By Anna Suvrova
The excessiveness of the cult of saints threatened to eradicate the distance between the temporal and the spiritual. The sacred was constantly lost in the profane because of an inevitable mixing-up of ritual with everyday life. Profanation increased in the practice of pilgrimage: thus, memorial services for saints during their ‘Urs were marked by tumultuous fairs and were accompanied by unrestrained public revelry, performances by vagrant buffoons and songstresses of easy virtue, wrestling bouts and cockfights.
It was understandable that the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, Firoz Shah Tughlaque or Sikandar Lodi, zealous for a purity of faith, endeavoured to bring Ziyarat under control and, in particular, prohibit female Muslims from attending ‘Urs.
However, their pious efforts were in vain, because with the passage of time the institution of pilgrimage only gained in strength. This was facilitated not only by purely religious factors (a cessation of the policy of forced Islamisation, the relaxation of ideological control on the part of the state, the attractiveness of conversion to Islam for the indigent strata of the urban population and the resultant sharp growth of the Muslim community), but also by socio-political changes, in particular, the unification of the country under the powerful authority of the Great Mughals.
Unification brought with it improvements in the means of communication between various regions of the country and relative safety of movement for pilgrims which further enhanced the opportunities for pilgrimage. Already during Akbar’s reign, in the second half of the sixteenth century, such eminent representatives of the Muslim community as historian Bada’uni and theologian Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi declared that the cult of saints had lost touch with the fundamentals of Islam, had gone out of control and had become a threat to the ideological unity of Indian Muslims.
Of course, in the numerous examples of the fusion of the sacred and the profane and the gradual secularization of faith, the naive lack of fastidiousness and ignorant enthusiasm of superficially converted neophytes can be discerned in the cult of saints, the new faith, rather than intentional blasphemy and a lack of piety. Only a society wholly imbued with religious spirit and perceiving faith as something which goes without saying, is capable of such excesses.
At the same time the very people who were unconsciously accustomed to the ‘barren symbolism’ of degenerative and emasculated rituals were endowed with receptivity of a high order for the most subtle expressions of spiritual feeling and instantly became inflamed by the preaching of a vagrant Qualandar or the obscure rhetoric of an ecstatic Majzoob. J. Burckhardt in his Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen accurately formulated this peculiarity of the development of popular, but at the same time superficial, piety:
A powerful religion reveals itself, penetrating in all the circumstances of life, and imbues each and every impulse of the spirit, each and every element of culture. Of course, in due course these very circumstances in their turn have their repercussions on the religion, and it’s very core can then be stifled by the succession of ideas and images, which once upon a time it had inducted in its sphere. ‘Consecration of all relationships of life’ has its fatal side. (Burckhardt 1969: 99)
Since the cult of saints was precisely such a ‘consecration of all relationships of life’ its destabilizing effect on the ‘core’ of Islam was going to be inevitable. It is obvious that veneration of saints created a certain borderland of faith - comfortable, less burdensome and, above all, easy of access to one and all - somewhere in between the many strict and imposing restrictions imperative of the Sharı at and the transcendental and abstruse revelations of the Sufis.
One could say that the cult of saints was a reaction to the intellectual philosophy of mysticism as well as to the formal rationalism of Islam, manifesting itself in law and systematized theology. The cult of saints coalesced to such an extent with the everyday and economic activities of ordinary Muslims, and responded to their fundamental requirements, that with all its fantastic nature and orientation towards miracle, it objectively introduced a sobering and materialistic note into the spiritual labyrinth of the Indian medieval period.
The cult of saints in general and pilgrimage in particular rarely had the sacrament of obtaining bliss and transcendent communion with the saint (Muraqaba) 13 as their goal. The purpose of Ziyarat became quite utilitarian and temporal: getting cured of a disease, getting rid of bewitchment by the evil eye, giving birth to a son, marrying off a daughter, winning a protracted lawsuit, or mending one’s financial position, for example.
The diversity of the pilgrims’ individual wishes and aims extraordinarily widened the spectrum of rites, the sacramentalia, because in accordance with the laws of occult thinking each request by a pilgrim called for special, strictly defined rites and ritual action on his part with respect to a specific saint.
