From martyrdom to Sainthood

by Yasir Ali

From martyrdom to Sainthood

Reaching sainthood was always destined for Benazir Bhutto, ever since this daughter of Pakistan trod the path of politics to serve her people and in the footsteps of her father, late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto – and to become a martyr.

As millions mourn the 10th death anniversary of the two times Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto it is important to celebrate her legacy as one of a deep connection with the people of Pakistan.

Benazir was no doubt a charismatic symbol and cause of hope to her supporters, who knew full well of the dangers, leading to her assassination as did she.  Yet she was martyred amidst her supporters who revered and mobbed her following a rally in Rawalpindi on the 27th of December 2007, such was their bond.

Benazir was the first woman democratically elected to lead a Muslim nation and she rose to prominence after the execution of her father, the ex-Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, at the hands of the brutal military dictator General Ziaul Haq.  As an ardent opponent of General Ziaul Haq’s regime, Benazir was lionised as an emblem of Pakistan’s democratic struggle from the very birth of her political career.

Ten years since the assassination of Benazir in 2007, thousands continue to flock to her shrine at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in Sindh, Pakistan.  Many come to pay homage to their leader, picking up petals from her grave to attain blessings. For devotees that come to the shrine they yearn for their beloved.

Benazir’s close bond with the masses epitomises the essence of union, her devout service to her people and a vision for a better tomorrow acted as an intoxication that made her absent from herself. Her courageous resolve for democracy in the face of religious dogma and dictatorial rule was plain to see and a cause that led to her destiny of martyrdom. As Napoleon once remarked, “It is the cause and not the death that makes the martyr”.

Sindh is known as the province of the Saints, which comprises a dense archipelago of shrines devoted to Sufi ascetics. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam and is embodied in the heart and soul of Pakistan. Sufis travel from one shrine to another for festivals known as “Urs”, an Arabic word for “marriage”, symbolising the union between Sufis and the Divine.

Through dance and utterances from the Quran devotees are able to experience the spiritual intoxication of Divine union and attain blessings from God.

Sufism has been a part of the fabric of life in Pakistan for centuries and presents Islam in a way that brings together the esoteric and exoteric characteristics of the faith. According to the Sufi belief, God Almighty is both Truth and Beauty, which in turn points to His eternal reality.  Sufism articulates a cosmology, which looks to bridge the space that exists between different religions.

Both Benazir and her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, have their roots tied in Sufism, not least because their hometown lies in the province of Sindh, but also the fact that they have attached themselves to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar as their patron saint.  Qalandar was a great Gnostic who belonged to the Suhrawardiyyaa order of Sufis.  The shrine around his tomb is decorated with Sindhi Kashi tiles, mirror work and two gold doors. One donated by the late Shah of Iran and the other by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Although his given name was Syed Usman Shah Marwandi, Shahbaz Qalandar was the name attributed to him by his followers highlighting his superior standing in the hierarchy of the Saints.  The significance for ‘Lal’ (which means red), was that he had auburn hair and wore a red robe.  As an act of devotion Qalandar had tied a rock around his neck so that he was constantly bowing before God.

Shrine Of Lal Shahbaz Qalander Interior Sindh is a photograph by Syed Muhammad Munir ul Haq

Qalandar moved from a suburb of Tabriz in modern-day Iran, to Sindh in the early 13th century.  Incidentally this is the same place that Shams also hailed. Shams of Tabriz, was an ascetic and teacher of Jalal-Uddin Rumi and to whom Rumi devoted much of his poetry.

The foundations of Qalandar’s teachings were enshrined in love and tolerance among all human beings, irrespective of any race, religion or creed.  This is highlighted by the pilgrimage made to Lal Shahbaz Qalander’s shrine in Sehwan, Sindh every year by Hindu devotees.  Qalandar is one of a long line of Sufi Saints that won the hearts of devotees through their love and noble character and one, which looked to emulate the Holy Prophet of Islam.

Although Benazir was known as a devotee of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, she also frequently visited amongst others the shrine of Sufi Saint, Data Ali Hujwari, whenever she was in the city of Lahore.

She also made the pilgrimage to Ajmer, India, where is the shrine of Sufi Saint, Khawaja Moin-Uddin Chishti, on four separate occasions.  The underlying message of all these Sufi Saints was of love and a yearning for the Beloved with whom all creation was once at one. In the words of Data Ali Hujwari, “…the Sufi is one who is absent from himself and present with God.”

The legacy of love for these Saints is one that is enshrined in the hearts of their devotees across the country and it is this legacy what draws devotees to the shrine of Benazir.  Those that love believe. Loyalty and devotion lead to bravery.  Bravery leads to the spirit of self-sacrifice.  The spirit of self-sacrifice creates trust in the power of love.

Just as her father before her, Benazir is remembered by the title of Shaheed, which means martyr.  In Islamic tradition a shaheed never dies and instead becomes forever immortalised. She will live forever in the hearts of all those who dream of a better tomorrow and the union with their beloved.

In serving her people Benazir was serving her Lord.  Service to God’s creation is in itself an act of worship.  By sacrificing her life to this cause for millions she has attained the status of sainthood.