Nicholas Schmidle relates his experience at the annual three-day festival marking the death of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Smithsonian.com. Every year, a few hundred thousand Sufis converge in Seh- wan, a town in Pakistan’s southeastern Sindh province for the festival.
In the desert swelter of southern Pakistan, the scent of rosewater mixed with a waft of hashish smoke. Drummers pounded away as celebrants swathed in red pushed a camel bedecked with garlands, tinsel and multihued scarfs through the heaving crowd. A man skirted past, grinning and dancing, his face glistening like the golden dome of a shrine nearby. “Mast Qalandar!” he cried. “The ecstasy of Qalandar!” for the saint buried inside the shrine. The men threw rose petals at a dozen women who danced in what seemed like a mosh pit near the shrine’s entrance. Enraptured, one woman placed her hands on her knees and threw her head back and forth; another bounced and jiggled as if she were astride a trotting horse. The drumming and dancing never stopped, not even for the call to prayer.I stood at the edge of the courtyard and asked a young man named Abbas to explain this dancing, called dhamaal. Though dancing is central to the Islamic tradition known as Sufism, dhamaal is particular to some South Asian Sufis. “When a djinn infects a human body,” Abbas said, referring to one of the spirits that populate Islamic belief (and known in the West as “genies”), “the only way we can get rid of it is by coming here to do dhamaal.” A woman stumbled toward us with her eyes closed and passed out at our feet. Abbas didn’t seem to notice, so I pretended not to either.
“What goes through your head when you are doing dhamaal?” I asked.
“Nothing. I don’t think,” he said. A few women rushed in our direction, emptied a water bottle on the semiconscious woman’s face and slapped her cheeks. She shot upright and danced back into the crowd. Abbas smiled. “During dhamaal, I just feel the blessings of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar wash over me.”
Every year, a few hundred thousand Sufis converge in Seh- wan, a town in Pakistan’s southeastern Sindh province, for a three-day festival marking the death of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in 1274. Qalandar, as he is almost universally called, belonged to a cast of mystics who consolidated Islam’s hold on this region; today, Pakistan’s two most populous provinces, Sindh and Punjab, comprise a dense archipelago of shrines devoted to these men. Sufis travel from one shrine to another for festivals known as urs, an Arabic word for “marriage,” symbolizing the union between Sufis and the divine.
Sufism is not a sect, like Shiism or Sunnism, but rather the mystical side of Islam—a personal, experiential approach to Allah, which contrasts with the prescriptive, doctrinal approach of fundamentalists like the Taliban. It exists throughout the Muslim world (perhaps most visibly in Turkey, where whirling dervishes represent a strain of Sufism), and its millions of followers generally embrace Islam as a religious experience, not a social or political one.