THURSDAY’S bombing in Peshawar was not the first time a Sufi shrine has been targeted by militants.
In March last year, Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-i-Islam destroyed the four-centuries-old Abu Saeed Baba shrine near Peshawar, in the process killing at least 10 villagers who tried to save the monument.
Later in December, suspected Taliban militants attacked and damaged the shrine of Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba, also located near the NWFP capital. But the biggest outrage in terms of symbolic value was yet to come. Thursday’s attack was directed against the final resting place of perhaps the greatest and most revered Pakhtun poet, mystic and Sufi saint of all time.
Rehman Baba is still quoted widely and is a household name in many Pakhtun homes some 300 years after his death. He is a legend on both sides of the Durand Line and the desecration of his shrine has been condemned by both the Pakistani and Afghan governments.
Unlike the vision espoused by the merchants of death now operating in the garb of ‘Islam’, his was a message of love, peace and tolerance. He was not only a mystic and a poet but a cultural commentator of his time.
It would be incorrect to describe the Taliban as ultra- orthodox in their religious views. There are countless people in this country who subscribe to rigid interpretations of Islam but are not in the least inclined to bend others to their will, let alone kill them.
But the Taliban specialise in barbarity and aim to destroy everything they cannot abide. They hate music, clean-shaven men and education for girls, so they blow up CD shops and schools and attack barbers. Since they consider Sufis and their followers to be heretics, the Taliban feel it is their ‘religious’ duty to destroy shrines and kill devotees.
They cannot tolerate Sufi music, dance or mysticism, or the intermingling of the sexes in shrines, or what they see as intercession between the individual and the Creator. It is believed Thursday’s bombing could be linked to the fact that women used to visit Rehman Baba’s shrine.
Sufism with its message of peace, simplicity and equality, and tradition of charity, played a leading role in the spread of Islam in the subcontinent. It is still followed by millions who want little more than to be left alone to pray or rejoice as they please. But bombs and guns do the talking these days and a small minority bent on violence calls the shots.
The people are helpless and the government appears incapable of stemming the rot. Rehman Baba’s words still apply, ‘Contemplate the frantic efforts of the age/ Countless are its antics, boundless is its rage.’
Attack on Rehman Baba is attack on Pashtun identity
On Thursday, terrorists from Khyber Agency blew up the mausoleum of the great poet of the Pashtun and put the state of Pakistan on notice once again about their intent against Pakistani culture. The tomb of Rehman Baba was rebuilt as a complex in 1994 and it included other tombs of great Pashtun cultural icons, such as Akhund Darweza. The Taliban had come to the mausoleum and told the devotees that saying namaz at the mosque attached to the grave was “haram”. The administration knew that a strike would take place but did nothing.
Rehman Baba (1632-1707), who appeared on a Pakistani postage stamp in 2005, is an acknowledged cultural symbol of the Pashtun and Afghan people. While Khushal Khan Khattak (1613–1689) stands together with him as a classical foil, Rehman Baba has moved the soul of the Pashtun far more. He also stands at the root of Pashtun nationalism and has been adopted in the past by all kinds of secular and conservative movements. He marks a significant phase in the development of Pashto language and his lines are often quoted spontaneously by the speakers of the language. The various schools of thought in the Sufi tradition like the Naqshbandiya, Chishtiya and Qadiriya have claimed him as their own, so great was his appeal among the masses.
In Pakistan, religious culture has been traditionally represented by the Sufi tradition. The culture of the elite, represented by painting, architecture and calligraphy, doesn’t touch the masses whose way of life is reflected more accurately in the collective celebration of Islam’s mystical heritage. The Sufi taught the people how to link their faith with their entertainment and imbue their culture with their religious belief. It is often said that many of the Muslims of the region of Pakistan were brought inside the pale of Islam by the Sufi who sang of Allah’s divinity in the music and dance he inculcated among them, composed in the classical tradition.
It is this culture of the masses that has been targeted by Talibanisation, a new faith born out of the terrorist coercion of Al Qaeda which is steeped in the anti-mystical Saudi-Wahhabi Islam. The trend towards anti-culture extremism, however, is seen across the Islamic world, much aided in the 1990s by Saudi investment in the spread of the Wahhabi faith. Pakistan’s culture has also been under assault from the Taliban who target the dominant Barelvi school of Pakistani Hanafi jurisprudence as representing the “impure” faith. In 2006, a large congregation of Barelvi clerics and leaders was suicide-bombed in Karachi where, too, scores of Barelvi mosques have been grabbed by the more powerful Deobandis.
Pakistan committed cultural suicide when it allowed a purely Deobandi jihad in Afghanistan after 1996, empowering jihadi militias increasingly under the influence of Al Qaeda. Those who planned this strategy were devoid of any sense of culture. This was helped by the fact that Pakistan’s Constitution is silent on culture, most probably because the framers, bedevilled by clashing linguistic and regional identities, were unwilling to define it. Today, the violence of terrorism is expressed through its assault on culture, on entertainment in general, on female education, and the destruction of cultural landmarks.
In Khyber Agency, the Sufi tradition was defeated and ousted by the Taliban as the state stood by and watched. The Sufi leaders fled the agency and left the field open to the extremists. In Swat, a Sufi leader was killed and later exhumed from his grave and made to hang in the city square. Without the refinement of culture, Pakistan is a rudderless society characterised by extremism. The masses are deprived of all collective celebration and are losing their male children to the Taliban as suicide-bombers. The Sindhi, whose mysticism-based culture is still intact in the interior of the province, is yet to appear as a suicide-bomber in the service of Al Qaeda. But even that could change in the face of relentless assault by the Taliban and the desperate secession of the writ of the state. (Daily Times, 7 March 2009)
Aakar Patel: Let’s sing Iqbal’s Tarana-e-Hind-o-Pak to fight religous extremism in our society. Indo-Persian sufi heritage versus Taliban’s sharia.
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