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Saints, Sindh and ‘sins’

2017-02-24 00:00:55
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This trembling light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not the Dawn we waited for so long
This is not the Dawn whose birth was sired
By so many lives, so much blood
-Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Poetry mixes not with bigotry. Philosophy is no honey for the fanatic. Shorn of spirituality, terrorism is antithesis of what humaneness is. The Quran records that the angels were worried that man would make mischief and shed blood when God told them he was to create man on earth. Such divine concerns for chaos, disorder and bloodshed shake not the terrorists. Neither does the scriptural warning that killing one innocent person amounts to the killing of the entire humanity instill in him the fear of God’s punishment. Being ignorant of the spirit of Islam, the so called Jihadi terrorist is easily brainwashed. Depressed, he clings on to any doctrine that promises eternal happiness. Hopeless and loveless, he believes killing the infidels is the way to Paradise. After leading a sinful life, he longs to be killed in the path of God, for he is told the martyr’s sins are forgiven even before the first drop of blood from his body falls on to the ground.


Last Thursday, in Pakistan which has been in recent weeks shattered by a series of deadly terrorist attacks, the latest being yesterday in Lahore, a terrorist saw a Sufi shrine at Sehwan in the Sindh Province as his gateway to paradise. In distant Iraq, the ancestral country of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the Sufi after whom the famous shrine is named, the terror outfit ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.


Debates over whether Sufism is Islam have divided the Muslim world. The Wahhabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam have outright condemned Sufism as heretic. The ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and similar groups from the Wahhabi and Salafi orders see the Sufi shrine visitor as an idol worshipper or a Mushrik.  They encourage the destruction of shrines and the killing of shrine visitors. Some 1,400 years ago, Prophet Muhammad visited Thaif, a city of idol worshippers near Makkah. His preaching on the oneness of God was greeted by stones.  Bleeding, he ran to safety. Archangel Gabriel asked him whether to destroy the city that harmed him and did not accept his teaching. Muhammad’s reply was that he was sent as a mercy to the whole world, not as a destroyer.
Perhaps, the terrorist did not know this. Or his mentors did not tell him about the tolerance and perseverance with which his Prophet preached the message of Islam.


However deviant the latter day Sufism is, one cannot deny that Islam spread in South Asia largely because of the work of early Sufis. They were the pioneers in taking Islam’s message in Arabic to the people in their own languages. Sufism is an esoteric expression of Islam. It is said Khwajah Muinuddeen Chisty, the great 12th century Sufi of the subcontinent, attracted thousands of converts every day as he moved from village to village. Lal Shabaz Qalandar, the Sufi of Sehwan, the city where more than 90 died in last Thursday’s terror attack, was also known for his love for the poor, apart from his poetry and philosophy.


Describing her visit to the shrine, Christina Lamb in her book ‘Waiting for Allah: Pakistan’s struggle for Democracy’, says: “The very air seemed to pickle with expectancy and emotion as we walked down the narrow unpaved streets towards the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, ‘the beggars’ saint’. The excitement was like that of children at a fun fair. On either side were stalls piled high with glass bangles and hung with garlands of green, red and white. Breathing rose and jasmine, I wondered if my eyes too shared the strange unfocused look of those passing us by. The shrine came into view – a white fairyland strung with coloured lights. The drum beat was incessant, inexorably drawing people in. 
“There was crush at the entrance as pilgrims touched the door post in wonder, praying for children, for food, for strength, begging the Sufi saint to intercede with God and grant them their prayer. Finally we were inside and it was dazzling. We were buffeted by dream-like people whirling, chanting, reaching ecstasy. It took a moment to adjust to the kaleidoscope of colour. On one side were a small group – the drum beaters, a leading chanter and all around them a swirling morass of men dressed in colours and with kohl-rimmed eyes. Some seemed to be wearing dresses and all were spinning and chanting, chanting, chanting, chanting, whizzing into a trance that would, they hoped, bring them union with God.  ‘Dama dam mast Qalandar,’ they sang as fireflies gathered round the lights….” 
No doubt, practices such as this are not found in the Quran or in the teachings of the prophet. But Saints and ‘sins’ – petitioning to anyone other than God is a cardinal sin in Islam -- are part of what is called popular Islam as opposed to the theoretical and intellectual Islam. Saints did not urge their followers to worship them. But after their deaths, zealous followers glorified them and regarded them as sinless interceders with God to obtain favours. 


However irrational or flawed the Sufi belief is, the ardent believer won’t abandon it and adopt the Wahhabi or Salafi version even if he is threatened with suicide blasts. On the other hand, resorting to violence or immoral methods to change a person’s belief is a clear sign of intellectual bankruptcy. Only through intellectual jihad based on reason and exemplary conduct can religion, ideology or philosophy reach the masses. The people of Pakistan’s Sindh province will scoff at anyone who dares to tell them that what they were doing is wrong. Proud of their saints and heritage, the people of Sindh, the land of the 5,000-year-old Mohenjo-Daro civilization, would say that Islam came to South Asia through their land after Mohammad bin Qasim, an Umayyad general invaded it in the late seventh century following an Arab merchant ship returning from Sri Lanka came under attack by Hindus.


Modern day terrorism is a child of many fathers. Besides the misguided mullah, the confused youth is also made easy prey by intelligence agencies to further their countries’ geopolitical agendas.  Ask an Afghan about the Taliban. Which Taliban, he would ask. Pakistan, India, the United States, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia – all have a Taliban group. Whether the Sehwan bomb and the sudden hike in terrorist activities in Pakistan are the work of the terrorists driven by a warped ideology or some foreign hands with the aim of destabilising Pakistan will remain contentious. These attacks come at a time when Pakistan is gearing for a US$ 48 billion economic takeoff through China’s One-Belt-One-road Project.


Sadly, the Sehwan attack drew little attention in the western media which are over-engrossed in covering Donald Trump. 


A tweet posted by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan said it all. “Apparently Trump mistook Sehwan for Sweden,” his tweet said referring to Trump’s claim on Saturday of a terror attack that never took place in Sweden. 


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