By Anna Suvrova
As I have tried to show in this book, in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh there exists a valid living Islamic tradition which far from being hostile to non-Muslims unifies compatriots of other faiths, Hindus and Sikhs, in popular religious forms rather similar to those of Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
This tradition is the cult of the veneration of Muslim saints and their tombs, which involves millions of believers and not just Muslims alone. The cult of saints dating back to the medieval period demon-strates remarkable stability with no less remarkable adaptability to historical changes, social cataclysms and the new geopolitical realities. Successfully surviving all the political tribulations of the last few decades, it stands as a living testimony to the once composite culture of the subcontinent still uniting its inhabitants over ethnic, religious and state barriers.
The present flare-up of tensions between India and Pakistan, the unending tug-of-war over the ‘division’ of cultural heritage, heated debates on the definition of national identity on the religious issue make this subject highly important and topical. The cult of the Muslim saint is at least one flourishing institution of South Asian society where people of different creeds not only coexist peacefully, but collaborate actively. The cult of the Muslim saints in South Asia is not only a historical and cultural component, or an element of popular religion, but rather a universal and all-pervading phe-nomenon embracing the life of the subcontinent in all its aspects, including politics, social and family life, interpersonal relations, gender problems and national psyche.
It is as if the densely populated world of South Asian awliy, crowded with relatives and those related by marriage, namesakes and doubles, represents a parallel ‘sacred’ history and geography of the subcontinent.
Every event, social movement, economic reform, phenomenon of culture, and even onomastics and etymology, finds an echo, it seems, in the fixed and timeless dimension where the saints dwell. The spiritual ‘conjuncture’ of sainthood keenly responds to wars, palace stratagems and coups d’état, toughening of fiscal policy and populace riots, in its turn influencing society through religious ovements of the epoch. The changing socio-political situation every time calls for an urgently necessary type of saint: a stern warrior for faith or a pacifier-philanthropist; a conservative missionary or a mu’ahhid, indifferent to religious differences; a virtuous ascetic or a qalandar, indulging in all sorts of vices; an enlightened preceptor of the elite or an illiterate leader of the lower classes.
Although the rituals and ceremonies of the veneration of the South Asian awliya¯ vary even within the limits of settlement of a single ethnic and linguistic group, their essence in the majority of cases is the same, and it is bound up either with curative magic or with an aspect of fertility. In other words the overwhelming majority of pilgrims performing ziyarat of a saint’s tomb seeks recovery from an illness or increase in progeny. Only a negligible minority is preoccupied with pious, spiritual objects as such.
The cult of saints is to a great extent determined by the legends, cyclically evolved around mazrs, dargahs and other places of burial. Among them an important role is played by cultic legends, providing the motivation for some ceremony or ritual. Even in the case of cultic myths of greater antiquity, in the veneration of the South Asian saints there exists not a single ritual act which does not have an explicit or implicit basis in the form of legend about the origin of this act. The myth included in the ritual functions as a substantial element of the ritual, without which the latter is not effectual. Such, in particular, are the universal legends bound up with the threshold of tombs and with its kissing (st nbosı), with sweeping of dust (khak) or circumambulation (ţawaf) of tombs, which legitimatize and sanctify the corresponding religious concepts and ritual-magical acts.
Pseudo-historical tradition about Ghazi Miyan’s martial feats motivates the ritual of the veneration of his banner, and apocrypha the ceremonies of Zhra-mela; legendary episodes of Baba Farid’s life explain the ritual of getting over the Bihishti Darwaza and distribution of jilla in Pakpattan; from popular legends about the fiery dancer Lal Shahbaz Qalandar came into being the ritual dance dhammal in Sehwan; without the folkloric ballads about Shah Husain and Madho’s love there could not have been the religious festival mel-i chirghan in Lahore, the number of examples can be infinitely multiplied.
An equally important role in the cult of saints is played by etiol-ogical legends, explaining the origin of some phenomenon of nature or social life, of toponyms and anthroponyms. Strictly speaking, even the cultic legends accomplish an explanatory function; however, the sphere of etiological legends is much narrower and boils down to the explanation of something existing in reality. Such are, in particular, the numerous legends about the origins of water springs, the appearance of which was ascribed to saints’ miracles (for example the spring in Hasan Abdal or the sulphuric springs in Lakhi). Similar legends explain the nicknames of, for example, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar: Kak; Shaikh Farid: Ganj-i shakar; Pir Badr: Badarrao; Salar Mas‘ud: Bale Pır; Shah Madar: Zinda. Typical etiological legends are the miracles of the Makhdum Nuh who had supposedly shifted the mosque in Thatta from its original location, of Mangho Pir, who brought crocodiles to Sind, and of Shams Tabrezi, who changed the climate of Multan. Sources of the names of localities, hills, rivers and towns of the subcontinent also have their roots in etymological legends bound up with the cult of saints.
The cult of saints, which originated in the medieval period and has happily survived till our times, is a special phenomenon in the spiritual heritage of the South Asian countries. Its peculiarity is determined, first, by its striking vitality and capacity to withstand historical changes, social cataclysms and new geopolitical realities. Second, the cult of saints is one of the few extant testimonies of the original ‘composite culture’ of the subcontinent; it continues to unite people belonging to different ethnic and religious communities, bringing together devotees and pilgrims, disregarding the barriers, including those of the state. Third, the cult of saints is a universal and all-pervading phenomenon, encompassing the diverse spheres of life of the subcontinent and is not confined to the field of religion. In it, as in a drop of water, are reflected the mentality, group psychology and self-consciousness of the South Asian Muslim which in aggregate forms the ‘national character’.
Correspondingly, even the hagiographic literature indirectly, but nevertheless integrally and graphically, reflects the picture of the medieval life of the subcontinent. The present book is based on the most widely-known works of medieval Muslim hagiography: Amir Hasan Sijzi’s The Morals for the Heart (Faw’id al-fu’ad), Amir Khurd’s The Lives of the Saints (Siyar al-awliya), Hamid Qalandar’s The Best of the Assemblies (Khair al-majalis), Dara Shikoh’s The Note-book of the Saints (Safınat al-awliya), Jamali Kanboh’s The Biographies of the Gnostics (Siyar al-‘ rifın), and others written in Persian between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Western scholars, let alone their Indian and Pakistani colleagues, have studied these works for a considerable period of time.
The cult of saints originated in the lap of popular religion, which is customarily referred to as syncretic. At the same time many rituals of the veneration of saints and their tombs are, as I have sought to show, ‘the facts with twin motivation’, i.e. mutual identification of typologically similar concepts, in no way genetically inter-connected, as were, for example, the Muslim ziya¯rat of the saints’ tombs and pilgrimage to a Hindu tirtha. The fact of direct influence has to be determined cautiously each time, since the basic rituals of ziy rat came to South Asia in the form which they assumed in the primordial lands of Islam.
Nevertheless, the cult of saints, undoubtedly, determines the specific character of the South Asian ‘popular’ Islam of the lower strata of society and its potential for synthesis, because the essence of synthesis consists exactly in the reduction of values, traditions and tendencies, genetically having little in common with each other, to a common denominator. It has only to be remembered that this inclination has not eroded the ideological boundaries of ‘popular’ Islam. In fact, it remained just the same Islam with its ‘five pillars’, and with the indisputable authority of the Prophet, Qur’an and Sunna, only somewhat more picturesque, whimsical and mild than in other regions of the Muslim world.
As with many other ‘exotic’ and ‘mysterious’ phenomena of Eastern culture, the cult of saints and their tombs has long since excited the imagination of European artists. A famous example is the German film The Indian Tomb (Das Indische Grabmal, 1921) starring a famous hero, Konrad Veidt, and a famous beauty, Lia de Putti. It was a mystical melodrama, which everyone in post-war Moscow seemed to see. The tomb, from which the name of the film was derived, was an exceptionally sinister place where people were killed and bricked up alive as in a Gothic burial vault. In many ways the film was typical of the work of the director, Fritz Lang, one of the creators of German Expressionism in motion pictures.
Gloomy Indian tombs flashed from time to time on the pages of books of well-known writers. Characters in the novels and short stories of, for example, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christie have staked their lives in the search for treasures in Indian mausoleums. In British India, a visit to the tombs became for Europeans as nerve-tickling an entertainment as a tiger hunt or elephant ride.
It exasperated the better representatives of colonial administration, particularly, William Sleeman, who wrote: I would like to express my humble protest against those quadrilles and picnics which are arranged for European ladies and gentlemen in this royal mausoleum [Taj Mahal -A. S.]. Banquets and dances are welcome at their time, but are depressingly out of place under the canopy of a tomb. (Sleeman 1971: 197)
It is obvious that Western literature and cinema, talking of the secrets and horrors of Indian tombs, could have implied anything but a Muslim mazr or dargah, which have nothing sinister in their atmosphere. The spectrum of emotions accompanying ziyarat and ‘urs fluctuates between reverential tender emotions and orgiastic uproar, but in any case there is no place in it for terror and crime. Generally speaking, strange as it may seem to us, the tomb of a South Asian saint is a crowded, noisy, even lively place, and its main treasure - dust (khak) - does not have any value in the eyes of treasure-hunters. In other words, the ‘Indian tomb’, as reflected in the mirror of the Western art, has turned out to be yet another error of inter-pretation of the exotic, akin to Europeans’ distorted prevailing notions about ‘Indian eroticism’, ‘Indian non-violence’ or ‘Indian poverty’.
I have written about the most venerated saints of the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, who lived in a historical period when the main ţarı¯qas were being formed and the cult of awliyawas taking shape on the territory of the subcontinent. This, however, does not mean that later on the corps of saints stopped growing. Thus, the epoch of the Great Mughals brought to the foreground other fraternities (Naqshbandiyya, Qadiriyya) and another type of the saint - puritan and egalitarian or champion of ethnic independence, like Shah Inayat of Jhok or Bayazid Ansari (Pir-i Raushan). The base of the awliy’s pyramid continued to gain in breadth even in our century: new forces were recruited to this ‘celestial army’, amongst whom there was Mihr ‘Ali Shah, the saint of Golra Sharif.
It is possible that with passage of time some of our contemporaries will also be canonized, because faith in karamat and the inscrutability of divine providence, revealing baraka in new generations of people, is still alive amongst Muslims of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. That is exactly why rose petals on the brocade covers of mazars do not fade.
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: