Literary Review

Following the faith

In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan; Haroon Khalid, Rupa, Rs. 295.  

Islamophobia is so deeply entrenched in public discourse around Muslim societies that it has become important to navigate critical writing with some care. However, when a Sunni Muslim man from Pakistan writes about the rise of Islamic extremism in his country, you are inclined to take that voice seriously.

It is rare to hear someone from the majority community speak so cogently about the Hazara genocide, target killings of prominent Shias, and the abuse of blasphemy laws to unleash violence against Ahmadis and Christians. The deadly mix of politics, religion and national pride, perpetuated through Pakistan’s education system, is the narrative thread that runs through Haroon Khalid’s second book In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan.

The title, in fact, appears to have been retrospectively tagged on to a book that is hardly about Shiva or famous Shiva temples in Pakistan such as Katas Raj in Chakwal or Ratneshwar Mahadev in Karachi. Apart from the shrine of Aban Shah, where offerings of wooden phalluses are said to bestow children to infertile couples, the links to Shiva seem tenuous. The search, rather, is for shrines that attract Muslim devotees but also operate beyond the pale of what the author terms “puritanical Islam”.

Over a set of 11 essays that combine travelogue with journalistic observation and anthropological curiosity, Khalid takes the reader to shrines scattered across central Punjab. While they are identified through their association with Muslim saints, each shrine has a unique set of practices that have evolved over time, with a sacred status accorded to cows, dogs, crows and horses.

Most of these shrines are located in and around Lahore. Given the geographical scope, it is not possible to make broader generalisations about Pakistani culture. However, the author does present substantially engaging material to back the claim that what he observes at these shrines is “no longer isolated religious practices, but part of a tradition, representing a continuity that the rupture of Partition could not split.”

Khalid, whose first book The White Trail, was a collection of narratives from shrines of religious minorities in Pakistan, is deeply invested in debunking the two-nation theory that created Pakistan on the premise that Hindus and Muslims are so different from each other that they are essentially incompatible. It is with this mandate that he distinguishes South Asian Islam from that which is practised in the Middle East. The book adds to a growing corpus of non-fiction that tries to rescue Pakistani historiography from state-sanctioned imperatives to wipe out the Islamic republic’s Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain antecedents.

At every shrine Khalid visits, he attempts to identify the “non-Islamic” elements and influences that have crept into local modes of worship. His thesis is that folk religious practices in villages and small towns retain an openness that is absent from the exclusivist Wahabi-influenced Islam of urban centres. He writes his Sunni identity into the book, discussing at length how “shrine culture” is at odds with the understanding of Islam he has grown up with.

While the author’s intention is to showcase “that there was much borrowing and lending between different religious traditions”, he ends up reinforcing their separateness through the very act of labelling practices as Islamic and non-Islamic based on his experience as a Sunni Muslim. Khalid’s wide reading, and his training as an anthropologist, enable him to make connections across cultures. However, a serious flaw in the book is to explain away much that seems to be of non-Islamic origin as “pagan” or “ancient Hindu”. In doing so, Khalid inadvertently gives the impression of Hinduism as a linear and homogenous tradition without regional, caste-based variations. The sacred status attributed to cows, for example, is hastily linked to their association with Krishna, and not understood in the context of Hindu revivalist movements and sectarian politics in British India as well as post-Independence India.

There is enough literature on Hinduism as a religion being a colonial construct — a blanket term used to subsume varied beliefs, practices and customs that the colonisers were unable to make sense of. But Khalid uses the term ‘Hindu’ generously and uncritically, for his objective is to tease out instances of Hindu-Muslim syncretism as an expression of resistance against the version of Islam being promoted by the Tableeghi Jamaat and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

What is remarkable about Khalid’s writing is the honesty with which he records his interaction with the locals. To him, they are simply informants. When they offer an interpretation at odds with his, or ask to see his notes, or expect a fee to answer his queries, he is annoyed and impatient. He often refers to their practices as strange, and to their beliefs as superstition. In these moments, he re-enacts the coloniser’s attitudes. He dismisses them for their a-historical claims, and their inability to discern the deeper meanings he thinks he is able to access on account of his education and exposure.

In this respect, Khalid departs significantly from Fauzia Aziz Minallah’s Chitarkari and Banyans: The Pursuit of Identity. Minallah participates in the culture of the shrines she writes about. Her tone is one of affection and intimacy unlike Khalid who is too cerebral in his approach.

In his defence, Khalid does not approach his material as pilgrim or seeker. He prefers to be a rationalist, even embodying the belief that religion is the opium of the masses. This is quite unlike Jurgen Wasim Frembgen, an anthropologist Khalid quotes frequently from. Though Frembgen in his book At the Shrine of the Red Sufi, pursues his anthropological enquiry quite seriously, he is also a man of faith. He immerses himself in the sensual and spiritual experiences available at the shrines he is writing about. He is not a wry, distant commentator like Khalid, who ironically comes to appreciate the sense of community faith offers not in a Sufi shrine but in a communal meal at the headquarters of the Tableeghi Jamaat.

Khalid’s prose sparkles with energy and humour in those parts of the book that read like an account of a road trip taken with a group of friends. The texture of those conversations adds diversity and richness to an otherwise self-absorbed narrative. The author is most engaging, however, in his critique of religious organisations that exploit the faith of believers. He is not peddling Sufism as an antidote to Islamic extremism, for he knows how keepers of these shrines also accumulate power and wealth by claiming spiritual superiority and clout based on their lineage. He complicates your understanding of practised Islam. He compels you to examine your assumptions because he speaks from the ground, not from the pulpit or the armchair.

In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan; Haroon Khalid, Rupa, Rs. 295.

Chintan Girish Modi lives in Mumbai, and writes on art, gender, films, education, peace and conflict.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2020 12:11:22 PM |

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