December 20, 2008
saints and sinners
Delhi, Lahore and Sehwan Sharif
The Islam of the Taliban is far removed from the popular Sufism practised by most South Asian Muslims
"NORMALLY, we cannot know God," says Rizwan Qadeer, a neat and amiable inhabitant of Lahore,
Western-dressed and American-educated, eyes shining behind his spectacles. "But our saints, they have that
Mr Qadeer is standing in the belly of a shrine that he is building to a modern gnostic, Hafiz Iqbal, whom he
venerates especially. Cool, and smelling pleasantly of damp earth and mortar, it holds Iqbal's grave, covered by an
embroidered green shroud and sprinkled with pink rose petals. A young man--a Pakistani resident of London, Mr
Qadeer says--stands in silent prayer to the saint, who was employed by Lahore's municipal government as a
street-sweeper, and died in 2001. In a tradition of popular Sufism, which mingles classical Islamic mysticism with
Hinduism and folk beliefs and is a dominant feature of Islam in South Asia, the saint's divine essence, or baraka,
emanates from his tomb. "Physically, our holy saints do die," says Mr Qadeer. "But the spirit is still here, because they
have reached eternity."
Echoing down a winding stairwell, a scraping of masonry and clink of chisel on marble signal a remarkable
monument rising. It is in the scruffy Lahori suburb of Baghbanpura, where Iqbal lived for six decades. From a narrow
alley running alongside the shrine, it is mostly hidden: its high outer walls, of recessed brickwork speckled with
multicoloured tiles, rising out of sight to a pair of domes and skinny minarets. A few steep steps lead into a small
cloistered forecourt, where masons are at work.
Either side of the forecourt, about ten metres apart, are two false burial chambers. These are beautifully decorated,
with white marble lattice and marble mosaics studded with green jade, lapis lazuli and agate. One is for Iqbal and the
other for his mentor, a mystic called Baba Hassan Din, who lived in a brick cell on this site and died in 1968. The men's
true graves lie underneath, in brick-walled chambers, faintly murmuring with the sounds of the street outside.
According to Mr Qadeer--who had it from Iqbal--Din was, unbeknown to many of his disciples, an Englishman
from Birmingham who, early in the last century, abandoned his family and his job on the railways to become a Sufi
ascetic. His real name was Alfred, or possibly Albert, Victor. He received his vocation one fine summer evening, in a
visitation from Abu Hassan Ali Hujwiri, an 11th-century Persian saint, who is better known as Data Ganj Bakhsh.