Ayesha Ramzan

The messiahs were busy making sure that the country was cleansed of all lurking evils-to put it in a cliché – to nip them in the bud. The execution of this rite was crucial because the Valentine’s Day and Basant was approaching. The militant mullah brigade in the national assembly successfully got a supreme court’s verdict on banning basant and Valentine’s Day. It was an archetypal ‘supreme’ achievement, and they were hailed by a majority – of the same ilk – this time in particular for formally getting permission from the Supreme Court. Bravo! These efforts and prescient steps by such prude minds secured the morals of a society for this year at least; the society that is ever so close to plunging to western culture is saved from moral ruin.

There is no dearth of brains that were planning more hands-on and long lasting strategies to expunge the nation of the spirit of festivity. At the same time, fundamentalists of not so different kind prepared to remind the people of their formidable presence. This lesson was for those who cannot afford such luxuries as celebrations like Valentine’s Day, or Basant festival and in a different tone and range. The plan was to be executed at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan Sharif.

Entrance gate of Laal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in Sehwan Sharif۔
Photo credits: Muhammad Arsalan

So at the peak of the event, on Thursday, when – dhamaal- had the devotees in trance, an emissary dressed as a woman was sent to teach the lesson to the poor through an inhuman punishment. A suicide bombing that took the lives of ninety devotees. This was also a reminder to all those who they think ought to be schooled and reminded that shrines are bad places. Urs- annual melas are evil, immoral or foul celebrations.

I am not a devotee- a fan of shrines and dargas, yet I have been there through the courtesy of my mother who believes in the holiness of such experiences. The last time I visited the shrine, almost four years back; I still remember what it felt like. The wafting smell of crushed rose petals, the coolness of the tiles on the bare soles, the stuffy humidity of the crowd, and the sight of hundreds of devotees is but a purely humbling experience. It affected me deeply to see the believers, worshippers – of all ages, from all parts of the country having journeyed to pay their respect to the saint’s spirit- to pray for all unrequited wishes. For a few moments, I had to let go of my usual skepticism, and appreciate the diversity that one across at a shrine- a microcosm of the lowest strata of society.

Devotees offering prayer on the grave of Laal Shahbaz Qalandar
Photo Credits: Muhammad Arsalan

One can see the poor and the most downtrodden and deprived come all over to such places in search of hope, believing so hopelessly against hope that it is there. This in a way symbolizes the helplessness of the human condition, our inclination and inherent ability to be superstitious and weak in the extreme most circumstances.

As an ethnographic experience, one charts the presence of the lowest in the socio-economic strata by just a mere glance around. There are families’ not just loners who regularly visit shrines, women accompanied by hoards of off springs, pregnant women asking for the birth of sons, newly married couples who visit such places as a honeymoon like privilege. It is a carnival for the caravans of pilgrims making it to the urs which by definition is the celebration of the union in death of the sufi saint with his beloved-god.

The pilgrims feast on the daeg chawal, and the free available food; considering each bite sacred they take it home for those unable to travel that time. Their indulgence include some shopping from the nearby small shanty shops souvenirs as gajras, or plastic toys or jewelry. For some of the devotees unable to afford psychologists and psychiatrists, it is no less than a therapeutic and a cathartic experience, while for others the experience offers ecstatic delights in sightings as the gyrating dance and swirling motions of Dhammals and qawali singing. The ecstasy of Qalander is as irresistible as love, and it attracts everyone to its center.

Despite the inter-faith cacophony, the legacy unfortunately that we as Muslim Pakistanis have inherited, the divisions that are so marked even in mosques, these shrines are the places with open doors, spiritual places where there are no barriers to sect or faith. Sufis with their ecumenical beliefs propagated a liberal version of Islam, something feared by those narrow-minded fundamental approaches to the religion. These shrines are historical, cultural sites that every Islamist militant seek to destroy- these sites: ‘provide a counter narrative to the extremist versions of Islam’.

Thus, these places reverberate the soul and spirit ‘a peaceful Islam’, the expression ‘peaceful Islam’ is almost a paradox in the West now. This is where the fundamentalists’ target- the all-embracing, pluralist views of religion. It was Baba Shah Noorani in Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine in Data Darbar or Lal Shahbaz Qalander .

In the after math of the incident, we hear militant and combative statements promising that ‘nobody would be spared’ and ‘there will not be any exercise of restraint’. Ironically, the only ‘good news’ one is greeted with are news reports that say ‘Over 100 terrorists have been killed in response to the attack’. What a squander it is to unleash more brutality in avenging the pitilessly sacrificed. Must rites of purification require short term, myopic planning by those in charge. The state of affairs not only reflects on our misplaced priorities but also the lack of understanding of the whole situation.

With this anti-sufi spirit — that spreads more hate — nothing can be redressed. It is in the spirit of love as a cure for all where Qalander’s pluralist vision for humanity is echoed- not in rites of purification post such horrors. The shrine floor was dyed in red blood of the devotees –the strongest of hearts melt at the mere thought of those who came to celebrate the ecstasy of living on Urs- the union of Shabaz Qalander with god- dancing to the words:

Dam a Dam mast qalander- Every breath for the ecstasy of Qalander.

Those witnessing, can but just lament, the loss- the irreparable damage to the spirit of life.

About Author: Ayesha Ramzan is a lecturer in the department of Humanities, COMSATS (CIIT). She teaches Translation Studies and Communication Skills to graduate and under-graduate students. Also, she prides herself in being called a literature geek, a staunch feminist with an unending passion for learning.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are her own.


  1. I have just finished reading the above article you wrote. I want to tell you how much I appreciated your clearly written and thought-provoking article.

    While much has been written on this topic, your article hits the nail right on the head with a hammer of brutal honesty and truth without taking an emotional stance on either side of the issue.

    Thank you for your thorough research and clear writing.

    Jazak Allah Khair


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