City Faith – Dhikr, Swahili and Shidis at a shrine in Karachi

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It felt as if I was in a different timezone, a far off geography – definitely not present day Karachi.

There are many shrines around the city with their peculiar ways of celebrating words of Sufi saints. Qawwali is perhaps the most popular ritual but communal dhikr is not uncommon either. However you perhaps would not find many shrines in the city where dhikr is performed in Swahili. Abdullah Shah Ashabi Baba’s shrine in Hawksbay town is one of few where you could find the ancient ritual performed in Swahili every evening. Not much is known about the saint but Shidis – who have sizable presence in the area – make most of the regular devotees.

Shidis – descendants of African slaves – which were brought to subcontinent centuries ago have a sizable presence in Karachi most notably in Lyari, Malir and Saeedabad. While there is a lack of conclusive research but Shidis have been connected with Karachi for centuries, perhaps arriving in lower Sindh with Muhammad Bin Qasim for the first time.

The Karachi Walla ended up at the shrine by chance. I was working with a team on a project and after several hours out in the sun, I dozed off in the car, only to find myself in front of the shrine a little later. There was a huge graveyard on one side of the shrine and vast empty ground beyond. One of the team members wanted to document it and with little luck we found the mutawwali of the shrine who agreed to perform the ritual for us.

The mutawwali took us inside the shrine and all of us performed fateha. Then he led us to adjacent hall where we all settled on the marble floor. Two boys from the neighborhood brought drums and politely sat in front of him. The stage was set for the ancient ritual.

The mutawwali started reciting verses in Swahili. The kids beat the drums gently and replied in the same tone. The other devotees slowly gathered and formed a circle listened to the ritual silently.

Later the mutawwali told me that very few people understand Swahili now but the verses in Swahili were still being transferred from one generation to another, one heart to another, and would continue to.

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