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Pakistan: Blood Splattered Sehwan Sharif / The Sufi must sing

22 February 2017

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[Posted below are Articles by Suleman Akhtar and by William Dalrymple following the terrorist attack on the Sehwan Sharif Shrine ]

Dawn - Feb 21, 2017

Damadam mast Qalandar is a cry of rebellion against established orders

Suleman Akhtar

Sehwan is different. Unlike the more officially-accepted shrines of Pakistan, such as the Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore, Bari Imam in Islamabad, and the lustrous tombs of the Suhrawardi sufis in Multan, Sehwan is rebellious and raging.

Sehwan is Laal — the red of resistance. Sehwan is Shahbaz — a soaring falcon with secrets in its heart and no fixed abode. Sehwan is Qalandar — the disorderly, the wanderer, the antithesis of the established law, form, and idols.

Sehwan is everything that a lot of contemporary Pakistan is not. It is inclusive and it does not impose religion. Sehwan is one of those cultural, geographical, and social spaces that stand on the peripheries of time and history, and defy everything that is official, resist the order of the day.

When Hindus perform the mehndi at the beginning of Lal Shahbaz’s urs, one cannot tell if the Partition ever happened. When transgenders take part in dhamal and become part of the crowd without any mockery, one cannot tell that this is the same society where so much stigma is associated with deviant sexuality and gender.

When Shias and Sunnis pray in the same vicinity and a red alam flutters on the top of the shrine that belongs to a man named Usman, one cannot tell that we are in a country plagued by sectarian tensions. When Suhrawardis, Ismailis, and Shivaites claim the Qalandar to be one of their own, one cannot tell that we are living in an extremely polarised society.

Terrorists seem to have a problem with this. They claim to be at war with Pakistan. However, one must pause and ask as to which Pakistan are they at war with. They seem to differentiate between a Pakistan of puritanical seminaries, and a Pakistan of shrines, churches, imambargahs, and Ahmadi places of worship.

When we look at all the terrorist attacks in the last decade or so, a picture emerges which shows that everything that does not fit into a narrow definition of religion is condemnable to death and destruction. It is an ideology called takfir and takes on the form of militant extremism.

However, there exists a softer narrative that may not seem dangerous on the surface but fuels militant extremism by being apologetic about it. This worldview considers Islam of the masses as something alien to the spirit of the religion. Shirk, jahalat, bida’t, ghair-Islami are the buzzwords here. This holier-than-thou narrative is mostly prevalent mostly among the urban middle-classes who are contemptuous of indigenous and syncretic strains of religion.

This narrative may not be the official state narrative but when the state lets certain non-state actors off the hook again and again, questions need to be asked.

Qalandar rose up in defiance when some forms of sufism were adopted by kings’ courts and saints were awarded state titles. Damadam mast Qalandar is a raging cry of rebellion against tyranny of established orders.

A day after the attack, devotees gathered at the shrine to resume dhamal in defiance of not only the attackers but also the police. One of the workers who looks after the shrine, Haja Shah, had tears rolling down his cheeks as he said, "This is no place for the police. This is our place."

Centuries after his death, despite all the trials and tribulations of time and history, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar continues defying the ruling order of the time, and probably this timeless resistance is something that terrorists are most afraid of.

Some call it a miracle. Some call it history. And above and beyond miracles and history, the Qalandar continues to dance.

“I am Usman i Marwandi, a friend of Khwaja Mansoor (Hallaj)
Although people blame me, I will dance upon the gallows”.

[The earlier version of this article stated that there is a Hindu sajjada nasheen family of the shrine. This information was inaccurate and has now been corrected.]

Suleman Akhtar lives in Sweden. He is interested in society, politics and culture.

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The Indian Express - February 21, 2017

The Sufi must sing | William Dalrymple

Pakistan is the site of conflict between two understandings of Islam. Let the music not fade

Only three days after a suicide bomb went off in Lahore, the bombing by a female IS supporter of the great Sufi shrine of Sehwan Sharif was an especially ominous development for the future of Pakistan. Sufism, and spectacular Sufi music, are two of the most prominent sources of hope, pleasure and tolerance in that increasingly violent and divided country. Now 72 innocent Sufis lie dead and 150 have been injured. By killing devotees in one of the most celebrated Sufi shrines in the country, IS were attempting to impose their obscurantist reign of fear and their right to shut down voices they disagree with, as well as striking at the heart of Pakistan’s cultural and religious opposition to their takeover of great swathes of the country — even Sindh, the Sufi “capital” of Pakistan and a place which had until recently resisted them.

The rise of Islamic radicalism is often presented in starkly political terms, but what happened in Sehwan this week is a reminder that at the heart of the current conflict lie two very different understandings of Islam. Hardline Wahhabi/Salafi fundamentalism has advanced so quickly in Pakistan partly because the Saudis have financed the building of so many madrasas which have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of state education. These have taught an entire generation of Pakistanis to abhor the gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam, and the music that carries its message, that has dominated South Asia for centuries, and to embrace, instead, an imported form of Saudi Salafism.

Behind the violence lies a long theological conflict that has divided the Islamic world for centuries. Lal Shahbaz Qalander, like Rumi or Nizamuddin, believed passionately in the importance of the use of music, poetry and the Shaivite-derived dammal dance as a path for merging the individual with the divine, as a way of opening the gates of Paradise. But this use of poetry, music and rhythm in ritual is one of the many aspects of Sufi practice that has attracted the wrath of modern Islamists.

A few years ago, on my last visit to Sehwan, I found the battle between these two rival forms of Islam already engaged. The largest madrasa in Sehwan was located in an old haveli not far from the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. It had been recently renovated at some expense in gleaming marble, but was still only semi-furnished.

Saleemullah, who ran the madrasa, turned out to be a young, intelligent and well-educated man; but there was no masking the puritanical severity of some of his views. For Saleemullah, the theology of the dispute between the Sufis and the orthodox was quite simple: “We don’t like tomb worship,” he said. “The Koran is quite clear about this, and the scholars from the other side simply choose to ignore what it says. We must not pray to dead men and ask things from them, even the saints. In Islam we believe there is no power but God.”

“Do the people here listen to you?” I asked.

“Sadly this town is full of shirk [heresy] and grave-worship,” he replied, stroking his long, straggling black beard. “It is all the Hindu influence that is responsible. Previously these people were very economically powerful in this area, and as they worshipped idols, the illiterate Muslims here became infected with Hindu practices. All over Pakistan this is the case, but Sindh is much the worst. Our job is to bring the idol and grave-worshippers from kufr [infidelity] back to the true path of the Sharia.”

“Mark my words,” said Saleemullah, “a more extreme form of the Taliban is coming to Pakistan. Certainly, there are many challenges. But the conditions in this country are so bad. The people are so desperate. They are fed up with the old ways and the decadence and corruption. They want radical change — a return to the Caliphate.”

“And what is your role in that?” I asked.

“Most of the work is being done by the government and the [intelligence] agencies. Whatever they say to the Americans, we know that really they are with us. But our role? That is to teach the people that only our Islamic system can provide the justice they seek. We are the only people giving the poor education. We give the knowledge that the Islamic groups in Pakistan are using to change this country forever.”

“And do you plan to take the battle to the shrine here?”

“For the time being, we cannot challenge the people directly in shrines. We have no wish to invite trouble, or to fight. All we can do is to befriend people, tell them what is right and wrong, educate their children, and slowly change their minds. If we can get children away from their homes to board here with us we can influence them more thoroughly. With education, we hope the appeal of shirk and Sufism will fade, and that there will be no need for punishment.”

“But if you get your Caliphate?”

“When the Caliphate comes,” he said, “yes, on that day there is no question. It will be our duty to destroy all the mazars and the dargahs — starting with the one here in Sehwan.”

Saleemullah’s organisation ran 5,000 madrasas across Pakistan, and was in the process of opening a further 1,500 in Sindh. These figures seem to be just the tip of the iceberg. According to a recent study, there are now 27 times as many madrasas in Pakistan as there were in 1947: From 245 at Independence the number has shot up to over 8,000. The religious tenor has been

correspondingly radicalised: The tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now out of fashion in a country increasingly over-run by the rise of the more hardline and politicised Wahhabi-Salafism. Many Sufi mosques and shrines have come under attack in recent years, including the 2010 bombing of the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore that killed more than 40 people, and the assassination this summer of Amjad Sabri, one of South Asia’s most revered qawals.

Sufism is not only the most effective antidote to IS-style radicalism, it is an entirely indigenous resistance movement to fundamentalisms of all sorts, with the deepest roots in South Asian soil. For the Sindhis attending the dammal at Sehwan, it was not they who were the heretics, so much as the stern Wahhabi mullahs who criticised the popular Islam of the Sufi saints as shirk, or heresy: “These mullahs are just hypocrites,” said one old fakir I talked to in the shrine. “Without love, they distort the true meaning of the teaching of the Prophet. Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet. Mullahs and Azazeel [Satan] are the same thing.”

This resistance is why IS and the Talibs hate the Sufis and attempt to suppress them. If only the Pakistani governments could finance schools which taught Pakistanis to respect their own indigenous and syncretic religious traditions, rather than buying fleets of American F-16 fighters, and handing over education to the Saudis, Pakistani might now yet be an important trading partner for a future Indian superpower — a place where Sufis can still sing safely and in peace. Instead, Pakistan is every day increasingly coming more to resemble a tragic would-be clone of pre-9/11 Taliban Afghanistan.

Dalrymple is a historian and best-selling author. He wrote of his visit to Sehwan in ‘Nine Lives’. He has recently co-authored ‘Koh-i-Noor’


Sheema Kermani defies act of terrorism, performs at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine

At least 70 dead as bomb rips through Lal Shahbaz shrine in Sehwan, Sindh ]


The above articles from Dawn and The Indian Express are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use