What is a Sufi Shrine, its reality and why people go there?

What is a shrine?

A shrine is a place where sacred remembrance happens, whether this remembrance be of a saintly being who is resting in that place (therefore his mission, life, work and struggle are remembered), or a relic associated with some spiritual events (hence the reality of that event and its significance in our life can be reflected) or a holy person. But at the end all these remembrance ascend and are united to a single remembrance, the remembrance of God, the Only Being of Real Existence, for every other existence is of impermanent nature, are ever passing away and only the Eternal remains.

Human beings by nature are forgetful and hence it is said, becoming conscious is a lofty goal for human existence and God realization (and permanent state of consciousness pre-requisite that we go through remembrance). Wa Zikrullahi Akbar, 'And Remembrance of Allah is the highest (act)' - reminds the Final Testament.

In Sufi Way, shrines usually refer to the resting place of a person who have realized God, who is a friend of God, awliya saliheen, the sincere ones of the Beloved. But shrine could be a house dedicated to God, the Most High also. The most beloved and most frequented shrine in Islam is Kaba, located in Mecca, which is the most Ancient House (Baitul Atiq) and it is a venerated shrine among many generations of humanity because this is the first house of worship or abode of Divine remembrance. The second most important shrine is that of the tomb of the Messenger, divine peace and blessings to his soul, which is located in Medina. These two are the most frequented shines in entire human history at present, and by Gods will to remain as such in future as well.

In the Quran another shrine which is mentioned other than Kaba is the monument erected over few chosen servants of Allah who are known not by name but by their title, 'Ahsab e Kahf' or Companions of the Cave (scholars believe that they are early followers of Christ). About them it is said that they were given 'guidance after guidance' by Lord, which is to mean, they were people who received special grace. Eventually shrine or monument were erected where they were preserved by the Lord for unusual length of period as a Sign of God's Majestic Power. This mystical event is narrated in the 18th Chapter of the Quran and this mentions of a shrine to be build for their memory.

What is the essence behind shrines?

In the context of Sufi shrines which are found across the east (and now also in the west), it generally refers to a tomb of a sufi saint. Spiritually speaking, shrines or the earthly resting places of the sufi masters possess special magnetic quality. Because of their attraction, they continue to attract hundreds and millions of pilgrimage. There are certain shrines which are always visited, round the clock, every single day, every month and every year, without exception. This happens because of the lofty spiritual station of the saint who is resting in that very shrine. So much they attained that even after many hundred years of their passing away from the world they continue to distribute baraka or blessings.

Some of these famous Sufi Shrines are the resting places of Abdul Qadir Jilani (Baghdad), Muhiudddin Chishti (Ajmer) Nizamuddin Awliya (Delhi), Ibn Arabi (Damascus), Jelaluddin Rumi (Konya), Hafez (Shiraj), Shahjalal (Sylhet) and many more to name. May Allah bless their soul and preserve their Sirr.
In the Quran there is a particular verse which is very significant to understand knowledge of the unseen. It is said about the martyrs, 'Do not count as dead, those who die in the way of Allah, they are alive, but you do not percieve (the reality of their living)." Martyrs are not only martys who die in holy war in flighting but there are also martyrs of love. The Sufi saints are martyrs of love and their struggle is the exemplar struggle of conveying message of Unity, Love and Peace. Their struggle or jihad was no lesser than the jihad of the holy war. For this reason, they are called Martyrs of Love and it is them who are spiritually alive.

In truth, all of us when we die, our soul remains in an intermediate world, and because of lofty spiritual stations, the saints, the awliya saliheen are given special access to the lower realm - this world to continually transmit blessings and grace from God. The saints, the mystics or awliyas are Communicator of Truth, are Distributor of God's Love and Grace and their work in the inner world continues even when they are veiled from the world.

It is also said in the Quran "to be" with the siddiqins, which means those who are truthful, those who are the most sincere and it is these saints who are of that quality. In the Opening Surah we ask God to help us walk, to follow in the path, the footsteps of "those" who are specially blessed and they are none other than the Messengers, the Prophets and their successors, hence the Awliyas. To follow the footsteps of the saints pre-requisite that we know the saints, to know their life, their ways, their mission, their struggle and their teachings. One of the open secret of love is that the one who is loved, is remembered. It is said, "Love those who are loved by Allah." If one come to know the friends, come to love them, those who were distributor of the message of Love and Peace, then inevitably one shall be attracted to the saints, physically or in absence of that. That is the reality of people attracted to the Shrines of the Sufi Saints.

When asked Prophet said to be near those who reminds one ofGod and the friends of Allah qualufies the most for taking as companion, hence visiting them is praise worthy. Awliyas are Ayatullah or Signs of Allah, it is them who makes God a reality to people through their life, mission and teachings. They are the best transmitter and communicator of God's message. Thus to pay them visit and sending them salaams is a form of ibadat and help remembering God.

Who go to the Sufi Shrine?

We live in a time, in a world when, where religions, all of them have lost their spirit. And what happens when spirit leaves a body, we are left with the cadaver, with the corpse, the rotten and stinking corpse. That is also what we have reduced every single religion into. You name any religion and the same applies to them all. This is a worldwide phenomena. Somehow religion which was meant to unite man to God, unite man to man - have become excuse for separation, for looking down and judge others, to exclude one from another, to exercise hatred and disharmony among man and his true nature, among fellowship of humanity. But religion and spirituality once had a single goal, to unite, Yoga, to accelerate Union both on human level and between individual soul and Supreme Soul. For some signifact time we have fallen from that important goal.

If one to think of a single place where people of all race, religion and social status have permission to enter without hesitation, where no one is bothered about what they believe or what religion they are born into, where no one is stopped because of their faith, where people of all faith could come and receive blessings, grace and peace, where prayers are heard and people leave with tranquility of their being, it would not be church, it would not be mosque or temple or synagogue. Churches have now become: 'my church and your church', mosques have been made extremely unfriendly and unwelcoming for non-muslims and even for muslim women, certain hindu temple even had restrictions for non-hindus to enter and still non-hindus will hardly go there to pray or worship and within hindu community various temple are assigned to various idols, different caste and again separation of worshiper etc. Same goes for almost all organized religions.

But very interestingly if you go to any Sufi Shrine, you will find that people of all faith are there, asking blessing, praying for their individual need, respect and reverence flows equally from people of all faith for the saint, no one is asked about their faith or belief. Both men and women are found there for it is a matter of spirit and matter of love which knows no separation. If there is anything that the Sufi Shrines can teach us, despite all their problems, despite their poor management and sometime over crowded nature - it is this simple truth that religion and spirituality is meant to unite, not divide.

Personally I may have certain criticisms related to the management of these shrines, but still it is this universal and inclusive nature of the Sufi Shrines which I love the most.

What do people do when they go there?

People are of diverse nature, so are the motivations behind going to these shrines by different people. The highest motivation out of which people may visit the shrines is out of deep love for the person who is resting there. Sufis say, love those who are loved by Allah.

It is love and only love for which the shines are built in the first place, it is those who loved them the most were the first who could not bear the thought that the person whom they love - is no more. It is from this indescribable state of love that people want to give permanency to the resting place of these illuminated beings, no matter how impermanent is the nature of our existence be. It is the kind of love out of which a great companion of the Prophet, Umar cried out that "Muhammad didn't die" upon hearing the news of his passing, for this was an unfathomable thought for Umar who loved and received tremendous loving-care from Muhammad. The rule of love is different and here logic and rationality fades.

Even today those who go to the shines, many go there because they feel the pull of love. I have met one lady in the Delhi Jama Masjid the other day, may Allah bless her, who goes there because few relics of the Holy Prophet are kept there, namely one strand of hair from the beard of the Prophet, one of his shoes and one engraving of his holy feet on a stone. This lady was telling that this is the most desired place for her and whenever she get a chance she come here, so that she can see and kiss the stone with impression of the feet of the Prophet. This is love and nothing else needs to be explained. For I am sure if Prophet were alive, people of such love would not deny him but would be attracted to him, so are they even when he is not in his body, for such love is a quality of the heart and manifests in many forms, across time and space and it is through the inner state of the heart that Allah knows who is sincere and who is a pretender or simply give lip service.

So the first category of people who go to the shrines are those who are pulled by the magnetic attraction of love.

Among other categories of people would be, those who are faced with trouble in life, and they go to pray to God through the saint, through the honor of the lofty spiritual station of the awliya. It is also possible that there could be thiefs and cheaters among the people who visit. There would be merchandizers who are there for no other goal but to make profit in selling this or that. There are extremely pure soul who would go there to clean literally with a broom, to do service (seva) and there are others who might be in between the extremes. There are curious tourists who are there only to film and to add a new exotic place in their life experience. You will also come across beggars, vagabonds, ascetics as well. And there are others who sits there using the excuse of their relation with the saint to make money in a way which is questionable, forgetting that its not blood relation that will guarantee salvation on the final day of judgment but purity of heart and righteous deeds. You will find all kind of people there, but it does not matter, it shouldn't.

All it matters is your intention and the sincerity of it. If you enter there simply to send greetings of peace to the saint, know that you will be returned many folds because each of these saints were and still are of the most polite etiquette, are people of adab or spiritual courtesy. It is said that there are certain degrees of the soul, when soul reach beyond certain stages towards God realization, they are said not dead as we mean by the word 'dead' for common usage. This is validated by many Divine Informers and sages. So they are given access from the world unseen to send blessings to those who rememeber them and interceede for them as well. All intercession for other souls by any beings are with the permission of God and it is those who are chosen beloveds of Allah are recepient of such Divine permission to interceede on behalf of other souls.

Awliya or Muslim Saints are spiritual successor of Prophet Muhammad. Just as the Prophet have informed us that whosoever send greetings to his soul, they are conveyed to him and he also send return greetings to them and it is he who will be the archetypal intercessor for his community and by extention for all beings - similarly the succesor of the Prophet, the Awliyas also possess the same quality in varying degree, depending on their spiritual station with God. So the higher the station of the awliya (friend of Allah), the more capacity is given to them for sending blessings, removing difficulties and affliction from behind the veil by the permission of Allah. They are true servant of God and continue their services of distributing for those who are needy, the fuqara.

So generally depending on the intention of people, they do various actions when they go to the Shines of a Sufi Saint. Some read chapters from the Quran, send benediction to the soul of the Prophet and the merits are sent to the soul so that it may reflect back many times to those who recite or read them. Some simply make personal supplication, ask for help, blessing. Some tie knots, leave hand written letters at the shine with the hope that they be answered through the language of blessings. Some go their to give donation, charity to feed the poor or orphans, some to fulfill vows. Others may sit their in meditation and enjoy the atmosphere. Some go there to enjoy and listen to Qawwalis or special song sung there (a practice known as sama). Qawwalis are sung specially in Sufis of Chishti lineage. Qawwalis are special form of devotional singing containing subtle spiritual truths and seed for God realization. The Mevlevis would whirl at the court or hall room of the shrine. Sufis in Africa may beat drum and sing spiritual litanies etc. Any Sufi Shrine will inevitably take on and absorb the culture of the place and time.

Do the pilgrims offer prayers to the deceased or on behalf of the deceased or ...?

Ideally speaking the essential truth remains, "Only You do We worship, only You do we seek help." (Iyya kana'abudu wa iyya kanastayin). So for the soul which is mature and evolve must always realize that the only Being worthy of worship is the Divine and the Only Being Who is to be sought and asked for anything is the same One. "Let thine eyes be one" prayed and blesses Jesus so that only only One be seen. Nothing has any share of the Divine Power and Authority. This is the highest stage and station, the final frontier of realization.

Yet seeking wasila or medium to receive help is part of the reality. The Quran asks to seek wasila (medium). Even though a God relized being may realize that it is God who feeds, but at the same time he uses his own hand to put the food in his mouth. He may know that at the Heart it is God Who alone is in Action and Who Nourish and Preserve, yet he may drink milk from a cow to live and preserve his body. Same principal which applies for material world, also applies for spiritual world where illuminated beings and souls are special instrument of God who helps with the permission of God, with the Doing of the Only Doer.

The Saint or Awliya is only the visible face of the Invisible and Unseen. For human beings it is natural to connect to another human being, to love another human being and it is also logical because for the same reasons Nabi and Rasuls (Divine Informer and Messengers) were sent. There are incidents where Prophet Muhammad was requested by his companions to make du'a for his behalf and he did, and that is (one of) the permissibility or spiritual authenticity of intercession.

Though at the higher stage of soul it demands never to ask anyone else but to God, yet some people of lesser realization would ask directly to the saint and this is valid for their spiritual state and station. So one may see some people will ask directly to the saint and they are given for God's door of mercy is wide and extends to all beings, through many avenues.

A child sitting on his dinning table sees that food comes out of the kitchen. She in her small mind may think that it is the maidservant in the kitchen who provide food for all, all the time since it is the maid who always bring food out of the kitchen. But in truth it is her father who may earn (or mother in that matter) and buys the vegetables, rice, meat etc and give to the maid. The child may take the maidservant as the provider and it is true for her lesser reality and when she is hungry she might ask her for egg, milk etc. The maidservant may provide (since she is given the authority and permission from the parents to give food) and if egg or milk is finished she migh ask her master for more milk or egg and evetually it will be her who will give them to the child. The child is happy. This is also a parable for saints in their spiritual distribution. Just as the maidservant is the distributor, but it is the father of the child who earns and provide but due to lack of higher intelligence the child may not understand all the complexity of a job, earning, money, purchase in the superstore, supply chain etc., similarly it is the saints who are distributors (of God's knowledge, gnosis, faith, deen, love, grace) but real provider is God, Allahu ar-Razzaq. The real bestower is God, Allahu al-Wahhab. The real guide is God, Alllahu al-Hadi.

Those who are in the stage of child, who are seekers of beginning level, for them it is permissible to ask the saint but for those who are God realized it is not permissible even to turn to anything other than God and those who are in between, for them it is safe to send blessings to the saint and to supplicate in their presence but they must also recognize and realize that it is God Who remains to be the Real Giver.

Allah Knows the best and to Him is the final and complete knowledge. Allahu Alim.

Sadiq M. Alam
Uttar Pradesh West, on road to Agra
14 March 2012

My thanks to S. E. for the questions which inspired this post. Allah bless you.

+ Next Post: In an upcoming post I would love to share the good, bad and ugly aspect of mazars or sufi shrines from recent visit and observations at some of the most popular sufi shrines.



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Technology of the Heart: What is a Sufi Shrine, its reality and why people go there?
What is a Sufi Shrine, its reality and why people go there?
Technology of the Heart
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