The Nexus of Sufi Saints and Politicians in Pakistan

How pirs influence their followers to back favored office-seekers, using religious gatherings to consolidate voting blocs

The Nexus of Sufi Saints and Politicians in Pakistan
Devotees gather at the shrine of the Muslim Sufi saint Shah Hussain in Lahore, Pakistan, in March 2023. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

There was a time when the Pakistani politician Altaf Hussain, the supreme commander of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), representing the Urdu-speaking Muhajir (refugee) population in Karachi, effectively controlled and ran Pakistan’s largest city of 20 million from London, where he lived in self-imposed exile. It was said that not even a leaf could rustle without his permission. TV channels had to halt news transmissions or face attacks by his armed militia. He would force them to broadcast his political musings and death threats to opponents. His loyal followers would paralyze the entire city by enforcing “shutter-down strikes,” in which traders were forced to close their shops in the name of Hussain. The MQM also oversaw the vast criminal economy of Karachi, profiting from narcotics trafficking, protection rackets against businesses and wealthy individuals, as well as illegal land seizures.

Because of the clout and power he enjoyed, Hussain was known as the “Pir of London,” even though he wasn’t a spiritual leader and didn’t belong to a Sufi shrine family, as that moniker would suggest. He dominated Karachi for several years until he had to flee the city in 1992, when the military launched a crackdown called “Operation Clean Up.”

That Hussain was called a pir speaks to the authority and power that Sufi spiritual leaders enjoy in Pakistan. They marshal religious, financial, political and civilian power, often all at once, and function as feudal lords. Custodians of centuries-old shrines of Sufi saints, they are either descendants of the saint or his disciples, and have networks of followers that can number in the millions. In some extreme cases, their followers — known as “murids,” meaning those who seek — hold the word of their pirs akin to godly commandments.

Murids pledge allegiance to their pir under a system called “bayah” or “bayt,” which means they unquestioningly obey the pir in all matters, including nonreligious issues, since they believe that the pir has knowledge of the “unseen” and that even their seemingly nonspiritual advice could have “hidden” spiritual wisdom behind it. Murids’ loyalty to pirs is further reinforced through economic ties. As “sajjada-nashin,” or hereditary successor of a shrine, the pirs canvass tribes and villages tied to the shrine and collect contributions, operating as feudal lords with immense influence over their territories.

It was during the colonial period that many pirs amassed these powers, which were cemented through administrative systems devised by the British. Later, when Pakistan was created in 1947, many pirs and shrine families joined mainstream politics and continued to be intermediaries between the state and the people. Moreover, when Gen. Ayub Khan, who was then the chief martial law administrator, issued a governmental decree in 1959 called the West Pakistan Waqf Properties, Sufi shrines fell under government control. The ordinance allowed the state to take over shrines as charitable endowments, and a separate Auqaf Department was created to control the finances and activities of all the shrines. This cemented official ties between the state and shrines, and a complex system combining the bureaucracy, local customs and provincial and federal regulations was created, governing shrines across Pakistan.

Pirs and their families have had to navigate this bureaucracy to ensure that they maintain their power over their territories and followers. They have done this either by directly participating in politics and leveraging the devotion of their followers or by presenting their followers as voting blocs to politicians, so as to gain access to influence state policy. Pirs also served as guides and advisers to political leaders, providing them with religious legitimacy, and have received funds, subsidies and impunity from legal prosecution. Association with politicians has also augmented their own popularity and prestige in their local constituencies.

Take the example of Abdul Majid, a pir in the Dewal Sharif district of Punjab, who had direct access to Ayub Khan, who went on to become Pakistan’s first military dictator. Majid was popular among officers in the Pakistan army, as well as senior members of the bureaucracy and judiciary, who would consult him on both their personal lives and official duties.

During the 1965 presidential elections, when opposition leader Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, enjoyed immense popularity among the masses, Majid organized a “grand” coalition of pirs, urging them to direct their devotees to vote en bloc for Ayub Khan. He also famously declared that “God was displeased with Combined Opposition Party leaders for backing a woman as head of a Muslim country” and invoked “divine wrath” against those who did not support Ayub Khan. Fatima was ultimately defeated because of manipulation of the electoral system engineered by the military establishment, and Majid’s words were used by Ayub Khan’s supporters to grant religious sanction to it. (Dewal’s shrine, commissioned by the dictator himself, stands to this day in the hill town of Murree, but without any military patronage. Its importance is now limited to the regional level.)

Majid is mentioned several times in Ayub Khan’s diaries, which the American diplomat and South Asia historian Craig Baxter has archived online. Ayub Khan mentions how “mashaikhs” (Muslim legal scholars) brought by Majid made demands regarding the management of the Auqaf Department and zakats (donations) in exchange for extending political support. Majid himself made demands to Ayub Khan, including action against certain “mullahs who were operating against him,” money for an institution he wanted to set up and a mosque to be built in his village. He also asked Ayub Khan to remove an official from the Auqaf Department, while reminding him that he had many “well-wishers”; it was just that they “happen to be very expensive.”

As a more austere, globalized version of Islam becomes popular, it seems that the appeal of folk Islam, represented by these Sufi spiritual guides and their shrines, is waning. Supported by the Barelvi school of Islam, they are also in competition with the Deobandi school, which rejects grave and idol worshiping and considers Sufi shrines “un-Islamic.” The orthodox ulama once called them “dens of deviancy.” The shrines were also a target of jihadist violence. In 2017, the famous Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan, Sindh, which attracts more than half a million people during its annual festival commemorating the anniversary of the saint’s death, was the target of a suicide bombing that killed over 90 people; the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for it. A year earlier, Amjad Sabri, one of Pakistan’s most prominent qawwals (Sufi devotional singers), was shot dead in Karachi, with the Pakistani Taliban saying they were behind his death.

Despite these attacks, the grip on institutional power held by pirs and shrine networks remains tenacious. According to a 2017 study by University of Oxford academics Adeel Malik and Rinchan Ali Mirza, among 12 major and 300 other shrines in Punjab province, there are over 60 “politically active” Sufi shrines, in which pirs can influence their followers to support favored politicians and use religious gatherings as a tool to consolidate voting blocs and patronage.

For instance, the sajjada-nashin of Hazrat Farid al-Din Ganj-i-Shaker, popularly known as the Baba Farid shrine in Pakpattan, wields immense power both economically and through the family’s spiritual influence over millions. The shrine owns about 10% of the land in the district, estimated to comprise around 43,000 acres. Part of this land was given to the shrine as gifts during Sikh rule in Punjab and the rest during British rule, when the sajjada-nashin of Baba Farid’s shrine was recognized as one of the leading “darbaris” (shrine leaders) in the district.

Even former Prime Minister Imran Khan, recently arrested under corruption charges and disqualified from contesting elections, is tied to this shrine family through marriage. In 2018, he married his spiritual adviser, Bushra Maneka, a “pirni,” or woman pir, who belongs to the powerful Wattoo clan that is affiliated with the Baba Farid shrine. Khan would visit her often to seek spiritual guidance, and it is said that she prophesied that he would become prime minister if he were to find the “right woman.” Earlier this year, when Khan was in a power struggle with the military establishment, the latter alleged that Maneka was complicit in helping friends broker shady deals and took advantage of her relationship with Khan. Even his recent conviction stems from one such deal, in which state gifts from the national treasury were sold by one of Maneka’s associates. Pakistani courts held that the value of the gifts was improperly declared in subsequent tax filings, and this clerical error became the centerpiece of the case against Khan. With his arrest, cases against Maneka haven’t been pursued with as much rigor. Given her status as a pirni, it is believed the military establishment wants to avoid any religious controversy by arresting her.

Similarly, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who served as the foreign affairs minister in Khan’s government from 2018 to 2022, is a much-adored pir in southern Punjab and head of a series of shrines in Multan, including the iconic Hazrat Bahauddin Zakariya and Shah Rukn-e-Alam. His family’s history dates to the Mughal era, and they are famous for siding with the British during the 1857 mutiny — considered the first war of independence in British India. In Pakistani politics, the family has been affiliated with about 10 political parties and has supported both the military regimes of Ayub Khan and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

During the 1857 mutiny, many pirs issued fatwas urging followers to avoid rebellion against the Raj. Some even supplied people and materiel to help the East India Company suppress the sepoys. The British recognized their importance and sought to integrate them into the colonial system. Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who was the lieutenant governor of Punjab from 1913 to 1919, said that since many leading chiefs venerated pirs, their influence had to be taken into account for political purposes. They rewarded them with exemptions and land grants, making them powerful intermediaries between their followers and the ruling regime, a position that they hold to this day.

The Court of Wards established by the British also helped secure the hereditary succession of pirs. If a pir fell into financial trouble or died without an heir, the British would manage finances or adjudicate family disputes around succession to ensure that the shrines remained in the family. This differed from their policy with princely states. For these, the British applied the “doctrine of lapse,” through which the East India Company would annex a kingdom if a ruler died without an heir or they felt he was incompetent to rule. It supplanted the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor.

