The Rifa’iyya Sufi Order in South-Western Asia – Authors: Hasan Ali Khan, Aliya Iqbal Naqvi

The Rifa’iyya Sufi Order in South-Western Asia

Authors: Hasan Ali Khan, Aliya Iqbal Naqvi

30 APRIL 2020

©Hasan Ali Khan, Aliya Iqbal Naqvi

As a Sufi order, the Rifa’iyya is better identified with Iraq, its birthplace, and with parts of Anatolia and the Levant. But, a branch of the order, retaining its pre-modern organizational structure, is also based in the city of Karachi. This particular branch has strong connections to the coastal areas and the hinterland of Pakistani Baluchistan, Iranian Baluchistan, and the northern coast of Oman. In addition, it has followers on the east African coast and in South Africa. Our sub-order migrated some two hundred years ago to Bombay from Basra, one line of which later migrated to Karachi on Partition.

The Karachi branch of the order is now the more prominent one, with its spiritual life centered around the neighborhood of Lyari, with its mixed Iranian and Pakistani Baluch population, many of whom hold dual nationality. The rise of the sub-order in Karachi is due to the migration of a certain Sayyid Zain al-‘Abideen Rifa’i (d. 2016) to Pakistan in 1947, when he was just seventeen years old. Under his mantle, coastal Baluch communities spanning three countries came to comprise its major adherents. The de facto head of the order today is Sayyida Safiya, Zain al-‘Abideen’s daughter, who as a female head of a non-reformed tariqa, retains a special role in the order’s life.

©Hasan Ali Khan, Aliya Iqbal Naqvi

In this, her brothers, who live in the United States also play a peripheral role, visiting every year on the occasion of the main ‘urs, the death anniversary of a Sufi saint in South Asia, but, Safiya clearly forms perhaps the only known example of a female head of a non-reformed Sufi order.

Hasan Ali Khan and Aliya Iqbal Naqvi are researching this order as their contribution to the ‘Iran and beyond’ project based at the German Orient-Institut Istanbul (Max Weber Foundation). The project, after a detailed discussion with Safiya and her subordinates, and their willingness to facilitate our research, was conceived as a deliverable (monograph) which will (initially) cover four or more aspects of the order’s life in Karachi, and beyond. These are namely, 1) Its history, and the reasons it came to the sub-continent at such a late stage, during the British colonial era, 2) Its organizational hierarchy within the three immediate countries (Iran, Oman and coastal Pakistan) emanating out of Karachi, 3) In general its beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and practices (related here to aspect 2), and finally, 4) Its literature and manqabats or religious chants and recitations in the vernacular, primarily in Baluchi, that are recited at ceremonies and are regarded as being as powerful as Scripture when used in the Sufi ceremony of dhikr.

In addition, if there is scope and funding, perhaps a short ethnographic film covering some of the main themes could also be shot for the deliverables. In the larger context of the project, the centrality of the neighborhood of Lyari, with its Iranian-Pakistani mix, and the lodges located inside it which play host to the adherents visiting from Iran and Oman, will be emphasized. On a second note, the city of Sehwan, and its Makrani (Baluch) neighborhood, which likewise hosts the same adherents on the annual ‘urs (18-20th Sha’ban), and includes those from Lyari as well, for certain ceremonies, will be studied.

The Karachi Rifa’iyya Order is associated to the Qadiriyya Order, with Sayyid Zain al-‘Abideen readily initiating adherents into three different orders; i.e. the two mentioned above, and the Chishtiyya; these three also form sub-areas for research in our larger narrative. The order as it stands today has a clearly defined system of induction, wherein specific Rifa’iyya rituals maybe practiced by those from the other two orders, depending on whether an ijaza diploma can be obtained by the initiate. The specific connection with the Qadiriyya and its various practices is an aspect that needs more research. There is a similarity in the accompanying manqabats as well, which are mostly in the vernacular. This fact and the general similarity in style was noted by Eszter Spat some years ago, and comparison will be made with her work in this regard.

©Hasan Ali Khan, Aliya Iqbal Naqvi

Hasan Ali Khan is an Assistant Professor in the Comparative Liberal Studies Programme (CLS) of the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Habib University, Karachi. He is a cooperation partner in the Orient-Institut Istanbul’s research project ‘Iran and beyond’ (IRSSC).

Aliya Iqbal Naqvi is a Scholar in Residence at the Department of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts of the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. She is a cooperation partner in the Orient-Institut Istanbul’s research project ‘Iran and beyond’ (IRSSC).


Brown, John P., The Dārvishes, London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968 (centenary edition), pp.115-139.

‘Rifa’iyah, in , accessed on 22 April 2020.

‘Rifa’iyya,’ in  (Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition),  accessed on 22 April 2020.

‘Rifaiyye,’ in ‘ , accessed on 22 April 2020.

Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Sufi orders in Islam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp: 37-40.

Citation: Khan, Hasan Ali; Naqvi, Aliya Iqbal. “The Rifa’iyya Sufi Order in South-Western Asia,” Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 30 April 2020