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<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

The audience for Qawwali at Data Durbar

Peace, Love & Pakistan

Sufi music, fashionable worldwide, is wildly popular in Pakistan — once you get past the armed guards. Because here, the vibe isn’t safe from the violence and the mystics are no match for the Muslim militants.


Through a tiny nook in a Lahore alleyway I enter the shrine of Baba Nakhuda. The saint, who died in the 1940s, lies in a garland-covered grave in a courtyard filled with new, mirrored mosaics and multicoloured lights. On this morning, militants have killed nine police recruits in their dormitory on the other side of town, but inside the shrine all is serene.

In a dark corner beside the saint's grave, a middle-aged man with long dreadlocks, well-worn clothes and a thick beard is huddled at his a daily vigil. He's been here for about a decade but has told no one his name; devotees simply call him "Baba Ji", a generic honorific for a holy man. As the devotees trickle in, the nameless Baba blesses them, offers advice, and reaches into a box. He pulls out an eraser-sized block of hash, tears off little sticky balls of the stuff, and rolls joints for himself and his guests.

Sufi Music - Qawwali Singing

Later Baba Ji takes out his iPhone and shows me a 1985 picture of a short-haired young man with a clipped moustache. The man in the picture, he explains, no longer exists. It's Baba Ji, before he devoted himself to the saint. And this devotion, he explains, is all consuming.

"Love is a snake. Love, understand? Nobody understands love," he says.

I'm not sure I completely understand what he's saying, either. But maybe that's the intended effect.

It's Thursday, and Thursday nights across Pakistan are time for music, dancing and recitation in hundreds of shrines dedicated to the saints of Islam's mystical tradition, Sufism. Not everyone agrees with the drug taking. But intoxication, of the spiritual kind at least, is the aim of devotees.

With Baba Ji's blessing we take our places near the grave, to watch as three men begin their rhythmic banging on drums, the tabla and the dhol. Arif Arfi, a tall drummer with long, greasy hair, beats the dhol in an increasing frenzy, as other men get up and hop and twirl their arms near the grave amid a haze of smoke from incense and Afghan hash. The goal for everyone is to achieve a kind of spiritual ecstasy, whereby the individual, carried by music, is lost and becomes absorbed into God. At the peak of spiritual experience is what is known as mast, a vanishing into God so complete that the individual appears to be mad.

Arfi starts to spin, banging both sides of the dhol, the drum flying horizontally on its straps, nearly grazing a column by the grave. He picks up a second drum and in his teeth he grips the straps of both, spinning and banging all the time. He switches back to one, this time swinging the heavy barrel around his neck.

Throughout it all, Baba Ji sits motionless.

Sufi Music - Dhol Drumming

This is a side of Pakistan the world rarely sees anymore. Amid surging Islamist militancy, radicalism and intolerance, it's easy to forget that most Pakistanis — particularly in the fertile heartlands of Punjab and Sindh where most people live — are more influenced by this school of Islam than the austere forms of the religion preferred by the country's militants.

This heterodox form of Sunni Islam, Barelvi Islam, is deeply inflected with veneration for Sufi saints, or pirs, who spread Islam in part by tapping into Hindu India's love of music and esoteric spiritualism.

PREACHING A MESSAGE of peace and love can be very risky in Pakistan these days. Militants have bombed scores of Sufi gatherings and shrines. On June 21, three people were killed by a bomb placed in a donkey cart near the Panj Peer shrine in the violent northwestern city of Peshawar. Since 2005, most of Pakistan's major shrines have been targeted and hundreds of people have died in such attacks. As a result, the major shrines of the saints now exist behind layers of concrete blast walls, metal detectors and armed guards.

The shrine tended by the nameless Baba stands out because all it has for protection is the blessings of the saint, and a network of CCTV cameras.

The goal for everyone is to achieve a kind of spiritual ecstasy, whereby the individual, carried by music, is lost and becomes absorbed into God.

Earlier in the day, before meeting the nameless Baba, I watched Shabbir Hussain Khan, a singer of Qawwali — a virtuosic vocal style that praises God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Sufi saints — at Data Durbar, Lahore's biggest shrine, which holds the grave of the 11th century saint Abul Hassan Ali Hajvery. On July 1 2010, two suicide bombers slipped into the shrine, and blew themselves up, killing at least 42 people.

Not far from where the bombs went off, Khan tells me, "This form of art has everything to do with spiritualism. Whoever takes up singing Qawwali finds his own soul. He drowns within himself and he finds himself."

Sufism is diametrically opposed to terrorism, Khan says; it supports no nation, no religion and no sect. For most Pakistanis, he believes, this is the true face of Islam.

