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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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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