Our Beacon Forum

Sufism -Of Saints and sinners
By:abdalaziz ariff / indiana
Date: Tuesday, 11 June 2019, 4:24 pm

Sufism -Of Saints and sinners

“South Asia is littered with the tombs of those saints. They include great medieval monuments, like the 13th-century shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, founder of South Asia's pre-eminent Sufi order, in Ajmer. But for every famous grave, there are thousands of roadside shrines, jutting into Delhi's streets, or sprinkled across the craggy deserts of southern Pakistan. On a single hillside in Pakistan's province of Punjab, outside the town of Thatta, legend has it that 125,000 Muslim saints are buried.”
“Pakistan's southernmost state of Sindh, a vast desert bisected by the Indus river, is perhaps best known for its shrines. A few miles outside the city of Hyderabad, in sight of the Indus, a middle-aged dwarf called Subhan manages one of them. She found the shrine deserted a few years ago, and moved into it. It is a small shack, with a low doorway hung with cowbells, in the tradition of a Hindu temple. A dusty green shroud covers the grave. Incense burns at its foot. Subhan says it holds the dust of a medieval saint called Haji Pir Marad. Sometimes, she says, he wrestles with the Indus to prevent it from changing course. In fits of terrible rage, he has caused pileups on the road. She advises passing motorists to propitiate the saint with a modest gift of rupees. On a good day, she collects around 50 rupees (60 cents) from the travellers who stop to pray.”

“All the traffic, on that recent sunny day, was bound for the nearby town of Sehwan Sharif, where Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, one of Pakistan's most prominent Sufi saints, is entombed. It was the 734th anniversary of his death, an event marked by an annual festival attended by several hundred thousand devotees. This event is known as Qalandar's urs, or wedding-night, to signify his union with God. A three-day orgy of music, dancing and intoxication, literally and spiritually, the urs at Sehwan is one of the best parties in Pakistan, or anywhere.”

“Outside Qalandar's shrine, a white marble monument, decorated with flashing neon, pilgrims work themselves into an all-night ecstasy. Tossing their long black hair, a dozen prostitutes from Karachi or Lahore have a place reserved by the shrine's golden doorway, to dance a furious jig. It is the dhammal, a rhythmic skipping from foot to foot, for which Qalandar's followers are well-known. Thousands are moshing to a heavy drumbeat. The air is hot and wet with their sweat. A scent of rose petals and hashish sweetens it. In a flash of gold, out in the crush, a troupe of bandsmen in braided Sergeant Pepper uniforms are blowing inaudibly into brass instruments, then lifting trumpets and trombones into the air as they dance the dhammal.”

“They may not pray to him, which would be shirk, a form of idolatry. According to Ahmed Javed, a bearded Pakistani Sufi and scholar: “You can't ask a dead saint to mediate, to solve a problem, to fulfil a wish, never, never, never. That is shirk in law and in Sufism.”

“On the face of it, this makes sense. In north-western Pakistan, where the Taliban rule, the Pushtuns have often taken against Sufi saints. According to the 1911 Census of British India, the Afridi tribe, having no shrine to worship at, “induced by generous offers a saint of the most notorious piety to take up his abode among them.” They then slit his throat, buried his corpse, and built a splendid shrine over it. These days, alas, they would probably not build the shrine: the Taliban tend to consider Sufism idolatrous. They are in the same puritan camp as Saudi Arabia's unforgiving Wahhabi sect, their sometime sponsors. In the land of Muhammad, whom mystics revere as the first Sufi, the Wahhabis have bulldozed many old shrines.”

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“In daylight, inside the shrine, an even more strikingly sectarian ritual takes place. Shia pilgrims flagellate themselves with chains dangling with knife-blades and cry out to Ali, father of the martyred Hussain, and revered in Shia Islam. As they open their backs, sending blood onto the shrine's floor, other pilgrims recoil. Many appear disgusted. In theory, Sufism transcends Islamic sects. For example, Qalandar was a Shia; many—or most—of his devotees are Sunni. Yet the shrines of Sindh, where many Shia Muslims live, are increasingly seeing strident sectarian displays. This may be partly a reaction to the attacks Pakistani Shias increasingly face from fundamentalists like the Taliban. It is a sign of popular Sufism under duress.”

“Amid syncretism, heresy thrives. Outside Qalandar's mausoleum, just before dusk, a tall bearded man, wrapped in a black cloak and carrying a silver club, shouts into a loud-hailer: “Ali Allah! Allah Ali!”—“Ali is God! God is Ali!” He is Sayeed Ghafur Ali, a fine-looking dervish, and leader of a sect in Karachi which propagates this fearful blasphemy. In many Muslim places it would cost Mr Ali his head. But in Sehwan no one seems to mind. Asked, in a calmer setting, whether he has been a dervish for long, Mr Ali smiles and removes two tightly-bound parcels, about the size of American footballs, from his trouser pockets. They contain his hair, which grows in thick tresses under his cloak. Mr Ali says he has not visited a barber since he dedicated himself to Qalandar.”

“Sex is also to be had at the urs, but less freely. Sufi shrines have always appealed to prostitutes. This is partly because of the Sufis' tolerance of sinners, but also because they make good places to sin. At Sehwan, which has a name for licentiousness, a transsexual prostitute—or hijra—called Ghazala says she came from Lahore, with 15 of her eunuch sisters, to pray and dance. Smoking a cigarette down to its filter, Ghazala, a muscular figure with greying temples, claims: “We came here only to worship our saint.” That is an unlikely story.”