By Anna Suvrova
In the popular Islam of the lower strata of society saints were venerated in the first instance not as Gnostics but as miracle workers, bearers of divine bliss (baraka), intercessors and patrons of various social groups and castes of artisans. By virtue of their closeness to the people, voluntary penury and their ascetic mode of life, Auliya often carried greater authority than the ‘official’ experts of religion, and therefore the authorities tried in every way possible to enlist their support.
Thus in the thirteenth century the Sultan of Delhi, Iltutmish, tried in vain to appoint a Sufi master, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, whom after his demise people started venerating as a saint, to the important post of Shaikh ul-Isla¯m6 in his court, where he would have been required to supervise the state’s spiritual matters.
A century later another saint of Delhi, Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dihli, was compelled to accept this post in the court of Muhammad Tughluq in order to save inhabitants of the Sultan’s capital from forced migration to the Deccan. However, in the majority of cases saints did not aspire for collaboration with temporal power, and at times their relations turned out to be quite inimical, as can be seen in the biographies of five great Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya brotherhood: Mu‘inuddin Sijzi, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar (Baba Farid), Nizamuddin Awliya and Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dihli.
Typical is the reaction of Nizamuddin Awliya to Sultan ‘Ala’uddin Khalji’s decision to visit his khanqah: ‘In my house there are two doors, and if Sultan enters through one of them, I will get out through the other one. We dervishes have nothing to do with matters of state’ (Nizami 1948: 389).
Notwithstanding the fact that popular religion was moved by saints’ virtues and glorious deeds (manaqib), one should not exaggerate ethical factors in the cult of awliya. A South Asian saint is more often irate, rancorous and capricious than kind and charitable. In saint Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dihli’s words, ‘moral precepts (akhlaq) give knowledge of the goal, but leave a person in ignorance as to the means of its achievement’ (Nizami 1953: 76).
Wilayat is a religious rather than an ethical concept. This virtue is granted, happens to be innate or is transmitted through silsila al-baraka (chain of benediction), and, therefore, it does not depend much on personal moral attributes. Lives of saints show that they stand above generally accepted moral norms and do not stop at what religious or common law considers a crime, in particular, at taking the life of many a guiltless person for the edification of sinners. Among the saints were also some who were called malamatı (‘those who seek blame’) and who were least bothered about observance of moral precepts.
Popularization of the cult of saints was facilitated by the belief that baraka, divine bliss, did not just abide in a saint; it could travel from him to ordinary people. Baraka did not disappear after a saint’s death, but in a reinforced form continued to emanate from his tomb, from things belonging to him and even from his name.
The word baraka is to be found even in the Qur’an, where its source happens to be Allah, distinguishing the prophets with His blessing and bliss. The Quranic concepts of bliss were reinterpreted and developed by Muslim theologians into the theory of emanation of baraka to the prophets, who were the recipients of divine revelation, and to the saints, favoured with divine inspiration (ilham).
In Shia theology, bliss in the first instance is vested in sayyids, the descendants of the Prophet. Going by the concepts of ceremonial rites baraka could be attained by each Muslim at the time of Hajj, i.e. pilgrimage to Mecca, by touching the sacred ‘black stone’. Popular beliefs, connected with baraka, constituted an important part of people’s religious beliefs, and were bound up with various occult activities, basically with curative magic and protection from the evil eye.
In the late Indian medieval period the idea that the only role of a saint is intercession before Allah and, consequently, that of only a link in the chain of healing, was forgotten. The function of healing was delegated in its entirety to the saints, while individuality and corporeality of the images of awliya brought about the situation that each of them specialized in the healing of some particular disease: thus saint Makhdum Faqih, buried not far away from Bombay, cured hysteria; Pir Bukhari, laid to eternal rest in Quetta, healed venereal diseases; Shah Sufaid from the banks of the Jhelum specialized in the cure of coughs; and Ghazi Miyan of Bahraich cured leprosy.
Shah Madar, whose tomb was in Makanpur, gave relief in cases of snake-bite while the help of the eminent saint of Ucch, Makhdum-i Jahaniyan Jahangasht, was sought in cases of haemorrhoids. When the matter concerned a disease or the ill-effects of witchcraft the saint’s name was pre-eminent. In fact, the disease itself was considered to be incurred by the wrath of the saint: for example, female hysteria was everywhere considered to be a punishment meted out by Shaikh Saddu, an exclusively women’s saint venerated in Bengal and North India.
At the same time it was he who protected a woman from the cruelty of her husband and from the eternal carping of his relatives. Shah Madar cured people of the venom of a snake but could also send a host of snakes upon a person incurring his displeasure. The Punjabi saint Shah Daula, buried in Gujarat, used to punish people for disobedience by sending upon them in retribution ‘rat-headed’ children, i.e. microcephalics. Such ‘baby rats of Shah Daula’ were ministers of the cult of this saint.
There is enough evidence of the fact that in the circle of superstitious and ignorant common people saints were considered to be the source of diseases and magic importance was attached to their names. Exclamations ‘In the name of Shaikh Saddu!’ and ‘Long live Madar!’ simultaneously happen to be ritual formulas and invocations, but also as a widely used damnation, like the curse ‘Que Saint Antoine me arde’ (Let St Anthony burn me down) in medieval France.
By the way, the old name of gangrene ‘St Anthony’s fire’ also has its origin in the name of this saint.
The old name of epilepsy ‘St Vitus’ dance’ also gives an indication of the connection of the disease with the name of a particular saint. In this way was transference of faith brought about from the sphere of the religio-ethical to that of the occult, and there arose a perceptible danger of the degeneration of the cult of saints into pagan superstition and occultism. No less typical for Indian popular Islam of the lower strata is the tendency to connect one or other commercial and vocational group or caste with a particular saint.
The monotheism of Islam did not completely do away with specialization in the sphere of the super-natural going back to polytheistic traditions. Indicative of this is the veneration of patrons of various occupations and social groups. In spite of the egalitarian tendencies of Islam in the social sphere, Indian Muslims generally created their own hierarchy of vocational groups, parallel to the system of Hindu castes (jatı). Thus, in various regions of the country every such group had its own patron saint.
So it was that after his death the shaikh of the Suhrawardiyya fraternity Baha’uddin Zakariya Multani became the patron of the boatmen and fishermen of Punjab; meanwhile, the fishermen and boatmen of Bengal sought help from the warrior saint Shah Jalal. Pir Badr helped sailors, and Shah Madar helped palanquin-bearers. The protector of the oil manufacturers (telı) of Lahore was their ‘col-league’ Hasan Teli, whereas ironsmiths (lohar) had Shah Musa Lohar as their patron. Even the marginal sections of the society like thieves, prostitutes, transvestites (hıjra), thugs, etc. had their own saints, patrons and helpers.
The ability to accomplish supernatural deeds (karamat) was ascribed to the saints. As distinct from mu‘jiza, the miracle that a prophet publicly accomplishes in confirmation of his mission, karamat had an emphatically passive nature.7 It was believed that awliya acquire the capability to work miracles because of their piety and ascetic mode of life.
At-Tirmidhi, whom we have already referred to above, has written:It is possible for saints to work miracles. The occurrence of miracles inspires in others the belief in the genuineness of the sainthood. When a miracle ecomes manifest it is a sign of true sainthood. The miracle is both the proof of this genuineness and its result, for it is the saint’s genuineness that enables him to work miracles. (al-Geyoushi 1971: 33)
The entire medieval hagiographic literature and collections of discourses of the saints (malfuzat), compiled by their disciples, are full of descriptions of miracles accomplished by mystics, itinerant dervishes and hermits. These miracles include levitating, walking on water, invoking elemental phenomena (rain, drought, earthquake, etc.), traversing vast distances in a moment, friendship with wild beasts, clairvoyance, and thought-reading at a distance. Sufi hagiographers have combined all these miracles in twelve categories, among which resurrection of the dead (ihyal-mawat) was of the utmost importance.
Some miracle-workers gained eternal fame just by a single extravagant deed. For example, Makhdum Nuh, whose tomb happens to be in Hala (Sind), achieved sainthood for shifting Shah Jahan’s famous mosque in Thatta by force of his prayer. Tradition says that the mihrab of the mosque, which should be orientated by qibla, in the direction of Ka‘aba was incorrectly planned by the builders. In despair the builders appealed to the miracle-worker and the next morning the mosque had turned towards Mecca.
If in this episode from the saint’s life echoes of historical anachronism are perceptible (the mihrab of the mosque in Thatta was actually rebuilt, although a century after Makhdum Nuh’s death) then the miracle, ascribed to saint Mangho Pir of Sindh, strikes one by its eccentricity. This saint in the thirteenth century supposedly inadver-tently brought crocodiles from Arabia to the subcontinent, which he shaped into head lice.8 In the desert hamlet, situated to the north of Karachi and now bearing his name, Mangho Pir had dug out in the earth two sulphur springs, into which he had let loose the crocodiles, whose offspring became the objects of this saint’s cult. No wonder that linkage with sulphur springs has made Mangho Pir a saint celebrated as a healer of rheumatism, skin diseases and leprosy. Many aetiologic legends about the origin of reservoirs, rivers, mountains and even the climate of South Asia are connected with saints. Thus, for example, springtime in Multan is notorious for its exceptionally oppressive heat, which is also reflected in the Persian saying:
Char chız ast tohfa-i Multan
Gard-o garm, gada-o goristan.
(Four things are the gift of Multan:
Heat, dust, beggars and graveyards)
The origin of this heat is explained by the curse of saint Shams Tabrizi, who passed away in this town in the year (approximately) 1276.9 Hagiographic tradition says that a compassionate butcher had given a piece of mutton to the wandering saint for sustenance.
However, none of the inhabitants of Multan was willing to help the saint and fry the meat on his hearth; blacksmiths, in whose smithies fire never stop burning, proved to be particularly callous. Breaking down from hunger, Shams Tabrizi collapsed in the dust on the wayside, and Allah, taking pity on him, made the sun descend from the heavens so low, that terribly intense heat browned the meat. And this miracle is repeated every spring for the edification of the inhabitants of Multan.
During the ‘Urs of the saint they cook and give out to beggars pieces of fried mutton, give honour to butchers and cast stones at blacksmiths in the streets. Existence of springs and oases in deserts and arid regions is also usually traced to the miracle of a saint who had in former times struck earth or rock with his staff and had thereby called forth a stream of water. In particular Punjabis believe that the water that Saint Saidan Shah Shirazi brought out from the earth flows from the very Ganges.
The appearance of freshwater springs in the region of contemporary Karachi is ascribed to Saint Shah Abdullah Ghazi, who extracted water by a stroke of his staff against the rock on which his Dargah is now situated.
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: