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Backgrounder: The Qalandar's magnetism

Updated February 17, 2017
Sehwan: A man helps his injured wife at a hospital after a blast at the Qalandar shrine here on Thursday.—AFP
Sehwan: A man helps his injured wife at a hospital after a blast at the Qalandar shrine here on Thursday.—AFP

Sindh's centuries-old bond with Sufis and Sufism is no secret. And among the great mystics that draw devotees from across the province — and indeed across the country — is Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, whose shrine was savagely bombed on Thursday evening.

Amongst the many holy men whose final abodes lie in Sindh — Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Bhit Shah and Sachal Sarmast in Daraza, Khairpur — the Qalandar’s shrine in Sehwan is an essential part of the province’s spiritual history.

The subcontinent has been influenced by a variety of Sufi mystical orders, or silsilas, over the centuries. The major schools include the Chishtiya, the Qadriya and the Suhrwardia. These mystical orders have branches and sub-branches across the subcontinent, from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the west to Bengal in the east, and have played an essential role in bringing Islam to this vast landmass during the nearly thousand years of Muslim rule.

Yet amongst the Sufi masters, very few have been crowned with the title of Qalandar — an honorific denoting a highly gifted spiritual position. In the subcontinent, the two most famous Qalandars are Bu Ali Shah of Panipat, and Lal Shahbaz, the Qalandar of Sehwan.

Lal Shahbaz is of course a title; the saint’s proper name is stated to be Syed Usman Marwandi. As his name indicates, he is said to be a descendant of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), from the lineage of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, the sixth Imam.

There are numerous versions describing the Qalandar’s arrival in Sindh. Some say he arrived with other divines of his age, such as Hazrat Bahauddin Zakaria Suhrwardy (whose mausoleum is in Multan) and Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar (whose dargah is located in Pakpattan, Punjab). Scholars of history would be better placed to judge the accuracy of these claims, but it is generally believed the Qalandar came to Sindh sometime in the late 12th or early 13th century ACE.

Perhaps the most famous quatrain associated with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is: Haydarium Qalandarum Mastum, in which the Qalandar declares his love and devotion for Hazrat Ali. The quatrain has been used in qawwalis and nauhas (elegies) and signifies the deep affection the Qalandar had for the household of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

Interestingly though, some scholars have attributed these verses to Bu Ali Shah Qalandar. Perhaps it is of little use to get into a debate of where the words originated from; what is important is the sentiment behind them.

Another ritual associated with the Qalandar is the dhammal, or ecstatic Sufi dance. Sadly, this was the ritual reportedly under way on Thursday evening when the bomber struck.

As some experts have noted, dhammal may have originated in the Farsi phrase deh meel, or ‘ten mile’, and in its original form was not a ‘dance’ at all, but may have been the Qalandar’s tribute to the sufferings of the martyrs and prisoners of Karbala.

The Qalandar’s urs, or death anniversary, is observed every year in the Islamic month of Shaaban. Like at many other Sufi dargahs and khanqahs across the country, the Qalandar’s tomb is a place where the formal and the non-formal; the orthodox and the heterodox; the worldly and the spiritual meet. People of different sects and religions converge upon the mausoleum, some out of curiosity, some to escape the humdrum troubles of everyday life, others out of pure devotion to the Qalandar. Indeed when passing by Sehwan, especially at night, from the highway the golden dome of the Qalandar’s tomb offers an ethereal sight to the traveller, as if reality lies beyond.

Most importantly, the dargah of the Qalandar offers a place for reflection; a space that accepts without asking questions about sect, language and political affiliation. Perhaps it is this unity and spirit of acceptance that makes sites such as Sehwan targets for barbarous violence.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2017