Mazar, Sufi Shrines: The Good, Bad and Ugly Aspects

Perfumed place of Hazrat Nizamuddin (ra)

Saints are the martyrs of Allah on earth.
- Hadih of the beloved Prophet (s)

The miracles of saints are absolutely true and correct, by the acceptance of all Muslim scholars. And the Qur’an has pointed to it in different places, and the Hadith of the Prophet (s) have mentioned it, and whoever denies the miraculous power of saints are only people who are innovators (gone astray) and their followers.
- al-Mukhtasar al-Fatawa al-Masriyya by Ibn Taimiyya

Sufi Shrines are known as Mazar which literally means ‘a place for visit’, ‘place of paying homage’ which usually refers to the tomb of a wali (Muslim saint), dervish (God intoxicated ones) or holy people. Mazar is also called grave, tomb or rauza. While ‘Mazar’ is an Arabic word, its equivalent Persian word is ‘Dargah’. In the India subcontinent and elsewhere, buildings are erected upon the graves of Sufis and dervishes. Usually, mosques and madrasahs are built in the vicinity of mazars. The tendency to show special respect for mazars developed among common Muslims under the influence of the Sufi tariqas. It was a custom among the Muslim followers of Sufi path to visit the graves of Sufi saints and dervishes to pray for the salvation of their souls.

Historically speaking Prophet Muhammad (s) used to visit the graveyard of Jannat-al Baqi in Medina to pray for the departed souls and the graves of his companions who were martyred in the Battle of Uhud and prayed for the salvation of the souls of the departed. His beloved daughter, Bibi Fatima (r), also used to visit the grave of Hamza (r) every Friday. It was their practice to go to the designated graves and pray for them, instead of praying for them in general from distance. According to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad remembering death is vital for living fully and preparing well for the world to come.

For the People of Reality (ahlul-haqq) death is not something to run away from, nor to deny it or to cover up with ten thousand other distractions. Death is seen as an inevitable reality for the soul to evolve to the next life, to the Kingdom, to the hereafter or the everlasting life. Thus to visit who have already gone ahead of us is helpful in becoming aware of our greater reality.

It is a common practice of pious Muslims to visit the mazars, a practice known as 'Ziarat' for the purpose of making prayer to Allah, Center of all Blessedness, for the salvation of oneself through 'Usila', 'wasila' or 'link' of the person who is at rest in the said mazar. Visiting mazar is not banned in Islam, as often some groups try to convey, but when the act of worship is directed towards the saint rather than God, that is prohibited in Islam since God alone is worthy of receiving worship. That is the significance of Prophet's instruction not to make grave of holy person a place of prostration or sajdah, therefore object of worship.

The place where dead are buried are not to be made into a place of worship. For seekers of God, the entire world is a prayer carpet, is fit for worship of God, for God is everywhere. Thus our Master, Prophet Muhammad didn't like the idea that people would turn a tomb or grave into exclusive place of worship, a tendency which was found in ancient traditions. Common people who themselves do not aspire to rise and become saintly, would take saints as lesser god and hence start to worship them. This has happened in Christianity as well as other religions of the past which makes people forget, first the fact that each soul is bestowed with the capacity to become a saint, a friend of God as well as to realize oneness with God and second, this also make them forget that it was not the communicator of the message or his human form in the past, but it is the message which has relevancy in individual life. To venerate saints in the same status as God is a grave violation of highest spiritual truth that God alone is God. Such tendency is spiritual suicide for it clouds the heart of seekers from Greater Reality of the Divine and hence hinders their progress in pursuing the Highest.

Thus mazars must be taken as what they are, not as a substitute for direct relation between creation and Creator. Real Divinity of God must not be shared by association (shirk) with any of God's creation who are of impermanent nature and it is God Who is the Real Eternal, Independent and Permanent. To associate attributes of God with any part or member of creation is one of the grave violations of spiritual truth and hence is cautioned against very severely in every Monotheistic tradition. Your God is a Jealous God, says the Old Testament and Sufis would explain that term 'Jealous' as how a beloved is jealous for his or her precious lover and wishes him or her lover to love the Beloved exclusively. God being 'Jealous God' means God is the Beloved Who wills that Divinity, Love and Reverence due to God must not be shared or given to anyone else in creation for God alone is God, 'la ilaha illa Hu'.

