A girl in a long black shirt screams incoherently, banging her head against a wall at a Sufi shrine in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Sania Haneef’s family says she is possessed by a demon.
Doctors could not help, so they brought the college student, kicking and screaming, to be exorcised by the spirit of a saint.
The West mostly associates Pakistan with Taliban militants who carry out suicide bombings. However, Islam in the South Asian nation of 180 million is far more diverse.
Many flock to shrines like the one where Haneef’s relatives seek solace in the Sufi strand of Islam abhorred by militants and considered more liberal in its philosophy than other branches followed by Shiites and Sunnis.
“Sania has been possessed since she was six years old,” her brother, Mohammed, said, describing how an evil spirit, known as a jinn, would speak through her in a man’s voice.
“The shrine has captured the spirit. Sania will be cured soon. None of us is leaving until that happens,” he said.
Pakistanis are beset by problems — violence, crippling power cuts, poverty and dilapidated hospitals are but a few. The government, seen as inept and corrupt, offers little relief.
Many people think their suffering is inflicted by evil spirits intent on destroying marriage prospects, businesses and health, and that only Sufi saints can help.
However, that’s a risky belief in Pakistan. Militants, including the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban, have over the years bombed Sufi shrines which they consider heretical.
During an annual celebration this year at one in the central Pakistani town of Dera Ghazi Khan, the Taliban dispatched suicide bombers who killed 41 people.
A double suicide bombing last year at Pakistan’s most important Sufi shrine, in the city of Lahore, killed about 42 people. However, fears of possession and life’s many challenges, keep driving people back to the shrines. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam which adheres closely to the traditions of Islam, but also reflects secularism and universalism in spiritual matters.
It is especially strong in Sindh Province, where Pakistan’s biggest city and commercial hub of Karachi is located.
“The whole concept of jinns, which previously would have been a belief in some other kind of spirit, has been converted into Islamic parlance,” said Ali Khan, an anthropologist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Self-proclaimed exorcists thrive on these beliefs. They claim special powers from God which enable them to help people cope with everything, from domestic disturbances to infertility and impotence. Some even say they can help people find love.
In a dimly lit shack just outside a shrine, Syed Aliuddin, wearing a white robe and silk cap set with a green stone resembling an emerald, listens to people lament.
One man, an electrician, complains his wife is disobedient. In a carefully rehearsed ritual, the exorcist with a white beard writes prayers on strips of paper and douses them in water.
Customers then drink it, believing his promise that it only takes 10 minutes to take effect.
Aliuddin says he can fight 18,000 types of evil spirits made from fire. Like others in his trade, he is keeping pace with the information age, running his own Web site and offering consultations by e-mail and mobile phone.
“Some possess bodies out of jealousy, others out of love, some have other motives,” said Aliuddin, who charges between 50 and 250 Pakistani rupees (US$0.55 and US$2.75) a session, which lasts up to 30 minutes.