India: terror blast at Sufi shrine

At least two people were killed and nearly 20 injured when a bomb exploded inside the revered Sufi shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer in India’s western state of Rajasthan Oct. 11. The attack came when the shrine was packed with hundreds of worshipers during evening Eid al-Fitr prayers. (Sify, Oct. 11) A day after the attack, a second explosive device was found in the shrine and defused by police. Six people were detained for interrogation, including two pilgrims of Bangladeshi origin. No group has claimed responsibility for the blast. (The Hindu, Oct. 13)

This telling commentary by Praveen Swami for The Hindu Oct. 13 is entitled “The War Against Popular Islam.” Note ironic use of the term “neoconservative” to describe the Salafists. Links added.

The highest form of worship, wrote saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, is “to redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry.”

Thursday’s bombing of the saint’s shrine at Ajmer — the third in a series of attacks on Muslim religious institutions after the 2006 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Malegaon and this summer’s strike at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad — have been characterised as attempts to provoke a pan-India communal war. But the bombings also reflect another less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is, almost without dispute, the most venerated Sufi saint of South Asia. Born in 1141 C.E., Chishti is believed to have studied at the great seminaries of Samarkand and Bukhara before travelling to India. Ajmer emerged as an important centre of pilgrimage during the sixteenth century, after Emperor Akbar undertook a pilgrimage on foot to the saint’s grave.

Chishti’s order laid stress on seven principles, notably the renunciation of material goods, financial reliance on farming or alms, independence from economic patronage from the established political order, the sharing of wealth, and respect for religious differences.

Chishti’s doctrine on the “highest form of worship” led to the saint often being described as the Garib Nawaz, or emperor of the poor. Several of the most famous Sufi shrines in South Asia – notably that of Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar at Pakpattan in Pakistan, and that of Nizamuddin Awliya in New Delhi – were born of Chisti’s teachings.

Over the centuries, they have come to command a massive multi-faith following, attracting Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike.

For that precise reason, they have long been under attack from religious neoconservatives.

Islamist critics of Sufism have made no secret of their loathing for shrines like that at Ajmer, which they claim propagate the heresy of ‘shirk’ – an Arabic term commonly translated to mean polytheism, but which is also used to refer to the veneration of saints and even atheism.

South Asian terror groups associated with recent attacks on Muslim shrines — notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba — draw theological inspiration from the Salafi sect, a neoconservative tradition also sometimes referred to as Wahabbism. Salafi theologians are intensely hostile to Sufi orders like that founded by Chishti, characterising them as apostasy.

In The General Precepts of the Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, a pamphlet which propounds the Salafi doctrine, theologian Shaykh Naasir al’Aql, sharply criticises religious practices “where the dead are taken as intermediaries between a person and Allah, supplicating them and seeking the fulfilment of one’s needs through them, seeking their assistance and other similar acts.”

Still, it is theoretically possible that Hindu militants rather than Salafists were behind this attack.

See our last posts on sectarian violence in India, the Sufis and the struggle within Islam.