Despite the threat of reprisal, Sufi music continues to be wildly popular across Pakistan, and top local musicians regularly tour to India, the United States, Britain and beyond. Coke Studio, which puts Sufi-inspired musicians together with western-style performers, is a runaway hit. (Yes, it's sponsored by that soft drink.) And across the country, shrines offer a near constant flow of festivals to celebrate the urs, or death anniversaries, of Sufi saints.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Armed guards outside the madrassa where Sarfraz Naeemi was assassinated

"A real Sufi is never afraid. However many days Allah has decided he shall live, nobody, no terrorist, can snatch that away," he says.

Just to be safe, though, there are more than 150 armed guards between us and the city outside.

ALL THIS BEGS the question: if most Pakistanis follow a moderate form of Islam, why is extremism running rampant? For years, voices both in the West and in Pakistan have pushed for the political empowerment of the country's Barelvis as a way of countering radicalism — they have also thrown money behind this strategy.

But Pakistan's pathologies, and the shifting world of Islamic sectarianism and militancy, are more complex than a mere battle between mystics and terrorists.

Coke Studio, which puts Sufi-inspired musicians together with western-style performers, is a runaway hit. (Yes, it’s sponsored by that soft drink.)

The country's Barelvi awakening has failed to take off. Not only that, but where Barelvis have banded together, the results have often been ugly — and definitely not favourable to the West.

Pakistan's growing problems with extremism and militancy are usually traced back to the 1970s. In 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew and later executed Pakistan's civilian leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and radically transformed the country with a combination of free-market economic reform and a deep drive to Islamise the state and society.

Bhutto had caved to pressure from Islamists in 1974, to declare Ahmadiyya, a sect seen by many as denying Muhammad's status as the final prophet of Islam, as non-Muslim. He also banned alcohol for Muslims. But it was Zia whose push for more orthodox Islam was the most concerted and drastic. Sharia laws were implemented, laws against blasphemy were tightened and discrimination against Ahmadis deepened.

Then, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Money and weapons, mostly from the United States and Saudi Arabia, poured in to Pakistan — to fight the Soviets. Pakistan and its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI, became the interlocutor for armed jihadi outfits operating across the border. Key among the fighters carrying out the jihad were foreign militants that adhered to Salafi Islam, similar to that found in Saudi Arabia, with its emphasis on returning to the "purer" Islam of the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Other fighters belonged to the Deobandi school, another austere brand of the religion with roots on the subcontinent.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

The audience watching Qawwali singers at the shrine of Baba Farid

Madrassas — particularly of the Deobandi variety — flourished across Pakistan. An influx of Pakistani migrant workers returning from the Gulf also swelled the ranks of Pakistanis sympathetic to the region's strict version of Islam.

When the Soviets left Afghanistan, the United States left the jihad game, but the ISI did not.

The Taliban was incubated in Deobandi madrassas on the Pakistani side of the border, with Pakistani intelligence support backing the Taliban as it rolled into Afghanistan and took power. The ISI also focussed its attention eastward, cultivating jihadi groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, as proxies to attack India. Jihad had become state policy, and it was the hardliners — not the Barelvis — who disproportionately ended up with the money, the military patronage, the madrassas, and the organisation.

Fast-forward to today, and there are: a US-led war against the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan, a drone war in Pakistan's tribal areas, and overlapping waves of suicide bombings and targeted killings across the country. Working out who calls the shots — spooks or militants — and what exactly are the links between them is a murky business.

For years, voices both in the West and in Pakistan have pushed for the political empowerment of the country’s Barelvis as a way of countering radicalism — they have also thrown money behind this strategy.

As Pakistan's problems with Islamist militancy have metastasised, sectarian attacks first targeted Shias. Now they single out its Sufi sites.

I MEET Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, a prominent Lahore hardliner, at 10am in the courtyard of the headquarters of Jamiat Ahle Hadith, the Salafi political organisation of which he is the secretary general.

He arrives late, bushy-bearded and sleepy-eyed, and strides along with an entourage of followers, shaking the hands of dozens of young men as we make our way to an office inside. We have a short amount of time before he heads off to take part in a "long march" by Difa-e-Pakistan, a coalition of hardliners opposed to the Pakistani government's recent decision to reopen NATO supply lines to Afghanistan. Leading the coalition is Hafiz Saeed, the co-founder of LeT, the group most recently famous for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, which killed 164 people.

Sitting down in front of two-dozen bearded followers, some of whom film our conversation on their mobile phones, Ibtasam strikes an ecumenical tone.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Qawwali attracts colourful characters

"The difference is similar to what you have in Christianity with Protestants and Catholics," he explains.

Deobandis and Salafis emphasise the need for humans to submit to God as the creator of everything and to recognise a separation between the two, he says.

The Sufi tradition, by contrast, says God is present in all creation, and as such that the individual can reach God in this life through music, dancing or meditation. The Sufi way of doing things is an artificial addition to true Islam, a contamination that has seeped in from the old culture of the Indian subcontinent, he says.

Worshipping Sufi saints and revering their tombs brings Muslims to the sin of shirk — or polytheism. It also distracts them from the obligation to wage jihad.

“Whenever there’s a suicide blast, we always find the body and head of some Pashtun guy from the tribal areas, not a white guy from America.”

Ibtasam denies the involvement of any Pakistani jihadi group in attacking Sufis. He says his beef with the Barelvis is purely on the level of academic debate, not violence.

So who is behind the attacks? Foreigners, he says, probably the Indians.

IN ANOTHER PART of town later that day, Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq Naqshbandi scoffs at protestations by hardliners that they have no hand in the violence. When suicide bombers detonate their vests, there is a tendency for the bomber's head to pop off like a champagne cork. When Naqshbandi's spiritual leader, the prominent local Barelvi cleric Sarfraz Naeemi, was killed along with three other followers by a suicide bomber in June 2009, the head that landed in the courtyard of the Jamiya Naeemiya madrassa was clearly Pakistani.

"Whenever there's a suicide blast, we always find the body and head of some Pashtun guy from the tribal areas, not a white guy from America," Naqshbandi says. But he does have one thing in common with Ibtasam, and indeed many Pakistanis, in that he sees foreign hands behind his enemies. At different stages during the course of a one-hour interview, Naqshbandi accuses the militants of having sponsors in Saudi Arabia, India, Britain, Iran and the United States.

<p>Aubrey Belford</p>

Aubrey Belford

Guard at Data Durbar in Lahore

I ask why Pakistan's Barelvis have not fought back against the Taliban. He says they have, but have stopped short of taking up arms. The late Naeemi was an outspoken critic of the Pakistani Taliban, issuing a fatwa against suicide bombing in 2005, and was instrumental, before his assassination, in efforts to bring together Barelvi clerics and organisations to counter the Taliban. Naeemi's assassination could have triggered nationwide violence, but Barelvis held back, Naqshbandi says.

Probably the biggest effort to organise Barelvis against militants came with the 2009 foundation of the Sunni Ittehad Council, a nationwide coalition of religious groups that has denounced Deobandi and Salafi violence. The group quickly attracted a flurry of foreign media attention, as well as at least some modest Western backing, with the United States disclosing that it paid USD36,607 to the group in 2009 to fund protest action against the Taliban. The group vehemently denies it receives any foreign support, but this denial is disputed by analysts such as Muhammad Amir Rana, of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, who says the group, and others like it, have likely received far more under-the-table help.

On the surface, it may have seemed that the West was buying moderate friends. But Pakistani religion and politics are more complex than that. And Barelvis can sometimes have a curious interpretation of nonviolence.

In January 2011, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was gunned down by his own bodyguard, Mailk Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Taseer's crime was to question Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws, which, on paper, offer punishments as severe as death. The assassination of Taseer, and the feting of his killer on the streets in showers of rose petals, created revulsion around the world and a deluge of headlines about Pakistan's slide into extremism.

“The thing is, mysticism is pretty introverted and individualistic. And it doesn’t have a political model to follow.”

The problem was that front and centre of the whole ugly episode were Barelvis, including the Sunni Ittehad Council. Finding a cleric who would agree to offer prayers at Taseer's funeral turned into a mini-crisis of its own, until the role was eventually filled by a member of his Pakistan People's Party.

Nawaz Kharral, a spokesman for the council, jumps at the opportunity to take credit for creating the environment that led to Taseer's killing — and then for street demonstrations lionising Qadri. "We're the ones who went to the police and lodged a report against Taseer, because he violated Pakistani law," he says. "But when the government did not act during all that time, then somebody had to take some action."

None of this surprises Rana, the analyst. While Barelvi Islam is heterodox, it has limits to its tolerance that put it at odds with liberal ideas. The Sufi tradition, which makes up a key part of Barelvi Islam, is particularly marked by expressions of strong love for saints, God and the Prophet Muhammad.

Perhaps more than anyone, they don't take kindly to these deities being slighted.

While modern Pakistani politics plumb new depths of violence and intolerance, the music still thrives.

Not far down the road from the madrassa where Sarfraz Naeemi was killed is a large, heavily guarded mosque of the Ahmadiyya community, the sect that was declared non-Muslim in 1974. On May 28, 2010, squads of gunmen stormed this and one other mosque during Friday prayer, massacring 86 people. Again, the global public was aghast. Among the Pakistani public, there was far less sympathy for the Ahmadis.

Naqshbandi strongly denies that Sufis and Ahmadiyyas are facing a common fight against extremism. While he rejects the use of violence against Ahmadiyya, Naqshbandi hastens to tell me that it was Barelvi leaders who played a key role in pushing through the legal measures that turned Ahmadis into pariahs.

So why have Barelvis preached love in the shrines but hatred on the streets? And why haven't they posed a threat to the Taliban?

