Pakistan’s Embattled Shrines
By Fatima Bhutto
Last Thursday a suicide bomber affiliated with the Islamic State attacked Sehwan Sharif, one of the most revered Sufi shrines, in the southern Sindh Province of Pakistan, killing more than 80 people, including 24 children, and wounding more than 250.
Why the terrorists hate Sehwan is why we love it. The saint and his shrine at Sehwan belong to everyone, to Sunnis and Shiites, to Hindus and Muslims, transgender devotees, to believers and questioners alike. The inclusiveness, the rituals and music born of syncretic roots make shrines like Sehwan Sharif targets in the extremist interpretations of the Islamic State and other radical Wahhabi militants.
As a child in the late 1980s and early ’90s, I would visit the town of Sehwan with my family on our way from Karachi to Larkana, my family’s hometown. After driving along bumpy roads deserted but for palm trees and solitary men standing on the open highways selling lotus flower seeds, we would stop near the western bank of the Indus River to visit the shrine of Sehwan’s patron saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th-century Persian mystic and poet who was a contemporary of Rumi.
Qalandar, whose real name was Syed Mohammad Usman Marwandi, is adored in music and poetry as the Red Falcon. As you drive through the narrow, dusty streets of Sehwan, the air becomes perfumed with the scent of roses, sold in small plastic bags and body-length garlands that devotees lay at his tomb.
I was seven when I first saw Sehwan during Ashura, when Shiites mourn the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain, who was killed in 680 by an unjust ruler at Karbala, in what is now Iraq.
I remember thousands of men and women together in collective, ritualized mourning in the courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine. They walked barefoot over glass and the embers of burning cigarette butts, their black shalwar kameez drenched in sweat, their palms striking their chests rhythmically. Even as a seven-year-old, I found something hypnotic, something fierce, something pure about Sehwan.
Over the years, I kept returning to Sehwan to sit in that courtyard, the shrine illuminated by red and green fairy lights, its golden dome and turquoise minarets soaring above a town of modest roofs.
The cool tiled floor of the shrine is often carpeted with devotees, some carrying tiffins of food on outings with their children, others in fraying and torn shalwar kameez prostrate in prayer. Even wealthy urbanites visit to lay their anxieties at the feet of the buried saint, tiptoeing gingerly through the crowds. In a country built and maintained on immovable divisions of ethnicity, gender, class and belief, the shrine at Sehwan welcomed all. It was an egalitarian oasis formed by the legacies and practice of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism merging into one.
On Thursday evenings people congregate to listen to the religious songs called qawwali and perform a devotional dance, dhamal. They arrive with offerings of bruised rose petals, sugared almonds and what money they can spare. They seek solace from their pain; pray for safety in a harsh, unjust world; beg for an answer to a forgotten prayer. Those who can’t offer anything arrive empty-handed. Sehwan’s shrine promised the weak, the worried and the poor that they would always be safe here.
Every time we visited the shrine, a deaf and mute man named Goonga welcomed my brother, Zulfi, and me. A servant and a guardian of the shrine, Goonga wore his hair in a turban and had a matted beard. On the breast pocket of his shalwar kameez, he sometimes wore a picture of Hussain. Goonga would walk us through the shrine that was his home and refuge.
In the courtyard of the shrine, men in flowing robes and long dreadlocks sing:
O laal meri pat rakhio bala Jhoole Laalan,
Sindhri da Sehwan da, sakhi Shahbaaz Qalandar,
Dama dam mast Qalandar,
which translates to:
O red-robed, protect me always, Jhule Lal,
Friend of Sindh, of Sehwan, God-intoxicated Qalandar,
Every breath intoxicated by you, Qalandar.
No matter how far from Sehwan I have traveled, how far from lands where Urdu is spoken and heard, just to hear “Dama dam mast Qalandar” is to be transported home.
My brother called me after the attack on the shrine. “Goonga,” he asked. “Is he alive?” We were trying to find out. But no one had seen Goonga since the blast. We Pakistanis always believed our saints protected us. In Karachi, where we live by the sea, we believe that the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, overlooking the Arabian Sea shore, saved the city from cyclones and tsunamis.
Before Qalandar arrived here, before Islam came to the subcontinent, Sehwan was known as Shivistan after the Hindu god Shiva. In time, the town’s name was changed, but Sindh has long remained a home to all faiths. At the annual festival of Qalandar, a Hindu and a Muslim family together drape a ceremonial cloth over Qalandar’s grave. A lamp-lighting ceremony reminiscent of Hindu rites is also performed.
The shrine in Sehwan was attacked because it belongs to an open, inclusive tradition that some in Pakistan would rather forget than honor. Though it was founded as a sanctuary for Muslims, in its early incarnation, Pakistan was a home for all those who wished to claim it. Parsis, Sikhs, Christians and Jews remained in Pakistan after the bloody Partition in 1947.
Gen Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s brutal military dictator in the 1980s, aided by Saudi money and supported by the United States, destroyed Pakistan’s progressive, syncretic culture. In the 11 years that General Zia presided over Pakistan, our textbooks were rewritten, exclusionary, intolerant laws were passed, and primacy was given to the bearers of a closed, violent worldview. Pakistan never recovered. Only pockets of the country still imbibe the generous welcome once afforded to all faiths. Sehwan is one of them.
After the attack, Pakistan’s military closed the border with Afghanistan and complained that the attackers had been given haven in Afghanistan. In retaliation, 100 people accused of being terrorists have been killed by the military.
Sehwan has no proper hospital, no trauma centers. For all its historical, religious and cultural significance, it was — like so much of this wounded country — abandoned by those who rule the province. There is no real governance here, no justice and no order. For life’s basic necessities, people must supplicate themselves before dead saints.
On the morning after the blast, the caretaker rang the bell, just as he always had. Devotees broke through the police cordons and returned to dance the dhamal on Saturday. Zulfi texted, “Goonga is alive.”
On my last visit to the shrine, after Goonga walked me through the crowded marketplace selling food and offerings, I sat on the floor besides a mother who had brought her son, crippled with polio, in the hopes that her prayers would ease his suffering. I had come to the shrine to see the blue and white floral kashi tiles, to walk around the perimeter and to be in a part of Pakistan that still operated on that rarest of currencies: hope.
(Fatima Bhutto is the author of the memoir “Songs of Blood and Sword,” about the Bhutto political family, and the novel “Shadow of the Crescent Moon.” - – The New York Times)