fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

Notes from a Sufi Shrine in Sindh, Pakistan


The heat of the day had receded as we walked into the shrine after ‘isha, the final evening prayers. The marble ground felt cool to our bare feet when we took off our sandals and went in. There was no guard at the gate, no shoe-keeping stand, and people sat on the ground in small groups, chatting, eating, and sleeping. Children and even dogs ran around in the informal and mildly festive atmosphere of the beautifully-lit shrine courtyard. This place, the shrine of Shāh Abdul Latīf in Bhit Shāh, Sindh, was beyond doubt one of the most open and welcoming Sufi shrines I had ever been to in Pakistan. Adding our own footwear to a pile of countless dusty black sandals in the corner, we headed straight towards the inner courtyard where the saint is buried. My heart leapt as, from a distance, we saw the silhouette of a group of men sitting in a semi-circle on the ground in front of the tomb door, wielding huge pumpkin-bodied long-necked string instruments. The Shāh Jo Rāg fakirs were already there, ready to sing.


     I first read about the Shāh Jo Rāg fakirs in a program note for the 2012 “Mystic Music Sufi Festival” held by the Rafi Peer Cultural Center in Lahore, Pakistan. That was a four-day festival with nightly concerts featuring 8 to 10 performance groups, each playing for about 20 minutes. At that time I had gone to listen to qawwāli, the most famous music style associated with Pakistan. I had been visiting the numerous Sufi shrines in Lahore looking for live qawwāli practices, but in vain. Due to security reasons, public music performance had all but vanished. At least that was what I had thought. It was only after I started travelling to sites of pilgrimage in more rural areas that I found the folk-religious shrine music culture robust and thriving. Unlike the heavily fortified Data Sahib of Lahore – shrine of the city’s patron saint and site of a 2010 bombing, after which security measures made it more like an army quarters than a religious center – the rural shrines were fairly lax in security checks. Yet some of them are resting places of the most renowned Sufi saints in the country, drawing countless pilgrims to pay respect and seek blessings every day, swelling to even larger numbers during the urs, the yearly celebration of the anniversary of the saint’s death.


The shrine of Shāh Abdul Latīf Bhitai is one such place. The Shāh (1689-1752), a Sufi scholar and mystic who lived in Sindh, is widely considered one of the greatest poets of the Sindhi language. Even today one can find various published versions of his collected mystical poetry, the Shāh Jo Risālo, in stores in the city and stands in the countryside. His poetic legacy also lives on musically in his shrine. According to the program note, the Shāh Jo Rāg fakirs “belong to the family of musicians who sing [his poetry]…in the traditional manner that was created by the Shāh himself…Any change in that style is considered sacrilege by them.” This style of singing, called wai, is a unique form, distinct from qawwāli and from other types of Sufi poetry rendered in the folk-song style.


The men, dressed in black, sat cross-legged with the dhambūro, the accompanying plucked string instrument, in their laps, the long neck resting on their left shoulders. They were strumming it intermittently when suddenly the singing started. I was caught unaware and hastily turned on the video recorder. The men took turns intoning the lines of poetry in descending melodic contours. The tempo was elastic, and I didn’t immediately hear how the open-stringed strumming of the dhambūro was synchronized with the singing. It seemed like they were strumming on two pitches an octave apart. The high-pitched strings were strummed prior to, and during the beginning of the line, the low-pitched strings were strummed during the middle, and one low-pitched strike marked the end. The men were of different ages. The middle-aged one in the center of the semi-circle seemed to be the leader of some sort. I saw him talking to, perhaps correcting another singer during his rendition. As the men sang, they were partially concentrated on the music, yet always aware of their surroundings. One turned and gave us sweets (a token of blessing at Sufi shrines) as he noticed us sitting nearby. Another was busily winding black threads (also to be given to pilgrims) during breaks in the singing. The leader swapped instruments with the others to tune them one by one while they sang.


Research: Learning as Participation in a Community of Practice

[The following is an excerpt from a paper for a class on the anthropology of knowledge in my first semester of my PhD program in the US, citing literature from anthropology and ethnomusicology to discuss issues of learning and knowledge transmission that may help me think about the transmission of a musical tradition such as the Shāh Jo Rāg.]


     As I view the video files I made during that short visit to the shrine in April 2014, it is hard not to connect the music-making I witnessed to Lave and Wenger’s “legitimate peripheral participation.” I do not yet know whether other types of learning took place among the fakirs, but the nighttime singing (offering?) in front of the saint’s tomb seemed to be a site of learning in action within a very social “community of practice.” Lave and Wenger argue in the book Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation that learning, rather than the internalization of abstract cognitive structures which “establishes a sharp dichotomy between inside and outside” and “takes the individual as the unproblematic unit of analysis” (1991: 47), is socially situated, in that the learners are legitimate participants of the roles they are trying to become. In the beginning, they participate peripherally within a community of practice, but move more and more into a “full mode of participation” as they become masters of the role. Learning is just one aspect of the activities in social practice, and participation – the situated negotiation of meaning in the world – “dissolves the dichotomy between cerebral and embodied activity” (p.52). Learning thus implies “becoming a different person within the possibilities enabled by the systems of relations that the person is in,” in other words, “learning constructs a new identity” (p.53).