"It's a lost cause," says Wajahat Masood, a liberal political analyst, who teaches media at Lahore's Beaconhouse National University. "The thing is, mysticism is pretty introverted and individualistic. And it doesn't have a political model to follow. On the other hand Deobandis… have a political model. They have a political framework."

The only hitch to the staging of this Sufi festival came last year, when the killing of Osama bin Laden a few days before the scheduled event, led to cancellation.

While there's no doubt Sufis follow a more tolerant creed, getting mixed up in Pakistan's decades-old combination of politics, religion and militancy is inherently poisonous.

"Let's make no mistake. The essential psychology of political religion is the same with Sufi Islam as it is with Salafi Islam. It just so happened that the money was coming from Saudi Arabia and other Salafi Islamist monarchies in the Gulf to a particular sect, so they were able to be in the position to impose, through the barrel of a gun, their kind of psychology.

"If you give the money, and support the other party, they'll be just as intolerant and just as violent, and in fact we would be opening another Pandora's box," Masood says.

"The thing is that we have to wean the state of Pakistan from the idea that they can impose their strategic objectives through non-state actors, be they Salafis or be they Sufis."

Rana, of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, agrees. "Basically this perception started that if you invest in the so-called moderate Islam or Sufi Islam, it may produce a counter-narrative" to extremism, he says. But that hasn't happened.

Strengthening Sufism also means strengthening the political hand of Pakistan's zamindar feudal landlords, who dominate party politics, and who often draw their support from the patronage of shrines. Recently ousted Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani is descended on his father's side from the saint Syed Musa Pak, whose shrine is in the ancient city of Multan.

The Bhutto family is deeply linked, both politically and spiritually, to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sindh, one of the country's most revered. Rana argues that unlike Deobandi and Salafi militants, who seek to capture and transform the Pakistani state, Sufism is already wedded to civilian politics.

And at those moments when the military has let them rule, Pakistan's feudal civilian political parties have hardly shown sterling behaviour, either.

WHILE MODERN Pakistani politics plumb new depths of violence and intolerance, the music still thrives.

With his greying ponytail and flowing embroidered kurta pajamas, Faizaan Peerzada, part of a renowned cultural family, appears at first to be a prosperous, ageing hippie. But he's not a big fan of comparisons between Sufi culture and the young westerners who once drew inspiration from it. "A tribe of hippies? It was a period," he says. Pakistan's Sufism, with its hundreds of shrines spread across the country's flat, fertile heartland, is something much older. Peerzada claims to have visited 400 shrines in his life, 100 of them in Lahore.

For large numbers of the most devoted, the shrine circuit becomes all-consuming.

"This is a journey. I met this guy who said that he was a truck driver and used to make, like, 30,000 rupees (about AUD305) a month. His father was a wealthy guy, he had six trucks, and he was lost," Peerzada enthuses — being lost is a good thing, in his opinion. "He's got long hair, he's not washed in seven years, he's got lice you could see on his face and he's sitting in mud in a makeshift little thing and he's taking the dope and he said: 'This is my life. I'm into a journey. I meet God every day.' So this is a no-return situation for a lot of people, and music has played a really important role."

Peerzada did make his return to the real world, and his family has been key in Lahore's festivals, which include heavy doses of Sufi and fusion culture. At its peak, the main Sufi music event, The World Performing Arts Festival, attracted 28,000 guests from 90 countries. Then a bomb attack in 2008 injured 17 people, and killed off the festival. The Peerzadas have continued to put on a smaller annual event, the Sufi Soul World Music Festival, despite the fact that their restaurant on the edge of Lahore, Peeru's Café, has also been bombed twice (with no loss of life). The only hitch to the staging of this Sufi festival came last year, when the killing of Osama bin Laden a few days before the scheduled event, led to cancellation.

No matter the threats from militants, the devotional pull of Sufi music is just too strong. "This is not about a boy and a girl falling in love. This is about man falling in love with the creator," Peerzada says.

Read more of Aubrey Belford’s sub-continental dispatches on India’s answer to Oprah, bottling the monsoon to beat water shortages, and the Mumbai slum dwellers using film in their fight against ruthless developers.

4 comments on this story
by nicholas

Well-written. Thought provoking.

August 9, 2012 @ 3:33pm
Show previous 1 comments
by Betul Mengi

Lovely article. I really enjoyed the inclusion of multimedia.

August 21, 2012 @ 11:30am
by Ianjompa

Too short of an article for a story hundreds of years in the making. A pleasant read nevertheless. Maybe the multimedia ought to be placed in a dedicated column within the page. Too distracting. Anyway, terrific job Mr. Belford.

November 1, 2012 @ 6:07am
by Nusrat

Very enlightening and informative. Written with great intellectual gentleness.

November 27, 2012 @ 11:12pm
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