The July 25 elections in Pakistan were particularly cruel for animals. Days ahead of polling, political activists in Karachi wrote former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s name on a donkey and tortured it. The animal died a few days later. The incident happened in the context of Imran Khan, now the country’s prime minister in waiting, calling Sharif’s supporters donkeys. In another incident a few days after the elections, a dog was wrapped in the flag of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, shot three times and killed in Khyber Paktunkhwa.

The choice of animals in both incidents represents certain cultural biases and prejudices. Dogs, in Muslim culture, despite being seen as loyal creatures, are deemed to be impure. There are several traditions that say angels do not enter homes where there are dogs. Touching a dog demands a “lesser ablution” (ritual cleansing), a condition that does not exist for some other animals. While many Muslim households might have pet dogs, these animals are usually not allowed inside the house. Calling someone a dog or a relative of one is one of the most offensive slurs in several vernaculars. Calling someone a donkey is also a common abuse, though perhaps not as offensive as the dog reference. The donkey, despite being incredibly tough, is a symbol of stupidity. Thus, with these cultural connotations, it does not come as a surprise that these two animals became victims of political violence.

But culture is a complicated entity, hardly ever as uniform as it is imagined to be. The culture that gives birth to these sporadic acts of violence is also one where animals are revered and deemed sacred.

A shrine full of dogs

In an article published in in March 2016, I wrote about the shrine of Peer Abbas in the small town of Pattoki, 100-odd km from Lahore. At the centre of this market town, the shrine is identifiable by its tall minaret. It is believed that the shrine’s saint, who died in the late 1960s, was always accompanied by a pack of dogs, and that he had names for each one of his pets. Almost all of these names represented powerful state positions, such as SP, Judge, Wakil. It was clear the saint was using society’s prejudice against dogs to challenge the guardians of that very society. By eating, sleeping, walking with these dogs, Peer Abbas was turning topsy-turvy the very notions of purity and impurity, of sacred and profane, where profane became sacred and sacred became profane.

Dogs sleep outside the shrine of Peer Abbas in Pattoki. (Credit: Haroon Khalid)

Peer Abbas was not the only dervish to adopt such an idiosyncratic lifestyle. I have heard of a few other Sufi dervishes, still alive, who prefer the company of dogs over humans. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, an anthropologist who has worked extensively on folk Islamic culture, has documented the association of feral dogs with the dervish. He mentions in his book, Journey to God, how in India a feral dog is sometimes called dervish for, like one, it goes door to door for food. In Persian poetry, the symbol of a mystic presenting himself before god as a dog is often found, a reference that is also sometimes located in Punjabi Sufi poetry. Bulleh Shah, one of the most famous Punjabi Sufi poets, says, “Dogs are awake at night, dogs are superior to you [believers].”

Because of their association with Peer Abbas, dogs came to be treated with respect at his shrine. Many visitors who come to the shrine with their supplications are expected to bring a meat offering for the dogs to please the saint.

Cats and crows too

This kind of animistic cult, reminiscent of religious traditions with origins much before the arrival of Islam, now given the garb of a Muslim shrine, is not particular to dogs. In the historic city of Gujrat, about 150 km from Lahore, I visited the shrine of Karam Ilahi, popularly referred to as “Kawan wali sarkar”, or master of the crows. Here, crows are believed to be sacred. A fairly popular place, devotees throng his shrine, bringing with them offerings for the birds. In one corner, there were several pots overflowing with rice offerings. Similar to Peer Abbas, Kawan wali sarkar preferred spending his time with crows rather than with humans. Whatever was offered to him was distributed to his pets. I was told by a dervish at the shrine that it is believed that crows have a long life and the saint regularly offered his food to them in the belief that one of them might have witnessed the Prophet. The story is uncannily similar to the traditional “Hindu” belief that crows are a bridge between the living and the dead. Many traditional households used to offer a handful of rice to crows before meals, meant as food for their ancestors.

The shrine of Hazrat Baba Ghulam Rasool, or Biliyan wali sarkar, in Lahore. (Credit: Haroon Khalid)

In the heart of Lahore, next to Bhatti Gate – one of 13 gateways that allow entry to the walled city – is the shrine of Hazrat Baba Ghulam Rasool, popularly referred to as “Biliyan wali sarkar”. Here, dozens of cats and kittens once roamed the shrine, sometimes choosing to sleep in its cool mosque. Devotees brought offerings of milk for the kittens. When I visited the shrine in 2012, there were a handful of kittens and pots of milk in various corners. Some time after, I was told that the kittens and the cats had been removed from the shrine for they would regularly “spoil” the sacred space. Thus, in this one swift action, the shrine was sanitised and became “mainstream”.

These are just a few of the animistic cults practised in one way or another in the country. Across Pakistan, one comes across several such traditions that signify a special association with animals. In the wake of the violence perpetrated against animals during the election process, I find it hard to reconcile these two worlds: one where violence against animals is freely practised and another where animals are seen as sacred. Pakistan, it seems, is home to both worlds. It is where these contradictions have resided together for centuries and perhaps will do so for a long time to come.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore, will be released this month.