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Between pirs and politicians

The relationship between the state and pirs has been interdependent yet conflicting for centuries. The modern urban tradition may lessen this influence with time though

Between pirs and politicians
Shrine of Shah Rukn-e-Alam. — Photo by Naseem ur Rehman

The resignations of five legislators on the instructions of Khawaja Hameed ud Din Sialvi, pir of Sial Sharif, have once again proven that pirs still play a vital role in the rural fabric of Pakistani society and their support or opposition to electoral candidates can make or break their political careers. Pirs and the Syed families do not constitute even one per cent of the society, yet their presence makes up 11 per cent (46 out of 446) of seats in the National Assembly and Senate, thus proving their religious and political power.

Many leading lights in political arenas are actually pirs of their respective areas and they derive political support from their spiritual following. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) vice chairman, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, is the gaddi nasheen of the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya of Multan. Likewise, the family of Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) deceased leader, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, was part of the leading spiritual family of Sindh. Another PPP leader and ex-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is a Gilani pir of Multan.

Most of the pirs and gaddi nasheens were part of the centuries-old feudal system, where the feudals held the political power and the pir enjoyed the religious clout. This combination of power suited the state, so the British Raj followed the policy initiated by the Muslim rulers as well.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Amin Fahim and Javed Hashmi (who recently rejoined the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) and are all from the Suhrawardia order of mysticism started by Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi (1154-1191) while former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani belongs to the Qadria order, set up by Abdul Qadir Gilani (died 1166) of Baghdad. Sial Sharif is related to the famous Chishti order started by Moinuddin Chishti. While the Naqashbandi order started by Khawaja Muhammad Naqashband, a 14th century saint, also has a strong influence on society.

Interestingly Sial Sharif is spiritually related to another Chishti Dargah of Taunsa Sharif — Dera Ghazi Khan. The pirs of Sial took a spiritual oath of allegiance to Taunsa Sharif, who is commonly known as Pir Pathan, centuries ago and the relationship between the two gaddis is still strong. It would also be pertinent to mention that Ghulam Mustafa Khar from the mother’s side is related to the pirs of Taunsa Sharif.

The Chishtia order of Sial Sharif has many sub-branches in different parts of Punjab. The most famous is Golra Sharif that is now relatively independent and completely apolitical. The other major sub-branch is Bhera Sharif. PML-N Minister of State, Aminul Hasnat, is the sajjada nasheen of Bhera Sharif, while his father Justice Pir Karam Shah was the khalifa of Khawaja Qamar ud Din Sialvi. Yet another powerful sub-branch is Jalalpur Sharif Jhelum. The pirs of Jalalpur Sharif Jhelum have been involved in politics for last 100 years, starting from Sir Meher Shah to the legislative council in 1923 to the present sajjada nasheen Anees Haider Shah, who joined the PTI in 2012.

Muhammadi Sharif Jhang is also an influential sub-branch of Sial Sharif. Maulana Rahmatullah — one of the five legislators that disassociated with the PML-N at the Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference presided over by Pir Hameed ud Din Sialvi a fortnight ago — is the gaddi nasheen of this spiritual seat, established by Maulana Muhammad Zakir, a former member of the National Assembly, who devoted all of his ancestral land for religious education. He was even venerated by Z.A. Bhutto who used to stand up in honour of the maulana entering the assembly.


There are dozens of other sub-branches, some active and some dormant, that belong to the order of Sial Sharif. Like every spiritual seat, the followers of Sial Sharif have a distinctive dress code — white cotton cap with a reddish border, white shirt and dark blue tehband, and loose chaddar — worn in Punjab’s villages.

The pirs of Sial Sharif, respected for their knowledge, have been active in many movements, including the Tehrik-e-Khilafat, two Tehriks of the Khatm-e-Nubawat and Tehrik e Nizam-e-Mustafa. Present sajjada nasheen and former senator, Hameed ud Din Sialvi, has never come out so openly in the streets as recently. His father Khawaja Qamar ud Din Sialvi, titled Sheikh ul Islam, was however very active in the Pakistan Movement (1946-47), and remained president Jamiat Ulema Pakistan, the Barelvi alternative to Deobandi political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, before Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani.

Pirs of Sial have been active in local politics for a long time. Hameed ud Din Sialvi’s nephew Ghulam Nizam ud Din was a MPA and resigned on the instruction of his uncle. The PML-N circles in Lahore claim that the differences between Sial Sharif and the Punjab government developed over a by-election ticket when Khawaja Qasim, son of Hameed ud Din Sialvi, was denied a party ticket and given to a rival Shia Leaguer, Shafqat Baloch. They further claim that due to internal problems the PML-N leadership cannot assure Khawaja Qasim the party ticket even for the next elections.

Most of the pirs and gaddi nasheens were part of the centuries-old feudal system, where the feudals held the political power and the pir enjoyed the religious clout. This combination of power suited the state, so the British Raj followed the policy initiated by the Muslim rulers as well.

This alliance of pirs and the state was always disliked by the masses. The farewell address to retiring Governor Micheal O’ Dwyer in 1919 damaged the reputation of the pirs. O’ Dwyer was notorious for his barbaric mass murders in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. This infamous address, full of flattery, was signed by well-respected personalities like Dewan Said Muhammad of Pakpattan and Babo Jee Ghulam Mohiyuddin of Golra Sharif, who later clarified his position.


Similar acts infuriated emerging Muslim leaders like Allama Iqbal, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan. The urban parties like Majlis-e-Ahrar severely criticised them for their support to the British.

Another example of the spiritual leader bowing before the state is the PTI leader’s great grand ancestor and his namesake Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He was a British loyalist who helped kill Ahmed Khan Kharal and supported the British in the 1857 War of Independence.

Historically, the strong role of pirs started with the advent of Islam in this region. It is said that Islam was spread in India not through the sword but through these pirs or sufis whose simple and pure lives and character inspired people to change their religion and convert to Islam.

The role of sufi saints in politics and government started almost 1,000 years ago when Usman bin Ali Hajveri came to this land and settled in Lahore, which was then a small town ruled by a Hindu raja. Data sahib came from Afghanistan which was then ruled by Mahmood of Ghazni. Another Afghan ruler built his shrine. Later, Akbar the Great widened the courtyard of the shrine.

Moeen ud Din Chishti — the founder of Chishtia order — was settled in Ajmer during the times of Raja Pirthivi Raj Chohan, when the Afghan invader Muhammad Ghauri failed in his first attack on India in 1291 AD. He succeeded the second time when he attacked with the orders of Hazrat Moeenud Din Chishti. After victory Ghauri came to pay regards to Chishti who advised him to appoint slain Pirthivi Chohan’s son as the ruler of Ajmer. Ghauri happily obliged showing his utmost respect for the saint.

The case of Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusro is the best example of the mixture of spiritual with the worldly power. Nizamuddin Auliya held the spiritual seat of Delhi while his follower and right-hand man Amir Khusro was the advisor of almost all Muslim rulers, till his death.


Similarly, 775 years ago, Baba Fareed ud Din Masood Gunj Shakar Chishti of Pakpattan had many Muslim rulers among his followers. Mirza Nasir ud Din Muhammad is said to have one of his daughters married to Baba Fareed.

The influence of saints is so entrenched in society that even during the Sikh regime Naushah Ganj Bakhsh Qadiri’s follower Suchyar Sahib’s descendants of Nowshehra Disrict Gujrat had connections with the Sikh court. Their recommendations about the people’s problems were accepted because the famous Faqir brothers of Lahore were mureeds of Nowshehra Sharif. The Bokhari Faqirs were the important ministers in Ranjeet Singh’s regime.

The centuries-old tradition is so engrained in the society that it continued even after the creation of Pakistan. Governor General Ghulam Muhammad Malik slept on the floor in the tradition of his Pir Waris Ali Shah. Field Marshal Ayub Khan was a beloved follower of his murshid khana Pir Sahib of Dewal Sharif. Although Z.A. Bhutto was secular in his beliefs, he was a regular visitor of Sehwan Sharif. After coming to power, he installed gold-plated gates on the shrines of Data Gunj Baksh in Lahore and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif.

General Ziaul Haq did not have any link to any spiritual order. He was more interested in Maulana Maududi’s pragmatic Islam.

Benazir Bhutto, on the other hand, was very spiritual and would go to every Baba having spiritual powers. She used to visit their family pir, Hussain Shah of Qamber Sharif. Nawaz Sharif and his family are spiritual. His father was initially inspired by Professor Tahir-ul-Qadri and took spiritual oath (bait) before Pir Ala ud Din Qadri Gilani — a direct descendant of Abdul Qadir Gilani of Baghdad.

Later, the Sharif family and Professor Tahir-ul-Qadri developed differences and the relationship has gone sour ever since. Nawaz Sharif also met Pir Sufi Barkat Ali Ludhanvi of Salarwala who prayed for his glory much before his becoming prime minister of Pakistan.

Yousuf Raza Gilani is a pir and a descendant of the Qadria order — Sufi saint Musa Pak Shaheed Gilani of Multan. Pakpattan is the grand Chishtia seat of Punjab, and at one time it held influence over entire India. Dewan of Pakpattan, Syed Ahmed Mahmood Chishti, has a strong political influence in the area. Their relatives are Manekas — once represented by the mighty Federal Minister Ghulam Ahmed Maneka and now by his sons who are presently in the PTI.

Imran Khan visits the shrine of Baba Fareed quite regularly. Benazir Bhutto had also special reverence for this shrine and used to send her aide Bashir Riaz for distributing food on the shrine.

The relationship between the state and spiritual leaders is interdependent but conflicting. The governments often interfere in spiritual matters. Dewan Sahib of Pakpattan Moudood Chishti was removed and his son Ahmed was installed as the new dewan. Khawaja Fareed of Kot Mithan’s descendants also had a conflict on the gaddi nasheeni which was resolved by a government order almost 20 years ago.

Much before the creation of Pakistan, a similar problem emerged on the spiritual seat of Taunsa Sharif and the then British Deputy Commissioner had to intervene.

Recently, the Punjab government unfairly transferred its Auqaf secretary and administrator for failing to deal with pirs, and their Barelvi followers on the eve of Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s three-weeks-long dharna.

Pirs are present in almost all districts and tehsils of the state, and so is their influence. There is going to be no sudden change in this relationship between the pirs and the state however modern urban traditions may lessen this influence with the passage of time.

Suhail Warraich

The writer is a senior journalist, works with Geo and Jung group. He tweets @suhailswarraich


  • very interesting to know ” Most of the pirs and gaddi nasheens were part of the centuries-old feudal system, where the feudals held the political power and the pir enjoyed the religious clout”

  • Maybe expand this in another article about the likes of Faisal Saleh Hayat and other Syed Pirs being involved in politics.

  • Syed Anjum Ali Bokhari

    There have been traditionally, different Sufi orders [Tariqa/Silsila] here in South Asia, each with their own attitudes towards the involvement of Sufis in politics. For example, historically, the Qadiri, Naqshbandi and Suhrawardy were more active and closely associated to rulers and politics in the subcontinent. By contrast, the Chishti Sufis had a strong rule or order against having any sort of role in political matters. This rule was first clearly laid down by Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri– kings, rulers, nobles, all sorts of people great and small used to go to Ajmer ; but the sage of Ajmer never paid any attention to them or interfered in political matters. This rule was continued by his successors Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtyar Kaki, Hazrat Baba Farid Ganj Shakar, Hazrat NizamuddinAuliya and Hazrat Alauddin Sabir Paak. Any Sufi today claiming to be a Chishti Sufi, can have nothing at all to do with politics. Anyone who claims otherwise, is an impostor.

  • Can’t there be a ‘minus all’ formula for all these pirs and the likes? It would be great reading an article on possible solutions with regards to cleaning the system of these thekedaars

  • Adnan Ashraf Warraich

    The nexus between these so-called spiritual leaders, who are fond of lifestyles replete with worldly grandeur, and the politicians is an apt indicator of the rawness of our political system. What is the use of quoting examples from western polities if ours is still entrenched in such medieval practices?

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