A dishevelled-looking man with a betel-streaked beard sat near the edge of a footpath in the upscale neighbourhood of Clifton, Karachi, as several luxurious cars drove past him. He lifted a half-burnt cigarette to his lips with one hand while the other scratched the greasy mess of henna-dyed tangles on his head.
Several others sat near him — a weary-looking woman with three sleeping children, young boys with unkempt hair, wrinkled men staring at their feet and an infant crying in his mother’s lap. The crowd watched each passerby ominously as they crossed the road to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, one of the most revered Sufi saints of the city — if not the country.
Abdul Ahad*, 26, drove his bright red convertible to the shrine and almost immediately, a dozen children chased his vehicle to the parking lot, swarming around him and asking him to buy a talisman — an object considered to have protective powers — from their stall.
Several people had set up stalls on the ramp leading to the entrance of the mazaar, selling toys, thread, taweez (amulets) and large stone rings. A boy wearing a Pashtun cap agreed to safeguard Ahad’s bag for the small price of buying him tea. Due to security reasons, male visitors are not allowed to bring bags inside the shrine.
Ahad wore a kurta with ripped jeans and a pair of bright neon football shoes. He had completed his higher education at a university in the UK, which explained his anglicised Urdu accent.
Ahad lives nearby and regularly visits the mazaar. Although he joked during our conversation, which so far had been light-hearted, his outlook became solemn when I asked him the reason behind his visit. After several attempts to skirt around the question, he revealed that he is unable to marry the girl he loves because his family has issues with the community she belongs to.
“My mother used to revere Abdullah Shah Ghazi. When I was a child, she always asked me to accompany her to his shrine on Thursdays but I used to be afraid of graves,” he smiled. After his mother’s death, Ahad started visiting the shrine regularly. Every Thursday, he prays to the saint for one thing — his beloved.
The shrines of Sindh
The shrines of Sufi saints are dotted across the length and breadth of Sindh, where they are revered particularly in rural areas and are frequented by thousands of people each year. The shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, for example, located in the small town of Bhit Shah, attracts up to 500,000 visitors during the celebration of his Urs (death anniversary).
During the reign of Gen Ayub Khan, the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department was established to bring some of the many shrines in Pakistan under the care and sponsorship of the state. According to the department’s records, Sindh has a total of 80 registered shrines. This excludes the intricate network of unregistered shrines built in the smaller hamlets of the province.
While the practice of visiting shrines is most eminent in the rural areas of Sindh, there are 28 registered shrines in the bustling metropolis of Karachi.
Reportedly, there are many shrines in Karachi that do not fall under the government. There is a strong custom of visiting shrines among a significant number of residents in the city. On Thursdays, Karachites are well aware of the chokehold traffic in areas such as Saddar which hosts shrines of lesser-known saints, due to the vast influx of their devotees.
To understand the culture of visiting shrines in Karachi, I traversed a number of Sufi dargahs and spoke to some regular devotees to ascertain what drives them to these places.
His birth can save your marriage
At many of these shrines, people from all walks of life shared some common afflictions — financial difficulties, domestic issues or injustices in the judicial system. Like Ahad, marrying the person of one’s choice was also a reason shared by several women.
When I visited the shrine of Sufi Pir Mangho in New Karachi, 25-year-old Humaira* was the only woman standing near the resting place of the saint. She revealed that she had asked a mannat (divine intervention) from the Pir for a son. She has birthed six daughters, three of whom have passed away. After the birth of her youngest daughter, she received an ultimatum from her in-laws to conceive a son. Humaira has been visiting the Pir since she was a teenager and made her first mannat when she was 19.
Ever since, “the Pir has been the waseela (mediator/means) to my prayers,” she said, adding that he had listened to all of her pleas before and when the time comes, she believes he will help her out this time as well.
Humaira is currently expecting what she hopes is her unborn son.
Thus, an irrefutable certainty is present in the minds of regular shrine-goers that the Sufi saints have a direct link with the Almighty, due to their lifelong piety. A saint is, therefore, regarded as a waseela or medium by devotees for their prayers to get answered.
Like Humaira, many childbearing women, especially those who face threats in their families for giving birth to more daughters, make their way to the Pir’s grave for pleas to have a son. Several women mentioned that they face abuse from their husbands or arguments in their family for not giving birth to a boy, leaving them little choice but to ask God’s pious men for help. Many women who face domestic issues visit the shrine to plead for help. For them, turning to a Pir when they confront a situation they cannot escape is embedded in their faith.
Contrary to popular perception, although the vast majority of shrine-goers belong to the working class, upper-class individuals like Ahad were also seen at the shrines.
In the slavery of my beloved — Pir-Murid
Aqeedatmandi (devotion) to a particular saint is a value taught in devotee families and is passed on through generations by elders of the family. Aqeedatmandi is rooted in an important Sufi tradition — Pir/Muridi. The relation of a Murid or student to his Pir, or spiritual teacher is based on complete surrender and servitude so the Murid can reach his ultimate beloved: God.
In his Kafi (a form of Sufi music and poetry), the famed Sufi philosopher and poet Bulleh Shah refers to his teacher, Shah Inayat, as his beloved and asserts that his salvation lies in his devotion towards his Pir.
My God wraps the ugly in his arms too
Where lies my everlasting Orchard?
In the slavery of my beloved
Devotees commonly express their submission to a saint by touching the walls of the shrine and crying against it while praying. Others stroke the burial site and kiss it out of devotion. During my visit, devotees repeatedly caressed the marble columns of Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s burial site. A woman rubbed her hand across her legs after touching the grave to bless her joints.
Hareem* has been visiting Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine since she was six. She is now 67 years old. Her mother would hold her left hand and make her touch the walls of the shrine with her right palm.
Now, Hareem visits the shrine regularly with her husband and takes her teenage son to accompany them as well.
The value of Aqeedatmandi is inherited as a generational ritual, especially among devotees. Otherwise, if the practice of visiting shrines exists in a family then the children are taught to accompany their elders and expected to teach it to following generations.
‘A hospital for the spiritually ill’
A cheeky, fluorescent indicator of Karachi is its graffiti-stained walls. Throughout history, they have acted as an unofficial public notice board, painted with Marxist ideas, political and religious slogans, protest locations etc. During the late 1970s, wall chalking was used to disseminate political agendas since strict censorship under military rule had banned political messaging or opposition voices in the mainstream media.
Apart from being unofficial political agents, the walls of Karachi also notoriously advertise in bright red or daunting black the faith healers, known as Babas, among other names. These advertisements are often strategically placed along the routes of public transport and crowded places so that large numbers of people, especially working-class folk are able to see them.
These infamous Babas are considered to be divinely gifted and to have the ability to converse with supernatural forces such as djinns. They are thought to be able to ‘take the djinns out’ of the possessed, break magic spells, offer protection from evil eyes, and bless another with financial prosperity. Interestingly, these miracle workers also promise a cure for even the cancer of spiritual disease.
Although belief in superstition and supernatural entities is widely prevalent in the rural areas of Sindh, it is also widely practised within a segment of Karachi’s urban society — the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Faith healers are often found in the shrines of Karachi, as it is widely believed that spiritual healing comes from the shrines of saints and Sufis. Outside the shrines of Karachi, one can expect to find various trinkets in the form of black beaded bracelets, amulets, threads, large stone-embedded rings etc. These are considered to be forms of faith healing and are often prescribed by a healer or Baba after blessing it with the appropriate dam-durood (incantation or prayers) to the person suffering. Hence, the Sufi shrines are also “a hospital for the spiritually ill,” said Hareem.
Inside the shrine of Misri Shah Ghazi in DHA, a spiritual healer sat across an eight-year-old girl and her parents. He held a peacock feather in one hand and muttered indistinct incantations while tapping it on the girl’s head. A few moments later, he said, “ab ye jin hazir hogaya hai,” (the djinn is now present) and after repeated murmuring directed at the supernatural entity supposedly around the girl, he said, “ab ye nikal gaya hai, apka masla hal hojayega” (the djinn is now gone, your problem will be fixed).
Similarly, I learnt how a majority of the devotees take taweez (amulets) from Pirs or other spiritual personalities for purposes such as suspicion of aasaib (evil spirits), health issues, fights in one’s family, wanting to marry by choice etc. Some devotees live in the shrines for a long time and spend more money than they have by taking loans as they have more faith in their saints than in worldly cures such as Western medicine or visiting a therapist.
They would much rather buy their solace from the market of the panacea — the spiritual healers.
A breath of fresh air
Apart from the city’s natives, Karachi’s shrines are frequented by visitors from other regions of Sindh and Punjab as well. Women from Bahawalpur and remote areas of Punjab came to Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazaar to “catch a breath of fresh air from the daily stresses of life”. Similarly, I also observed non-Muslims visiting the shrine for sightseeing and to pay their respects.
Apart from their spiritual essence, the langar (community kitchen providing free food) distributed at these shrines also saves the homeless from starvation as they open their doors to welcome them three times a day.
Interestingly, there exists a strong belief about the miraculous presence of Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine among residents of Clifton. They claim that sweet drinking water cannot be found in the entire region surrounding the area of Clifton but, a clean spring of cool water has sprouted below his resting place. Karachi’s ability to evade cyclones is also attributed to the saint, as he is dubbed the safeguard of the city’s coast.
These narratives amplify a fascination among outsiders as they flock towards the shrine to witness its miracle in person.
Anthropologist and writer Haroon Khalid, who studied the Sufi folk tradition remarked, “There is a sense of intimacy attached to the shrines as they offer certain immediacy to the masses. The Kaaba and Makkah are at a far distance, but a common man can walk to his nearest shrine to witness God.”
Perhaps that is what the thousands who flock to Karachi’s shrines hope to find.
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
Header image: The shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi on his Urs in 2012. — Photo by Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock