After cricket, an attack on a revered Sufi shrine in Pakistan

March 9, 2009

The bombing of the mausoleum of a renowned Pashto mystic poet outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar has darkened the mood further in a nation already numbed by the attack on cricket, its favourite sport, when the Sri Lankan team were targeted in Lahore.

Taliban militants are suspected of being behind the attack on the shrine of Abdul Rehman at the foot of the Khyber pass, where for centuries musicians and poets have gathered in honour of the 17th century messenger of peace and love.

The militants were angry that women had been visiting the shrine of the Rehman Baba as he was popularly known and so they planted explosives around the pillars of the tomb, to pull down the mausoleum in an echo of the Taliban bombing of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan back in 2001. The structure was damaged and the grave blown up, Dawn reported.

“Is there any limit to this insanity ?’ asks Owais Mughal in a post on All Things Pakistan.  The militants had burnt girls schools to the ground in northwest Pakistan, forced traffic to drive on the right hand side instead of left in the Malakand region, dug up graves of a minority sect and even hung the bodies in the public square in Swat region, he says. And now they were blowing up the resting place of the dead.

“Believe it or not; probably like some of our readers, I am now reluctant to open a newspaper to avoid reading any bad news about Pakistan. It hurts. It simply hurts,” he wrote.

William Dalrymple writing in The Sunday Observer said  the attack was a reminder that Wahhabi radicals were determined to destroy a gentler, kinder Islam that had dominated South Asia for centuries.

He quotes Rehman Baba:”I am a lover, and I deal in love. 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.”

Rehman Baba believed passionately in the importance of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God, as a way of opening the gates of Paradise, Dalrymple says. But this use of poetry and music in ritual is one of the many aspects of Sufi practice that has attracted the wrath of the Islamists. And this differing understanding  of Islam is really at the heart of the conflict that is raging in Pakistan, he says.

Wahhabi fundamentalism has advanced so quickly in Pakistan that madrasas have taught an entire generation to abhor the region’s gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam and to embrace instead an imported form of Saudi Wahhabism.

“The trend towards anti-culture extremism, however, is seen across the Islamic world, much aided in the 1990s by Saudi investment in the spread of the Wahhabi faith,” writes Pakistan’s The Daily Times.  With the latest attack, miltants had put the Pakistan state on notice about their intent against Pakistani culture, the paper said. It worried that the Taliban were also likely to attack the Sindhis whose mysticism-based culture is still intact in the interior of the province.

Sufism is anathema to the Taliban and they have long sought to uproot it. When the Taliban seized power in neighbouring Afghanistan in 1996, they locked Sufi shrines. In Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal region, the local Taliban captured the shrine of a revered freedom movement hero, Haji Sahib of Turangzai, and turned it into their headquarters as this BBC story says.

So are parts of Pakistan increasingly looking like  a clone of Taliban Afghanistan ?

[Reuters picture of Abdur Rehman's mausoleum near Peshawar and Taliban militants standing guard in Swat]

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