For 20-odd days in November, thousands of people sat on protest at one of the busiest junctions connecting the cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. It was a logistical nightmare as commuters were stuck in traffic for several hours. The protestors were members of the Sunni Barelvi movement who had rallied under the banner of the political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik. They demanded the resignation of the country’s law minister for they held him accountable for proposed changes to the Khatm-e-Nabuwat Bill, under which all lawmakers before joining the Parliament have to take an oath confirming the finality of the Prophet of Islam, an essential tenet of the Islamic faith.

The protest finally concluded on November 26 as the law minister offered his resignation to the prime minister and the government reversed the changes to the Khatm-e-Nabuwat Bill. The controversial agreement that saw the government bow to the protestors was brokered by the Army. Many political commentators saw this as interference by the military in the realm of the civilian government, shifting the delicate democratic balance of the country.

The protest began with a long march from Data Darbar, a shrine in Lahore dedicated to the city’s patron saint Data Ganj Baksh. The Barelvis, the force behind the party and the protest, are deeply imbued in the Sufi shrine culture of South Asia. With the rise of puritanical Islam in the last couple of decades in the country, many commentators have looked towards other traditions within Islam that were seen as inclusive and tolerant. The Barelvi movement, the most popular one within the Islamic tradition in South Asia, was seen as the perfect response, an interpretation of Islam rooted in South Asian culture, a depiction of Sufi Islam.

However, such assumptions are based on a quite simplistic understanding of Sufism. There is no one uniform interpretation of the term. Sufism means different things to different people. Even within the Sufi tradition, there is a range of ideas, some of which sometimes directly contradict each other.

The Data Darbar shrine in Lahore. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

The Sufi spectrum

For example, there is another Sufi shrine in Lahore built around the grave of the 16th century mystic poet Shah Hussain. Shah Hussain belonged to the Malmati order, a movement within Sufism that defies all conventional norms of religiosity and society. Adherents of the movement do not believe in upholding normative religious rituals and sometimes even purposefully defy religious laws to invite the scorn of onlookers. Suppression of the ego is an essential principle of their order, and they believe they would achieve this by receiving contempt from society. Having cut his beard, Shah Hussain is believed to have danced on the streets of Lahore with a flask of wine in his hand and ghungroo (an anklet made of numerous bells) tied to his feet.

Another such character was Bulleh Shah of Kasur who dismissed religious symbols in his poetry. At one point he is believed to have taken up residence in the house of a courtesan to learn from her the intricacies of dance.

However, while these famous Sufis on one hand propagated a particular brand of religiosity, their devotees today have brought in their own interpretation of these symbols. This dichotomy is visible at the shrine of Shah Hussain where caretakers guard the entrance of the room where his grave lies, barring the entry of women. Where on one hand both Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah defied social norms and preached equality, irrespective of one’s religion, caste and gender, his devotees have come up with their own patriarchal interpretations of their poetry.

On the other end of this Sufi spectrum is Data Ganj Baksh. Unlike Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah, Data Ganj Baksh or Ali Hujwri was a strong proponent of conventional religious rituals and laws. It is for this reason that both the colonial state and the Pakistani state that followed patronised his shrine. Political rulers from diverse ideological backgrounds have over the years contributed to the development of the shrine and a gigantic mosque behind it. It was easier for the state to accommodate the saint’s conventional religious inclinations than the anti-hegemonic essence of the poetry of Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah.

Perhaps for an ordinary devotee of Sufi saints, the distinct worldviews of Data Ganj Baksh and Shah Hussain are irrelevant. They are both treated as Sufi saints, to be respected and revered. What then influences the interpretation of a devotee is the external political context. In the last few decades of colonial rule, as communal identities became heightened and Hindu revivalist movements such as the Arya Samaj gained popularity throughout Punjab, these Sufi shrines became a symbol of the Muslim identity, distinct from the Hindu identity. Even though several traditions – such as Qawwali and Dhamal (forms of devotional music and dancing) – that were an essential part of these Sufi shrines were adopted from Hindu ascetic and other traditions, they soon became a symbol of the Muslim identity only.

Sufism and political influence

After the creation of Pakistan with Hindu India as our mirror opposite, it became taboo even within these shrines to talk about the syncretic past and pre-Islamic inspiration behind several of these traditions. Their inclusive past became a repressed sub-conscious memory that sometimes returned as a nightmare. Sufi Islam is, therefore, not a static practice but rather a living tradition shaped by its social, political and economic environment.

In a post-9/11 world, as everyone’s attention was captured by puritanical Islamic movements, opposed to the Sufi shrine culture, the changing political landscape also influenced the religiosity of Sufi shrine-goers. The world first noticed the growing militancy within the Barelvi movement when Mumtaz Qadri shot dead Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Qadri was Taseer’s bodyguard and claimed it was his duty to kill the governor for being an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

A protest against Mumtaz Qadri's execution in Lahore in February 2016. (Credit: Ahmed Riaz / AFP)

In the aftermath of the murder, thousands gathered in Rawalpindi to pay homage to Qadri, whom they believed to be a “defender of Islam”. With millions of rupees coming in as donations from around the world, a shrine dedicated to Qadri was also constructed in the outskirts of Islamabad.

The figure of Mumtaz Qadri is one of the most important symbols of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik. And this party, almost two years after Qadri’s execution, was successful in bringing the government to its knees.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail