The first, deep resonant boom of the bass drum echoed around the courtyard, the cue for the men to begin to stand. The second boom commenced a slow deliberate beat, soon all were standing, swaying, letting the rhythm gently guide their motion. Little by little the beat picked up pace, the dancers responding to its energy until it morphed into an insistent roll and the movements became more agitated. The beat dropped into the breakdown, the piercing, discordant wail of a pipe cut through the air, all arms were raised aloft to exuberant cheers, a bell clanged insistently, to one side a woman shrieked. The bass drum kicked back in. The rave was on.
Sorry, did I say rave? I meant religious ceremony, for this was not an abandoned warehouse in London but the the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the 13th century Sufi saint and philosopher poet, in the dusty town of Sehwan Sherif in southern Pakistan. This nightly ceremony, known as a dhammal, may have lacked the decibels of a sound system but the manic energy of the crowd made many of the raves I’ve been to look positively pedestrian. Just try waving your arms in the air like you just don’t care for half an hour without a rest, even after necking a couple of pills and you’ll have a feel for the kind of commitment required. Followers of Qalandar may not be averse to a few toots of Pakistani hash but they are on something far stronger than MDMA: God. Sufi poets have often written of intoxication as a metaphor for attaining a oneness with God and here the metaphor collapses into wild eyed, sweat soaked fact.
People come from all over the country in the hope of catching some of Qalandar’s mystical blessings and his name is immortalized in a popular Qawwali song. Qawwali is an energetic form of Islamic praise singing in Pakistan, known in the West through its finest exponent Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, still a huge figure here in both senses, despite his death in 1997. Every night a Qawwali group performs after the ceremony. Although the shouts of “ya Ali”, made it clear this was a Shia phenomenon (this is praise to the cousin/son in law of the Prophet who is seen as the first Shia Imam), Sunnis and even Hindus can play a part in events, as Qalandar is revered among all three groups. People I spoke to made very clear their rejection of sectarian policies and welcomed all regardless of faith or absence thereof in my case. Unsurprisingly this great tolerance is exactly the kind of thing that gets the Islamic State and associated nutjobs hopping mad and they carried out a suicide bombing attack only in February 2017, killing 88 people. Undeterred, followers carried out rituals as normal the very next day. The shrine has been completely restored and robust security measures installed with a large, armed police presence.
Families had brought along members with mental health issues in search of some kind of relief but quite where the line was drawn between symptoms related to the condition and symptoms brought about by the ritual was well above my pay grade. One glassy eyed, shivering woman lay on the floor of the shrine, comforted by her family, while another with a clearly distraught expression was almost being carried around the brightly decorated sarcophagus, as others eagerly gulped at the holy water on offer. Women are separated to either side of the men during the dhammal, some cross-legged on the floor waving their arms in an extatic dance; others headbang with their long, black, hijab free hair flailing wildly as if it were a Slayer concert; another spun as manically as a whirling dervish, all oblivious to their surroundings.
A dreadlocked man in black, tattered robes, encumbered by dozens of chains hanging from his shoulders greeted my salaam a ley kum warmly, as did the clearly insane mute. At times people were queuing up to say hello to me and request, “one selfie please”, which invariably meant three or four with all their mates. Walking around the town was a similar experience. With a populous about as dangerous as a cake stall, one has to question the armed guard the local police insist on us occasional foreigners having: the biggest threat is overdosing from the tea that everyone wants to offer you. In the unlikely event of the Islamic State turning up to ruin things its difficult to imagine the guard achieving much beyond a bit of blast absorption. When a handsome long haired man in white robes doing a live cast with his smart phone tried to lead me into the dancing throng the guard made it plain that this wasn’t in the rule book – spoilsport! Aside from that incident my guards during my three day stay were fairly amenable to, if somewhat bemused by my wandering down alleyways in unremarkable bits of town. After I greeted some slightly shy teenage girls excited by the rare phenomenon of a foreigner, a guard told me it was inappropriate to greet women in public, being such a conservative society. This was swiftly followed by a series of women greeting me and insisting on having a chat, rendering this particular rule largely obsolete.
This welcoming, inclusive form of Islam on offer in Sehwan Sherif, with its celebration of saints and passion for mystic experience is far more representative of Pakistani Islam than the media coverage of the country would suggest. If that comes as a surprise then you clearly haven’t read enough other posts on this blog.