International author Bina Shah discusses Sindh, Sufism and storytelling

The original title of my novel A Season For Martyrs was meant to be Children of Sindh. Sindh is one of the four provinces that make up Pakistan, and it’s where I was born and where I live today. When I sat down to write the book, I envisioned an epic narrative that encompassed tales from Sindh’s history, combining them with a modern thread that took place from October to December 2007, the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life. In this way I hoped to tell the story of Sindh’s importance to Pakistan’s history, and how its people – its children – are affected and influenced today by that weighty history.

I decided that I would begin the story with tales from the times of the Sufi saints who spread Islam through the subcontinent not by the sword, but through poetry, song, music—and love. In this way I would pay tribute to the rich tradition of oral storytelling that permeates this land, and that has documented and preserved our heritage, customs, history, and language. I chose Khawaja Khizr, a saint with ties to the seas and rivers, who was said to have been Moses’s traveling companion in the Quran, and who (legend has it) also guided Alexander the Great during his travels in India. I loved the idea that the saint had a place of prominence in many histories and cultures, Islamic and pre-Islamic. It illustrated the timelessness of the mystical traditions of Sufism, and I wanted those primeval mists to permeate the opening chapters of the novel.

Sufism isn’t always well understood by many of us. It’s known as the mystical branch of Islam, with practices and rituals that are said to link all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in 7th-century Arabia. Today, it has acquired a sort of Zen vibe; followers are drawn to Sufism’s teachings of peace and love, and quote Rumi’s verses like incantations against the stresses and travails of our fast-paced, conflict-ridden world. But Sufis have been known to be involved in political struggles throughout history, taking up arms to defend their lands against invaders and oppressors. I wanted to capture that part of history as well, so I included the tale of Pir Pagaro, the spiritual leader who fought against the British in the mid-19th century and was eventually hanged for treason.

Today, in Pakistan, Sufism is often seen as the antidote to the violent religious extremism that we have struggled against for the last 13 years and more. Extremists feel threatened by Sufism’s strong roots in our Sindhi soil, and have attacked shrines and worshippers all over Pakistan, not just in Sindh. They point to Sufi practices and say that they are tantamount to idolatry and obscenity. They commit acts of psychological violence against the people of Sindh by telling them that the spiritual practices that have been in place here for millennia are incompatible with “true” Islam.

But Sindh – and Sufism – transcend these earthly struggles. The shrines may be destroyed, but the saints live on in people’s hearts. The drums may be silenced, but their sound goes on in people’s minds, as insistent and strong as heartbeats. And as long as there are Sindhis – and Sufis – on earth, someone, somewhere, will be singing the verses of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, whose story has also made it into the pages of the novel.

Sufism is not a physical object; it’s a state of being, an energy that will always survive. It was the guiding force behind A Season For Martyrs, and I hope that I’ve captured some of it on the pages of the book, so that it will take up residence in the hearts and souls of readers around the world.

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BINA SHAH is a regular contributor to the International New York Times and frequent guest on the BBC. She has contributed essays to Granta, The Independent and The Guardian. She holds degrees from Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Her novel, Slum Child, was a bestseller in Italy and she has been published in English, Spanish, German and Italian. She lives in Karachi.


Feature Image:  Sonya Rehman