By WILLIAM DALRYMPLE
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE travels to the frontline of the battle between the Pakistani Taliban and the Sufis. He returns to Delhi to find asimilar battle being fought with words in the alleys of Nizamuddin
THIS PAST February, author- historian William Dalrymple performed with a group of Sufi musicians at Peeru’s Café on the outskirts of Lahore as part of a promotional book tour. The music and revelry lasted till 3a. m., with Pakistani Sufi singer Sain Zahoor joining in. Three months later, two explosions rocked the café in the middle of its annual Sufi music festival.
Dalrymple has been writing on Pakistan since 1986, when he crossed over to the country from Iran while writing his first book, In Xanadu. Many years later, in 2005, he interviewed Maulana Sami- ul Haq, the chief cleric of Haqqania in Akora Khattack (NWFP), where many of the Pakistani Taliban leaders, including Mullah Omar, have been schooled. The story that Dalrymple wrote after this meeting for The New York Review of Books won him the Best Print Article of the Year at the Foreign Press Association Media Awards in 2005. “The edginess and danger in Pakistan has increased in the last four- five years,” says the author.
“It’s so difficult to predict what’s going to happen next.” Dalrymple keeps going back to the country three or four times ayear to try and comprehend its sheer complexity.
ON THE first of July, the Pakistan Taliban organised a double suicide bombing of the biggest Sufi shrine in the Punjab, the dargah of Data Sahib in the heart of old Lahore. It was a Thursday night, the shrine was at its busiest and Data Sahib’s famed qawwali troupe was singing. In the resulting carnage 42 people were killed and 175 injured.
Tragically this was only the latest in a long line of attacks that Wahhabi militants have lately made on Sufis. Early in the year, Peeru’s, a Lahore cultural centre where I had recently performed with a Sufi troupe as part of my Nine Lives tour, was bombed in the middle of its annual festival of Sufi music.
Twelve months before the Taliban dynamited the shrine of the seventeenth- century Pakhtun poet- saint, Rahman Baba, at the foot of the Khyber Pass in the North- West Frontier. For centuries Rahman Baba’s shrine was a place where musicians and poets had gathered, and Rahman Baba’s Sufi verses in the Pakhtun language had long made him the national poet of the Pathans: “ I am a lover, and I deal in love,” wrote the saint.
“ Sow flowers, so your surroundings become a garden. Don’t sow thorns, for they will prick your feet.
We are all one body. Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.” Some of the most magical evenings I have ever had in South Asia were spent in the garden of the shrine, under the palms, listening to sublime singing of the Afghan Sufis.
Then about ten years ago, a Saudi- funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the dargah. Soon its students took it upon themselves to halt what they saw as the un- Islamic practices of the shrine. On my last visit there, in 2003, I talked about the situation with the shrine keeper, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists now regularly came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry, immorality and superstition. “My family have been singing here for generations,” said Tila. “ But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble.” “ What sort of trouble?” I asked.
“They tell us that what we do is wrong. They tell women not to come at all, and to stay at home.
They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out, even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually they have stopped coming.” “How long has this being going on?” I asked.
“Before the Afghan war there was nothing like this,” replied Tila Mohammad. “But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda to stop visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching ishq ( love). Now this trouble happens more and more frequently.”
MAKING sure no one was listening, he leant forward and whispered: “ Last week they broke the saz ( instrument) of a musician from Kohat. We pray that right will overpower wrong, that good will overcome evil. But our way is pacifist.
How can we resist violence?” The end came on March 4, 2009.
A group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn, and placed dynamite around the squinches of the dome. The shrine chamber was completely destroyed.
The Taliban issued a press release blaming the shrine for opening its doors to women, and allowing them to pray and seek healing there.
Since then, several shrines in areas under Taliban control have been blown up or shut down, and one — that of Haji Sahib Turangzai in the Mohmand Tribal Region of FATA ( Federally Administered Tribal Areas) — has been turned into a Taliban headquarters. Two other shrines near Peshawar — the mausoleum of Bahadar Baba and the shrine of Abu Saeed Baba — have been attacked and destroyed with rockets.
Behind this conflict lies an old theological controversy which dates back to the earliest days of Islam.
Throughout Islamic history, there have been successions of puritanical reform movements which have spoken out against the Sufis and their poetry and music.
For although there is nothing in the Quran that specifically bans music, Islamic tradition has always associated music with dancing girls and immorality, and infections from Hinduism, and there’s been a long tradition of clerical opposition.
According to Najaf Haidar, professor of mediaeval history at JNU, conflicts between the Sufis and Wahhabis were always inevitable, for the two had fundamentally different conceptions of their relationship with God: “ In orthodox Islam the object of creation is the worship of God,” said Najaf. “ This is a relationship of subordination — a one- way relationship in which God is the master and the devotee is the slave.
This relationship means that if you worship God you will get rewarded: On the Day of Judgement you will go to paradise, and if you do not you go to hell.
The Sufis rejected this idea and argued that God should be worshipped not because He has commanded us to, but because He’s such a loveable being. So the cornerstone of Sufi ideology becomes Love. As a result, all traditions are tolerated because in the opinion of the Sufis anyone is capable of expressing their love for God, and that transcends religious associations or your place in the social order. That’s the reason why Sufis became so popular — and why they were anathematised by the orthodox.” I asked if this was partly because the Sufis would mix, and pray, with Hindus. Najaf nodded: “ Yes. The moment you start preaching that love is the only binding force between the deity and the devotee then all social differences disappear. You would not bother whether someone who was trying to seek your audience is a Hindu. All the Sufis thought that the object of their life was to help people who were in distress, and that could be anyone.” You can see a more peaceful version of the same disagreement that is dividing believers in Pakistan any day here in Delhi, on the street leading towards the Nizamuddin shrine.
“Actually you must understand that Sufism is not Islamic,” I was told by Amin- ul Karim on a recent visit. “It is jadoo : magic tricks only.
It is superstition. It has nothing to do with real Islam.” Amin- ul Karim and I were standing outside a kebab restaurant in the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin, as clouds of charcoal smoke wafted into the air, and with it the scent of grilling meat floated out over streets bustling with pilgrims, madrasa students, sellers of rose petals, little boys playing cricket and beggars seeking alms.
TO one side lay the destination to which the crowds of pilgrims were heading: a warren of alleys leading towards the shrine of Delhi’s most revered Sufi.
Nizamuddin, like many Sufis, preached a simple message of prayer, love and the unity of all things. He promised his followers that if they loosened their ties with the world, they could purge their souls of worries and move towards direct experience of God. Rituals and fasting were for the pious, said the saint, but Love was everywhere, and was the surest route to the Divine.
The saint’s message was always controversial and even in his own day the ulema worried about how it could be squared with the Quran ’s detailed teachings. Today that controversy has if anything intensified: only a short distance from the shrine, behind Amin, towered a very different Islamic institution, and one that embodied a quite different face of Islam.
The Markaz is a modern grey concrete structure seven stories tall housing the world headquarters of an austere Islamic reformist movement called the Tablighis, to which Amin belonged.
The Tablighis are probably the largest Muslim missionary movement in the world, and advocate a return to the fundamentals of the Quran. They dislike many aspects of Sufism, the mystical face of Islam, and believe that Sufi shrines like that of Nizamuddin encourage such un- Quranic practices as idolatry, music, dancing and the veneration of dead saints.
This was certainly the view of Amin, who when I met him had been busy trying to persuade passing pilgrims to turn away from their destination. “ We Tablighis don’t like tomb worship,” he said, politely but firmly. “ We do not pray to dead men, even the saints. We believe there is no power but Allah.” With his dark skin, wispy beard and narrow eyes, Amin did not look like a Delhiwallah, so I asked where he was from. He was an aircraft maintenance engineer from Dacca, he said. He had come to Delhi to learn more of the teachings of the Tablighis, and to help preach what he considered to be the proper ways of Islam.
“I invite these people who come to Nizamuddin to turn away from their errors and return to the true path of the Quran. Do not pray to a corpse, I tell them: Nizamuddin is dead now. So go to the mosque, not to a grave, and in the mosque tell your problems to Almighty God.
Superstition leads to jahannam (hell), but the path of true Islam leads to jannat ( paradise).” “What sort of paradise?” I asked.
“The paradise of the Quran of course,” said Amin.
“But what is it like?” “ It is beyond all human imagination,” said Amin. “But according to our beliefs there will be many levels of paradise, eight in all, with a place for each believer. There will be couches to lie in the shade, and rivers of milk and honey, and cool, clear spring water.” “So,” I asked, “ what do you think of the Sufi idea that God can also be found in the human heart?”
