K G Suresh

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari may not have achieved any breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations during his much-hyped stopover lunch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi but with his ‘Jiyarat’ at the shrine of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer, the shrewd Sindhi politician has sent across to the hardline Wahabi elements back home a categorical message, which largely went unnoticed – Islamabad’s commitment to the indigenous Sufi Islam as against the Saudi sponsored Wahabi Islam, which is wreaking havoc in Pakistan, Afghanistan and even India.

“O laal meri pat rakhio bala jhoole laalan, Sindri da Sehvan da, sakhi Shabaaz kalandar, Dama dam mast kalandar, Ali dam dam de andar”

(O the red robed, May I always have your benign protection, Jhulelal (as he was affectionately called ). O, the lord,the friend and the Sire of Sindh and Sehwan ( or Serwan ),The red robed God-intoxicated Qalandar, The lord in every breath of mine, glory unto to you)

Zardari grew up hearing this as a lullaby in his cradle. The devotional song is in honor of Sufi mystic ‘Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’., who settled in Serwan , Sindh,and worked tirelessly for bringing peace between Hindus and Muslims. In a reflection of predominant Sufi culture in the sub continent, leading singers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh –Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Madam Noor Jehan, Wadali Brothers, Reshma, Sabri Brothers, Jagjit Singh, Runa Laila and Lata Mangeshkar have lent their voices to this classical song, hummed by millions across South Asia.

The presence of Sufi Islam is not limited to Zardari’s native southern province of Sindh but also elsewhere in Pakistan as also Afghanistan for centuries, as exemplified by the 18th-century poet and mystic Rahman Baba whose shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass (linking Afghanistan and Pakistan) has been attracting many Sufi faithful from both sides of the border till it was blown by Taliban three years back.

Incidentally, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is a descendent of a Sufi from Multan.

The scenario dramatically changed in the 1980s when during the Afghan resistance against the Soviet invasion, elements in Saudi Arabia pumped in money, arms and extremist ideology into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Through a network of madrasas, Saudi-sponsored Wahabi Islam indoctrinated young Muslims with fundamentalist Puritanism, denouncing Sufi shrines, mystics, music and poetry as “decadent and immoral.” Over the years, the tolerant Sufi-minded Barelvi form of tolerant Islam has been replaced  by the hardline Wahabi creed, across the Pakistani border. Vast parts of south Afghanistan and a large region in western Pakistan are under de facto control of Taliban militants who enforce a violent form of sharia law.

These converts to hardline Islam have declared a ‘Jihad’ not only against Western and Indian ‘infidels’ but also against fellow Muslims they consider to be apostates, in particular the Sufis.

Wahabism is the conservative 18th century reformist call of Sunni Islam attributed to Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, an Islamic scholar from Saudi Arabia, who became known for advocating a return to the practices of the first three generations of Islamic history.

The modern Saudi state is founded on the 18th-century alliance between the Wahabi religious movement and the House of Saud. Wahabism is the dominant form of Islam found in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and is also popular in Kuwait, Egypt U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania.

In the early 20th Century, the Wahabist-oriented Al-Saud dynasty conquered and unified the various provinces on the Arabian peninsula, founding the modern day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. This provided the movement with a state. Vast wealth from oil discovered in the following decades, coupled with Saudi control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, have since provided a base and funding for Salafi missionary activity.

Of late, there has been a rise in the attacks on Sufi shrines across Pakistan, prompting the country’s intelligentsia to openly confront Wahabism which they describe as ‘Arab Colonialism’.

So intolerant are Wahabis in Pakistan that two theologians Javed Ahmed Shamdi and Maulana Tahir-Ul-Quadri had to seek shelter after they criticized extremists. The latter, in fact, fled to Canada after issuing a fatwa against the killings of innocents.

According to Sayeeda Diep from the Lahore-based Institute for Peace and Secular Studies, “an undemocratic Saudi Arabia is funding Wahabis to crush democratic aspirations in the entire world including in Pakistan apparently to let rulers continue their dynastic rule in Saudi Arabia. Petro dollars are being pumped world over to promote this school of Islam projecting it closer to the original form.”

“The people of Pakistan need to fight both American as well Arab colonialism,” she said.

According to historian and author William Dalyrimple, Wahabi fundamentalism has advanced so quickly in Pakistan partly because the Saudis have financed the building of so many madrasas, which have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of state education. “These have taught an entire generation to abhor the gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam that has dominated south Asia for centuries, and to embrace instead an imported form of Saudi Wahabism.”

In India, alarmed by the rise of the Wahabis,  the Sufis have now initiated a public debate. The All India Ulama & Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) , an apex body of Sufi Muslims, has called upon  Sunni Muslims across India to reject and rebuff  hardline  Wahabism so that Islam could return to its tolerant, Sufi roots: “When an extremist turns up at your door seeking your support, when anyone tries to recruit you into terrorism, hand him over to the nearest police station,” Board general secretary Maulana Syed Mohd Ashraf Kachochavi exhorted the Muslims.

The Maulana has also asked the government to immediately pass legislation to set up a Central Madrasa Board so that fundings to madrasas could be audited and a watch kept on the flow of Saudi petro-dollars into madrasa education.

US, other Western nations and India would do well to support Zardari and Pakistan in strengthening the traditional Sufi Islam if the Taliban and the likes of Hafiz Saeed are to be tackled decisively.

(K G Suresh* is a Delhi-based senior journalist and Director of the Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony)

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