Sprouting from the concrete floor of a madrassa is the bark of the ancient Karir tree that has remained rooted to this spot as the world around it changed. The shade of this tree was the madrassa itself when Baba Farid Shakarganj, head of the Sufi tradition of Chistiya, moved here – a small town called Ajodhan on the banks of the Sutlej river – from Delhi. He wanted to be as far away from the political elite as possible. Over time, as the stature of the shrine grew, so did the city, which came to be called Pakpattan (pure ford) in honour of the saint, in Punjab province.

Every evening, descendants of the saint hosted hundreds of devotees at the shrine for qawwali sessions containing the verses of Baba Farid – the first Punjabi poet, who was given the title Shakarganj, or treasure of sugar, for his sweet use of language. With the collections the devotees brought in, a modest structure was built around the simple grave of the saint. Later, as more of his descendants passed away, the shrine grew bigger. And grander structures were raised to house the permanent abode of these inherited saints.

The shrine of Baba Farid Shakarganj in Pakpattan in Punjab province.

The living saints became more powerful as the graves of the deceased saints grew. Eventually, the spiritual descendants of the saints emerged as the most important political family of this area. The Mughals respected them. Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh empire in the early 19th century, had cordial relations with them. The British allowed them to keep their political influence as long as they did not challenge their authority. And after Pakistan came to be, subsequent military dictators have wooed them for their political needs.

It has been 750 years exactly since the death of Baba Farid. It is perhaps under this tree that he taught his last lesson to his students. One of these students was Nizamuddin Auliya, who later moved to Delhi and became a revered scholar and Sufi saint himself. In his writings, Nizamuddin Auliya talked about Baba Farid’s poverty and his institute. Students considered the day they cooked and ate the fruit of the Karir tree as a day of feast, he wrote.

Today, several devotees sit under the shade of this tree eating from plastic bags of rice that they have received from the langar hall facing it. Free food from the langar is served here every day. The wild fruit still grows on the Karir tree, but no one needs it anymore.

Different strokes

About 380 km from Pakpattan, further south, is another sacred city in the local spiritual tradition called Uch Sharif. Just as Sikh devotees add the term Sahib as a suffix to a holy place, to show respect, Muslims use Sharif. Just outside the city are the remains of a splendid structure from the 15th century, in traditional Multani style with blue and white tiles and a white dome. In the early half of the 19th century, these tombs were destroyed by the flooding of the Sutlej that used to flow close by.

A mosque at the shrine of Pir Jalaludin Bokhara in Uch Sharif.

Next to the partially destroyed tombs is the shrine of Pir Jalaludin Bokhari. Protected by a thick boundary wall, hundreds of devotees make their way into the shrine every day to pay homage to one of the most famous Sufi saints of the region. Born in 1199 in Bukhara, in what is now modern Uzbekistan, he drew his lineage from the Prophet of Islam. He traveled the world as an Islamic missionary and is believed to have converted many non-Muslims.

Unlike Baba Farid, who kept away from political authorities, Pir Jalaludin Bokhari is said to have met with and influenced several important political figures, including Nasiruddin Mahmud, the son of Shamsuddin Iltutmish who ruled the Delhi sultanate. As distinct as their own lives were the children of both of these Sufi saints, who followed a similar trajectory to emerge as both the religious and political elite of their respective regions.

Char Yaar

At the entrance of the shrine was a poster that captured my imagination. It depicted the four most prominent Sufi saints of this region – Pir Jalaludin, Baba Farid, Bahauddin Zakariya and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In popular Sufi iconography, they are referred to as Char Yaar or the four friends. Legends of their magic and friendship are narrated in the country’s various Sufi shrines, including this one.

Facing the poster was a verandah that served as a mosque. Within this verandah were four rooms, all believed to have once been used by these four friends as they met here. There is, of course, no historical evidence to suggest the four ever met, hence the legend of them being friends is a later construction. What possibly gave birth to this myth is the corresponding time period of all these Sufi saints. The poster at the shrine entrance is also a reinforcement of this story. For ordinary devotees who acquire all their knowledge about Sufism and its saints from these shrines, the four distinct Sufi personalities and philosophies merge into one.

Herein lies the problem. All these saints represented a different branch of Sufism, a distinct philosophy that does not necessarily conform to each other. For example, as mentioned earlier, Baba Farid made a conscious effort to stay away from the political elite of his time. However, both Jalaludin and Bahauddin were quite comfortable in political circles.

The dancing rebel

About 220 km from Pakpattan is the splendid city of Multan. Here, on top of an ancient mound, Bahauddin Zakariya ran his madrassa, as a contemporary of Baba Farid. But while Baba Farid opened the doors of his madrassa to all except the political elite, Bahauddin’s madrassa catered only to this section.

Distinct from all of them was Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a rebel Sufi who danced, sang and smoked hashish to connect with the divine. The other three saints, all of whom respected religious rituals, would have strongly disagreed with Lal Shahbaz’s approach. His shrine in Sehwan, in Sindh province, is believed to have been constructed over an ancient Shiva temple. True to its heritage, his devotees even today play wild music and whirl ecstatically as a form of worship, reminiscent of Shiva’s tandava.

With radical and extremist narratives of Islam dominating global discussions on religion, there is an increasing need to refer to the softer version of Islam that is represented by Sufism. However, what is usually ignored in this discussion is that there is no one uniform tradition of Sufism. Sufism, too, has distinct traditions, some traditionalist, others rebellious, some who follow rituals and rites, and others who flout them, some who flirted with political circles, yet others who lived with the ordinary folk.

Today, even for devotees, these distinctions have become blurred as Sufi Islam is presented as an antidote to an extremist ideology. Without this nuanced understanding, Sufism would never be able to play the role that is expected of it in this violence-marred world.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.