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«SUMMARY | APRIL 2 WORKING PAPER No. 030 | May 2015 Religion, Land and Politics: Shrines and Literacy in Punjab, Pakistan Adeel Malik and Rinchan Ali ...»

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and Dera Din Panah from Muzaffargarh District. 13 Several other shrines received maintenance grants and life muafis (revenue-free assignments). These included the shrine of Bhai Pheru and Mohammad Ghaus in Montgomery District. Life muafis were also assigned to shrines in Mianpur, Ghaunspur and Baghdad in Khanewal District.14 If the recipients were incapable, due to death or indebtedness, of managing their estates, their lands were temporarily taken over by the state under the Court of Wards, restored to a profitable condition and subsequently returned to the awardee.15 Leading religious families who benefited from this facility included the Pīr of Makhad (Attock), Makhdoom of Shah Jewana (Jhang) and Syeds of Jalalpur Pirwala and Musa Pak Shahid (Multan). 16 The former held, in proprietary rights, more than 34 thousand acres of agricultural land—see Table A1. Leading pīr families were also incorporated into officialdom through appointments in provincial darbars, legislative councils, district boards and assemblies.17 Others became Honorary Magistrates, Extra Assistant Commissioners and revenue collectors (zaildars). Recognizing the de facto power of local chiefs, the zaildari system selected men of influence as tax collectors. In many regions, prominent shrine families were natural contenders for this role. Table A2 provides a selected list of such appointments from noted religious families (shrine caretakers in Karor Lal Isan, Shah Jewana, Alipur and Shahpur, among others, were appointed as zaildars). The access of shrine families to high office and valuable economic resources was significant in that it prepared them for a subsequent role in politics.


When the British opened the political arena the pīrs, as spiritual and feudal lords, were natural contenders for power. They enjoyed access to both divine and political favour. The combination of religious and landed power, in particular, is a vital political asset in a milieu where, in the words of Anatol Lieven (2011: 137), “it is not wealth alone, but wealth plus either kinship or spiritual prestige, or both, that gives political power”. A shrine, in this

regard, provides an ideal platform:

“Medium-size shrine makes him a small landowner and a local squire. The big shrine gives him an entrée into the zamindar club and makes a magnate of him. A leading shrine is a gold mine, which catapults him into the aristocratic category and brings him riches large enough to...enter politics directly at the highest level” Aziz (2001: 109).

There is a long-standing connection between pīrs and politics. In the 1920 and 1946 provincial elections roughly 19 percent of total rural Muslim constituencies were represented by pīrs.18 When an alliance of Punjab’s 11 Some details are as follows: The sajjada nashin of the Salih Muhammad Ujjan shrine in the Sadiqabad tehsil enjoyed an inam of 500 bighas of land from the state; the sajjada nashins of the Jetha-Bhutta shrine in Khanpur tehsil were assigned 500 bighas of land under the pretext of tel charag; the mutawalli of the Bhindwala Sahib shrine enjoyed an inam of 1.5 wells from the state authorities; the sajjada nashins of the Chachran Sharif shrine were granted the village of Waghuan in jagir which yielded an income of over Rs.20,000 annually.

12 49 grants were made to Muslim shrines; only 10 were reserved for Hindu shrines. See, Gazetteer of the Multan District, 1923-24.

13 These selected land grants are noted in footnote 111 in Ali (1988: 106).

14 Settlement Reports for Montgomery and Khanewal provide more precise information on these assignments.

15 In the event of death the state took responsibility for education of the young ward. Appreciating the education arrangements for the young son of a shrine guardian, the Deputy Commissioner noted that, “He promises to become an enlightened Sajjada Nashin as well as an intelligent zamindar”. The Court of Wards thus preserved the union between religious and dominant landed classes. See Report on Final Settlement of the Jhang District.

The estate of Makhdum Abdul Sattar Shah of Bilot Sharif in Dera Ismail Khan was also taken over under Court of Wards. Although, presently in Khyber-Pakhtoonwa Province, the shrine still commands a significant following among the shias of Pakki Shah Mardan in Mianwali, Punjab.

17 The guardian of the shrine of great sufi mystic, Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakkar was a leading provincial darbari in the colonial administration. Pir Mohammad Hussain of shergarh, Dipalpur tehsil, was also a Divisional Darbari. See Gilmartin (1979) for more examples.

18 See Aziz (2001: 39). The ratio for 1946 elections was calculated by authors.

landed aristocracy was formed under the banner of Unionist Party the pīrs became its core members. The 1937 and 1946 elections in British India saw many prominent religious families from Punjab taking part in them. When the demand for Pakistan gained strength, religious families readily joined the ranks of Muslim League and “played SUMMARY | APR a decisive role in mobilizing support for Pakistan” (Gilmartin 1979). Whether military or civilian rule, sajjāda nishīns have been a permanent fixture of politics in post-independence Pakistan.19 Although the country’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, attempted to exert greater control over shrine affairs, political pragmatism demanded a more lenient approach towards influential shrines whose support, like any past ruler, was crucial for him. 20 From Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif, political governments have come and gone but the sun has never set on the political power of pīrs. They are an omnipresent reality in every political dispensation, whether a political party is ideologically on the left or right or whether a military ruler supported “Islamization” or “enlightened moderation”. While a noted protagonist of Islamization, General Zia-ul-Haq reached out to noted shrine families and inducted them into his Majlis-e-shura (consultative assembly). Some of the same pīrs joined General Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet two decades later, this time for undoing Zia’s legacy. 21 The pīrs truly transcend traditional party lines. They are adept at shifting political loyalties, which partly explains the persistence of priestly power in politics.

Another reason why the pīr’s power easily translates into political dynasties is the instrument of hereditary succession, which spreads religious power across several generations. Table 1 provides a snapshot of the persistence of leading pīr families in politics. Although just a selective representation, Table 1 displays the remarkable overlap between spiritual and political dynasties, with some shrine families preserving their political turf since the pre-independence period. In the 2013 National Assembly there are some 43 sajjāda nishīns, which is equivalent to 16% of the house—a figure not miles away from their representation in the 1920 provincial assembly in British India.

19 Tombs of prominent saints are also regularly frequented by top government functionaries and political leaders.

20 Ayub Khan tried to regulate the finance, upkeep and activities of shrines through the establishment of a Waqf Department under a separate ordinance. However, it is worth mentioning that Khan was himself a self-professed murid of the Pir of Dewal Sharif. See Ewing (1983).

21 General Pervez Musharraf patronized the notion of “enlightened moderation” to counter religious extremism.

–  –  –


† Related to the shrine family.

*Previous political and administrative appointments with the Bahawalpur State not mentioned (Rahimyar Khan was part of the former Bahawalpur state).

Year in the bracket represents the year elected to the National or Provincial Assembly. Information in the Table is purely illustrative; the list of individuals and their respective election years is not comprehensive.

The lure of a spiritual network is especially powerful in constituencies where political parties are weakly penetrated and dependent on local notables. The blessing of a pīr is deemed critical here for winning an election, since it can complement party vote banks. With their army of obedient murids, the pīrs have a stable constituency of followers—a captive vote bank of sorts—that makes them electable even in an uncertain political game. Some constituencies are completely dominated by religious families. Political parties are pretty much dependent here on pīr’s support. In the 2013 elections, all the top four candidates for NA-194, Rahimyar Khan III, belonged to prominent religious families; the winner was an independent candidate. 22 In other constituencies, where the pīr’s network alone is insufficient for electoral victory, he is dependent on party support. This creates a relationship of mutual dependence between parties and pīrs. The influence of some pīrs stretches beyond their own constituency, which makes them a vital asset for building and sustaining regional political alliances. This dense network of power and privilege is further consolidated through nuptial bonds with other landed and pīr families.23 To this narrative on shrines and development we must add two further nuances: their differential importance across regions and “structural transformations” in the property rights regime during the colonial era.

Both of these are critical for understanding the impact of shrines on present day development outcomes.


It is important to recognize that not all shrines are equal in size and significance. While shrines are spread all across Punjab, some have had a more enduring impact on local political economy. While the more noted shrines of great sufi mystics in Pakpattan, Taunsa, Multan and Jhang continue to have a profound influence, there are

other shrines “dedicated to lesser known saints” and “had only the most localized significance” (Gilmartin 1988:

41). The colonial era District Gazetteers of Punjab provide some indication of the varying power and influence of shrines. A detailed reading of these Gazetteers reveals that shrines in north Punjab were generally more localized in influence. Several extracts corroborate this. The 1904 Gazetteer of the Northern Chenab Colony District reports that “there are no shrines of any note in the Colony”.24 In Rawalpindi division the Kahuta tehsil is shown to have 22 The four candidates were: Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar (Independent), Makhdoom Shahab ud Din (PPP), Makhdoom Moin ud Din Hashmi (PML-N), and Makhdoom Imad ud Din Hashmi (PTI). All advocates for political change, including the PTI, had to field their candidate from a religious party.

23 The Gillani Syeds of Multan, for instance, are related through family marriages with the Pirs of Makhad in Attock, Mukhdoom Hassan Mehmood’s family in Rahimyar Khan, and Pir Pagara’s family in Sind.

24 Punjab District Gazetteers, Volume XXXI – A. 1904, p. 62.

“a number of small fairs, which take place at various intervals, but none of them are of great importance”, while “there are no fairs of any importance” in Murree tehsil.25 SUMMARY | APR Saintly presence is relatively insignificant in many central districts as well. Gujranwala was noted to have “very few religious fairs”, where “people attending do not exceed a few hundred in number and they are local men”.26 Gujarat was described as having “numerous small shrines”. However, “[T]here are no large fairs in the district, though there are certain local shrines at which people congregate…that may be an occasion on which friends may meet, there is no merriment”.27 The shrine landscape changes as we move to the Montgomery District where, “fairs of a religious or semi-religious nature (all connected to shrines) are recorded as taking place in no less than 219 places in the district”.28 Shrines gain even further prominence in south and western parts of Punjab.

Multan “is thickly dotted with shrines of various degrees of age and sanctity”.29 The Muzaffargarh Gazetteer observes : “shrines of the district are very numerous, and the more important are frequented by pilgrims from Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan and Bahawalpur.30 Significance of shrines increases as we move further west and south in Punjab. The Gazetteer notes that “[F]rom the number of shrines scattered about the Dera Ghazi Khan district it would appear to have been in the by-gone days a favourite resort of saints”.31 Shrines are most deeply penetrated in the local political economy of south Punjab. The former Bahawalpur State was particularly noted for its number and influence of shrines. The Uch Sharif region was described as “unrivalled for the number of its shrines, and it is said that every inch of the ground is occupied by the grave of a saint”.32 The above quotes demonstrate the south-western parts of Punjab contain more significant shrines. In line with this varying significance, colonial patronage was largely reserved for influential shrines. Indeed, as Ali (1988: 106) notes, even if “no comprehensive list exists of allotments to shrines, it is clear that the recipients were largely confined to the western Punjab, and were predominantly Muslim”.

However, the “sacred geography” of shrines defies a crude distinction between north and south Punjab.

Several shrines in north and central Punjab are sometimes considered as important as those in south Punjab. These include, among others, shrines in: Attock, Sargodha, Pakpattan and Kasur. There is also a significant urban presence of shrines—from Lahore’s Data Darbar to Islamabad’s Barri Latif Shah. 33 We aim to exploit some of this variation in shrine influence in our empirical analysis (Clearly, this variation cannot be captured through the inclusion of regional dummy variables alone). As we discuss further below, information from District Gazetteers provides a useful starting point for such analysis.


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