By Anna Suvrova
The cult of saints was from the very beginning under suspicion by the representatives of ‘official’ Islam, seeing in it shirk, or assigning of ‘partners’ to Allah, i.e. polytheism. In the strict monotheism of Islam, worship of objects and people, even though saints, was looked upon as a terrible sin and infidelity (Kufr). Particularly intolerant to the cult of saints was the attitude of the Hanbali madhab, and in modern times that of the Wahhabis, advocates of the purification of Islam from external influences and of return to its sources.
They accused the followers of the cult of saints of shirk al-‘ilm, of ascribing a certain ‘secret knowledge’ to the saints, and also of shirk al-‘ibda, i.e. of worshipping something esides Allah, in particular of worshipping graves and tombs. Indian authorities of Hanafi madhab were not so strict and declared the cult of saints to be an ‘unauthorized innovation’ (bid‘a) and an error, which was, however, not as terrible as the accusation of shirk.
Besides shirk the cult of saints also encroached upon the dogma of Islam about qada, i.e. divine predestination. It turned out that in misfortune, in illness or indigence one might not rely upon the will of Allah, but endeavour to remedy the situation by means of a saint’s intercession or intervention. Praying to the saint, making him offerings and carrying out ritual activities in his tomb, a faithful endeavoured to change the circumstances of his fate (qadar), which as he should have thought, was predetermined from the heavens.
Considering that many ‘Ulema and faqıhs were connected with Sufi orders and often happened to be their members, there always existed a particular antagonism between them and the Sufis. In Goldziher’s words it was rooted partly in the insufficient orthodoxy of the dogmatics and exegetics, which were developing in Sufi schools, and partly in the unrestrained by ritual law and far from holy mode of life of the wandering dervishes, to a great extent abusing their position of Sufis.
After all at all times there were mystic orders, which adhered to so-called ibaha,16 which openly declared its adherents to be free from religious laws. (Goldziher 1967-71, 2: 32)
‘Sober’ mystics of moderate doctrine also found the shockingly impu-dent behaviour of certain Aulia in their lifetime just as repellent. Among these Aulia¯ there were many ecstatic visionaries, ‘possessed’ majdhbs, and malamatı¯s, negating all sorts of restrictions of temporal or spiritual authorities. No less irritating for them must have been the fussy diversity of Ziyarat, insufficient concentration on the spiritual by the pilgrims, and their utilitarian pragmatism in conjunction with their propensity for coarse entertainment of the type dished out at fairs.
In addition, in the rites of the veneration of the saints there was so much of the pagan, licentious or extravagant - from offering of sacrifice to crocodiles in Mangho Pir to collective ritual dances (dhammal) in Sehwan - that the aversion which the more enlightened members of the Muslim community had for the cult of saints on the whole becomes understandable.
The spiritual leader of Indian Sunnis, ‘renovator of faith’ Shah Waliullah (1703-62), whose teaching is close to that of Wahhabis, has formulated his case against pilgrims: Everyone who goes to Ajmer [to Mu‘inuddin Chishti’s tomb], or to the tomb of Salar Mas‘ud or similar place because of a need which he wants to be fulfilled is a sinner who commits a sin greater than murder or adultery. Is he not like those who call to Lat and ‘Uzza? Only we cannot call them infidels because there is no clear text in the Koran on this particular matter. (Waliullah 1970: 34)
No less passionately did Shah Waliullah also accuse those mystics, who at the time of dhikr invoked God in the terms of Hinduism (for example, Bh gwn, Param tma, or Paramesvara), which was an important part of the proselytizing practice of the early Sufis and owing to which their doctrines became comprehensible to the Hindu masses. Shah Waliullah summed up his philippics against mystics and saints with the phrase: ‘the books of the Sufis may be useful for the elect, but for common people they are more dangerous than poison’ (Waliullah 1970: 87).
Even Shah Waliullah’s famous contemporaries, the ‘pillars’ of Urdu poetry and members of the Naqshbandiyya fraternity, Mir Dard and Mazhar Janjanan, held similar views. The first of them called saints and ministers of their cult ‘merchants, selling miracles’ and the second contended that pilgrims to the tombs of saints were lower than dogs, because they licked thousand-year-old bones whereas all the true knowledge, ‘ilm, is in the yats of Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet.
Such a negation of the cult of saints was peculiar to a part of the Muslim elite from the end of the seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth, when the Mughal policy of religious, including ideological, collaboration was subjected to drastic revision (historians sometimes call this period ‘Naqshbandiyya reaction’).
The wider the ideas of the Wahhabis spread in India with their preaching of purification of Islam from external influences, from syncretism and also local rites and superstitions, the louder rang the words of censure directed against the cult of saints and popular religion.
If in the medieval age neither the Sultan of Delhi nor the Great Mughals, nor for that matter the representatives of spiritual and court aristocracy, were squeamish about pilgrimage to the tombs of saints, then beginning in the nineteenth century the Muslim elite began to persistently refuse to have anything to do with the beliefs and rites of ignorant common people, and its most authoritative leaders - Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal - saw in the cult of saints one of the reasons for the general decline of Indian Islam and the degeneration of faith.
Of course, a certain role in the hardening of the Indian reformers’ attitude towards the cult of saints was played even by the position of the Englishmen, who saw in the veneration of pırs and their tombs one of the manifestations of native ‘barbarity’. If the Englishmen displayed a certain respect, even if merely formal, for the institutions of normative Islam, popular religion evoked staunch hostility on their part.
The Sufi Shaikhs and Pırs were associated by them with Roman Catholic monasticism - to be frank an incorrect analogy - and that is why in the heat of puritan indignation they stigmatized them as ‘parasites’ and ‘deceivers of the people’.17 In this connection the observations of Captain Postans, who served in the last century in Sind, are typical:
The Pirs, Seyueds and other characters of pretended Moslem sanctity who infest Sindh, occupy a most important position amongst its inhabitants. From the Amirs, downwards, all Mohammedans being profoundly ignorant of any but the common forms of their religion, place implicit faith in the holiness of spiritual pastors and the efficacy of their devotion.
The consequence is that lazy Seyuds and worthless professors of religious zeal are patronized in Sindh to a degree elsewhere unknown: they are essentially a priest-ridden people; and an early writer, in describing their character, says, ‘That the Sindhian shows no liberality but in feeding lazy Seyuds, no zeal but in propagating the faith, no spirit but in celebrating the Ede, and no taste but in ornamenting old tombs’. Some of the finest portions of the country are held in Inam, or gift, by these men, and every Biluchi chieftain and tribe has its Pir Murshid or spiritual pastor, who collects a certain fee in kind for his holy offices. Khorassan, Cabul, Pishin in Central Asia, Persia, and all parts of India, contribute their quota of these blood-suckers. (Postans 1973: 50-1)
Criticism of the ‘wild growth’ of the cult of saints, of ‘boundless’ syncretism and of downright erosion of religio-cultural boundaries resounded throughout the course of a long period of Indian history- from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. However, in different historical contexts this criticism was perceived differently.
Those who in the medieval age cautioned against secularization and distortion of Islam in the cult of saints, as was done by the historians Barani and Bada‘uni, the theologian Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, the poet Mir Dard and by the Great Mughal, Aurangzeb, earned the reputation of being orthodox, fundamentalists and ardent opponents of inter-religious collaboration.
On the other hand, those who already in an era close to our times, like Syed Ahmad Khan, Altaf Husain Hali and Iqbal, dreamt of the revival of the purity of Islam and condemned pirism (Iqbal’s neologism from the word pır) and ‘lowly’ superstitions won the fame of enlightened reformers and progressive thinkers. Such is yet another paradox of history...
For the sake of fairness it should be said that notwithstanding the extent to which the practice of the veneration of saints might have deviated from the precepts of Islam, Aulia themselves were not involved in it to any great extent: in their tracts, discourses, auto-biographies and piritual poetry they emphasized their adherence to the Shariat, Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet. Jorge Luis Borges, having a perfect flair for all religions and cultures, once observed: ‘Islam has always tolerantly regarded the appearance of God’s trusted chosen ones, notwithstanding their ferocity or lack of modesty, if only their words did not offend orthodox faith’ (Borges 1957, 2: 83).
The cult of saints was and remains a living heritage of the ‘composite’ culture of South Asia, common to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Certain towns of the subcontinent like Ajmer, Sehwan and Ucch continue to develop only thanks to their famous darg hs. The names of these towns are usually accompanied by the word sharf which means ‘noble’, or ‘holy’. Entire settlements like Bhit Shah in Sind, Pakpattan or ithankot18 in Punjab exist exclusively owing to the tombs of famous saints which happen to be on their territory.
Historical sources, official documents, travelogues and memoirs and works of fiction testify to the truly national and essentially supra-religious nature of the practice of the veneration of sacred tombs. The Indian writer of our times, Krishan Chandra, remembering his mother, wrote:
She came here to venerate Haji Pir’s Mazar. Craving for sacred places ran in my mummy’s blood. She did not read books on national unity, did not hear speeches on religious tolerance and did not know words like humanism and equality of people ... To make up for it she visited Hindu temple as well as Sikh Gurdwara, prayed to Hindu gods and made offerings at the Mazars of Muslim saints - and all this also ran in her blood. Thus, like her, lived whole generation in old, illiterate, undivided India and by their efforts in the course of many centuries was the composite national culture created. (Chandar n.d.: 19-20)
Today, fewer people than before are involved in the ritual veneration of tombs - as pilgrims or ministers of the cult. In the last century the British abolished the systems of Waqf - tax-free plots of land and other property offerings for religious purposes - which were the basis of the material well-being of all the charitable and educational institutions of the medieval age, including Dargahs.
This brought about the gradual decline of many formerly rich and flourishing ritual complexes. In Pakistan the system of state patronage of the saints’ tombs was restored and today they are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Awqaf and the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Nevertheless, in practice many Dargahs and Mazars continue to be the property of the family or silsila of the saint and, therefore, the pious duty of making payment for their repairs, maintenance, community services and feeding of thousands of pilgrims lies like a heavy burden on the shoulders of private persons, in particular the pır, the spiritual successor of a saint and the head of the Dargah.
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: