In Pakistan, tolerant Islamic voices are being silenced

Published: February 21, 2017
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The suicide bombing of the Sehwan shrine is an ominous development for the world, in a region that badly needs stability. PHOTO: AFP.

Last week, only three days after a suicide bomb went off in Lahore, an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporter struck a crowd of Sufi dancers celebrating in the great Pakistani shrine of Sehwan Sharif. The attack, which killed almost 90, showed the ability of radical Islamists to silence moderate and tolerant voices in the Islamic world.

The attack also alarmingly demonstrated the ever-wider reach of the ISIS and the ease with which it can now strike within Pakistan. ISIS now appears to equal the Taliban as a serious threat to this nuclear-armed country.

The suicide bombing of the Sehwan shrine is an ominous development for the world, in a region that badly needs stability. It is an Islamic shrine where outsiders, religious minorities and women are all welcomed. Here, 60 years after Partition and the violent expulsion of most of the Hindus of Pakistan into India (and vice versa with Muslims into Pakistan), one of the hereditary tomb guardians is still a Hindu, and it is he who performs the opening ritual at the annual festival. Hindu holy men, pilgrims and officials still tend the shrine.

But the wild and ecstatic night-long celebrations marking the Sufi saint’s anniversary were almost a compendium of everything Islamic puritans most disapprove of: loud Sufi music and love poetry sung in every courtyard; men dancing with women; hashish being smoked. Hindus and Christians were all welcome to join in the celebrations.

A radical anti-Sufi movement is growing throughout the Islamic world. Until the 20th century, ultra-orthodox strains of Islam tended to be regarded as heretical by most Muslims. But since the 1970s, Saudi oil wealth has been used to spread such intolerant beliefs across the globe. As a result, many contemporary Muslims have been taught a story of Islamic religious tradition from which the tolerance of Sufism is excluded.

What happens at the Sehwan Sharif shrine matters, as it is an indication as to which of the two ways global Islam will go. Can it continue to follow the path of moderate pluralistic Islam, or – under the pressure of Saudi funding – will it opt for the more puritanical, reformed Islam of the Wahhabis and Salafis, with their innate suspicion (or even overt hostility) towards Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism?

Islam in south Asia is changing. Like 16th century Europe on the eve of the Reformation, reformers and puritans are on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. In Christian Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recruited the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Hardline Wahhabi and Salafi fundamentalism has advanced so quickly in Pakistan partly because the Saudis have financed the building of so many madrasas that have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of state education.

On my last visit to Sehwan a few years ago, the largest madrasa there was located in an old haveli not far from the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Saleemullah, who ran the madrasa, was a well-educated young man, but there was no masking the puritanical severity of some of his views. For him, the theology of the dispute between the Sufis and the orthodox was quite simple:

“We don’t like tomb worship,” he said.

“The Holy Quran is quite clear about this… We must not pray to dead men and ask things from them, even the saints.”

He saw his role as bringing “the idol and grave-worshippers from kufr (infidelity) back to the true path of the sharia”.

He said,

“Mark my words. A more extreme form of the Taliban is coming to Pakistan.”

Saleemullah claimed most people wanted a return to the caliphate and said Pakistan’s intelligence agencies were on his side. And when the caliphate comes, he said,

“It will be our duty to destroy all the mazars (mausoleums) and the dargahs (shrines) – starting with the one here in Sehwan.”

Saleemullah’s organisation alone ran 5,000 madrasas across Pakistan, and was opening a further 1,500 in Sindh. According to one recent study, there are now 27 times as many madrasas in Pakistan as there were in 1947 – over 8,000 in total.

The religious tenor has been correspondingly radicalised – many Sufi sites and people have come under attack, including the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore in 2010 and the revered Sufi singer Amjad Sabri, who was assassinated last summer.

With its deep roots in South Asian soil, its gentle message and through the music that carries it, Sufism has become an antidote to ISIS-style radicalism, and fundamentalism of all sorts. One old fakir I talked to in the Sehwan shrine said of the Wahhabi mullahs:

“Without love, they distort the true meaning of the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh).”

If only the Pakistani government could finance schools that taught respect for the country’s own indigenous and syncretic religious traditions, rather than buying fleets of American F-16 fighters and leaving education to the Saudis.

Instead, Pakistan is increasingly coming to resemble a tragic clone of pre 9/11 Taliban Afghanistan – a place where violent radicals are welcomed with open arms, where groups like ISIS are rapidly gaining influence, and where moderate Muslims and religious minorities are subject to persecution and murder.

This post originally appeared here.

William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple

William is a bestselling author of In Xanadu, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain, White Mughals, The Last Mughal, Nine Lives, and most recently, Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan. He has won multiple awards and prizes. He is one of the founders and a co-director of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. He tweets @dalrymplewill

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Feroz

    William is a very keen observer of South Asian affairs and the alarm he has raised must be taken seriously if Pakistan has to extricate itself from the dead end it is stuck in. There is one group wanting to define the relationship between man and his God and willing to impose its will on all through violence if necessary. Another group brought up in a diverse South Asian milieu values pluralism and the Sufi tradition of tolerance and love for all. This battle for the Soul of Pakistan needs to be fought and won for the sake of peace, freedom and moderation. No broker and merchant should be allowed to dictate the relationship I have with my God.Recommend

  • anand singh

    Well, not far from the truth.

    Its for the people of Pak to decide what they want to do with their nation .

    One hopes they decide wisely.Recommend

  • Yht

    Last line is utterly dangerous and outright fraudulent. Pakistani is NOT “coming to resemble” pre 9/11 Afghanistan. The armed forces are fighting and defeating the likes of Daesh and the TTP. The evidence shows this is the case. As far as “moderate muslims” go, Muslims in Pakistan don’t want to be labelled with such terms. There are Muslims, non Muslims and there are the khawarij (Daesh, TTP..etc). ET’s agenda won’t work, neither will promoting your “moderate” view of anything. The people won’t accept anything enforced on them by what they perceive to be “western”, or anything they deem to have a sinister agenda of control behind it. The majority of Pakistanis, sufis (naqshbandi, qadiri, chishti..etc), barelvis are the bulwark against the kharijites and their mindset, and defeat them time and time again. The only time the barelvis get angry is when anyone (and i mean ANYONE) seeks to attack their core beliefs, that can’t be defeated by the govt banning people. Their POV has to be understood and respected.Recommend

  • ajay gupta

    stop tomtomming tolerance with one hindu at the shrine in a nation of millions. praying does not solve anything, neither does religion. living and working together, visiting each others’ homes, participating in each others’ festivals, this is what forms a tolerant, civil soicitey. do u know in west bengal thousands of hindu children take madrassa board exams as madrassas provide good affordable education in the village areas ? & naturally with a board in place the syllabus is strictly monitored and no scope for jihadi non sense. to survive as a society u need secular education, and a complete separation of religion & the state. it is the terrorist thought, the hatred for the other, the different, that needs to be eliminated. terrorism cannot be fought with weapons if terrorists have ground support.Recommend

  • mad mamluk

    i mean, shrine worship is outside the bounds of orthodox interpretations of islam and there is no doubt that some of the things that are done there can not in any way be associated with ‘sufism’. the problem is that killing people for it has never been the understanding of islamic scholars on diff of opinion. never.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Interesting read.
    Pakistan has been thrust by events but more so by inept, myopic leaders both civilian and military ( who’s vision extends as far as their pockets ) to adopt a religious hard line policy that is alien to its genes but beneficial to our leaders and it is shredding the country apart…….the end result just can not be good.Recommend

  • Frank

    Pakistanis don’t need a foreigner to teach them about their own country. There is so much wrong with this article it’s difficult to know where to begin. And the Sufi traditions of Punjab and Sindh are profoundly influenced by the teachings of Maulana Rumi, not by the supposed ‘diverse South Asian milieu’, whatever that means.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    “Loud Sufi music and love poetry sung in every courtyard; men dancing with women; hashish being smoked. Hindus and Christians were all welcome to join in the celebrations.”

    Sounds like a hippie party. A society that indulges in all these vices is a morally depraved, decadent society, according to purists.

    Allama Iqbal is influential in developing the mindset of a typical Pakistani. He wrote that the job of a “Momin” is to be like a hawk, vigilant and ready for battle. To cast terror into the hearts of “Aghyar”. Men lost in music and dancing end up conquered and enslaved, as did the last of the Mughal Kings by the Europeans two centuries ago.

    I dislike militant extremists as much as anyone, but I understand where they are coming from and why they target Sufi-culture.Recommend

  • rationalist

    ” Another group brought up in a diverse South Asian milieu values
    pluralism and the Sufi tradition of tolerance and love for all.”

    The problem is that all traditional schools of Islam reject Sufism as unislamic. They are correct in that the mystical principles of Sufism are derived from HIndu vedantic philosophy and thus unislamic.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    But the wild and ecstatic night-long celebrations marking the Sufi
    saint’s anniversary were almost a compendium of everything Islamic
    puritans most disapprove of: loud Sufi music and love poetry sung in
    every courtyard; men dancing with women; hashish being smoked. Hindus and Christians were all welcome to join in the celebrations.

