The people of Pakistan, and Muslims as well as non-Muslims around the world, were horrified when, at midnight on July 1, three bombers struck the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore. Sufis often perform their rituals, known as zikr or “remembrance of God,” on Thursday nights, in preparation for the Friday collective prayer, and the sacred complex was packed. In the attack, 45 people died and 175 were injured. Pakistani media reported that two terrorists blew themselves up inside the building while another stayed outside and threw grenades into the building.
“Data Darbar” means “tomb of the generous one,” and is the mausoleum of Data Ganj Baksh, a name meaning “giver of spiritual treasures” conferred on the 10th-century Sufi, Abul Hassan Ali al-Hajvery, who is buried there. Al-Hajvery, born in today’s Afghanistan, is one of the most prominent Sunni Sufis, beloved among Hindus as well as Muslims in South Asia.
The atrocity was not an isolated occurrence. In its aftermath, the government of the Pakistan province of Sindh announced that 80 Sufi shrines are now considered vulnerable to attack, including 36 in the city of Karachi. Many more such structures remain unprotected. The slayings have been blamed on al Qaeda and its Taliban allies.
As adherents to Saudi-financed Wahhabism and the similar South Asian Deobandi form of Muslim fundamentalism, the terrorists have long proclaimed their hatred of the Sufis, whom they condemn for praying at the graves of Muslim saints. In the perverse ideology of the radicals, this traditional Islamic devotion represents a deviation from strict monotheism, and, allegedly, too closely resembles Christian worship of Jesus.
The murderous campaign against Sufis has gained momentum since al Qaeda shifted its focus of aggression from Iraq to South Asia. In 2005, the Bari Imam shrine, named for a 17th-century Sufi and located in Islamabad, was bombed during an observance by Shia Muslims, with 18 left dead. In Ajmer Sharif, India, the tomb of Moinuddin Chishti, the most famous South Asian Sufi, who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries, was attacked in 2007, with two killed and 20 injured. At the end of that year, the Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba shrine in Peshawar was almost completely demolished by explosives. That was the first such assault in Peshawar, but was followed in March 2008, when the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Islam (Islamic Army) killed 10 villagers in an ambush with rockets at the 400-year-old shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba near Peshawar.
Last year the Afghan Taliban blasted the Peshawar shrine of the 17th-century Pashtun Sufi poet Rehman Baba, and, the next day, blew up the nearby tomb of another Sufi, Bahadur Baba. Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, a leading moderate Sunni cleric, was assassinated in 2009, after eloquently denouncing the radicals. And in June of this year, only a week before the mass killing in Lahore, the Taliban blew up the Mian Umar Baba shrine in Peshawar.
While the names of the Muslim mystics for whom these monuments are named are little known in the West, they are honored and beloved among South Asians as well as other Muslims. The campaign to eradicate their tradition is an essential element of the al Qaeda/Taliban effort to do away with any feelings of respect for differences among Muslims, as well as good relations with non-Muslims, in their chosen theater of terror. Sufis are generally known for their dedication to both principles.
The anti-Sufi offensive is not limited to South Asia. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, early in the morning of June 27, 2010, Saudi-inspired extremists bombed a police station in Bugojno, a small town near Sarajevo. One officer was killed and six more wounded. Bosnian authorities arrested the best-known Wahhabi in the vicinity, Haris Causevic, who admitted the attack, declaring he was motivated by opposition to an annual Sufi observance, known as Ajvatovica, held near Bugojno. Bosnian police arrested four more Wahhabis in the case.
The Bosnian Wahhabi website www.putvjernika.com, the title of which means “path of the believers,” and which is closely monitored by U.S. and other international military and police personnel in the Balkan country, denounced Ajvatovica as an unacceptable “innovation” or addition to fundamentalist Islam, as well as an occasion when men and women mingle. Ajvatovica was held for the 500th time this year, and celebrates a Sufi, Ajvaz-Dedo, credited with the miraculous ability to find water. Muslim fundamentalists despise the spiritual powers ascribed in local legend to the Sufis as much as they hate the Sufis themselves. In Pakistan, Muslim faith-healers have also been murdered.
In both Pakistan and Bosnia, Sufi customs are deeply rooted in local Muslim faith, and the cruelty of the radicals against them increasingly stirs deep revulsion. But official Islamic leaders in both countries are slow to identify the enemy with Saudi-backed Wahhabism and its allied ideologies. Outrage is sharply expressed by ordinary Muslims, who have been left to take action on their own. Sooner rather than later, the moderate majority in both countries will be forced to resist the bloody onslaught of the terrorists.
Irfan al-Alawi is executive director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, based in the UK. Stephen Schwartz is author of The Two Faces of Islam and The Other