In Search of the Political: Social Life in Pakistan's Sufi Shrines

South Asia’s sufi shrines are typically thought to have a quality of other-worldliness that is antithetical to the worldly concerns of the left. But can we rethink the shrine’s political possibilities?

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What is going on when a thing or a person or an institution is called by a number of different names? I want to talk about one such institution. In the Anglophone world, this institution is known as a “Sufi shrine”. But in Lahore, it has many different names: Mazaar or Ziyaratgah (referring to its significance for pilgrimage), Dargah (threshold to another realm), Darbar (royal court), Pir Khana (place of the pir/spiritual leader), and Vehra (courtyard). One question that is posed to every social institution is this: what is it possible for us to do together? But in the case of the Sufi shrine, its multiple vernacular names suggest a certain lack of clarity in answering this question. This lack of clarity – or perhaps more precisely, a deferral to define the shrine’s potential – itself leaves open several possibilities as to the shrine’s social and political role. In a sense, many things which might even be opposed to each other can go on at a Sufi shrine, sometimes even simultaneously. If the answer becomes fixed, then it also limits what is possible and leads to exclusions.

Here, I discuss the political importance of open institutions such as shrines for lower classes and marginalized groups in Pakistan. Specifically, I seek to address the significance of shrines in terms of their ability to provoke strange alliances between different groups and individuals in these classes.

One of the effects of the multiplicity of shrines is that individuals, groups, beliefs and practices that would otherwise not engage with each other interact here. In societies that are segregated along class, caste, ethnic and religious lines, it is one of the few spaces that engages individuals from diverse backgrounds in deep conversation with each other. I have been impressed by the breadth and depth of these strange social connections, which set them apart from other social spaces of the socially and economically peripheral groups of South Asia. Men from rural backgrounds interact and forge close friendships with the urban poor. Individuals and groups from different parts of the city establish relations with each other. Men from different occupational backgrounds, who might otherwise have few chances to cross paths, are brought into contact at shrines. Individuals and groups belonging to different Islamic sects and even other religion share a spiritual and social life here. Members of the third-gender and low-caste communities that suffer severe spatial segregation also have an opportunity to connect with other urban dwellers.

In contrast, other social spaces in the city tend to be relatively homogeneous. Workplaces and residential areas in Lahore are increasingly divided along class lines. The Mozang locality, for example, houses mainly Punjabi lower-middle and working-class families along with a smattering of middle-class and poor residents. However, it is unaffordable for poor migrants to Lahore, who end up clustering in dilapidated, unplanned settlements on the periphery of the city. Many of the settlements and neighbourhoods in Lahore are segregated along ethnic and caste lines that lead to the ghettoization of minorities in underserved neighbourhoods. Institutions such as shrines therefore gain importance because they cut across socio-economic dividing lines of the city. However, this is not to suggest that distinctions of class, caste, gender and ethnicity do not matter in shrines; these categories are quite central to defining one's position and status in the hierarchical structure of shrines. Nonetheless, shrines offer a space for diverse groups to intersect and socialize across the boundaries of their usual networks.

Sacred places in South Asia are generally associated with a particular sect, religion or tradition. But then there are also certain religious institutions in the region that have assumed a role in managing interactions between different religious groups. For example, one of the shrines in Lahore where I conducted fieldwork is visited regularly by both Sunni and Shia devotees of the pir, whose family owns this shrine. Visitors also include residents of different neighbourhoods of Lahore, seasonal rural migrants to Lahore, and interestingly, also Salafi men who completely reject the entire tradition of Sufism as shirk (idolatry). The devotees also comprise agnostic men who reject Islam altogether. Similarly, in Jalandhar (India), I visited shrines where Shiva devotion exists alongside Muslim saints and Dalit holy figures.

So the question then is: what is it about shrines or other similar institutions that provoke such strange alliances? What is it that allows different kinds of people to participate in the life of an institution and write themselves into it? My argument is, first, that the specific nature of social interactions at these shrines is central to the formation and deepening of surprising alliances between disparate groups of people. Second, I suggest that the strange alliances formed at shrines are deeply political.

The culture of socializing in shrines

Upon entering the premises of a shrine, one usually encounters one or more small groups of people sitting together, engaged in conversation. Far more than rituals, it is these conversations that take up most of the time and energy of visitors. In the initial days of my fieldwork, not being used to the rhythm or length of these conversational gatherings, I would feel that nothing is happening. It took me considerable time to get used to the leisurely pace at which conversations unfolded, and to reconcile with the expectation that participants should spend hours in this pursuit. Another source of my discomfort was the seemingly unproductive nature of these interactions. Participants appeared to have almost no concern for outcomes; they appeared to talk just for the sake of talk. While there were a number of rules guiding these conversations – one had to sit facing others in a semi-circle, taking care not to show your back to the saint’s tomb, and civility had to be maintained by not interrupting each other or using excessive language – there did not appear to be any instrumental logic to them.

As I developed relations with these men, and began to spend time with them outside the space of the shrine, I noticed that the tone, tenor, form and content of the conversations in shrines was often quite distinct. Firstly, the conversations were temporally and spatially removed from the present. There would be accounts of life in Dubai in the 1980s, where a few of the men had been migrant-workers. Someone would talk about their childhood in Lahore, when they lived in a house large enough to keep chickens and a dog. Another person would reminisce about the time when they did a favour for a girl who went on to become a famous Lollywood singer. There was also a lot of talk about travels within Pakistan. Baba Nazir, an older man from a rural part of Punjab, who acted as a caretaker of Bodianwale shrine, would mesmerize the audience with tales of his adventures in surviving the hills of Balochistan. Hakim, another older gent, would tell of getting lost in the Punjabi wilderness on a trip to collect herbs.  

