On Friday, 4 March, after weekly collective prayers, seven people were killed and 25 injured when a bomb blasted the crowded Akhund Panjo Baba Sufi shrine in Nowshera, a major city near Peshawar in Pakistan. The attack was neither the first to strike South Asia nor even for Nowshera, where the shrine of another Sufi, Bahadur Baba, was bombed in 2009.
Terrorism against Sufi shrines, as well as non-fundamentalist Sunni and Shia mosques, is a continuing reality in Pakistan. The campaign has been carried out mainly by the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, inspired by the Deobandi sect, which condemns Sufism and Shiism alike as heresies.
The offensive began in 2005 when the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad, named for a 17th century Sufi, was bombed during a Shia observance, killing 18 people.
In 2007, the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti, the outstanding Sufi in South Asian history, located in Ajmer Sharif, India, was assaulted. Two people were killed and 20 were injured.
Back in Pakistan, the Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba shrine in Peshawar was almost completely demolished by explosives at the end of 2007. That first terrorist raid on Sufis in Peshawar was followed in March 2008, when the terrorist Lashkar-e-Islam (Islamic Army) killed ten villagers in an ambush with rockets at the 400-year-old shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba near Peshawar.
Next, the Ashaab Baba shrine in Peshawar was hit by explosives. In 2009 the Afghan Taliban blasted the Peshawar shrine of the seventeenth-century Pashtun Sufi poet Rehman Baba, and, the next day, blew up the tomb of Bahadur Baba in Nowshera. Soon after, the Shaykh Omar Baba shrine in Peshawar was demolished.
In June 2010, the Taliban blew up the Mian Umar Baba shrine in Peshawar. July 2010 saw three bombers strike the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore; 45 people died and 175 were injured.
Pakistani media reported that two terrorists blew themselves up inside the building while another stayed outside and threw grenades. Data Darbar is the mausoleum of Data Ganj Baksh, ‘the giver of spiritual treasures,’ a title conferred on the 10th-century Sufi, Abul Hassan Ali al-Hajvery, buried there. Al-Hajvery, born in today’s Afghanistan, is one of the most honoured Sunni Sufis, beloved by Hindus as well as Muslims in South Asia.
The mausoleum of Baba Fariddudin Ganj Shakkar in the Pakistani city of Pakpattan was bombed in October 2010, killing six and injuring 15.
The perverse doctrines of the Deobandi radicals in the Taliban and the Pakistani jihadis of Jamaat-e Islami and similar groups hold that Sufis have left Islam because their customs of spiritual praise (not worship) and intercessory prayer directed to Sufi saints, and celebration of Prophet Muhammad and his birthday, allegedly dilute the unique nature of God.
The habit of takfir or expulsion of Muslims from the global Islamic community for alleged deviations by the Deobandi and the Jamaati trends, is encouraged and financed by hard-core Wahhabis, members of the state sect in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi King Abdullah has attempted to halt support for the Wahhabi-takfiri drive among Sunni Muslims around the world, but the king is old, isolated within the royal family, and obstructed by the entrenched position of the Wahhabi clerics in the Saudi kingdom.
In a development little understood by non-Muslims, the more traditional and esoteric Sufi observance by the Barelvi sect – who comprise about half of Pakistani Muslims – is favoured by rural believers, while the Wahhabi and other takfiri factions appeal to urban, educated Muslims who consider Barelvism and Sufism to be ‘folk Islam.’
As many analysts have observed, radical Islam is an elite phenomenon reflecting the rising expectations and frustrations of educated people who have no time to learn the complexities of the religion.
Wahhabi-takfiri practice, which is stripped down and easy to absorb, is more attractive to busy professionals than traditional and Sufi Islam, which calls on the believer to dedicate time to study and other religious works.
In another aspect of the problem that is counter-intuitive for non-Muslims, Wahhabi and takfiri extremists claim to be reformers and modernizers of Islam.
The Pakistani historian Mubarak Ali has commented, ‘only rich and educated people can afford to become Wahhabis and live that colourless life. Those in rural areas need the [traditional] culture; they have nothing else.’
Barelvis have fought the Deobandis in bloody clashes in Karachi, and Barelvi Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi was assassinated in 2009 in Lahore on the same day as the Nowshera horror that year.
Wahhabi/Deobandi violence against Sufis and Shias has a significant ideological impact in the UK, where the majority of Muslims are South Asian, and in the US, where South Asians form the plurality, or about a third, of those born to Muslim parents.
British Asian Muslims are about seventy per cent Barelvi, adhering to the Naqshbandi Sufi tradition and following pirs or religious teachers, known in other countries as sheikhs and babas, and thirty per cent Deobandi.
The struggle between the rival groups is intense and has led to physical violence in British mosques. In the US, where the government does not keep census statistics, Deobandi-takfiri Muslims may account for twenty percent of the total Muslim population.