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Essay Mast Qalandar

As the entire nation mourns the deadly suicide attack, which has till now left over 88 worshippers dead, and more than 10 injured many of whom were children and women, a question that comes to everyone’s mind is where have we gone wrong and who is responsible for this massacre.

If you ask me, as a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, I would say that we should all be held responsible for such a senseless slaughter of innocent souls, because we as a nation of lambs live in complete silence not speaking out or even raising our voice against the tyranny that befalls upon us.

Nothing is sacred anymore. What was once sacred is now considered to be someone else’s sin. Those innocent worshippers were killed, because according to extremists that killed them they were indulged in heretical forms of worship such as dhamaal (mystical Sufi dance) and unholy reverence of the esteemed Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar lovingly referred to as "Jhulelal" by his devotees.

It’s a popular belief, held by many of my people, that such suicide attacks aren’t of our making. It’s easy for many to point fingers at others, such as foreign agencies and infidel enemies of our republic, than to look into our own conscience. I ask my people, why haven’t we noticed that since 70 years of our independence we’ve only been at war with our own self?

First they came for the Sikhs and Hindus at the time of partition of British India 1947,  but we never spoke out against the carnage because according to our very own Pakistan Studies textbooks ‘Hindus and Sikhs started the massacre against Muslim settlements in Bharat.’

Then they came for the Ahmadis and we never spoke out against that, we instead unlawfully declared them as non-Muslims leading to further persecution, alienation and exile of Ahmadis patriotic to this nation.

Then they came for the Christians, burned their colonies in Shanti Nagar, Gojra and Joseph Colony and  we never spoke out against that, instead we imprisoned their women and children e.g Asia Bibi and Nabeel Masih under the malicious blasphemy law.

Since then they have come after the Shia Muslims, the Ismaili Muslims and now Sufi Muslims and still we say this is ‘problem’ is not of our making?

When will we wake up to the fact that we as a nation are under attack from within. Since our early inception as a nation for South Asian Muslims, we have always been under siege from the bigoted and tyrannical views of the extremist few who have tried their best and successfully enforced their version of ‘True Islam’ that completely contradicts the wisdom and love of the Sufis who preached love, compassion and inclusion of all.

If you just visit the shrine of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan Sharif, you would fall in love with Sufi Islam, which not only preaches but also practices a message of spiritual devotion and love of all regardless of their creed, caste, gender or religion.

Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, also known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, is one of the most loved Sufi poets and saints in the Indian subcontinent revered by Muslims and Hindus alike – so much so that Hindus revere him as the reincarnation of “Jhuelal” a Sindhi saint, who just like Lal Shabaz promoted love and communal harmony popularized in the Sufi song “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” and made famous by the Indo-Pak musicians like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Perveen  

Propagation of spiritual teachings of Sufism, that preaches love over hate, is the need of the hour. Pakistan was never created for the ideological views of Taliban, ISIS and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to flourish, it was created to promote peace, love and humanity.

The attack on Sehwan Sharif is a very blatant attack on a longstanding Sufi tradition of love and tolerance that can prove as a powerful antidote against extremism and intolerance. Tolerance is an integral feature of the mystic Islam infused with hypnotic rituals and intoxicated madness that is an inseparable part of the cultural conscience and indigenous beliefs of Sindh and Pakistan.

Pakistan has always been the “Land of the Sufis”. No matter how bad these extremists might try to bend the Sufi teachings of love and tolerance, they can never be successful in taking out the love and humanity from the hearts of its devotees as clearly seen by the quick resumption of the dhamaal signifying their undeterred devotion of promoting love and humanity through music, dance and poetry at any cost.

It’s about time that we promote this sense of defiance and deterrence against hatred and intolerance within our collective national conscience in order to win the war we are at from within. Failure to stand up against this tyranny will only inflict us with more harm than do us any good.

One day the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was wandering through a desert with a friend when dusk fell and it suddenly turned very cold. The two gathered wood to warm themselves in the night only to discover that they had no light to ignite the timber. His friend asked Qalandar to turn into a Huma (bird) and get charcoal from hell. Immediately, Lal Shahbaz took the form of a falcon and flew into the skies returning hours later but without a splinter. Asked why he had return empty handed, Qalandar explained that there was no raging inferno in hell. Each person who resided there scorched in his own fire!

This deep story is reflective of the spiritual reality of life as much as the physical experience of Pakistan. Month after month, and sometimes, week after week, the country finds itself burning from blasts in its own shrines, market places, political rallies and public congregations kindled by the Frankenstein monster created by itself.

The sad part of the story is that even Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine has not been spared. Perhaps because it brings to the innocent and simple masses spiritualism and God in a straightforward way. Through a method that is traditional, deep-rooted in the South Asian culture and reflective of the moors that we have emerged from.

Sufism has been entrenched in the subcontinent for more than a 1000 years. Flowing in from Persia across, it travelled across Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh, and Rajasthan to the Indian heartland mingling with the deeply pious temperament of the common people - Why Sufis found acceptance is because they brought with them the message of spiritual bliss in a way that was non-violent, folksy and adaptive of traditional music and art forms.

Attainment of God, the drunkenness of divine love, the high pedestal on which a Sufi saint was placed made religion tangible and personal. Cultural songs, dances and rituals like incense and lamp lighting added local flavour.

It is these very native practices that Islamic purists loathe.

So when a bomb ripped across Sehwan Sharif this February killing over 90 people, the message was loud and clear. It conveyed disapproval of everything that was practiced in Lal Qalandar’s shrine - the music, dance, intermingling of genders and the lore about the Sufi fakir Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and a Hindu demigod Jhule Lal (Varun Dev) being intertwined as one in local faith - made memorable by the references of both in the superhit song ‘Dam a Dam Mast Qalandar’.

The incident was not an isolated one. A blood trail of such savagery passes across the length and breadth of Pakistan, clearly attempting to loosen and break the scaffold of Sufi faith in the country.

More than a decade back, in 2005, Pir Rakhel Shah of Fatehpur was attacked. This was followed by a litany of such incidents at Data Darbar in Lahore, Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Baba Farid’s dargah in Pakpattan, Sakhi Sarwar in Dera Ghazi Khan, Dargah Ghulam Shah Ghazi in Maari, Baba Nangay Shah's shrine in capital Islamabad and Shah Norani shrine in Khuzdar besides the killing of Sufi singer Amjad Sabri.

The growing violence is in reality a battle of ideologies within Islam. One is the puritanical and very orthodox stream of Deobandi/ Wahabi/Salafi practices and on the other side are mystical Sufis and the moderate Barelvi sect.

Sufism which had a fairly strong hold in the Pakistani territory for centuries, began to lose its charm in late 1970s. The exposure of Pakistanis to orthodox Islam because of travelling to the Middle East, the mushrooming of madrasas funded by Saudi petro dollars in the absence of robust education system and the rise of Zia ul Haq sounded the death knell for this very indigenous version of Islam.

The frequency of assaults now shows that the puritans are winning and spreading roots even in areas like rural Sindh which were hitherto out of their reach. The idea is to threaten, coax and force people to give up passive and personal spiritualism - which welcomes people of all faiths and both the genders - and to toe their line of hardline Islam where women are invisible in openly practising religion and Hindus, Shias, Christians etc. are not welcome unless they too convert.

The crux of the matter is this. Where does Pakistan want to see itself in future? Does it want to retain its vernacular identity and history where moderate Islam held sway or does it want to become an image of Saudi Arabian concepts.

In recent years, governments have begun to feel the pain of extremism and found that groups like Tehreek-i-Taliab-Pakistan, ISIS and sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi may be becoming entities that are too hot to handle. Fundamentalism, clearly, will consume not just Pakistan’s ethnicity but the country itself.

Unfortunately, statistics reveal a horror story. The minority population in Pakistan has shrunk from 24% in 1947 to just about 4% now. Madrasas that promote puritan Islam which were about 8000 immediately after Independence have presently bloated to 2,15,000.

For a more moderate future, investing in traditional Islam and propagation of Sufism will help the common man remain liberal. Because the moment the man on the street starts turning radical, Pakistan will be caught in a vortex of violence that is already pulling it towards its centre.

Pakistan needs more Sehwans, where men and women can dance together. Where Muslims, Hindus and Christians practice spirituality with the same ardour and where the keeper of the shrine is still a Hindu.

Sufism and Barelvi Islam are the very antidotes that Pakistan needs to stay away from the path of destruction. The country needs to wake up and wake up fast to ebb the decay of these moderate facets of Islam. It needs to enlist the support of the Pakistani citizen - the poor, middle class and rich – in preserving the middle path.

The road ahead will not be easy. Pakistan has come down the lane of radicalisation too far. Benazir Bhutto is an example of this. Visiting Qalandar’s shrine, she sat crying in front of the Sufi’s tomb asking questions about her future. Sometime later she was assassinated.

For Pakistan, the war of ideologies will be a make or break one. It will be an arduous task to reverse the current, but it must be done.

Because the question is of survival.