Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s efforts to cast himself at the vanguard of Islam are evident everywhere. Meanwhile, Pakistan Army chief General Bajwa is yet to show his hand.
Gazing out at the stars from her palace on the banks of the Tigris, Bawran bint al-Hasan’s astrolabe led her to a qat, a gash in the course of destiny: The life of her brother-in-law, caliph of the Abbasid empire from 833 CE to 842 CE, was under threat from an object made of wood. “At the appointed time,” historian George Saliba records, “every precaution was taken.” “When his servant brought him his comb and toothpicks, al-Hasan ordered the servant to use them before the caliph. As soon as he did, his head swelled and he fell dead.”
Fortune, as the stars had foretold, did turn: queen Bawran, long out of favour at court, was restored her lost palaces and estates, and her father taken back into the service of the caliph.
As Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan battles the Pakistan army—refusing to sign-on to the appointment of a new Director-General to the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), more than 15 days after the military made the announcement—suspicion is growing that the occult might be illuminating his path.
Last week, Palwasha Khan, a politician of the opposition People’s Party of Pakistan, let it be known that a mysterious, black-robed coven had been inserting needles into voodoo dolls representing the prime minister’s enemies, in the woods behind his home in Islamabad’s Bani Gala. Imran’s own black-robed wife—a mystic reputed to leave bowls of meat for a djinn she controls—is claimed to be key to his insistence that Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed remains as ISI chief, stemming from the prophecy that their fortunes are inextricably entwined.
In general, prime ministers who pushed back against the military’s choice of ISI chief haven’t done well: Benazir Bhutto lasted just 15 months after picking retired Lieutenant-General Shamsur Rahman Kallue for the job, and Nawaz Sharif’s selection, Lieutenant-General Khawaja Ziauddin Butt, ended up incarcerated after the 1999 military coup.
This time, though, Imran seems to believe a higher power is guiding the high-risk path. There’s more method in this madness, though, than one might at first glance imagine.
Little doubt exists that the story has something to do with Imran’s third wife, Bushra Khan, whom the world has only seen—literally and metaphorically—from behind the veil. Born in 1974 in Depalpur—well-known to Indians as 26/11 perpetrator Muhammad Ajmal Kasab’s home town—Bushra was born into a minor branch of the prominent landowning jatt-caste Wattoo clan. At just 15, she was married to Khawar Maneka, the son of a former provincial minister, and a customs official.
The marriage was, according to a member of her extended family, a source of some unhappiness within the clan, with Khawar’s mother resisting what she saw as a social step down for her son.
Little is known about how Bushra grew herself into a Pirni, or religious leader. In several media accounts, she has been associated with the famous shrine of Fariduddin Ganjshakar, a 13th-century Sufi mystic. Khawar’s family has ancestral ties to the Ganjshakar shrine, but there’s no public record of her occupying a role in its affairs, or hosting religious events.
Instead, Bushra appears to have embedded herself in circles of local women with an interest in the occult. The group included Farah Jabeen, at whose home Bushra and Imran are reported to have secretly married in early 2018. These religious circles have, by the accounts of many political insiders, come to occupy not a little importance as brokers of access to the prime minister.
Faiz Hameed and his wife, Islamabad gossip holds, were among those who associated themselves with this group, hoping to secure the ISI chief’s promotion to the office after General Qamar Javed Bajwa leaves it on November 28, 2022. At that time, General Faiz will be fourth in seniority in the Pakistan Army.
General Bajwa’s support for Faiz—once seen as his likely successor—strained as a result of his brazen support for Imran’s political interests, the story goes. It is also possible that Western pressure had something to do with the decision, as Faiz was closely linked to Pakistan’s failure to rein in the Taliban.
The mystery over who introduced Imran to Bushra, crucially, remains unresolved. He is said to have begun visiting her around 2015, in the build-up to the election of billionaire businessman-politician Jahangir Khan Tareen, the first electoral breakthrough made by Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. The godwoman, the story goes, impressed him with the quality of her predictions on that election.
Exactly how one thing led to the next—the next, in this case, being two divorces, and marriage to a woman Imran claims not have seen unveiled before his wedding—remains shrouded in mystery.
In some tellings of the story, Bushra promised that the stars foretold their marriage would lead to his becoming prime minister. In other accounts, Bushra was fed political intelligence by the ISI, which she passed on to a credulous Imran dressed up as prophecy. In the absence of a credible biographical account, these stories—put out by Imran’s opponents—must of course be treated with great caution.
That Imran’s personality includes a wellspring of gullibility, though, has some basis. The prime minister’s former wife, Rehman Khan—amidst a catalogue of more usual cricket-star practices, like threesomes, cocaine-snorting, and anal dildos—has famously written that he rubbed black lentils into his genitals, to ward off evil spells.
Imran himself has said little on this subject. In a rare interview on his personal life, the prime minister claimed his relationship with Bushra was driven by a decades-old interest in Sufism—the existence of which seems to have been a carefully-kept secret. Even though “I know more about physical attraction than anyone else,” Imran insisted, “actually the character of a person and the mind, the intellect, is much more important than the physical… Sufism is an order with many levels, but I have never met anyone who is as high as my wife.”
Little reason exists, though, to be surprised if superstition did guide the decision: many Indian politicians, and even some in the West, seek comfort in the advice of soothsayers and astrologers. In Imran’s case, though, the stars are also guided by cold logic.
The prospect that the Bushra-Imran relationship was prodded along by the ISI, though, isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. From 2015, the ISI, under Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar, had committed itself to dismantle prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to seek rapprochement with India. The army had a simple aim: to rid itself of a powerful politician who was seeking to end its hegemonic grip over national security and strategic policy. Faith was a critical tool.