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The Spatial Dimensions of Sufi Muslim Individual Identity

The spirituality of a Sufi pir is embodied in the space he has sacralized. His divine blessing purifies his spatial dominion and endows it with sanctity. For Sufi Muslims in Britain who are followers of Sufi Abdullah, Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif is the center of their symbolic universe. The separation and distance between Kohat and Birmingham or Manchester are overcome in their symbolic imagination to create a single, unitary cosmic order. As Muslims and “brother-disciples” (pir-bhai) within a single regional cult, they are united in their expression of love for two men: Sufi Abdullah in Britain and Zindapir in Pakistan. Their religious identity as Muslims and Sufis is particularized through this love and loyalty and revitalized periodically through pilgrimage and celebration at the spaces these holy men have sacralized by their religious activity.

I stress that they are members of a single “regional cult” rather than simply of a Sufi “order” (R. Werbner 1977: ix). The distinction is important. The Naqshbandi order stretches from Iraq and Turkey in the west through Persia and Afghanistan to the whole of South Asia. It is only in theory a unitary organization. As a distinct order, it recognizes slight variations in Sufi mystical practice on the path toward unification with the Prophet and God. The regional cult built up by Zindapir is, by contrast, an active organization with a known hierarchy of sacred centers and subcenters and recognized chains of authority. It is a known universe of specific communities linked together in devotion to a single man.[3] For disciples living in Britain, their various communities are united with all the other communities centered on Ghamkol Sharif, even though the majority of these communities are, of course, located in Pakistan itself. Regional cults are not contiguous, spatially bounded territorial organizations; they are spatially discontinuous, interpenetrating organizations linked together through a common connection to ritually sacred centers and subcenters (see R. Werbner 1989: 245–98).

The great regional cults in Pakistan today were founded recently (see Gilmartin 1979; Hafeez ur-Rehman 1979), and some of today’s vicegerents will ultimately found new centers, which in time may become the foci of viable new cults, whose moral and religious excellence may outshine the tired inheritors of present-day shrines. It is, above all, the “living pirs,” those who venture beyond the established order, even as far as Britain, who endow Sufi Islam with its continued vitality.


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