Book review: Five days and nights in Sehwan by Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, Am Schrein des roten Sufi. Fünf Tage und Nächte auf Pilgerfahrt in Pakistan, Arles, Frauenfeld, Waldgut Verlag, 2008, 165 p.

The book by J. W. Frembgen, ethnologist Curator of the East State Museum of Ethnology in Munich, is a travel journal about five days and nights spent in Sehwan pilgrimage in 2002. Served by an excellent knowledge of Islam in Pakistan – since 1981 – and by the acuity of his observations, Frembgen’s book is a pleasant and colourful story, well done and well written. The bravura that retains the reader’s attention are the humorous stories of travelling by train from Lahore, and numerous portraits of the protagonists he met: pîrs, malangs, dancers, beggars, professional photographers, pilgrims from all persuasion, Shiite, Sunni, Hindu. The attention to material culture in general and to the “daily life” outside the usual daily life that is the pilgrimage is remarkable in its detail: the exhaustion of the pilgrim, how to drink a cup of tea, sleep under tent of pilgrims or how to urinate against a wall, close combat during the visit of the tomb or in shopping streets, spitting red betel brown or chewing tobacco, the movement of hashish or opium, showers at hairdressers. A real pedagogical concern led Frembgen to insert here and there some hagiographic stories or an explanation for the lay reader – for whom the book is basically designed. Therefore he explains how hagiographic stories circulate, the presence of many Hindus in the melâ, the liturgical rhythms of melâs, dances and trances practiced.

Some claims unfairly generalize the Indo-Pakistani Islam case to Islam in general, for example by taking shots at Kipling’s or Guenon’s styles on the materialistic West facing Mystical East (= India? The Islam?) – an opposition that the strong tensions within Pakistani Islam which is highlighted at the very end of the book itself. Frembgen seems more relevant when he said that the devotees of Sehwan are neither Islamic nor secular Muslims, and probably nothing that clearly corresponds to the inadequate categories of sociologists of religion. The book has also, inevitably, the look of a very “West Germany” German, very attentive to the ecology and highlights what is most interesting for him. He focuses on the “body” in the pilgrimage sometimes at the expense of proper spiritual aspects on which the book is ultimately more allusive. But incorporated religion is indeed the major characteristic of all pilgrimages.

One will enjoy reading a lively and successful book designed in the tradition of a certain German ethnographic culture that is carefully and thoroughly descriptive, and a long growing culture of the Wanderer that is renewed by globalization and which has been recently illustrated by the travel writings of an another well-known author, Wolfgang Büscher. Immersed into another world, Schrein Am roten Sufi can benefit a wide audience, not only to those who love Sehwan.

Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen (INALCO, Paris)

Other publications

Journey to God. Sufis and Dervishes in Islam, OUP, Karachi, 2009.

The Friends of God – Sufi Saints in Islam. Popular Poster Art from Pakistan, OUP, Karachi, 2006.

“Divine Madness and Cultural Otherness: Diwânas and Faqîrs in Northern Pakistan”, South Asia Research, 26: 235-248, 2006.

“From Dervish to Saint: Constructing Charisma in Contemporary Pakistani Sufism”, The Muslim World, 94/2: 245-257, 2004.

“Religious Folk Arts as an Expression of Identity: Muslim Tombstones in the Gangar Mountains of Pakistan”, in Muqarnas XV: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, Gülru Necipoglu (ed.), Leiden: E.J. Brill, 200-210, 1998.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *