The Pakistani Taliban appears to have engaged in a critical error by attacking Sufi Muslims.
AOL News story by Adnan R. Kahn
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (July 2) -- Two suicide bombers detonated more than 65 pounds of explosives in one of Lahore's iconic cultural landmarks, killing at least 37 people and wounding 175. The attack on the Sufi shrine, locally known as Data Darbar, has sent shockwaves through Pakistan's Sufi community, who have lived in fear of such violence for four years.
Sufism, the mystical strand of Islam, is a largely nonviolent, apolitical religious creed that places an individual's relationship with God above the demands of any single doctrine. It is credited with producing some of Islam's greatest works of art, in poetry, literature and music, as well as some of Islam's leading contributions to science and philosophy.
It is also hated by fundamentalists like the Taliban and al-Qaida.
The attack on the shrine of the Sufi saint Syed Ali bin Usman Hajweri came as pilgrims were gathering for a traditional Thursday night prayer. One suicide bomber reportedly struck devotees as they were performing the washing all Muslims perform before prayer, while the second struck a crowd gathered in one of the shrine's courtyards.
The dead and wounded were rushed to hospitals amid a scene of chaos and carnage. Some are reported to have died during a stampede that immediately followed the blasts, others succumbed to their injuries at hospital, according to doctors there who also warned that the death toll is likely to rise.
Video cameras captured both explosions, showing waves of dust engulfing the crowd and people running in panic.
No group has claimed responsibility, but Sufi devotees are commonly targeted by militants in Pakistan who accuse them of polytheism because of their veneration of the shrines of their saints, a crime in most fundamentalist branches of Islam punishable by death. A similar attack in 2005 at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi in Islamabad, targeting a group of people crowded around a musician singing devotional songs, killed 50. Other, smaller attacks and targeted killings have frightened many of Pakistan's Sufi devotees away from the shrines of their beloved saints.
Sufism reached its apex in the early years of Islam, producing some of its greatest thinkers between the 10th and 13th centuries, men -- and some women -- like Omar Khayyam, Rabia Balkhi, Jelaludin Rumi, and the ecstatic poet Hafiz, who was killed for declaring publicly, "I am the Truth."
Many Islamic experts point to the decline of Sufism as the starting point in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, arguing that historical evidence clearly places the Golden Age of Islam during its Sufi era, when tolerance and the creative impetus were an integral part of Islamic society.
Its decline coincided with the rise of Taqi ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, the 14th-century Islamic scholar considered to be the father of fundamentalist Islam. His arguments have been modified and refined over the centuries to a point now where in Saudi Arabia, the heartland of the Wahabbi branch of fundamentalist Islam, possessing Sufi literature remains a capital crime.
But in Pakistan, Sufism is considered a national treasure. During the military dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a national campaign to promote Sufism extolled Pakistan as "The Land of the Sufis." But the rising influence of the Wahabbi school, promoted by both the Taliban and al-Qaida, has terrorized the Sufi community here.
"Fear is our natural state now," said Khyber Muhammad, a musical instrument maker and Sufi devotee in Peshawar. "We have always been quietists -- you will never know if you are in the presence of a Sufi master. He could be a shoemaker, or a garbage collector, or even a beggar. But how can we express our love for our dead masters if the militants keep attacking our shrines?"
In Peshawar, the swarming heartland of Pakistan's Islamic militancy, even the word "Sufi" has become dangerous. Men like Muhammad refer to each other only as "seekers" in reference to their spiritual journey to enlightenment. Their gatherings, or dergahs, often marked by music and poetry readings, have virtually vanished or gone deep underground.
But this was not always the case. As little as four years ago, Pakistanis seeking the guidance of Sufi saints frequented the Khyber tribal agency adjoining Peshawar. "Sufism was very strong in both Khyber and Peshawar," said Anwar Shah, a local resident. "There are shrines all over Khyber, and we had peace when we were able to visit them."
In recent years, Khyber has witnessed the rise of a local militant, Mangal Bagh, who has eliminated Sufi practices. Bagh rose to prominence in 2006, after his followers, under the banner of jihad, defeated men loyal to a local pir, or Sufi saint, in fighting that turned Khyber into a battleground. Evidence has emerged over the years that Bagh was supported by Pakistan's spy agency, the Interservices Intelligence, which often backs militant groups they believe can be used to promote Pakistan's interests in India and Afghanistan.
The results have been devastating for Khyber and Peshawar. A significant minority of Sikhs living in Khyber, welcomed by the tolerant Sufi creed, have fled the region, their homes and businesses targeted by members of Bagh's Lashkar-i-Islam militants. Sufi shrines, once cared for by the local people, lie in ruins. In Peshawar, Muhammad's tabla business, thriving when Sufi musicians were prevalent, is nearing collapse.
"If the musicians stop playing," he laments, "what need is there for instruments?"
Anwar Shah is deeply saddened by the loss of Peshawar's Sufi traditions. But he is not alone. Sufi movements around the Muslim world -- and the tolerance they promote -- are under threat. The shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh was often frequented by Hindu devotees, as are dozens of other Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan. In Turkey, Israelis regularly visit the shrine of Jelaludin Rumi in Konya, praising him as an enlightened human with the mystical knowledge to lead all of humanity on the path of unity.
The suicide blasts in Lahore are a reminder that unity is something militant Islamists fear. "With unity, inspired by a deep love for humanity, comes peace," said Ejazullah Baig, a Sufi mystic in Pakistan's northern mountains. "Intolerance requires disunity for its logic to function. These fundamentalists need chaos for their own survival."
But when asked why Sufis haven't done more to counter the influence of the fundamentalists, Baig fought back tears and struggled to provide an answer. "We are a quiet people," he said at last. "We spend our days studying and meditating. It is part of our creed not to interfere with the spiritual path an individual has chosen, even if it is leading him to violence. But we are talking more about what we can do. It is on our minds."
Warfare continues to become more professional and dehumanized every day.
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