By Raza Rumi
10 March 2017
Sehwan, a dusty little town in Sindh, has
been a source of inspiration and cultural dialogue for centuries. The shrine of
Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (1178 – 1274 A.D.) is a reminder of many things –
Pakistan’s pluralistic heritage, the lived faith for millions of its
inhabitants and how fragile the constructed identity of the Islamic Republic
is. This is why religious extremists on February 17 attacked this revered
shrine, a home for the wretched of the earth. These militants did not come from
the outside, but from within the folds of Pakistani society, that has been
brutally splintered for the past seven decades.
The abode of a legendary mystic Lal Shahbaz
continues to be a striking example of a polytheistic belief system and a
vibrant space where the Muslim and non-Muslim find equal solace and engagement
with the spiritual ecosystem. The annual urs of Lal Shahbaz is a moot for the
Qalandars all over the country – and even outside – who congregate at the site
to remember their master ascetic and his final union with the Creator.
The real name of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was
Sayyid Usman Shah Marwandi but he acquired the title Lal, red, due to his
penchant for wearing red garments, and Shahbaz, falcon, for his elevated
spirituality. Lal Shahbaz’s family drew their lineage from the House of Hazrat
Ali (RA), Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) companion and son-in-law. The family
migrated from Iraq and lived in Mashhad (in today’s Iran) before migrating to
Lal Shahbaz was not the kind of ascetic to
choose an imperial city such as Delhi or Lahore. He moved to Sehwan, Sindh in
1251 with a group of his disciples. He considered himself to be the spiritual
disciple of Mansur Hallaj, the tenth-century martyred mystic poet of Baghdad.
Hallaj had uttered the famous line ‘Ana’l-Haq’ (I am the Truth) and was
persecuted by the clerics and the court leading to his death.
Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is also referred to as
Jhule Lal, one of the Hindu names for the god of water
Hallaj had also visited Sindh three hundred
years before. Lal Shahbaz’s poetry was inspired by Hallaj’s view of mysticism
where the beloved and the lover are not separate:
“I am burning with
divine love every moment
Sometimes, I roll
in the dust
And sometimes I
dance on thorns
I have become
notorious in your love
I beseech you to
come to me!
I am not afraid of
To dance in every
(Translation found in ‘At the Shrine of the
Red Sufi’ by Jurgen Wasim Frembgen)
The tradition holds that the Qalandar
achieved union with God during a state of trance. This is why dancing at this
shrine is central to the spiritual practice marking their gratitude. Dhamaal is
an invocation, a kind of call to Lal Shahbaz.
I know nothing except love, intoxication
and ecstasy. I am burning with the love of the Beloved. At one moment I am
writing on the dust and in the other I am dancing on the thorns.
Comments on my Facebook page suggested that
the Sehwan attack was a much-needed occurrence and there was a need to bomb
[and raze] all such shrines
Qalandar’s contemporaries were Chishti Sufi
Baba Farid of Ajodhan, Shaykh Bahauddin Zakariya of Multan and Jalaluddin
Bukhari of Uch. In folklore they are referred to as ‘four great friends’. But
Lal Shahbaz, unlike the others, was not the progenitor of a rigid, hierarchical
Sufi order. The free-spirited nature of his life and spiritual pursuits make
Sehwan even more of a complex arena than an orderly Sufi shrine. Its acceptance
of all and sundry and its eclectic practices allowed for a huge impact on
popular culture for centuries. But in terms of the multi-faith reverence,
Sehwan follows the Sindhi spiritual-cultural traditions that cannot be
separated from the mighty Indus River.
From the ancient Vedic times to stories
told by Sufi saints, the Indus continues to play a central role in poetry,
folklore and spiritual ethos. Until the 19th century, both Muslims and Hindus
believed that the ebb and flow of the Indus depended on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s
blessings. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is also referred to as Jhule Lal, one of the
Hindu names for the god of water. The Hindus referred him to as Raja Bharati.
Sehwan was also the location of a prominent
Shiva centre. It is said that the name Sehwanistan has been derived from
Sivistan, city of Shiva. Shiva is known in the Hindu mythology for his cosmic
dance and stories related to him encapsulate sensual beauty. There is a
striking similarity between the dressing of contemporary Faqirs and Shivite
yogis as both wear torn clothes with matted hair.
All year round, thousands of people visit
tombs as a way to show their respect and receive blessings. Just like Lal Shahbaz
Qalandar, Khwaja Khizr is also referred to as Zindapir (Living Saint) and ‘Pani
Ka Badshah’ (Water King). The devotees still believe that he lives under
the water and the river flows the way that he commands.
In Uderolal, the tomb of a saint referred to
as Shaikh Tahir by the Muslims and by Jhulelal or Uderolal by the Hindus
indicates similar intimacy. Both refer to him as the Zindapir. Udero Lal is
also the saint of the water worshippers. Close to Sehwan, Laki Shah is a small
place where visitors gather to purify their souls and bodies by bathing in the
springs of Laki Shah. Similarly, in the localities of Mol Sharif, near Thano
Bula Khan and Lahoot, water provides an arena for worship.
Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo, a sacred Sindhi
text, is also revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Risalo contains excerpts from
the Quran, the traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), Persian mystical poetry and
Sindhi folk references. It does not focus on any one form of religious
authority and includes doctrines from various sects in Islam. At Latif’s
shrine, the Quran and the Risalo were kept in a cradle, not too different from
the treatment given to icons of baby Krishna.
A sizeable number of the Hindus in Sindh
consist of Nanakpathis, those who follow Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism).
Historically, a clear-cut distinction between Sikhism and Hinduism has been
absent in the region. Another instructive belief system recorded by late Samina
Qureshi in her majestic book, Legends of the Indus was the idea of the
Satpanthi community that Islam’s sacred figures were avatars of the Hindu god
Despite the creation of Pakistan, the
syncretic culture in Sindh and Sehwan persisted, even under various phases of
Pakistan’s gradual (and cynically political) Islamisation. The influence of Lal
Shahbaz is immense in popular culture. The Dhamal and its numerous versions are
found in Qawwali, film and pop music. In addition, Sehwan is the inspiration as
well as the annual meeting point for thousands of enigmatic Qalandars –
wandering ascetics. The identity of a Qalandar, Malang and Majzub, are
overlapping and difficult to classify. Many are attached to Lal Shahbaz and the
saint at Bari Imam near Islamabad.
Such was the deep bond of people with
Sehwan that even the state refrained from imposing its one-dimensional view of
culture here. I saw the shrine of Ali Hajvari aka Data Ganj Bakhsh or Data
Saheb (also attacked by the Taliban in 2010) gradually change into a completely
segregated space. Now women enter from a different gate and there is a strict
separation of genders. A wall has been erected around the tomb to ensure that.
Even in terms of the various material improvements, the shrine’s spatial
character has changed overtime due to the excessive use of marble, chopping of
almost every tree (vital to shrine compounds in South Asia) and neon lighting.
The Punjab elites are wary of Data Saheb’s influence so the investments reflect
their aesthetics as well as a desire to serve the needs of the visitors such as
water, fans and heating in the winters.
After the 2010 attack, Data Saheb is now a heavily guarded place with
barricades, multiple checking points and security cameras. These measures are
good in such times but one wonders how these centuries’ old-public spaces have
been turned into security nightmares…
The shrine at Sehwan was largely oblivious
to what was brewing outside its confines. Men, women and transgender persons
participate in the Dhamal on Thursdays and other special occasions. Different
faiths, sects and classes interact freely and there are lax rules on drugs and
allegedly even sex trade in the town. This is why the puritans have been citing
the existence of such vices as the cause for Sehwan carnage. That, alas, is a
The attack on Sehwan was not an attack on a
highway, nor an attempt to sabotage cricket matches
Since 2006, dozens of Sufi shrines have
been attacked in Pakistan. The Sehwan carnage was disturbing but not
unexpected. Lahore’s Data Darbar, Sakhi Sarwar in D.G. Khan, Baba Farid in
Pakpattan, Rehman Baba in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Shah Noorani in Balochistan
are some of the hugely popular tombs that have been bombed, mostly with the
help of suicide bombers trained in madrasas and indoctrinated by the
Wahhabi-Salafi (and its South Asian cousin Deobandi) thought that
shrine-worship is shirk (polytheism) punishable by death in Wahhabi doctrine.
In that worldview, such attacks are in line with the tenets of faith. We know
this is a narrow, skewed understanding of the theological discourse but such
ideas have been thriving in Pakistan.
A suicide bomber who failed to detonate
himself at Sakhi Sarwar shrine in 2011, in an interview, said that he had been
originally recruited for jihad in Afghanistan but diverted to South Punjab due
to the shirk and Murda Parasti (worshipping the dead) prevalent at the
shrines. Intriguingly, he said that the reason for this mission was the large
number of Kafirs (infidels) that had to be tackled. Such Pakistani Kafirs, he
was told, were greater in number – even more than America.
But not all shrine haters are madrasa
graduates. Since 1970s, the Middle East has provided hundreds of thousands jobs
to Pakistanis; and they return with cultural and religious ideas closer to the
Wahhabi reading of Islam. Saudi Arabia has funded numerous seminaries and many
madrasas (and in some cases higher education) instructors are graduates from
Saudi universities and institutes. But this is just a little segment of the
Since the 1980s, we have actively supported
the creation of madrasas for the Afghan jihad and later for jihad in Kashmir.
Suicide bombing and the infidel-killing are somewhat valid in only a few
schools of thought amongst Muslims. To support this jihad culture, we changed
our textbooks in the 1980s with express directions to inculcate the values of
jihad and the state enabled media persons to propagate the values of religious
warfare. Stories of defeating the Soviet Union via jihad are popular lore in
contemporary Pakistan. In the past three decades, the jihadist ideology has found
some measure of public support and allied mosque-madrasa networks have grown
exponentially everywhere, including Sindh.
The ideology that considers killing
civilians as justified views the Sufi practices as un-Islamic. This mindset
considers Shias, Ismailis, Sufis and others as a threat to the pure version of
Islam that militant groups are trying to establish across the Muslim world.
Shrines have been razed in Mali, Iraq, Syria and many other countries as well.
Pakistan hosted proponents of such transnational ideologies for years – and
later found them as useful levers to bargain for power with the West. Elites
have their twisted reasons for such complicity but it is the people who have
suffered due to insecurity. In the process, the plural culture we once had has
been severely dented. Shrine attacks are one such manifestation of this
South Asian Islam that evolved with the
mingling of folk and pre-Islamic spiritual practices finds a rich expression
through the shrine culture – the rituals, engagement and in some cases music
and dancing. One cannot overlook the tragic reality that Sufi shrines have
turned into nefarious extortionist enterprises and the descendants of many a
saint exploit their position for economic and political power. Yet, they remain
vibrant public spaces of spirituality, celebration and inclusion. By killing
devotees and spreading terror, the imposition of a reductionist view of faith
has been the leading motive of militants.
In 2015 and 2016, there was a relative
decline in terror attacks due to a military operation against selected
militias. Little attention was paid to madrasa reform. As many feared but were
unable to express due to stifling of media debates, military action was not the
solution to the complex issue of extremism. Now factions of Pakistani Taliban
seem to have regrouped, and are turning into franchises of Da’esh (the Islamic
State group) that has found some bases in Afghanistan.
