By Maria Sartaj
‘Why do you visit Dargahs Yaar? It is Shirk (idolatry)?’ is how most Pakistanis confront me when I tell them about my reverence for the Sufi saints of the sub-continent. They then proceed to rebuke me further reminding me that the traditions followed at these shrines have their origins in Hinduism; Tabarruk (sweet offering) they tell me is similar to Prasad, grave worship is akin to idolism and so on. What they fail to understand is that Sufism is an act of emptying oneself of all labels, noises, and emulsifying into nothingness.
After last week’s deadly attack on Sehwan Shareef located in Sindh, which killed more than 80 worshippers, the Pakistani youth after initially mourning their loss, debated and even justified the killings as an afterthought. They argued that Dhamal, a celebratory dance at the Dargah, was as a nun-Islamic, disgraceful practice therefore the devotees of such a place ended up facing the wrath of Allah.
Previously known as the land that produced the best Qawwals and poets, Pakistan now enjoys an uncomfortable relationship with its Sufi heritage. Taking the two-nation theory to heart, some citizens have been trying to erase all that was once beautiful and syncretic about their shared-past with India. Sufism is a hot seller as a marketing brand but Sufism in its raw, spiritual form is diminishing quickly. At the heart of Pakistan is a battle between the old and the new, between Sufism and Salafism, between inclusivity and exclusiveness, and unfortunately the tolerant ones seem to be losing this war.
A few days after the Sehwan attack, I took off alone to Kasur, Punjab, the final resting place of 18th century rebel poet and spiritual scholar Bulleh Shah. More than acting defiantly, I wanted to just run away from so much religious insecurity buzzing around, the muezzins even seem to be fighting each other during Azaan time, with calls for prayer overlapping each other on loud speakers. The suicide bomber at Sehwan Shareef may have come from outside but in our homes we have been breeding intolerance for far too long, dissecting each sect, sub sect and discarding all that doesn’t agree with us ever-so-casually.
My association with Sufism started after 9/11 and a little before Islamophobia became the accepted form of transaction between people. As a teen I had questions about myself, life and even our faith, which was the target of ridicule and confusion. Initially it was the greed of having mannats fulfilled that propelled me towards Dargahs, so I would tie endless threads thru marbled lattices. Sometimes I would even run out of wishes and make useless ones like ‘please let me marry Salman Khan, the actor’ to test a particular saint’s power. As I gained maturity, I started seeking the company of these dead men more for peace, for finding my centre. Sufism allows one to have their own unique spiritual experience, in its true essence it never judges; I’ve experienced chants by Hindus at Ajmer Sharif who cried ‘Gharib Nawaz Ki Jai Ho’ in ecstasy and it was as powerful as any other statement of allegiance. One doesn’t become a Sufi just by listening to Coke Studio; it is rather a way of life and a submission to divine power that brings peace to the soul.
As I made my way into the Dargah of Baba Bulleh Shah, who is now also a cool figure for Hindi film lyricists using his name to give their songs a Sufiana garb, I could sense that fear was in the air, security had been heightened at the shrine. I happened to be the only female present at that time with a few male caretakers around. Honestly speaking, my eyes also kept looking out for someone overtly dressed in this pleasant weather-anyone with a heavy-looking vest or a ‘bomber’ jacket approaching and I was going to run for cover.
Bulleh Shah often ran into trouble with the orthodox mullahs of his time as well, he advocated Namaz-e-Ishq in his poems as the highest form of prayer which obviously didn’t settle well with other scholars living their lives tied to blind rituals. At one point Bulleh Shah is said to have learnt the art of dancing from a local prostitute to appease his spiritual master; he would later write ‘Jaddon Yaar Raazi Hoya Raazi Rabb Ho Gaya’ reflecting back on his dance performance; peace between two souls mattered most to his teachings, so did spiritual liberation.
When he passed away the mullahs refused to bury him for three days, to them Bulleh was a Kafir, an unbeliever, so his remains had to finally be taken outside city parameters for burial. Today Kasur has rebuilt itself around Bulleh Shah’s Dargah, it is its focal attraction, and the graves of those who opposed him are nowhere to be found. History has a way of repeating itself, today’s naysayers will be forgotten tomorrow but until then, we the real minority of Pakistan, proponents of human unity, will continue to suffer.
Maria Sartaj is a freelance columnist with a degree in Cultural Studies and a passion for social observation, especially all things South Asian.