By Hartmut Elsenhans
October 29, 2014
“Saints and Shrines in Pakistan. Anthropological Perspective” was written by Hafeez-ur-Rahman Chaudhry, Professor of Anthropology and former Chairman of the Department, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Saints and Shrines in Pakistan presents a major contribution on the centrally important issues on the blockages of Asian societies, the diversity of modernities, and the mechanisms which shape the world. The book is the result of a lifelong scholarly investigation on shrines in central Pakistan, especially the Punjab and the Potohar plateau. It is a declaration of love for Islamabad, but is also the reconstruction of the transformation within the most egalitarian of the book religions, Islam, from egalitarian and liberating positions into authoritarian structures.
This slow shift in Islam from liberating movement to bureaucratised organisations of believers around an economically-based power structure does not symbolise a process of moral decay. The heirs of the founders’ liberating attempt did not cynically or even consciously alter the original principles. The change occurred as the inevitable outcome of rational and quite understandable strategies of those who had to defend the original work of the saints in a world of competition over power and financial resources.
By their virtuous behaviour and meditating reflection on the Holy Qur’an, the saints liberated believers from a mechanistic interpretation of Islamic faith reduced to formal rules of behaviour which the believer had to mindlessly follow. The saint draws his understanding from a meditative vision of God; he experiences a deep mysticism and follows the path of understanding until he experiences the unity of the created world as an emanation of the unique and single God.
The Sufi provides emancipation for others, notably his followers, on the basis of knowledge no longer controlled by establishment structures. At the political level, Sufism opted to represent the demands of the weak and downtrodden in a defence of moral economy.
The saint, Pir, however, has to establish a relation of trust with followers. The union of spirits results in a clear hierarchy between teacher and follower. The propagation of the faith requires an organisation with a consolidated base which is hoped to guarantee the duration of the shrine, including after the physical end of the Pir.
Following South Asian traditions with its importance of kin ties, the surviving family has to care for the preservation of the heritage of the eminent ancestor. The followers claim the inheritance of the teachings of the Pir. If the Pir has not already created a network structure embedding the community of his followers, the conflicts which arise due to his succession impose the establishment of such a network or lead to the disappearance of the shrine.
Here kin is important and legitimation through descent demonstrates how inherited patterns of legitimacy based on blood relations can stand against acquired roles in the term of standard types of modernisation theory.
The Pir in order to preserve the shrine has to become an economic entrepreneur, a provider of services, starting with the logistics for the extended presence of pilgrims on the site. The shrines become centres of economic activity based on donations, ultimately resources not earned from a production process, but transferred in a rent arrangement. Some Pirs succeeded in transforming these ancient properties into modern economic assets. Others defended such properties in the political arena by intervening into party politics and electoral competition. There is no celibacy imposed on saints and would-be saints, which rendered the strength of such emerging networks. Institutions did not become independent from kin, as in medieval Europe.
The believers did not oppose these structures in the name of the egalitarian principles of Islam. The community of followers represents a secondary solidarity structure beyond the large family. Such structures provide economic support and patronage, especially in difficult times and are rarely opposed.
The follower remains a follower, as he is seen as “deficient” - in need of support from a stronger believer. The Pir is an authority who is able to compensate the “deficient” at the limit, acting like a charity. The brotherhood is the depositary of the Pir, but the Murid stays in a situation of deficiency.
This networked world between family and central agency might appear as civil society but is rather communitarian. The imperial state does not reach down into these communities. Society as a cooperation between individuals interacting on markets does not exist. The mediation between the state and communities appears particularly superficial. The pre-capitalist state is weak because of the strength of its un-civil ‘civil society’, or alternatively put, its non-state communities. In Hafeez’s book, nowhere does the state appear as an agency capable of mobilising support in providing protection.
Religion is totally separate from the visible state because of the symbiosis between the visible religion and the daily life of the community. The state does not belong to an arena of Din Wa Dawla.
This pre-capitalist structure is not a world of harmony. From an attempt to overturn established powers and thereafter bypass them, the communities under the leadership of Sufi saints turn to re-establishing hierarchies in ritual centres. They provide services and create centres of economic exchange where material resources are available.
As there is a surplus, the initial identitarian impetus gives room for the establishment of rent-based structures, at least in the plains. The shrines do not dispose only of donated resources - they have land holdings from which they draw surplus.
The initial ideological relation between the Pir and his Murids becomes a power relation, and is nowadays the basis of vote-generating machines. This contributes today to the blockage of populist reform initiatives however limited, especially land redistribution.
Ritual equality of all Muslims, being equal children of the same God, could not avoid being turned into rent-based structures with its immanent inequalities and dependencies.
To this extent, the book provides the most valuable illustration for actual theoretical debates on how society shifts: the norms, the ideologies, the values, all of what is in the heads and souls of people. What so-called constructivists consider as the mechanisms of history falls short when faced with the people’s struggle for economic survival, ultimately the need of men and women to maintain the conditions of reproduction of their families. That Sufism was unable to maintain its core belief of equality is a serious reinforcement of the assumption that ultimately economic challenges determine history and strategies.
Hartmut Elsenhans is Professor emeritus, Leipzig University. The book under review, “Saints and Shrines in Pakistan. Anthropological Perspective” was written by Hafeez-ur-Rahman Chaudhry, Professor of Anthropology and former Chairman of the Department, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.