The Sufi tradition is ancient and syncretic, and across South Asia it draws on the rituals and habits of pre-Islamic religion. Adherents often worship at the shrines of esteemed saints. Musicians lead crowds amassed at the shrines in ecstatic songs of devotion. The worship of saints and the tradition's outright exuberance often spark the ire of Pakistan's fundamentalist Muslims, who insist on a stricter interpretation of the Koran. Militants have translated that ire into a refrain of violence.
Thursdays usually draw the largest crowds to the shrines. It is the occasion of the biggest dhamaal, a nightly session of singing to the beats of drums and the wheezing of harmoniums. The militants who attacked in Sehwan chose Thursday because the shrine would be most crowded then. The dead hailed from across the country. The attack not only killed scores, but it also destroyed the shrine.
The Sehwan shrine is dedicated to one of Sufism's most revered saints, Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, better known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. He mostly lived in the 11th century and roamed far and wide, seeking guidance in the spiritual capitals of Medina and Karbala before settling in Sehwan, along the banks of the Indus River. The shrine honoring the preacher is at least 650 years old.
One song written in his honor has become one of the Sufi tradition's most well known. In the video below, it is performed by Sabri and his brothers.
Its lyrics speak to the intoxication of devotion to the saints, and the struggle to live up to their high ideals.