A spate of terrorist attacks by puritan extremists on a number of famous Sufi shrines in Pakistan has brought into focus the shrine-going culture and its opponents. This is an important development, especially considering the negligible knowledge today’s young, educated urbanites have of this popular culture even though shrines continue to play an important spiritual and economic role in the lives of a majority of Pakistanis.
The shrine culture of devotional, recreational and professional activity around the shrines of Muslim saints has been present in the subcontinent for over a thousand years. It is largely associated with activity around the shrines of Sufi saints who started arriving from Iraq, Iran and Central Asia with various waves of Muslim from 8th century onwards.
These men (and some women) allowed for fusing Muslim esotericism, as it had developed in their home countries over the years, with the cultural rituals of Indian non-Muslim communities — all were welcome to the presence of the Muslim divine. More than the ulema, it was the Sufi saints whose all-inclusive approach helped spread Islam in this region.
Over time, a permissive culture of devotional music, indigenous rituals and assorted intoxicants (said to be used to induce trance-like state) started taking shape around the shrines. The shrine culture was patronised by various Muslim dynasties that ruled the subcontinent, and by the 19th century, it had become a vital part of the belief and ritual system of a vast majority of Muslims.
This system has remained intact despite the many puritan movements that attempted to expunge what they alleged were innovations that Muslims of India had adopted from Hinduism. However, around late 1960s urban middle-class Pakistan had left this culture to the largely uneducated and the superstitious lot or the feudal lords who presided over them.
But just like middle-class hippies in the West in the 1960s, who had chosen various esoteric eastern spiritual beliefs to demonstrate their disapproval of the ‘soullessness’ of the western culture, many young, middle-class Pakistanis in the 1970s, began looking to the shrine culture as a way to make a social and political connect with the dispossessed masses. Thus urban middle-class youth came into contact with rural peasants, petty traders and the urban working classes who thronged the shrines.
Middle-class Pakistani youth began to frequent shrines, especially on Thursday nights when a number of shrines hold nights dedicated to the traditional Sufi devotional music. The popular genre of qawali has been sung in the region for over seven hundred years. Now it has become a commercially lucrative art form, but at its pristine best it remains an impassionate fixture at shrines on Thursday nights.
The shrine culture is strongly owned by the Barelvi, mainstream Sunnis. They celebrate the ritual and social outcome of Sufism’s historical engagement with other faiths. This acceptance inherent in the popular belief system historically worked well to harmonise relations between Muslims and the Hindu majority of India. Pakistan’s military as well as civilian ruling elites did not meddle with the shrine culture. In fact, the Z.A. Bhutto regime (1972-77) actually patronised (and utilised) it as an expression of populism.
According to a report published in 1979, more Pakistanis visited shrines than they did mosques. Though some scorn at this, there are many who would say that the level of violence, crime and corruption in society was much lower than what it climbed up to from 1980s onwards. The Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88) was inspired by the more puritan strains of the faith, and found it hard to introduce certain harsh Islamic laws in a social scene that was steeped in centuries-old traditions of tolerant shrine-going Muslim creed.
This popular religious culture was not attuned to a puritan interpretation of jihad, which constituted a problem for the Zia regime. He had to propagate the importance of ‘jihad against the infidels’ in the wake of Pakistan’s frontline status in the CIA-backed guerrilla war against Soviet occupation forces present in Afghanistan. The dictatorship went about building a number of puritan mosques and madressahs, mostly funded by donations from the Gulf states. Zia also began partronising certain spiritual leaders (pirs) around some shrines.
This was also done because many shrines (especially in Sindh) had become the centre of activity of various anti-Zia political forces. The tactic of hijacking the shrines by the Zia regime was successful in diminishing the participation of the middle-class in the shrine culture, but the culture’s core participants (the masses) remained intact. The status quo in this regard remained unchanged, and many shrines faced neglect and growth of crime around them.
The state’s interest in reinvigorating the all-encompassing shrine culture was revived after the tragic 9/11 episode. Governments under Musharraf (and the current PPP-led coalition) put in efforts to upgrade various shrines in an attempt to arrest the growth of extremism which has also found an appeal among the urban middle-class. This is why puritan terror outfits like the Taliban have begun targeting the shrines.
By Nadeem Paracha, Smoker’s corner
Comments by Abbujak:
As long as people go to shrines and offer Fatehah by praying to Allah to bless the departed soul and to remember own death it should not bother any one. But praying to dead saints is against the teachings of Islam. Instead of killing the ignorant people, efforts should be made to educate them, through Preachings [Dawah], which no one appears to be doing. Violence breeds violence and anarchy. Allah may guide us.