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Massacre at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar: Teachings of the Great Mystic Are the Very Antithesis of the Beliefs Espoused By Extremist Brands

By Hussain H Zaidi

February 26, 2017

Being one of the most potent symbols of inter-faith harmony and religious tolerance in the country, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan was always a likely target for the militants.

The life and teachings of the great mystic are the very antithesis of the beliefs espoused by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Daesh and other such extremist brands. In point of fact, the Qalandar-Taliban dialectics bring out a deep cleavage in the world of Islam.

Among Muslims, mysticism is commonly referred to as Sufism. Although it consists of various orders and cults, Sufism’s fundamental teaching is the purification of the self so its focus can exclusively be turned towards the Almighty. The goal is to be achieved through rigorous self-discipline, contemplation, and meditation, leading to the annihilation of the self or the ego (Fana as it is called) and culminating in Baqa – an everlasting life with God, who is the source of all existence.

In his quest for the truth, a Sufi passes through different stages – each enlarging his vision and making him more humane, compassionate, and tolerant until he regards everything as partaking in, or reflecting, the Supreme Reality. If a phrase can capture the essence of Sufism, it’s “all is one”.

The Sufi reposes absolute trust in God – and, by implication, in the divine scheme of things. He does not question the logic of events as they come about since in his worldview they represent the eternal will of the Almighty. He therefore doesn’t wish them to be otherwise. He has no thoughts for the morrow, for such concerns betray a lack of trust in God.

Though both as a doctrine and as a discipline, Sufism is concerned essentially with personal salvation and is not without social implications. Two principal implications are a culture of complete tolerance and political quietism.

The Sufis teach tolerance not only among the rest of the schools and cults but also among other creeds and religions as well. A Sufi will not dismiss a person who approaches him on the grounds of his sect or religion. That’s the reason the mystics – dead or alive – command reverence from people belonging to all religions and creeds. The shrines of great Muslim saints in India and Pakistan attract Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians alike. They visit the shrines for prayers and penance. If we look at the people who dance or sing at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, it is difficult – if not altogether impossible – to discern which sect or religion they belong to. Sufism is essentially a pluralistic way of life, which is perfectly fitted into a multicultural society.

A true mystic would never want the state to propagate a particular ideology. He will not judge people as true or false believers, pious or wicked, angels or demons and Muslims or heretics. Instead, he will grant an audience to anyone who goes to him for help and advice. His teachings will weld people together rather than segregate them in the name of a sect or creed. This is what makes Sufism syncretic. By contrast, the priest or mullah is remarkably intolerant of rival creeds, which he looks down upon as heretical. That is the reason why a priest – however high his stature may be – by and large draws the respect of only the followers professing his creed or sect.

This makes priesthood, in essence, a sectarian idea. A Deobandi, for instance, will be reluctant to offer prayers led by a Barelvi. A Shia will hesitate to go to a mosque maintained by Sunnis – nor will he be welcomed there. Not only that, the clergy would want their creed to be enforced as the official religion of the state. This makes them far more interested in political affairs than the Sufis. We therefore have priesthood’s political activism, in contrast with mysticism’s political quietism. It’s another thing that such political activism is generally reactionary or retrogressive.

Since the mystics are motivated by the love of God – which includes love for humanity – the saints and Sufis preach universal love and compassion. They abhor violence and seek only a change in the heart, as spiritual freedom and moral perfection cannot be achieved by force. The teacher can only initiate and guide the disciple on the road to emancipation.

Sufism thus stands in marked contrast with the fanaticism, intolerance, bigotry and militarism of the Taliban, their mentors and like-minded individuals – who, on their part, look upon it as heretical. According to the Taliban ideology, ‘the heretics’ deserve only one type of treatment: death. The militants regard bombing the shrines and killing the pilgrims who visit these places as a religious duty. Not surprisingly, several shrines in Pakistan have been soaked in blood by the militants.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, the implication of mysticism – consisting largely of political quietism – has been more pronounced than its teachings of love, compassion and tolerance. To understand this, we need to go back a little in history.

The Subcontinent has been known for its mystics, particularly the Sufis. These Sufis – who are men of high character, profound knowledge and plain living – played a powerful role in the moral reconstruction of society. However, a class of hereditary ‘pirs’ gradually emerged. Their only claim to sainthood rested on being descendants of a saint or custodian of his shrine, signalling the decadence of the institution.

Among the pirs, the most powerful were the custodians of shrines. These pirs were courted by kings and princes when Muslims ruled India and received large tracts of land. This gave birth to a pir-landlord combination which persists to date. The British, when they conquered India, allowed the pirs – who had a large number of devotees – to retain their estates in return for valuable political support that they offered to the raj.

The Pirs remained staunch supporters of British rule. It was only when the end of colonial rule became imminent that they shifted their loyalties. By joining the All India Muslim League, the Pirs ensured the continuation of their privileged position in the new Muslim state and have largely retained it to date.

It’s a pity that a large section of our society identifies Sufism with Pirs – whose reputation rests on performing all sorts of ‘miraculous’ deeds, such as curing the incurable and helping their client hit the jackpot. Such Pirs have nothing to do with mysticism. A Sufi and a pir are as poles apart as the words ‘suspicious’ and ‘mystical’ are. Sufism is fundamentally an ethical doctrine as well as a discipline capable of uniting an otherwise divided society.

Pakistan is a multi-ethnic society, with people professing various creeds and sects. The edifice of such a society must rest on the pillars of religious tolerance, freedom and inter-faith harmony. Regrettably, the extremist-cum-militaristic view of Islam has made such an impression on society that we have turned against dissent and disagreement – all in the name of religion.

In such a scenario, the Sufi message of universal tolerance has special relevance. The followers of divergent creeds can live together peacefully and faith is essentially what one believes in the depth of one’s heart. It is a matter between man and God.

Hussain H Zaidi is a freelance countributor.