By Anna Suvrova
It is obvious that in the peculiar conditions of the empires, sultanates and principalities of medieval India, where Muslim minority ruled over a many times numerically greater non-Muslim majority, any other, more rigorous religious policy would have been simply impossible. Therefore, syncretism in religious and cultural spheres objectively promoted religious peace and socio-political stability. In the present century Indian historians not infrequently see in religious and cultural syncretism the result of conscious inter-confessional collaboration, which is correct only to a certain extent. In the majority of cases this syncretism was a by-product of superficial Islamisation, the illegitimate offspring of popular Islam, uncon-sciously retaining in it a conglomerate of pre-Islamic religious beliefs.
Only in rare instances did syncretism become the policy of the upper social strata and intellectual elite, and it is precisely this syncretism that evokes particularly tender emotion on the part of modern historians.
Therefore, the names of such well-known supporters of syncretism as Ibrahim Sharqi, the Sultan of Jaunpur, and Sultan Zainul‘abidin of Kashmir, Ibrahim II ‘Adil Shah of Bijapur and Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah of Golkonda, Mahmud Begra, the ruler of Gujarat, and the Mughal emperor Akbar started being shown to the best advantage in contrast to the names of those who adhered to a rigid conservative policy in the interests of purity of faith. To the latter - Sultan of Delhi Mubarak Shah Khalji, Ghiyathuddin Tughluq, Muhammad Tughluq and Firoz Shah Tughluq, Sikandar Lodi and the Great Mughal Aurangzeb - fell the thankless roles of fanatic and obscurant.
However, if for the time being we leave aside what historical science today considers to be beneficial and progressive for the Indian society of that distant age and turn to the problem of syncretism, insulated from its socio-political context, as to a purely religious problem, then from this point of view entirely different fragments of the Indian cultural landscape come to light.
Irrespective of what the spiritual content of certain forms of piety was in medieval Indian Islam, much is found therein which could be considered ‘wild growth’, an uncontrolled but redundant and at times deforming outgrowth of religious life. It applies mainly to the cult of saints, which having crossed over to Indian soil, flourished to full and indeed uncontrolled bloom.
It was in the sphere of the veneration of the numerous Sufi shaikhs, sayyids and prs that religious syncretism, by its chaotic diversity, posed the greatest threat to pietism and the stringent fulfilment of the injunctions of Islam.
In contrast to Christianity, in Islam there did not exist any official canonization of saints. An actually existing person, a legendary character or folk-lore hero was canonized by force of the general opinion of the faithful, and religious authorities were sooner or later compelled to accept the spontaneously established tradition of veneration, trying to make it conform with the norms of Islam.3 Such initiatives from the lower strata of society were bound to impart to the veneration of saints features alien to Islam, which provoked theologians to protest.
The innermost stirrings of the heart of a true believer should be directed towards Allah and his Prophet, whereas veneration of saints divided and fragmented this aspiration into a multi-coloured kaleido-scope far removed from Islamic ceremonies, rituals and customs. Permeation of all the spheres of human existence by religion in these conditions led not only to the spirituality of the worldly but also to the profanation and secularization of the spiritual.
In the unsophisticated consciousness of ordinary believers, most of them newly converted to Islam, favourite saints were endowed with a certain authenticity. The saints deaths as martyrs and the miracles wrought by them were of the utmost mportance in the people’s imagination, and recourse to them for help was something more intelligible and usual than faith in one invisible God, devoid of anthropomorphic features.
Veneration of a saint is almost always the veneration of his tomb in which, side-by-side with the buried remains, some material evidence of his temporal life like dress, turban, sandals, staff, weapons and beads are preserved, acquiring the status of relics. Such an attachment to things material was bound to have a certain corporeal influence upon the spiritual sphere, at times leading to quite unexpected extremes.Popular religion in the lower social strata, with its inherent occultism condemned by Islam, countenanced veneration of corporal remains of saints, which imparted a particular materiality to their images. The most well-known example of veneration of such corporal remains is the numerous cultic memorials in which hair or a footprint of the Prophet or the members of his family were preserved. These memorials were built on the model of tombs, like the famous darg ¯hs of ‘the sacred hair’ War Mubarak (in Rohri) and Hazrat Bal (in Srinagar), and also memorials of the ‘Prophet’s footprint’ (qadam Rasul)4 in Nabiganj, Dhakka and Lucknow. In addition the mirac-ulous property of multiplying themselves was ascribed to the Prophet’s hair. Ignaz Goldziher, one of the pioneers in the field of
saints’ cult in Islam, quotes the words of the Arab traveller Abdul Ghani Nabulusi, who was told by a certain Indian Muslim during Hajj that in India many people are in possession of Prophet’s hair: some have a single hair, others - two, and certain others -up to twenty ... He also reported to me that these hairs sometime move by themselves and that by themselves they get lengthened and multiplied in such a way that from just one hair crops up a great number of new hairs.
(Goldziher 1967-71, 2: 93)5
Veneration of relics penetrated even into the public cult of the mosque: thus in Badshahi Masjid in Lahore numerous relics, which supposedly had been brought to India by Babur, were preserved, belonging to the Prophet, Caliph ‘Ali, members of his household and also to the great saint of Baghdad, eponym of the Qadiriyya frater-nity, ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani. After the fall of the Mughal dynasty they fell into the hands of Sikh rulers and then of the English, and it was they who handed them over to the mosque. Generally speaking, India had the reputation of being a peculiar market for relics, mostly of spurious ones. In 1873 a shirt of the Prophet, adorned with verses from the Qur’a¯ n, was presented to the Viceroy of India. It turned out that it was bought by a certain English General for ten thousand rupees in the bazaar at Calcutta.
Wherever the question is that of a relic, medieval consciousness stops neither at desecration nor at most ordinary crime. A cruel example is to be found in the Census of India of 1911 which reveals that the Afridi Pathans of Tirah did not have a single tomb of a saint on their land which could be venerated. Suffering from a collective inferiority complex Afridis induced by generous offers a saint of the most notorious piety to take up his abode among them. Then they made quite sure of his staying with them by cutting his throat; they buried him honourably; they built over his bones a splendid shrine at which they might worship him and implore his aid and intercession on their behalf.
(Schimmel 1980: 127)
J. Huizinga cites quite similar examples from the medieval history of Europe: in the eleventh century Italian peasants wanted to kill St Romuald in order to take possession of his remains, and after St Thomas Aquinas’ death monks prepared his body (for experimental purposes) fearing to lose the invaluable relic (Huizinga 1995: 168).
Subsequent formalization of the cult of saints resulted in a transition from relics to amulets, which were considered to be a means to ward off evil, or a medicine for effecting a cure, as well as being a depository of the miraculous occult power of the saint. From the fourteenth century onwards preparation of amulets (ta‘wı¯dh), each a kind of individual memorial, became the main occupation of the dervishes and attendants of tombs.
The amulet contained a small piece of stone from the saint’s tomb, a chip from the canopy over the mazar or a shred from the chaddar used as its cover and finally simply a piece of paper with a prayer or a verse from the Qur’a n written on it. As with everything else in the world of saints, amulets also had their specialization: some were meant to ward off the effect of evil eye and black magic, some to cure diseases of the body and others would ensure success in life and so on. Selling of ta‘wdh was an important source of income for the attendants of darghs.
In religions far removed from the iconoclasm of Islam and founded to a large extent on the veneration of images it is difficult to discover a qualitative difference between the degree of sacredness of one or other sacred image. All the images in a church, in a Hindu or Buddhist temple are real in equal degree and evoke the reverential trepidation of the believer.
An icon, a fresco or a statue by themselves do not teach that God (or gods) should be worshipped and the saints should only be venerated; in order to appreciate the difference one has to have recourse to the authority of the scripture or the canon, the clergy or the priests. In the system of concepts of Islam, which rejects all sorts of images of sacred objects as idolatry, saints have been assigned a place at the periphery of religious life. Saint (in Arabic wl, pl. awliya) is understood in had¯ths (Prophet’s traditions) as one close to, a friend of or even loved by God. According to early Arab Sufis (Junaid in particular) saints are people who have attained perfection in religious practice as well as in the knowledge of God; they are privy to the concealed, and contemplation of the Truth (musha¯hadat al-haqq) is accessible to them (Islam 1991: 45).
Many Muslim theologians, including one of the first theoreticians of Sufism in India, al-Hujwiri (buried in Lahore in the eleventh century, and later acknowledged as a saint under the name of Data Ganjbakhsh), have discussed the question of correlation between sainthood (wila¯yat) and prophethood (nubuwwat) and have categorically rejected the idea of superiority of saints over prophets.
Probably the most outstanding Iranian Sufi of the ninth century,at-Tirmidhi was one of the first who theoretically substantiated the oncepts of sainthood in his treatise Seal of the Saints (Khatm al-awliya). He, in particular, asserted that ‘prophets were saints of God before they became prophets. That is why they possess both qualities: prophethood as well as sainthood. They have no equals’ (al-Geyoushi 1971: 33).
At-Tirmidhi’s ideas about correlation between ‘prophethood’ and sainthood’ and about the hierarchy of saints were developed further in the works of the great Sufi shaikh Ibn al-‘Arabi, who affirmed that sainthood is a particular manifestation of prophethood: a saint does not compulsorily carry out a prophetic mission, whereas each and every prophet invariably happens to be a saint. Ibn al-‘Arabi differentiated between two types of sainthood - one common to all religions, the other a particular type, Muhammad’s sainthood, inherent only in Islam. He considered Jesus to be the ‘Seal’ of the first and the Supreme Sufi Quţb to be the ‘Seal’ of the second type of sainthood. ‘Be aware that sainthood is an all-embracing sphere, and therefore it is not discontinued; its task is general proclamation. But prophethood is legislative and law-giving and so it is discontinued’ (Ibn ‘Arabi 1980: 214).
Beginning from the tenth century the concept of an invisiblehierarchy of saints takes shape in Sufism. At the head of the hierarchyis the supreme saint - Quţb (literally ‘pole’ or ‘pivot’), also called‘helper’ (Ghawth); he is followed by an ever-increasing number of‘fulcrums’ (Awtd), ‘the chosen ones’ (Akhyr), ‘substitutes’ (Abdl),‘the dutiful ones’ (Abrr), ‘chiefs’ (Nuqab’),‘pre-eminent ones’(Nujab’), ‘couriers’ (Shuţţr), ‘the troops’ (Afrad) etc. Al-Hujwiri has written in his celebrated work The Unveiling of the Veiled (Kashf al-mahjub) about this ‘pyramid’ of saints:
Among them there are four thousand who are concealed and do not know one another and are not aware of the excellence of their state, but in all circumstances are hidden from themselves and from mankind ... But of those who have power to loose and to bind and are officers of the Divine court there are three hundred, called Akhyar, and forty, called Abdl, and seven, called Abrr, and four, called Awtd, and three, called Nuqaba’, and one, called Quţb or Ghawth. All these know one another and cannot act save by mutual consent. (al-Hujwiri 1992: 213-14)
The well-known philosopher and Sufi, the tragic hero of Indian history of the seventeenth century, Dara Shikoh wrote in the treatise The Notebook of The Saints (Safın t al-awliya) that with the death of one walıthe entire hierarchy of awliya is set in motion and the place of the deceased is taken by the subordinate walı, who, in his turn, is replaced by a walof still lower rank and this is how the entire pyramid is reconstructed (Dara Shikoh 1965: 58).
Each member of the hierarchy played a particular role: quţb, as apparent even from his title ‘pole/pivot’, governed the entire universe; ‘fulcrums’ supported and held in equilibrium the cardinal points, i.e. the four directions of the world; ‘deputies’ were responsible for the seven climatic zones of the world and ‘leaders’ concerned themselves with people’s worries and problems, etc. Ibn al-‘Arabi indicated that the higher members of the hierarchy possessed aggregate knowledge, which was distributed among the saints of lower ranks.
The entire knowledge of the universe is concentrated in quţb and he is himself a perfect Gnostic (‘arif). This hierarchy evidently reflected the com-plicated structure of Sufi orders (tarıqa), where with the increase in the number of members shaikh was compelled to accomplish training of the disciples and exercise control over the fraternity through numerous deputies (khalıfa).
Already by the fourteenth century most of the towns in North India had their own saint, upon whom the right to preach independently was conferred by the supreme shaikh of the fraternity or by his deputy, who, in their turn, traced their spiritual genealogy (silsila) to the eponym of one of the Sufi orders. Generally speaking, it is impossible to draw a clear distinction between the orders and the cult of saints proper, since awliyawere part of the order itself during their life-time, and after their death formed part of its isnad, the chain of persons transmitting the mystic tradition and bliss.
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: