Shah noted that the Sufi Muslims and Hindus had lived in Kashmir, side by side, with little religious unrest for hundreds of years. In fact, he asserted, their temples, mosques, and shrines to Sufi saints often sat right next to each other and were used interchangeably by people seeking healing or other divine benefit.
Shah said that Sufism’s devotees endeavor to receive divine love and wisdom through a personal experience with God. Sufis are ascetic, and they promote peace and tolerance not only between the sects of Islam but also with other religions, he said. Radical Islam has responded to Sufism in many areas of the Muslim world by attacking or destroying its shrines, assassinating its leaders, and branding its practitioners as idolaters.
Shah is among those who believe that Sufism—because it does include adherence to the basic tenets of Islam—can serve as an effective tool of deradicalization among Muslim militants like the killers of Lee Rigby and Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev—the radicalized brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
Shah also discussed the tendency by many to group all Muslims into the extremist camp. It is important for non-Muslims to understand that the majority of followers of Islam are not radical or violent, he said. Shah, who is also chair of the Hazrat Bulbul Shah Trust, is working in Pakistan to bolster the gentler and more peaceful practices of Sufism in Kashmir by a campaign to rebuild or restore the shrines to Sufi saints that were damaged by militant Islamists or that have suffered from years of neglect.
Shah also laments how easy it is for a small minority to tarnish the entire religion and its precepts. “Three or four persons of hate come together, and they destroy a tower or a railway or a parliament and say ‘We do this in the name of our religion and in jihad.’ But jihad is not a bad word,” Shah stated. “For the Sufi, it means love, meditation, and purity.”