The Other Side Of Pakistani Islam
By Yoginder Sikand
26 January, 2006
'The greatest dilemma facing Pakistan is the question of its identity', says Khurshid Kaimkhani, a well-known Pakistani leftist social activist and my host in Sindh during a recent visit to Pakistan. 'There's this constant and never-ending dispute as to whether Pakistan is the eastern-most part of West Asia or the western-most part of South Asia'. 'In short', he says, 'the question is: Are we part of the Arab-Iranian cultural world or the Indic South Asian civilization?'.
Kaimkhani has no doubt as to where Pakistan's roots lie. 'The common heritage that we share with the rest of South Asia, in particular north India, is undeniable', he says. The son of a Chauhan Rajput Muslim migrant from Rajasthan, 72-year old Kaimkhani is a regular visitor to India and insists that the future of South Asia as a whole depends crucially on people-to-people contact between Indians and Pakistanis and a recognition of their common roots and culture despite their religious differences. 'At the popular level,' he tells me, 'religious antagonisms are much less pronounced. Historically, local forms of Islam and Hinduism have borrowed from each other and we need to build on this to critique other forms of religion propagated by political elites and right-wing obscurantist religious groups that are exclusivist and that target people of other faiths'.
Kaimkhani is not romanticizing about an imaginary past, I discover as I travel across Pakistan. At Sehwan Sharif, in interior Sindh, I see large numbers of Hindu Dalits praying along with Muslims at the shrine of the famed Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. I see the same at Bhit Sharif, at the shrine of Sindh's most famous Sufi poet, Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif. At Uderolal I visit a unique shrine complex: the temple-dargah of Sain Jhulelal-a saint venerated as the god of the Indus by Sindhi Hindus and as a Sufi by local Muslims. Intriguingly, the sprawling shrine complex has the saint's Muslim-style grave in the centre, flanked by a temple on one side and a mosque on the other.
Kanha, a Bhil labourer I met in a village just outside Hyderabad, Sindh's second largest city, takes me to his hovel, where he shows me a small mud structure that houses Jogmaya, a Bhil goddess, wrapped up in a bundle of red cloth and a little cradle dedicated to Sufi Sahib, probably one of the innumerable Muslim mystics of Sindh. He introduces me to Lal Sain Sahib, a Jogi, whose caste profession is catching snakes. Lal Sain is a Muslim, but looks and behaves no different from the Hindu Jogis who are also present during our conversation. There are both Hindu and Muslim Jogis in Sindh, Lal Sain tells me, and there is little to distinguish the two. 'We eat with each other and smoke each other's hukkahs', he says, 'because we are children of the same parents'. Bhagto, a Hindu Jogi who joins in our conversation, nods in approval. 'Yes, Ishvar and Allah are one and the same, as all our Sufis have insisted'. That's no empty rhetoric I discover that evening, when we all get together at Kanha's house, and after a meal of thick rotis and meat, the Bhils and the Jogis, Hindus and Muslims, take out their khadtals, dholaks and chimtas, and sing bhajans in praise of Ram, Krishna, Mahadev, the Prophet Muhammad and the Sindhi Sufis.
Sindh is known for its deeply-rooted Sufi traditions, which brought together Sindhi Hindus and Muslims in shared cultural world characterized by reverence of common saints. The situation in Punjab is similar. 'Numerous Punjabi Sufi saints, whose works are still immensely popular, are known for their breath of vision, seeing God's light in every particle of the universe, in the mosque as well as the temple', says Saeeda Diep, my host in Lahore. She takes me to the shrine of Madho Lal Husain in downtown Lahore, a unique Sufi dargah that houses the graves of two male lovers, Madho, a Hindu, and Husain, a Muslim, who were so close that they are today remembered by a single name. She waxes eloquent about the unconventional love relationship between the two that angered the pundits and mullahs but won the hearts of the masses.
In Lahore I also meet Pir Syed Chan Shah Qadri, the custodian of the shrine of the sixteenth century Sufi Hazrat Miyan Mir. The saint was the spiritual preceptor of Dara Shikoh, son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, a renowned mystic in his own right. Dara was the first to translate the Upanishads into Persian and sought to draw parallels between Hindu and Islamic mysticism and thereby bring Hindus and Muslims closer together. Hazrat Miyan Mir was no less of an ecumenist, the Pir tells me. In recognition of his spiritual stature, he was invited by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru, to lay the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib or Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most holy shrine of the Sikhs. The Pir informs me that many Punjabi Muslims still look upon Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, as a great mystic in the Sufi tradition.
In Syed Chan Shah's home I am introduced to Zahoor Ahmad Khan, seventh generation descendant of two Pathan brothers Ghani Khan and Nabi Khan. When Gobind Singh, the last guru of the Sikhs, was pursued by Aurangzeb's forces, he was sheltered by the brothers. They disguised him as a Muslim saint, the Pir of Ucch Sharif, and, carrying him in a palanquin, they slipped through the Mughal lines. In gratitude, Khan tells me, the Guru presented them with a letter written in his own hand, announcing that, as Khan says, 'Whoever among my followers loves and protects these two brothers loves me, too'. In recognition of the service rendered to the Guru by the brothers, Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh kingdom in Punjab, granted their descendants a large estate in Mandara, a village in present-day Indian Punjab. The family resided in the estate till 1947, when, during the Partition riots, they fled to Pakistan. 'When the whole of Punjab was burning, when Hindus and Sikhs in western Punjab and Muslims in eastern Punjab were being massacred and driven out of their homes, the Sikhs of Mandara pleaded with my father and other relatives not to leave. But we had to, so terrible was the situation then', says Zahoor Khan, who was a young lad of fifteen when he came to Pakistan. Last year he went back to his village for the first time since he and his family had left it, at the invitation of a Sikh organization that seeks to revive and preserve the memory of the two Pathan friends of Guru Gobind Singh. 'I was given an enthusiastic welcome when I arrived in Mandara. The whole village came out to greet me', says Khan, his eyes brimming with tears.
Also present during our conversation is Naim Tahir, a middle-aged, soft-spoken man, who introduces himself as a descendant of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak's closest companion, a Muslim of the Mirasi caste. Tahir tells me about the relationship between his ancestor and Guru Nanak. Both Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana were born in the village of Talwandi, and grew up together as friends. 'Bhai Mardana had a melodious voice and used to play the rabab', and 'when Guru Nanak began his spiritual mission of bringing Hindus and Muslims together in common worship of the one God and denouncing caste and social inequalities, Bhai Mardana joined him. Together they traveled together to various Hindu and Muslim holy places, including even Mecca and Medina. Guru Nanak would compose his mystical verses or shabad and Bhai Mardana would sing them while playing the rabab'.
Tahir tells me that his family tradition of singing the verses of Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus has been carried down through the generations. 'Yes, we are Muslims,' he says, 'but there is nothing in the teachings of Guru Nanak that is incompatible with Islam. In fact there are many verses in the Guru Granth Sahib written by Muslim Sufis, including the well-known Chishti saint Baba Farid'. Tahir confesses to know little else about Bhai Mardana, other than the fact that after Guru Nanak died he traveled to Afghanistan and is buried somewhere there. 'You should speak to my father Ashiq Ali Bhai Lal about this', he advises. 'He has even sung shabads in the Golden Temple and is regularly invited to sing in gurudwaras and gurumandirs, Sindhi Hindu shrines dedicated to the Sikh gurus, in different places in Pakistan'. Ashiq Ali, unfortunately, is not in town. He is away to Sindh on the invitation of a group of Sindhi Hindus, and I'm leaving the next day back for India. I tell Tahir that meeting his father is good enough excuse to plan a second trip to Pakistan.
Shared religious traditions such as these in what is now Pakistan were extensively commented upon by colonial ethnographers. In pre-colonial times, at the popular level boundaries between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab and Sindh, the heartland of present-day Pakistan, as in much of north India, were often blurred. 'Colonial policies of divide-and-rule and the political machinations of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim elites, competing with each other for colonial patronage resulted in the creation of notions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as neatly-separated communities having little or nothing in common with each other, which is really an inversion of social reality', says Husain Altaf, a Lahore-based social activist. 'In post-colonial Pakistan and India', he adds, 'ruling elites and right-wing Islamist and Hindutva groups patronized by the ruling classes have been actively engaged in magnifying these differences and denouncing shared religious traditions for their own political purposes'.
To substantiate his argument, Altaf shows me some books published by the notorious Wahhabi Pakistani terrorist outfit, Lashkar-e Tayyeba. The books tirelessly repeat the same point: about Hinduism, indeed all religions other than Islam, being 'deviant' and as 'leading their adherents to hell', and exhorting Muslims to be 'hard against all disbelievers'. 'Since non-Muslims don't believe in Islam Muslims should have no love for them', one book declares. Another Lashkar tract claims that the Prophet Muhammad announced that 'he who takes part in the jihad against India will not smell the fire of hell'. In short, as the Lashkar sees it, Islam and other religions have nothing in common. 'That goes against local forms of Islam in Pakistan, particularly Sufi traditions, that have been open to other religions and their adherents', Altaf tells me. He adds that that the particular tradition about India attributed to the Prophet and cited in the Lashkar texts is indeed found in some collections of Hadith, sayings ascribed to the Prophet, but assures me that it is a fabrication. 'It was concocted after the death of the Prophet in order to legitimise the imperialist ambitions and greed of the Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphs', he opines.
'This doctrinaire, ideological and exclusivist form of Islam', Altaf carries on, 'has a certain appeal in some circles but it does not have mass acceptance and there is also much resistance to it from various quarters. Projecting Islam as completely distinct from other religions and equating Muslim culture with Arab culture goes completely against our cultural traditions and history'. 'This is an elitist project, which does not reflect the way Islam is lived and practiced by common Pakistanis, who share the same basic cultural universe as most north Indians', he opines. He likens hardliner Islamist groups like the Lashkar to Hindutva chauvinists in India, who uphold an equally exclusivist version of Hinduism, one that is predicated on an unrelenting hatred of non-Hindus, particularly Muslims.
'All religions', Altaf muses, 'can be interpreted in diverse ways. Committed believers, Hindus, Muslims and others, urgently need to rescue our pluralistic religious ethos in order to combat those who spread hatred and violence in their name'. I could hardly agree more, I tell him.