For Pashtuns, a Tradition of Heroes with Special Powers ; in Barely Literate Societies, Mullah Omar, the Fugitive Taliban Leader, Could Take on Supernatural Status

Article excerpt

Mullah Omar - the Pashtun founder of the Taliban - has done everything possible to give himself the allure of one of God's chosen few.

In his early years, he rallied his troops by draping the cloak of the prophet Muhammad around his shoulders and took on the title Amir- e Momineen, or Leader of the Faithful. He believed that God spoke to him through his dreams, and often based his most crucial policy decisions on these dreams.

For some, Mullah Omar has the potential to transform himself from a simple religious leader into an Islamic hero endowed with supernatural powers to take on the world's last superpower. Aiding him is the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are barely literate societies, where history is passed down in the form of myth.

Still, such transformation is far from guaranteed. The fugitive lacks the spiritual heft of former great mullahs, according to some. Others say that the longer Mullah Omar eludes American forces - the US military has been hunting him since Sept. 11 - the closer he'll get to divine status.

A long line of Islamic heroes precedes Mullah Omar. In 1985, Mullah of Hadda, a wiry, charismatic, bearded man from eastern Afghanistan, united the Pashtun tribes against the British colonizers, convincing followers that God was on his side. The so- called Mad Mullah is reputed to have received spiritual powers through intense meditation.

On the streets of this town, most villagers still talk about the Mullah of Hadda's supernatural abilities - how he created hailstorms and hornet swarms to harass the enemy. Or about the Haji Turangzai, a 19th-century Sufi saint from Charsadda, Pakistan, who once turned a handful of dust into bullets. Or the Fakir of Ipi, whose prayers could heal the worst battle wounds.

"Sufism is a very important part of Pashtun society," says Sher Afgan, a wealthy landowner from Mardan, referring to a school of Islam that places great importance on supernatural gifts. "There is a feeling that those who have reached a certain level of piety, then God ordains some spiritual powers [for] them."

Today, the Sufi Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the few journalists to have known Mullah Omar, says a few tales are already being told about the Taliban leader. …