As we drove down the three-lane highway, Iqbal Qaiser, my mentor and travel companion, pointed towards a settlement on our left. This was the town of Pattoki. From afar I could see small houses and shops, and rising from their midst was a tall minaret of a mosque. This minaret can be seen in every village and town of Pakistan, announcing that these lands are now dominated by Islam.

Not so long ago, the minarets must have been accompanied by turrets of temples and domes of gurdwaras. Not anymore. The turrets and the domes exist somewhere, hidden within the locality, as if embarrassed of their own existence, knowing well that they don’t belong here anymore. The minarets, when they existed in a multi-religious society, were more modest in height, humbly accepting that their truth is only one of the several truths. After the creation of Pakistan, they became more assured of their path and became prouder and taller.

A few years ago, when I visited the city of Nankana Sahib in Pakistan’s Punjab province for the first time, I noticed the tall minaret of a mosque looking down at Gurdwara Janamasthan Guru Nanak. This holy city presents a challenge to the homogeneity of society. Hundreds of thousands of Sikhs descend here every year to celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, while the government looks after and renovates the Sikh shrines. The minaret at this mosque was one of the tallest minarets I have ever seen attached to a mosque.

“That is an interesting shrine,” said Iqbal Qaiser, as he pointed towards the minaret rising from the middle of Pattoki. I later found out that the shrine was but a small part of a huge complex. The grave of the saint around which this shrine was raised was located in one corner of the courtyard. “The shrine belongs to Peer Abbas. He is popularly known as Kutiyan wali sarkar (the master of dogs)?” The wali here signifies female. Almost all Sufis are referred to as females in iconography. This is in relation with God who is represented as a male figure. In Sufi poetry, a devotee, or a Sufi, presents himself as Heer, the legendary Punjabi folk lover, to Ranjha, the protagonist of the legend and a symbol of divinity in the Sufi tradition. This Sufi tradition also borrows from the Bhakhti tradition of Hinduism, in which Radha is represented as an ideal devotee approaching her God, Krishna, the male figure.

“He was an eccentric man,” said Iqbal Qaiser. “He used to roam around different cities and villages with a pack of dogs. Whatever food people used to offer to the saint, he would give it to his dogs.”

The minaret of the mosque in Pattoki. Credit: Haroon Khalid
The minaret of the mosque in Pattoki. Credit: Haroon Khalid

Peer Abbass belonged to a particular school of thought within the Sufi tradition of Islam, known as the Malamti sect. Prominent German Anthropologist Jürgen Wasim Frembgen defines the Malamti sect as a free Sufi order that is influenced by indigenous South Asian traditions. One of the sect’s most important features is the concealment of their spiritual achievements. They do so by violating religious laws, indulging in reprehensible behaviour in public, and associating with those who are socially disgraced and stigmatised. For them salvation lies in inviting disdain and humiliation from their fellow humans. In this way, they are able to curb their ego and hence focus on divinity.

By preferring the company of dogs over humans, or any other animal, Peer Abbas was aiming to do exactly that. Dogs are considered impure in the Islamic tradition. According to Hadith literature, which is a collection of sayings of Prophet Muhammad, dogs are not to be allowed inside the house and if one ever comes in contact with a dog’s saliva religious ablution is required. The Maliki school of thought, one of the most prominent schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, holds that touching a dog entails an impurity that is removed by a lesser ablution. A few other sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad state that angels do not enter a house where there are dogs. Muslim scholars interpreting the Hadith have further said that dogs profane a mosque or a prayer place by their presence, a defilement that can only be corrected by physically removing them and symbolically washing the place they touched by earth and clean water.

One can therefore imagine the disdain Peer Abbas must have invited by associating with an impure animal. Here he was reversing the order of sacred and profane, by casting the profane as sacred. One can find parallels of this tradition in the tantric cult, where the sacred becomes profane and profane sacred.

There are of course direct comparisons between Peer Abbas’s idiosyncratic association with dogs and Shaivism. For example, Lord Shiva, in his terrifying form, ugra, is accompanied by a pack of dogs, while he is depicted as mendicant ascetic. In Tantrism, Shiva, in the incarnation of Bhairava, is depicted either with the face of a dog or has a dog as his vehicle. In Bhairav temples all over India, devotees offer prayers to the statues of dogs or living dogs. Dogs wander inside and outside the temple of Kalbhairav in Varanasi, and are garlanded by worshippers. Others present them with food offerings as a form of worship.

Soon after my initial sighting of the shrine of Peer Abbass, I decided to visit his shrine along with Iqbal Qaiser. I navigated the car through the narrow streets of the town. Vans, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws and pedestrians, all vied for space in this market town. The one with the biggest vehicle and the most audacious horn got the way. On different walls of the town I noticed posters announcing the date of the urs of Peer Abbas. In the Sufi tradition, death anniversary of a saint is celebrated with much pomp and fair as opposed to birthdays. The celebration is known as urs. This is because it is believed that after his death the Sufi becomes one with the divine existence, a concept similar to Monoism of Hinduism. This union is represented as a marriage ceremony where the divine is understood to be the husband (Krishna or Ranjha) while the bride (Radha or Heer) is the Sufi.

The shrine was located at the centre of the city. At its threshold, there were a handful of dogs lazing around in the sun. They had wreaths around their necks. They were unperturbed by our presence as we passed around them. The grave of the saint was located in one corner. More work was being done to renovate the complex, of which the mosque was now the biggest structure. Iqbal Qaiser had earlier told me that dogs freely roam around the complex, choosing to rest near the grave of the saint. However there were none here.

A devotee offers meat to dogs. Credit: Haroon Khalid.
A devotee offers meat to dogs. Credit: Haroon Khalid.

We walked out of the complex and entered a courtyard facing the shrine. Here we met Jaffar Qazmi, the son of the current gadi nasheen. A 40-year-old man, Jaffar Qazmi teaches at the government school of Pattoki. After his father, he would become the head of this religious organisation. “Once while Peer Abbas was returning to Pattoki, it started raining heavily. He protected himself with his shawl but saw that a bitch and her puppies were drenched in the rain. The saint felt bad for them and covered them with his shawl while he soaked in the rain. After the rain stopped, Peer Abbas left for his next destination and the bitch and her puppies followed him. They remained with the saint after that day and became his devotees. Peer Abbas loved them and would present food and drinks to his pets before he had it himself. These dogs here are the progeny of the original dog that followed the saint.”

“The dogs at the shrine are treated with particular respect because of their association with the saint,” continued Jaffar Qazmi. “They have become famous as the dogs of Peer Abbas and whenever devotees visit the shrine to seek the blessings of the saint, they bring along food offerings like sweets, milk and meat for the dogs. They know that these dogs are the saint’s favourites, and in order to please him they have to please them. No one is rude to them. I’ll tell you about an incident. Once there was a man passing by the shrine holding a rope that was tied to a hen walking behind him. I was watching the scene from this veranda. One of the dogs of the saint snatched the rope from him and took away the hen. The owner could only look on in disappointment.”

“What happens if someone harms the dogs by accident?” I asked.

“It is for this reason that we have wreaths around their necks to distinguish them from the stray dogs that also roam around the city. This is to avoid any such incident, even by accident.”

“So what do the dogs do all day?”

“They just lie next to the shrine or roam around the city. Right now you can only see four-five dogs but there are about thirty dogs of the saint, who return to the shrine at one point or the other. The numbers have gone down since we stopped allowing the dogs to go inside the shrine.”

“Why did you stop them?”

“There are a few devotees of the saint who objected to the practice. They said that the shrine is a pure place whose sanctity is defiled by the presence of impure animals like dogs.”

“But when the saint did not have any problem living and eating with these animals, what right do his devotees have to object to their presence at his shrine?”

“I agree with you. This is what the saint wanted. But these people are his devotees and we have to listen to them.”

Puritanical interpretations

I wasn’t convinced by his explanation. After all, he and his family were caretakers of the shrine and they could perpetuate the practice. Why would they listen to a fringe group of devotees? It was on the way back when I was discussing the issue with Iqbal Qaiser that the situation became clearer. Like other shrines in the country, this one thrives off the donations from devotees. The devotees who objected to the presence of dogs inside the shrine must be a powerful group whose donations constitute a considerable percentage of the total amount of money received by the shrine. The caretakers were happy to abandon the cultural practice of the saint while cashing in on his legacy.

“But no matter where the dogs are, all of them return on the occasion of the urs,” Jaffar said.

“They probably return for all the food that the pilgrims bring along,” I joked.

“No. Actually for that entire week the dogs do not eat at all. Even if you put meat in front of them they refuse.”

As we drove back to Lahore I reflected on how even within the Islamic tradition there were so many distinctive traditions, a remnant of the multi-religious and cultural society that once was. But whereas the non-Muslim culture of Pakistan was wiped off after Partition, it is now indigenous Islamic traditions like the shrine of Peer Abbas that are being replaced by a homogenous puritan interpretation of Islam. The minaret of the shrine would be like any other minaret of the country, representing a uniform culture.

An obscure smadh in the middle of Pattoki. Credit: Haroon Khalid
An obscure smadh in the middle of Pattoki. Credit: Haroon Khalid

Haroon Khalid is the author, most recently, of In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan.