"When the Imam Ali
was dying he said to his sons Hassan and Hussein that after he had died
a person with veiled face would come and take his body away for burial.
When Ali had died the veiled person appeared and carried away the body.
Driven by curiosity Hassan Hussein asked the veiled man who he was. When
the man lifted up his veil, saw that he was Ali himself."
Tombs of Sufi saints dot the earth from Morocco
to as far east as China. They range from open-air tombs made of a heap of
stones to extremely sophisticated buildings. Generally over the grave of
a saint is constructed an oblong monument of stone or wood, that is covered
and embellished with shawls and embroidered silks. On top of these shawls
and silks devotees sometimes put towels and clothes to absorb the healing
power of the etheric remains of the saint. I witnessed this custom in 1976
in Rozaj and Djacovitsa in Yugoslavia. In Central Asia important mazars
are adorned with ram's horns. The horns indicate that the grave is a place
of supernatural power.
During my ziarat of tombs I have come to consider
all tombs of saints, fakirs, kings or totally unknown dervishes, as potential
sources of power, able to unlock the inner forces of the pilgrim.
definite interpretation of a mazar is possible, as the experience at a mazar
depends largely on one's own actual state. The tombs have as many functions
as there are categories of religious experience and activity. The phenomenon
one most frequently witnesses at a mazar is that of people who consider
the saint to be alive in his tomb and who ask him to mediate for the fulfillment
of a wish: to get a child, a husband or a cure. Women, when making a request
and a vow, may knot a piece of cloth at an indicated spot as a token of
contact between the saint and themselves. A goat or a sheep may be sacrificed
when the request has been granted. Not fulfilling a vow made at a mazar
is deemed to provoke an affliction.
To be inhumed in the proximity of the tomb of a
saint is regarded as very auspicious.
Local myths and customs have blended
with the cult of the Sufi saint. In Mysore State in India near Chikmagalur
is a mountain believed to emanate wonderful powers. The local people say
that it is entirely hollow. This mountain is also considered to be the tomb
of the legendary Baba Qalandar Shah. At the moment of the saint's death
the mountain opened itself and after the saint had walked inside, it closed
In Khorasan and West Afghanistan sometimes a tree can be
seen growing out of the tomb of the saint. At some places particular powers
are connected with dead trees. Such a dead tree still stands in the tomb-monastery
of Sunbul Sinan Yusuf in Istanbul.
Sunbul Sinan Yusuf in Istanbul
At certain tombs the
pilgrim puts a pebble or stone on the grave and takes for himself a magnetised
pebble that has been put there previously by other pilgrims.
Iraq, it was customary for the pilgrim to eat some earth from the tomb of
Imam Hussein. At other Shi'a shrines the eating of dust or earth is prohibited,
as it is considered the same as taking the blood of the saint. In Swat Valley
in Pakistan, I noticed that food and water were placed regularly at the
foot of sacred tombs.
Many people conceive not only that the saint is
alive in his tomb but believe also of certain saints that their body keeps
on growing till a superhuman size is reached. The nine meters long grave
of Shah Husseini Baba near Kandahar is an example known to me. In the Air
Mountains in Niger one finds burial mounds made of stones, the largest having
a diameter of ten meters and a height of two meters. They are supposed to
be the graves of saints. Touareg hermits live in their neighborhood.
To move or destroy a mazar is taboo and can not be done without disturbing
an equilibrium of forces and causing a misfortune. In some cases strange
powers intervene when a mazar is threatened with destruction. In 1970, when
the dam of Pul-i-Khumri in Afghanistan was being built, it happened that
a Russian engineer gave the order to destroy the tomb of an unknown dervish
with a bulldozer. The engine broke down. Afghan laborers who approached
the mazar with shovels and pickaxes became paralyzed. A second bulldozer
also broke down. Finally is was decided to dig the canal around the tomb.
Pilgrimages by proxy are accepted.
Besides mental purifications as a
preparation for visiting tombs, the pilgrim is advised to bathe, to put
on new clothes and to perfume himself. While entering a mazar the pilgrim
kisses the doorposts and touches the tomb with both hands. In a symbolical
gesture he raises both his hands full of the blessings of the saint upon
his face. He murmurs a prayer, usually the Fatiha, circumambulates the tomb,
makes a request and does zikr or an absorption exercise.
At a particular
day of the week, mostly on Thursday, people gather at a mazar. Candles are
lit, incense is burned and flowers are offered.
Sufis congregate at their
tomb-convent on Thursday evening a little before the time of the evening
prayer. Qadiris and Khalwatis perform loud zikr in a group, whereas Naqshbandis
do their zikr silently and individually. Some orders practice only chanted
zikr during their ceremonial meetings or in the beginning stage of the adept.
