Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Taking the Place of Martyrs: Afghans and Arabs under the Banner of Islam

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Taking the Place of Martyrs: Afghans and Arabs under the Banner of Islam

Article excerpt

During the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, a new qabristan (graveyard) was built in the southern city of Qandahar, adjacent to an existing one, for a special category of "foreign guests": the bodies of Arabs, allegedly al-Qa'ida fighters and their families. Soon, hundreds of locals began to visit the newcomers' graves bearing stones, colored cloth, and salt, in search of intercession for illness, deafness, barrenness, and other afflictions of the body and soul. They also came to pay respect to foreign Muslims who had died on Afghan soil. "These boys died here alone, in a foreign country. They were our Muslim brothers and we weep for them," sixty-five-year-old Sher Mohammed told a US newspaper in January 2002. "It is the duty of every Muslim to see they are buried with respect." Six years later, a woman in her fifties who lived nearby and frequently tended to the graves went further, telling the BBC, "They are martyrs, and it is my duty to be at their service."1 Nor is the soil of Qandahar alone in welcoming the bodies of holy warriors. In Khost, locals seek intercession at graves containing the victims of a US air raid on a mosque: body parts of Arabs and Afghans, buried side by side with the remnants of Qur'ans.2 And on the other side of the border, near the villages of Arawali and Bagzai in the Kurram Agency of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), similar visits take place at the graves of alleged foreign fighters driven from Tora Bora by US bombs, captured by Pakistani forces, and killed while trying to escape.3

The veneration of the tombs of saintly friends of God (awliya', singular: wali)4, often in search of such blessings that may take the form of miracles (karamat, singular: karama), is a common practice in Afghanistan and many other parts of the Muslim world.5 Some shrines in Afghanistan have arisen atop the graves of deceased travelers.6 Veneration of alleged al-Qa'ida fighters, however, seems to have piqued the anxieties of Gul Agha Sherzai, the US-backed warlord of Qandahar whose forces reportedly once opened fire on a woman and child visiting the qabristan.7 Others were hardly deterred: as late as January 2008, hundreds of Afghans continued to visit the graves every day.8 Like Gul Agha, the Pakistani state has looked askance at these gatherings. Seven months after the invasion, when Chechens rumored to be al-Qa'ida fighters were killed in a shootout outside Jarma village, police mounted raids around Kohat in search of hair, nails, and other body parts so as to prevent locals from holding a funeral prayer for them. The arrests and the withholding of the corpses, however, did nothing to stem local protests or prevent the construction of a shrine at the site of the battle.9

State authorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan have not been alone in their discomfort with these shrines: Interspersed among the Afghans seeking blessings or cures have been Westerners in search of ominous signs of "fundamentalist" resurgence and ongoing sympathy for al-Qa'ida, who see the Pathans and their foreign guests as drawn together by their common embrace of "hardline" Islam. In September 2005, a Western journalist noted the failure of efforts by President Hamid Karzai to discourage visits to the Qandahar graves as evidence of ongoing support for the Taliban.10 While many visitors disclaimed any particular motives against the United States or its client regime, others were carefully defiant in their choice of saints. "Americans have the right to call these people their enemies," quipped an Arawali taxi driver to a reporter. "But we have the right to call them martyrs."11

It is also possible, however, to see irony in the veneration of the graves of Arab fighters, for they have stereotypically been Salafis and virulent critics of the practice of grave visitation as un-Islamic forms of innovation (bid'a), ignorant remnants of local traditions (jahl), or even polytheism (shirk). Such practices are often associated with Sufis, who in Afghanistan mostly belong to one of two Sufiorders (turuq, singular: tariqa), the Qadiriyya and Naqshbandiyya. …

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