Muhammad Akbar Notezai reports on the origins, spiritual practices and contemporary concerns of the Zikri community in Balochistan
Muhammad Akbar Notezai
Bibi Duri Baloch, who is in her 50s, comes to Koh-e-Murad every year on the night of the 27th of Ramazan. At night, she stands in the middle of a circle called Choghan in the local Balochi language, and around 300 Zikri Baloch stand around her. She sings melodiously, praising Allah, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the saints. She sings also of the departed souls, praying for their forgiveness in the Balochi and Persian languages. All who are standing around in a circle repeat loudly after her. As she finishes, another woman called Bibi Jammali Baloch, who is about the same age, takes her place. It continues for the whole night. The night of the 27th of Ramazan is, after all, considered a very special night.
Zikris, who are predominantly Baloch, have been living in the southern part of Balochistan called Makran. Besides Makran, they also have settlements in Awaran, Khuzdar, Lasbela, Karachi, in the interior parts of Sindh and even in Iran’s Sistan-Balochistan region. Unofficially, it is stated that the global population of Zikri Baloch is around 750, 000. Most reside in Balochistan proper.
They are simple, indigenous mountaineers, shepherds, and nomads – traditionally not very interested in the compartmentalisation of spiritual beliefs
Hakim Baloch, who is a prolific Baloch author and former chief secretary of Balochistan, tells me the Zikris came from Fatimid Egypt. In this version, they travelled through Iran and arrived on the Makran coast centuries ago. In a nutshell, he tells me, they were a Muslim sect and you could just as easily describe them as Shia or Sunni. For him, they are between the two.
“In all four provinces of Pakistan, the Zikri are present. And they could not move up ahead, because they just did not do invasions. Nor did they use war as a means of propagating their sect. They kept their beliefs to themselves. And to this day, they are the most peaceful society,” Hakim Baloch tells me.
He also added, “Though there was not communism during the old days, Malik (King) Mullah Murad, a Zikri leader, was something of a communist, because he would distribute equally the wealth, crops, etc, among paupers in Makran.”
According to some other writers, Zikri Baloch are followers of the Indian Sufi Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri. They further add that Jaunpuri founded the sect in the 15th century, when he claimed to be a Mahdi – a messianic reformer of Islam. However, it is also said that followers of the Zikri belief system flourished in the 16th century in Balochistan. “Simply put, Zikris are Baloch who belong to the Makran division of Balochistan,” Shah Mohammad Marri, a well-known Baloch historian, told this scribe. He went on to add, “They are pure Baloch, who are simple, indigenous mountaineers, shepherds, and nomads, who are traditionally not very interested in the compartmentalisation of spiritual beliefs.”
When I went through the writings of prominent Baloch political leader Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, he writes in 1981: “A Baloch who may have spent his life in the mountains and never visited a city is liberal in religious outlook.” And amongst the Baloch, he further writes, a single tribe is divided into two or more religious groups with somewhat different practices, but this has never strained relations among them. Moreover, he cited the example of the Zikri Baloch and Namazi Baloch (which is the term used by Zikris for their Sunni Baloch compatriots). He writes that their customs and practices are very similar, wherein it is quite possible that one brother in the same family is Zikri and another is Namazi.
As Zikris are predominantly found amongst the Baloch, they have peacefully and harmoniously lived side by side with Namazi Baloch. Historically, there has been little – if any – tension between them, except during the first major invasion of Zikri Baloch lands by Nasir Khan, the Khan of Kalat, from 1749 to 1795. It is not without reason that progressive writers dub him the most ‘fundamentalist’ ruler in the history of Balochistan – he chose to paint his conflict with the Zikris in religious colours.
Dr. Naimat Gichki, a Baloch intellectual and the author of a recently published book Baloch: In Search of Identity, tells me, “There was a conflict of interest between the Khan of Kalat and the the sardars of Kech, who were Zikris.” He further added: “Makran was ruled by many families: Hooths, Buledis, and ultimately Gichkis. So, Gichkis were last in the chain, and their rule coincided with the rule of Nasir Khan. Nasir Khan, during that time, was for the first time in history expanding his rule through what is today Balochistan. He came into conflict with different sardars who presumably did not take well to the idea of paying him taxes. So, he decided to fight them.”
He goes on: “Gichkis were a strong force and Gichk (associated with the Gichkis) in Panjgur and Makran, was richer than any other places of Balochistan, except Kachhi. Due to this, it was necessary for the Khan of Kalat to extract taxes from the Gichkis. On the instigation of mullahs, the Khan of Kalat attacked Makran. On the other hand, the Khan of Kalat himself also encouraged mullahs to propagate against Zikris and incite violence against them.”
As far as the Zikris’ beliefs are concerned, they say they do not harm anybody, as their religion is not a missionary one. Nor do they come into conflict with anything. That is why, they say, they have survived to this day.
“The Zikris’ religion and origin is unknown despite the fact that some researchers say that the founder of the sect either came from Attock (Punjab) or Hyderabad (India),” said Mr. Gichki, further stating: “In my estimate, it (Zikrism) is homegrown. The reason is that it is the belief of Zikri Baloch that Koh-e-Murad is the place where they received religious inspiration and all their places of worship are in Kech and Makran. So, in this context, one can argue that their origin is from Makran itself.”
Conservatives exerted pressure throughout Zia’s regime to declare the Zikri Baloch to be non-Muslims
It is also to be noted that Zikri Baloch and Namazi Baloch cannot be distinguished, when it comes to the language, customs, weddings, burials, etc. “Perhaps a few centuries back, one could even divide the Zikri and Namazi Baloch on the basis of sects and religions. Today, when you go to Makran, you cannot say who is Zikri or Namazi. A father is a Zikri, his son is a Namazi. There is intermarriage between them, too,” said Mr. Marri.
Mr. Naimat Gichki also opines: “I do not think that they have come from somewhere else. They belong here. In a nutshell, this belief flourished in the same area in Makran, and expanded into the rest of Balochistan up to the coastal areas around Karachi. Though a big chunk of the Zikris is living in Karachi, it is not that all of them migrated. Many of them are also indigenous to Karachi, Ormara, Gaddani.”
On the 27th of Ramazan , Zikri Baloch say special prayers at Koh-e-Murad, which is considered to be a sacred place for them. “They are simply Muslims; with great affinity to Shiites. They are simple people, having four enemies. One is the wolf that attacks their live stocks; second is drought; third is the thief who steals from them; fourth is conflict among the tribes. And to prevent the last, they have a simpler set of beliefs,” said Shah Mohammad Marri. He went on, stating, “Their prime worship night is the 27th of Ramazan, and they all come to Koh-e-Murad from far-flung areas to perform their prayers. They claim that the Mahdi has already come, unlike Namazis.”
Back in 1977-88, during the dictatorial days of General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the Zikri Baloch also faced discrimination and assaults just like other religious minorities. Once Ahamdis were constitutionally declared non-Muslims by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto after 1974, conservatives also exerted pressure throughout Zia’s regime to declare the Zikri Baloch to be non-Muslims in the same way.
“Yes, Zikri Baloch did face assaults at the hands of religious parties and state-sponsored mullahs. But local population in Turbat and Baloch as a whole and nation resisted it,” recalls Baloch historian Mr. Marri. “And to this day, mullahs and extremist forces with links to the state are trying their level best to segregate Zikris and then declare them a non-Muslim religious minority so that they hit them.”
Mr. Gichki highlighted other factors behind the pressure on Zikri Baloch in Zia’s regime. “Some mullahs tried to incite other Muslims in Makran and Balochistan to push Zikris into being a minority.” He went on to add, “Basically, it was used for election tactics because in Makran, the nationalists were winning. That was why the political parties and government in Islamabad thought that nationalists were winning with the support of Zikri Baloch, who have a great majority there. By cutting relations with Zikris, they were creating rifts so that nationalists lose.”
Ironically, with Zia gone, the problems of the Zikris were further compounded. They faced a tough time from violent extremist forces and fomer Chief Minister of Balochistan Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, on becoming Balochistan’s chief minister in 1988, protected them from violent extremists. Due to these reasons, his government faced extraordinary pressure from the right-wingers.
In 2014, six Zikris were shot dead in their place of worship, a Zikr-khana in Awaran district, by unidentified assailants. In the same year, Zikri passengers of a bus were also attacked in Khuzdar district of Balochistan. Seven of them were injured.
Besides these all, Zikri Baloch, in present times, have another concern – displacement due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) route and related security measures.
CPEC originates from Gwadar, where there is a significant population of Zikris. Also, the CEPC route goes through Zikri settlements throughout Makran. Amanullah Baloch, who is an elder, educated Zikri Baloch leader, tells me: “Yes, the Zikri community resides in many areas where CPEC passes through – starting from Gwadar to Hoshab-East of Turbat (M8) on one side and Gwadar to Lasbella, as well as Awaran. There is no direct threat to the community where the project (CPEC) connects, but indirect effects can’t be ruled out.”
M8 connects Turbat to Hoshab, where one can find a significant population of Zikris. Areas with a strong presence of Zikris include: Gwadar and surrounding areas, Turbat city, Kissak, Kikkin, Shahrak, Shapuk, Sammi, Karki, Hoshab and some parts of Dander and Kohlwa.
Since 2004, when the fifth Baloch insurgency started, government officials at times accused Zikris of having joined the ranks and files of the banned separatist outfits that target the government.
For some Zikris, before the CPEC era, the insurgency itself was the main threat. There was widespread speculation that insurgents ambushed, attacked and kidnapped the workers from the Zikri community. This makes it even more tragic that Zikris are sometimes viewed by security officials as having a significant role in the armed insurgency.
Hakim Baloch believes the Zikris are a less violent people and more rational when it comes to questions of survival. For that reason, he believes, many Zikri youth have left their native areas for studies, so that their education is not affected by the many forms of violence plaguing their native land. He believes better education will help these young Zikris to secure the jobs created through CPEC.
In the past, there were attacks on law enforcement forces and as a result there were reprisals by state forces. Not so long ago, Shahrak, Shapuk, Sammi and Hoshab were considered a hub of the insurgency. But now the areas are claimed to be free from insurgent activity. Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the areas in recent times and inaugurated the M8 route.
Khalid Baloch, who is a rights activist based in Turbat, also agrees that due to security issues a large chunk of the Zikri community has migrated from rural areas of Turbat. The CPEC route is one of several reasons for today’s displacement of Zikris. In recent years, the community has found itself, at times, in the crossfire of war between separatists and the state.
“They have mostly moved to Turbat city, Hub, Karachi, Quetta or other big cities. But those who were financially weak have gone to other districts of Makran division, where their relatives were already present – like in Pasni, Gwadar and other rural areas of Gwadar and Panjgur districts,” Khalid tells me.
In the past, Zikris were present in large numbers on the night of every 27th of Ramazan at Koh-e-Imam. Numbers have since reduced – from tens of thousands to mere thousands – as Khalid Baloch watches.
I spoke to another member of the Zikri community, Jan Mohammad Baloch from Gwadar, and he said: “Officially, we do not know how many of us have left their areas. What I know is that a small bazaar in Gwadar has been displaced, which had been run predominantly by Zikri Baloch people.” He expects the displacement of Zikris to increase as the CPEC projects pick up steam.
“We, the people of these areas, have not yet benefited from CPEC. Though the government says it is for us, in reality we have only got menial jobs, not any real benefits,” he further adds.
Gulzar Ahmad Baloch, a member of Zikri community, was apprehensive when talking about CPEC and Gwadar port project. He said, “Definitely, not only Zikri Baloch but many other Baloch communities too, have been affected by the CPEC route. In Gwadar, it is believed that local Baloch would be sent in the near future to locations some five kilometres away from the main city. So far, it has not happened. But it is being discussed.”
When asked about discrimination toward Zikri community, Gulzar Baloch says: “Historically, there have not been any problems. In the present times, hatred toward Zikri community is being created by some forces. There is also hatred toward the community wherever we go. I think this is all part of a conspiracy. Our religious practices are coming under suspicion too, unfortunately.”
“In this context, what else we can do?” he continues. “We have to reduce the visibility of our religious practices. Or perhaps, even give up some of our practices.”
He also regrets that while in the past, Zikri Baloch would be perhaps 90 percent of the population in Balochistan’s Makran division, that has now been reduced to 30 percent. This has happened due to the discrimination being faced by Zikri community, he believes.
He tells me they are internally displaced persons (IDPs) but there is no official acceptance of that fact and in any case, the Zikris don’t want themselves to be in any limelight – for the fear of repercussions.
Khalid says “As the CPEC route goes through areas populated by Zikri community members, they have left these places due to pressure from security measures. One of the reasons behind suspicion from security forces is that they think Zikris are sympathizers of the Baloch separatist campaign.”
He insists, however: “In reality, it is not so because many Zikri Baloch from various parts of Makran have not been impressed by the separatist movement. Instead, they constitute a major vote-bank for parties which engage in parliamentary politics. And they will go on voting for them!”
Hakim Baloch tells me: “Now, hatred has been created against Zikri Baloch that they are not Muslims. Previously, there was a bifurcation of ‘Zikri and Namazi’; now, it is ‘Zikri and Muslim’. Besides this, there are a lot of misgivings about them in the province.”
“In my opinion, Zikris are purely Baloch, and they are among the finest representatives of Baloch culture,” said Hakim Baloch.