In general silent zikr is considered to draw one nearer to Allah, until
the heart is clean and the recitation of the words of the zikr becomes superfluous.
Some Sufi groups observe an elaborate tomb cult comprehending many saints,
while others seem to manifest only a veneration for the founders of their
In regions of Soviet Azerbaijan, when a Sufi has died loud zikr
is performed at his funeral.
Every year at the anniversary of the saint's
death elaborate celebrations are held and followers from different places
come and meet at the tomb of their patron saint. Visitation of the shrine
at that time is believed to be very meritorious. The celebrations at popular
mazars are famous for their extraordinary ceremonies and rites. Personally
I treasure most happy memories of exuberant and colorful celebrations at
shrines in Pakistan: incessant enchanting singing by qawwals and spontaneous
religious dancing by dervishes and lay people alike.
Among other festivities
commemorating the death of a saint I remember a three day long feast celebrated
by Berbers in Morocco. The ceremonies began with the recitation of Suras.
Soon after, by different groups, rhythmical music was produced from drums
and flutes. Adults and children started dancing. Some dancers got so entranced
that they impersonated animals and ate thorny plants. Apart from these individualistic
dancers there were disciplined groups of dancers with swords. They aimed
at a dislocation of the normal state of consciousness in order to contact
supra-conscious energy. As soon as a dancer became energized he proved it
by slashing and cutting deep wounds into his body. In contrast to the rule
of other dervish brotherhoods the wounds have to bleed. When they applied
saliva to them, the bleeding stopped and the wounds healed without leaving
scars. Each dancer had to be in a state of purity, prepared in the preceding
days. If he had not established his state of purity he risked wounding himself
seriously. During the sword slashing ceremony each aspirant proved to himself
that he had eliminated any negative thought-pattern in his mind. There was
joy that the fear in the body had been annihilated and that a state of purity
had been attained. Others took red coals in their hands and put them against
their body and in their mouth. At the end of the third day dancers killed
a bull with their bare hands.
Mere intellectual understanding and ethical
observances are not sufficient to transform a man. Not unless other modes
of perception and hidden energies have become manifest in the aspirant can
he begin to work for his real transformation. Only the practice of particular
psycho-physical exercises can weaken the hindering impact of the instinctual
and emotional- mental patterns.
But when approaching other stages of
the Way, Sufis may warn against
extreme mortifications and vehement ecstasies
and say: "Tear your heart and not your clothes."
are the scenes of devotional practices. In general they are places where
one experiences divine love on the emotional level, especially when the
shrine attracts large crowds. The imposing shrine of Imam ar-Reza in Meshed
fulfills this function superbly. It is said that a visit to this Golden
Shrine has the merit of a pilgrimage to Mecca. "Whoever sits at the
shrine of Imam ar-Reza for one night is as though he had gone to the seventh
heaven to meet Allah."
Next to the tomb-chamber there is a room
for prayer and meditation. Imam ar-Reza associated himself publicly with
Sufis. The Shi'a concept of Imam corresponds more or less to the Sufi idea
of Qutub, meaning spiritual pole of wisdom and baraka.
Other mazars are
famous for their healing qualities.
Important are those mazars that radiate
subtle energy and rouse a similar state in the visitor. The tomb of Hazrat
Sultan near Kunduz in Afghanistan belongs to this kind.
are venerated as places where Sufis can receive information and guidance
by way of dreams and visions or other unusual happenings. It is supposed
that certain mazars may connect the dervish to the circuit of living and
deceased Masters, who may interfere in his life. The shrine of Ahmad Yasavi
in Turkestan, Soviet Kazakstan, is visited by Sufis for this.
Mausoleum of Khoja
Ahmed Yasavi (Turkestan)
Shrines do not always contain the physical remains
of a saint. Shrines were also built at places where a saint had appeared
or passed, or where some great event in his life had happened. The Dome
of the Rock in Jerusalem was erected at the site where the Prophet began
his ascension. When the place of death of an important saint was unknown,
an evocative tomb or magham was constructed at a place where he had lived
or where he had been seen in his astral body. The shrine of Shams-i-Tabriz
in Konya is such a magham. As the laws of time and space that characterize
our world are non-existent in the astral dimension, it is quite possible
that the saint is present in the different maghams attributed to him.
An apparition seen at a mazar or magham is not always the saint of the place.
Sufi traditions mention, besides the entities of deceased Sufis and astral
helpers, the existence of an enigmatic Master of Saints called Khidr. It
is not unusual to be initiated by him. He is considered to possess and transfer
esoteric wisdom and powers related to the Names of Allah. Some sects do
no regard a dervish able to progress unless he has got a vision of Khidr.
The Khajagan and the Assassins had a special relation with Khidr. The Khidiri
order in Morocco was named after Khidr, because its founder was directly
inspired by him. Several shrines are dedicated to his Presence.
shrines were built to house holy relics. The Kherqa Sharif sanctuary in
Kandahar preserves the Mantle of the Prophet. The cloak together with a
hair of the Prophet were given to Ahmad Shah Durrani, the first king of
Afghanistan, in 1768 by the Amir of Bukhara. A Qadiri Sufi whom I met in
the garden of the shrine told me that it did not contain the real Mantle
of the Prophet, but the Mantle of Baraka.
Stones in which are footprints
attributed to the Prophet and saints are the object of respect. On the rock
in the Dome of the Rock one is shown a footprint of Muhammad. West of Neyshabur
in Iran, at a place called Kadamgah or 'place of the footstep', stands a
domed shrine in which is a stone bearing the impress of the feet of Imam
Dervishes also pay visits to places called 'chillah', where
a saint has performed and endured severe physical and psychical exercises,
usually for a period of forty days. These chillahs are believed to be magnetized
by the spiritual powers acquired by the saint during his forty day retreat.
With some mazars odd and strange events and incidents are associated. There
is a story circulating in Kandahar about two westerners who went to visit
a tomb situated in the desert between Kandahar and Girishk. To their astonishment
they saw the saint sitting in his grave dressed in white. When he looked
at them they felt somehow confused. On their return in Kandahar they became
I had a strange and unexpected experience when I visited the
tomb of Nesim ud-Din Tabrizi, the Hurufi martyr, in Aleppo. I went to the
infrequently visited tomb, located in a small alley near the citadel, with
the intention of concentrating myself a long time on the grave. After some
minutes a terrible pain developed inside my body. The pain became so unbearable
that I had to withdraw to the odd adjacent front room furnished with three
baroque chairs. Falling back into one of the chairs the pain pervading me
became so strong that I thought that I was about to die or become insane.
I left the tomb. Only outside in the alley did the agonizing pain subside.
Then I remembered that Nesim ud-Din Tabrizi had died in excruciating pain,
inflicted on him by the executioners of the Ulema (Ulema (Arab.): those
who have knowledge of orthodox religion). He was flayed alive. The
fakir commenting the event said that I had missed a chance of transcending
my ordinary physical and psychical condition; had I gone on doing zikr,
nothing could have gone wrong. The feeling of dying was only transitory
(Guru Angad, the second Sikh Guru, writes: "You have to walk without
feet. You have to see without eyes. You have to hear without ears. Ever
while living you have to die, and only then can you meet the Beloved'. The
influence of Sufism on Sikhism should not be underestimated. Guru Nanak
(1469-1539), when he was in Mecca received robes from Sufis which are still
kept as holy relics in Dera Baba Nanak in India. When the Sikhs began building
the Golden Temple in Amritsar, they invited the Sufi Miyan Mir from Lahore
for the foundation ceremonies.)
Sometimes a mazar is regarded as
dangerous because it emanates jalali or terrible forces. In India I visited
such a tomb which is venerated as much as it is feared. The exterior of
the tomb which is built of grey granite looks grim and martial. Inside the
fort-like building is an octagonal platform which is the roof of the burial
chamber. One enters the pitch-dark underground chamber by a small door in
the platform. Dozens of bats hang on the ceiling and humid vapors make breathing
difficult. The fakir was at first unwilling to guide me to the place. The
reason for his reluctance to accompany me was that there had been no sign
from the entombed saint that he agreed. Only after he had seen me talking
with Shams-i-Tabriz in a dream did he change his mind. Before going to the
place I had to submit myself during several days to an elaborate ritual
of purification. During and after our visit nothing particular, that I know
of, happened. On the way back the fakir decided to go and see an old friend
of his baba. He was an uwaisi (An uwaisi is a Sufi who has no living
teacher. He receives guidance from dead masters. The name is derived from
Uwais al-Qarni, a hermit (7th century) who got messages from the Prophet
without ever having met him. At his death Muhammad asked Ali to bring his
mantle in which he was about to die to Uwais al-Qarni.), who lived
as a solitary in a small mosque. The walls and minarets were painted in
vivacious and gay colors. When we entered the courtyard he was just about
to leave. He did not greet us, nor did he look at us, but walked slowly
away with fixed eyes and bent under an invisible load. The hairs on his
arms were standing up. The fakir said that he was probably exorcising a
jinn out of his place. After an hour the uwaisi came back. Like the fakir
he spoke fairly good pidgin English. The dead masters with whom he was in
contact mainly belonged to the Qalandari and Chishti order. He spoke with
great reverence about babas once having come from Turkestan to India and
referred to Turkestan as a country of great sanctity. Astral projection
also was important to him. To be out of his body was as natural to him as
to be in his body. To leave his body he mostly sat in a half lotus posture,
put a staff in T-form under his chest and armpits to support himself and
did a special zikr.
Some tombs originated in exceptional circumstances.
A peculiar mazar is the shrine of Hazrat Ali, the first Shi'a Imam, in Mazar-i-Sharif.
It was stated in an old manuscript that Ali died near Balkh. Accordingly
a search for the hidden grave started in the twelfth century, although it
was generally believed that Ali's tomb was in Najaf, Iraq. A corpse unravaged
by decay and not emitting any odor was found and identified as being that
of Ali. Subsequently the body was enshrined. In the fifteenth century, after
the shrine had been destroyed by invading tribes from Turkestan, the coffin
was again opened and still the body showed no signs of physical decomposition.
A big mosque was constructed over the mazar. On top of the dome and around
the shrine flock hundreds of white pigeons. Many shrines in Turkestan attract
these birds. In various Sufi legends pigeons are mentioned as being emanations
of a saint.
A shrine of the Shi'a Imam Jafar as-Sadegh exists in Chinese
Turkestan. Its construction was caused when the Imam arrived there flying
through the air from Medina.
Some dervishes who disappeared as mysteriously
as they had appeared after having performed miraculous deeds and of whom
no personal history is known are often venerated at the spots where they
were last seen. Mostly these places are caves or pits where the enigmatic
apparitions are supposed to have left our world. These mysterious personages
are believed to be forms of Khidr.
The hagiography of Sari Saltik mentions
that the dead body of the saint multiplied itself when different groups
claimed the corpse. His corpse was simultaneously found in seven coffins.
Of Bu Ali Shah Qalandar buried in Panipat and Karnal in India, there is
a story which says that the people from Panipat were allowed, after a controversy,
to take some stones from the saint's mazar in Karnal as a relic. They loaded
the stones on a bier and transported them to Panipat. On their arrival they
found, to their amazement, instead of stones the body of the saint. This
explains why there exist two mazars of Bu Ali Shah Qalandar.
had died his Hindu and Muslim devotees quarreled about whether his body
should be cremated or entombed. The quarrel came to an end when someone
lifted up the shroud and discovered that the corpse had been transformed
into a heap of flowers.
The story 'The Donkey's Mazar' relates the peculiar
origin of a mazar. Mullah Nasir ud-Din was the son of the keeper of a famous
shrine, reputed to be the mazar of a great sheikh. As the inheritor of a
shrine that attracted thousands of pilgrims an easy and respected life lay
in prospect for the young Nasir ud-Din. But Nasir ud-Din was a sincere mystic
and decided that he must leave home and go in search of knowledge. His father
did not thwart such a wise resolution and ordered that the strongest and
best donkey should be packed with travel equipment and given to his son.
First he travelled westward, visited Mecca, Yemen and Egypt. Then still
unsatisfied he wandered eastward. The journey was hard and the donkey, being
his sole companion, in his quest for truth, became very dear to him. But
in Badakhshan while climbing a high pass the donkey died. Nasir udDin who
through the years had become very attached to the animal buried his friend
his eyes full of tears. So great was his grief that he could not depart
from the grave. Caravans and pilgrims who came by saw him praying and weeping.
They said: "This certainly must be the grave of a great dervish. Look
how his disciple is mourning him." They halted, prayed and presented
the weeping Nasir ud-Din with food and money. Winter came and Nasir ud-Din
took shelter in a nearby cave. His fame spread. The next spring rich officials
passed by and were so moved that they gave orders to construct a dome over
the grave and a house for Nasir ud-Din. Through the years the renown of
the shrine spread in all directions and one day a pilgrim told Nasir ud-Din's
father about it. The tale made such an impression on him that he decided
that before his death he must go on pilgrimage to the faraway mazar. After
a long and arduous journey he arrived at the mountain shrine and recognized
his son. Both were very happy. In the evening his father pressed him to
relate the events that led him to this famous place of pilgrimage and Nasir
ud-Din told his father that it was their donkey that lay under the richly
ornamented mazar. The old Sufi became very silent. Then he spoke: "0
my son, I must confess that the much venerated shrine where you were born
and of which I am still the respected keeper originated in exactly the same
circumstances when my donkey died while I was in search of wisdom."
This story is told by dervishes themselves. Dervishes also like to quote
the following maxim: "How long in visiting tombs, oh confused man,
will you spend your life? One live cat is superior to a thousand dead lions."