The recent ISIS-claimed attack on a well-known Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan, which killed more than 80 people, once more demonstrated the violent ideology of the jihadi group. While ISIS purports to be the vanguard of the Ummah, or global Muslim community, it is Muslims who are chiefly the victims of its violence.
The attack was not the first on a Sufi shrine in the country. In November last year, ISIS claimed responsibility for an explosion at another site, killing at least 52 people. Last week’s suicide assault on the Lal Qalandar shrine was, however, unprecedented in scale and points to an escalation of ISIS’ campaign against Sufi Muslims in Pakistan who do not subscribe to the group’s narrow worldview.
The spiritualist and mystical dimensions of Sufi worship are antithetical to ISIS’ ideology. Sufism is a form of Islam that developed very early in Islamic history and has been practiced in Pakistan for centuries, as it has elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it has always been one of the most prominent forms of Islamic practice. However, since the emergence of Wahhabism in the 18th century, it has been attacked for adhering to ‘innovative’ doctrines perceived to have emerged after the time of the Prophet Mohammad and his first followers.
Sufism is not a distinct sect, but an element within Sunni and Shia Islam, made up of a multitude of different orders, many of which have established a reputation of tolerance and pluralism – qualities in stark contrast to the rigid fanaticism of Salafi-jihadi groups like ISIS. It is centered on spiritual understandings of religion, and mystical practices to draw one closer to God. ISIS views Sufi spiritual and mystical practice as a heretical aberration from its own strict literalist interpretation of Islam. The group also entirely opposes the Sufi veneration of holy individuals, believing it to constitute idolatry. The shrine attacked on Thursday was dedicated to a Sufi saint.
Although Sufism as a whole is a mainstream Islamic practice, ISIS’ application of the doctrine of takfir – which it says allows Muslims to be classed as apostates and killed – has meant that Sufi Muslims have been on the receiving end of ISIS’ violent attacks.
ISIS assaults against Sufi Muslims have not just occurred in Pakistan. The group’s Egyptian branch, Sinai Province, has executed Sufi clerics, including the beheading of a prominent Sufi elder in November last year. The group has destroyed numerous Sufi shrines and tombs in Syria and Libya. It has detained and killed Sufi devotees in Syria and Iraq. Last year in the UK, ISIS supporters bludgeoned to death a Sufi scholar because they believed his beliefs amounted to “black magic.”
It is not just Sufis that bear the brunt of ISIS' violence. The targeting of Sufi Muslims is part of a wider playbook that saw 2,000 civilians killed.”
It is not just Sufis that bear the brunt of ISIS' violence. The targeting of Sufi Muslims is part of a wider playbook that saw 2,000 civilians killed by the group and its affiliates globally between October and December last year. Despite ISIS' repeated claim that it is engaged in a violent jihad against a 'Crusader-Zionist alliance' seeking to destroy the Islamic faith, its victims frequently include minority Muslim groups that it says do not ascribe to its extremist worldview.
The attack may also be point to an increasing ISIS presence in Pakistan and the wider region. In January 2015, the jihadi group announced an expansion of its 'caliphate' into 'Khorasan' – a term from Islamic history used to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October last year, it claimed a major attack on a cadet training centre in Quetta. As the group loses territory in Iraq and Syria, it may focus on dramatic attacks away from its Middle Eastern strongholds. ISIS' ability to conduct large-scale assaults in Pakistan may grow, especially as it is increasingly active in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's response to last week's assault was clear. "We can't let these events divide us, or scare us. We must stand united in this struggle for the Pakistani identity, and universal humanity," he said. The Sufi community in Pakistan has remained defiant in the face of the violence against them, returning to worship in the days following the assault.