Tag Archives: Qalandar

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.

Book review: L’ascète et le bouffon by Christiane Tortel

Christiane Tortel, L’ascète et le bouffon. Qalandars, vrais et faux renonçants en islam ou l’Orient indianisé, Arles, Actes Sud, 2009.

The publication of an academic book on the qalandars is a true event. Despite the existence of a book by Ahmed Karamustafa (1994), another one by Katherine Ewing (1977) and masterful papers by Simon Digby (1984), the article of the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam gives evidence of the scarcity of academic works on the topic. Christiane Tortel is a freelance specialist of Persian literature who is a recognized translator of referent treatises of Sufism (1998). Christiane Tortel, an expert in the collection of rare manuscripts, is also well acquainted with fieldwork since she has visited numerous shrines and temples in different parts of Asia.

This 439 pages book is a very ambitious work, in a previous version, a Ph. D. defended at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études in Sorbonne University. After an introduction, the first part is devoted to “Asceticism, transgression and quackery. The pariah and the jester” (pp. 25-228). The second part is devoted to “Unpublished texts: presentation and translation” (pp. 229-305). Beyond the notes, bibliography and index, one will appreciate wonderful pictures discovered in various libraries of Europe and Asia.

The main thesis proposed by the author is that the role played by India in Islamic and Christian worlds has been under evaluated. The main basis of this misunderstanding is that since Antiquity, the historians always classified the Indians among the Africans since they were seen as Blacks. The author uses the figure of the qalandar to track the way by which Indian characteristics have penetrated Islam and Christianity. The problem is that this policy implies the use of innumerable references written in innumerable languages over many centuries. The consequence is the details makes one lose the thread of the demonstration implemented by the author. The argument would have been more convincing if it had been more tightly focused on the figure of the qalandar, and possibly the main transmitters of this figure, the gypsies.

The second part provides very useful data. The author also gives useful summaries of the relations between the Qalandariyya and “institutionalized” tarîqas like the Sohrawardiyyas or the Chishtiyyas, especially in South Asia. Last but not least, Christiane Tortel provides us the French translation of unpublished manuscripts. They include treatises of the Faqr-nâma genre, like Risâla-yi tawba attributed to Abû’l-Hasan Kharaqânî (d. 1033), or the Risâla-yi qalandarî, translated into French from an anonymous Persian manuscript she has found in Tashkent. Another remarkable piece is a rare example of scholarly literature of the qalandarî type, the Qalandar-nâme composed by Abû Bakr Qalandar Rûmî (d. 1321) from Crimea. Although the conclusion of this huge work is contained in a single page, where the author restates that Qalandariyya is a late extension of Indian renunciation, this book ultimately provides a useful basis for further study of the topic of qalandar, as the author states herself (p. 188).

Michel Boivin (CNRS-CEIAS,EHESS, Paris)


Paroles d’un soufi. Abû’l-Hasan Kharaqânî 352-425/960-1033, présentation, traduction du persan et notes par Christiane Tortel, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1998.

A. T. Karamustafa, God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1994.

S. Digby, “Qalandars and related groups: elements of social deviance in the religious life of the Delhi Sultanate”, in Y. Friedman, Islam in Asia, Jerusalem, The Magnes Press, 1984, pp. 60-108.

K. P. Ewing, Arguing Sainthood. Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam, Durham and London, Duke sUniversity Press, 1977.