One warm summer evening a few years ago, I sat in an open courtyard with Syed Fahim Abbas. In his mid-20s at the time, Abbas dressed in a pajama and t-shirt, and clutched a mobile phone. He wore a bangle on one wrist, to go with a red thread, and a scarf around his shoulders. His phone rang frequently, and he would disappear for a short while every time it did. In the middle of the courtyard was a spacious room. It held the tombs of his ancestors, all of whom, in their time, led the religious cult that had developed around the shrine of Aban Shah. Now it was Fahim’s turn.

His title signified his privileged position. In the folk religious traditions of South Asia, particularly those around Sufi shrines, the Syeds hold a special position as they claim to be the direct descendants of the Prophet.

There was an alm, or a pole, atop the tomb enclosure, signifying its Shia identity. Behind it was a small stable housing a healthy white horse, Zuljanah, symbolising the steed of Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson and the third Shia imam. A wall-mounted fan kept the stable cool. I was told it ran on a backup battery during blackouts, which were frequent. All around, there were signs of prosperity.

Aban Shah’s shrine stood a short distance away from this compound, on an ancient mound that had been converted into a graveyard. We were on the outskirts of a small town called Kamalia, some 30 km from the famed archaeological site of Harappa.

“The shrine of Syed Aban Shah Shirazi is about 350 years old,” Abbas said. “His father’s name was Syed Lal Esan Shah who had migrated from Shiraz in Iran. He had three wives, one belonged to a Syed family, the second to a Mir family and the third was a Kharal.” Unlike the Syeds, the Mirs and the Kharals trace their lineages to within the Indian subcontinent. The Mirs claim Kashmiri Brahmin heritage, the Kharals claim to have descended from Hindu Rajputs.

“Syed Lal Esan Shah had five children, three from his Syed wife and one each from the others,” Abbas continued. “Baba Aban Shah was the son of his Kharal wife. One night, Syed Lal Esan Shah woke up at night to offer Tahajjud [a non-compulsory prayer usually offered in the later part of the night]. He asked his sons from his Syed wife to spread out his prayer mat and fetch water for ablutions. All of them were sleepy, so they refused. But his other two sons woke up; while one fetched water, the other laid out the prayer mat.”

Challenging caste hegemony

In Abbas’ telling of the legend, Syed Lal Esan Shah was enraged by the insolence of the three sons and cursed them. “Fareed gharib,” he told the first. Fareed, you will remain poor. “Ghaus maar chade dhos,” he cursed the second. Ghaus, you will be defrauded. “Dadu tenu bhok kabo” the curse went for the third son. Dadu, you will be consumed by hunger.

His obedient sons Syed Lal Esan Shah blessed. His son from the Mir wife, the old saint prophesied, will rule the Ravi river. His tomb is on an island in the river, just a few kilometers from Kamalia. “Its surrounding area gets flooded during the monsoon, but the shrine is always protected,” Abbas claimed. “I have seen it with my own eyes. It is a miracle.”

But Syed Lal Esan Shah did not confer such a particular blessing on his son from the Kharal wife. “So after a while, Aban Shah asked his father, ‘What do you have for me? Lun?” Abbas narrated, using the Punjabi slang for the male organ. “‘Then that will be your gift,’ his father replied. ‘Your progeny will belong to every caste. They will spread all over.’ And the prophecy came true. Baba Aban Shah has devotees across Pakistan, people who belong to all castes.”

It is from Aban Shah that Abbas’ family claim to have descended as well. “Syed Lal Esan Shah’s progeny from his Syed wife live in our neighboring areas. They are in a bad state,” Abbas claimed. “The curse of the Baba still holds.”

This is Aban Shah’s appeal today, the belief he can confer fertility upon childless devotees. Couples come with phallic offerings, made out of wood, mud or marble, hoping the saint would intercede for them. He is believed to have blessed thousands of couples, from all castes, just as his father prophesied.

Fascinating as this was, it was another part of Abbas’ story that really captured my attention. Aban Shah’s shrine, like thousands of others scattered all over the subcontinent, is a unique expression of Islam’s “indigenisation”. There are also many other cultic traditions, Islamic in name yet borrowing heavily from indigenous cultic traditions, some of which may go back thousands of years.

The story Abbas told me can also be taken as a critique of the hegemony of the Syeds over spiritual matters. In a normal setting, it would have been the Syed children of Syed Lal Esan Shah who would have carried forward his spiritual legacy. In this story, they were sidelined, while his progeny from women of “indigenous castes” were promoted as the rightful successors. Here, I use the term “indigenous” with caution. Because even though the Kharals and the Mirs claim to be indigenous castes, it is impossible to make that determination given that migration and displacement were widespread in ancient India. In popular imagination, however, these two castes are seen as being more indigenous than the Syeds.

Both the cultic tradition around Aban Shah and the folk story about the elevation of native castes expand our understanding of the process of the indigenisation of Islam in South Asia and how it interacted with local cults and caste traditions.

The irony, of course, was that Abbas’ family had eventually adopted the Syed caste of their ancestor on his father’s side to claim a sort of spiritual legitimacy, the very notion being challenged in the story he told me.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.