Religion, Public Intimacy, and Saintly Affects in Pakistan
- ISBN: 9781478018032
- Published By: Duke University Press
- Published: May 2022
Toward the end of his book, Queer Companions: Religion, Public Intimacy, and Saintly Affects in Pakistan, Omar Kasmani presents a question to his readers, “What epistemic obstinacies might we come up against or which lines of interpretation are to unfold if we were to read religious lifeworlds, in this instance Islamic ones, not just queerly, or with the aim of queer religion?” (152). This question sits at the heart of Kasmani’s eloquent project. At a time when scholars of religion and queer studies aim to trace queerness in religious texts and embodied practices, Kasmani’s Queer Companions aims to “explore whether queer theorizing can find other lives in the epistemological reserves and affective resources that religious ecologies and lifeworlds have to offer” (159).
However, Kasmani’s intellectual endeavor does not simply build on theoretical rumination alone. Instead, he draws on fifteen months of fieldwork in the ancient pilgrimage town of Sehwan in Pakistan. During his ethnographic research, Kasmani delves into the life stories of various fakirs—ascetics who abandon their homes in the pursuit of affective engagement with a 13th-century antinomian saint La’l Shahbaz Qalandar—and these are the stories that he presents in his book. In five chapters, Kasmani invites us to traverse through the affective encounters of these fakirs at five different sites, with each chapter corresponds to each site: a grove, a shrine, a courtyard, a lodge, and a graveyard. Attending to these different spaces and places, Kasmani contends, underscores “the importance of lived context and local ecologies” (28-29) in studying the lives of the fakirs.
Chapter 1 follows Baba, an intersex fakir who left their home in Punjab after being inspired by lucid and recurring dreams of a garden and its saintly atmosphere. Kasmani situates Baba’s personal voyage in relation to the Pakistani state’s efforts to govern saints’ shrines in political and economic terms. Chapter 2 encapsulates the experiences of Amma, a female fakir who has to navigate the Sehwan shrine’s masculine spatiality. Furthermore, Kasmani attends to the ways in which Amma and other female fakirs negotiate their status as fakirs within a predominantly male institution that is laden with patrilineal authority.
In chapter 3, Kasmani traces a startling change that Zaheda experienced in regard to her status and lineage as a fakir. Following the change in administrative rules, Zaheda, a woman who used to be firmly established among women of the courtyard, transformed into an ordinary pilgrim in Sehwan. In this chapter, the author attentively delves into Zaheda’s attachment to futurity in the face of failing relations and impending losses. Chapter 4 begins with a vignette of Murad, a male fakir who gives up celibacy to pursue a marriage with a woman he loves. In this chapter, Kasmani discusses two subjects pertaining to sexuality and interpersonal relationships: (1) the establishment of fakir bonds and fraternities within the homosocial context of a lodge; and (2) the intricate relationship between sexuality and sacrality in the lives of fakirs in Sehwan.
Lastly, Chapter 5 narrates the lives of the fakirs Jamal and Shah-Bibi, and in particular their experiences with the more-than-human beings in a graveyard in Sehwan. This chapter elucidates the complexities of living among the dead and the intimate relations that the fakirs have with more-than-human forces, mythical figures, and spiritual beings in Sehwan.
Despite the seemingly intimate engagement with queer subjects throughout this book, queerness does not function as a figuration of non-normative genders and sexualities in Queer Companions. Rather, Kasmani is interested in thinking of queerness—and the history of queerness—more capaciously. For Kasmani, queerness is present as a modality that makes space for alternate ways of being in the world. Furthermore, in his analysis, he approaches queerness as relational possibilities. In discussing how saints make for queer companions, Kasmani pensively writes that “[saints] escort an abundance of relational possibilities that persevere so long as conditions of intimacy persist across affect-rich trails of yearning, seeking, dreaming, finding, and losing saints” (25).
In addition to Kasmani’s situating of fakirs as the actors who reveal relational possibilities through affective encounters with the saints, another important intervention from Queer Companions can be found in its detailed attention to Shi’i figures, events, and temporalities throughout the book. As Kasmani rightfully points out, existing scholarship in the anthropology of Islam is dominated by Sunni Islam and Muslims, a tendency that is built on “an active minoritization of Islam’s other histories and lifeworlds” (27). By engaging with the ways in which fakirs in Sehwan encounter and experience affective bonds with the more-than-human and more-than-living, Kasmani ingeniously illustrates a form of queer world-making in unexpected places. For those who ruminate on questions pertaining to queerness, Islam, affective encounters with more-than-human entities, and/or religion-state relations, Queer Companions is an essential book and it will truly bloom as a companion in the time to come.
Febi R. Ramadhan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University.Febi R. RamadhanDate Of Review:December 22, 2022