Violating the Saints

There is a certain poetry in the final moments of worshipers who were killed by Islamic militants as they prayed at the holy site of Data Darbar and shrines to Abdullah Shah Ghazi and other Sufi saints in Pakistan over the past year.

I imagine them focused on their task — appealing to the saints for intercession with God — as they whispered their prayers, or left talismans tied to the doors and trees, or danced in ecstasy on a heated night, connecting to the Divine in ways that have been passed down through generations, linking the mysticism of Islam with the mysteries of their own lives.

They were certain, the 40 men and women at Lahore’s Data Darbar, the 9 people at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s tomb, and the 5 others at Pakpattan, that the saint — or buzurg, as they are known in South Asia — would have the power to convince God to accept their prayers. Perhaps a woman was going there to pray for a child, after years of being barren. Perhaps a student wanted help to pass his exams. Perhaps a man needed a job, with hungry mouths at home that he was desperate to feed.

As they climbed the stairs up to the pistachio-colored building that is Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s watchtower over the seas of Karachi, or passed through the iron gates at Baba Farid’s tomb, as they took off their shoes to walk across the cool tiled floors at Data Darbar, they must have been hoping that their actions would bring relief for their pain — spiritual, physical, emotional.

If they were lucky, they would experience what is known in Sufism as fanaa, the annihilation of the lower self in the Divine. In the words of Bayazid Bastami, the 9th century Persian Sufi saint, a worshiper would “become fully absorbed to the point of becoming unaware of himself or the objects around him.”

And then the bombs went off, and their souls were let out of the cage that is the human body and reunited with God.

There is no poetry in the aftermath of a bombing. After the initial fireball, there’s choking black smoke, people running everywhere, screaming in fear and panic. There is blood, and body parts strewn on the ground. Rescue workers must claw their way inside, facing searing heat and burning wreckage, to find what little remains of both the victims and the perpetrators.

If there are any human remains left, they are taken by ambulance to the hospital, where their relatives wail in horror at what has happened. And yet the dead are at peace, “free of every barrier that could stand in the way of viewing the Remembered One.”

Those of us left behind know that these bombings are perpetrated by those who wish to divide our country and break our spirits. We seem helpless to prevent these attacks, and those who commit them grow bolder with each one. They feed off our fear like ticks growing more bloated on every drop of blood that is spilled in our country.

Violent attacks on Sufis for their beliefs is not a new thing. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk banned all Sufi orders in 1925, and their spiritual centers were taken over by the Turkish state. In North Africa in the 12 century, the Maliki Almoravid dynasty actively denounced Sufis and Sufism. Mansur al-Hallaj, a Persian mystic and poet of the 10th century was condemned to death for proclaiming, at the height of an ecstatic trance, “Ana al-Haqq” (I am the Truth).

The practice of Sufism is characterized by its disciples’ sole aim: to become closer to God. They achieve this through dhikr, the remembrance of God, and asceticism, through being “in the world but not of it.” Sufis are opposed to violence, extremism and jihad. They are seen as the world’s symbols of Islamic tolerance and humanism: nondogmatic, flexible and nonviolent.

Many Muslims in Pakistan consider themselves to be Sufis, and while the South Asian brand of Sufism is tied to our own particular culture, it has links to Sufi orders all over the world, which have thrived despite violence and discrimination.

However, a closer reading of history reveals that while South Asian Sufism carries that particular flavor of peacefulness, Sufis in other parts of the world have not been passive when it comes to standing up for Haqq, the Truth. In the Middle East and North Africa, Sufis have been at the heart of many reform movements, forming the core of anti-colonialist uprisings, such as the Sanusis in Libya, and the Qadris in Algeria.

Could it be that the Pakistani movement of peaceful Sufism may have to evolve into something more resolute in order to stand up against terrorism? Perhaps, but only if it would mean no compromising in matters of Shariah, and if it would serve the goal of Haqiqah, or “arriving at the knowledge of God,” both central to Sufi thought everywhere in the world.

There are Western analysts who believe that Sufism is the perfect foil to be used in the battle against Islamic extremism. The terrorist attacks on the shrines may be an expression of extremist contempt for the Sufi tradition, and they might well serve to rouse Pakistani anger enough to turn against the militants, but look what happened the last time the West tried to use Islam against its enemies: The mujahedeen were born, morphed into the Taliban, and then into the extremists that are against Pakistan today.

Sufism can only encounter extremism on its own terms, as a movement that rises from within, not as an experiment imposed from without. Attempting to “use” Sufism will only result in more bombings like these ones. And Pakistan cannot afford to lose more lives in the name of any ideology, on either side of the divide.

Bina Shah, the author of Slum Child.

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