I was thinking of the intuition that is shared by both Muslim and Hindu mystics, that paradise lay within — if you could find it. As the great mystic Jalaluddin Rumi put it, “The heart is nothing but the sea of light … the place of the vision of God.” “Paradise within us?” said Amin, raising his eyebrows. “ No, no, this is emotional talk — a dream only. Is there evidence for this in the Quran ? Real Islam is more disciplined than that. There are rules and regulations that must be followed: how to eat, how to wash, even how to clip your moustache. There is nothing in the Quran about paradise within the body. It is outside. To get there you must follow the commands of the Almighty. Then when you die, insh’allah that will be where your journey ends.” Here, it seemed to me, lay some sort of crux. Between the strictly regulated ways of the orthodox Tablighis and the customs of the heterodox Sufis lay not just two different understandings of Islam, but two entirely different conceptions of how to live, and how to die.
T HE good news is that while the Sufis may be mild, they are also resilient. If imported Gulf- Wahhabi forms of Islam are increasingly common now on both sides of the border, in Pakistan, as in India, the Sufis are determined not to go down without a fight.
If the North West Frontier of Pakistan is now dominated by the Wahhabis and their madrasas teaching an imported Gulf Islam, in Sindh, in the south of the country, the Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of the old, plural, composite culture which emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam.
Visiting one such shrine at Sehwan last year, I was astonished by the strength of feeling expressed against the mullahs by the Sindhis who look to their great saints such as Shah Abdul Latif and Lal Shabaz Qalander for guidance, and hate Wahhabis who criticise the popular Islam of the Sufi saints as a form of shirk or heresy.
“All these mullahs should be damned,” said one old Sufi I talked to in the shrine. “They read their books but they never understand the true message of love that the prophet preached. Men so blind as them cannot even see the shining sun.” Another woman Sufi devotee told me: “ I feel that it is my duty to protect both the Sufi saints, just as they have protected me. Today, in our Pakistan, there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is shirk.
Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet. Mullahs and Azazeel ( Satan) are the same thing.” A friend who visited shortly before me met a young man from Swat who said he had considered joining the Taliban militants, but their anti- Sufi attitude had put him off: “ No one can deny us our respected saints of God,” he said.
There are, I believe, good reasons to hope that the Sufism of Sindh may yet survive.
For just as Italy and Spain never underwent the Reformation that swept through Northern Europe with a wave of iconoclastic image breaking and shrine destruction, so Sindh is a different place than the North West Frontier, with a very different variety of Islam practiced there.
In the deserts of Sindh it seems that Sufi Islam, and the deeply rooted cult of the saints, with all its borrowings from the indigenous religious traditions of the area, may yet be able to act as a powerful homegrown resistance movement to the Wahhabis and their jihadi intolerance of all other faiths. On my last day in Sindh I was taken to see an old pir named Sain Fakir who gave me great hope.
“The mullahs always distort the Prophet’s message for their own purposes,” he said.
“ Their creed is extremely hard. It doesn’t understand human weakness. In this world, everyone commits sin. The Sufis have always understood this. They understand human weakness. They offer forgiveness, and people will always love those who forgive.” “ So you’re not that worried when you hear about the Taliban blowing up Sufi shrines elsewhere in Pakistan?” I said.
“It is certainly true that they want to destroy all tombs and sufi shrines,” said Sain Fakir. “Just like what the Wahhabis did to the tombs of the Companions of the Prophet in Mecca. And of course we worry about that.
But as a result of this, God’s wrath is upon them. Shah Abdul Latif had a saying: ‘ Deal only with things that are good. If you trade coal, you will be covered in black soot. But if you trade musk, you will smell of perfume.’ Good deeds have good effects. Bad deeds have bad effects. See how these Wahhabis are always killing each other: at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, in Swat, in Afghanistan, Iraq. Now is the beginning of the end for them. I believe that.” “So you think what happened at Rehman Baba’s shrine couldn’t happen here?” He shook his head. “ No,” he said firmly.
“They’ll never be able to destroy the shrines here in Sindh. The Sindhis have kept their values. They will never allow it.” “The mullahs are always trying to fight a jihad with their swords,” he continued, “without realising that the real jihad is within, fighting yourself, achieving victory over your desires, and the hell evil can create within the human heart. Fighting with swords is a low kind of jihad. Fighting yourself is the greater jihad. As Latif said, ‘don’t kill infidels, kill your own ego’.”
— William Dalrymple’s most recent book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury) has won the first Asia House Award for Literature. He has written and broadcast extensively on Sufism and Sufi music, most recently the Channel 4 series Sufi Soul, which is available on DVD from Amazon. Com
Source: Mail Today, India