Every day, Lajjan Bibi comes in to the shrine of Hazrat Abdullah Shah Ghazi, which stands on a hilltop of Karachi to pray for her son, who has cancer. “I don't have money for his cure. I believe that Pir Abdullah Shah Ghazi hears the prayers of those in need.” Hundreds come to the shrine of Abdullah Shah, known as the patron saint of Karachi. Similarly, all over Pakistan, millions visit shrines of various saints in the hope of having their prayers answered. Asadullah Bhutto, a government employee who works at the Abdullah Ghazi shrine, says that the belief of the average Pakistani in Pirs and Sufis is very strong.
The dargahs of various pirs across Pakistan are also a never-ending source of free food for the hungry and a place to sleep for the homeless. Others come to the dargahs to give away food after their prayers are answered. In some ways it is Pakistan's only welfare system in place. But now things are changing as fundamentalists see these places as going against the spirit of Islam. “This is not the true Islam, it is shirk,” says Molvi Abdul Rehman. Rehman says he follows the Deobandi school of thought. “For us, praying to saints is un-Islamic. One should only pray to Allah.”
Deobandis, along with the Wahabis, have made it a point to express their disdain for shrines by attacking them.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has taken credit for many of the attacks mounted on shrines across Pakistan claiming hundreds. “The idea is to make people afraid of going to the dargahs,” says Babar Khattak, Karachi's police chief. Khattak says that the Wahabis also genuinely believe that people will understand their point of view and come to mosques instead of going to dargahs.
Part of the problem, say Deobandis, is that the dargahs are also visited by non-Muslims. Baba Farid Ganj Shakar’s shrine, recently attacked by a suicide bomber, is also a place that Sikhs and Hindus frequent.
For most Pakistanis, the shrines are the only place they can go in these times of inflation and poverty. “I cannot cure my father. I can only pray for him,” says a woman who has brought her ailing father. Puzzled over the shrine attacks, one devotee said that it was possible because of the range of intoxicants available in the peripheries of the shrine. “We smoke ganja. We drink lots of haram substances. We do this to forget our fears and spend some time in another world,” says one boy.
There is a real fear that the government may shut the shrines if the attacks continue. “Then where will we go,” says Shahbaz Masih, a Christian who comes to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi on Sundays. Masih said that he was worried when there was a rumour that non-Muslims would not be allowed in. “Someone told me that the police were asking people's names before letting them enter. I am afraid of this.” With rumours and fear in the air, possibly the extremists have achieved what they set out to do. But in the process, they are snatching the dreams and hopes of millions who have no where else to turn to.