‘I know nothing but love, rapture and ecstasy!’
– Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (1178-1274)
At the Shrine of the Red Sufi follows Islamic scholar and renowned anthropologist Jürgen Wasim Frembgen on a magical journey to the shrine of the celebrated Sufi ascetic Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh.
The book is a timely reminder of our Sufi heritage of love, which forms the essence of Islam and the publication of this book could not have come at a better time as retrogressive forces gain ascendancy in the country.
The author describes Islam in terms practically unheard of today: “My first trip to the shrine of the ‘Red Sufi’ in southern Pakistan was to lead me for five days and nights into an archaic, magical and yet palpably physical world in which I became acquainted with an Islam marked by trust, tolerance and a feeling of togetherness; of trances and a Dionysian spirituality…”
An enduring enigma, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s original name was Usman Marwandi. He was born in 1178 in a town called Marwand in Azerbaijan. At the age of seven, he had learned the Quran by heart. As a young man, he traveled extensively from northwest Iran to Mashhad, Baghdad, Mecca, Medina, north Punjab, Multan and Rajasthan. He urged people to follow the mystical path, to renounce temporal desires and the material trappings of this world in order to be closer to God, to experience the transcendent through prayer and devotion.
He became the leading figure of the Qalandar movement and attracted a formidable following for his elucidation of Islam as a religion of Divine Love. Despite his renown, he eschewed the magnificence of the imperial cities of Lahore and Delhi, preferring to lead an itinerant existence which eventually led him to Sehwan in Sindh.
The land of Sindh held special meaning for Lal Shahbaz Qalandar as he was a great admirer of the martyred Sufi saint Mansur al-Hallaj who had visited Sindh three hundred years earlier.
When he reached the outskirts of Sehwan, the local rulers sent him a bowl filled to the rim with milk which signified that Sehwan already had many religious scholars and fakirs and that he should keep on traveling. The great mystic placed a blossom in the bowl which floated on the milk and returned it to the local rulers. This was a sign that there was sufficient place for him to stay in Sehwan and that he would be among the Sehwanis like a flower. His enduring legacy of searching for Divine Love resonates not only in Sehwan to this day but across the entire Indian subcontinent. Each year, between five hundred thousand to one million pilgrims converge on Sehwan for the festival in honour of the great saint.
This soul-stirring book is a must read as he describes a Pakistani tradition which is completely at variance with the growing orthodoxy, violence and intolerance gripping Pakistan today: “The Sehwan mela, however, is a seething kettle of passionate and enraptured love. Narrow-minded theologians are out place here.” The author reminds us of the fiery denunciations of self-appointed clerics by the great mystics of the past, “Was it not the Sufi poet Sachal Sarmast who like Bulleh Shah, a hundred years earlier, exclaimed: ‘Burn the Qadi’s books!’ In this way he succinctly expressed a definite rejection of the dusty, lifeless, doctrinaire religion of the mullahs.”
His ardent following continues to this day as people flock to his shrine each year in remembrance of his vision of Islam as a religion of inclusion and liberation, his rejection of the clergy and insistence on establishing a direct nexus with God, the ultimate source of joy and peace.