Perched atop a hill, rearing almost 100 metres above the sea, at Clifton is the much-revered tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi. His powers, even in death, are immense for he saves the city from cyclones. That is what I heard in the 1980s from those who believed in the sainthood of the man.
Before Muhammad bin Qasim took Sindh in 711 CE, the Arabs mounted five unsuccessful attacks, all routed by Dahir’s army. The fifth attack, led by Buzail, was the one instigated by the loss of gifts en route from Serendeb (Sri Lanka) to the Omayyad caliph. This was the only sea-borne assault on Sindh — the rest all having come by way of Kech and Lasbela.
One among the officers under Buzail’s command was a man called Abdullah bin Nabhan.
A pitched battle was fought on the beach we today know as Clifton and both Buzail and his second in command Abdullah were killed. According to the research of Dr Umer Daudpota, the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi keeps the mortal remains of Abdullah bin Nabhan.
I forget the year (possibly 1983) when a cyclone was reported to be heading for Karachi. When I suggested to a Jokhio driver I knew that he ought to move his family from Gizri, his sangfroid surprised me. Nothing doing, he said. Abdullah Shah Ghazi on whose shrine he and his family lit the weekly lamp would save his city and its people. I scoffed the silliness, but the storm petered out and Karim Buksh Jokhio thumbed his nose at me.
These stories appear to have their origin in the fact that most storms that hit Karachi in the past century and a half caused only insignificant loss of human life — or so it was reported in those far off days. The year 1902 was the worst ever when two cyclones struck Karachi in quick succession — the first in mid-May and the second a month later on June 13.
The first ravaged Karachi, uprooting trees, sinking boats, submerging much of the old town and razing a large number of houses. Though it killed thousands of livestock and washed away the railway line near Dhabeji, miraculously no lives were reportedly lost.
A month later the second hit the city with wind speeds up to 160 kilometre per hour. Bhit Island, past Hardinge Bridge en route to Kemari, was submerged. As the tide rose, this locality of fishermen and sailors was evacuated by the city government. Parts of Karachi went underwater, but the surrounding country was completely flooded. The wind and tidal wave carried native fishing vessels several kilometres inland. Once again despite extensive infra-structural damage and huge loss in livestock, we hear of just nine human deaths. It may be that many more went unreported.
Since we have no record of any protection myth prior to these two storms, I am tempted to believe it was only subsequently, perhaps as late as the 1940s when two more cyclones hit Karachi, that it became prevalent. Though few lives were reportedly lost, the huge damage done to the city was conveniently disregarded by the myth-makers.
In summer 1987, a tsunami was reportedly heading for Karachi. The entire city fetched up at the Kehkashan seafront. My wife and I went too. But one look at the hazy sea in front and the sea of cars and motorcycles clogging the roads, we had the sense to flee. The tsunami never reached the shores of Karachi or tens of thousands would have perished in their cars. Once again Abdullah Shah Ghazi had saved Karachi — and Karim Buksh Jokhio laughed at me.
On October 7, 2010, the patron saint of Karachi was caught napping, however. That Thursday evening, as thronging crowds surged around the gateway and up the concrete stairs, two suicide bombers struck in quick succession. One detonated his device as he was being frisked while the other blew himself up just outside by the food and trinket stalls. Eight people died on the spot and some more later. About 70 were injured.
But the myth of Abdullah Shah Ghazi – who only came to Sindh to safeguard the hegemonic and economic interests of the Omayyad caliph – as the protector of Karachi persists. Just a few days after the suicide attack at the shrine my devotee friends had this to say: “Had it not been for the saint, several 100 would have perished in the blast!”
Indeed, most followers of the shrine believe also that the status of Karachi owes its all to the saint. My arguments used to be countered with a sharp “So why hasn’t Thatta or Hyderabad become what Karachi is?” There was no regard for the location of the city on the seaboard.
And then came Nilofar from the northern Indian Ocean. Whirling around at upward of 140 kilometre per hour, she dawdled as any young Nilofar would. She sauntered along at a leisurely 7 kilometre per hour to flirt with the Arabian Peninsula and then, fickle as a philanderer, swung back on a north-easterly bearing to sweep past Karachi. Word was that Karachi was going to be walloped.
But, once again, I could almost hear my Jokhio friend sniggering at me as old Abdullah bin Nabhan held out his hand to turn Nilofar away.
Superstition dies hard. Especially among people who have no control over their lives and forever seek supernatural succour. People forget Balakot in Mansehra district during the earthquake of October 2005. The town was levelled and the shrines of the two martyrs Ahmed Barelvi and Ismail were obliterated.
Regardless, the followers of Abdullah Shah Ghazi will not relinquish faith.