Moving Forward from Tragedy: Sehwan and our Sufi Roots

by Imaan Mazari-Hazir


While the nation is still reeling from the shock of the many attacks that have shaken our core, it would be worthwhile to comprehend the significance of the horrific and barbaric attack at the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The terrorists picked the heart and soul of Sufi Islam as their target. Yet, rather unsurprisingly, the attacks at Takht-e-Lahore were able to inspire feelings of fear and shock in a way that the tragedy at Sewan Sharif could not. One would wonder how bad things must be that we are placed in a situation where we are compelled to compare tragedies, even if the sole purpose is to identify underlying causes of the problem of terrorism.


Budgets and Allocations

Let us dwell on the fact that medical services in Sehwan are beyond appalling. The victims of the horrific attack, who were in dire need of medical attention, had only one place available to them: the nearest main hospital which was 130 km away from where the attack had taken place. When contrasted with the facilities available across Lahore, which were available to the victims of the attack there, it is puzzling as to why the blatant abdication of responsibility by the Government in Sindh has been underemphasized by the media and civil society. There are questions that must be answered.

Where has the budget for health been spent by the provincial government of Sindh? What is the division of resources between the federation and the provinces, and according to what criteria are these allocations determined? How much of the budget allocated for Punjab is solely spent on projects in Lahore? The reason these questions are asked is not to apportion blame to either the federal or provincial government, or any one else for that matter, but to demonstrate how mitigation of tragic circumstances is purely within our control. In other words, you may not be able to stop a suicide bomber from fulfilling his/her mission, but you can ensure that you are prepared to minimize loss in times where the rest of the citizenry is cautioned to be vigilant.

Moving forward from technicalities that can be taken into consideration to mitigate further disaster. It is necessary for us to tackle the ideology that motivates heinous acts of terror that strike at the heart of Sufism, whether manifested through the bombing of shrines or massacring devotees during dhamaal.


Ideological Warfare

Many in Pakistan today would view the Sufi paractices of visiting shries as unislamic – particularly, if you belong to the school of thought that has consistently adopted the literal over the spiritual. Let us remember that Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack at Sehwan Sharif. This is the so-called ‘Islamic State’, which has claimed keeping sex slaves; pushing homosexuals off roofs and destroying Islamic heritage are done in the name of “Islam”.

Up until 2015, spectators within and outside Pakistan suggested that Daesh would be largely unable to infiltrate Pakistan, primarily owing to it being a “phenomenon of the Levant”. In October 2015, however, six former associates of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

A brief discussion on the origins of this doctrine is required to understand why the attack on Sehwan Sharif requires a collective narrative shift. Muhammad Ibn’ Abdul-Wahhab and Muhammad Bin Sa’ud laid the foundations for the misuse of Islamic doctrine purely for the purposes of deal-making to consolidate power. This deal remains intact today between the House of Saud and the descendants of Abdul-Wahhab/Ash-Shaykh. This ideology has much support within Pakistan, courtesy of our undying effort to “Arab-ize” ourselves. To disown our sub-continental roots, we made a conscious decision to teach generations that the culture, dance, music and mysticism of the former subcontinent was “Hindu” heritage. Our heritage was Islam – not the vibrant, diverse Islam of the sub-continent but the narrowly constructed interpretations that were so far removed from where we came from.

We made a conscious decision to allow religious seminaries to prop up all over the country, completely unregulated and unmonitored. We taught our children to replace “Khuda Hafiz” with “Allah Hafiz” and label Shias, Sufis and anyone who is not a stickler for the literal as kufr. We also made the fatal decision to train entire segments of our youth in Jihad – not the Jihad emphasized in the Quran over and over (internal jihad) but the strength of the sword and the need to use it.


Going Back to our Roots

Many in Pakistan are confronted with identity crises. In fact, it seems we have no national identity as a result of changing the goalposts for who we are and what we aspire to be on so many different occasions, to suit various ‘strategic’ or political objectives. It is in this state of flux that we must go back to our roots and ground ourselves to prepare for ideological warfare. Our State has repeatedly and wrongfully assessed how we must win an ideological war through conventional military operations – nowhere in the world has that been successful.

Perhaps the most crucial factor that culminated in the spread of Islam through the subcontinent was the establishment of Sufi orders throughout its territory. It was not by the sword, but through the words and work of great Sufi Shaykhs that Islam penetrated the subcontinent. Pakistan’s Islam should have always remained distinct from the glaringly opposing Arab interpretations of Islam. Our region accepted and immersed itself in Islam through a more spiritual process than the Arab world, and therefore our understanding and interpretation of Islam is also inherently different.

Unlike the deal between the House of Saud and the descendants of Abdul Wahab, the Sufi shaykhs of the 13th century believed in an esoteric Islam: one where there was no gain for oneself; one where you would serve God by serving humanity; one where spiritual connection with the creator was the goal. Rather simplistically, the objective of the Sufi was to transform the human condition through connection with God. This doctrine, through its focus on transcendence, appealed to the most vulnerable within the Hindu caste system: the untouchables. Simultaneously, it contributed towards the development of a rich culture of poetry and music that became the symbol of the vibrant Islam of the subcontinent.

It is that history, heritage and culture that we must reclaim in order to win the ideological war. But to begin with, we must first accept that we are in a state of ideological war and that we must finally choose our side. Will we continue to allow those who were never from us to determine our interpretations of the state religion? Or will we finally take ownership of what is ours and take pride in protecting it? Will we continue to be blackmailed by those who misinterpret religion or will we reclaim our space?



When I was growing up, my father used to play the harmonium every Sunday. While there are many fond memories from that time, there are poignant verses I heard then, which moves me each time I hear them, even today. In fact, it was these verses that came to mind when I heard about the barbaric attack at Sehwan Sharif.

When I was a child, he taught me that these verses were the premise of every world religion and that when I grow up, I’d understand what they meant more deeply if I ventured to understand Sufi Islam.

Masjid dha de, mandir dha de/

Dha de jo kuch dhainda/

Par kissi da dil na dhain/

Rab dillan vich rehnda/


In this time of great tragedy, there can be no better and more fruitful exercise than collective introspection and a shared desire to strengthen our roots at this juncture when we are already subject to the mercy of being blown away at any time.

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