Pakistan experienced at least nine attacks
during the week when Sehwan was attacked. This surge was all too familiar. The
last decade has seen a recurring pattern: targeting of state officials,
civilians, crowded places and shrines. The state response is even more
familiar. The civilian government and security establishment, for their own
reasons, misinform the public that terrorism is a foreign attempt to
The latest target of destabilisation by
‘hostile’ countries is the $50 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The
ultimate dehumanisation takes place when in the public narrative: a highway
takes precedence over the lives of ordinary Pakistanis who lack security and
are ruled by elites that are not too concerned with the collateral damage of
keeping militant infrastructure intact.
After the Sehwan attacks, the civil society
groups in a show of defiance visited Qalandar’s shrine and performed Dhamal.
Images of Sheema Kermani, a celebrated classical dancer and a fiery activist,
dancing at the shrine, were heart-warming but also a bit gloomy. It was a
picture that is now becoming all too familiar: the heroic efforts of few,
unarmed secularists fighting the tide of bigotry aided by state and its
Immediately thereafter, social media
commentaries concluded that Sheema had committed shirk and soon the debate
degenerated into the favourite hobby horse of the right wing: that dancing and
music were forbidden in Islam. There were muted references to the courage shown
by civil society on the electronic media but new media, as a space for urban
youth, exhibited a disturbing trend. An incredibly large number of responses,
especially by young Pakistanis on Facebook and Twitter, were negative.
The post-Zia-ul-Haq generations have no
immediate reference for the dhamaal. Until the late 1970s, Pakistani cinema had
recurring references to Dhamal. Madam Nur Jehan sang some of the best numbers
in such a context. Other singers such as Runa Laila and Naseem Begum also sang
for the films invoking the blessings of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Today we live in
the age of pop singers turned preachers and of Maulana Tariq Jamil’s lectures
(hugely popular on Facebook) that deride heretic practices and refuse to
condemn those who kill civilians.
The militant networks can be easily
decimated by the military but the supportive ideology has more traction amongst
otherwise ‘non-violent’ citizens. A few comments on my Facebook page suggested
that the Sehwan attack was a much-needed occurrence and there was a need to
bomb [and raze] all such shrines.
Aside from these problematic attitudes, the
‘resilience’ mantra (already beaten to death) re-emerged. People did not stop
dancing at Sehwan, so we had solved the extremist problem. Every time an act of
terror kills civilian or a natural disaster hits the poor and the state’s role
is abysmally irresponsible and unaccountable, public debate is diverted towards
the story of ‘resilience’. What choice do citizens have? What choice do the
devotees of saints and tombs have? We don’t have counselling services available
for even the affluent in the cities. Where are these people going to go? Even
worse, the label of ‘martyr’ to a victim of plain terror is another deflection
from holding the state responsible for its abject failure to provide security.
Let us remember that security is a basic guarantee in the Constitution, central
to even the most basic of citizen-state relationships.
This conflation of Pakistan’s Jihadism
since 1980s and the transnational Islamism manifested by Da’esh and Al-Qaeda is
now yielding its toxic fruit. It does not help us if we continue to belabour
the role of the West and the United States in supporting the Mujahideen (which
of course they did, and further messed it up through horrific wars in the
Middle East). It is about us. In a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society,
can we afford to nurture sectarian hatreds and violent ideas?
The attack on Sehwan was not an attack on a
highway, nor an attempt to sabotage cricket matches. It was a reminder that we
have allowed perverse ideologies to take root in the country for short-term
strategic objectives, the efficacy of which is neither debated in the
parliament nor the media.
Sehwan as an expression of counterculture,
of allowing human bodies to find expression in a sacred realm, of providing
voice to the voiceless, needs to be treasured. Adding security cameras and more
policemen will not help unless the numerous madrasas that have sprung up in
Sindh are regulated and converted into standardised schools that don’t glorify
suicide bombers. This is beyond the mandate of provincial police. It is linked
to national security and we all know who looks after that.
Whilst this may take time, we shall
continue to chant Dam a Dam Mast Qalandar…
Raza Rumi is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College and Visiting
Faculty at Cornell University