What really struck me about these conversations was how they allowed participants to step out of the mundane present, and reflect and interpret more significant episodes of their lives. This reflective quality also had an analytical component. As the men performed their stories, they also offered an account of the history and politics of the place they had taken their audience. The former migrant worker would insert an anecdote about dealing with the Dubai police into a story about winning a prize lottery, shedding light on the nature of migrant-state relations in the Gulf. This reflection and analysis was also visible in discussions over seemingly more mundane topics. I have watched passionate debates over the health properties of garlic. But there were also more obviously “intellectual” discussions on the oeuvre of a medieval poet. I have been surprised many a time by men, who cannot read or write, but can fluently recite a couplet in classical Persian or discuss 19th century innovation in the technique of Kathak (a classical dance form). More so than the exact content of such conversations, what made them stand out is how far removed they appeared from the everyday reality of participants. They required participants to step out of their shoes and use their imagination to transport themselves elsewhere. These flights of fancy can also engender deep passions, as I discovered when a fight almost broke out between two men because one felt that the other had belittled his recounting of the sexual prowess of a 19th century nawab.

When I visited some of these men in the neighbourhoods where they live, the conversations took on a different complexion. They expressed their frustration at the dilapidated condition of their streets and the difficulties they had in making rent that month. Even the lighter conversations were largely focused on the here and now. There would be talk of their neighbour’s new motorbike or a friend’s political ambitions, what so-and-so politician had done for his locality, or the amount of bribes being taken by city councillors to ensure that garbage is collected. Many of these conversations are firmly grounded in the context of everyday reality and are private in nature. They can only be followed by those who are familiar with the lives of the conversants. In shrines, on the other hand, conversations often take on a more abstract and philosophical quality. Furthermore, these discussions are far more public in their outlook. On my visits to the shrine of Bodianwale, for example, I have participated in heated debates on human nature, on the role of colonialism in shaping the world, and on the power of capital to shape desires of the younger generations. These conversations tend to be more concerned with the general human condition than the interests and lives of a few. It is my contention that it is the slow unfolding of such reflective, abstract and public talk that makes shrines so politically relevant for lower-class groups in Pakistan. It is in the way that things are passed by in shrine conversations without regard to the exigencies of daily existence that this mode of interaction becomes critical to ensuring the openness of the institution. It is the low stakes of participation that allow strangers to establish connections through these conversations.

A final characteristic of social life in shrines concerns the importance of collective action. One of the oldest and most popular practice in Pakistan’s Sufi shrines is that of langar, the collective preparation and consumption of food. The dominant understanding of langar is that of a charitable practice in which those with means sponsor food for the destitute. This view of langar has been used to explain the popularity of shrines for the poor as they are deemed to be attracted by the promise of a free meal. Against this understanding, I would emphasize that langar is a social practice in which shrine visitors act collectively to achieve shared objectives of preparing and eating food or other items. While the practice varies from shrine to shrine, the dominant logic of langar is that a few individuals get together and contribute money, labour or skill for putting together a meal. The food is then shared with all those who are present.  

There are two values that are central to the practice of langar. One of course is the ability to work in coordination with others. As Tocqueville tells us, this is an essential skill for the practice of democracy. The other essential value is that of generosity. Since the practice of langar is believed to bring blessings upon those who contribute to it, there is an emphasis on giving your material and labour resources freely in its cause. The idea is that whatever consumables you bring to the shrine must be freely shared with others. Generosity is of course also a much-admired trait outside the domain of the shrine. But in other social settings, the expectation of generosity is far limited in scope. If I visit a friend in Mozang, for example, I would almost certainly be offered a cold drink or snack at a corner shop, but this hospitality would almost never be extended to strangers sitting nearby. In contrast, at shrines, strangers would be included in such a gesture. The social practice of langar thus ensures that a distinct value system of sharing and acting collectively continues to be practiced in shrine culture.


In conclusion, there are three reasons why social spaces such as Sufi shrines are important for left politics in South Asia today. One, they are an institution which organically connects different segments of the lower classes in South Asia, thus acting as potential sites for building solidarities. Second, they provide a space and mode for thinking that is not limited to everyday, individual issues, but touches on public life and its concerns. This thinking often has a reflective and historical quality to it, qualities that are needed to comprehend past and present injustices and imagine future possibilities. Shrines are thus potential spaces for debating and discussing political concerns. Third, they inculcate an ethos that encourages collective action with strangers. Of course, shrines are riven by inequalities and injustices and are directed to certain exploitative ends as well. I am not putting them forward as a site for left politics in the form in which they exist today. Rather, what I am suggesting is that along with the content of left politics, the institutional forms it takes are also important. In thinking about these forms, the left has to exhibit openness to the political possibilities latent in institutions such as Sufi shrines. It has to ensure that the question of what is it possible for us to do together is not already foreclosed when it invites strangers into its politics. Instead, the left should ensure that its institutional forms maintains an openness to the other.

A draft of this paper was originally presented at the "Left Politics in South Asia: Past, Present, Future" workshop at the University of Toronto.

Amen Jaffer is a sociologist, based at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), whose work lies at the intersection of religion, politics and urban life.