Pakistan’s ‘Martyrs of Love’ Under Attack

Over three months have passed since the famed Sufi shrine of Data Ganj Baksh, or Abul Hassan al-Hujwiri, fell victim to a suicide terrorist attack. The most celebrated saint in Pakistan, and author of one of the most famous Sufi treatises in history, the Kashf al-Mahjub (The Unveiling of the Veiled), al-Hujwiri played no small role in the spreading of Islam in South Asia. One can’t help but wonder why a man of his stature would stir up so much enmity among Islamic extremists, to the point that they were willing to commit such an unspeakable atrocity in the name of their faith.

Sadly, July’s bombing in Lahore would only be one of several strings of unprovoked acts of sectarian violence by Pakistani extremists this year, culminating most recently in last week’s bombing of the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron Sufi saint of Karachi, killing at least nine congregants—two of them children—and injuring more than sixty. I would have thought that the national crisis in the aftermath of Pakistan’s devastating floods would stand to unify the country.

Sadly, hatred seems insufficiently deterred by natural disaster.

Since last week’s bombing, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reviewing old photographs from trips to Pakistan. In seeing pictures of the mizaar, or shrine, pre-attack, and in vividly recalling crowds of peaceful worshipers congregating there, posing no discernible threat to anyone, I was nearly moved to tears.

Recollecting my personal experiences at the mizaar became infinitely more painful, moreover, when I recalled my own family’s history there: throughout her girlhood, my mother visited Karachi’s patron saint regularly. At the behest of her mother, a devoted believer in saintly intercession, my mother would visit Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine seeking his intervention in overcoming her spiritual—and medical—ills. A sickly child, suffering from crippling scoliosis, frequent bouts with jaundice, and an array of other maladies, Ami (Mom) was repeatedly assured—by both her mother and by the throng of fellow congregants at the shrine—that the wali, the saint, had the power to cure her of her otherwise incurable ailments.

Ami’s visits unfortunately did little to mollify her health problems, and in witnessing a critical mass of vagabond con artists at the shrines swindling poor uneducated Pakistanis under the pretext of intercession, she became somewhat disillusioned with the process. Nonetheless, largely due to my frequent discussions with her on the issue, she’s begun to rethink that position.

In reviewing the photos of my trip to Lahore in 2005, and my visit to Hujwiri’s shrine there, I quickly recalled the great saint’s astute observation that today Sufism has become a name without a reality—having degenerated largely to folk superstitions couched in the language of spirituality—when it was previously a reality without a name, a method of spiritual purification through absolute reliance on Allah alone, with which the early generations of Muslims were intimately familiar. Ami remains cautious, but has come to realize that the sort of chicanery she witnessed in the mizaar growing up ultimately contradicts the primordial wisdom behind Sufism. I wasn’t surprised, then, when she openly wept upon hearing of last week’s attacks.

Despite my Pakistani heritage, as someone who has never lived in Pakistan for any extended period of time, I think it would be presumptuous—if not outright malpractice—for me to be proposing any substantive solutions to my ancestral homeland’s ongoing skirmishes with sectarian violence. That said, one needn’t be based in Pakistan proper in order to discern the undeniable fact that the agents of intolerance operating in that country are not arbitrary in the targets they select.

The Ahmadi community—a frequent target of state-sponsored discrimination—has been in their sights for years, most recently by being denied access to flood relief aid as punishment for their allegedly heretical beliefs. Similarly, the Pakistani Shi’i community has increasingly fallen victim to indiscriminate acts of violence, despite the national hysteria over the flood crisis. And increasingly now, these same agents of intolerance have an axe to grind with the Sufis.

At first glance this shouldn’t be altogether surprising, as South Asia has a long tradition of critique against Sufi shrine excesses. Indian Muslim scholars like Rashid Ahmad Gangohi and Ashraf Ali Thanwi engaged in meticulous theological debates against the sort of practices my mother witnessed in her girlhood shrine visits. But scholarly critiques of this sort never carried any palpable threat of violent reprisal. Something else is at stake here. The miscreants now at work in Pakistan who committed these dastardly attacks seek to strip Islam of its primordial spiritual wholesomeness, and replace it with strait-jacketed dogmatism.

The real object of their animosity, sadly enough, is love. And insofar as the great awliya’, the saints of the subcontinent, as martyrs of love (to steal Carl Ernst and Bruce Lawrence’s expression), stand in the way of this campaign to replace love of Allah with fear and paranoia, it makes perfect sense that they’ve become its latest victims. Which is especially sad because, as too many Pakistanis seem to have forgotten, love is in fact at the heart of the spiritual ethos upon which the country was founded. Per the words of the poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal, in Masjid-e-Qurtaba: “Love is the holy prophet, love is the word of God.”

A dogmatic theology stripped of its spirituality necessarily lacks long-term staying power. Because you can’t sequester love with hate. Because you can’t stop the love of God from permeating people’s hearts—at the barrel of a gun, no less—no matter how brutal your inquisitions.

Toxic theology may have found a temporary home in Pakistan, but I am entirely convinced that this scourge will be defeated in my lifetime. Because, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pakistan’s greatest modern poet, astutely recognized while languishing in prison, cruelty stands no chance of triumphing over the heart:

Let thousands of watches be set on cages
by those who worship cruelty,
fidelity will always be in bloom—
this fidelity on which are grafted
the defeats and triumphs of the heart.

Time will tell, but I remain convinced that love will prevail over paranoid dogmatism, in sha’ Allah.

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