By God's grace and opening I recently had the opportunity to visit some of the most famous Mazars in the world located in India.

The cities in India where we could visit few of such resting places of Sufi Saints were Delhi, Ajmer, Mumbai and Kozhikode (Calicut). Due to time limit the visits were mostly short, without much preparation which otherwise could have made the experiences much rich. There are few things which captured our attention (I was accompanied by my wife and we both felt the same way) which I will sum up what I felt on my visit to the Dargah and the 'good, bad and ugly' aspects of such Sufi Shrines in general. Also some lessons learned which might help those who might wish to visit any Sufi Shrines, especially in Indian Sub-continent.

Shrine of Hazrat Inayat Khan (ra), Delhi
The Good

As I have mentioned in previous post that the ability of the Mazars or Dargah to attract people of all faith is its best part. I have witnessed the great attraction power of these saints, as they were bestowed this quality during their life time, so it continues even today, many hundreds and thousand of years later as well.

The Dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer, which is the most famous Sufi Shrine because of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti being the most famous saint in the Sub-Continent. Many people are attracted to his tomb, people of all faith, from all over India as well as from other parts of the world. The Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin is another shrine that attracts plenty of people from all across. You will not only find people of diverse faith but also people of diverse economic and social positions. One can see the most poorest of the poor as well as the most rich people, politicians, film actors or head of mega business houses visiting these shrines in quest of blessing.

These shrines work as a place where faith is revitalized, devotion to God is reactivated. People who otherwise are simply too busy and distracted to turn to God even for few moments in life would come to visit at these shrines and you will find them praying to God in silent devotion. Often there are some for whom visit to Sufi Shrines provide very special spiritual awakening experience, dreams of the saints, immediate and direct blessing and prayer answered with delay. The ability of these Sufi Shrines to make God a reality, to make the after-life a reality, to make the life of a saint who utterly devoted their lives to God a reality is the best part of the Sufi Shrines.

The Bad

During our visit to the Sufi Shrines one of the things that caught our attention and saddened us was the lack of cleanliness and discipline. The mazars which receive so many donations every single day, it is very sad to see that the management people of such places are so careless when it comes to cleanliness and maintaining its logistics. We found that there is a common tendency of such mazars to become a place of merchandize, commercialization is too glaring. People are selling all sorts of things both adjacent to the mazar complex as well as, in some cases, within the mazar complex. One would find food stall to shop that sells pieces of clothes, flowers, music Cds, books etc. This certainly is a hindrance to the spiritual quality of the mazars. If such shops are to setup, then should be given space well outside the mazar and certainly not within the main complex.

The uncleanliness aspect can be attributed to the huge crowd who come to visit the saints on daily basis and also due to the fact that often food is served for free to all. But this can still be managed with better awareness, management and team work. We found even a lack of sense for the people who setup business in the mazar regarding the need to keep the place clean.

Uncleanliness of these places is a direct violation of the pristine cleanliness with which such saints have maintained themselves, their lives as well as their surroundings. The dargah of Nizamuddin at Delhi, and particularly Haji Ali in Mumbai deserves better management. Haji Ali Dargah is located at the edge of the sea and we found that the pathway that leads to the Dargah is taken up by many shopkeepers who throw the garbage directly to the sea causing pollution and bad smells. It is the same shopkeepers who are selling rose and other flowers to be taken to the tomb which is such a two faced attitude to witness. I wish I could find the management people of the Dargah (the office was closed when we visited) and wanted to request to take care of this aspect.

There is also exception to this. The Shrine of Sufi Inayat Khan in Delhi (very near to Dargah Nizamuddin) was the most clean and most serene Sufi Shrines among all the Shrines that we visited. It has a very different quality than any other Shrine, one of the most perfect places for quiet meditation. I really liked it. Inayat Khan's shrine is visited by very few Indians as compared to other ones, which is helpful to keep its environment clean.

