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Pakistan's 'soft Islam'

Shamil ShamsOctober 30, 2012

The recent attack on a shrine in Pakistan's northwestern district of Nowshera is proof that the Taliban consider pluralistic Islam a big ideological threat, say experts.

Shrine of Bibi Jawindi, Uch Sharif, Pakistan. cc-by-Shaun Metcalfe
Image: cc-by-Shaun Metcalfe

On Sunday, a bomb blast outside the shrine of Kaka Sahib - a 16th century Sunni Muslim saint - in the district Nowshera of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, killed at least three devotees of the saint and wounding 25 people.

"It was a remote-controlled bomb that killed three people at the site," local police chief Muhammad Hussain told the media. Some Pakistani newspapers have put the death toll higher.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack but Taliban militants have been known to attack shrines in the region in the past.

Pakistan is facing a protracted insurgency in its troubled northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Taliban insurgents have killed thousands of people over the years and attacked places of worship of minorities and followers of other Islamic denominations.

Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in the Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan (Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud, File/AP/dapd)
Many parts of Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas are under Taliban's controlImage: AP


The militants - most of whom belong to the Saudi-Wahhabi sect of Islam - have attacked a number of Sufi shrines in many Pakistani cities in the past, killing scores of devotees, who mostly belong to the minority Shiite Islamic group or the majority Sunni Barelvi sect.

Historians say that both Shiites and Barelvis believe in a wide cultural interpretation of Islam and seek inspiration from the Persian and Arabic saints, who played a role in spreading Islam throughout the Indian subcontinent. Many Shiites and Barelvis also revere mystics of Indian origin and regularly visit their shrines which are spread throughout India and Pakistan. These Muslims saints are equally loved by Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Jews in South Asia.

On the contrary, the Wahhabis, which are a relatively smaller group among the Sunnis, believe in "puritan Islam" and consider pilgrimages to shrines outside of the Islamic faith to be against the teachings of Muhammad.

Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen performs at a music festival in New Delhi, India (Photo: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
Sufi singers like Abida Parveen are poular in PakistanImage: AP

Dr. Mubarak Ali, a renowned Pakistani historian, told DW that the Taliban were against cultural variation. "Wahhabis are against any cultural plurality so they attack shrines, music festivals and other cultural centers that are not Islamic in their view," he said.

The historian said that the influence of Saudi Arabia had seeped into the psyche of many Pakistanis, causing an "Arabization" of their many traditions.

Many Pakistani analysts, including Ali, say that the zealot Wahhabi groups and political parties not only frown upon pilgrimages to non-Islamic shrines, they also endorse the demolition of historical Muslim sites, and emulate Saudi Arabia in this regard. A recent article in The Independent newspaper titled "Media: Saudis take a bulldozer to Islam's history" claims that the Saudi regime had destroyed a number of graves of known Islamic figures and historical sites such as the prophet of Islam's birthplace and the house of the prophet's first wife Khadija for the fear that people might convert them into places of worship.

An ideological battle

Shoaib Ashraf, a lawyer and rights activist in Karachi, told DW that the Taliban were bent on destroying the diverse cultural fabric of Pakistani society.

"Pakistan cannot afford this kind of extremism. It is facing several crises at the moment but this is going to do an irreparable damage to the country. Pakistan will not survive if a minority forcefully imposes its extremist agenda on majority," Ashraf said.

Attiya Dawood, a writer and peace activist, told DW that the love for saints ran deep in hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan and that a big number of Pakistanis went to the shrines and listened to qawwali, or Sufi music.

"The Taliban want to create fear among the people by attacking their sacred places so that they can restrict their social mobility and freedom," she said.

Family members of victims comfort each others after suicide bombers attacked a popular Muslim shrine in Lahore in July, 2010 (Photo: AP/K.M.Chaudary)
Militants attacked the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore in July 2010, killing more than 30 peopleImage: ap

Many Pakistani analysts are of the opinion that the main reason behind the attacks on shrines and followers of the saints is more political than religious. They say that the mystical Islam provides a counter-narrative to extremist Islam and is probably the biggest ideological threat to the Wahhabis. Some believe that mystical Islam could be more effective in defeating the Taliban than any military operation.

State support

Experts, however, say that the policies of the Pakistani state are not in favor of the proponents of Sufi Islam and are thus emboldening fanatics.

"As long as the Pakistani state and security agencies continue to use Wahhabism as a dominant state narrative, attacks on shrines and their devotees will not cease," said Ashraf.

Ali also pointed out that Wahhabi groups and organizations enjoyed state patronage and flourished at the expense of other groups, which in the past had been snubbed by the government. "It is a bit strange though because Wahhabism is a minority Sunni sect in Pakistan," Ali said.

Ashraf demanded that the Pakistani government not only abandon its support to zealot Wahhabis, but also promote pluralistic Islam. This, he said, would not only be beneficial to Pakistani society in the long run but would also improve the international community's image of Pakistan.