By Anna Suvrova
Quite a number of Indian and Pakistani toponyms are derived from names f well-known saints; others actually contain the word pır, which has become a synonym for saint: mountain ridge Pir Panjal, mountain pass Haji Pir, hills Pir Wadhai and Pir Ghali, settlements Pir Patho and Pir Sohawa, for example.
Although in people’s consciousness a miracle constituted the most important event in the biography of a saint, moderate or, as they were called, ‘sober’ mystics regarded karmat with utmost caution. In their opinion, a miracle was not an indication of the spiritual perfection of a saint, since it could distract him from pious devotion to God and be a certain temptation and enticement.
‘Miracles are men’s menses’ declared the thirteenth-century Shaikh Hamiduddin Nagori, reflecting the practice whereby a husband avoids his wife during her menstrual days, so similarly God also avoids union with a mystic working miracles.
Generally speaking, public opinion denounced public performance of miracles, which was nothing but usurpation of the Prophet’s rights, and a dervish turning a rope into a snake or water into milk before the eyes of a bazaar crowd evoked equal disdain on the part of official representatives of religion, mystics as well as pious laymen. Most often members of small marginal fraternities (Madariyya, Jalaliyya, Hydariyya, for example), whose dubious, verging on dishonest, activities were persecuted by the authorities, earned their living by this kind of ‘miracle’.
Karamat was required to be performed in secret. Therefore, many hagiographic subjects have a particular feature: a miracle ceases the moment people in the vicinity come to know of it. Thus, for example, the previously mentioned saint of Delhi, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar, nicknamed Kaki (from the Persian kak - ‘stale bread’), got his nick-name thanks to a miracle connected with this word.
Like the majority of the Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya order, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar lived in voluntary penury and could not provide for his large family. Stale bread, only God knows where from, appeared under the saint’s prayer rug every day, and constituted all the sustenance of his house-hold. When the saint’s talkative wife spread this news among the neighbours, the ‘miracle’ immediately ceased.
It is paradoxical, but a living saint, performing kar mat, was as a rule supposed to be inferior in significance to a dead saint, because in India, as also in contemporary Pakistan and Bangladesh, the main object of veneration and even worship was and remains the saint’s tomb - Mazar, Dargah or Maqubara. In fact the cult of saints in the countries of South Asia is the cult of their tombs.
The actual and metaphorical role of the saint’s tomb, in the course of so many centuries serving the ritual, cultural, social and even economical purposes of a vast social environment, is extremely important. The spiritual content of the concepts surrounding the Muslim tomb, it seems, did not leave even the crusaders indifferent: some contem-porary scholars trace the origin of such a sacramental concept as macabre (as in la danse macabre, or dance of death), without which the Christian image of death is not possible, to the word maqbara (Huizinga 1995: 212).
According to the precepts of Islam a grave should not serve as a place for prayers, therefore various religious authorities disapproved of adorning saints’ tombs with monumental structures crowned with domes: by resembling mosques because of their architecture and décor, such tombs were fraught with the danger of being turned into prayer houses.
There are quite a number of hagiographic legends of how, out of humility, exceedingly pious saints themselves dismantled their splendid tombs: thus the domes of the mausoleums of Ahmad ibn-Hanbal in Baghdad, Baha’uddin Naqshband in Bukhara, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan fell to the ground supposedly on their own.
By the end of its existence the Delhi Sultanate Mazar (literally ‘a place which is visited’) had grown from a modest structure of cubic form with a dome into a prayer and ritual complex (dargah), where side by side with the tomb proper there used to be a small mosque with minaret, living accommodation for the pır (‘old man’), or the ‘successor of a pır’ the sajjadanishın (literally ‘one sitting on his prayer rug’), cells for dervishes (hujra), halls for gatherings (majalis), for hearing music (sama ‘)10 and for celebration of the saint’s birthday (maulud) and day of demise (‘urs), a guest house for pilgrims and also a public kitchen, where any visitor or beggar could get food free of charge.
Some of these premises were separate buildings, but most of them were located in a covered gallery or arcade (riwaq), bordering the spacious courtyard of the Dargah. Apart from the main sacred place, the tomb of the saint, comparatively modest mausoleums of his deputies (khalıfa), the graves of disciples (murıds) and of close male relatives were also located on the territory of the dargh.
The structure of a Dargah in many respects bears a resemblance both to the structure of the cloisters of the Sufis (khnqh, jam ‘at-kh na, zawiya) in various lands of Islam and the Hindu shelter for pilgrims, the dharmas l, and even to the Sikh temple, gurdw ra, which gives the communal refectory, or langar its name.
The idea which had taken root over the centuries about the omnipotence of saints not only in spiritual but also in temporal matters led to their identification with temporal sovereigns, hence the commonly used prefix of the title Shh to the name or nickname of saints and the other name of dargh -darbar - also signifying a ruler’s court or hall for receptions.
The central ritual act of the cult of saints was pilgrimage to their tombs, ziyarat (literally ‘visit’),11 the practice of which took shape in Islam quite late. This ritual, substantially at variance with the spirit of early Islam, came into being under the manifest influence of local religious beliefs in the countries conquered by Arabs.
It is from this that the basic features of Ziyarat take their origin: the succession of the places of devotion, when one and the same place in the course of centuries is visited for religious purpose by pilgrims of various faiths, and great diversity of rites, substantially varying from one Muslim country to the other. In short, fusing of Ziyarat with pre-Islamic or non-Islamic forms of pilgrimage brought about the phenomenon of the rise of ‘inter-religious shrines’.
The practice of pilgrimage was in existence in India long before the advent of Islam; thus various sacred objects, visited by pilgrims, are mentioned even in the Mahabhrat and Pur n¸ as. This practice bears little resemblance to Muslim Ziyarat; it comprises ablution and libation in sacred rivers and reservoirs, circumambulation of sacred objects from left to right (pradakshin¸ ya), memorial offerings to forefathers and other rites.
Under the category of sacred places, tirtha (‘river crossing’, ‘ford’), came reservoirs but also temples, mountains, caves, stones, forests and even entire sacred towns. Numerous gatherings of pilgrims were accompanied by regular fairs (mela) and popular festivals, of which the most well-known is Kumbha Mela, held once in twelve years in each of the four towns: Hardwar, Prayag, Nasik and Ujjain, on which, according to Hindu tradition, god Indra’s son Jayanta had sprinkled drops of the nectar of immortality amrita.
With such an abundance of sacred objects and places of pilgrimage their Islamization took place easily, extensively, but to a great extent superficially. Often from the ruins of a temple, even from its architectural components, a mosque was built; at the place where once upon a time there had been the cell of a Hindu hermit, a Sufi Shaikh erected a Khanquah; alongside a sacred reservoir a dargah sprang up, but no single object of veneration could do away with or expunge the old sacred object from collective memory.
Nowadays, in an age of aggravated inter-religious relations, such a fusion of the objects of pilgrimage time and again has led to serious communal clashes, a recent example being the bitter conflict around Babri Masjid, Babur’s mosque in Ayodhya, located supposedly at the R majanamsthan, i.e. the birth-place of the god and epic hero Rama.
Many such ‘cultural strata’, where the practice of ziyarat was superimposed on pre-Islamic layers, have survived in the north-western regions of the subcontinent. Thus, for example, the well-known dargah of saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was built on the ruins of a Shiva temple and the cavernous cell and dargah of saint Bari Imam in Nurpur (contemporary Islamabad) have sprung up at the place of a Buddhist monastery of the Gandhara period. The darg h of saint Ghazi Miyan in Bahraich (Uttar Pradesh) was erected near a sacred reservoir, on the ruins of a sun god temple.
One should not think that ziyarat was typical exclusively for South Asian Muslims. Already in the course of the first centuries of the development of Islam, visiting the grave of Prophet Mohammed in Madina and pilgrimages to the tomb of caliph ‘Ali in Najaf and that of Imam Husain in Karbala had become customary for the faithful.
Tombs of celebrated mystics, the mausoleum of ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani in Baghdad, the mazar of Jalaluddin Rumi in Konya, the tomb of Baha’uddin Naqshband in Bukhara and the grave of Ahmad al-Badavi in Tanta, had gained the prestige of sacred places. The pious result of such ziyarat was sometimes equated with the rite of ‘umra, or small pilgrimage to Mecca.
Some of the saints (in particular, the famous mystic of the Deccan, Muhammad Gesudaraz) had during their lifetime declared to their followers that a visit to their tombs could substitute for a pilgrimage to Mecca at those times when performance of Hajj was hampered by some serious circumstance.
To a certain extent, conferring high spiritual status to the saints’ tombs was brought about for practical and often quite prosaic reasons: in addition to the problem of living in a distant part of the Muslim world, the rite of Hajj was also inaccessible to the poor. The ‘ulama¯ consistently opposed the participation of the poor in Hajj, as, setting out on the long journey ‘at the will of Allah’, they lived by begging throughout the journey to Mecca.
This is exactly why authorities, both temporal and religious, did not consider it necessary to resist the establishment of an institution which at least compensated for the inability of a greater part of the population to perform the most important rite of Islam. At the same time it was precisely in India with its ancient institution of pilgrimage that the practice of ziyarat gave rise to the ‘wild growth’ that I mentioned earlier.
In the atmosphere of sanctity surrounding each and every inch of the land the institution of pilgrimage grew with frightening speed and acted like a mechanism: crowds of pilgrims throughout the year migrated from one tomb to another, since the maulud or ‘urs of one or another of an innumerable multi-tude of saints fell on each day of the calendar.
Certain social groups, in particular the indigent from towns and cities, often turned into professional pilgrims, spending the greater part of their life in ziyrat. And it is of no wonder, because life in the premises of a Dargah guaranteed shelter, food, medical aid and generous alms Sadaqua) to a poor man for some period of time.
Ziyarat could be both individual and collective.12 Recourse was taken to the latter in order to get rid of natural calamities and epidemics. In hagiographic literature, among the descriptions of other virtues of a saint one quite often comes across the expression: ‘people pray at his grave for rain’.
Quoting Nizamuddin Aulia, his disciple and biographer Amir Khurd recounts details about a collective pilgrimage by the people of Delhi to the tomb of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki during a plague epidemic. In a comparatively later period social cataclysms also became a cause of mass ziyarat: thus, during the uprising of 1857-59 when Awadh became one of centres of anti-British struggle, sepoys prayed for victory at the grave of Ghazi Miyan, the warrior for faith (Gazetteer of Oudh 1985: 234).
Anna Suvorova is the Head of the Department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences), Professor of Indo-Islamic culture at the Institute of Oriental and classical cultures (Russian State University for the Humanities), member of the International faculty in National College of Arts (Pakistan), fellow of Academic Advisory Board, Centre for Study of Gender and Culture (Pakistan), fellow of Royal Asiatic Society (UK).
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: