Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Things Fall Apart

The Taliban's War on Popular Sufism--and Pakistan

Via All Things Pakistan comes the sad news that the Pakistan Taliban blew up the tomb of the revered 17th century Pashtun poet and Sufi saint Rehman Baba near Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province on March 5.

It is hard to see this event in less than dire terms, and as a signal that the Taliban will not be deterred from securing its survival and advantage by the Islamic character of the Pakistani nation.

The Pakistan Taliban, probably emboldened by its victory in obtaining government acquiescence in the imposition of sharia law in the valley of Swat, executed this outrage in order to further demoralize and divide Pakistan’s moderate polity.

Rehman Baba’s tomb was targeted because it was a Sufi shrine, anathema to the Taliban brand of Islamic fundamentalism.

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that emphasizes the possibility of transcendent religious experience in this lifetime through the assistance of a charismatic teacher. Possibly, Sufism represents an attempt to reconcile traditional local religious practices with Islam as the latter swept across North Africa and South Asia.

Pakistan is dotted with the tombs of Sufi teachers and poets, which are popularly regarded as shrines and opportunities to obtain some kind of spiritual assistance, similar to the role that saints and relics play in popular Catholic practice.

As such, Sufism has always skirted close to idolatry or shirk in the eyes of Muslims cleaving to the absolute monotheism of orthodox Islam. The Salafi school of Islam and its strict sub-set of Wahabbism championed by Saudi Arabia (and famously practiced by Osama bin Laden) are notoriously hostile to Sufism. "Quburriyah"—apparently a contemptuous Arabic epithet meaning “tomb worshipers”—is used on Islamist websites to characterize Sufism.

Within Pakistan, there also appears to be a distinct desire to attribute the anti-Sufi campaign to the influence of Arab and Egyptian fundamentalists—outside agitators, if you will.

However, there are deep and significant local roots to the Pakistan Taliban’s opposition to popular Sufism.

Taliban religious doctrine grew out of South Asian Sufi traditions—its leader, Mullah Omar, has taken on the mystical trappings of a charismatic Sufi leader--but represents an effort to reconcile indigenous Sufism with the strict orthodoxy of the Arabic Islamic practice as promoted by the religious teacher Maulana Mohammed Ilyas (1885-1944) and his Tablighi Jama’at religious movement, centered on the north Indian town of Deobond and also called the Deobondi movement. The movement stresses concrete action over contemplation, and a revival of Islam through heightened religious observance, preaching, and prostelization.

Today, Tablighi Jama’at is perhaps the largest religious movement in the Islamic world. The second largest annual gathering of Muslims in the world (after the haj to Mecca) is the TJ’s annual congregation, the Bushwa Itjema, in Bangladesh.

Mullah Omar and many Taliban trained at Deobondi-inspired madrassas set up in western Pakistan.

Ilyas’ Deobondi movement was Sufi in its traditions, but represented a conscious effort to prevent the extinction of the minority Muslim faith within British India by asserting a distinct, separate Muslim identity through emphasis on adherence to sharia law and the orthodox Prophetic canon of Koran and Sunnah, and by purging the indigenous popular Sufi form of Islamic observance of corrupting non-Islamic elements.

Writing in a collection of essays entitled Sufism and the “modern” in Islam, (Martin van Bruinessen, Julia Day Howell, I.B.Tauris, 2007) Yoginder Sikan described the relation of the Ilyas’ strain of Deobondi fundamentalism to popular Sufism:

Also branded as “un-Islamic” and occupying a central place in what Ilyas saw as “un-Islamic” customary tradition, was the entire domain of popular Sufism. This included practices related to worship at the shrines of saints, such as prostration at their graves, musical sessions, and unrestricted mixing of the sexes.

Equally condemnable was a range of beliefs and social practices relating to the authority of the Sufis, whether living or dead. The notion that the buried Sufis were still alive and could intercede with God to grant one’s requests was fiercely condemned as
un-Islamic” and as akin to shirk, the sin of associating partners with the one God.

Ilyas’ reformed Sufism…had crucial implications for the constitution of religious authority…[T]he TJ directly challenged the authority of the custodians of the religious shrine (sajjada-nishin)…who were seen as having a vested interest in in preserving popular custom for their own claims to authority rested on these.

[Ilyas] therefore effectively dismissed as ultimately of little worth the claims to authority of the sajjada-nishin, based on the reports of the miracles (karamat) performed by the saints whose shrines they tended. He stressed that punctilious observance of the sharia, and not karamat, was the only way to rise in God’s eyes.

There it is.

According to the tenets of Taliban theology, attacks on popular Sufi religious practice are inseparable from the imposition of sharia law.

In fact, given the extremely close relation between the Deobandi movement and the Sufi tradition from which it sprang, it’s almost inevitable that the Pakistan Taliban would actively confront what it saw as the abuses of popular Sufism in order to assert its fundamental identity and authority.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Pakistani Taliban would follow their successful campaign to impose sharia law in parts of NWFP with a conspicuous attack on a popular Sufi shrine.

Beyond the demands of Deobandi faith, igniting a religious struggle against popular Sufism is almost a tactical necessity. Fighting against the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps is not the same as battling the NATO and U.S. unbelievers in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Taliban are locked in a battle with the military forces of an Islamic state and need the trappings of a sustained Islamic religious struggle inside Pakistan in order to sustain its legitimacy, motivate its followers, and divide its opposition.

In fact, attacking Sufi religious practices is probably integral to the entire Taliban strategy of polarizing Pakistani society by attacking a weak link—the popular but difficult to defend (on strict Islamic terms) worship of local saints whose interred bodies reputedly have magic powers.

The central province of Punjab hosts several important Sufi shrines, raising the terrifying specter of attacks on heterodox religious practices in Pakistan’s heartland by an ostentatiously righteous, militant, and ascendant religious group whose stated mission is to rescue Islam not only from the West but from idolatry within its own ranks.

And, as a reading of Sikan indicates, challenging popular Sufism also means challenging the authority of the custodians who obtained legitimacy, wealth, and power from their control of the shrines and promises to link the Taliban to a populist, anti-elitist message that may find resonance in the impoverished areas of Pakistan far beyond its Pashtun base.

The United Arab Emirates paper The Nation pointed out how the Pakistan Taliban’s attack on popular Sufism is linked to an assault on the local elites trying to stem the tide of its advance:

Journalists said that, prior to both high-profile attacks, militants had confronted the shrines’ caretakers, warning them to put a stop to religious practices that are frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, such as prayers to the deceased saints and devotion to their living heirs, known locally as piri-faqiri.

“All the Taliban groupings loathe piri-faqiri and are prone to attacking any site that is used to practise it,” said Shaukat Khattak, the bureau chief of Samaa TV in Peshawar.

The Swat Taliban faced their stiffest resistance from Pir Samiullah, a gaddi nashin [one who holds the throne of a shrine—CH] who had formed a militia of followers and killed about 100 militants. He was shot dead in December in a battle with the Taliban, after army units called in for support went to the wrong location.

His corpse was exhumed by militants and put on display at the main square of Mingora, the capital of Swat region, to be buried later at an undisclosed location.

“They violated all the traditions of the area because they did not want his followers to build a shrine,” said the widow of a Swat politician assassinated by the Taliban, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the All Things Pakistan message boards, the thoughts of more than one commentator immediately turned to the tomb of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad ali Jinnah, in the heart of Karachi, an immense borderline-idolatrous mass called Mazar-i-Qaid (National Mausoleum) symbolizing the legitimacy and authority of the regime, as a possible target.

The fear and the outrage of ATP’s commentators reveals a dreaded awareness that the Pakistan Taliban is not just about pushing the U.S. and the West out of Afghanistan, or maintaining the autonomy and religiosity of the Pashtun regions against the encroachments of the central government.

The Taliban is on the attack, and it has a profitable bone to pick with heterodox Islam and Islam-sympathetic secularism as well. It possesses the doctrine, the will, and, fatally, the means, opportunity, and incentive to conduct a terror campaign against Pakistan’s secular-leaning, equivocally Islamic elites in order to cow them into submission.

And one victim of the Pakistan Taliban’s relentless pursuit of orthodoxy and polarization will be the weakly articulated commitment to cosmopolitan culture, tolerance, and syncretic traditions that form the shaky underpinnings of Pakistan’s modernist multi-ethnic state.

Inevitably, the famous lines of W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming spring to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But Rehman Baba should have the last word (courtesy of ATP):

Such have your sorrows overpowered me,
That I’ve lost every place in and out.

My sobs have rendered people restless,
Like fire of a burning dry wood engulfing the moisture,

In your pain, I’m weeping like a candle,
But you are smiling at me like a bright morn.

My heart’s hanging in your path,
Like your black hair dangling in front of your face.

Tis’ a norm for all the sorrows to be crushed under your feet,
When you are burdened with that single grief.

They come towards you, leaving me behind,
All those who advisingly forbade me from your path.

Such is the effect of yours over the face of Rehman,
Like a flame of fire over a thinly dry stalk.


Anonymous said...

Thank You for this post.

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Johan Tristan Aslim said...

As the Halal Monk says in his article on Sufism, "the violence of discrimination and the oppression of a Muslim monoculture creeps further into the Pakistani society, alienating the people even further from their traditional understanding of Islam." is disastrous, and "the message of peace, love and compassion that was spread by the saints certainly contradicts the rigorous religion that is enveloping Pakistan. Yet, in a sense, it’s actually of little concern whether or not it can truly succeed in countering the contemporary violence. For to follow the example of people that transcended their ego in search of God is always good in itself, no matter how many people join the effort and regardless of its possible effect." (see: http://www.halalmonk.com/sufism-in-pakistan-%E2%80%93-the-tolerant-antidote)

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