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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 August 2005, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Pakistan's mystical Islam thrives
By Asim Butt, Karachi

Sufi shrine, Karachi
The Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine is a magnet for devotees
The mystical form of Islam espoused by Sufi saints for hundreds of years continues to thrive in Pakistan despite opposition from religious hardliners and the authorities.

As the sun sets on a Thursday evening, hundreds of working class people descend on a shrine to the eighth-century mystic, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, in Karachi.

The shrine is located on a hill in the upmarket Clifton district of Pakistan's financial capital, flanked by swanky shopping malls and the posh residential area of Defence.

In the grounds below the shrine gather electricians, plumbers, construction workers, vagabonds, transvestites, prostitutes. Encircled by a cheering crowd, men take turns in a weightlifting competition.

Another circle dances to the drumbeat of the shrine's dhol players.

Devotional singing, or "qawali", emanates from an enclosure adjacent to the open grounds, yet another crowd swaying under its spell.

Holy nights

The men, for this public space is overwhelmingly male-dominated, belong to all the ethnicities and sects that make up Pakistan, mixing freely in a city rife with divisions.

Homeless man at Sufi shrine, Karachi
Many homeless people are drawn to the shrine's grounds

Food stalls, bonfires, stereo-players, huddles of ganja-smoking men, smaller ones of heroin users, others swigging local brews, make up this multi-ethnic weekly party that rocks into the early hours of the morning.

Although Thursdays are traditionally holy nights when devotees pray at Sufi shrines, the revelry at Shah Ghazi seems to have little to do with prayer.

Music, dance and drugs, though proscribed by orthodox Islam, are the traditional vehicles of devotion here - as they are at most shrines in Pakistan.

Sufism has historically provided Islam with an alternative to orthodoxy and has won it most of its converts.

Sufi saints created mass appeal through their merging with pre-existing faiths of the region and their ability to align themselves with popular interests.

The mass appeal of saints like Shah Ghazi and others persists in spite of 200 years of opposition from puritanical reformers and the state.

From the late 19th century on, reformers sought to purify Islam by rejecting elements they believe had crept in through Sufism.


Under the colonial regime, although landed Sufis were used as intermediaries between government and subjects, ascetics were seen as a threat and criminalised.

Sufi shrine, Karachi
The shrine is also a centre of entertainment

Similarly, while ancient Sufis were viewed as genuine agents of spirituality, living mystics were dismissed as frauds.

The 19th Century Sufi, Mewa Shah, also buried in Karachi, was jailed and eventually exiled by the British.

According to legend, Mewa Shah alighted the ship taking him into exile, said his prayers on the waves of the Arabian Sea and mounted a large fish which took him back to the shores of Karachi.

Post-colonial Pakistan has had a schizophrenic policy towards Sufi shrines.

By subsuming them under the Auqaf department, the state has sought to weaken the powers of the spiritual heirs of the saints.

Established under Ayub Khan in 1959, the Auqaf department received its charter from Javed Iqbal, the son of Pakistan's founding visionary poet, Mohammad Iqbal, who actually bemoaned the superstitions of Indian Muslims.

Sufi shrine, Karachi
Karachi's dispossessed come for free food

The pamphlets published by the department expunged the miraculous from the legends, repainting the lives of Sufi saints in a modernist light.

The powers of the department were expanded further under the pseudo-socialist government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1976 and have persisted through Zia ul-Haq's Islamist dictatorship and Pervez Musharraf's rule of "enlightened moderation".

Meanwhile, state functionaries and politicians have continued to seek legitimacy from the shrines by turning prayer visits into public appearances and photo opportunities.

Although tributes paid by devotees are siphoned through the Auqaf department, alms are also received by the dozen or so kitchens that run along the front of the shrine.

The money is used to provide two daily meals to anyone in need. The most destitute thus encamp outside the shrine, among them glue-sniffing runaway children, heroin addicts and other homeless men and women.

The Sufi shrines offer the underclass spiritual sustenance, a social valve of entertainment, and a safety net of free rations.

It is a bond that has not been loosened by militant Islam.

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