By Mushtaq ul Haq Ahmad Sikandar, New Age Islam
13 December 2019
The Valley of Kashmir is known as Pir Vare (The land of saints and Sufis) because the mausoleums, shrines and hospices of holy men, Sufis, Rishis and men of God are found everywhere. Special days associated with them witness thousands of devotees visiting their shrines, hospices and mausoleums. They are dead, but they are still revered, respected and their influence can still be witnessed on the common masses, though centuries have passed since they left this mortal world for heavenly abode. These all Sufis, Rishis and their shrines are revered because they served the cause of Islam and humanity with dedication and selfless love. They served the masses without any distinction based on colour, creed, sex, region or religion. Most of them during their lifetime never sought any favour from the rulers of their times and even resisted their attempts of atrocities and ill treatment against the poor folks.
The common masses could relate themselves with the Sufis and Rishis hence they are still popular among them. On the other side most of the religious scholars and clergy used the rulers and power to sustain their influence; some who refrained power but spent days in ivory towers or mere hair splitting, and abhorred the public or socially engaged role. Hence the masses never related or owned them, and most of them were forgotten after their death.
But Sufis and Rishis were owned by the masses who out of love built shrines and beautiful mausoleums for them, that people still visit in hundreds every day. But these places now have become dens of vice, superstitions and exploitation of poor folks. They may still be a sign of syncretism, pluralism, tolerance and love, but these aspects have been reduced to oblivion, and rituals have overtaken these places with an exploitative clergy indulging in plunder and loot in the name of these pious men. Their teachings of coexistence, harmony, tolerance and inclusiveness have been forgotten and pushed to the background, while these centres of spirituality and transcendence have become centres of filling the coffers of various vested interests with ill gotten money they accumulate by exploiting the masses in the name of the dead saints.
These dead saints never desired fame or wealth but their ‘adherents’ try to accumulate more and more of this world, in the name of Islam, God and the pious saints. There have been voices against this exploitation, rituals and superstitions, but no radical change can be witnessed because the vested interests who have occupied these places are very powerful and a lot of time is needed for a big change.
I was born in the Shahre Khass part of the Srinagar city that is the heart of Valley. We used to reside at Rainawari, and the shrine associated with the founder of Qadriyya order of Sufism, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA) was located at a walking distance from our house. My whole paternal family revered this shrine. Other shrines were also located nearby and we used to revere all of them, but we were associated particularly with shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA). I grew up with the stories and visits associated with shrine of Sheikh Jeelani, though he never visited Kashmir. In our family, Sheikh was a revered saint whose shrine was visited on the 11th of every Islamic month that is celebrated as his day. He is also known as the Pir of the eleventh day (Gyarahrween Waley Pir). I remember how on eleventh of each month, Dad used to visit the shrine dressed in new clothes, a bag full of locally made bread, water, small round white sugar balls (known as Shirini in Kashmiri) and crystallized sugar known as Naabad. These all commodities were placed on a big white sheet. A number of religious verses and encomiums particularly from Kibrat e Ahmar compiled by Sheikh himself were chanted and recited while the elders, religious scholars and those associated with the shrine would sit in a rectangle with these things spread before them on a sheet.
Dad’s return was exciting for children as I and my siblings would wait for having our share of dates, Shirini and Naabad. But we were never allowed to touch the bag that contained all these attractive commodities. As children we weren’t aware of the Islamic norms of purity and ablution hence Mom used to give us our share and the rest was kept safe for consumption in the coming days. The enchanted holy water was kept stored for days and only consumed on certain occasions i.e. before exams, travelling to a distant place or during illness.
In our extended family Kashmiri salt tea was prepared and distributed along with the local bread to our neighbours and among our different relatives. On the eleventh of every Islamic month I was summoned by elders and asked to distribute the Tea after my school hours. This tea was called as Kahmich Chai (The tea of eleventh) in name of the holy reverend saint who is stated to have indulged in charity practices particularly on 11th of each month.
When I was a bit older but still in school, Dad used to take me to the shrine sometimes. For the first eleven days in the month of Rabi Ul Saani the shrine was a particular attraction for devotees and laymen, as these days were commemorated in the name of the saint and his particular relics were displayed before the people on the eleventh day. During some of those days Mom or my maternal granny would accompany me to the shrine. Sometimes mom would have a vow (Mannat or Nazar) and would punctually visit the shrine for eleven days to seek the blessings of the saint. I very well remember that my younger brother Raies had stood 3rd in his class in a unit examination. Our granny took him to the shrine and he tied a knot with the wish that if he stood first next time he will make a donation of eleven rupees to the shrine. Next time he stood first and again went to the shrine, untied the knot and granny made the donation.
Dad used to turn nostalgic while recounting and relating his association with the shrine and how in their childhood when they lived in a joint family, a separate room was used to commemorate the eleventh of every month and the local Pirs and Imams would gather for a Khatam e Sharif. For the rest of the month the room, would remain out of bounds for every member particularly the children.
Days changed into months and months lapsed into years. I too grew physically as well as intellectually. I was exposed to the Salafi literature and its puritanical interpretation of Islam in which shrine going and rituals associated with it are criticized vehemently. I too came under their spell and a clandestine revolt started, as I was too weak to express this change of heart. The Salafis criticized the practices associated with shrine going as inspired from pagan and unIslamic rituals and debarred from the grave worship that according to them was associating partners with Allah. I read voraciously their criticism and was filled with rage as to what was going on in the shrines in the name of Allah and Islam was deeply abhorrent to the pristine principles of Islam.
Within a year or two my rebellion was no longer clandestine and it lead to verbal duels and skirmishes with my parents, whom I declared as ignorant about the real fundamentals and teachings of Islam. This tirade continued and I stopped to eat the Shirin, Nabud and bread that were associated with the shrine. Neither I was able to win my parents to my new creed nor were they able to convince me about the authenticity of their reverence for the shrine. Years rolled by and I became acquainted with a deeper textual study of Islam, Kashmir history, politics and particularly the books of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA) himself. I was surprised to discover that Sheikh was one of the greatest personalities of Islam. His piety and scholarship overshadows and outshines many both those who claim to be his followers as well as Salafis who mostly are ignorant of his real stature and legacy. My views were completely transformed about Sheikh and also I began to look at his shrine and the devotees with empathy.
From my thorough reading of Kashmir history, I came to know that Islam in Kashmir was spread by the activities of Sufis and later on it developed an indigenous form known as Rishism. These Rishis incorporated many practices of Hinduism and Buddhism along with Islam within Rishism and that ultimately resulted in masses reverting to Islam and becoming Muslims. Also within Sufism the teacher (Murshid) or spiritual head is revered by his disciples and this reverence continues after their death too, hence their hospices, shrines and graves become places of attraction for the masses. Thus this spirit of Kashmiri Islam and its ethos is Sufi and Rishi in character where the shrines and devotion to them would remain an indispensable part of Kashmiri Muslim.
The failures of different revivalist movements to understand this ethos have led to their rejection by the masses. The Salafi movement, Jamaat e Islami and Tablighi Jamaat all failed to respect and own the tradition of Sufi and Rishism in Kashmir. Hence they always remained on the periphery and never held sway over masses. Grave worship and associating partners with Allah is considered among the big sins in Islam, but these need to be fought by educating Muslims about them not by vehement criticism of shrines that most revivalists undertake. It sends wrong message to the masses and the vested interests associated with shrines exploit it for propaganda, that these revivalists don’t revere the contribution of these pious saints. The reality is that they do, but they condemn the UnIslamic, pagan, grave worshipping or saint worship going on in their names, that these pious saints if alive today would have condemned and led crusade and reformation movement against them.
The Indian Hanafi sect Barelvis who had no presence in Kashmir a few decades back, under a devious plan are trying to depict themselves as the inheritors and custodians of the legacy of these pious saints. Kashmiri masses always revered the shrines, but they never felt the need of an ideology to legitimize their reverence for shrines. The Barelvis who are no different than other sects when it comes to other Muslims are trying to befool Kashmiri masses and dividing the tolerant, inclusive and plural society of Kashmir. The tussle between Barelvis and Deobandis has now gained ground in Kashmir too, where these were unknown and alien sects. Both follow the Hanafi school of thought but are so repugnant towards each other that they consider praying behind each other as invalid.
On 25th June, 2012 early in the morning Kashmir came to know about the burning of the two hundred year old shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani (RA). It was an agonizing moment for me. I turned nostalgic, as all the memories associated with this shrine revisited me. Our whole family was in shock. Who did it? The under construction new adjacent building had caught fire too, but the two centuries old shrine was devastated in the raging flames. Women were wailing and men were trying to douse the uncontrollable fire. The fire extinguishers that were pressed in service soon ran out of water. When they tried to fill their tankers with water from nearby dirty water cesspool people debarred them. They maintained the reverence of shrine even in this catastrophe, as it was against the sentiments and respect for the saint to use dirty water to douse flames of the shrine, where millions had prayed.
Soon a number of theories began to be circulated with rumours having an upper hand. It was stated that it was a mischief played by Salafi Wahhabis. But Kashmiris soon dismissed this rumour. They are against shrine going, but it is against the very ethics and nature of a Kashmiri to harm any religious place. Even Salafis, Jaamat e Islami and Tablighi Jamaat cadres have depicted their tolerance if not reverence towards the shrines. The vested interests and pimps of political conflict may have a hand in the burning. They wanted to further divide the Kashmiri society and initiate a sectarian war in Kashmir. But Kashmiri masses through their prudence and maturity defeated their nefarious designs.
The government imposed a strict curfew for more than a week as face saving measure. There were demands for an impartial probe from various quarters to ascertain the reasons for the fire that gutted the centuries old shrine. The government ordered the probe, but after months it stated that fire started due to unknown reasons. It happens with most of the government probes. None of the guilty has even been brought to book, hence people have lost faith in any government ordered probe.
As truth is the casualty in every conflict, Kashmir is no exception. The culprits behind the burning of the shrine would always remain shrouded in mystery. The theory that electric shot circuit has caused the fire is too hard to believe! Whatever is the cause of the fire, the personality and legacy of Sheikh Jeelani (RA) is so towering and stalwart that no fire can destroy it. His message of tolerance, love, mutual coexistence, peace and empathy for the poor would continue to inspire generations to come. His love, reverence and respect are so deeply inscribed in the hearts of Kashmiris that no fire can destroy or even blur the inscription embedded in their hearts. He remains our Ghaus ul Azam and my Dastegeer.
Mushtaq Ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir