Thursday, November 15, 2012

Is Taliban’s Claim Against Sufi Shrines Justified or Not?

A Taliban suicide bomber explodes, killing forty-two and what was once a refuge from temporal chaos has now been reduced to mere debris and rubble. How often do the media report such acts of brutality upon the shrines of Sufi saints? Though the people might have become oblivious to all such aforementioned incidences but the Pakistani society is experiencing far reaching consequences because of the religious and sectarian mayhem. The Taliban’s strategic shift towards attacking Sufi shrines came after the Lal Masjid operation conducted by the state in 2007 (Haider, “Attacking shrines and the other Islam”). Initially they asked the authorities to shut down the Sufi shrines in the FATA and adjoining areas but as the state did not comply they opted towards forceful measures. The first attack on a Sufi shrine was conducted in December 2007 when Abdul Shakoor blew himself up near Malang Baba’s shrine on GT Road (Haider, “Attacking shrines and the other Islam”). As the Taliban got more influential and potent in the frontier their cruelty increased simultaneously. An onslaught was unleashed on the shrines all over Pakistan. They attacked the 400-year-old shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba in the tehsil Bara in March 2008, Rehman Baba’s Shrine near Peshawar in March 2009 and Data Darbar in Lahore, Ghazi’s shrine in Karachi and Farid Ganjshakar’s shrine in Pakpattan in 2010 and various other shrines all across the country (Rehman, “Attack on Sufi Shrines”).

The institution of the mystic saints’ shrines has been prevalent in the subcontinent for centuries. In Pakistan, a large number of people revere the saints and pay homage to them. It is a fundamental right of an individual to visit the place of worship of his or her choice. On the contrary, the religious extremist mindset wants to stifle this basic tenet of the believers’ faith and implement their own religious dogma. Therefore, the Pakistani society has been hijacked by the continuous barbarism of the religious extremist and militant groups. The Taliban have directly challenged the Pakistani style of living and overtly attacked its norms and values with the recent attack on Data Darbar (Imtiaz, “Targeting symbols of spirituality – II”). Although the religious extremists justify their claim of closing or bombing Dargahs of Sufi saints by reasoning that they foster un-Islamic and illegal activities, however these claims are unjustified and this vital institution should continue to thrive because the believers explain their reverence of the saint logically, and Dargahs have a religious and emotional significance for the believers and cultural, social and economic importance for the society, and the issue of the occurrence of ill practices taking place in these Dargahs lies with the state.

First of all, in the Islamic extremist viewpoint the believers of the mystic saints perform shirk (defying the oneness of God) by visiting the shrines and prostrating in front of the graves, asking for mannat (wish), give nazar (donations) and perform dhamaal (dance), therefore the shrines should be razed and leveled to the ground. In the Wahabi and Sallafi interpretation it is un-Islamic to construct shrine and mausoleums. Shaykh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid says:

Islam forbids erecting structures over graves, and commands that any such structures should be knocked down. But it is permitted to put a marker on the grave so that the family and friends of the deceased will know where it is (and nothing more than this). However, this marker should not be a structure or anything else that is not allowed in sharee’a. Making a grave higher than the amount that is permitted is Haram…The making graves high that is mentioned in the Hadith especially includes the domes and shrines that are built over graves, and the taking of graves as places of worship. The Prophet cursed those who do that (Nayl al-Awtaar, 4:130).

This doctrine of Islamic thought traces its roots back to Saudi Arabia where it is practiced by the majority of the Muslims, therefore when King Saud came to power he demolished the cemetery of Jannat ul Baqi on the April 25 1925 (Haider, “History of the Baqi”). He cited his responsibility to culminate the practice of shirk by the construction of mausoleums there. Futhermore, in the Wahabi interpretation, or the extremist interpretation of the Deobandi scholars, it is against the Islamic ethos to prostrate in front of the graves or ask any dead person for help by supplication (Ibn Kullaab 890). In addition to this, the Wahabis also view the presentation of ‘nazar’ to dargahs as against the Islamic teachings (Al-Shawkani). Music and dance are also strictly prohibited by the fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic laws according to the Wahabi ideology (ibn Rushd). Thus the practice of ‘dhamaal’ is therefore unacceptable to the extremists who view it as ‘bidaah’ (invention) and claim that it is contrary to the true essence of Islam. In the Taliban’s’ view, the believers of Sufi saints perform shirk and pollute the true beliefs and practices of Islam by their ‘bidaah’, therefore to preclude such activities the shrines should either be shut down or blown off.

On the other hand the believers justify and legitimate their principles and practices from the Sufi teachings. Most believers of the Sufi saints hail from the ‘Barelvi’ or ‘Shia’ school of thought. Both of these sects generally acquiesce on the rituals performed at the shrines. The believer’s logic is that they do not worship the saint rather they make him a form of ‘wasila’ (intercession) between God and themselves. The devotees justify their belief by quoting a verse of the Holy Quran “Who is he that can intercede with Him but by His permission?” (2:255). They opine that God can give anybody the right of intercession whom He wishes to and these revered saints are those blessed people. In the believers’ interpretation it is permissible to construct mausoleums (as-Samhudi in his book Wafa'ul-Wafa' vol. 4 p. 394-403). Furthermore, the believers reason by saying that if the construction of shrines was un-Islamic then Holy Prophet’s shrine in Medina should also be demolished. Thus it is proven that it is permissible to construct mausoleums for the pious people. Music is allowed in Hanafi and Shia interpretation (al Hanooti, “Fatwa: is Music Halal”). Therefore the drum beating in the shrines is legitimized. On the other hand the ritual of ‘dhamaal’ has never been associated to Islamic practices, by the believers; rather it is only a form of venting the worldly and temporal nuisances. When a person dances he achieves a state of trance which enriches him spiritually and helps him live a more satiated life despite all the ruthlessness of society (Najeeb, “Sufism and Pakistan”). The concept of ‘nazar’ is justified by stating that the money donated by pilgrims is actually distributed amongst the needy and therefore does not benefit the saint or the authorities in any way (Najeeb, “Sufism and Pakistan”).

Moreover, the proponents of this extremist ideology justify attacking the shrines by stating that illegal businesses such as drug trade, black market operations, kidnapping, prostitution and extortion take place in the vicinities of the shrines. The Talibans claim that since the initial act of constructing a shrine itself was evil therefore the aforementioned malevolent practices have crept in these shrines. This Taliban view is vindicated by a study conducted by the website ‘’ which clearly shows that the illegal activities taking place in the shrines has amplified over the years (Visiting Holy Shrines). News reports also confirm the presence of drugs, contraband, kidnapping and prostitution mafia in the shrines. Thousands of homeless people turn to the shrines in order to seek refuge but they fall into the wrong hands and get entangled into the web of sinful activities (Abbas, “Shrines become centre of illegal activities”). The business of prostitutes is quite extant in the shrines and the adjoining areas (Saeed, “Why Shrines?”). Furthermore it is also a fact that kidnappers take refuge in the shrines by camouflaging with the pilgrims “(Shahid, Rites and Rituals of Shrines in Lahore”).Thus the Taliban justify their claim of blowing up such places which in their view; breed nothing but evil and sins for the society.

On the other hand, apologists for the shrines claim that the existence of such evils in these shrines, or their adjoining areas, is contrary to teachings of the saints and is an upshot of the state’s negligence to implement law and keep a check on criminal elements. Firstly, the shrine in itself does not propagate such unethical acts or practices for it is a diversion from the essence of Sufism (Abbas, “Shrines become centre of illegal activities”). Sufism only teaches spirituality and love for the mankind. Moreover, they believe that criminal elements cloak as pilgrims and take refuge in the shrines and then operate their businesses from within. Thus the market for drugs and prostitutes has developed due to the abundant presence of unemployed and idle men (Mir, “Who is not Kafir”). The supporters of shrines blame the state and its ineffective law enforcement which leads to ill practices within the premises of the Dargah. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that no criminal activity takes place in the shrines. On the other hand, to counter the criminal elements the state should work in harmony with the social groups, NGOS, and local community. Therefore the onus of the illegal activities lies on the state’s shoulder, not the Sufi saints, thus the call to close the shrines is unjustified.

Moving on, followers of Sufism initially attributed the spread of Islam in subcontinent to the Sufi saints, but now believe that it is their shrines that help in spreading the word of Islam and supporting the poverty stricken these days. Historical data shows that the Sufis made relentless efforts for the spread of Islam. From early on they left their houses in search of truth and spirituality, lived a life of asceticism and then spread their message upon gaining maturity. Before they started preaching, they set a noble example through their actions and conduct (Freitag, “Sufi Shrines”) Contrary to the ‘Ulemas’ practices, the Sufis preached Islam in a more flexible, pragmatic, subtle and spiritual vein. Instead of threatening people of Allah’s wrath, they kindled love for the Almighty by accentuating on His kindness and benevolence. Their ‘khanqahs’ (sanctuaries) were all-embracing (Haider, “Attacking shrines and the other Islam”). The Sufis did not discriminate amongst the masses on the basis of religion, caste or creed. Instead they assisted every needy and poor person. This show of magnanimity attracted people to Sufism especially from the lower strata of society. People who were oppressed or vagrant took refuge in the ‘khanqahs’. (Najeeb, “Sufism and Pakistan”). Those who were in thirst, hunger or pain were given shelter and assistance. Thus the Sufis could disseminate their message to a wide range of audience through this act of social cohesion. Today the shrines continue to impart Islam’s message to all those who visit.

The descendants of the Sufi saints are now fulfilling this duty. Those in need of food or thirst for knowledge visit the shrines today and fulfill their worldly as well as spiritual needs. People visit the shrines in times of distress or bliss and perform ‘mannat’ or give ‘nazar’ in order to feel peaceful (Imtiaz, “Targeting symbols of spirituality – II”). This relation with the saint helps one achieve emotional and spiritual healing by feeling the divine blessings being bestowed upon him. Furthermore, this act of the believers has a lot of significance for the society. When they give alms in this form it directly affects the needy and impoverished. Those who cannot afford meals can easily access a shrine and benefit from the ‘langar’ (free communal meal). The shelter less can take refuge in these shrines. Thus the society sustains itself through these acts of generosity by the affluent (Imtiaz, “Targeting symbols of spirituality – II”). The level of crime and frustration in the society is kept in check through these provisions. Thus, the followers believe that the shrines constructed to commemorate these revered people are justified because they perform the same functions for the society as the ‘khanqahs’ did in lifetime of the saints.

In addition to this there are numerous other social functions that a Sufi Shrine fulfills. Firstly, the shrines create cohesion and harmony amongst social classes through the interaction of people belonging to different tiers of society. They form a social bond with this interaction which helps in unifying the society. The affluent in this way can help the poor directly or indirectly, which leads to the solution of their domestic constraints and problems. Moreover, women are provided for a means of social interaction. In the Islamic culture the mosque has made itself exclusive for the males only. There are very little avenues for the women to socialize or learn. Thus the dargah has successfully filled in the void for years by providing an alternate medium of enculturation for the suppressed gender. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the women are generally not allowed to leave their house, the shrine of Rehman Baba provides to them an outlet to learn different skills, knowledge and ideas (Rehman, “Attack on Sufi Shrines”).. However it has been blown off by the Taliban. Lastly, the shrines are distinct in characteristic in that they provide a unifying force for a polarized religion such as Islam which is divided into more than 70 sects. According to Amir Mir, 20 percent of the Muslims living in Pakistan are against these shrines (Wahabis and Deobandis) and the rest revere the saints or at least do not resent against them (Mir, “Just Who Is Not A Kafir”). The Muslims have even segregated their mosques with each sect adhering to their own mosques. Thus, in such stratified milieu the shrines provide a platform for the different sects to come together and form an inter-Islamic harmony and cohesion. Therefore, the shrines should thrive because they fulfill several functions for the society.

Another key characteristic of the Sufi shrine is the all-inclusiveness which leads to interreligious harmony in the society. Religious syncreticism has always been associated with the dargahs as the saints are not only revered by Muslims alone but Sikhs, Hindus, Christians etc. as well (Mir, “Who is not Kafir”). As people belonging to different religions, they converge on a common ground i.e. the Sufi saint, this then helps in achieving social harmony and cohesion across religious lines as well. For example in Sehwan Shareef, Udero Lal, and Abdullah Shah Ghazi Karachi, pilgrims belonging to Sikhism, Hinduism and Islam flock the shrines every year on the ‘Urs’ (annual gathering and rituals) of the saint (Mir, “Who is not Kafir”). All of the devotees, irrespective of religion, perform the rituals with the same zeal and fervor. Therefore the shrines hold immense value of harmonizing the religious differences that exist in the society.

Furthermore, the Sufi shrines hold immense historical, cultural and economic significance. Historical and cultural importance of the shrines is intrinsic not only in the rituals and customs inherent to them but the artifacts and structure of the shrine speak volumes regarding the past. First of all, Sufi Shrines gave rise to practices which exhibit the intangible cultural and historical tradition of the communities. For example, a range of devotional songs coupled with music which mostly are sung in the genre of Qawwali, Sufinaya Kalam and the ecstatic Dhamal (mystical dance) (Vandal et al. 17). Mehfil-e-Samma(devotional gathering) is a permanent feature of the shrines which take place every Thursday, where the believers attend to renew their love and devotion for the luminaries(Sajid, “The essence of shrines in Punab”). Most importantly, an annual commemoration event takes place (urs) at the death anniversary of the saint. Similarly, at the Shiite shrines the event of Thursday is marked by commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, however the intensity of the rituals is witnessed in the Moharram. Moreover, the competition of oral tradition such as ‘heer ranjha’ and ‘sassi punno’ also used to be a vital part of the shrine culture. In addition to this, the palpable artifacts exhibit the culture of the area(Sajid, “The essence of shrines in Punab”).. For example the Shrine of Shah Yusuf Gardez in Multan has been built in a different style of architecture with its distinct “naqaashi” (fresco, fresco secco, wall paintings), sheesha kari (mirror work), kashikari (tile work) and lacquered naqaashi wooden ceilings, intricate wooden jallis” (Vandal et al. 17). On the other hand the shrines of Rukn-e-Alam and others in Multan are epitome of the amalgamation of Central Asian influences with the local vernaculars of the region. They are built in two distinct styles of funerary buildings; the octagonal domed and the flat roofed style of architecture. Lastly the shrines unify different cultures as pilgrims from all over Pakistan visit the shrines even if they are far off(Sajid, “The essence of shrines in Punab”).. For example every year hundreds of thousands of Punjabis go to Sehwan Shareef to attend the ‘urs’ on 18th Shabaan. All these activities have a positive impact upon country’s economy as employment is generated through various ways because of the shrine. Hence, it is proven that shrines have had great impact on the culture of the believers and masses in general.

Thus, it is established that the Sufism is deeply rooted in the land that constitutes Pakistan. The cultural norms and rituals overtly exhibit the impact of the Sufi beliefs and practices on the people. Not only do the believers revere the saints but most of them have a very deep emotional bonding and spiritual relationship with the saint. They pay homage by visiting the shrines. The rituals associated with Moharram and Azadari are also closely knitted with the shrines. On the other hand it has been established that the shrines have innumerable benefits for the society. Even though there must be illegal or unIslamic activities taking place in the shrines but decimating a place so dear to millions is totally unjustified and uncalled for.

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