Omar Kasmani

Queer Companions: Religion, Public Intimacy and Saintly Affects in Pakistan

Duke University Press, 2022

208 Pages


Reviewed by Sardar Hussain

“An unfolding, a bloom, an elaboration: Intimacy is an inward genre with outward skin,” writes Omar Kasmani at the outset of Queer Companions: Religion, Public Intimacy and Saintly Affects in Pakistan. The book presents an ethnographic depiction of the “life-altering paths” of men, women, and gender variant fakirs, the mystic figures who (in many cases) “abandon home, question inherited lines, and forgo straight economies of family and work” in seeking intimacy (qurb) with Lal Shehbaz Qalander, the main saint in the shrine in Sehwan, a town in the Sindh province of Pakistan. 

Born and raised in Pakistan, Omar Kasmani identifies himself  as a halfie anthropologist, neither fully an insider nor an outsider. This ‘confession’ is an expression of strength, not a weakness of the ethnographic account.  An outcome of 15 months of fieldwork (spread over nine years) and a long term ethnographic-cum-

theoretical rigor, Queer Companions offers readers an understanding of Pakistani society beyond the broad categories of the state and religion of Islam. Cleary building on Kasmani’s knowledge of local languages and customs, his access to both public and intimate spaces, the book brings to surface the emergent theoretical debates, contentions and conversations on the intersection of affect, queer, and religious studies. 

Lauren Berlant’s words, “Intimacy builds worlds,” act out as the hinge or central thematic strand of the book. Taking a cue from Berlant and other Affect theorists, such as Kathleen Stewart and Sara Ahmed, Kasmani convincingly shows how being affectively and emotionally close to someone or something entails being away from someone or something else. An outcome of engagement with such ethnographic and theoretical dis/closure, Queer Companions demonstrates how fakirs’ form and sustain “intimate bonds with saints [that] enfold and unfurl consequences that suture scales of the personal and the political in Pakistan.”

Intimacy is an affective attachment that needs to be sustained over time: 

For such intimacy to endure, fakirs must work with the complex ethical-political demands their plural attachments bring forth in the present… Intimacy is futural insofar as it precludes certain ways of going forward, or illuminates the futures distinct potentials and possibilities, however they are carried in the present or even if they are unrealized or eventually lost. 

Kasmani brings home the point how fakir lives embody a history different from the mainstream heteronormative that tends to exclude other ways of becoming. Walking along the fakirs’ “life-altering paths”, we come to realize through the book,  defies “prevailing relations, economies, and processes of affect in the context of the postcolonial, Muslim national present.”

The book has five chapters in addition to an Introduction and a Conclusion. If the latter clearly point to the theoretical premises/promises of Kasmani’s work, the chapters give the necessary ethnographic material for the book to stay ‘true’ to the non-straight paths and ways of knowing and doing it has striven hard to bring to the attention of the ‘Western’ academy.  

Chapter 1, “Infrastructures of the Imaginal”, offers an ethnographic depiction of the life-altering journey of an inter-sex fakir, and shows how the inner worlds of the figures striving for intimacy with the Saint are (re)shaped by the material-affective structures created and imposed by the state. In doing so, Chapter 1 provides the history of the shrine alongside how the Muslim state’s changing relationship with the affairs of the shrine also impacts how the inner world of a fakir finds its expression in the ‘outside’ and material world of the shrine. 

If Chapter 1 delves into the world of an inter-sex fakir living in a secluded grove, Chapter 2, “Her Stories in His Durbar”, brings into focus the audience hall, or the center of action of the shrine. Readers meet a woman fakir and hear her story. And we learn how a woman living in the men’s world in the shrine holds on and strives to maintain her position and status as a pir, spiritual guide, and as someone who is close to Lal, the main saint of the shrine. The chapter demonstrates how, on the one hand, the state and the sayyids (local Shia elite responsible for the shrine’s affairs) influence the extent to which the woman fakir can exercise her role as the spiritual guide; on the other hand,  she is carries the acceptable ‘label’ of being a mother, and that it is the Saint who has given her the permission to stay there, create space for her in the center of the shrine.  

Chapter 3, “In Other Guises, Other Futures,” likewise offers a reflection on a woman who left behind her children and decades-long marriage and instead lives on the premises of the shrine. Being close to Lal, the main Saint of the Shrine,  is not a given, in that, you can’t claim to be staying there permanently if you have felt close once. You have to make a sustained effort.. And then your family life very well might interfere with your spiritual path, as much as the spiritual journey interferes with your family life, the nature of which is determined and informed by the heteronormative you thought you had left behind (outside the shrine). The chapter explores how the inner spiritual world gets externalized and made visible to the public – be it through wearing bangles on the arms, wearing certain (mostly black) clothes, or dying your  hair. The material expressions (a certain dress, bangles, or long hair) are not just the means for the fakirs to externalize their inner worlds, they also are the visible signifiers to show that they are in proximity to the Saint. 

Chapter 4 revolves around a woman fakir’s partially successful struggles as she dis/guises as a spiritual guide amongst an otherwise men fakirs’ world. The chapter, “Love in a Time of Celibacy,” devolves into the nature of a scandal coming out of a men’s-only fakir lodge. The chapter shows how the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the sexual intimacies live side by side in Lal’s durbar, the Saint’s court or shrine. Chapter 5, “Worlding Fakirs,” brings to surface how the saintly figures, the fakirs, take on other roles, invoke other sense(s) of time and space. Thus, being on an inner and outer journey to seek the companionship of the Saint of Sehwan also brings into view a whole new world for fakirs and their followers or companions, with a range of more-than-living relations outside the mainstream heterosexual normative of Pakistani culture/ways of being and knowing?

Queer Companions builds on important work in affect and religious studies, while convincingly arguing how queer identifications and ways of life are not inherently secular. In other words, Kasmani argues that being queer or enacting queerness does not entail being rid of the religious. What it adds to is how within a Muslim social context of Pakistan (South Asia) being queer and religious can and have been going side by side. Queer Companions suggests the need for reading queer religiously, as the queer and the religious are always already entangled. Pulling this line of recent theorizing out of the Western/Christian context, Omar Kasmani helps in a significant way how we might un-straighten the epistemic maps of Euro-American-centric theory.