The Sufis of Lahore

It’s July 2010. With the speed of a meteorite, the news of the recent suicide bombing at the Data Ganj-Bakhsh Sufi shrine in Lahore, Pakistan came and went. More than forty people were killed, including children. Almost two hundred were injured. The loss of safety at Pakistan’s most important Sufi centre was incalculable. But within days of the tragedy it was absent from our media and our minds. It is understandable that with the regularity of these violent catastrophes it’s hard to maintain appropriate levels of outrage about Taliban activity in Pakistan or Afghanistan, never mind compassion for the victims. Yet there are cogent reasons why this event should be remembered and why we should continue to be concerned.

Punjabi Taliban apparently carried out the attacks. These are fundamentalist Muslims who regard the Sufi community of Data Ganj-Bakhsh with extreme hostility for their relatively liberal religious views. The attack was condemned as “barbaric”. And it horribly exemplifies the internecine struggles that can make differences of perspective within a single religious faith every bit as dangerous as anything experienced between people of different faiths or cultures. Such attitudes are not new. Nor are they limited to struggles within Islam. As an example far closer to most Australian lives, sectarian violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland resulted in three and a half thousand deaths between 1969 and 2001. We need no persuading to see how dangerous it is when violence is fanned by self-righteousness.

It is characteristic of all religious fundamentalists to believe they have a monopoly on truth. And that their views are endorsed by God. This is the case at the extreme ends of all three theistic religions. It can mean that they reserve a particular depth of contempt for those within their own faiths who believe “incorrectly”. Often this is regarded as worse than having no beliefs at all.

The tragedy in Lahore also has a long history. Sufism is widely regarded as the mystical form of Islam although it may, in fact, pre-date it. There are a number of different expressions, some shaped by geography and culture, some by varying theological interpretations. What these teachings share, however, and share also with the variety of mystical teachings within Judaism and Christianity, is an emphasis on a direct relationship with God. In Sufism, God is frequently addressed as the “Beloved”, the ultimate source of love. The newly popular Sufi poets, Rumi, Hafiz and Kabir, are just some in a long line of exceptional writers and artists who have brought this joyful spirituality to our attention. Reflecting this intimate, loving relationship with God is an emphasis on thinking inclusively about others. This means treating people with tolerance and respect regardless of whether they share your beliefs or culture. It’s possible to suggest that denying or ignoring this core value is the central tragedy in contemporary religion.

All three theistic religions have a decidedly patchy history in relation to their mystical traditions. One of the ways in which religion has flowered over the last fifty years or so is through the renaissance of these uplifting teachings. But because their emphasis is both inclusive and universally ethical, and because this in turn depends far more on an inner relationship with God than on the interpretations of those in religious authority, even the oldest and most sublime teachings are abhorred by religious dogmatists. So, often, are the followers of such teachings.

From this distance, few of us will know how liberal or inclusive the Sufis of Lahore are. We can only surmise that the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks, as well as those who organised them, believed them to be “liberal” or “”tolerant”” enough to be killed or effectively terrified. Part of what makes this so tragic is that for centuries it was Islam, not Christianity, that was more generally tolerant of its mystical practitioners.

It is also the teachings of relatively contemporary Sufis like the Indian-born musician, Hazrat Inayat Khan, that have significantly opened up the eyes of countless Westerners to some key aspects of the intellectual as well as spiritual history of Islam. This offers a quite different picture from the ferocious fundamentalism with which most Westerners are more familiar. A teacher within the thousand-year-old Chishti Order of Sufis, Inayat Khan (who died in 1927) went to Europe early in the last century and offered what was then a radical message of religious tolerance and universal love.

Recognising the depth and variety of ways in which Islam can be interpreted may not keep the Sufis of Lahore safe. It may be this very example of diversity within Islam that drives their persecutors to violence. Nonetheless, it is crucial that the fundamentalists of any faith do not entirely dominate and distort our thinking about what religion is, both the harm that it can cause and the healing that it can achieve.