LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) Whirling in a ritual reverie, the Sufi drummer looks toward the sky and knocks out a feverish beat. The bearded men in bright traditional robes dance and shout around him each frantically following his own path to enlightenment.
It is midnight in Lahore, Pakistan's city of culture and mysticism, and hundreds of Muslim men have packed the dingy courtyard outside the ramshackle Baba Shah Jamal shrine for the weekly ritual.
They have come to see Pappu Sain, the renowned and rotund Sufi drummer who leads the spectacle every Thursday with a lion-like roar and an enormous beard. He has performed throughout the Muslim world and in Germany, Switzerland and Britain. His followers say he has no equal.
As his hands bang a double-sided drum he wears slung over his shoulder, dancers vie to get as close to him as possible, stomping their feet and shaking sweat-soaked hair in rhythm with the beat. The closer to Pappu, the closer to God.
Sufism is the venerable mystical, or ecstatic, movement within Islam.
In the folk form common in Pakistan and elsewhere, devotees believe that ordinary people are too sinful to address God directly, and must instead make their requests through pure and learned saints, or Sufis. They believe the dance is a way of expressing their love for their favored saint, and performers say they experience an ecstasy that lifts them out of their earthly bodies.
Practiced throughout the Islamic world, Sufism is particularly popular among the poor. Orphans and beggars surround most Sufi shrines, seeking handouts of rice or spare change.
The mystic nature of believers' faith is frowned on by conservatives, many of whom oppose the concentration on saints as un-Islamic and the widespread use of hashish by practitioners.
The rich music and colorful robes also runs counter to the more hardline strains of Islam, like the one practiced by the former Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, which banned all music.
At the shrine in Lahore, Shah Jamal a 19th century saint who preached Islamic ideals through dancing and drum beating is buried in a crypt upstairs from the courtyard. Followers pray to him for a better job, a healthy child, a good marriage.
''I have not missed a single Thursday gathering here in the last 25 years,'' said Naseer Ahmad, a 58-year-old street salesman. ''I don't have a concept of life without bowing at this shrine. All my life is devoted to pleasing the saint, and in return he gives me purpose.''
For believers, top drummers like Pappu are revered as conduits to the heavens.
''It is amazing, but when I beat the drum at a high speed, I feel nothing just my mind,'' says the 42-year-old Pappu, seated cross-legged before the performance on a blanket of honor under a the courtyard's main wall. ''I couldn't play this way if I were here in my body. I am wherever God takes me.''
Other drummers serve as warm-up acts, or get up to accompany the master, but Pappu is the main attraction. The spectators are packed so tightly that many sit in the branches of nearby trees, and others try to push into the area reserved for dancers.
Pappu will occasionally walk around the circle, using his drum to push back the overeager and clear a space for the performance.
Once he starts, Pappu won't stop playing until the evening is over, usually well after 1 a.m. It is an exhausting performance.
As the excitement builds, Pappu begins to spin, beating his drum at arms' length as the crowd roars its approval. Some of the half dozen dancers around him fall to the ground in exhaustion or dizziness, but they quickly get up.
The beat is deafening and hypnotic.
Besides the devout, the dance draws a tiny smattering of foreigners, and a sizable contingent of Pakistanis who seem most interested in the powerful hashish that accompanies the event.
''I feel like I am in the clouds and close to my creator whenever I visit this place,'' said Amanuel Sarfraz, a bearded 42-year-old mechanic, who was preparing himself a hashish cigarette. ''For me, visiting the shrine has nothing to do with religion. It is simply ecstasy.''
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