Hardliners closing portal to paradise

Rahman Baba, “The Nightingale of Peshawar”, was an 18th-century poet and mystic.

He withdrew from the world and promised his followers that if they also loosened their ties with the world, they could purge their souls of worries and move towards direct experience of God. Rituals and fasting were for the pious, said the saint. He emphasised that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart – that we all have paradise within us, if we know where to look.

For centuries, Rahman Baba’s shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass has been a place where musicians and poets have gathered, and his Sufi verses in Pashtun made him the national poet of the Pathans.

Then, about 10 years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the shrine. Soon its students took it on themselves to halt what they saw as un-Islamic practices. On my last visit, I talked about the situation with the shrine keeper, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists now came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry and superstition: “My family have been singing here for generations,” said Tila. “But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble.

“They tell us that what we do is wrong. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out – even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they encounter more problems, so gradually have stopped coming.”

“Before the Afghan war, there was nothing like this. But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda, to stop us visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching’ishq [love]. Now trouble happens more and more frequently.”

Behind the violence lies a long theological conflict that has divided the Islamic world for centuries. Rahman Baba believed passionately in the importance of music, poetry and dancing as a path for reaching God, as a way of opening the gates of paradise. But this use of poetry and music in ritual is one of the many aspects of Sufi practice that has attracted the wrath of modern Islamists. For although the Koran does not ban music, Islamic tradition has always associated music with dancing girls and immorality.

At Attock, not far from the shrine of Rahman Baba, stands the Haqqania, one of the most radical madrasas in South Asia. Much of the Taleban leadership were trained here, so I asked the madrasa’s director, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, about what I had heard at Rahman Baba’s tomb. The matter was quite simple. “Music is against Islam. Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers.”

Nor were Sami’s strictures limited to the shrine’s music: “We believe there is no power but God,” he continued. “I invite people who come here to return to the true path of the Koran. Do not pray to a corpse: Rahman Baba is dead. Go to the mosque, not to a grave.”

This sort of madrasa-driven change in attitudes is being reproduced across Pakistan. There are now 27 times as many madrasas in the country as there were in 1947: from 245 at independence, the number has shot up to 6870 in 2001. Across Pakistan, the religious tenor has been correspondingly radicalised: the tolerant, Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now out of fashion in northern Pakistan, overtaken by the more hardline and politicised Wahhabism.

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