There was no need to guess the timing of the attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in the town of Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Thursdays are the most important in the week for Sufis and the shrine is particularly crowded with devotees. The Thursday evening attack by an Islamic State bomber claimed more than 72 lives, including that of women and children, and injured more than 150, which makes it one of the deadliest on Pakistani soil in recent years.
The shrine, among the most important for the Sufi sect, celebrate the Saint Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi. The subcontinent will know him more as the mystic about whom scores of Sufi songs are written, among them the immensely popular “Dama dam Mast Qalandar”.
Sufi shrines are visited both by minority Shiite and Sunni Muslims, but radical militant groups like the Islamic State consider the practice to be against Islam. They regard anyone who does not follow their strict interpretation of Sunni Islam – including members of other schools of Islam – as non-Muslims deserving death. Before Thursday’s attack, ISIS targeted a remote Sufi shrine in mountainous southwestern Pakistan on November 12, 2016 claiming the lives of at least 52 people.
Sufi traditions and shrines have also been attacked in the recent years by Taliban and other extremist Sunni groups. One of the most popular qawwali (Sufi devotional music) singers, Amjad Sabri, was gunned down while driving in his car in Karachi on June 22, 2016 by two attackers on a motorcycle. The attack was claimed by TTP Hakimullah Mehsud group – also known as Pakistani Taliban – who proclaimed that it was in retaliation for a song he sang they deemed “blasphemy”.
Sufism, which is popular in South Asia including Pakistan, is a relatively tolerant school of Islam. In the Sufi tradition, adherents often worship at the shrine of esteemed saints where musicians lead the crowd of devotees in ecstatic song and dance of devotion, also known as dhikr, in which the worshipper is absorbed in the rhythmic repetition of the name of God or his attributes. Qawwali songs praise the God, or the Prophet or Ali (the first imam of Shia Islam), or one of the Sufi saints. Others lend voice to the poet’s longing for God – often expressed in what seems, on the surface, to be a secular love song.
This syncretic form of devotion frequently sparks the ire of fundamentalist Muslims of the Wahhabist/Salafist sect who insist on a stricter, more puritanical interpretation of the Qur’an and decry the Sufis’ musical tradition of devotion and their practice of visiting the graves of Saints. Some devotional songs even explicitly reference religious pluralism and tolerance, which is sharply at odds with with the ideology of the radical militant groups like the TPP and the IS loyalists, who condemn Sufis, Shiites and other religious minorities as heretics.
With the rising terror violence in Pakistani cities unchecked in the recent few months, attacks targeting followers of non-Islamic State versions of Islam are likely to happen again.