“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.
No 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 behind him.
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.
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.
In Kerbela, 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 group.
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.”
Most mazars 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.
Other mazars 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.
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.
Other 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 ar-Reza.
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 insane.
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.
When Kabir 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.”