The burqa has globally become the symbol of Muslim women. A common misconception is that all Muslim women cover themselves with it. “I was surprised to see that hardly any women in Lahore were wearing a burqa,” noted a friend from Mumbai who was visiting Pakistan. I could relate to what she said.

On my visits to India, I had noticed that the Muslims there exerted their religious identity much more than the Muslims in Pakistan. On the roads of Mumbai and Bengaluru, one came across many women wearing burqas. While wearing one has been a minority practice till now, at least in the urban centres of the country, there has been an increasing trend to “revert” to a display of religious symbols like the beard and hijab in the past few years.

I use the word “revert” with caution here because it implies going back to certain practices or searching for some historical roots. I believe that this is, in fact, a new phenomenon that might have parallels in Islamic history but remains a product of historical contingencies – 9/11 in particular.

In a post 9/11 world, marred with religious terrorism and counter-insurgency terrorism, it seems the world is divided into two large camps – Muslims and everybody else. In these times of heightened search for identity, Muslims have turned towards their religion to grapple with the new emerging political realities.

This soul searching, in many cases, has resulted in urban, educated Muslims adopting a version of Islam that is puritanical.

In Pakistan, there has been an increasing trend of people being drawn towards religiosity, an Islamic tradition that is not a legacy of religious syncretism like Chistiya or Barelvi, but reactionary and exclusivist, originating out of the Deoband and Ahle-Hadith schools of thought. Given the fact that this renewed interest in Islamic identity is a product of Muslim separateness from the rest of the world, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the schools of thought in vogue are those which are exclusivist.

While the impact of Islamic revivalism has trickled down to rural and “underdeveloped” places, for the most part it remains confined to urban centres due to the existing biases of the educated class in relation to non-Muslims propagated through the Pakistani education system.

In order to understand the phenomenon better, I decided to visit my former professor of Anthropology at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), Dr Sadaf Ahmad, who has recently written a book called Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism among Urban Pakistani Women. Al-Huda is one of the most prominent Pakistani religious revivalist organisations, based in Islamabad, which aims to educate women about the Quran and the Sunnah. Established in 1994, in the past few years, it has spread rapidly across the educated middle class of Islamabad.

Now Islamic lectures of Al-Huda are available online and are widely consumed. I was particularly interested in understanding Islamic revivalist movements in the country as a threat posed to the shrine culture discussed in this book.

Sitting across from Sadaf in her office in one of the leading universities of the country, I looked out of the window behind her and saw girls wearing jeans and freely intermingling with boys. The School of Social Sciences and Humanities has played a major role in protecting the secular culture of the university from the onslaught of fundamentalist Islamists. “It [LUMS] is an interesting island,” I remember Ayesha Siddiqa, a well-known political analyst, saying once.

But over the past few years, there have been rumours about the religious right slowly dominating the administration of the university and transforming its culture. Every time a liberal or a leftist professor leaves LUMS, there are rumours about the internal politics being the cause of his or her departure. The number of students at the university who have a beard or wear an abaya has increased considerably. I asked Sadaf if “Islamic revivalist” movements like Al-Huda were also spreading into places like LUMS.

Sadaf was conscious of the fact that the display of Islamic religiosity in the university was on the rise, much like it was in general Pakistani society, but she was not sure if that could be attributed to any particular religious movement.

“I sometimes receive emails from students saying that they cannot study Anthropology of Religion. ‘Our faith is not strong enough at this stage,’ is what they say,” she told me. “Study of anthropology allows one to understand concepts from different perspectives. It means recognising that different people have different truths. This, some students feel, will undermine their faith.”

I asked Sadaf if the women who were attracted to Al-Huda and were critical of shrine culture were aware of the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of these shrines.

“No,” she said. “They criticise the rituals and rites at these shrines but beyond that they have little understanding of its culture. Most of the women who had joined Al-Huda at the time I studied them were those who had a disconnect with the local traditions. They respected the saints but were also apologetic about them. ‘The saints did what they did because of the conditions prevalent at that time’ is a common argument they give.

It is said, for example, that Muslim Sufis had to turn to qawwalis to attract Hindus who enjoyed bhajans. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that women who come from backgrounds imbued in Barelvi ethos are not easily attracted to this movement.”

“This means, according to them, that there is no longer any need to practise that form of Islam because there aren’t any Hindus around,” I added.

“At the classes the women are instructed about Islamic culture and ethos that is not indigenous but Arabic in essence. Local cultural practices like Basant or Mehndi are looked down upon and discouraged. Particularly, attention is given to da’wa [preaching of Islam] and dars. Women who are trained at this institution take up an active role in spreading their messages within their communities and societies through dars.

“One of the main reasons behind the success of the movement is the religious background of its students. Most of the women who come to Al-Huda already have faith in Islam by virtue of growing up in a Muslim household and nation and also being educated in an Islamised education system. What they don’t have is scriptural knowledge, which is then provided to them through their study of Islam at Al-Huda.

“Even though Al-Huda claims that it doesn’t adhere to any particular school of thought, their interpretation of Islam is similar to the Ahle-Hadith strand. They thus propagate a particular understanding of Islam as ‘true’ Islam and that is how it is perceived by its students who have no access to alternate approaches to Islamic scriptural knowledge. Another key reason why Al-Huda is successful in spreading its understanding of Islam among middle-class women is that its approach resonates with the kind of women who come to the school to study Islam.

“The middle class values education and as such they lean towards an institute that offers scriptural knowledge [as opposed to leaning towards a religious group which focuses on traditional rituals]. Their reason for deeming the Islamic discourse that they are exposed to as authoritative is not just related to their lack of alternative scriptural knowledge but also because they deem Farhat Hashmi, who began the school, to be a religious authority.

“Farhat Hashmi has a PhD in Hadith Sciences from Glasgow and heavily relies upon scientic concepts and logic to explain her religious arguments. Such credentials and such an approach resonate in a class that values education and science, and enhances the credibility of the school and subsequently its message.”

Sadaf explained that Al-Huda’s proselytising takes place in a faith-based framework that is already extant in Pakistani society through its politics and educational system. Here at the school, for the first time, these women study primary texts and understand them literally. I told her about the shrine of Baba Naulakha where the visitors who are generally uneducated are made to believe that the natural marks on the rocks are miraculous names of God and the Prophet, and thus sacred.

“For an educated mind, such a tradition would be difficult to absorb,” I commented.

“Faith or belief has little to do with education. But certainly, the fact that Al-Huda is making inroads into the elite class of the society and is able to spread a particular understanding of Islam within it, is significantly due to the fact that no other spiritual movement has been able to provide an avenue for the educated class to explore the scriptural texts in a manner that resonates with them,” Sadaf replied.

“When a puritanical religious approach becomes the dominant school of thought, could it be said then that Pakistani society would eventually become an extremist state in terms of its politics?” I asked.

“Al-Huda claims that it is an apolitical organisation and strictly forbids political discussions in its classrooms. ‘Focus on becoming better Muslims’, is what the teachers tell their students who wish to discuss political matters. They also strongly discourage participation in political rallies. So they essentially have a bottom-up approach: they train the women who Islamise the environment in their households and neighbourhoods. This eventually would create an environment in which the implementation of Sharia would be the next logical step.”

“When that happens I will grow a beard and you can wear a burqa to fit in,” I joked with her. “That would be the time to leave the country,” she replied with a straight face.

“In this growing environment of religious puritanism, how do you think these shrines are likely to fare in the future? Would shrine culture eventually end?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. I think for shrine culture to end, things would have to become much worse than they are right now, and stay that way for a considerably long period of time. This is because shrine culture is so deeply embedded in our society that it would be hard to remove it. In order to get rid of it, the next generation needs to internalise the concept that it is wrong and unIslamic. On the other hand, you can also see that there is resurgence in the interest in Sufi poetry and music. Admittedly this section of society is still a minority and for it to have any serious impact it needs to grow in size. But that is where hope lies,” Sadaf said.

“Oh my God, Haroon. If you were at the session you would have killed her,” my sister told me at the end of the three-hour long dars. “She said that the youth of our country have strayed away from our culture. They mimic the West or India by celebrating Valentine’s Day or Basant. These festivals have nothing to do with our culture and also that women should not work because their incomes bring ill-fate to a household.”

“You don’t know how I controlled myself,” Anam told me.

“I thought the session was nice,” said Uzma, my sister’s friend. She has done her Master’s in Journalism from a leading women’s college of the country and is now a housewife. “Some of the things she said were informative.”

“How can she even say it is unIslamic for women to work?” I asked. “What about Hazrat Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet? Wasn’t she a businesswoman? She can only impress people who don’t know history or culture. What ‘our’ culture is she talking about? Isn’t Heer Ranjha part of Punjabi culture? It is the most celebrated folk story here. For centuries it has been sung and dramatised. It is essentially a celebration of love. How is it any different from the celebration of Valentine’s Day? In fact, the celebration of Heer Ranjha’s love is much more profound than Valentine’s Day. In our culture it has taken metaphysical dimensions, by becoming part of the folk religion. We worship love, not only celebrate it.”

Excerpted with permission from In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan, Haroon Khalid, Rupa Books.