From Jamea Hafsa to Rahman Baba: Farhat Taj

Attack on Pakhtun culture

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Farhat Taj

In February this year someone circulated an email on one of the email lists I am a member of and was talking about the possibility of any attacks by extremists on shrines in NWFP, especially that of Khushhal Khan Khattak. The email said that we should all ask the provincial government to provide protection and predicted and reasoned that the attack was likely because the Taliban were bent on destroying all symbols and icons of the Pakhtun culture. Khushhal Khan is symbolic of Pakhtun nationalism. His poetry is nationalist in tone and he is a symbol of Pakhtun identity.

As recent events have shown, the concern expressed in the email was neither alarmist nor misplaced because a couple of weeks later, on March 5, the Taliban bombed the shrine of Rehman Baba. Like Khushhal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba is also widely respected among the Pakhtun. People across the Pakhtun area know his poetry despite a high level illiteracy. Foreign scholars have commented that the reception of the poetry and teachings of Rahman Baba transcends differences and tribal schisms found in Pakhtun society and that he is widely read, listened to and respected.

Unlike the Pakhtun nationalism that Khushhal Khan embodies, the message of Rahman Baba is universal love and tolerance – the very antithesis of the message of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

And now a story I would like to narrate. In Nov 2006 I went to Jamia Hafsa. Many of the girls that I met there were from FATA and various parts of NWFP. We engaged is a discussion on Islam and Pkahtunwali. Some of the girls referred to some verses of Rehman Baba to prove that their extremist and violent understanding of Islam is the same as the mystic poet’s. For me this understanding of Rehman Baba was no less than a cultural shock that my own fellow Pakhtun gave me.

On my way back home I was thinking Rehman Baba has been hijacked by the extremists among us. Nothing can be more unjust to the poet and his message. Between then and now the extremist have raised their public levels of intolerance. Now they cannot tolerate Rehman Baba. They bombed his shrine. I heard some pro-Taliban people in Pakistan justifying the bomb attack on the shrine. They say that his shrine had become refugee of ‘undesirable’ social elements, like drug abusers. What a strange argument! Is the only method to deal with the drug abusers is to bomb the shrine? Will that get the society rid of drug abusers and other ‘undesirable’ social elements?

Attack on Rehman Baba’s shrine is part of the agenda to annihilate the Pakhtun culture. The agenda includes destruction of schools in the area, attacks on music shops and singers, violent expressions of misogyny through attacks and restrictions on women, assaults on Buddha statues in Swat and so on. The aim is to write off the cultural memory of the Pakhtun and force them to become foot soldiers for global jihad. The Taliban and Al Qaida have occupied FATA. Swat has been surrendered to them by the provincial and federal government. But They will not stop there.

The attack on the shrine of Rehman Baba should be seen as an attack on cultures on both sides of the River Indus. One of the similarities in the cultures on both sides of Indus is the message of the sufi poets. The message of peace and love is also the message of Shah Latif, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah. It is now the responsibility of the wider society to conveys to the Taliban that their alien ways of life are not acceptable. (The News)

The writer is a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo, and a member of Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy. Email:



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