In Defense of Shrines
The recent string of attacks on Sufi Shrines signifies the growing intolerance in our society. A normal response to these incidents is an expression of disbelief; how could someone kill Muslims in the name of Islam? But the fact of the matter is that with these attacks, the “Muslim” attackers are announcing the excommunication of their “grave worshipping” victims. Given the history of Sufism in the Sub Continent, it is indeed sad to see these expressions of hate against a movement that is rightly accredited with the spread of Islam in this part of the World.
But apart from the physical attacks there is a parallel ideological attack that Sufism has to contend with. Armed with a more puritanical interpretation of Islam, various groups aim to discredit Sufism by highlighting its theological “flaws”. Furthermore, given the India-centric expression of Pakistani nationalism, merely pointing out similarities between Hinduism and Sufism is enough for many to reject the later.
While the jury is still out on the one true interpretation of Islam, and will be out for a long time to come, what should be considered about shrines is their impact on society in general. It is often the case that the economic and social impact of Sufism is overlooked very easily by citing its non conformity to Orthodox Islam.
The recently announced Global Hunger Index for 2010 ranks Pakistan as 52nd out of 84 countries, among other things the rankings take into account the incidence of malnutrition among children. While the report has many recommendations, the fact is that all the on-paper solutions for feeding the hungry run into resource constraints. Last year’s fiscal deficit, i.e. difference between Government revenues and expenditures was at Rs. 929 Billion which is a huge amount for a country such as Pakistan. The problem according to the Government lies in the fact that most Pakistanis don’t pay taxes, and there is truth to that claim; at tax returns being just 10% of the GDP, Pakistan has one of the lowest tax paying rates in the World. If you ask the tax evaders then their reply is that the Government has failed so miserably in service delivery that paying taxes is just not worth it.
The ultimate sufferers of this chicken and egg argument are the poorest of the poor, who pay not only in terms of inflation but also through a lack of essential Government support; such as soup kitchens to give out free food. Consider the soaring unemployment rate and for many the choices are to either go to sleep on an empty stomach, beg in the streets, or commit a crime.
In all of this hopelessness, the langars (soup kitchens) of a shrine provides a quick relief for those lucky few who are in its proximity. In doing so, the shrine becomes a channel between the rich and the poor and performs the delivery of this essential service which is ideally the responsibility of our cash strapped Government. Those who criticize shrines on theological grounds have nothing similar to offer as replacement, but one can be assured of one thing, which is that their criticism usually comes on a full stomach.
Shrines support businesses around them by generating demand; flowers, handicrafts, food, etc are all profitable ventures keeping in view the demands of the visitors. But these small business clusters have an enormous economic potential which remains untapped. Global Religious Tourism accounts for around $18 billion annually and with a population of around 1.5 billion, Muslims form a very attractive market for Islamic tourism. These so called “bidats” (innovation) i.e. music and dance and festivals that have centuries of history, have the potential to attract both Muslim as well as Non-Muslim visitors from across the world and in the process create much needed jobs.
The history of the Sub continent shows that these shrines have played an important role in the relationship between Muslims and Hindus. The shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, at Ajmer Sharif in India, is still visited by both Hindu as well as Muslim pilgrims and serves as a shared site of reverence between two very different and often conflicting faiths. The differences between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan are no less, according to statistics from South Asia Intelligence Review; sectarian violence in Pakistan has claimed 3423 lives since 1989. There is no doubt that bridges need to be built between the two sides, and for that matter shrines provide the ideal common ground. The annual urs of Daata Sahib, Lal shahbaaz and other famous saints transcends the sectarian divide and gives both Shias and Sunnis something common to celebrate. This mutual ground needs to be built upon rather than discredited, because in our country the cost of theological nitpicking is in terms of human lives.
It is very common to hear many scoff the supposed miracles associated with these shrines. But by feeding the hungry and bridging sectarian divides, these saints from the past are performing miracles that are much needed in these troubled times.
Appeared in Pakistan Today on the 23rd of November 2010