     Scholars thinking about the process of learning and discipleship in South Asian musical traditions have observed the above-theorized phenomenon from different angles. In Theorizing the Local, Qureshi focuses on the oral transmission of Hindustani classical music within a community of hereditary musicians and attempts to rethink the “local” as a space that is “orally and relationally constituted” (2009: 166). In her context, the “inherently social” character of musical knowledge can be seen from temporal and spatial aspects, where “time lines are lineages and localities are a network of family sites,” and all learning is “located in personal interaction and commitment” (p.166). Analyzing a shāgirdī (discipleship) initiation ceremony held in the home of sārangī master Ustad Sabri Khan, she points out the conceptions and metaphors of learning that regulate the interaction between the ustād (teacher), shāgird (disciple), and birādarī (members of the community) elders. “Knowing how to be a disciple” in this hierarchy through acts such as material offerings is the fundamental first step towards musical knowledge (p.178). This is an example of how knowledge is embedded in interpersonal relationships. Likewise, in Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Evens-Pritchard points out the fact that a large part of knowledge about magic and witchcraft pertains to the social actions preventing, identifying, and mitigating symptoms that the social actors believe are caused by magic or sorcery. These notions and resulting actions “express a dynamic relationship of persons to other persons in inauspicious situations” (1976: 48). This knowledge and belief system is intertwined with social moral judgment, for example, “behavior which conflicts with Zande ideas of what is right and proper, though not in itself witchcraft, nevertheless is the drive behind it, and the persons who offend against rules of conduct are the most frequently exposed as witches” (p.50).


     Communities of practice can be framed as closely as the endogamous kinship groups of hereditary musicians or as broadly as the whole Azande community that shares belief in witchcraft. Reflecting on the Kalamandalam, the institution for training pre-professional artists in Kathakaḷi performance in Kerala, Groesbeck observes that different communities of pedagogy produce differing emphases on vertical learning – the “asymmetrical relationship between the preceptor and disciple,” and horizontal learning – the “more egalitarian relationship between fellow disciples,” which results in “transmission of different types of knowledge” (2009: 143). He argues, using the example of disciples learning to play the ceṇṭadrum, that, rather than the “rote learning” and “bodily imitation” of the preceptor, it is the “complementary process of peer-group immersion” that allows the student to “define themselves in relation to their fellow students” and “develop a strong sense of individuality” (p.143-4). Interestingly, Groesbeck only links the horizontal aspect of learning between peers to “legitimate peripheral participation” (p.146), and points out that the lesser emphasis and separation, or distance, between preceptor and disciple (as compared with Hindustani or Karnatak musical traditions) “may stem from the phenomenon of institutionalization in general and from the large size of Kalamandalam in particular” (p.160).


     This situation can be compared to the learning between students in the Horeb School in chapter six of Dilemmas of Culture in African Schools, where Coe examines state-institutionalized culture in the form of school competitions in Ghana. Left to their own devices in preparation for the competition, the children devised drumming performances that “allowed their peers to join in and to share the putative rewards of participating in state processes” (2005: 162). Their learning involved watching, practicing, arguing about and correcting each other’s mistakes in a group, which Coe ascribed to as a “climate of solidarity and mutual support.” However, the students experienced what Coe saw as “creative control” over their performance as “disenfranchisement,” as they felt that their teacher had “abandoned” them (p.175). Even though the process of learning is similar, the two groups of drum-playing students are conditioned by different expectations and institutional power structures. While the students of Kalamandalam develop and define themselves creatively in generational peer groups, the students of Horeb ultimately “fail” according to competitive standards set by a “clientelist state” in comparison to other schools that can tap into vertical learning resources – such as hiring expert drummers for teaching, or having teachers that understand the demands of the “reified culture” dictated by the state.


     From the examples I cite above it seems that a tension lies between the horizontal and vertical aspects of learning in terms of the “construction of identity” and the “evolving form of membership” proposed by Lave and Wenger (1991: 53). Groesbeck points out that “one of the ubiquitous themes in the literature on the transmission of knowledge in South Asian performance” is the observation that “one learns in part by mimicking one’s teacher,” thus “a guru is really an older version of a disciple; a disciple is an incomplete guru” (2009: 143). Yet this identity of replicating the guru is challenged by the development of new distinct “generational” musical identities fostered in peer group practices (p.146). What kind of identity is produced in this tension? Lave and Wenger postulate that the social practices in which situated learning activity takes place are constantly in the process of reproduction, transformation, and change, based in the “contradiction between continuity and displacement” of the master in relation to the apprentice (1991: 123). The “transformation of newcomers into old-timers,” in other words, the “the evolving forms of membership” is integral to the community of practice. We can also observe this in the agonistic relationship between the master and apprentice artisans who come of skilled maturity in Crete, where unstable partnerships form and dissolve in the tension between trust and ambition (Herzfeld 2004). In the case of the fakirs, how are the singers of one group related to each other, and what is the relationship between the various groups who take turns to sing at the shrine? What roles do they perform within and outside the shrine context? What are their horizontal and vertical relationships defined in learning the Shāh Jo Rāg, and what tensions are present?


