Revival of Sufi Shrine Festivals Brings Joy  and Unity to Rural Pakistan

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Revival of Sufi Shrine Festivals Brings Joy and Unity to Rural Pakistan

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SHAH JIWANA – Rhythmic drums and spirited dancing are once again enlivening the shrines of Sufi saints in Pakistan, where festivals had long been stifled by the threat of violence. As the harvest season ends and schools close for the summer, villagers travel atop tractor trolleys, buses, and rickshaws to attend annual celebrations at shrines across the country.

“Those who cannot meet during the rest of the year reunite at the fair,” said Muhammad Nawaz, a farmer attending the annual Shah Jiwana mela in Jhang. “These fairs and Punjab’s culture share a profound connection, one of love and brotherhood.”

Fairgrounds come alive with musicians, traditional wrestlers, and motorcycle acrobats delighting pilgrims under the watchful eye of hundreds of police officers. Centuries-old Sufi orders across the Islamic world have millions of followers, from Turkey to South Asia, rooted in mysticism and devotion to saints.

Despite their widespread following, many orthodox hardliners consider Sufi beliefs heretical, and militant groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the so-called Islamic State have attacked shrines and festivals in the past. This led authorities to ban or limit activities at these shrines until recently.

“The goal was to avoid risking public lives,” said Alloudin Mehmood, a government official at the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad, which was targeted by a 2005 suicide bombing that killed 19 people. Security has dramatically improved after several military operations, allowing celebrations to slowly return.

“Only after receiving security clearance was the festival permitted last year, ending a 16-year hiatus,” Mehmood added. The event was shortened from five days to three, with mobile phone signals suspended for security reasons.

The rural landscape of Pakistan is adorned with thousands of Sufi shrines, varying in size from grand edifices to modest structures, each steeped in a tapestry of associated legends. “Pilgrims find solace, healing, release, and entertainment at these events that celebrate the ‘friends of God’,” said Carl W. Ernst, an author of several books on Sufism.( Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2024)