‘Dervish are an abomination,’ said Navaid.
‘What do you mean by a Dervish?’ I asked.
‘Dervish? Don’t you know? It’s a very old concept. Fakir? Pir-Baba? Sufi? Silsilah Malang—that beggar doing magic tricks . . . ?’ Navaid was staring at a man who was sitting cross-legged in the street with a ten foot black python wrapped round his neck. ‘That beggar—medieval mystics like Shahbaz Qalander—the people who live and dance at his tomb. They are all Dervish.’
When I first met Navaid at the tomb of Datta Ganj Baksh a week earlier, he had been examining the same snake man. Now Navaid was standing very still, stroking his white beard. The python was asleep and so was its owner and no one except Navaid seemed to notice them. For the last ten years he had spent his days at the mosques of the old city of Lahore. He had neither a family nor a job. His voice was quick, anxious, slightly high-pitched, as though he were worried I would leave before he had finished his sentence.
‘You foreigners love the idea of Dervish—whirling Dervish, wandering Dervish, howling Dervish—exotic—like belly dancers and dancing camels,’ he insisted, ‘—surely you understand what I mean?’
‘But what’s that beggar there got in common with a medieval Sufi poet?’
‘One thing anyway—they are both irrelevant,’ replied Navaid. ‘They have nothing to do with Islam or Pakistan. They barely exist any more and, if they do, they don’t matter. Forget about Dervish.’
Two weeks later I was walking alone along a canal in the Southern Punjab. It had been five months since I started walking across Asia but I had only been in the Punjab for a few days. The arid mountains of Iran had been replaced by a flat, fertile land and I was struggling to turn my limited Persian into Urdu. I was also getting used to new clothes. I was trying to dress in a way that did not attract attention. I was, like everyone else, wearing a loose, thin Pakistani salwar kameez suit and because of the 120 degree heat, a turban. I had swapped my backpack for a small cheap shoulder bag and I carried a traditional iron-shod staff. In Iran I was frequently accused of being a smuggler, a resistance fighter or a grave robber. In the Punjab, because of my clothes, black hair, and fair skin I was often mistaken for one of the millions of Afghani refugees now living in Pakistan. Afghanis have a reputation as dangerous men and this may partly have explained why I had not (so far) felt threatened, walking alone along the Punjab canals.
A snake was swimming down the canal, its head held high over its own reflection, shedding bars of water thick with sunlight in its wake. In a hollow between the towpath and the wheat field was a stunted peepul tree draped with green cloth and beneath it the earth grave of a ‘Dervish’. A thin bare-chested man dragged a bucket through the canal, staggered to the edge of the path and threw water on the dry track. I watched him weaving up and down the grass bank towards me. The history of his labour was laid across the path in thick bars of colour. In front of him, where I was walking, was pale sand; at his feet was a band of black mud. Behind him stripe after stripe, each slightly paler than its successor, faded through orange clay until, where he had worked an hour before, nothing remained but pale sand. This was his job in the Canal Department.
‘Wa alaikum as-salaam,’ he replied. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To the canal rest-house.’
‘Respected one,’ he smiled and his voice was nervous, ‘most kind one. Give me a sacred charm.’
‘I’m sorry, I don’t have one.’
‘Look at me. This work. This sun.’ He was still smiling.
‘I’m very sorry. Hoda Hafez, God be with you.’
I turned away and he grabbed me by the arm. I hit him with my stick. He backed off and we looked at each other. I hadn’t hurt him but I was embarrassed.
Navaid had warned me I would be attacked walking across Pakistan. ‘Violent? Pakistan is a very violent country—the Baluch caught a young Frenchman who was trying to walk here last year and killed him. Or look at today’s newspaper—you can be killed by your father for sleeping around, you can be killed by other Muslims for being a Shi’a, you can be killed for being a policeman, you can be killed for being a tourist.’
But I could see that the man I’d hit wasn’t dangerous.
He was now smiling apologetically, ‘Please, sir, at least let me have some of your water.’
I poured some water from my bottle into his hands. He bowed to me, passed it in front of his lips and then brushed it through his hair.
‘And now a charm: a short one will be enough . . .’
‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t.’
I couldn’t. I wouldn’t play the role of a holy man. ‘Hoda hafez.’ A hundred yards further on I looked back through the midday glare and saw him still staring at me. He had, it seemed, perhaps because I was walking in Pakistani clothes, mistaken me for what Navaid would call a wandering Dervish.
An hour later, I turned off the tow-path down a tree-lined avenue. There was a peepul, with its pointed leaves, trembling forty feet above. This one had outgrown its pink bark but its trunk was thin, its canopy small. It looked as though it had been planted when the canal was completed in 1913, and it would probably outlast the canal, since part of the peepul under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment, 2,500 years ago, is still alive in Sri Lanka. Further on, among the banyans, the ruby flowers of the Dak trees, and the yellow of the laburnum, was the electric blue spray of a Brazilian jacaranda imported I assumed by some extravagant engineer. Two men and two boys were sitting on the lawn.
‘Wa alaikum as-salaam. We had been told to expect someone. Please sit down.’ I sat on the charpoy string bed and we looked at each other. They knew nothing about me and I knew nothing about them. They were looking at a twenty-eight-year-old Briton, seated on a colonial lawn, in a turban and a sweat-soaked salwar kameez shirt. I was looking at a man, also in salwar kameez, but with a ball-point pen in his breast pocket—an important symbol in an area where less than half the men can write their own name. The other man, standing on the balls of his bare feet, staring at me with his hands forward like a wrestler, looked about sixty. He had shoulder length grey, curly hair and a short beard. He was wearing an emerald green kemis shirt and a dark green sarong, a silver ankle ring, four long bead necklaces and an earring in his left ear. I asked if I could boil some water.
‘Acha, acha, boil water,’ said the old man with the earring and immediately loped off in a half-run, with his hands still held in front of him, to the peepul tree. I watched him build a fire and shout to a boy to bring a bucket of water from the canal. He and the column of smoke seem small beneath the Buddha’s tree. The man in green returned with the handleless pot of boiling water in his hands. When I took it from him, I burned my fingers and nearly dropped the pot. He asked if I’d like some honey and I said I would very much.
Ten minutes later, he returned breathless and sweating with part of a cone of dark wild honey in his hands.
‘Where did you get it from?’
‘From there,’ he pointed to the peepul, ‘I just climbed up there to get it.’ I thought I could see where the cone must be—it was on a branch, some way out, about forty feet above the ground. It was a difficult climb for a sixty-year-old, even without the bees.
‘What do you do?’
‘Me?’ He laughed and looked at the others, who laughed also. ‘Why, I’m a Malang—a Dervish, a follower of Shahbaz Qalander of Sewhan Sharif.’
‘And what does it mean to be a Dervish follower of Shahbaz Qalander of Sewhan Sharif?’
‘Why, to dance and sing.’ And he began to hop from foot to foot, clicking his fingers in the air, and singing in a high-pitched voice:
Sbudam Badnam Dar Ishq,
Biya Paarsa Ikanoon,
The Tarsam Za Ruswaee,
Bi Har Bazaar Me Raqsam.
Come, behold how I am slandered for my love of God
But slander means nothing to me,
That’s why I’ll dance in the crowd, my friend
And prance throughout the bazaar.
‘Who wrote that?’
‘My sheikh, my master, Shahbaz Qalander, when he lived in the street of the whores.’
‘And where are you from?’
‘Me? Well my family is originally from Iran not Pakistan—we came like Shahbaz Qalander.’
Laal Shahbaz Qalander was a twelfth-century mystic, what Navaid would call a Dervish. He belonged to a monastic order, wandered from Iran to Pakistan preaching Islam, performed miracles, wrote poems like the one above, and was buried in a magnificent medieval tomb in Sewhan Sharif, a city founded by Alexander the Great. His name, Laal Shahbaz, they say records his brilliant red clothes and his spirit, free as the Shahbaz falcon. He is one of the most famous of a group of mystics who arrived in Pakistan between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Their poetry and teachings often celebrate an intoxication with and almost erotic love of God that appears at times to transcend all details of religious doctrine. Their mystical ideas seem to have passed, like the use of rosary beads and the repetition of a single phrase for meditation, from the sub-continent through the Islamic world, and from the crusaders into Christianity. It is they, not the Arab conquerors of the earlier centuries who are credited with peacefully converting the Hindus of Pakistan to Islam. Indeed, if the shirt of the man in front of me was like Shahbaz’s red, not green, he would look, with his long hair and jewelry, exactly like a Hindu sadhu. And he is one of half a million Pakistanis who gather at Shahbaz’s tomb once a year to celebrate with dancing and singing.
‘Do you not have land?’ I asked, ‘Work as a farmer?’
‘I used to but I gave it all away—I have nothing now.’
‘I need nothing else. As the prophet says, “Poverty is my pride,”‘ he replied, smiling so broadly that I wasn’t sure whether I believed him.
When it was time to go, the Dervish accompanied me to the gate hobbling slightly on his bare feet.
‘Have you always been a Dervish?’ I asked.
‘No, I was a civil servant in the Customs Department. I worked in the baggage inspection hall of Lahore airport for fifteen years.’
At the canal bank, I took out some money to thank him for the cooking and the honey. But he was horrified.
‘Please,’ I said, employing a Persian euphemism, ‘take it for the children.’
‘There are no children here,’ the Dervish said firmly. ‘Good luck and goodbye.’ He shook my hand and, bringing his palm up to his chest, added in a friendlier voice, ‘God be with you—walking is a kind of dancing too.’
When I walked back into Lahore, I met a very different kind of Muslim civil servant. ‘Umar is a most influential person,’ said Navaid. ‘He knows everyone in Lahore, parties all night—meets Imran Khan all the time. And you must see his library. He will explain to you about Islam.’
I was invited to Umar’s house at ten at night because he had had three parties to attend earlier in the evening. As I arrived, I saw a heavily built, bearded man in his mid-thirties stepping down from a battered transit van. He was talking on his mobile and holding up his arms so his driver could wrap a baggy, brown pinstriped jacket round him but he managed to hold out a hand to greet me. Still clutching my hand, he led me into a government bungalow of a very similar age and style to the canal rest-house. We removed our shoes and entered a small room, with shelves of English-language books covering all the walls and no chairs. Umar put down the phone, sat on the floor and invited me to sit beside him.
‘Salaam alaikum, good evening. Please make yourself comfortable. I will tell the servant to get a blanket for you. This is my son, Salman,’ he added. The eight year old was playing a video game. He waved vaguely but his focus was on trying to persuade a miniature David Beckham to kick with his left foot.
Umar’s eyes were bloodshot and he looked tired and anxious. He never smiled, but instead produced rhetorical questions and suggestions at a speed that was difficult to follow.
‘Multan, but of course,’ he said, ‘you must meet the Gilanis, the Qureshis, the Gardezis—perhaps as you move up the Punjab—Shah Jeevna. I know them all. I can do it for you.’ All these people were descendants of the famous medieval saints who had converted Pakistan—Navaid’s Dervish or Pirs. It was said that they had inherited a great deal of their ancestors’ spiritual charisma—villagers still touched them to be cured of illnesses or drank water they blessed to ensure the birth of a male son. They had certainly inherited a great deal of land and wealth from donations to their ancestors’ shrines. But Umar, it seemed, was not interested in their Dervish connections. He was concerned with the fact that they were currently leading politicians. Thus the female descendant of a medieval mystic, who once stood in a Punjabi river for twelve years reciting the Qur’an, had just served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington. Another Dervish, who it is said entered Multan riding on a lion and whipping it with live snakes, and 600 years later is still supposed to stick his hand out of the tomb to greet pious pilgrims, has descendants who have served as ministers in both the federal and provincial governments. Umar knew them all and perhaps because he was rising fast in the interior ministry he was able to help them occasionally.
Umar’s mobile rang again. He applauded one of his son’s virtual goals, dragged off his shiny silver tie, dark brown shirt and brown pinstriped trousers for a servant to take away, pulled a copy of V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief off the shelves and pointed me to a chapter, which I slowly realized was about himself—all this while still talking on the phone.
I had seen Umar earlier in the evening at the large marble-floored house of a wealthy landowner and Dervish descendant. A group of clean-shaven young Pakistani men in casual Gucci shirts had been standing beside Umar drinking illegal whisky, smoking joints and talking about Manhattan. And there he had been, in his brown suit and brown shirt, bearded and with a glass of fruit juice in his hand, not only because he was not educated abroad but also, it seemed, because he had very different views about religion.
‘My son,’ said Umar proudly, putting down the phone, ‘is studying at an Islamic school—his basic syllabus is that he must memorize the whole book of the Qur’an—more than 150,000 words by heart—I chose this school for him.’ The boy concerned was trying to decide which members of the Swedish squad to include in his dream team. ‘You know our relationship with our families is one of the strengths of Islamic culture. I am sorry it will not be possible for you to meet my wife—but she and my parents and children form such a close unit. When you think of the collapse of families in the West, the fact that there is (I am sorry to say it but I know because I have been to the West) no respect for parents—almost everyone is getting divorced, there is rape on the streets—suicide—you put your people in “Old People Homes” while we look after them in the family—in America and perhaps Britain as well I think, there is rape and free sex, divorce and drugs. Have you had a girlfriend? Are you a virgin?’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘My friend,’ he said, leaning forward, ‘I was in a car with a friend the other day, we stopped at the traffic lights and there was a beautiful girl in the car next to us. We wanted to gaze at her but I said, and my friend agreed—do not glance at her—for if you do not stare now you will be able to have that woman in heaven.’ He paused for effect. ‘That is what religion gives to me. It is very late, my friend, I suggest you sleep here tonight and I will drive you back in the morning.’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘No problem.’ He shouted something. The servant entered, laid two mattresses and some sheets on the floor and led Umar’s son out. Umar lay on his mattress, propping himself on one arm, looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, yawning, ‘What do you think of American policy in Iraq?’
His phone rang again and he switched on the TV.
I reopened Naipaul’s Beyond Belief. Naipaul portrays Umar as a junior civil servant from a rural background with naive and narrow views about religion, living in a squalid house. He does not mention Umar’s social ambitions, his library, his political connections, his ‘close friends’ in the Lahore elite. He implies that Umar’s father had tracked down and murdered a female in his family for eloping without consent.
When Umar had finished on the phone I asked whether he was happy with this portrait.
‘Yes, of course I am—I have great respect for Naipaul—he is a true gentleman—did so much research into my family. You know most people’s perspectives are so limited on Pakistan. But I try to help many journalists. All of them say the same things about Pakistan. They only write about terrorism, about extremism, the Taliban, about feudalism, illiteracy, about Bin Laden, corruption and bear-baiting and about our military dictatorship. They have nothing positive to say about our future or our culture. Why, I want to know?’
He pointed to the television news which showed a Palestinian body being carried by an angry crowd. ‘Three killed today by Israel—why is America supporting that? Why did they intervene so late in Bosnia and not in Chechnya? Can you defend the British giving Kashmir to the Hindus when the majority of the population is Muslim? Is it a coincidence that all these problems concern Muslims?’
I tried to say that the West had supported Muslims in Kosovo but he interrupted again.
‘Let me tell you what it means to be a Muslim,’ he said, lying on his back and looking at the ceiling. ‘Look at me, I am a normal man, I have all your tastes, I like to go to parties. Two months ago, a friend of mine said to me, “Umar, you are a man who likes designer clothes, Ralph Lauren suits, Pierre Cardin ties, Italian shoes, Burberry socks—why don’t you do something for Allah—he has done everything for you—why don’t you do something for him—just one symbol—grow a beard.”‘ He fingered his beard. ‘This is why it is here—just a little something for Allah.’ He was now lying on his mattress in a white vest and Y-fronts. I didn’t really remember his designer clothes. Perhaps he had been wearing Burberry socks. The new facial hair was, however, clearly an issue for him. I wondered whether as an ambitious civil servant he thought a beard might be useful in a more Islamic Pakistan. But I asked him instead about Dervish tombs. He immediately recommended five which I had not seen.
‘What do you think of the Dervish tradition in Pakistan?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean?’
I repeated Navaid’s definition.
‘Oh I see—this kind of thing does not exist so much any more except in illiterate areas. But I could introduce you to a historian who could tell you more about it.’
‘But what about their kind of Islam?’
‘What do you mean? Islam is one faith with one God. There are no different types. You must have seen the common themes that bind Muslims together when you walked from Iran to Pakistan. For example the generosity of Muslims—our attitude to guests.’
‘But my experience hasn’t been the same everywhere. Iranians, for example, are happy to let me sleep in their mosques but I am never allowed to sleep in a mosque in Pakistan.’
‘They let you sleep in mosques in Iran? That is very strange. The mosque is a very clean place and if you sleep in a mosque you might have impure thoughts during the night…’
‘Anyway, basically,’ I continued, ‘villagers have been very relaxed and hospitable in Pakistan. Every night they take me in without question, give me food and a bed and never ask for payment. It’s much easier walking here than in Iran. Iranians could be very suspicious and hostile, partly because they are all afraid of the government there. In some Iranian villages they even refused to sell me bread and water.’
‘Really, I don’t believe this—this is propaganda. I think the Iranian people are very happy with their government and are very generous people. I cannot believe they would refuse you bread and water.’
‘Listen to me—they did.’
‘Well, this may be because of the Iran–Iraq war which you and the Americans started and financed. Do you know how many were killed in that war? That is why Iranians are a little wary of foreigners. But look how the Iranians behaved . . .’
The phone rang again and he talked for perhaps ten minutes this time. I examined the bookcase while I waited. Many of the books were parts of boxed sets with new leather bindings and had names like Masterpieces of the West, volumes 1-11.
When he turned back to me again, Umar seemed much more animated. He sat cross-legged on the mattress and leaned towards me. ‘My friend,’ he said. ‘There is one thing you will never understand. We Muslims, all of us—including me—are prepared to die for our faith—we know we will go immediately to heaven. That is why we are not afraid of you. We want to be martyrs. In Iran, twelve-year-old boys cleared minefields by stepping on the mines in front of the troops—tens of thousands died in this way. Such faith and courage does not exist in Britain. That is why you must pray there will never be a “Clash of Civilizations” because you cannot defeat a Muslim: one of us can defeat ten of your soldiers.’
‘This is nonsense,’ I interrupted uselessly. What was this overweight man in his Y-fronts, who boasted of his social life and foreign friends, doing presenting Islam in this way and posing as a holy warrior. It sounded as though he was reciting from some boxed set of leather books called Diatribes against Your Foreign Guest. And I think he sensed this too because his tone changed.
‘We are educated, loving people,’ he concluded. ‘I am very active with a charity here, we educate the poor, help them, teach them about religion. If only we can both work together to destroy prejudice—that is why people like you and me are so important. All I ask is that the West recognize that it too has its faults—that it lectures us on religious freedom and then the French prohibit Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school.’
‘Do you think Pakistan will become an Islamic state on the Iranian model?’ I asked.
‘My friend, things must change. There is so much corruption here. The state has almost collapsed. This is partly the fault of what you British did here. But it is also because of our politicians. That is why people like me want more Islam in our state. Islam is our only chance to root out corruption so we can finally have a chance to develop.’
I fell asleep wondering whether this is what he really believed and whether he said such things to his wealthy political friends.
When he dropped me off the next morning, Umar’s phone rang again and as I walked away I heard him saying in English:
‘Two months ago, a friend of mine said to me, “Umar, you are a man who likes designer clothes, Ralph Lauren suits, Pierre Cardin ties, Italian shoes, Burberry socks—why don’t you do something for Allah . . .”’
‘A beard?’ said Navaid, stroking his own, when I went to meet him again that afternoon at the tomb of Datta Ganj Baksh. ‘When people like Umar start growing beards, something is changing. But he must have enjoyed meeting you. His closest friends are foreigners.’
I told Navaid what Umar had said about a clash of civilizations and Navaid shook his head. ‘Forget it—don’t pay any attention. He was only trying to impress you. He doesn’t mean it. People should spend less time worrying about non-Muslims and more time making Muslims into real Muslims. Look at this tomb for example. It is a scandal. They should dynamite this tomb. That would be more useful than fighting Americans.’
Behind us were the tomb gates which Navaid swore were solid gold and which had been erected in the saint’s honour by the secular leftist prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father. He gave gold gates to the tomb of Shahbaz Qalander in Sewhan Sharif as well. ‘That beautiful glass and marble mosque in front of us,’ continued Navaid, ‘was built by General Zia after he executed Bhutto and took power. Then the CIA killed Zia by making his airplane crash. So the marble courtyard we are standing on was built by our last elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif. It hasn’t been finished because of the military coup.’
‘But,’ he reflected, ‘this Dervish of Shahbaz Qalander is all nonsense. This tomb of Datta Ganj Baksh is nonsense. It has nothing to do with Islam, nothing at all. There is nothing in Islam about it. Islam is a very simple religion, the simplest in the world.’
Beside us a man was forcing his goat to perform a full prostration to the tomb of the saint, before dragging it off to be sacrificed.
‘But what do people want from these saints’ tombs?’ I asked.
‘Babies, money—but the Prophet, peace be upon him, teaches that we should not build tombs. They tempt us to worship men not God.’
‘And the Dervish?’
‘They are cheaters, beggars and tricksters, who sit at the tombs becoming rich by selling stupid medicines.’ He led me to the balustrade. ‘Look at him, for example.’ There was a half-naked man in the dust below the courtyard, where the snake-charmer usually sat. His upper body was tattooed with the ninety-nine names of Allah. ‘He’s probably got a snake in that box, and,’ Navaid dropped his voice prudishly, ‘has intercourse with his clients.’
‘And the history of these saints, their local traditions?’
‘I think looking too much at history is like worshipping a man’s tomb. Allah exists outside time. And we should not look at local things too much because Allah does not have a nationality.’
‘People say there are seventy-four forms of Islam in Pakistan, what do they mean?’
‘Nonsense.’ Navaid was being very patient with me. ‘Islam is one—one God—one book—one faith.’
‘But what do they mean? Are they referring to Qadianis?’
‘Of course not…Qadianis are heretics, they are not Muslims. General Zia has confirmed this in law.’
‘Or are they talking about differences between Naqshbandiyah, Wahhibis, Shi’as…?’
‘Pakistani Shi’as are not true Muslims—they are terrorists and extremists—worshipping tombs—they are responsible for these Dervish. But in fact there is only one Islam. We are all the same.’ He turned away from the beggar. ‘There are no real differences because our God is one.’
The politicians had spent millions on this tomb to win the support of the saint or his followers. But it was only superficially a tribute to the older Pakistan of wandering holy men. Ten years ago, the courtyard of this tomb was the meeting-place for all the diverse groups which Navaid calls Dervish. There was Datta Ganj Baksh, the medieval Sufi himself in his grave, and around him were pilgrims, beggars, mystics, sellers of pious artifacts, drummers, tattooists, dancers, snake charmers, fortune-tellers, men in trances. But most of these figures were now hidden in the narrow streets below the marble balustrade. The politician’s gift both asserted the significance of the saint’s tomb and obliterated the cultural environment which surrounded it. Their new architecture seemed to be echoing Navaid’s vision of a single simple global Islam—a plain white empty courtyard and a marble and glass mosque, bland, clean, expensive—the ‘Islamic’ architecture of a Middle Eastern airport.
But I still could not understand why Navaid wanted to link these modern dervishes, one of whom was now shouting drunkenly at us from the street, to the medieval saints. ‘Navaid, what do you mean by a Dervish? Are you complaining only about mystics, who belong to a monastic order?’
‘Of course not.’ Navaid gestured at the man who was now cursing our descendants. ‘You think he is a mystic in a monastic order?’
‘Then what’s he got in common with a Sufi poet or a medieval saint?’ I was confused by the way he put medieval intellectuals, mystics and poets in the same group as magicians on the fringes of modern society.
‘They’re all Dervish—you know where that word comes from—from the Old Persian word derew, to beg? What they have in common is that they are all rich idle beggars.’
I presumed that explained why he didn’t call them ‘Fakir’, which means ‘poor’, or ‘Sufi’ which refers to their clothes.
‘But why have you got such a problem with them?’ I asked.
‘What do you think? Those people down there,’ he said pointing at the varied activities in the street, ‘wear jewellery, take drugs, believe in miracles, con pilgrims, worship tombs—they are illiterate blasphemers.’
‘Alright. But why do you reduce the Sufi saints to the same level?’
‘Partly because people like you like them so much. Western hippies love Sufis. You think they are beautiful little bits of a medieval culture. You’re much happier with them than with modern Islam. And you like the kind of things they say. What is it the Delhi Dervish Amir Khosrow says?’ Navaid recites:
I am a pagan worshipper of love,
Islam I do not need,
My every vein is taut as a wire
And I reject the pagan’s girdle.
‘That’s why I don’t like them. Medieval Islamic mystics have no relevance to Islam in Pakistan.’
‘Then why do you keep attacking them? Or comparing them to these men in the street?’
Navaid just smiled and wandered off down the courtyard.
Medieval mystics were, I was convinced, not irrelevant. It was they (not Arab invaders) who had converted the bulk of the Hindus to Islam in the first place, while their clothes, practices, poetry and prayers showed strong Indian influences. They were thus both the cause of Pakistani Islam and a reminder of its Hindu past. Furthermore, by drawing the link to the present, Navaid was conceding that the medieval ‘Dervish’ remained a live tradition in rural Pakistan.
Umar, by contrast, had not felt the need to recognize this. His modern Islam flourished among migrants into Pakistan’s cities. He could thus ignore the half a million people who still danced at the tomb of Shahbaz Qalander, and the fact that his friends the politicians were credited with inheriting miraculous spiritual powers from men six centuries dead. His Islam, he felt, was the future. He could safely leave the Dervish behind in a marginalized, illiterate, impoverished world—leave them, in other words, in the rural communities where seventy per cent of Pakistanis still lived.
At last Navaid turned back towards me. ‘When I said that Dervish were irrelevant, I meant that Islam is simple, anyone can understand it, it is public, it helps in politics, it does practical things for people. But for a Dervish, religion is all about some direct mystical experience of God—very personal, difficult to explain. Islam is not like that at all—it’s there to be found easily in the Qur’an—we don’t need some special path, some spiritual master, complicated fasting, dancing, whirling and meditating to see God.’
I could not imagine Navaid dancing. He was a reserved man, basically a puritan by temperament. When he admitted to being anything other than ‘a Muslim pure and simple’ he said he was a Wahhibi. His Islam, like Umar’s, was in a modern Saudi tradition, the tradition of the plain white mosque. It rested on a close attention to the words of the Qur’an, it refused to be tied to any particular place or historical period, it was concerned with ‘family life’, the creation of Islamic states—an approach that was underwritten by extensive global funding networks. I could guess, therefore, why Navaid was troubled by an other-worldly medieval tradition with strong local roots, personal and apolitical, celebrating poverty, mystical joy, tolerance and a direct experience of God. I could also guess why he wanted to reduce this tradition to a roadside magic trick.
But I might have been wrong. Although Navaid was fifty he was, unusually for a Pakistani man, not married. He claimed never to have had a girlfriend. He was very poor but he did not get a job. Instead he spent his days discussing religion in the courtyards of the ancient mosques in the old city. He could recite a great deal of Persian poetry as well as most of the Qur’an. He was a wanderer and had lived for eleven years in Iran, from just after the revolution. He was a very calm and peaceful man, he had few criticisms of the West and he rejected most of the religious leaders in Pakistan. Although he attacked Dervishes, he knew the name of every obscure Dervish grave in Lahore. I left him by the outdoor mosque of Shah Jehan. He had seated himself under a large peepul tree, to recite a dhikr, a repetitive mantra for meditation favoured by the Sufis. As I walked off, I heard him repeating, ‘There is no God but God . . .’ with a half-smile on his face, entirely absorbed in the words and I was no longer certain who was the Dervish.