Apart from ceremonial titles, pirs were appointed by the British to collect revenue, which helped them retain large tracts of agricultural land. The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 restricted land sales to agriculturalists, and shrine families were purposely categorized as “agrarian castes,” which also allowed them to accumulate land. Later, when the British introduced limited self-rule in the 1920s, pirs became a formidable political force, as the Alienation Act allowed them to contest both rural Mohammedan (Muslim) seats as well as landed gentry seats in the Punjab Assembly.

The prominence of pir families in Pakistani politics reflects their “religious and economic power and their ability to act as intermediaries of rulers,” Malik said. They were natural contenders in electoral politics when the British selectively opened avenues in the early 20th century, he said, and remained a permanent feature of electoral politics, surviving periods of both military and civilian rule in Pakistan. “Due to the dense and interlocking ties of shrine brotherhood, shrine elites enjoy strong brokerage capacity both in and outside the Parliament.”

For instance, the titular Pir of Pagaro, who has millions of devotees and a core armed militia of 60,000 men, is an influential power broker in Sindhi politics. In a 1986 interview with the American writer Rone Tempest, Pir Pagaro Mardan Shah declared that he had merely “loaned the Pakistan government” to the Sindhi landlord Muhammad Ali Khan Junejo when he became prime minister, highlighting his role in Junejo’s ascent to power.

Similarly, the shrine at Golra Sharif has been a center for political activism from the 1920s during the Khilafat Movement, which sought to protect the defeated Ottoman Empire’s caliphate, until as recently as the 1977 elections, when the presiding pir’s followers participated in an opposition alliance against then-Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Dedicated to Pir Meher Ali Shah, an early 20th-century Sufi scholar, the shrine has over 1 million followers across the country who blindly accept the political views of the current pir. It is believed that a nod of assent by Golra’s pir can cement the fortunes of a politician in the Potohar region (where the shrine is located) because of his influence over voters and status as a power broker.

Both former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif sought the Golra pir’s benediction during several election campaigns in the 1990s. Many devotees of the shrine also work at the Capital Development Authority (CDA), Islamabad’s municipal corporation, and have long turned a blind eye to the vast tracts of real estate allegedly acquired by the shrine’s presiding pir, Syed Ghulam Moinul Haq. Many of his plots are rented out to followers who operate small businesses, providing Haq with multiple income streams through his land and contributions associated with his shrine.

In fact, the Bhuttos, whose massive mausoleum in Sindh’s Larkana district functions as a shrine for the “martyrs” of the family, were also great believers in pirs. In the 1970s, while Zulfikar was promoting the left-leaning politics of Islamic socialism, he would also visit the Bengali Pir Mujibur Rahman Chishty (in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), who was known for selling “taweez” (protection charms). His daughter Benazir also continued to consult him later. Benazir’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who became president in 2008, invited Pir Muhammad Ejaz to move into the presidential palace with him. One of his tasks was to organize a steady supply of fresh goats for sacrificial purposes to help repel the “evil eye” cast by Zardari’s opponents. But Ejaz would seldom be in the news to take credit for helping Zardari navigate the minefield of corruption cases against him.

Lest one think that pirs are merely a modern expression of Pakistani superstition, legends of their wisdom and spiritual prowess have been woven into the fabric of the subcontinent’s history and point to their enduring influence in present-day Pakistan. Take the case of Zaheeruddin Babur, who founded the Mughal Empire in 1526. His son Humayun fell ill and nearly died upon returning from the far-flung marches of Badakhshan in modern-day Afghanistan. On the advice of a pir, Babur walked around his son and called upon God to substitute his life instead. Later, in the winter of 1530, Babur succumbed to an illness, while his son survived to inherit his empire.

Another popular tale from the Mughal era is that of Humayun’s son Akbar, who approached the Sufi saint Salim Chishti in Sikri (in present-day India), desperate for a male heir to the throne. It is said that after Chishti blessed him, the first of three sons was born and was named Salim in honor of the saint. He was later known as Emperor Jehangir.

The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, apart from fighting a doomed campaign against the British, was known to be a great pir himself. In his book “The Last Mughal,” the Scottish historian William Dalrymple wrote that the emperor held a great belief in taweez, “especially as a palliative for his perennial complaint of piles, or to ward off evil spells.” Holy seers, both Muslim and Hindu, would be in constant attendance and, on their advice, the emperor would regularly sacrifice buffaloes and camels. He also wore a “magical” ring that could apparently “cure” indigestion.

As pirs emerged to become a dominant political force in Pakistani state and society, history shows that they were in close quarters with rulers, be it during the Mughal era, under the British Raj or post-independence, which set the foundations for their rise today. Their presence dates back to the 10th century and they were instrumental in spreading Islam as well as developing popular Islam in the region. Despite opposition, the symbiotic relationship between pirs and politicians endures.

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