Preserving Shrines

As devotees welcomed the freedom to dance, sing, and express during the Dhamal- the revered shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar came under attack on a Thursday when a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 88 and critically injuring 250 others. While the assault at Sehwan is not an isolated example of a blast at a shrine, it was the deadliest in Pakistan in 2017. In 2010, Lahore’s Data Darbar, Karachi’s Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine, and Baba Farid’s shrine in Pakpattan all came under the line of fire. In November of last year, 70people were killed in a bombing at the shrine of Shah Norani in Khuzdar district of Balochistan. Sufism, as practiced in Pakistan, has become a bone of contention for the bigoted and a heretical target for extremists.

Religious intolerance, stark economic disparity, political grievances, and socio cultural divergence have all contributed to extremism and violence in our society. Yet shrines become representative of the other side of the spectrum: sectarian and religious harmony, economic integration, political access, and socio cultural diversity. These ‘spiritual’ places of worship act as nodes in society that have enabled the past to mingle with the present, thereby creating a uniquely South Asian (Pakistani?) identity. In the wake of Islam’s early venture into the region, pious spiritual men and women of God spread the word through charity, altruism, music, poetry, and syncretic socio spiritual views of the world. Folk religious traditions and indigenous forms of spirituality serve as important symbols of cultural development, geographic legitimization of religion, and as platforms through which communities and tribes could gain access to power.

In today’s time and place, shrines have a larger and more affective role than before. These sites of worship are also heritage sites, functional institutions, and public places of assimilation. After the 1970s, shrines in Pakistan gradually replaced the mantle of authority from ancestral care takers to that of the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department. The federal department administers and manages donations, pilgrimage, rituals, langar, security, and maintenance of the shrine and the land around it. But at the core, shrine spaces are relatively more flexible and require minimum tampering from the government authority; but this flexibility often results in misuse of funds and with that, the misuse of authority.

It is true that shrines can be termed as ‘money making machines’ in our society. Only because in our culture, monetary donations are equated to a spiritual responsibility, and more often the excess of monetary exchange at every level of the shrine provides the space and opportunity for corruption and exploitation to take place. The donation boxes, which are under lock and key, are tallied under the watchful eye of the shrine care taker, neighborhood or peace committees, and the Auqaf administrator. But that does not minimize misuse of funds which devotees donate as a sign of respect and reverence for the buried saint. While in some cases the funds become necessary in the preservation and continuation of the shrine, in most cases, these funds exchange many hands before making its way out of the spiritual proximal circle. Take for instance the issue of shrine security; in recent years the government has made some changes in the security apparatus of vulnerable sites, yet it has not been able to fully implement a security framework that not only secures the physical structure of these spaces, but also sets a structure through which improvements can be made.

 Take the example of the recent blast at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine; despite the presence of a check post at the entrance, policemen within the vicinity, and various cctv cameras, the suicide bomber was not only able to pass through the gates, but looked suspicious enough to be apprehended; his jacket on a warm day seemed like an anomaly in the gathered crowd. In addition, in the wake of other bomblasts in the country, there was no attempt at improving surveillance and snap checks, despite the shrine’s bustling popularity.

Shrines play a crucial social, political, economic, and spiritual role- but it is only in securing shrines that their real importance can be realized in our society. For many, the shrine culture is an ideological contradiction to the real spirit of Islam. But if one critically studies the importance of these shrines in integrating different sections of society, one can come to admire their contribution in making our society more open, tolerant, and progressive.

By ShahBano Khan
Spearhead Research

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