The Ugly

One of the most troubling aspects of the Sufi Shrines of Indian Sub-continent is that you will find people who claim to be representative of the Shrines who would try to capture the visitors and would ask for money for charity, for donations. It is especially true if the visitor looks someone who is new to the Shrine, foreigners and new comers. These people have very experienced eye to identity such people and they would come with their register book to collection donation. The problem of such people is that you never know where this money is going, especially given the fact that the general condition of the mazar is not well-kept.

While visiting the main chamber where the saint is buried you will find another group of men standing inside the final boundaries of the tomb who would call people towards them and cover them with piece of cloth and bless them, and with a direct instruction to give money. This was a real turn-off for us because it was conducted in a very impolite way. To offer blessing in return of money felt like an insult and the moment you give out the money to these people, you realize that you just wasted them. It is better to buy food to some poor people than to give money to these sharks.

The most popular shrines come with the ugliest of such experience with people inside the mazar demanding money, pretending to be representative of the saint and all they do is fill their pocket. We had such painful experience both in Dargah Chishti at Ajmer as well as Dargah Nizamuddin at Delhi.

We also felt sad about the fact that in places like this one do not make any attempt (at least we didn't experience during our visits) on part of the people who claim to be descendent of the saints, representative of the Mazars to speak about the life of the saint, his teachings, spiritual discourse etc. Yes there are qawwali singing, but one can easily see how both the singers and the listeners are devoid of its inner essence (except very few) or have any understanding of what they are about.

It is said that two things never mix, desire for the Dunya (worldly materialism) and desire for God, Godliness (spirituality). Those hearts which are pre-occupied with money, materialism, luxury of the world, desire for power, fame - for such hearts it is very difficult to find room for God. The people who act as the priests of these mazars would appear to be people of Dunya, hankering after money and donations by taking advantage of faith of people who is a very grave act. I wish and hope that the true representative of these Shrines would clean such place of high spiritual value from money sharks and false priests and easy money makers and make use of such place to spread the message of unity, peace, harmony and happiness.

Dargah of Nizamuddin Awliya (ra)

Shrines we visited in Chronology

Nizamuddin Awliya - Delhi
Hazrat Inayat Khan - Delhi
Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki - Delhi

Hazrat Moinunddin Chishti - Ajmer

Haji Ali - Mumbai
Shah Makhdoom Ali Mahimi - Mumbai

C. M. Waliyullah - Calicut

May Allah bless them all and increase their spiritual rank with Allah until the Day of Final Resurrection of Souls.

Tomb of Saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki (ra), Delhi

Lessons Learned

It is better to visit these Shrines, especially if it is a very crowded one, with someone who knows the place and who can protect the new visitors from falling prey to mazar priests and money man.

It is better not to give money to mazars, instead they be given to orphanages (some attached to the mazar or nearby or elsewhere) or simply to help other people of need.

It is always better to read and know the life of the saint that one visits as well as his teachings. This help receiving the blessing from the saint.

It is better to visit these shrines at off-peak hours, specially the very popular and hence crowded ones. Such off-peak hours would be either early morning just after sunrise or very late night (provided that one takes care of one's safety etc. and be accompanied with local person). This help spending comparatively quiet times.

It would be recommended to go directly to the mosque, if there is any attached to the Shrine or near about and to offer prayer to God even before going to the mazar. This keeps the intention pure and help maintain focus or awareness of real spiritual hierarchy which always, always begins with God, after which is the Prophet / Messenger and then comes the saint in the chain of spiritual authority.

May Allah accept all our visits to the saints, may we learn to sit with the truly learned and whose heart is alive, may we learn to value those who are alive and are engaged in spreading the message than just to visit those who are buried. May we not neglect amal saleh (doing good) and may we not compromise our direct connection with God. Peace and blessings to our Beloved Master Muhammad and blessings to his spiritual successors, the saints, the sincere and truthful ones, the friends of God and lovers of the Prophet.

# Resources: is a very resourceful website to learn about the location of Sufi Shrines around the world, their history and other relevant information.



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Technology of the Heart: Mazar, Sufi Shrines: The Good, Bad and Ugly Aspects
Mazar, Sufi Shrines: The Good, Bad and Ugly Aspects
Technology of the Heart
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