They then further expanded their relentless (and remorseless) campaign of anarchic destruction by also including Sufi shrines to their long list of places to be attacked.
A spate of terrorist attacks by the extremists on some famous Sufi shrines in Pakistan has brought into focus something that was taken for granted, and only rarely studied: Pakistan’s ‘shrine culture’ that still thrives in the subcontinent.
This is an important development especially considering the negligible knowledge the country’s young urbanites have of this culture – in spite of the fact that shrines continue to play an important spiritual and economic role in the lives of a majority of Pakistanis.
The shrine culture, pertaining to the devotional, recreational and professional activity around the shrines of Muslim saints, has been present in the subcontinent for hundreds of years.
It is largely associated with activity around the shrines of Sufi saints who started arriving from Iraq, Iran and Central Asia with various waves of Muslim invaders in India from the 8th Century onwards.
These men (and some women) fused Islamic esotericism with the cultural rituals of the many religions that they came into contact with in the subcontinent.
More than the ulema and the clerics, it was the Sufi saints who made the foremost social contribution to the spreading of Islam in the region.
The saints’ interpretation of Islam was more accommodating. Consequently, over the centuries a largely permissive culture of devotional music and indigenously cultivated rituals began taking shape around and inside the shrines.
The shrine culture was enthusiastically patronised by various Muslim dynasties that ruled the subcontinent, and it became a vital part of the belief and ritual system of a large number of Muslims in the region.
This culture has remained intact amongst the majority of Muslims of the region despite the attempts of many puritanical movements striving to eliminate it, alleging that it encouraged heretical ritual and doctrinal innovations.
______________________________________Though before the 1960s, a majority of urban middle-class Pakistanis had always described this culture as born from the spiritual convictions of the uneducated and the superstitious, Pakistani rulers from 1947 till 1977, openly patronised influential Pirs (head of shrines and Sufi orders), to blunt the political challenges posed by the advocates of the more puritanical strains of the faith.
Even before the creation of Pakistan when conservative 19th century Islamic revivalists were denouncing Muslim modernists and reformers like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Syed Ameer Ali for asking India’s Muslims to gain a Western education, and to turn towards a rational interpretation of the Islamic scriptures, Syed and Ali had found some support from Muslim traditionalists who were trying to bring the shrine culture on a single doctrinal platform.
These traditionalists, such as Ahmad Raza Khan, too were facing intellectual attacks from puritanical revivalists.
Raza responded by attempting to give a more consolidated shape to the widespread but diverse shrine culture in India – a lose and decentralised construct that began to be called ‘Barelvi Islam.’
In Pakistan, since ‘Beralvi Islam’ and the shrine culture remained to constitute the bulk of the ‘folk religion’ of the masses, secular military dictator Ayub Khan and the populist Z A. Bhutto, both actively patronised it to ward off the challenges faced by them from the conservative Islamic parties.
The patronage that this culture got, especially by leaders like Bhutto in the 1970s, saw it begin to attract urban middle-class youth as well.
For example, just like the middle-class hippies of the West (in the 1960s) – who had chosen various esoteric Eastern spiritual beliefs to demonstrate their disapproval of the ‘soullessness’ of the Western system – young, middle-class Pakistanis (in the early 1970s), increasingly started looking upon Sufism and the shrine culture as a way to make a social and political connect with the ‘downtrodden and the dispossessed,’ and to show their disapproval of the figurative ‘mullah.’