In the chaos that prevails around us, the most authentic hope comes from mystics whose poetry and philosophy combines the virtuous message of formal religion with the transcendental values of love and harmony.
In the chaos that prevails around us, the most authentic hope comes from mystics whose poetry and philosophy combines the virtuous message of formal religion with the transcendental values of love and harmony. The finest exponent of this luminous philosophy was Rumi (which means daylight), the great 13th century Sufi mystic whose spiritual message has become the defining credo for many business titans, economic wizards and heads of financial juggernauts. Sufism has gained an Oriental flavour from having been so long protected by Islam, but the natural Sufi may be as common in the West as in the East, and may come dressed as a general, a peasant, a merchant, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a housewife, anything. To be “in the world, but not of it”, free from ambition, greed, intellectual pride, blind obedience to custom, or awe of persons higher in rank — that is the Sufi’s ideal. When we think of Pakistan, the images that conjure up in our minds are of a decaying social and moral order marked by violence, extremism, female oppression, sexual trafficking, terrorism and abduction. Haroon Khalid’s In Search of Shiva is a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan that looks at idiosyncratic Muslim shrines of the country, including shrines of phallic offerings, sacred dogs, sacred trees, shrines for transgender and other such practices. The underlying message of all these local saints is one of humanism and compassion. In Search of Shiva documents these religious traditions and studies how they have survived over the years and are now adapting to the increasingly rigid religious climate in Pakistan. The book is an attempt to clear the misconceptions that we have of Pakistan as an extremist and fanatical society and refocus on traditional Islamic values of kindness, compassion, hospitality and a spirit of bonhomie and camaraderie born out of a syncretic culture so lovably shared between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. It demonstrates the strong adherence to these values among poor impoverished societies. It is unfortunate that this wonderful community and its cultural ethos have been shadowed by the media’s construction of Pakistan as a debased state. Thus, behind the façade of this picture of hopelessness, we have communities demonstrating a high degree of humanism. The present book has interesting nuggets from shrines of mystics of all faiths and the cultural practices that have evolved around them. They demonstrate a wonderful display of harmony among multiple faiths. Shiva is worshipped as the god of cultivation. In post-Vedic literature, one finds the River Ganga on top of Shiva’s head, emphasising the fertilising power. The people today feel that phallus offerings don’t represent a corrupt moral system. They believe it is a holy act, and if anyone trivialises it, the person is punished severely. There is a saint called Moron Wali Sarkar (master of the peacocks). He is the grandson of the highly revered Sufi Abdul Qadar Gilani. The saint came to Pakistan from Baghdad and brought peacocks with him. The entire peacocks at his shrine are the progeny of the original muster of peacocks. In Hindu tradition, peacocks acquire a special status because of their association with the deities Krishna and Saraswati. A peacock is depicted as Goddess Saraswati’s ride, while the peacock feathers adorn the crown of Krishna. Even in the Buddhist tradition, peacocks command respect as it is believed that in his previous life Buddha was a golden peacock. Then there is the shrine of Jhole Shah (swinging master). According to folk legend, there was a time when horses were presented at the shrine. Now clay models have replaced them. The saint who died at the age of five loved riding horses, a love affair that continues till date. His devotees believe that by offering horses, they please the child-saint who then fulfils their wishes. Suffering from palsy, the child saint would shake uncontrollably earning him the title of “jhole” Shah (swinging master). Due to his love for horses he became known as “Ghore” Shah (horse master). Id Milad un-Nabi is a national holiday in Pakistan. Processions and rallies are held all over the country, with hymns sung in praise of the Prophet. Over the past few years, the scale of festivities has increased. While earlier it was considered a pariah religious festival, even referred to as fake Id by many, now it has become a mainstream festival. One may not probably agree with the author’s assertion that this festival was originally inspired by a Hindu festival called Ram Navami. The festival celebrates the birth of Ram. But readers will find that the conservative lobby in Islam has reemerged and this year the Id witnessed a subdued celebration. There are beautifully chiselled descriptions of shrines but much of the book’s strength lies in Khalid’s skill in peeling the historical onion and showing how rural Pakistan resonates with the old. Pursuing his research through the narrow alleys, mosques, abandoned ruins and tombs, Khalid encounters a range of folks who continue to give it its special character. Sufi mystics, Muslim healers, musicians, calligraphers, philosophers and a guild of eunuchs all provide Khalid with entertaining insights. It is fine, e
ntertaining, well-written stuff, thoroughly researched but with none of the stern academic tone that so many historical profiles adopt. What sustains it, apart from his erudite knowledge, is Khalid’s sense of historical adventure.
Moin Qazi is a banker, author and Islamic researcher. He can be reached at email@example.com