Image Credit: Illustration: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Terrorism in Pakistan received a huge boost when General Pervez Musharraf committed it, albeit under considerable duress, to the United States' global war on terror a decade ago. The process that shifted the centre of gravity of violence to Pakistan year after year is well known. So is the motive of the Taliban, particularly the ruthless Tehrik-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which is the de-legitimisation and dismantling of the modern state, considered by them an American surrogate.

The insurgents have shown great ingenuity in opening new fronts and in developing new tactics to exacerbate and exploit differences. One of the relatively new frontlines is the series of attacks on Sufi shrines, a tactic with precedents in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. The South Asian Muslim shrines always attract large crowds of festive devotees on special occasions, and in Pakistan's case, the attacks have led to horrific loss of life. The latest suicide bombing of a Sufi shrine in Central Punjab on April 4 took over 50 lives.

Between 2003 and 2010, 32,623 Pakistanis got killed in terrorist attacks, with 2010 representing 7,435 fatalities. Despite determined campaigns by the Pakistan army and air force that, more or less, uprooted entrenched power of extremist militias in the picturesque Swat and South Waziristan and considerably degraded their strength in some other tribal agencies in the north-west, there is still a large area of that sub-region that remains available to the insurgents to plan attacks on targets all over Pakistan.

The history of Sufi orders in South Asia has aspects that make them a trifle distinct from their Middle Eastern provenance. Even in their heyday the Muslim empires in India were anything but evangelical. The Great Mughals, in particular, were happily free of a proselytising zeal. Many of the greatest Sufis were sent to India by tarikas, led by their great Murshids (saintly guides) not to bless the sword arms of the empire but to educate the lay Muslims and win the hearts and minds of the vast non-Muslim majority with love.

Over the years, they encouraged syncretism which drew the local people into their charmed circle and brought multitudes within the fold of Islam. While the traditional Mullah rigidly enforced purity of doctrine and practice, the ascetic Sufi accepted great diversity and forever incorporated features of local cultures, such as music, devotional songs and folk philosophical poetry in vernaculars into the belief-systems around him. Most of the great saints stayed clear of Royal courts and the annual military campaigns. For a very long time, Sufism in India largely remained a quietist tradition. Islamic mysticism developed a strong activist version as the European powers began colonising Arab and non-Arab Muslim lands. The early resistance often came from Sufi leaders such as Amir Abdul Qadir ( "Al Kadir") to the French, the Naqashbandi Shaikh Imam Shamil to the Czarist invasion of Chechnya-Dagestan in 1824, Mohammad Ahmad, the Mahdi of Sudan in 1885 to the British and the Senussi order of Libya to Italy. It is a grand tale of heroism and martyrdom spanning decades and territories.


The Muslim power in India declined rapidly after 1707 when the only religious zealot in the Mughal dynasty, Emperor Aurangzeb, died. The major opposition to the British came from Deobandis who often blamed the Sufis for weakening the Muslim state with passive spiritualism. The Sufi orders split between those who clung to quietist, contemplative traditions and the more militant sufis who occasionally forged anti-British coalitions with their doctrinal opponents. The renowned scholar, Shah Wali Allah (1702-62) was deeply concerned about the decline of Indian Muslims and tried to bring the activist Sufis and Deobandis together. His follower Sayyid Ahmad in the north-west and Haji Shariat Allah in Bengal fought desperate battles to prevent the rise of anti-Muslim forces. The main tradition remained ascetic and quietist till the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan tilted the balance in favour of ‘Salafis' and their militant political Islam.

Pakistan is dotted with shrines. Doctrinal arguments apart, they bring comfort to millions and their cultural ethos binds communities, usually cutting across the Shiite-Sunnii divide. In the present greatly stressed times, they invest people with resilience and hope. Such has been the reverence for them over the centuries that many Pakistanis are in denial about the culpability of TTP terrorists and seek refuge in far-fetched conspiracy theories. A deadly attack on a major shrine in 2005 signalled this new dimension of the terrorist's war against Pakistan. Since then, some of the most revered shrines, where dedicated missionaries from the Arab-Islamic world with historical profiles, often very simple, sleep eternally, have been bombed. In killing people in these sanctuaries, the terrorist is not only shattering the devotees' identities but uprooting the substratum of a 1,000-year-long history of what is today Pakistan. Destroying a shrine hallowed by time drives a deep hole in the cultural security of communities devoted to it.


Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former ambassador and foreign secretary of Pakistan.