The Pir or Sufi Saint in Pakistani Islam

Ewing, Katherine Pratt

     This study examines the place of the pir in Pakistani Islam in order to discover the range of meanings associated with this concept. It focuses on the problems individual Pakistani Muslims see themselves facing and on how many Pakistani Muslims think pirs can solve these problems. . . . People in various positions in society understand and define their central concerns in different ways, and their ideas of what a pir is and what he can do vary accordingly. Nevertheless, examination of a range of beliefs and practices, from those of fundamentalist reforms to those of unorthodox beggars who reject Islamic law completely, suggests that the authority of the pir which is revealed in the pattern of interaction between pirs and their followers may form a paradigm for relations that is shared by most Pakistanis."
     I briefly summarize the history of sufism. This summary is intended to provide background on the development of a cosmology in which the pir holds a central place as a channel of authority in a spiritual hierarchy with God at its apex. . . . I am particularly concerned here with the emergence in the sufi tradition of a distinction between an 'inner' circle of disciples and an 'outer' circle of lay followers." The next three chapters "discuss various aspects of the personal relationship of the pir with his followers. The focus is on the importance of the pir in everyday life: how the pir mediates family relationships and even the inner states and emotions of the individual in his capacities as spiritual guide and curer. The examination of the pir's relationships with his followers reveals concepts of person and of authority relationships between persons that exist in both the structure of religious symbols and in everyday patterns of behavior." Topics discussed here include "the significance of the pir for the 'outer' circle of lay followers in Pakistan"; "the ways in which the pir treats those followers who come to him with complaints of illness"; and "the use of dreams in the relationship of pirs and their followers." Next, "I examine some of the variations in the significance of the pir for those in different social positions, considering the kinds of authority and power these actors attribute to themselves and to others." The following chapter "deals with variation in the significance of the pir from a rather different perspective. I consider here variations in the beliefs and actions of pirs and their inner circle of disciples." "Finally, . . . I examine some of the conscious efforts that have been made in Pakistan to create new patterns of authority and new responsibilities for the individual. Each of these efforts involves a redefinition or rejection of the pir as a symbol of authority." This includes "a survey of several religious reform movements that have been influential in the Punjab in the recent past" as well as an examination of "government efforts to change the traditional system of pirs and shrines."
     The fieldwork on which this study is based was conducted primarily in Lahore, the major city of Pakistani Punjab, from November 1975 through April 1977.