Religious Violence

Pakistan suicide bombing: Why ISIS feels so threatened by Sindh's Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine

No other shrine in the country captures the essence of religious syncretism like this one.

The dhamal is an oxymoron. It annihilates, putting an end to the subjective identity of a person. In the act of dhamal a person ceases to exist, and merges with the supreme. And that is where it is becomes an oxymoron. It is the ultimate form of existence, supreme, metaphysical, a merging of all.

Ultimately culminating into whirls, it aligns with the whirling of the cosmos, its orbital movements. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism, a closely guarded tenet in Abrahamic faiths. In fact it goes one step further, even breaking the barrier between a devotee and the divine. Both become one, as monotheism merges into monism.

While the ultimate culmination of dhamal aligns with the cosmic patterns, its individual steps follow no pattern at all. It could begin as a gentle dance, a flirtatious duel with the beat of the drum. It teases, consents to a union and then shyly backs away. The dholwala plays along. The contest is for everyone to see and partake. The lovers finally merge, initially softly, tenderly, and then passionately, wildly. It has uncontrollable energy, a force which through its movements can halt the movement of the cosmos. Like the Tandava of Shiva and the ecstatic dance of Kali, if uninterrupted it can lead to destruction. Yet on the other hand, like Vishnu, the preserver, through its alignment with the cosmos it holds the world in its place.

At the courtyard of a Sufi shrine, when dhamal becomes one with the beat of the drum, gender too ceases to exist. In a deeply segregated society, where sexuality is closely monitored, it flows easily, in the form of spiritual energy. Men, women, ceasing to exist, whirl in unison. Otherwise discriminated and treated as untouchables, Khawaja Sara, who travel from all parts of the country to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, particularly at the time of his urs, perform the dhamal with the other devotees, laying bare all their tales of injustices on the courtyard, which irrespective of their gender, age, sexual orientation, caste and religion, soaks everything, and gives them a new life. The dhamal is a rite of passage.

A temporary stop

It is a central feature of religious devotion at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Just as the world never stops to rest, similarly dhamal never stops at the shrine of the patron saint of Sindh. However on the night of February 16, on Thursday, a holy night in Islamic spirituality, it stopped temporarily. Hundreds of devotees had gathered at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar to experience this spiritual performance – dhamal. Like on any other night, it must have been a collection of men, women and transgender. The Syeds must have stood next to the Musalis. Hindus and Muslims must have eaten from the same plates at the langar. At the middle of the performance it is believed, a female suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS blew herself up, killing more than 70 people injuring several more. However even before the echoes of the screams died down, and the last strains of blood could be washed off the courtyard, dhamal began once again on Friday morning. It was like it had never stopped. The world never stops rotating.

While claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS called it a Shia gathering. They couldn’t be more wrong. Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalised into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, he is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in the country, he is their peer as much as he peer for Muslims. Some might label him to be a Sindhi saint, but songs of his praises are sung at the Sufi shrines in Punjab as well. In the summers at the time of his urs celebration special trains are booked to bring his Punjabi devotees into the heartland of Sindh.

There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared outside its confines. That’s why this courtyard represents such a threat. It defies all narratives, of exclusive nationalism and religious identities. It maybe just a few thousand people but a powerful narrative. The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.

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