Dhamaal at Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in 2014, Sehwan Sharif | Hasan Zaidi
Dhamaal at Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in 2014, Sehwan Sharif | Hasan Zaidi

We are Lovers of the Qalandar: Piety, Pilgrimage and Ritual in Pakistani Sufi Islam
By Wasim Juergen Frembgen
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697340156
192pp.

I initially got to know of Wasim Juergen Frembgen through the French Interdisciplinary Mission in Sindh (MIFS) led by Michel Boivin, and then through Dr Mehdi Raza Shah Sabzwari, one of the two sajjada nasheens [lineal caretakers] of the shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif.

The first point to note about Frembgen’s We are Lovers of the Qalandar: Piety, Pilgrimage and Ritual in Pakistani Sufi Islam is that this is not historical record, but an anthropological work derived from field research collected over more than a decade. Substantial parts of the book are based on material culture, icons and artefacts. It uses a recent concept called “visual literacy”, and employs visual and oral culture to corroborate its arguments.

The introduction explains how change in communication and transport networks in the past 50 years have changed Sehwan Sharif’s religious landscape — primarily the pilgrimage routes connecting Sehwan to Punjab — making it an excellent account of how things have evolved. But to a historian, the anthropological terminology used is sometimes difficult to comprehend. I tried my best to overcome this hurdle.

At the outset, to keep readers from getting confused, Frembgen describes clearly the imagery used throughout his book. He touches upon the inspiration for popular art/posters related to Sehwan, depicting the person of Shahbaz Qalandar, exploring perhaps a Christian colouring to them that is a legacy of our colonial past, and even touches upon the profuse Hindu Shaivite imagery of Sehwan which lasted long after Islam arrived here — something I saw myself in 1998 on a trip before the old shrine collapsed. These have essentially vanished in the past 30 years, with the new shrine’s construction, but should not be forgotten as they are a part of our heritage.

An anthropologist turns his eye to the largest Sufi shrine in Pakistan and gives us remarkable insight into the growth of the pilgrimage to it over the last 50 years

The first chapter is essentially the “visual hagiography” of Shahbaz Qalandar. Its most important aspect is the calligraphy related to Sehwan found on vehicles, from rickshaws to trucks, in Pakistan. A colourful sketch, it gives an insight into, and a chronological record of, roughly everything from poetry to almost something like poster art, inspired by Shahbaz Qalandar. Sehwan is, after all, Pakistan’s largest and most important Sufi shrine.

In Chapter Two, Frembgen analyses the expansion of the annual urs [commemoration of death] and the pilgrimage to it from the 1960s onwards, through the placards, banners, etc created for the purpose, and their mass production with Lahore as the centre. In this context, he explains that use of newer technology is the main reason behind the explosion of the pilgrimage to Sehwan from Punjab.

The chapter highlights the centrality of the role that Punjab plays in Sehwan’s spiritual life today — something I saw myself in the three years I worked with MIFS, with the Thursday night congregations growing by the hundreds each passing year, but my observation holds truer for pilgrims from Sindh.

Essentially, Sehwan has become a beacon of counterculture against the more prominent trends of political Islam present in Pakistan, and the book captures the Punjabi aspect of it very well. The author analyses the Sufi networks based in Punjab to explain how the pilgrimage system works, and describes these networks as cutting through class, caste and clan lines in people’s love for Shahbaz Qalandar. He also elaborates on such networks in southern Punjab, hitherto — to the best of my knowledge — an untouched topic in an international publication.

The following chapter examines the cult of Shahbaz Qalandar and its evolution in the last 50 years. Frembgen calls it “trans-regional, trans-ethnic, and trans-religious”, one that encompasses all of Pakistan today and, previously, Rajasthan in India. He describes how the cult expanded rapidly in the 1970s, with Punjab today accounting for 70 percent of pilgrims, which include Christians, Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims.

In this light, he discusses the various sangats [devotional groups], qaafilas [pilgrim bands] and masnads [spiritual organisation with a clear hierarchy] making up the pilgrimage networks and how they facilitate each other. It’s a worthy commentary and contains useful information especially for those interested in such networks, and who would want to research the matter further.

Chapter Three explores the pilgrimage networks through the individuals leading various organisations, especially in terms of which part of Punjab they hail from. In this, Frembgen gives us an exegesis of the Sufi networks coming to Sehwan and elaborates on the various shrines en route that are visited by each group as they proceed towards the city during the urs. I won’t spoil the fun by citing details. The chapter also investigates the purely Punjabi phenomenon of the Shaam-i-Qalandar [The Night of the Qalandar], how it began, and professional musicians’ role in popularising it.

In Chapter Four, we learn of the role of women pilgrims through the case study of a matriarchal Sufi order that began 100 years ago, in what is now Indian Punjab. The history of the order’s conception, migration to Lahore, functions, and how present leader Mai Kasuri holds it together — at times, with difficulty — in our patriarchal country, makes for stimulating reading. This segment is important for the simple fact that this is one of scores of similar sub-orders and networks, led by women, which most people are not even aware of.

Chapter Five investigates, in Frembgen’s words, “the figures of ambiguity” in the Sufi tradition in Sindh and Punjab. It explores the openness of the tradition itself, its acceptance of people from all faiths and backgrounds and digs deep into the religious inclusion of Pakistan’s Sufi heritage, which was widely practised before political Islam made headway during the ‘Islamisation’ era.

Transgenders, men, women, Shias, Sunnis, Hindus and others — essentially people from the “fringe” of society who have no other “access” to God — go to Sehwan for that access. Through the accounts of people from various backgrounds, Frembgen outlines what this “religious inclusion” really is, echoing what architect and social researcher Arif Hasan once told me: “Everyone in society needs an access to God, this is not the terrain of the religiously conforming only; and one such place of access is Sehwan.”

Interspersed in this chapter are several images, but the photos are of low quality and most are a decade or more old, when non-professional cameras used by scholars were not very good. Placing all images in the book’s centre is in the old style and, although they’re cross-referenced, putting each image next to the text referencing it would have been better.

Chapter Six, ‘Performing Body’, deals with the origins and performance of dhamaal from an anthropological perspective. Frembgen describes the dhamaal as a sama — a Sufi dance where the performer merges with the saint, the Prophet and God — but as a version of it that stands outside the realm of institutionalised Sufi orders.

Although he quotes Boivin that the word dhamaal is derived from dam-haal, or ‘breath state’ in “folk etymology”, this definition was actually given to us by dervish Anwar Ali in 2009, for a MIFS interview I conducted with him. This is how initiated dervishes at the mausoleum of Shahbaz’s devotee Bodla Bahar describe dhamaal — the use of the word ‘folk’ gives it a much larger connotation. The origins of the word probably relate to the dem ceremony of similar Sufi groups — Ahl-i-Haqq and Alevis — from north-western Iran and Turkey, the region, as Frembgen rightly states, where Shahbaz Qalandar originally hailed from.

Being an anthropologist, Frembgen correctly analyses the dhamaal’s various versions and their historical connection to the Pashupatas, a Shaivite — devotees of Shiva — sub-sect that originally inhabited Sehwan before Islam. But his “democratic” approach of giving each version near equal weight is not what a historian would do. The ‘true’ version of the dhamaal would be a marriage between what the Shaivites originally performed, and the walk of Zainul Abidin that Fremgen mentions, the symbolism of which is enshrined in the beliefs of the Qalandariyya Sufi Order that Qalandar brought with him to Sehwan.

Other dhamaal styles would be a spin-off from what occurred in Sehwan between the Shaivites and Qalandariyya Sufi Order starting in the 13th century. Nevertheless, Frembgen’s observations are important, as most of Pakistan’s Sufi heritage is culturally a marriage between what existed before, and what came with Islam.

A last point would be the distinction Frembgen notes between the spaces in which men and women perform dhamaal. This, again, is a post-‘Islamisation’ era phenomenon; my mother told me that, when she first visited Sehwan in the early 1970s, there was no distinction of gender inside the dhamaal court.

The strength of Frembgen’s book is its sources and content from the field. The beautifully woven material has little need for references from textual sources of other disciplines, especially history, although they’re present when needed.

The only shortcomings are poor image quality and the chapter on dhamaal, as the latter deals with the subject in too much anthropological depth, but this is to be expected; the ‘body’ has a special place in ethnographic analyses of this sort, and other, younger anthropologists have also tried to read the dhamaal in a similar manner. As mentioned, in my historian’s opinion, the dhamaal’s real symbolism is based on the spiritual concepts of the Qalandariyya Sufi Order. Having done work on the dhamaal myself, my training as a historian meant it was one aspect I simply couldn’t override.

All in all, We are Lovers of the Qalandar gives us remarkable insight into the growth of the pilgrimage to Qalandar’s shrine over the last 50 years and, as a handbook, it is something that has not been attempted before.

The reviewer is a historian

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 12th, 2021

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