Pirs are thought to be blessed individuals with a unique spiritual connection to God. But they hold extraordinary significance that goes beyond religiosity. Their influence and power runs miles deep and touches every crevice of Pakistani society – in particular, politics.
Pirs possess two things that turn them into all-powerful beings, and ensure their inclusion in the most exclusive political circles: land and religious devotion from the people. Imbued with the power this affords them, pirs are able to influence and win political campaigns, all the while receiving validation from an adoring crowd of admirers who wholly believe in them.
It isn’t uncommon for people who hold important positions to come to pirs for guidance. In fact, old and revered political families typically have a pir whose blessing they seek at the time of elections. Once their support and blessings are secured, political candidates later return the favour by granting pirs a seat in assemblies. But even without the clout of well-established political names like the Bhuttos, pirs have enough wealth and authority of their own.
This authority largely comes from the fact that they enjoy unconditional devotion from the public. Most people who visit pirs believe they can make their wishes come true because they have a special connection with God. As a result, they ask them for all manner of things: for a happy marriage, a good job, good health, a house and so on. Pirs, in turn, assure them it will be done and even provide a timeline – and what’s fascinating is, it happens.
Pir Pagara of Sindh is one such individual. One of the oldest respected saints in Pakistan, he commands the respect of thousands of Sindhis who eagerly give him their votes during elections. His shrine in Pir Jo Goth made of pink bricks with a gold dome is often surrounded by devotees from neighbouring villages and towns. But one has to wonder how much of this adoration stems from respect, and how much from fear. Purportedly, if they fail to vote for Pir Pagara and his family seat, the pir sends his men to beat them and burn their houses.
The donations most pirs ask their followers for are to be used to improve the condition of the poor. But how much of it is disseminated amongst the needy? After all, pirs remain at the top because no one else has what they have. They are bastions of holiness. They did not amass wealth and influence by sharing it. It has to be theirs – the religion, the shrine, the vote – so people keep believing in their exaltedness.