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Fear Grips Afghanistan's Sufi Community Following Deadly Attacks

Sufi leader Abdul Waheed Bahaduri (center) prays in a mosque in Kabul.

Mansur Sikandari was singing Islamic hymns inside the Khalifa Sahib monastery in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when a powerful explosion ripped through the building.

The monastery was packed with members of Afghanistan's Sufi community, who follow a mystical form of Islam and incorporate dancing, singing, and music in their religious practices.

The bombing killed up to 50 worshippers and wounded dozens of others on April 29, in one of the deadliest-ever attacks on Sufis in Afghanistan.

"What happened that day constantly flashes before my eyes," Sikandari, who was hospitalized with injuries, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "Nothing like this had happened before under any government."

No group claimed responsibility for the bombing, although it bore the hallmarks of previous attacks carried out by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group. Many IS-K members are Salafists, an ultraradical sect under Sunni Islam that views Sufis as heretics. The extremist group has staged devastating attacks against the Shi'ite minority in Afghanistan since it first emerged in 2015.

On April 22, IS-K claimed responsibility for bombing a Sufi mosque in the northern province of Kunduz that killed at least 33 people and wounded dozens of others.

Experts say that IS-K militants are attacking Sufis, a predominately Sunni sect, to incite a sectarian war and undermine Taliban rule. "For these reasons, there is a chance that this fire will spread further," said Sami Yousafzai, a veteran Afghan journalist and commentator who has tracked the Taliban since its emergence in the 1990s.

A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of an explosion in front of a school, in Kabul on April 19.
A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of an explosion in front of a school, in Kabul on April 19.

Since seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban has waged a ruthless crackdown against the rival IS-K. But IS-K has continued to launch regular attacks on Taliban officials and carried out high-profile urban attacks on mosques, schools, and hospitals.

'Fear Bomb Blasts'

Some Taliban members have been former followers of Sufism. But the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam is opposed to mystical forms of the faith.

During the Taliban's first stint in power, from 1996-2001, some Sufis were forced to go into hiding. The Taliban stormed some Sufi monasteries and gatherings, beating members of the community and destroying their musical instruments. The Taliban banned music under its rule.

Men pray at the the shrine of a famous 11th-century Sufi poet and mystic philosopher on the outskirts of the western Afghan city of Herat.
Men pray at the the shrine of a famous 11th-century Sufi poet and mystic philosopher on the outskirts of the western Afghan city of Herat.

Sufis revere saints and use music to propagate the message of Islam. They focus on self-cleansing through devotion, in sharp contrast to the Taliban and IS-K, which follow a literal interpretation of Islam.

For more than 13 centuries, Afghanistan has been a center of Sufi Islam. Saints born in the areas comprising today's Afghanistan had a prominent role in spreading Islam to the subcontinent.

Sufi leaders in Afghanistan claim that at least 60 percent of the country's population are followers of Sufism, or at least support and respect Sufi values. "Ziyarats," believed to be the burial places of prominent Sufi figures, are popular pilgrimage sites all over the country. Many Sufi religious leaders enjoy respect and influence among the local population.

"Sufism is the practice of religion that focuses on self-cleansing through prayers," said Ahmad Madani, an Afghan Sufi.

Despite their image as being peaceful mystics, Sufis in Afghanistan have been actively involved in politics and military conflicts.

Late Afghan President Sibghatullah Mujadidi, the leader of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis, led a prominent mujahedin faction that fought against Soviet forces in the 1980s. Pir Sayyid Ahmed Gailani, the leader of the Qadiriyya order, also led a mujahedin faction.

With the Taliban in power and IS-K militants targeting Sufis, many members of the community live in constant dread. Some have even stopped going to Sufi monasteries and shrines for fear of being killed in an attack.

"My family is reluctant to let me go to mosques because they fear bomb blasts, particularly suicide attacks," said Ghulam Saeed, a resident of Parwan Province, located just north of Kabul.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.