- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | An attack by suspected Taliban militants on the mausoleum of a Sufi saint and poet has shocked Pashtuns living on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and threatens to alienate the Talibans’ ethnic base.

Officials said militants blew up the mausoleum of 17th-century saint Abdul Rahman Mohmand, commonly known as Rahman Baba, at Hazarakhwani in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province, on March 5. No one was injured in the blast, but the grave and mausoleum of the Sufi poet were severely damaged.

Caretakers of the complex said they had received a warning letter from purported Taliban militants three days before the attack threatening to blow up the mausoleum if women continued to visit it.

Specialists describe Sufism as a mystical dimension of Islam, which preaches love and inner peace. Though it has followers among Shi’ites and Sunnis, some Sunni sects consider it heretical and reject veneration of Sufi saints as idol worship.

During its rule in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban had banned Sufism, locked Sufi shrines and put many of its followers behind bars.

In March 2001, the Taliban also destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan, two ancient monumental statues carved on the side of a cliff.

Last March, militants destroyed the 400-year-old Abu Saeed Baba shrine near Peshawar. At least 10 people who tried to save the shrine were killed.

The latest attack is fraught with potential political significance. The Taliban are mostly Pashtuns, but not all Pashtuns are Taliban, and the destruction of the shrine could turn them against the militants.

Considered more than a Sufi saint, Rahman Baba is a highly respected poet in the Pashto language, and the attack on his mausoleum is considered an assault on the cultural heritage of Pashtuns.

“Rahman Baba preached through his mystic poetry divine love, peace and harmony among the people,” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said in condemning the attack.

Every day hundreds of devotees and tourists visit the shrine of Rahman Baba, considered to be the most respected and noncontroversial personality in Pashtun history.

“Rahman Baba’s Diwan [collection of poetry] is a book of moralities. He preached love and peace. There is nothing in his poetry which could be offensive to followers of any religion and any sect,” renowned Pashtun poet Shams-ul-Qamar Andesh told The Washington Times.

Mr. Andesh said those who attacked the mausoleum want to damage the Pashtun brotherhood. “They know how much Pashtuns respect Rahman Baba. Motives behind this attack could be to pave way for a new conflict.”

Raj Wali Shah Khatak, chairman of the Pashtun department at the University of Peshawar, said the attack shocked all Pashtuns because Rahman Baba “is a symbol of Pashtun code of conduct.”

“He was the torchbearer of love, peace and tolerance. No other person in the Pashtun history has gained such popularity and respect,” Mr. Khatak said.

Rahman Baba expressed even the most complex philosophical thoughts in a very simple and easy writing style. Pashtuns remember and use the verses in everyday conversations. In 2005, the poetry of Rahman Baba was translated into English by Robert Simpson and Momin Khan.

The 3-acre mausoleum complex includes the tomb, a library, a mosque, a hall for literary gatherings and a cafeteria. The library has about 4,000 books, mostly on religion and Pashtun literature.

Thousands of devotees attend the annual Urs, or celebration, of Rahman Baba, in April. Festival activities include poetry reading by Pashtun poets from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Several people from nearby villages gathered near the mausoleum complex to protest the government’s failure to protect the complex and demand its immediate reconstruction.

Syed Aqil Shah, provincial minister for culture, said the mausoleum will be rebuilt and that the Afghan government has shown interest in contributing to the project.

He said the provincial assembly also has proposed beefed-up security for shrines across the province.

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