Theoretically Ziyarat envisaged the following activities: ritual circumambulation (tawaf) of the tomb, touching the threshold, lattice or fence of the Mazar, sweeping its floor with a special brush, recitation from the Quran, in the first instance, of Fatiha, adornment of the Mazar with flowers and coloured shreds and distribution of alms.
However, in India, with the influence of local cults, superstitions and rites, the ‘price-list’ of services, rendered by the pilgrim to the saint, had considerably expanded. Often these rites and rituals were of an occult nature, running counter to Islam, and in them connection with the pagan beliefs of popular Hinduism of the lower strata was perceptible.
In particular the cult of saints had borrowed from the practice of Hinduism specific offering of fruits, sweets and rice, part of which after prayers and invocations was returned to the faithful in the form of consecrated food and was distributed among the pilgrims (a version of Indian prasad).14
Sometimes such a distribution had quite an extravagant form: thus during the ‘urs of saint Qadirwali Sahib in Tanjore the attendants of his tomb smashed earthen pots with sweetened rice (k’hır) on the ground and pilgrims, seeking to get hold of a morsel, crawled in the dust.
It is partly due to the influence of Hindu Tirtha that the veneration of reservoirs has become a part of the cult of saints. Thus, in the ponds, dedicated to the already referred to Mangho Pir and the Persian mystic Bayazid Bistami (Chittagong), ‘sacred’ crocodiles and tortoises are to be found.
Kids are offered in sacrifice to the former even up to the present time, which bears an obvious resemblance to Durga Puja, and until the offering is eaten up, the wish of the pilgrim is not granted. Till recently pilgrims performing ritual ablutions in a pond with crocodiles were subjected to real ordeals. Bathing in a reservoir together with gigantic centenarian tortoises (it was considered that vicious Jinns were turned into these tortoises by the saint) the faithful supposedly acquired their longevity. There even existed a definite connection between the saint and natural sources of water: tombs of Mangho Pir, Pir Ghaib (Baluchistan) and Shah Saddar (Lakhi, Sindh) are situated between two sulphur springs.
The influence of Hindu rituals has imparted an unusual element in Islamic rites, that of a matrimonial or erotic nuance to the numerous ritual activities relating to saints. Thus there are numerous variations of celebration of the saint’s ‘wedding’, offering him ‘nuptial bed’,trays with henna, sweet dough balls (pind’ı), and other matrimonial symbols (in Ghazi Miyan’s veneration rituals).
The tombs of Loh Langar Shah in Bangalore, Shaikh Saddu in Bengal, Shah ‘Abdullah Ghazi in Karachi were places of convergence for prostitutes and transvestites, and individual rites of veneration of these saints evidently went back to erotic cults. The cult of seven righteous women, popular in the Northwest of the subcontinent, was also of an esoteric nature.
They were known by different names: Pak Damaniyan in Lahore, Haft ‘Afifa in Thatta, Bibi Nahzan in Qalat and Sathbhain Asthan in Sukkur. The rituals of veneration of this group of seven were connected with the occult function of virginity and went back to the rite of initiation to womanhood. Generally speaking, the unification of saints into a stable group is highly typical of the lower levels of medieval society.
Thus, in the fifteenth century the cult of Five Pırs (panj pıriya) took shape in North India, the group consisting of various saints in various regions of the country. In the main, the Five Pırs were venerated in Punjab, Bengal and in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where even collective tombs were erected for them, of which the most well known happened to be in Sonargaon (Bengal).
However, if the group of Five Pırs consisted of saints, so to say, par excellence - celebrated mystics, warriors for faith and legendary heroes of popular traditions (the most common composition of the group, e.g. Baba Farid, Makhdum-i Jahaniyan Jahangasht, Jalaluddin Surkhposh Bukhari, Ghazi Miyan and Khwaja Khid.r) - the choice of other collective saints smells of the profanation of the very idea of Muslim sainthood (wila¯yat).
For example, in Sind as far back as the twelfth century arose the cult of the seven beheaded (Haft tak). These were seven fishermen who had eaten up the remains of a miracle worker saint and who were put to death for this crime. In consequence of the terrible meal the fishermen (or rather their dead bodies) posthumously acquired the gift of prophecy and could appear before people in critical moments of their life, foretelling their future.
Thus, cannibals, feeding on carrion, started being venerated as saints and the influence of their cult was reflected, in particular by the great Sindhi mystic of the eighteenth century, Shah ‘Abdul Latif, in his ‘Epistle’ (Ris lo). It goes without saying that this cult seems to be a blasphemous parody of Muslim prophecy.
Sometimes the venerated tombs are fake or anonymous graves. Often the name of the locality where they are situated is only consonant with the folkloric or hagiographic toponym. Generally speaking in the world of South Asian saints there is a great number of doubles: a saint, whose tomb is venerated at one place, might actually have been buried at quite another place. From this point of view many sacred tombs happen to be cenotaphs. Thus, the town of Ucch in Pakistan is famous for the tomb of the wandering saint Makhdum-i Jahaniyan Jahangasht. At the same time the Dargah in the small Indian town of Manikpur (Uttar Pradesh) also became the place of his cult.
Veneration of Bayazid Bistami’s grave in Chittagong is even more at variance with historical facts: this famous Persian mystic never went to East Bengal, and what is more he never left his native place, Bistam in Iran, where he was also laid to eternal rest. There is a tomb in Qalat (Baluchistan), ascribed to Shaikh ‘Abdul Quadir Jilani,15 although Baluchis, like other Muslims of the world, know quite well that the ‘great intercessor’, eponym of the Qadiriyya order, is buried in Baghdad. For that matter what is there to be surprised at if, in Mazar-i Sharif, the main Muslim shrine of Afghanistan, the faithful venerate the cenotaph of Caliph ‘Ali, who is actually buried in Najaf, the sacred town of the Shi‘a. In the cult of saints individual provincial features manifested them- elves, which the universal equalizing tendency of Islam was unable to erase. Under the cover of the cult of saints surviving relics of religions and archaic beliefs conquered by Islam are still extant in it. Among these relics are the cults of the dead and forefathers. It is these cults which to a large extent explain the peculiarities of the veneration of deceased saints and their tombs. Custodians of a saint’s grave and ministers of his cult were always his spiritual or genetic descendants. Although this practice had a Muslim colouring (through the institution of succession, silsila or isnad), it in fact appertains to the cult of forefathers, because since the times of the tribal system no stranger had the right to perform religious rites at the family altar.
Also evident in the image of the saint were the traits of the venerated ancestor: eponym-founder of the Sufi fraternity, ancestor-founder of a trade guild, in general an ‘elder’. After his demise such a saint continued to live in the interests of the kin collective, be it an ethnic, professional or caste group. Ultimately the word ‘b ba’ itself, denoting ‘father’ or ‘grandfather’, became part of the names and nicknames of many South Asian saints, among which particularly well-known are Baba Farid, Baba Tahir and Baba Ratan. The most prominent saint of Sarhad (the North-est Frontier Province) has in his name Pir Baba a combination of ‘old an’and ‘father’ and Wali Baba of Punjab has a combination of ‘saint’ and father’.
Popular consciousness firmly believed that a saint continues to live after his death. Hence the frequent prefix of the word zinda (‘living’,‘eternal’) to the name of a saint, for example, Zinda Pir (same as Khwaja Khidr), or Zinda Shah Madar. Historian Bada‘uni asserted with all seriousness that martyrdom for faith gave such a miraculous power to the holy martyrs (shahı¯d) that they could have children even after death (Schimmel 1980: 136). Faith in the living dead was reflected even in the rituals of saints’ veneration.
Thus, in the cenotaph of Sayyid Yusuf Gardezi’s tomb (Multan) a small hole has been made, covered with a wooden lid. Through this hole the saint, who died in the twelfth century, talks to the most pious pilgrims or even extends his hand for greeting! Near the doors of the tomb there are also two graves: one of a lion, on whose back the saint supposedly rode into Multan from Afghanistan in the year 1080, and the other of a snake, whom he used to hold in his hand instead of a staff. A visit to the graves of the animals is a part of the rite of Ziyarat of the saint’s tomb.
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: