By Fatima Bhutto
February 23, 2017
Last Thursday a suicide bomber affiliated
with the so-called Islamic State attacked Sehwan Sharif, one of the most revered
Sufi shrines, in the southern Sindh Province of Pakistan, killing more than 80
people, including 24 children, and wounding more than 250.
Why the terrorists hate Sehwan is why we
love it. The saint and his shrine at Sehwan belong to everyone, to Sunnis and
Shiites, to Hindus and Muslims, transgender devotees, to believers and
questioners alike. The inclusiveness, the rituals and music born of syncretic
roots make shrines like Sehwan Sharif targets in the extremist interpretations
of the Islamic State and other radical Wahhabi militants.
As a child in the late 1980s and early
’90s, I would visit the town of Sehwan with my family on our way from Karachi
to Larkana, my family’s hometown. After driving along bumpy roads deserted but
for palm trees and solitary men standing on the open highways selling lotus
flower seeds, we would stop near the western bank of the Indus River to visit
the shrine of Sehwan’s patron saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th-century
Persian mystic and poet who was a contemporary of Rumi.
Qalandar, whose real name was Syed Mohammad
Usman Marwandi, is adored in music and poetry as the Red Falcon. As you drive
through the narrow, dusty streets of Sehwan, the air becomes perfumed with the
scent of roses, sold in small plastic bags and body-length garlands that
devotees lay at his tomb.
I was 7 when I first saw Sehwan during
Ashura, when Shiites mourn the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain, who was
killed in 680 by an unjust ruler at Karbala, in what is now Iraq.
I remember thousands of men and women
together in collective, ritualized mourning in the courtyard of Lal Shahbaz
Qalandar’s shrine. They walked barefoot over glass and the embers of burning
cigarette butts, their black Shalwar Kameez drenched in sweat, their
palms striking their chests rhythmically. Even as a 7-year-old, I found
something hypnotic, something fierce, and something pure about Sehwan.
Over the years, I kept returning to Sehwan
to sit in that courtyard, the shrine illuminated by red and green fairy lights,
its golden dome and turquoise minarets soaring above a town of modest roofs.
The cool tiled floor of the shrine is often
carpeted with devotees, some carrying tiffins of food on outings with their
children, others in fraying and torn Shalwar Kameez prostrate in prayer. Even
wealthy urbanites visit to lay their anxieties at the feet of the buried saint,
tiptoeing gingerly through the crowds. In a country built and maintained on
immovable divisions of ethnicity, gender, class and belief, the shrine at
Sehwan welcomed all. It was an egalitarian oasis formed by the legacies and
practice of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism merging into one.
On Thursday evenings people congregate to
listen to the religious songs called qawwali and perform a devotional dance, Dhamal.
They arrive with offerings of bruised rose petals, sugared almonds and what
money they can spare. They seek solace from their pain; pray for safety in a
harsh, unjust world; beg for an answer to a forgotten prayer. Those who can’t
offer anything arrive empty-handed. Sehwan’s shrine promised the weak, the
worried and the poor that they would always be safe here.
Every time we visited the shrine, a deaf
and mute man named Goonga welcomed my brother, Zulfi, and me. A servant and a
guardian of the shrine, Goonga wore his hair in a turban and had a matted
beard. On the breast pocket of his Shalwar Kameez, he sometimes wore a picture
of Hussain. Goonga would walk us through the shrine that was his home and
In the courtyard of the shrine, men in
flowing robes and long dreadlocks sing:
O Laal Meri Pat
Rakhio Bala Jhoole Laalan,
Sindhri da Sehwan
Da, Sakhi Shahbaaz Qalandar,
Dama dam mast
which translates to:
protect me always, Jhule Lal,
Friend of Sindh,
of Sehwan, God-intoxicated Qalandar,
intoxicated by you, Qalandar.
No matter how far from Sehwan I have travelled,
how far from lands where Urdu is spoken and heard, just to hear “Dama dam mast
Qalandar” is to be transported home.
My brother called me after the attack on
the shrine. “Goonga,” he asked. “Is he alive?” We were trying to find out. But
no one had seen Goonga since the blast. We Pakistanis always believed our
saints protected us. In Karachi, where we live by the sea, we believe that the
shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, overlooking the Arabian Sea shore, saved the
city from cyclones and tsunamis.
Before Qalandar arrived here, before Islam
came to the subcontinent, Sehwan was known as Shivistan after the Hindu god
Shiva. In time, the town’s name was changed, but Sindh has long remained a home
to all faiths. At the annual festival of Qalandar, a Hindu and a Muslim family
together drape a ceremonial cloth over Qalandar’s grave. A lamp-lighting
ceremony reminiscent of Hindu rites is also performed.
The shrine in Sehwan was attacked because
it belongs to an open, inclusive tradition that some in Pakistan would rather
forget than honour. Though it was founded as a sanctuary for Muslims, in its
early incarnation, Pakistan was a home for all those who wished to claim it.
Parsis, Sikhs, Christians and Jews remained in Pakistan after the bloody
Partition in 1947.
Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s brutal
military dictator in the 1980s, aided by Saudi money and supported by the
United States, destroyed Pakistan’s progressive, syncretic culture. In the 11
years that General Zia presided over Pakistan, our textbooks were rewritten,
exclusionary, intolerant laws were passed, and primacy was given to the bearers
of a closed, violent worldview. Pakistan never recovered. Only pockets of the
country still imbibe the generous welcome once afforded to all faiths. Sehwan
is one of them.
After the attack, Pakistan’s military
closed the border with Afghanistan and complained that the attackers had been
given haven in Afghanistan. In retaliation, 100 people accused of being
terrorists have been killed by the military.
Sehwan has no proper hospital, no trauma
centres. For all its historical, religious and cultural significance, it was —
like so much of this wounded country — abandoned by those who rule the
province. There is no real governance here, no justice and no order. For life’s
basic necessities, people must supplicate themselves before dead saints.
On the morning after the blast, the
caretaker rang the bell, just as he always had. Devotees broke through the
police cordons and returned to dance the Dhamal on Saturday. Zulfi texted,
“Goonga is alive.”
On my last visit to the shrine, after
Goonga walked me through the crowded marketplace selling food and offerings, I
sat on the floor besides a mother who had brought her son, crippled with polio,
in the hopes that her prayers would ease his suffering. I had come to the
shrine to see the blue and white floral kashi tiles, to walk around the
perimeter and to be in a part of Pakistan that still operated on that rarest of