THE PILGRIMAGE TO SHRINES
“Oh believers! Fear Allahu ta’ala! Seek for a mean to approach Him!” (Al-Ma’ida, 38)
One of the more common if not the commonest religious practice, which be found not only within the Religious traditions descendant from Hadrat Ibrahim (AS) (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), but also spread among nearly all the forms of faiths is the building of shrine over the burial place of spiritual relevant people. Sometime those places are considered shrines from believers of more than one faith. The same shrines are shared between Indus and Muslims in the Asian Subcontinent, between Christians and Muslims and often Jews in the Nears East and in North Africa. Well known examples are the Cave of Sahab Al Kahf (or the caves, being the same sites claimed by 2 different shrines, one in Anatolia and one in Jordan) and the burial of Saint George/ retrial of the Khidr, in Palestine. More over, even “totally” muslim saints as Hadrat Abd el Qadir Gilani (qs) and Hadrat Salman al Farsi (qs) however are not rarely visited and asked for intercession by Iraqi Christians.
Often, this occurs mainly in North Africa, the places are not necessarily, burial places, but just place where the saint or prophet lived or even barely passed by, but recognised through oral tradition as vehicle of blessing for those who strive to visit them. Some of them possess specific properties; as for instance the retreat cave where, near Tunis, Hadrat Abu Hasan as Shadhili (qs) spent time in seclusion. It is said that whoever prays with intention two rakat and read salawat offering their reward to the ruh of Hadrat Abu Hasan (qs), will be linked in bayat (oath of spiritual alliance) directly to him. Not surprisingly similar places and rituals were not rare in middle age Christianity with exactly the same function (receive a blessing which will link the pilgrim to the saint honored in the place), such Saint Jago in Campostella in Spain and Saint Patrick “Well” in Ireland. The pilgrimage of the first still subsists in the catholic devotional practice, however as pure devotional.
In North Africa does not exist a town small or little without its main shrine, from where the “spiritual master” of the settlement spreads his spiritual blessing on the dwellers and in most part of the cases the real origin of the human settlement has been the shrine. In other its presence completely changes the development of the area as Hadrat Ahmed Tidjani (qs) in the medina of Fez, or the shrines of Hadrat Ibn al Arabi (qs) in Damask, and of Hadrat Abd el Qadir (qs) in Baghdad (where whole boroughs are centred around them). When the shrine is actually the burial is often located within the meeting place where the saint used to hold his teachings and/or lives, the zawya or his own house, even if, often, the two places are the very same one. More rarely the burial is on the side of a masjid, however this is the more common situation in urban areas and in some countries as Egypt. In countryside areas they can be identified with very modest building or just with an ancient tree, generally an oak, very famous that at the maqam of Hadrat Ibn Mashish (qs) on the Rif mountains and others mainly in Syria and Palestine. The baraka, or blessing presence, of Hadrat Nuh (AS) is sought around a small heap of remains in the Kurdistan among Syria and Turkey, where is told His arch touched dry ground after the retreat of the waters.
In Islam such locations, which broadly we can call in English Shrine have several names, some are only for burial shrine, such Turbe. Others are more general as Mazhar (from zyhara, “visited place”) or Maqam, which is the more generally used, which indicates not only burials but place where it is possible to receive a blessing, linked to a Prophet (as) or an Awlya (QS). Considering the most spread Islamic doctrine in fact the maqam are nothing else that place where it possible “to met” those, which are closer to Allah (JwS) and use their spiritual influence as tolls of intercession and progress towards Him. This is the general opinion of scholars of both Sunni and Shia’ tradition, only in pre-modern time muta’zilite and khawarig sects criticised to the visit of shrine misunderstanding it for a form of polytheism, this is the current position also of the several modern so called reformers movements derived from those heresies, such wahabi, salafi, la madhabya, dehobandi etc.
Therefore, not only the presence of the body of a wali or a prophet, but also that of objects linked to them or even the very same place, if has been somehow “consecrated” by the life and the action of the wali or prophet, can be the support of this “meeting”. Along the cost of North Africa are thousand the maqam of Hadrat Abd el Qadir Gilani (qs), erected just where somehow along the centuries has been manifested the baraka of the Ghawth, whose shrine is in Baghdad. The visit to such places is not considered in the essence different to the visit at the very same one in Baghdad.
Meeting of hearts, where a light is poured in others. Extraordinary events sometimes occurring in relations of such place, graves or objects are nothing else that the reflections on the material world of the source of spiritual lights there present.
Often in the shrine are preserved object belonged to the wali or to the prophet there honoured or to Hadrat Mustapha (SAawS), which have special properties, often able to sane specific diseases, or from the shrine spring water and/or soil have such properties. The author of this paper met a converted muslim, who claimed that his conversion was due to the casually visit to the shrine of Hadrat Moinuddin Chisti (qs) in Ajmer, where completely out of curiosity he ate some rose petals spread over the turbe, then taken by fever and convulsion was assisted by the wardens of the shrine. Come back to himself after some days, he found that his heart from completely atheist was turned towards God and Islam, took shahada and left his business, lived for 5 years in Ajmer before coming back to Europe. Similar case occurred in Morocco to a western tourist, who affected by shock for completely clinical causes was carried out not to the Hospital but to closest maqam. There, he came out of his state and soon after, he finds himself full of love for Islam, without having still clear idea of what this was about.
Such meetings have to occur among people of this world and of the other as well among people of the other worlds. In fact always close to the most famous maqams often whole graveyard are developed, as occurs in Cairo, Damask and Baghdad and around the great shrines of the Imam (AS) of the Ahl Al Bayt, and of course in Medina where the graveyard of Baqya was the shrines area of the Holy city, before the iconoclastic fury of the wahabya heresy take over it.
Muslim shrines are not only dedicated to prophets and saints passed away, but also to those whose spiritual states makes citizens of both worlds, as Hadrat al Khidr (AS) who has shrines in Palestine and Syria (both shared with Christians, who see him as Saint George) or even in the subcontinent where Indus make him a protectors of sailors and fishermen. A whole cave shrine in Damash is dedicated to a category of saints, the 40 Abdal, which of course must be well alive even if as only unknown believers secretly acting in this world to preserve the God creation and the Muslim Umma.
So different places and ways to establish a shrine of course imply an equal differentiate range of rituals, pilgrimages and celebrations around them. Special events are always hold in specific days in most part of the shrines spread across the Muslim world, (with the exception of shrines in formers soviet republic, where often the location is still kept reserved after the long years of the soviet “enlightenment”, marked by just a stone plaque). The day of the “departure” from this world is generally choose as celebration days in Maghreb (Mawssim) as well in the Subcontinent (Urs), until the Zionist occupation in Palestine similar mawssim were hold accordingly a traditional calendar establish by the Mamluk Sultan Baybur (ra) in each of the Prophets’ (AS) maqams. Instead the Mawlid of the Awlya of Egypt are hold in their birthday. In Syria is during the two months of celebrations for the Mawlid of Hadrat Mustafa (As) that the public celebrations are hold in the maqam of the Awlyullah. At the very heart of such public event there are large dhikr majlis hold by one or more brotherhoods, which generally occur in the third part of the night when the great part of the pilgrims have left the maqam. Sometime more spiritually significant meetings based on much smaller group of mudhakir are hold at different date from the main gathering because those follow often different methods not only accordingly the brotherhood, but also on the base of the maqam and the cultural area. The cultural differences also play significant roles in dictate the adab of the personal zyarat to the maqam and on the award read during it. In Maghreb tawaf (walking in circle) will be performed just once time, only visiting very important maqam as Sidi Ahmed Tidjani’s (qs) in Fez or Sidi Abu Madyan’s (qs) in the homonymous town; rakat will be never performed within the same hall of the grave. The behaviour will be the very same kept at the presence of a living teacher, respectful without ostentation. Even the most pressed visitor will read salawat, ayat al qursi and a large number of samadya (surat al Ikhlas) as alms for the ruh of the waly. If the visit is performed by a group of fuqara (dervishan) a short dhikr based on tahlil and qasaid (ilahiler) will be performed jointly with surat al Ya Sin. From Egypt to Syria the tawaf once or trice will be always performed even if the maqam is not more than a burial among others within a graveyards; the reading will be based generally on surat al Fatiha and al Ikhlas. In the Indian Subcontinent no dervish will pay a visit to a shrine without sit silently making directing his heart towards the waly seeking for his baraka.
Yearly celebration, dhikr majlis or hadrat and personal zyarat are not the only ritual performed within maqam. Even if they are located out from zawya, tekké or dergah, several maqams are used as place for ritual retreat or khalwa. In India is not rare that an old maqam, possible forgotten by the popular devotion, far from urban area is chosen as location for a prolonged khalwa from bi-shari (belonging to braches of turuq which at least in appearance do not respect the boundary of the shari’a as commonly understood among Muslims) wandering dervishan and sadhus (Indu wandering ascetic) alike.
As it can be seen from the above short description of maqam and zyarat around the Muslim world, such places are just “open areas” where people belonging to this and the next world met. Centres around which a timeless and spaceless dimension takes shape allowing this world to have a glimpse of the Other.
Wa inna Allahu al ‘Alim.
(And God is the most knowledgeable)