Only a few metres further on, within sight of the dancing men, stand a group of women seeking unity with God in a similar way. After the ceremony, which lasts about two hours, many of them will claim to have been possessed by the spirits of dead relatives or saints. They rhythmically pound their chests or swing their long hair round in a circle, as if they were at a heavy metal concert. For most Muslims outside Sehwan Sharif, in a country as conservative as Pakistan, all of this is inconceivable and seems incompatible with Islam.

Devout believers with different values

Sehwan Sharif's reputation stretches far beyond the borders of the province of Sindh, where the city is situated. This is all the more astonishing because the city is home to just 100,000 people and apart from the shrine, it has nothing to attract visitors. But it is exactly because people in Pakistan have to live their lives according to very clear rules that Muslims and even some of the few Hindus that live in Pakistan, come here so that they can be who they are – devout believers with different values – in peace.

Shia Muslims beats their chests rhythmically in front of the shrine (photo: Philipp Breu)
Sharing in Hussainʹs pain: Shia Muslims beat their chests rhythmically in front of the shrine. Shia self-castigation is a ritual that is usually only observed in the month of Muharram – here at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, however, it occurs every day

No Shia Muslim in Pakistan would publically acknowledge his love for Imam Ali and no follower of a Sufi order would ever openly say that they pray not only to Allah and Muhammad but also to the holy, deceased masters of their order. For many conservative Muslims who adhere to orthodox schools of law, these practices are haram, rituals that are forbidden and despised in Islam and which have already cost countless people in Pakistan their lives.

In a country where over 97% of the 200 million inhabitants are Muslim, sectarian violence is one of Pakistan's biggest problems. Sehwan Sharif may be the best-known place in Pakistan where this problem does not even exist. The Shias in particular are aware of this and flock to the shrine.

The traditional beating of the chest – something that is otherwise only done during the Muslim month of mourning, Muharram – is a daily occurrence at the shrine. When pilgrims pound their chests with the full force of their hands, it sounds like thunder. Directly alongside, people pray peacefully; women pray with men, while children run across the clean marble floor.

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