July Issue 2013

By | Interview | Published 11 years ago

What motivated you to study Sufism and Lal Shahbaz in particular?

While visiting Ismaili sites in interior Sindh, I learned the importance of Sufism in the region. I had originally planned to study Shah Abdul Latif but a French archaeologist, Monique Kervran, invited me to come to Sehwan with her team in 2002. Once there, I decided to work on Lal Shahbaz.

You find in your research that Lal Shahbaz’s tomb was built on Shiva’s tomb and Hindus revere the Sufi saint as Bhartrhari, the son or nephew of a great Hindu king. What allows him to be a holy figure for both Hindus and Muslims?

Different explanations can be given for understanding Lal Shahbaz as a holy figure for Muslims and Hindus. Lal Shahbaz clearly expresses in his Persian ghazals that he was a wujudi. According to this school of Sufism, for which the best exponent was the Andalusian philosopher and mystic Ibn al-Arabi, there are several steps on the path one of which requires a strict following of the injunctions of the sharia. According to the Qalandariyya tariqa, however, there are three different steps whose purpose is the fana fi’llah — the merging with God. When a Sufi reaches this last state, he is free from the requirements of the sharia. In that sense, the Sufi path is not exclusive to Muslims.

Do the ceremonies around the cult of Lal Shahbaz incorporate practices from other religions or are they purely Islamic? Did the Qalandar’s arrival in Sehwan lead to a break from the non-Muslim past of Sindh and usher a new, Muslim era? Or did Hindu and Buddhist practices merge into Islamic practices?

Most religions borrowed features from previous ones. Usually, the process was to reuse a given tradition and incorporate it into a new frame. Many of these processes are well known all around the Muslim world. In the Indian context, most of the borrowed ceremonies came not just from popular Hinduism, but also Buddhism and other cults which can be related to animism. Mehndi and dhamaal, which is the immitation of the dance of Shiva, are two examples of this. Unfortunately, there are no historical sources to know the exact details of this process which is called “translation dynamics” by scholars such as Barry Flood.

Despite some narratives depicting a sudden and complete ‘conversion’ of the inhabitants of Sehwan, many clues suggest that there was a progressive shift from Hinduism to Islam. A person was not compelled to give up all the tenets and rituals of his previous religion to become a disciple of Lal Shahbaz. Historical sources from the Middle East suggest that such strategy of proselytism was first implemented by the Ismaili Shias. It is also well know that the Ismailis were active in Sindh from the 9th Century onwards. It could also explain why the accepted genealogy of Lal Shahbaz goes up to Imam Ismail — Imam Jafar Sadiq’s son — whose followers went on to be called the Ismailis.

dhammal1“Looking at Lal Shahbaz, we can state that a process of integrative tolerance between religious communities is still at work. At a time when religious radicalism is spreading in Pakistan as well as in India, Muslims and Hindus can be witnesses to how integration works in Sehwan. It can also be understood as a strong hope that different religious communities can live together peacefully.”

Do Sunnis and Shias have the same devotion to Lal Shahbaz? Given that he is a descendant of Imam Jaffar, does Lal Shahbaz have a particular status for the Shias? Do we find the Shia-Sunni divide or other religious differences at Sehwan, or is everyone a devotee of the Qalandar?

Sunnis and Shias share the same devotion to Lal Shahbaz but some Shias see in him a mazhar (manifestation) of Imam Hussein, thus they are much more devoted to him and go as far as to perform Shia rituals, including the matam, at any time in the year. This said, the main rituals are performed by all. These rituals can also be found in other dargahs (shrines), such as throwing flowers on the tomb, or drinking sacred water oozing from the guluband, a big stone which was inherited by Lal Shahbaz from his ancestor Imam Zayn al-Abidin. Nevertheless, every disciple can recite his own prayers according to the religion he belongs to.

Does the cult of Lal Shahbaz allow social prejudices to disappear or are there still marked class, caste, religious and gender differences in how different roles are distributed during the Urs? In particular, what is the nature of the integration of marginalised groups?

According to the official discourse, as reflected in many narratives attributed to Lal Shahbaz, all of his followers are equal. Nevertheless, there is a complex distribution of the main ritual-related roles among Sunnis, Shias and Hindus. In terms of social classes, the main actors are obviously from the local dominant groups. At the apex, it is the Syeds. They control the main public and private rituals during the Urs and Moharram, the two main liturgical events of the year. Others such as non-Syed Sindhis, Baloch or Pathans play secondary roles. The balance between all the involved groups is reached through different processions.

Regarding the marginalised or outcast groups, they can, as individuals, have free access to Lal Shahbaz. They can perform rituals but under the Syeds’ control. In very rare cases, they can carry out ritual functions during the Urs since it is a special time when the usual social codes can be relaxed. For example, munjras (female dancers) can dance; some of them are even invited to perform their art as a part of the mehndi ritual.

How is the role of the Syeds legitimised? Do they enjoy religious prestige or is their power rooted exclusively in the fact that many of them are from the upper classes? Also, do Syeds compete with each other over the rights to manage the Urs?

As stated above, the Syeds play a leading role in Sehwan’s life. There are three main Sayyid lineages or khandans (families): the Lakkiyyaris, the Sabzwaris and the Bokharis. Despite the scarcity of accessible sources (they are very reluctant to exhibit their private archives), they mostly recognise the elder branch of the Lakkiyyaris as the leading Syed family. Originating from the close-by village of Lakki, the Lakkiyyaris are the most influential khandan in Sindh and probably the oldest local khandan in Sehwan. They legitimise their authority through constructed narratives. The most common narrative is that their ancestor, Shah Sadr, was the one who allowed Lal Shahbaz to settle in Sehwan since the town was part of his ‘spiritual territory,’ or wilaya. The other narrative is that Awladi Amir, another ancestor who was maybe Shah Sard’s son, was officially designated as the first sajjada nashin (successor) of Lal Shahbaz. Thus, a number of clues indicate that there remains a degree of competition among these khandans.

Is Lal Shahbaz’s cult or influence found in other parts of Pakistan or in its surrounding countries? What is his status in his place of origin?

A number of places are devoted to him throughout Pakistan, such as one near Mangho Pir. In India, there is a dargah in Badreshwar, Kutch. The Hindus who left Sindh in 1947 transferred Lal Shahbaz’s cult to India. For example, his Urs is performed every year at the darbar of Rai Rochaldas, about 57 km north-east of Mumbai in Ulhasnagar.

Lal Shahbaz was born in Marwand, which is presently in Iranian Azerbaijan, but there is no evidence to suggest he is remembered there. Nonetheless, among the Shia Ahl-e Haqq community, Lal Shahbaz appears as a main figure in their mythology.

Can you give us examples of some anecdotes or something unexpected and interesting that helped you understand the cult of Lal Shahbaz?

In 2002, I was in a courtyard in front of the mazaar’s entrance where they did the dhamaal. For me, what was most spectacular was discovering this ecstatic dance of murids and the faqirs. I also noticed the different categories of people that came to the mazaar.

What are your general observations on Pakistani society, its people and Islam? Can one make any judgments about Pakistanis based on the status that Lal Shahbaz enjoys? What can Muslims and Hindus learn from him, especially in the background of rising religious chauvinism in both India and Pakistan?

Intense devotion: Pilgrims perform matam in the darbar.

Intense devotion: Pilgrims perform matam in the darbar.

Pakistanis are very open and welcoming, despite their multiple divisions in terms of ethnicity, sect, class, caste and the rest. If we know very little about this society, we would be especially struck by its diversity and cultural richness. Islam is also an object of different interpretations in Pakistan, just as it is elsewhere. Regardless of what the Islamists affirm, the success of Islam is due to the fact that it always knew how to adapt to different societies and periods.

Looking at Lal Shahbaz, we can state that a process of integrative tolerance between religious communities is still at work. What occurs in Sehwan also occurs in many other Sufi places in Pakistan. At a time when religious radicalism is spreading in Pakistan as well as in India, Muslims and Hindus can be witnesses to how integration works in Sehwan. It can also be understood as a strong hope that different religious communities can live together peacefully.

How did local intellectuals react to your research and field work? Did you require their assistance and
if so, would you have been able to carry out your work without their help?

Local intellectuals were quite interested in my research and they provided me help and support. I had many discussions with them and they also showed me their own documents. They were, like the population of Sehwan at large, welcoming and it was a tremendous experience for me.

Your team has stopped coming to Pakistan because of the political situation here. What are the consequences of this on the research work that you and others have been doing in Pakistan?

It is not exactly like that — our research team concluded its work in 2011, as planned. Nonetheless, it is true that our institution, CNRS (National Centre of Scientific Research), has been very reluctant to send us to Pakistan, especially after France’s intervention in Mali which saw Islamists issuing threats against French citizens in these areas. Having said that, the volatile political conditions in Pakistan are not new. Evidently, it prevents many researchers from coming to the country no matter which discipline they are from. French researchers have to fight very hard to obtain authorisation. Recently, the American government formally banned its researchers from going to Pakistan. We wish with all our hearts, but without being too naïve, that the recent elections would pacify the country.