When the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sehwan, Sindh, Pakistan, was torn apart, in 2017, by the suicide attacker, it was not only the walls of the saint’s final abode that wailed on the desecration, but also every eye that had known or visited the saint broke down into tears. People visit shrines to attain peace, and to escape the boredom of life that comes with the emotional baggage that we all inadvertently carry, and of which we make no sense most of the time. At the shrine of a Sufi, everyone is treated like a human being. A Hindu ceases to be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim cannot be differentiated as they both throw themselves in the laps of the same God on the tune of the drum called Dhamal (worship dance).

A visit to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar unites people and gives them hope. The life of the saint was an epitome of discipline and miracles. He would test his self-discipline by punishing himself to self-mortification, and on another occasion by engaging in the Hindu ascetic practice of Tapasya. His first name probably comes from the Lal Bagh, the walled garden, in Sehwan, where he once turned himself red by sitting in a cauldron over a fire. About his second name, it is famous that the saint would transform himself into a falcon and that on various occasions he would fly to Mecca to perform evening prayers at the Kaba and at another time he would rescue his friend Sheikh Baha ud Din Zakariya from the wrath of the King of Multan. It is in the same garden that he produced a spring of sweet water that to date irrigates the lands of the holy garden.

However, the question is: What keeps people attached to a saint even when he is long gone from this world? A brief account below from a psychologist, Faheem Aftab, I met in Lahore, explains it.

“I was born and raised in Lahore. I went to states in the 1990s and came across people from diverse religions and backgrounds such as Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians Jehovah, etc. They all had their own ‘Truth.’ I met people who had embraced Islam and were labelled terrorists. I saw Muslims, out of sheer desperation, becoming atheists. All this confused me. Then I met Peter Rogan a hippy Jew. He wore a ponytail and had clear religious thoughts. His company made me see things in the right perspective. He was a fan of Rumi. He considered Rumi, the mystical poet belonging to the entire universe and not just one country or one state of mind.

“He told me that the differences in religions could be explained by comparing them to windows that come in different shapes and design. Some are built square other are round, and many are given a triangular shape. The light, he said that passes through each window is of the same quality and from a single source.

“Rogan introduced me to Sufism. He said that every religion has mysticism. Islam has Sufism; the Jewish has Kabala, Christian has Christian mysticism and Hindus have yoga. Since every religion has a spiritual bearing, no one religion is better than the other.

“I visited churches, temples, Buddhist retreats, but the only place where I could relax and feel at peace was the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (UUC). Also known as the ‘All Souls Church. ‘This is the place where everybody is welcome be they Hindu, Christian Muslim, Atheist, gay, lesbian, black so on and so forth. You just had to be a human being to become part of the congregation. The best way to live in peace is to become non- judgemental.”

In Pakistan, we have our UUC in the form of shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Baba Bulleh Shah, Data Ganj Bakhsh, Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Sultan Bahoo, and the list goes on. Most of the Pakistanis I have come across believe in humanism, tolerance, and acceptance. Pakistan is one of the most liberal Muslim countries in the world where a woman became prime minister twice.

Religion seldom divides, but over the period people have used religion to create division among the people. Sufism has devised a path that bridges these differences. It dusts off religious bigotry, fundamentalism, and being judgmental from a person’s heart. The target of Sufism is the heart of its followers.

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was not a cleric. He did not sit on a pulpit to deliver sermons on rituals or rites. He was a Qalandar, or a holy fool, ‘an unruly friend of God.’ Immersed in the love of divinity he rejected the material world and constraints of the convention. He embraced humiliations and faced blame from society.

It is narrated that once Lal Shahbaz moved from Lal Bagh into the brothel area of Sehwan. Fingers were raised by the clerics on his character. However, in the end, the Qalandar had changed the mindset of the prostitutes, who soon became his most ardent disciples and devotees. If Lal Shahbaz had been judgemental, had he seen in those prostitutes a handful of women who were selling their flesh to earn their living and considered them a sack of sins, he would have never attained the glory of being a Qalandar.


The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.