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A Sufi pilgrim dances at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan, in 2006. (Aaron Huey)

Pakistan's Sufis Preach Faith and Ecstasy

The believers in Islamic mysticism embrace a personal approach to their faith and a different outlook on how to run their government

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In the desert swelter of southern Pakistan, the scent of rose­water mixed with a waft of hashish smoke. Drummers pounded away as celebrants swathed in red pushed a camel bedecked with garlands, tinsel and multihued scarfs through the heaving crowd. A man skirted past, grinning and dancing, his face glistening like the golden dome of a shrine nearby. "Mast Qalandar!" he cried. "The ecstasy of Qalandar!"

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The camel reached a courtyard packed with hundreds of men jumping in place with their hands in the air, chanting "Qalandar!" for the saint buried inside the shrine. The men threw rose petals at a dozen women who danced in what seemed like a mosh pit near the shrine's entrance. Enraptured, one woman placed her hands on her knees and threw her head back and forth; another bounced and jiggled as if she were astride a trotting horse. The drumming and dancing never stopped, not even for the call to prayer.

I stood at the edge of the courtyard and asked a young man named Abbas to explain this dancing, called dhamaal. Though dancing is central to the Islamic tradition known as Sufism, dhamaal is particular to some South Asian Sufis. "When a djinn infects a human body," Abbas said, referring to one of the spirits that populate Islamic belief (and known in the West as "genies"), "the only way we can get rid of it is by coming here to do dhamaal." A woman stumbled toward us with her eyes closed and passed out at our feet. Abbas didn't seem to notice, so I pretended not to either.

"What goes through your head when you are doing dhamaal?" I asked.

"Nothing. I don't think," he said. A few women rushed in our direction, emptied a water bottle on the semiconscious woman's face and slapped her cheeks. She shot upright and danced back into the crowd. Abbas smiled. "During dhamaal, I just feel the blessings of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar wash over me."

Every year, a few hundred thousand Sufis converge in Seh- wan, a town in Pakistan's southeastern Sindh province, for a three-day festival marking the death of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in 1274. Qalandar, as he is almost universally called, belonged to a cast of mystics who consolidated Islam's hold on this region; today, Pakistan's two most populous provinces, Sindh and Punjab, comprise a dense archipelago of shrines devoted to these men. Sufis travel from one shrine to another for festivals known as urs, an Arabic word for "marriage," symbolizing the union between Sufis and the divine.

Sufism is not a sect, like Shiism or Sunnism, but rather the mystical side of Islam—a personal, experiential approach to Allah, which contrasts with the prescriptive, doctrinal approach of fundamentalists like the Taliban. It exists throughout the Muslim world (perhaps most visibly in Turkey, where whirling dervishes represent a strain of Sufism), and its millions of followers generally embrace Islam as a religious experience, not a social or political one. Sufis represent the strongest indigenous force against Islamic fundamentalism. Yet Western countries have tended to underestimate their importance even as the West has spent, since 2001, millions of dollars on interfaith dialogues, public diplomacy campaigns and other initiatives to counter extremism. Sufis are particularly significant in Pakistan, where Taliban-inspired gangs threaten the prevailing social, political and religious order.

Pakistan, carved out of India in 1947, was the first modern nation founded on the basis of religious identity. Questions about that identity have provoked dissent and violence ever since. Was Pakistan to be a state for Muslims, governed by civilian institutions and secular laws? Or an Islamic state, governed by clerics according to sharia, or Islamic law? Sufis, with their ecumenical beliefs, typically favor the former, while the Taliban, in their fight to establish an extreme orthodoxy, seek the latter. The Taliban have antiaircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and squads of suicide bombers. But the Sufis have drums. And history.

I asked Carl Ernst, an author of several books about Sufism and a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whether he thought Pakistan's Sufis could survive the wave of militant Islam sweeping east from the region along the Afghanistan border. "Sufism has been a part of the fabric of life in the Pakistan region for centuries, while the Taliban are a very recent phenomenon without much depth," he replied in an e-mail. "I would bet on the Sufis in the long run." This summer, the Taliban attracted a few hundred people to witness beheadings in Pakistan's tribal areas. In August, more than 300,000 Sufis showed up to honor Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

Qalandar was an ascetic; he dressed in rags and tied a rock around his neck so that he was constantly bowing before Allah. His given name was Usman Marwandi; "Qalandar" was used by his followers as an honorific indicating his superior standing in the hierarchy of saints. He moved from a suburb of Tabriz, in modern-day Iran, to Sindh in the early 13th century. The remainder of his biography remains murky. The meaning of lal, or "red," in his name? Some say he had auburn hair, others believe he wore a red robe and still others say he once was scalded while meditating over a pot of boiling water.

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