Reflections: Shāh Jo Rāg and the Global Narrative of Islam and Peace

     After I finished this paper and had flown to Pakistan for my winter break fieldwork in mid-December 2014, a horrendous terrorist massacre in the Peshawar Army School sent the country into shocked mourning. Even the resilient people of Pakistan, having gradually grown numb to the daily incidents of violence in the news, could not apprehend the atrocious, inhuman act of murdering children in cold blood. Muslims denounced the attack as “un-Islamic,” and my Pakistani friends expressed to me their feeling of helplessness about the increasingly deteriorating situation of their homeland. We asked each other what could be done, but there were no clear or immediate answers. Fast-forward to January 2015, and the targeted shooting in the office of Charlie Hebdo. Major Islamic religious leaders condemned the attack, and while people around the world gathered in solidarity to honor the dead and defend freedom of speech, observers also warned against growing polarization between the Western and Islamic civilizations. The more I read and try to understand the background that led up to all these vengeful killings in the name of a fundamental form of religion, the more I realize the necessity to resist polarization – there are no simple either/or stances, no call to choose sides – the reality is much more nuanced, and we should have the critical clarity of mind to support and condemn different aspects of the same complex actions.


     Always on my mind too was what I, as a music researcher, could contribute in the wake of these tragic events. When I wrote my statement of purpose for the Fulbright scholarship, I was trying to show the tolerant side of Islam through my research on music. Yet now I feel that much more is at stake. It is not just the matter of how regular “non-fundamentalist” peace-loving Muslims are globally perceived and treated, although this is also an important element in the whole picture, it is also a question of how moderate Muslims narrate their own stances, and actively resist the recruitment of extreme religious groups. During my fieldwork last month in Bhit Shāh, I met the guardian of the Sufi shrine where mystical poetry about love and humanity is sung daily, for almost 16 hours a day. The guardian is a descendant of the Sufi saint Shāh Abdul Latīf Bhitai, who is buried in the shrine, and whose message is spread by the foundation. He said to me: “You cannot fight a philosophy of hatred with bombs and guns – weapons of hatred. Every time one extremist is killed through this way, ten more will sprout up elsewhere, fuelled by thoughts of revenge. We are trying to fight the philosophy of hate with another philosophy, to replace it with love.”


     Of course, current affairs are cannot easily be solved with only the philosophy the propounded by the Shāh. More often than not, it is unequal hierarchies of power, and deprivation of basic human rights that incubate would-be terrorists. Yet I agree with the guardian of the shrine that narratives matter. Narratives told and retold by Muslims who uphold the most peaceful and benevolent tenants of their faith, pushing back against distorted interpretations of the same practice that incite violence and vengeance. I have just started learning about the Sufi music tradition thriving in Bhit Shāh, yet I feel it is an important performative component in the local narrative of peace, and potentially for the global narrative too. As I begin my final week of fieldwork, I remind myself to always remain humble and alert, to engage meaningfully and ethically with the people I interact, interview, and learn from, and also with how the local and global events and narratives interconnect.


Books Cited

Coe, Cati
 2005      Dilemmas of Culture in African Schools : Youth, Nationalism, and the Transformation of Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.
 1976      Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Abridged with an introd. by Eva Gillies. Oxford ; New York: Clarendon Press.

Herzfeld, Michael
 2004      The Body Impolitic : Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger
 1991      Situated Learning : Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wolf, Richard K.
 2009      Theorizing the Local : Music, Practice, and Experience in South Asia and beyond. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.



Pei-ling Huang graduated from the Graduate Institute of Musicology, National Taiwan University. She has just finished her first semester at the Music Department in Harvard University, where she is enrolled for Ph.D. degree in ethnomusicology. She has been learning the tabla (Hindustani hand drum) in Pakistan since 2009, and started preliminary research on music in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan during this winter break, supported by a travel grant from the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.



Good pieces need to be seen.


Picture of Pei-Ling Huang 黃佩玲

Pei-Ling Huang 黃佩玲

Pei-ling Huang graduated from the Graduate Institute of Musicology, National Taiwan University. She has just finished her first semester at the Music Department in Harvard University, where she is enrolled for Ph.D. degree in ethnomusicology. She has been learning the tabla (Hindustani hand drum) in Pakistan since 2009, and started preliminary research on music in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan during this winter break, supported by a travel grant from the American Institute of Pakistan Studies.

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