A few of us had met for drinks at a friend’s farmhouse on the outskirts of the city of Kasur, which borders Lahore. We knew we just had to visit the shrine of Baba Bulleh Shah before heading back to Lahore, for a visit to Kasur is incomplete without seeing this Sufi shrine in the heart of the city.

The verses of this 17th century Sufi poet are still sung all over Punjab, in Pakistan as well as India. His pointed criticism of institutionalised religion and the hypocrisy of religious leaders has captured the heartbeat of several generations of Punjabis who have seen religious persecution at several points in history. For agnostics like my friends and I, Bulleh Shah is like a beacon of hope, his criticism of religious oppression in many ways more terse and relevant than that of several Leftist intellectuals.

It is ironic, then that Bulleh Shah’s shrine has, over the past few years, become one of the most dominant religious symbols of Kasur. He says in one of his poems:

“Partisans live in Dharamsalas, cheats in temples,
butchers reside in mosques;
while lovers live apart from them all.”

A mosque has been constructed next to his shrine whose minaret vies to be one of the tallest structures in the city. We visited the shrine a couple of years before Sufi shrines across the country started coming under attack, so there was minimum security.

As has been the tradition for centuries, the shrine remains open all night, giving refuge to anyone in need of it. At the courtyard, facing the room housing the grave of Bulleh Shah, devotees sang Bulleh Shah’s poetry:

“With whom should I share the secrets of my heart”

We sat facing the qawwal, listening to their chorus over and over again. It took over us like a spell. It became an expression of what was in our hearts. This line captured the reality of our existence – our struggles, our pains.

I noticed one of my friends, who at the time was particularly stressed by familial and financial concerns, drown into the depths of this line. First his head and then his body started moving with the beat. Without a warning he got up and started whirling. He was in a state of trance. He was performing the dhamaal. He banged his feet vehemently on the floor with the beat of the dhol, scattering at the shrine of Bulleh Shah all the secrets of his heart that he could not share with anyone else.

Rules of religion

Religious puritans often resent such an expression of religiosity. It is one of the several reasons that Islamic militant organisations, who see themselves as guardians of a pure Islamic culture uncorrupted by other cultural influences, have a disdain for Sufi shrines where such “un-Islamic” practices thrive. Qawwali, dhamaal, and intermingling of sexes at the courtyards of Sufi shrines are seen as unlawful extensions of Islamic religion and thus need to be stopped.

This is also why Sufi shrines have frequently come under attack by militants over the last decade.

The most recent such incident was on November 12, when a suicide bomber, said to be affiliated with the Islamic State, blew himself up at the Shah Noorani shrine in Baluchistan’s Khuzdar district, killing at least 52 people.

In March 2009, the 17th-century shrine of Rahman Baba in Peshawar was attacked, killing over a hundred. On April 3, 2011, a bomb blast at the shrine of a 12th-century Sufi saint Sakhi Sarwar in Dera Ghazi Khan killed around 50. On July 1, 2010, bomb blasts rocked the Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore, killing at least 37. And in October that year, the shrine of the 8th-century Sufi saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi was attacked in Karachi, killing eight.

According to reports on the November 12 attack, the suicide bomber blew himself up when devotees were performing the dhamaal at the courtyard of the shrine, a religious practice that he deemed un-Islamic.

Trance dance

The dhamaal has a long history with Sufi Islam in this part of the world. Every year, on the occasion of the annual urs (death anniversary of the patron saint) celebrations at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sewhan Sharif, Sindh, hundreds of thousands devotees converge and perform the dhamaal, an expression of their religious devotion. In Lahore, every Thursday, devotees gather at the courtyard of the shrine of Baba Shahjamal, and, after consuming hashish and bhang, perform dhamaal to the wild beats of the dhol.

The dance, which involves whirling rapidly, almost uncontrollably in one spot, uncontrollably, has a magnetic-like field around it that draws the everyone in. In traditional Sufi literature, the dhamaal is depicted as having destructive powers. For example, in a folk story about 17th-century Sufi saint Shahjamal says that the the saint destroyed a seven-storey building through his dhamaal. It is perhaps due to this destructive nature of the dhamaal that many anthropologists and historians have made a connection between Sufi dhamaal and the tandava, a passionate dance performed by Shiva, a Hindu God, which has the power to destroy the world.

This is one of the many ways in which Shaivism inspired indigenous Sufi traditions. For instance, like Shiva ascetics, many dervish of the Sufi tradition let their hair grow believing its contains magical power. They also believe that the ash of the fire contains healing properties. Consumption of hashish is also seen as a spiritual rite in both of these traditions. Undoubtedly, as Sufi Islam spread through this region, it adopted and re-appropriated various traditions from the ascetics of Shiva. Dhamaal is one of those traditions.

In a sense, the criticism of Islamic puritanical groups is that Sufism adopts practices that were not part of the “original” religion that emerged from Arabia. However, what this criticism does not take into account is that Islam, like all other religions, also borrowed and incorporated various traditions from the lands that it spread out into. So what constitutes the original religion is hard to trace.

Question of identity

In the context of Pakistan this becomes a graver problem. Pakistan sees itself in opposition to India, which has a Hindu majority. Therefore, it becomes even harder to accept and justify that several religious traditions of this land are inspired by pre-Islamic traditions. It is this ideology that Islamic militants tap into, inspiring young mind. The recent attack at the shrine of Shah Noorani is not an anomaly. Rather it is an expression of a philosophy and ideology that has been promoted ever since the creation of the country, an obsession almost to identify as a pure culture vis-a-vis India. It has been part of the State discourse, expressed through media, education, and even religion for decades. It is these distinct cultures that are used to explain the current India-Pakistan conflict.

How then is one to understand the recent attack at the shrine of Shah Noorani? Aren’t the militant groups attacking Pakistan an extension of the philosophy of the State? How will a State that for years has been obsessed with purifying Pakistani culture from its Hindu past interpret and take action against militants who are doing what it has preached? This battle can never be won as long as Pakistan upholds its obsession of wiping clean its Hindu past. This is an ideological battle in which, unfortunately, the State and the militants find themselves on the same side.

Haroon Khalid is author of the books Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail