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Abdullah Shah Ghazi: The saviour saint

November 23, 2014

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The shrine of the Sufi saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi. — Photo: Vaqar Ahmed
The shrine of the Sufi saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi. — Photo: Vaqar Ahmed

One of the most popular urban myths of Karachi is related to what is perhaps its largest Sufi shrine: the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Built on the sandy shores of the city almost 10 centuries ago (as the final resting place of an obscure Sufi saint called Abdullah Shah Ghazi), for a long time the saint’s many admirers have believed that the reason cyclones usually miss hitting Karachi is squarely due to ‘the mystical power and presence of Shah Ghazi’s spirit that resides within the shrine’.

Of course, many Karachiites also laugh off such beliefs, but even to this day there are a number of people in this city who are convinced that Shah Ghazi’s spirit remains Karachi’s best deterrent against raging cyclones emerging in the Arabian Sea.

Till the early 1950s the shrine was just a tiny, shaky hut on top of a sandy hill in what we now know as the Clifton / Sea View area in Karachi. Precious little is known about what it was like in the centuries before it was first properly photographed in the late 1940s and then in the early 1950s by famous actor, author and intellectual Zia Mohyeddin.


Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine attracts not only Muslims but Christian and Hindu community members as well


One of the city’s foremost architects and historians, Sohial Lari, suggests (in his book, A History of Sindh) that Shah Ghazi was an Arab merchant who had come to Sindh with the first wave of Arab invaders. However, another noted historian, M. Daudpota, suggests that Ghazi arrived in the area from Iraq as a commander who, along with Muhammed Bin Qasim, fought Sindh’s Hindu ruler, Raja Dahir, in the seventh century.

He settled in Sindh along with his brother, Syed Misri Shah, and became a follower of Sufi strands of Islam. He was, however, ambushed by his enemies in a forest in the interior of Sindh and killed. The handful of followers that he had gathered carried his body all the way to the shores where he had first set foot in Sindh. They buried him on top of a hill near the area from where he had arrived on an Arab ship. This area now lies in the vicinity of Clifton and Sea View in Karachi.

For centuries the tiny shrine continued to draw dedicated devotees of Ghazi (both Muslim and Hindu). It began to be expanded and beautified in the mid-1960s by the Ayub Khan regime, especially after it had begun to attract the devotional attention of the large number of working-class men and women who began to migrate to Karachi from small towns and villages in the Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Soon a whole culture of festivities and music (Qawalli and dhamaal) and small shops began emerging around the shrine.


Till the early 1950s the shrine was just a tiny, shaky hut on top of a sandy hill in what we now know as the Clifton / Sea View area in Karachi. Precious little is known about what it was like in the centuries before it was first properly photographed in the late 1940s and then in the early 1950s by famous actor, author and intellectual Zia Mohyeddin.


The Z.A. Bhutto regime (1971-77) further expanded the shrine and it was during this time that it became one of Karachi’s largest Sufi shrines, attracting not only Muslim men and women, but also members of the city’s Christian and Hindu communities.

Though the shrine remained to be a popular spot for the city’s ever-growing working-class and lower-middle-class segments (of all ethnicities and faiths), it was largely neglected by the reactionary Ziaul Haq regime (1977-88). It began to look shabby and in a dire need of repairs. Consequently petty crime and drug peddling became unwanted norms around it.

In 2005, the city government headed by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (and backed by the Musharraf regime) started an extensive repair, cleaning up and renovation job on the shrine which was completed in 2007.

Another interesting aspect related to the shrine is that most of the people who visit it are Urdu-speaking and Punjabis. According to a Sindhi nationalist whom I had befriended at college in the 1980s, most Sindhis saw Shah Ghazi as an aggressive invader who used the sword against the ancestors of Sindhis. According to him Sindhis were devotees of Sufi saints such as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Shah Abdul Lateef because they arrived in the region purely as peaceful Sufis.

Shah Ghazi may have been a warrior-turned-Sufi, but his shrine was bombed in 2010 by militant extremists who believe that Sufism encourages ‘negative innovations’ and negates the purity of the faith. But the shrine survived the carnage and continues to attract a large number of working-class and lower-middle-class Karachiites, and the city’s homeless and the downtrodden.

To these men and women, Shah Ghazi embraces all. Of course, all except cyclones.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 23rd, 2014