About eight years ago, William Dalrymple spent time at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan in Sindh province of Pakistan, meeting devotees and dervishes to understand the syncretic culture of the Sufis, who preach universal love. In his book, Nine Lives, the historian and travel writer describes the shrine as “a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them”. This week, an IS suicide bomber triggered a bomb inside the famous shrine, soon after evening prayers, killing 75 people and injuring more than 200. The author spoke to Shalini Umachandranabout his visit and why Sufis are soft targets
You describe Sehwan as a remote, deserted landscape of rocky hills and desert scrubland…
Yes, it’s far out. It’s this mix of desert and strips of fertile land on the bank of the Indus. It is a place that has seen little development and in many ways is still very feudal and wild. The town of Sehwan is about the size of Ajmer with the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at the centre.
Why is the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine important?
Lal Shahbaz was a Sufi saint, and it’s where he is buried. It is a truly syncretic place, where Hindus and Muslims are equally welcome and worship together. Sehwan was once a major centre for Shaivism, and the hereditary guardian of the tomb is still a Hindu. I was told that there was a Shiva lingam right there in the shrine until the 1970s. Some Hindus are said to consider Lal Shahbaz an incarnation of a fourth century Sanskrit poet turned Shaivaite ascetic, others call him Jhule Lal, the god of the Indus. All these Hindu legends and beliefs have come together with the faith of the Muslims to create a truly extraordinary place.
What was the shrine like when you visited eight years ago and who did you meet?
I met devotees, pirs, dervishes, Hindus, Muslims, regular folk who were there because someone had told them a visit would help a particular problem. More than any other Sufi shrine, this one seemed to bring people together. One of the most amazing moments there was the dhammal, or devotional dance for the saint, which takes place every evening at sunset. That’s the time the suicide bomber struck. It’s usually when the most number of devotees are at the shrine, and it’s the main ceremony. It’s a wonderful, joyful, exciting yet very moving ceremony that draws people from all faiths. It’s got great music, and people believe it has the ability to heal. Sufism is about love and universality and that’s what makes them attractive targets to the Salafis.
Was this conflict between Sufism and Salafism evident even when you visited?
It’s always been there. It was always a point of discord. You see it in quite a few places, for instance, at the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi. The puritan Salafis look down on the images, idols, music, poetry and rituals of the Sufis. They want to root out what they see as dangerous impurities. This is an ancient contention that has been debated in Islam for thousands of years. What is new is that now you have the suicide bombers. When I visited, there was no active clash with the Sufis, but it was an ongoing conflict, a tension. The Salafis had their madrassas and were trying to tell people that Sufism is a whole lot of superstition, wrong and un-Islamic. This conflict is playing out across the world, and its outcome will determine the future of Pakistan and of Islam.