Attacks on Sufi shrines are aimed at parting ways with established cultural norms and constructing a new identity born out of extremism

By Zia Ur Rehman

Published  in The News

17 October, 2010

After the latest suicide attacks on the famed Sufi shrine in Karachi, the people and civil society of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa fear that militants may launch more attacks on the shrines of Sufi saints spread across the province and tribal areas.

Twin suicide attacks were carried out at the crowded shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi on October 7. About 50 people were killed in a similar attack at Data Darbar, another major Sufi Shrine, in Lahore on June 1 this year. Outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had claimed responsibility for the attack on Ghazi’s shrine.

Pakistani Sufi shrines have frequently been the target of militant groups whose hard-line interpretation of the Islamic conjunctions is forcibly stopping the spiritual Sufi practices that are common across the country. In the last three years, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata has witnessed attacks on different Sufi shrines by militants; while a number of faith healers and caretakers (pirs) have also been targeted.

The first-ever-attack on a shrine in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa took place on December 18, 2007 when militants blew up the shrine of Abdul Shakoor Malang Baba on GT Road, Peshawar. On March 3, 2008, armed militants belonging to the Khyber Agency-based Laskhar-e-Islam (LeI) attacked the shrine of Hazrat Abu Saeed Baba in Shaikhan village in the outskirts of Peshawar, killing at least 10 local people and injuring several others.

Taliban militants blew up the Rehman Baba's tomb

Militants in Swat and Buner locked the Shrine of Hazrat Sayyad Ali Tirmizi, commonly known as Pir Baba in April 2008. The militants also captured the shrine of prominent freedom fighter Haji Sahib Tarangzai in Mohmand Agency and converted it into their headquarters.

The tomb of Rehman Baba, a famed Sufi and famous Pashto poet of the 17th century, was blown up by militants on March 5, 2009. A day after the attack on the Rehman Baba’s shrine, militants struck the shrine of Bahadur Baba in district Nowshera on March 6.

On June 22, 2010, Taliban militants blew up the shrine of Mian Umer Baba in the Chamkani area of Peshawar, while in another incident, a faith healer, Mushtaq Hussain, was killed in an attack on the shrine of Malang Baba in Sheikh Muhammadi in Peshawar on May 16.

Experts view such attacks on Sufi shrines and other cultural symbols as an attempt on the part of militants aimed at parting ways with established norms and values and constructing a new identity. They say Sufism has been targeted by Talibanisation, a new faith embedded in anti-mystic Wahabi-Saudi Islam.

Idress Kamal, Convenor of Aman Tehreek, a civil society alliance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, tells TNS Sufism has made a deep impact on Pasthun society and Sufi shrines dot the landscape of Pasthuns. “Attacking shrines and Sufi practices is part of the Taliban strategy to polarise the Pashtun society,” he believes.

Muhammad Fayyaz Khan, Secretary-General of Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP), a pro-Sufism religious party, expressing disappointment on security situation at shrines, tells TNS that even after attacks on shrines in Karachi and Lahore, the provincial government has made no proper security arrangement at shrines. “Devotees are reluctant to visit shrines while pirs and people associated with shrines are still receiving threats from militants,” the JUP leader added.

Talking to TNS, Provincial Auqaf Minister Namroz Khan claims the government has directed the district administrations to make foolproof security arrangements at Sufi shrines across the province. Khan feels that after a successful military offensive against militants, there is no fear of such attacks on shrines now. “Sufficient police personnel have been deployed at shrines round the clock,” says Saeed Khan, Deputy Director Provincial Auqaf Department.

“Sufi saints like Rehman Baba are the reflections and symbols of humanity, pluralism and collective aesthetics of the Pashtun society,” Khadim Hussain, a political expert and head of Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation (BKTEF), tells TNS. “Militants are making consistent efforts to bring about a shift in religious authority by imposing their interpretation of Islam on the whole Muslim world.”

(The writer is a journalist and researcher and works on militancy, development and human rights. Email: )