Last week, a colleague shared a video on a WhatsApp group of teachers. With Pakistan scheduled to conduct general elections on July 25, the group is bitterly divided between two camps: Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Quite often, the conversation ends up where many political conversations tend to converge – curses and abuses. Many party loyalists believe and share fake videos and news doing the rounds.

However, the video shared by my colleague – who is an ardent supporter of Imran Khan – was not a fake video. It showed Khan, accompanied by his spiritual guide and wife Bushra Maneka, at the shrine of the 12th-century Sufi saint and poet Sheikh Fariduddin Ganjshakar in Pakpattan last month. Just before entering the shrine where the grave of Sheikh Fariduddin Ganjshakar is located, Khan and Maneka can be seen bowing at the threshold after which he enters the shrine while she goes into another room. Tradition does not allow women into the most sacred room in a Sufi shrine for fear of their so-called polluting influence. But exceptions are sometimes made: in 1986, Benazir Bhutto, back from her self-imposed exile to participate in general elections scheduled later that year, entered the sacred room at the shrine of Data Sahib in Lahore to offer a chadar.

This video of Khan was shot by a devotee at the shrine and has since gone viral. Even diehard supporters of Imran Khan have expressed their veiled disappointment in him. It is important to note here that some of Khan’s most passionate followers on social media are urban dwellers with some sort of formal education. What has hurt their religious sensibilities is Khan’s supposed act of bowing before the grave. This is called shirk, the gravest sin in Islamic tradition, the deification of someone else besides the one true god. Countering the criticism, Khan has said he did not bow before the grave but kissed the threshold. But his political opponents have been quick to call his act un-Islamic.

Sufi culture and Islamic tradition

Sufi shrine culture is the subject of much debate in Islamic tradition. Many regard several practices in these shrines to be un-Islamic. They argue that qawwali, the lighting of the lamp, dhammal (a dance form), and reverence of the grave, all of which is practiced at Sufi shrines, did not originate in Islamic culture but were derived from Hindu culture.

Several Sufi practices, such as the lighting of the lamp, are considered un-Islamic by many. (Photo credit: Arif Ali / AFP)

This is, of course, a valid argument for there is enough scholarly research to prove that many of these practices do indeed come from pre-Islamic religious tradition. For example, in the South Asian context, the dhammal seems to be an adaption of Shiva’s Tandava, the dance of destruction. Qawwali might have its origin in bhajan, while reverence of the grave is similar to reverence at a smadh. The eclectic tradition one finds in several South Asian Sufi shrines is the result of a long process of indigenisation of a new religion in a familiar culture.

With religious pilgrimages in the Islamic tradition far away in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Arabia and out of bounds to the majority of the people, these local Sufi centres became an intimate geographical connection with the new religion. Pilgrimages to major Sufi shrines became an established and accepted Islamic tradition. The story of the Mughal emperor Akbar visiting the dargah of Salim Chisti in Fatehpur Sikri is widely known. Mughal prince Dara Shikoh was known for his devotion to the shrine of Mian Mir in Lahore and wanted to construct a passageway from the Lahore Fort to the shrine. Even today, thousands of devotees in Pakistan travel from shrine to shrine, chasing one urs festival (marking the death anniversary of a Sufi saint) after another.

Religion, then and now

The situation, however, started changing gradually under colonial rule. In the face of an onslaught of Christian evangelism and missionary work, accompanied by the diminishing influence of Muslim culture in the political sphere, a process of introspection began that resulted in changing religious sensibilities. In the “modern era” under the colonial regime, as “traditional knowledge” slowly made way for a more “rational” or “scientific” way of thinking, religion also underwent a similar process. To the urban middle class, educated in British schools, the stories of miracles in Sufi shrines were no longer attractive avenues to spirituality. Rather, a new religiosity developed, a more modern or scientific interpretation of religion. Instead of relying on Sufi teachings, the educated class started to form their own understanding of religion by relying on the basic fundamental texts. In the process, a more literal interpretation of religion emerged. In her work, prominent scholar of religion Karen Armstrong documents how, in the modern era, religious stories came to be understood literally instead of being interpreted metaphorically. This was due to the primacy accorded to the written word at the time.

Thus, while Sufi shrines had welcomed people from all classes and backgrounds at one point, with a more rational and scientific understanding of religion, the educated started to distance themselves from “un-Islamic” practices that had no sanction in the scriptures. A class division was created between those who visited the shrines and those who did not. The latter, because they were more educated, started to look down on the former. They referred to the shrine-goers’ notions of religiosity as jahiliyyah, ignorance. In this context, when Imran Khan visits a Sufi shrine and engages in practices that have been looked down upon for decades, he opens himself to criticism of jahiliyyah.

The Sufi shrine of Sheikh Fariduddin Ganjshakar in Pakpattan. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)

Many of his supporters did come to his rescue, arguing that religion is an individual’s private matter. But in this case, they were eager to forget that Khan and his party had vehemently criticised the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz only months ago for making changes to the Election Act, 2017, which had resulted in a 20-day sit-in protest by several political parties in Islamabad. The protest pertained to maintaining a public declaration of one’s faith before filing one’s papers for an election.

Religion stopped being a personal matter in Pakistan a long time ago.

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