The power of Allah is metaphorised in Pirs and similarly the powers of Pirs in Khallifs and devotees. Pirs say: “When one concentrated in his Pir, he immediately enlightened by the spirit of Pir.”

The transformation and interpretation of symbols are done through a spiritual hierarchy: Allah to Pirs, Pirs to Khallifs and devotees. There is sort of spiritual buffer zone between these interacting actors. The first buffer zone is between God and Pirs. The communication between the God and Pirs takes place through the Hall. Hall is spiritual stages that reflect the Pirs state of mind, mood and position of soul. The spiritual hierarchy comprise of the seven stages that correspond to and express by mysticism (Hossain 1969; Haq 1975). The Hall is a complex transient spiritual stage and state of mind. An understanding of Hall is complex and depends on the stages determined by two nodalities: Fana and Baka. Fana literally means to die and disappear and Baka means to live and survive (Ansari 1986:33-59). However, Khallifs and a few empowered devotees do the interpretation of Hall of Pirs. Most importantly it is not the commoners, but the vindication of Pirs and how the latter induce impression and generate understanding about themselves to devotees.

Hall understanding is complex and only Khallifs is in the best position to interpret the exact Hall of Pirs. Pirs spiritually authorized and educate Khallifs to interpret their Hall. The empowering of Khallifs by Pirs provide recognition to Khallifs they have the required knowledge of interpreting Hall and the ability to show the followers the path of spiritual and divine world. Since the souls of Pirs are elevated to different spiritual stages of Hall and Khallifs are the legitimate heirs of interpreters, Khallifs become the “spiritual‑general” in the spiritual hierarchy. The devotees and commoners have no idea or notion of the complex spiritual world, but they accept the divine direction of Pirs and interpretation given by Khallifs. Eventhough many have problem in understanding the interpretation of Khallifs, they are not supposed to question the interpretation and meanings. In this way Pirs‘s word is metaphorised through Khallifs. By that, problem of misinterpretation and mistranslation of languages, words and messages of Pirs by Khallifs exists.

Pirs communicate messages to followers, but the meaning embedded in messages depends on Pirs level of Hall at particular point of time and moment. Communication may take in many ways: from mind to mind, eye to eye or words to words. And some massages are silent, some are expressive and other messages are full of metaphors and polysemic meanings. By that, the semiotic construction of Pirs is based on how one “sees as,” “feels as,” “understand as” or “explain as” his Pirs. Then it becomes an arduous task to construct a Pirs since it varies from one individual to another individual: how one sees, feels, understands and experiences. Pirs is an iconic sign because it resembles or refers to its object – Allah. Pirs is also an indexical sign, because through him we can touch and feel the Allah. Pirs is, too, a symbolic sign since usage, convention and anthology could interpret his presence. However, often intuition is used to construct Pir and many even do not feel urge why to concretize the construction of Pir.

While communicating with each other, the level of understanding determines the semiotic functions between the producer (Pirs) and the receivers’ (devotees). Moreover, this communication certainly occurs through the use of linguistics and may be sequentially seen as: the words transmitted from Allah via Pirs; words between Pirs and followers; and interpretation of Pirs words by Khallifs to devotees. It appears that the messages that are communicated are not important but how the image of Pirs defines the content of messages. The devotees receive messages, but the meanings of these messages depend much on how Khallifs interpret them.


This paper tries to explain when the spiritual partakers formulate a relationship between time and two forms of body; they believe that men are not God, yet men are not separated from God. This process is captured through a dynamic concept of semiotic presence and it tries to capture the continuously changing forms of human body and draws causal linkages between material, physical and mystic dimensions of human body into a holistic framework. For example, a childhood form of body is radically different from that of old age; with death the bodily forms transform into new dimensions and configuration and so are the cases before the birth.

Body is merely a container for manifestation of different times in one essence. What exists is the continuum process of the same essence or An-Nur, but it has different manifestation as it takes different forms and shapes in accordance with time, space and matter. People can only become aware of their the past, but they cannot see the events of the past. The past is known through the transfer of experience, hearsay, myth and interpretation of facts from anterior generations to posterior generations. Similarly, people do not know about future, but it can be seen through anticipations, dreams, visions, images, feelings, etc. which can be concretized in to the present time. This way the three-time dimensions the past; the present and the future are compressed into one time, that is, the present.

The semiotic presence is a continuum process that on the one hand, represents past and present in the present, and on the other hand, future in the present. Having pointed out the representation of three times in the present, it suggests a representation of time in human bodies. That is, the past is brought forward and reflected in present time and also the future is drawn backward to represent in the present. By that, a body is both a matter of past and future that is represented in the present time with specific physical shape. The core to developing an understanding of the Islamic anthropology of body is the representation, reflection and powerful combination of the three‑time dimensions into a single, but a living human body.


1. One argues that there is one Islam, but many Muslim societies (Ahmed 1987:58). Muslims are divided on the question of interpreting Islam and Allah of which Sufism is only one version.

2. I have used the term ‘Man’ in generic sense to include spiritual persons who could be both man and woman.

3. Peirce writes: “A sign, representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of first sign. The sign stands for something, its object.” (Buchler 1955:99)

4. Many view Pirs from a opposing perspective: Pirs are either saint or insane, fake or true, etc. A problem with the opposition is that they fail to see the Pirs from the perspective of devotees who construct the existence of Pirs as a semiotic presence.

5. Formal meaning of Al-lawh al-Mahfuz: the Guarded Table. Lawh-Mahfuz is a kind of repository where men’s origin, future and fate are written and recorded long before men’s birth. A Pir by seeing the records in Lawh-Mahfuz can guide persons for their material and spiritual well-being.

6. People often confuse between four types of Pirs. First type of Pirs poses true spiritual powers; second type of Pirs control and manipulate Zins (angels), but they do not possess spiritual powers; third type of Pirs follows Islamic rituals and have in-depth knowledge on Islamic theology, but they neither possess spiritual power nor controls Jinns; and the last type of Pirs is fake one who pretend that they have spiritual powers and plays with the beliefs of people.

7. Reappearance of Allah in human body may not to be confused with reincarnation of soul as believed by Hindus.

8. The ME concept is adopted to avoid the confusion with “self” as “self” may be compared with “otherness.” The First ME could be a phenomenal self and the Second ME could be cosmological self.

9. Human being, as a “matter” or “image of matter” not only represents a “time” in “space”, but also constructs a “time” for himself. For example, if one live in this world for 50 years, then he has not only represented the 50 years, but also millions of seconds. For example 50 years x 365 days = 18 250 days x 24 hours = 4 38 000 hours x 60 minutes = 2 62 80 000 minutes x 60 seconds = 157 68 00 000 seconds). Human being after death enters into another time dimension.


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