At gunpoint

The recent surge in Islamist militancy is dragging Sufism on the verge of extinction in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Tahir Ali reports

At gunpoint
Normalcy is returning to Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland after nine years of violence and bloodshed. Security has significantly improved following the successful military operations. However, the followers of the pro-Sufism Barelvi school of thought think that the Taliban’s frequent attacks against Sufi shrines in the region have inflicted irrecoverable losses on Sufism. The devotees are still reluctant to visit shrines for prayer and solace.

The custodians of shrines, mendicants, devotees, venders, local singers, charsis (marijuana addicts), bhang puffs, and common people, whether they follow the Barelvi school of thought or not, are all waiting for the resumption of the annual urs (fairs) at the shrines.

According to Shoaib Shaoor, a Pashtun poet and writer, Sufism, with its peaceful and inclusive interpretation of Islam, was followed by the majority of Pashtun communities. Devotees visited Sufi shrines all around the Pashtun heartland. The poetry of Rehman Baba, Pashtun Sufi poet, is full of Sufi references. The elderly tribeswomen would visit shrines on Shab-e-Juma (Thursday evening) to find solace and hope for the fulfillment of their desires.

“In 1980s, puritanical version of Islam emerged in the region that denounced practices of Sufism and labeled ‘qawwalis’ and visiting shrines as ‘shirk’. Later, the Taliban attacked Sufi shrines and persecuted Sufi guides,” Shaoor added.

Since 2007, militants have attacked different shrines in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and tribal areas. In the militancy period between 2007 and 2009, in Swat valley, Maulana Fazlullah-led militants banned the practice of the Sufi version of Islam. They locked the shrine of Hazrat Sayyad Ali Tirmizi, known as Pir Baba, in Buner and made the caretakers and other custodians leave the area. As a result of the military operation Rah-e-Rast in 2009, the area was cleared of militants. Even so, activities at Pir Baba, the most popular shrine in upper KP, are yet to be fully restored.

The damaged exterior of the shrine of Sufi saint Ali Mardan Shah
The damaged exterior of the shrine of
Sufi saint Ali Mardan Shah

Syed Farooq Shah, a descendent of Pir Baba, said, “Due to security concern, the annual urs, which takes place in the month of Rajab, has been suspended. Devotees from all around the country used to come and stay at the premises of the shrine. But due to militant threat the visitors only come to the shrine during the day.”

Gul Malang has been serving Pir Baba’s shrine since 1948. He did not leave the area even when security forces were battling the Taliban. “I have spent almost 67 years serving the shrine and never saw suspension of annual Urs, but the militants have curbed the religious activity,” said the 83-year-old.

Later, militants attacked different shrines all around Pashtun-dominated areas, like the shrines of Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba (Peshawar), Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba (Khyber Agency), Ziarat Kaka Sahib and Bahadur Baba (Nowshera), Ghazi Baba (Bajaur) and many more. The Taliban represent a puritanical version of Islam, with not a single Barelvi, Sufi or Shia amongst them. The majority of them are affiliated with the ‘Deobandi’ or ‘Salafi’ ideologies.
The mausoleum of Rahman Baba was bombed when devotees were preparing for the three-day urs

The shrine of Sufi Kastir Gul, also known as Hazrat Kaka Sahib (1576-1653), located in Nowshera KP, is another frequently-visited shrines in upper KP. In the past, the urs of Kaka Sahib used to go on for almost two weeks, but due to the emergence of radical Islamists and the ensuing poor law and order situation, the festival has been reduced to a single night. Now it takes place between the night of 23 and 24 Rajab. In October 2012, a powerful bomb exploded near the shrine that killed three people and left around two dozen injured.

Hilal Kakakhail, a custodian and descendent of Kaka Sahib, said, “The urs is now limited to a single night; activities on this particular day include hoisting the banner and laying a floral wreath on the shrine, Khatamul Quran and mehfil-e-zikr”. However, he said, the number of visitors has increased in routine days.

In March 2009, the mausoleum of Rahman Baba, the 17th-century Sufi poet was bombed at a time when the devotees were preparing for the three-day urs. The shrine, located at Hazarkhwani in the outskirt of Peshawar city, was a place of peace and spiritual solace for the devotees. Although the Government reopened the Rahman Baba complex after rebuilding it, the devotees are still scared of visiting the area.

“Thousands of devotees would visit the shrine for solace but after the bombing the number of daily visitors is a few hundred now. Fear still engulfs the devotees,” said Mast Baba, a devotee in Rahman Baba’s shrine.

For Shakoor, an addict of hashish in Peshawar, festivals at shrines served as recreational centers. “There was abundance of charas and bhang during the festivals. Above all there would be no threat of police during the urs,” he said.

The shrine of Pir Sabir Shah in Tank is one of the most prominent and most visited places in the southern part of KP. Every year devotees from D I Khan, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Waziristan and Punjab visited the shrine for the three-day urs from June 2 to June 5.  The devotees would enjoy Sufi music and free food at the shrine. Local musicians like the late Qutab Khan and Ahmad Gul regularly perfumed during the festival. However, in 2006 the Urs was suspended. It was a great shock for devotees and the common people of the area.

“The locals miss the mela which was a source of peace and solace for devotees and entertainment for common people,” said local journalist Farooq Mehsud.

Khitab Gul who sometime sang with Qutab Khan in the mela said that the festival provided a platform for local singers to “test their talent”.

Mama Pir Ziarat is located in Umar Adda Tank which is not far away from Sabir Shah Baba. As the conclusion of the Urs of Sabir Shah Baba, there would be time for another mela at Umar Adda. Since 2006 no festival has been marked at Mama Pir.

Pir Hashim, Mama Pir’s custodian, said the new generation doesn’t know about spiritualism and such activities are slowly and gradually fading away. Spiritualism started declining in the 1970s but the annual urs remained until 2006, he said.

“Due to security concerns the urs has been suspended in Tank and his devotees living in the Punjab are marking the annual festival in Bakkar. I don’t see its resumption in the near future,” said Pir Hashim.

In Malakand Agency, Sufism was first dented by ‘Wahabism’ and later by militancy. Apparently there’s a very little chance that the activities at shrines will be resumed in this particular area. The shrine of Syed Muhammad Ibrahim Shah, popularly known as Hisar Baba (May 1545-April 1624) attracted hordes of devotees from all across the country.

“In addition to the annual three-day urs, devotees used to visit the shrine throughout the year. Gradually, the number of devotees decreased. There’s been a 90 percent drop,” said Shareen Khan, a 78-year-old vender who sells pakoras outside the shrine.

Similarly, the number of devotees has reduced in Ghazi Baba shrine in Bajaur Agency. In May a bomb was planted near the tomb of Ghazi Baba. Luckily it exploded when no one was present.

The KP Minister for Zakat, Awqaf and Religious Affairs, Habib-ur-Rehman said that the provincial government believed in the freedom of religion irrespective of sects. “However, some festivals might be suspended due to security reasons,” he maintained.