The dargah of Rehman Baba

The Taliban strikes again

In the name of God shall I sing
The One whose name higher than any other
He is the master of all masters
He is the king of all kings…

These lines belong to Rehman Baba. Annemarie Schimmel was a German scholar of South Asian Islam and its literatures who published (in 1996) a wonderful book, Glorious Poems from India and Pakistan: Islamic Lyrics of a Thousand Years (as translated from the original German text). The very last lyric there is a rather long poem translated by her from Pashto. What I have cited above are the opening lines of the lyric. They could well belong to Namdev or Meera but let that be. What you see above is a working translation by me just to give you a feel of Rehman Baba’s attitude. I hope some of Rehman Baba’s confidence comes across in spite of my admittedly inadequate rendering of the late Schimmel’s German rendering of the Pashto text. "If I sing in the lord’s name, my master, in fact the only master in the world, nobody can stop me for I do His wish" is what he is saying.

Rehman Baba’s full name was Abdurrahman Mohmand (sic). He was born in 1653, south of Peshawar, and died not far from his birthplace in 1711. His kabr became a pilgrimage centre in a manner of speaking. It is visited by thousands even now. Or was, shall we say? The Taliban has now destroyed the dargah on the grounds that women visit it and offer their prayers there.

Talking about the poem immediately preceding Baba’s poem, Schimmel speaks of the two-line verses employed there as a popular form not infrequently composed by women. The Taliban thinks that all this is non-Islamic. What they certify as non-Islamic is naturally also anti-Islamic. This form, called tappas, described by Schimmel as the most loved folk form in Pashto, was always musical. She has translated the tappas of Khushal Khan Khattak. Almost all folk forms of poetry are women-oriented in South Asia. So are they in the land of the Pakhtuns. Now these forms are threatened. Annemarie Schimmel is dead. Otherwise one wonders how she would have suffered the destruction of the culture and traditions of South Asian Islam. She was so fond of the area and its culture. There is a huge necropolis in a place called Thatta in Sindh. Her admirer once told me in Karachi that she had on one occasion said, perhaps semi-seriously, that she would like to be buried in that necropolis. Now, as I remember it, I feel that it is just as well that, if true, her wish was not fulfilled. For all one knows, the Taliban would have made it out of bounds for her.


Callous to tradition

It is extraordinary that South Asian Islam should have been so insensitive to its own cultural traditions. I suppose that this area has generally been so unmindful of its political and religious culture. A poet’s grave was destroyed in Gujarat. That was no Taliban’s doing. Then some Sri Rama Sena decided to announce that the Hindu culture was under threat. The how and why of it remained mysteriously under wraps. The Sena activists went berserk and Mangalore women were beaten up. All that is a familiar story. The Bamiyan Buddhas went down to the butshikans (iconoclasts) at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

It was always a mystery when and how the South Asians lost their sense of history. There are perhaps no other people who are so callous to their own history. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they are now proclaiming a new version of history. A fellow called Mutalik is now telling me what Hindu culture is. Not just me, he is proclaiming it to all Hindus. He is an ignoramus. That would not have been a problem in itself. It is one because he has designed a pop Hinduism that seems to take Mutalik to be a modern-day Sankaracharya. He lays down what Hinduism is or, rather, should be. This Hinduism, it would seem, includes beating up women in the name of "our culture". It is perfectly in order or so the Vanar Sena has decided.

Rehman Baba, who has been lying there near Peshawar for 300 years, is now being told that he must pay the price for women praying at his dargah. The dargah must be devastated. And it was. The Taliban recorded yet another of its triumphs. Rehman Baba had almost rhetorically asked once: "Who but The God, powerful, can make the sun rise and set in the sky?" Today we can see that the sun has set. Rehman Baba’s grave is no longer there. In another few years people would not be able to show the place where the dargah existed.

Women are now out of the picture. It has been a convention of the South Asian Bhakti tradition that women were always a part of it. In one stroke the Taliban activists have destroyed a thousand-year tradition. Mutalik laid down for us what Hindu culture is. The Taliban have been doing this for a while now. They proclaim what Islam is or should be. The entire project is frightening. South Asian religious tradition was always democratic. The culture was cheerful and colourful here. A certain dry barrenness is taking over.

One is tempted to tell Mutalik and his ilk that religion and culture are surely threatened, except that it is endangered by them. In fact, we now have a double threat. One is the fundamentalists who cite the authority and texts to ban or destroy something. The other is the "pop religion" which decides the cultural mores for everyone, especially for women. In both cases it is an allegedly fundamentalist ignorance that is leading to violence. In this particular case, as I have stated, there is a systematic attack on South Asian Islamic practices. The dargahs, the music there, the multi-religious and multi-gender worshipping there were a major source of their popularity. And who would forget the music?


Bent on self-destruction

The near suicidal tendencies that obtain in fundamentalism are contributing to the destruction of this tradition. In May 2005 the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba was allegedly responsible for the destruction of the 14th century shrine of Saint Zainuddin Wali of Ashmuqam. There was an unsuccessful effort at destroying the shrine of a mystic of North Kashmir, Ahad Bab Sopore, and so on.

We seem to be on a self-destructive trip. This part of the world has had an unfortunate history of self-destruction. The greatest tragic epic of the world is the Mahabharata that is perhaps the first depiction of such self-destruction. This kind of self-ruination always brings in its wake a terrifying celebration. We are presently witness to that kind of perverse celebration. In a sense, destruction of these shrines or mosques is destruction of history. That all this should happen here and all these enthusiasts should not realise what they are doing is mind-boggling. Maybe cultures, in a suicidal mood, have no time or interest in history or religion and spirituality.

Maybe there is little use wailing over this. This destructive instinct seems to follow us everywhere. At the end of the Mahabharata, at the end of that monstrous destruction, the sage Vyasa has already voiced the futility of shouting against it. "I stand here, my hands raised, and shout. Nobody listens to me." Or that Pashto poet, Khattak, says unto god: "I call you. But you do not respond."

Are we living in the unresponsive times?


Courtesy: Economic & Political Weekly;

Archived from Communalism Combat,  May 2009 Year 15    No.140, Taliban 2



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