    This does not represent Islam per se, not the sufi or traditional prctice, but a group of jolly people who are having a good time in a country which is experiencing a civil war. It matters not if the madrassas are financed by the Saudis or Qataris or the Good people of Pakistan rich as long as they are used to provide basic lessons in religion as well as science subjects and not being instrumentalised to convey an ideology which encourages violence and extremism and not tolerence and aims to create community disorder.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Paki Terrorist

    There is nothing new in what Dalrymple has written … !! … No one can help Pakistan, if the Pakistanis do not help themselves … !! … the irony for the people of Pakistan is, the military establishment has a stranglehold on its internal and external policies, and they do not let go of this, for obvious reasons. Look at Musharraf for example, who is sitting in the comforts of Dubai, had his entire family settled in the US, and still positions himself as the leader of the Pakistani people. This would not be possible without disproportionate power and privilege that these army men enjoy in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Rahul

    This is all going according to Jinnah’s plan to make Pakistanis more pious and better Muslims.Recommend

  • naeemhussain

    What about Nehru and Gandhi India how religiously tolerant you are the whole world is well aware of it.Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    Can’t imagine how it can survive the information age without reformation. The current tumult indicates that it is at a crossroad.Recommend

  • vinsin

    They gave Muslims Pakistan and allowed killing and loot of non-Muslims.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Mughals were conquered by Marathas not Europeans.Recommend

  • vinsin

    But wasnt Pakistan created for that purpose?Recommend

  • vinsin

    So Apostasy war was right or wrong?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Is Indian education secular or based on Muslim appeasement? Then why India has not been able to become a secular state? Implement first even women rights in India before giving lecture to the world about secularism.Recommend

  • vinsin

    But people accepted Islam enforced by Arabs and Afghanistan. People also accepted slavery is bad enforced by westerns.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Which Hindu Musical instrument did Rumi played? Rumi called himself half-muslims. Are Sufi Half-Muslims? What exactly the difference between Sufi and a Hindu? Do Sufi of Punjab and Sindh drink alcohol like Rumi?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Negative that is completely against Islam. What was the point of converting to Islam if the idea was no to dictate relationship with God? You are also negating the whole concept of conversion?Recommend

  • vinsin

    What about Deobands of India? Are they also from Wahhabis? Did Wahhabis teaching responsible for Mapilla riots?

    Was Pakistan creation funded by Saudi Arabia also? Islam is a religion of Saudi Arabi not Pakistan. Vedas and Natyasastra cannot be part of Islam.

    Let these Sufi called themselves by some other name other than Muslims. Anyway, India is the only country to banned Universal Sufism saying that it is not Islamic enough.Recommend

  • Farhan

    Pious? Jinnah was non-practicing. The more pious Muslims either supported CongressRecommend

  • Sane

    There is no ISIS in Pakistan. Recommend

  • Sane

    India not safe for minorities including Muslims and not safe for foreign tourists, specially women. Recommend

  • Milind A

    Nothing wrong in that last line. The so-called fight by your armed forces against Daesh and TTP is one of the steps in the final solution. The actual (and larger) part is changing the narrative, ideology, something which is not being done at all.. So basically, you’re scratching the surface pretending that you’re curing the disease, but not ready to touch the core.Recommend

  • Xyz

    The vigilance and readiness for battle seems to be resulting in much more of internal fighting and violence than anything else. If Pakistanis tried to be little more tolerant of hippie parties, the society would be a lot more optimistic and progressive.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    Nawab Siraj ud dawla, the Nawabs of Lucknow and Nawab Tipu Sultan lost their domains to the British. The last Mughal emperor was Bahadur Shah Zafar who was exiled to Rangoon after a failed coup against the East India Company.

    The Marathas weakened the rule of Mughals in central and southern India but they didn’t conquer the Mughal stronghold states in the north.Recommend

  • Frank

    No, but the Sufis of Punjab and Sindh smoke a stack load of hashish. Half Muslim or Full, Maulana Rumi permeates the literature and the psyches of the Sindhi and Punjabi people more widely and deeply than you can imagine.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    lol. I don’t know how progressive it would be but certainly less violent.

    We can definitely use a new national poet who can convince the “Shaheens” to tone it down a bit.Recommend

  • siesmann

    Many mullah-influenced, love extremists more than sufis.Let sufis have a relationship with God as they seem fit,as long as they don’t interfere with yours.But closed-minds will force their opinions on others with violence and intimidation.Recommend

  • rationalist

    May be. But, if true, why is that no muslims from India is seeking asylum in Pakistan? Quite the contrary, why is that millions of Bangladeshi and Pakistani muslims are illegally migrating to India/Recommend

  • rationalist

    “…………..tolerant Islamic voices are being silenced”

    That must be the oxymoron example of the century.Recommend

  • vinsin

    They were not Mughals. Zafar only ruled Delhi and he never tried to coup.

    https://www.mapsofindia.com/history/maratha-empire.htmlRecommend