Sanctuary of tolerance

Adil F. Pasha shares his experience of Khaplu, Baltistan - a region as yet untouched by sectarian strife

Sanctuary of tolerance
In Pakistan today there is a dearth of tolerance, we all know. This steady trickle that started before my generation was born has now grown into a forceful torrent that threatens to wash away the foundations upon which the ideals of our society stand. What exactly those ideals are, I leave to the reader to decide, provided that they are not hatred, violence and senseless destruction.

The insights which I wish to share here come from my direct experiences living with the Nurbukshis of Baltistan. What seemed remarkable to me was the Nurbukshi tradition being a bridge between the Shia-Sunni divide that these days seems to open into a great gaping chasm that cannot be crossed. Each side holds the other as being ignorant of the real meaning behind religion and in doing so entirely miss the point of existence altogether; reducing the other to an inferior being who, bereft of the gift of enlightening wisdom, is as one who gropes around in the dark for the light that he holds in his hand.

Interior of the Chaqchan Mosque
Interior of the Chaqchan Mosque

In Khaplu, where I was staying, this undercurrent of hatred is as yet held at bay. It is not so that there is no divide, which has become one of the fundamental dichotomies characterising the Muslim world and without the understanding of which any picture that one draws of this world will remain incomplete. Even though the divide is present, felt and even formally recognised even within the Nurbukshis, it does not become a cause of strain among the members of this society. In fact, it becomes a cause for community cohesion and mutual respect.

Technically speaking, there are two branches of the Nurbukshi sect; the Sufiya Nurbukshia and the Sufiya Imamiya Nurbukshia. Even though both stem from a branch of Suhrawardian Sufism, the Imamiya aligns itself more with Shia teachings than the other. The source for this split comes about due to a lack of institutions of religious learning on a higher level, resulting in young novices going either to Arabia or Iran for higher training. The time they spend in these foreign lands aligns them with the ideology of their respective areas, which they promulgate upon their return to Baltistan. Even though this split exists in terms of individual identity, its dynamics do not manifest themselves as contradictory practices within the community. What overrides the factious tendency is what I term religious vigour.
The Nurbukshi tradition is a bridge between the Shia-Sunni divide

The source of the religious vigour lies in the teachings of Syed Amir Kabir Ali Hamdani, who brought Islam to the region. They revolve around two concepts: that of ‘Futuwwat’ (spiritual chivalry) and ‘Wilayat’ (Friends of God). These concepts were elaborated to me through long conversations with Kacho Mehdi, former president of the Nurbukshia Youth Federation.

Over the course of cool summer evenings on the terrace of the hotel, sipping on green tea, he explained to me the goals that one must aspire to, namely that of transforming one’s existence into a journey of truth within God - ‘sair al-haq ilal-haqq’. To achieve this goal one must constantly struggle to recognise in each moment the sustaining nature of God’s grace in this world.

These two ideas, along with certain historic events give us the key to understanding tolerance in the region. That event is the transition of the region from Buddhism to Islam. It was a peaceful conversion, conducted not through military strength but through a curious process called ‘karamat’ (gracious visions) or closely interpreted as miracles, which lays the groundwork for tolerance in Balti society in Khaplu. This conversion not only kept the same sacred places, but also uses their symbolic systems to convey its own ideas.

Sunset from Khaplu
Sunset from Khaplu

In contrast to this condition stands the historical narrative as endorsed by the Pakistani state. We talk about heroes who came plundering to the land as conquerors and totally overwrote the indigenous structures with the use of force and might. We talk about the creation of others as aliens and enemies. Tge result is the intolerance that permeates all levels of society. This idea, which was planted in ignorance and vested interests, now translates into all the processes where the ‘other’ comes into existence, growing as society metabolises.

Religious intolerance has found its way to the city of Skardu, some four hours away by road from Khaplu. Sectarian strife has often shut the city down for days. There the Shias have a separate mosque in the center of the city, and its scale shows the power they hold. In the big city, the delicate nature of the balance that the Nurbukshias have struck seems to vanish. Police patrols the entrance to the mosque. They reminded me that there is a Sunni mosque as well as a Nurbukshi mosque here, but allowed me to go and pray inside it on my reluctance to travel any farther.

In Khaplu however, there was a sense of wholesome community. Even though there is a mosque in almost every hamlet, people cherish and love the Chaqchan, whose foundations were laid by Hamadani himself seven hundred years ago. I used to go there for the Friday congregation, and the people I had known very briefly welcomed me with smiles and warmth.

Alongside the ‘karamat’, our saint Hamdani arrived with a body of scholars, architects and craftsmen, that are said to have enriched and reinvigourated the area, giving to rather than the customary taking away from foreign lands. To inform upon me the great importance of Hamdani in the region, a man waxed lyrical and quoted Iqbal,

Ba hunarha gharib o dil pazir,

Daad ilmo san’at o hirfat o din.

Sayyid-u s’adaat salaar-i ajam

Dast o mimar-i taqdir raqam.”

What this perspective translates to in terms of ground realities can be witnessed on any one of the holy days of both the Shia and the Sunni calendars. On the anniversaries of the Prophet and the Imams, the youth of Khaplu head up the steep slopes of the Mountains the town is perched on, carrying torches in order to illuminate the names of the revered holy ones and reflect what they see in the sky.

I was told that in the month of Muharram the whole town goes to the street, with everyone engaged in vigourous lamentation and others, especially the young helping and giving water to those in need of it. When praying I was reminded repeatedly of it not being a matter of concern whether one clasps the hands or keeps them open, as long as one is comfortable in his God’s presence.

It remains to be seen whether increasing influences from urban centers will change the fabric of this society for the worse. In a remote corner of Pakistan, on the borders of Tibet under the shadow of Siachen, the ‘mard-e-kamil’ of the vision of the Sufis might be realised; provided that they remain entrenched in the values of tradition handed down to Baltistan as a heritage.