sufi odg

A journey through the Sufism

Karachi, the second megalopolis of the world, a monolith of cement and discharges of waste water, a crazy ants nest made of frenzy, fury, misery and money
Here is the Leviathan laying down on the Arabic Sea, the bay of today’s pirates: common criminals and big traffickers, street vandals and armed terrorists. The most dangerous city in the world unveils itself with it’s taste of sacredness and profanity, with it’s mosques and it’s madrasa, it’s skyscrapers and it’s minarets fighting for the reign of the horizon. And if the stars up in the sky are hostages of the clouds and pollution, it is down on the hearth that the big monster fascinates and incorporates you, making you loose yourself.

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It is an endless wandering across women with burqas, niqabs or wearing the western fashion, across Salafis with Assyrian beards and eyes like scimitars, and men in suits. The richòs ring wildly, the mules tow the carts, the taxis double back, a man spits in the street, another feeds stray cats, the smell of spices is everywhere and that of the blood coming from the halal butcheries and from the city suburbs, where drug addicts die with a syringe in their arm and robbers shoot for few rupees, send you back to the tarting point: this is Karachi and you are already lost.

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Everything is the contrary of everything and is pervaded by a waiting and apostate violence: shadows always seem to observe the steps of those who enter the bowels of this city. But it is only by going down like speleologists through the gut of the former Pakistani capital that you can discover an Islamic world, made of mystics and ascetic exorcists and musicians, dancers and hashish smokers, of culture and poetry, tolerance, art and beauty: the Sufism.

Did you know that there is a mystic Islam that does not hate the infidels?

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The blood is the full rouge of life and death, faith and heresy in Karachi. Arriving in Gadap Town, one of the northern suburbs of the city, Pakistani Taliban stronghold for years, you can immediately see the stands selling the goat meat that the crowd of devotees used to buy before going to the sanctuary of Mango Pir, a Sufi master, who lived as an Hermit in this are during the XIII century together with some crocodiles. The reptiles today are more than 200 and are worshiped by the devotees, who honor them by throwing the goat offal into the lake where they live. A temple on a cliff, a little bit down the lake housing the crocodiles and up in to the sky the hawks flying: in this Arabian Nights scenario is Khalifa Sajjad, who feeds the animals, blesses them by scattering flowers on them and, in the meantime, he takes care of the devotees’ souls with an ancient ritual that alleviates the sufferings of the inner self. It was him who took the heritage of the master and to represent the Sufism in Karachi today. The Sufism is the branch of Islam that aspires to realize, already during the earthly life, the presence of God in humans. It has a centuries long story, starting in the VII century. According to many it is also the mystic branch of the Islamic faith and, in order to reach the knowledge, that is to say the divine, the adepts shall commit to culture, arts, poetry, music and dance. Some of them live as hermits, others in communities, they follow the cult of the masters who preceded them and, above all, they do not believe in the divisions, even in the one between Sunnites and Shiites, neither do they build barriers against the “infidels”. That is why the extreme fringes of the Islam consider the Sufis as heretics, they persecute them, put bombs in the sanctuaries, and in Pakistan, from 2005 until today, more than 200 Sufi have been killed by fundamentalist Islamic groups.

“These crocodiles are the disciples of the great master, and I am here to take care of them, of the cult of the master Mango Pir and of the devotees wishing to relieve their sufferings. When the Taliban existed in this quarter the sanctuary was not accessible and the crocodiles risked to die. But it did not happen, so today the devotees come here to feed them, and I take care of purifying their souls thanks to the religious knowledge”. Sat inside his prayer room,  Khalifa Sajjad receives men and women, he lights the incense, shakes pavilion feathers and, after he threw flowers in the brazier, lightly touches the forehead of the pilgrims inviting them to go in peace free from any inner suffering.

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While the story of Khalifa Sajjad reflects the aspect of the hermitism intrinsic in the Sufi cult, in order to understand the worlds of the ecstasy, of the religious music, of the hypnotic dances, it is necessary to leave Karachi to go toward the cultural capital of Pakistan: Lahore.
It is nighttime and the vehicles in the city of Punjab are enlightened only by the lights of two buses that, as in a labyrinth, cross the streets of the old city, changing their direction at any crossroad. Then, out of the alleyway, the vehicles stop. Two percussionists get off, the brothers Mithu Sain and Gunga Sain, and a group of qaawali music players. The musicians head off across a cemetery, where more than 100 people are sat and waiting. The darkness is all around, the graveyard is crowded by the devotees: men, women and transsexuals. The smell of the hashish pervades the air and, explaining the situation, there is Mithu Sain, a percussionist since decades and practicing Sufi: “Every Thursday evening we Sufi meet to celebrate our cult. We sing, play music and then the devotees dance and in this way they reach the ecstasy. Since the Taliban intensified the attacks against us we need to hide and that is why our meetings take place in the dark and in secret places”.
”Alì! Alì,Alì!”, the name of the vicar of Allah followed by that of the Prophet is screamed three times, it is not time anymore for words, explanations and earthly things: this is the moment of the mysticism of the transcendent, that cannot be explained, but only saw and listened. It is time to be overwhelmed in order to understand. The rhythms are more and more wild, the percussion beats relentlessly, the dervishes start spinning around faster and faster, those present clap their hands. The earthenware cylooms inflated with Pakistani hashish explode in blue smoke clouds and everything becomes the expression of that Islamic faith that tries, through the art, to elevate humans toward the divine: any human.
There is no mistrust, difference or intolerance, therefore the foreigner is not an infidel, an observer, a journalist or someone different: he is a brother, someone who converted just for the occasion through a kiss on the picture of Alì, the bless of the master, the performing of the shahadah, the Islamic witnessing and the balsamic discover of an Islam where Allah Akbar is an invocation for the knowledge necessary in order to reach a God who do not contemplate black flags or bombs, but only devotees who, everywhere in the world, in the name of the indivisibility of God, tear down the barriers and search for communion and harmony among human beings.

Pictures by Marco Gualazzini