DEVOTEES of the more mystical Sufi strain of Islam from Bamako in Mali to Karachi in Pakistan are refusing to bow to fear, despite mounting evidence that puritan Sunni extremists are undermining the way ordinary Islam is done.
The shrine of the saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, one of the most popular sites in this coastal city, was inundated with pilgrims this week.
A target of horrific twin suicide bombs in 2010 which killed eight people and injured sixty more, vast crowds made the long journey to this sacred site.
‘I have faith in Allah and the Pir (saint), and they will look after me’, Nasreen Bibi told Lapido, when asked whether she felt scared visiting less than two years after the bomb blast.
We asked fifteen other devotees how they felt about visiting the site, and received a unanimous response that no terrorist could take away the feeling of security that Allah and Abdullah Shah Ghazi provided.
Religious shrines, temples and statues have been suffering from an onslaught of intolerance for over a decade, and most recently atrocities in Timbuktu have opened the world’s eyes to the ongoing attack on Sufism.
Bamiyan saw the Afghan Taliban’s intolerance of other religious beliefs, when ancient Buddhist sculptures were blown up and completely destroyed in 2001, but these latest incidents have brought to the headlines inter-Sunni conflict that is escalating yet often overlooked.
Some hard-line Wahhabi and Deobandi Sunnis are at the core of not just sectarian conflict and terrorism in various Muslim countries, but are also responsible for attacking the more moderate Barelvi Sunnis and as well as the shrines they visit.
Talat Aslam, Senior Editor at The News in Karachi says the effect on devotion is subtle.
‘In fact it raises the defiance level, people get scared initially but then they become fatalistic, they think, well, whatever has to happen will happen.
‘But it is important to note that over the last ten or fifteen years, there has been a change at the grass root level. In villages in certain parts of the country such as northern Punjab, playing music at weddings has been reduced.
‘There is a subtle change taking place, this new puritanical form of Islam is having an impact on the culture.’
Thursday nights and Fridays are considered important for prayers in Pakistan, and pilgrims come in overwhelming numbers to the shrine to make offerings of flowers, money and shawls.
The road leading to the shrine is packed with cars, buses, rickshaws and pedestrians, and the parking lot resembles a festival; the sound of beating drums drowns out conversation as people stoop over brightly-lit stalls selling flowers and ornaments before making their way to the entrance of the shrine.
Some visitors are from parts of the city like Lyari and Korangi Town, others from nearby cities like Hyderabad. Still more travel from different provinces of Pakistan to make offerings at the shrine to Abdullah Shah Ghazi.
Once a year a bus leaves Multan in Punjab and makes a seven-day journey, stopping in various cities to visit Sufi shrines, including Hazrat Baba Shah Noorani’s shrine near Hub in Balochistan and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine at Sehwan in Sindh.
The journey comes to an end on a Friday, and the last stop is Abdullah Shah Ghazi.
According to Razia Bibi from Sahiwal, ‘I was told by my relatives when I was young that prayers at this shrine are always heard, and I have been coming here every year for a long time and it is true.’
Devotees must make offerings of thanks at the same shrine where they believe their prayers were heard, so when the occasion arises they collect donations and load a bus with family and friends to make the journey back again.
Most devotees know very little about the life of the Sufi saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi, yet they have faith in the power of his blessings; in fact many believe that because of his blessing, Karachi has not been hit by a tropical disaster in over a millennium.
Farzana Begum, a visitor from Bahawalpur told Lapido: ‘I have travelled for days on end from Punjab with my entire family to pray for my son who suffers from violent fits.
‘I have hope that my offerings will be accepted and my prayers heard, so I can bring my son back to offer thanks.’
This faith also eliminates the fear of death; in fact devotees come and go in large groups even though the threat of attack is visible in the form of extensive security searches at the entrance of the shrine.
Visitors have to pass through electronic scanners and frisk-searches, before depositing their shoes as a mark of respect, and making their way to the staircase that leads to the tomb.
After praying at the tomb, people descend down the staircase to the gate, some joyously shouting ‘Nara-e-Haideri! Ya Ali!’, (Urdu for ‘Courage! O Ali!’ mostly associated with Shia festivities).*
But in devotion to Sufi saints, differing religious beliefs and sectarian divisions disappear as peace-loving people come together to pray.
Sufi pilgrims all over the world have made the decision to take a stand against extremists, united by hope and armed with faith.
Note: Hazrat Ali (or Respected Ali), cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, was the first male convert to Islam, the fourth ‘rightly-guided Caliph’, and regarded by Shia as the first Imam, rightful successor to the Prophet. Fundamentalist Sunnis believe that devotion to Ali or any other person, is tantamount to idolatry, hateful to God and demeaning to the Prophet.