In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate; blessing and peace be upon Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.
Practice forgiveness, command decency
and avoid ignorant people. (Araf 7: 199)
IT was one hot afternoon in Delhi; the date Monday, 30th May 2011. I was among a group of Malaysian tourists on a week's visit to India. On that fateful afternoon we were looking for a masjid to perform our ‘solat jamak’ (combine prayers) of ‘zuhur’ (afternoon) and ‘asar’ (late afternoon) before travelling to Agra to see the famous Taj Mahal. The bus stopped at a park near Humayun’s (the second Moghul king) mausoleum on Muthara Road.
Our Indian tour guide told us that we could perform prayers at Masjid Izzuddin, a few hundred meters away from the parking lot. We followed the tour leader; he led us into a subway, then into a busy small scale business area (just like a ‘pasar malam’ (night market at home) where shoppers sells home necessity items such as flour and rice and as we went deeper inside the centre, many sold flowers put on trays. What were the flowers for, I thought.
A few meters ahead, I saw flowers and flowers petals scattered on white marbles raised from the floor and a few women surrounding it. I had no idea what the place was that we entered and what the people were doing. As we moved on, we were told to take off our shoes; and as I went nearer only that did I realize that the people there were gathering around a grave!
In fact there were a few more graves there; their surfaces covered with petals of flowers. Around some of it, people were seeing gathering, rubbing their hands on the tombs and chanting words which of course I could not understand.
We then moved nearer to the place the guide told us was a masjid. We then came across a courtyard where there were hundreds of people in it, chanting songs that seemed very strange to me. In front of them was a building in which I was told lie the remains of a famous ‘wali’ (saint). Some devotees were seen pushing their way inside the building, some rubbing their hands on its wall.
As I was about to pass the area to the prayer section of the ‘masjid’, a few elderly men sitting at a corner of the courtyard told me to leave my shoes which I was carrying all along since entering the grave area. I told them that I was not going to pray at that masjid but trying to find my way out since I was very doubtful to say my ‘solat’ there.
It was difficult to get out of that area as it was jammed with thousands of devotees. When I finally reached back to our bus; our tour guide asked whether I had performed my prayers at Masjid Izzuddin. I answered no; he was surprised, saying in India it was normal for Muslims to offer prayers at tombs of respected people and saints.
Not satisfied with his answer, I asked a friend who had previously travelled to India; he said millions of people there who claimed to be Muslim were actually ‘brelwi’ (practicing un-Islamic rituals including praying and offering at graves of certain saints).
Then I remembered many Indian Muslims including those from India who came to Pulau Besar in Melaka would perform offerings and slaughtering of animals such as goats at some graves there. Even though the state religious department had destroyed shades and buildings erected on those graves, the people kept on coming to perform rituals there.
Then during my travels in India, while reading a magazine (Go Getter/June 2011), I found an article entitled ‘Ardent worship’ by Ashok Gupta that answered some of my curiosity. Even though the subject was not on the rituals at Masjid Izzuddin which I had witnessed, the storyline was almost the same.
Gupta wrote: “The Urs Fair in Ajmer (Rajasthan’s famous lakeside city) that honours the Sufi saint, Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chisti, brings lakhs of devotees across all religions to the Dargah Sharif in the faithful and religious reminiscence of the saint.
“The Urs (death anniversary) is held in Ajmer every year to commemorate the death of Khawaja, whose mortal deeds earned him the title of Gharib Nawaz (protector of the poor), and whose memorial at Dargah Sharif where his remains lie buried is now a pilgrimage shrine for Muslim devotees all over the world.
“The holy Urs fair is a six-day long festival beginning with Rajab, the seventh month of the Islamic calendar. With the sighting of the moon, the Holy Tomb of the Khawaja opens up to the festive homage that sees pilgrims and devotees seek blessing at the shrine and indulge in ‘tabbaruk’ (offerings of hallowed food) among other specialties that continue through days and nights alike.
“The holy saint is said to have traversed from Persia t the sub-continent with the vision of building the Chistia order fakirs in this part of the world. For the altruistic services he extended to the poor and the downtrodden through his life that spanned a 100 years, he has gone in history as the Gharib Nawaz, to be worshipped for centuries to come to his tomb.
“The successor representative of the Chistis, or the Sajjada Nashin, traditionally hoists a white flag at the dargah to mark the commencement of the Urs Fair in the sixth lunar month (Rabiulakhir). As the month comes to an end, the Jannati Darwaza (symbolizing a gateway to heaven) is thrown open to devotees, who as per tradition cross the gate seven times in the believe that their abode in heaven is assured. The Sajjada Nashin also performed the ‘ghuzal’the holy ritual of anointing the tom with rose water and sandalwood paste and enveloping in a sheet of silk.
“Among the host of such rituals is the tide of rich offerings (nazrana) that devotees bestow at the shrine – essence of rose and jasmine flowers, ‘chaddars’ (blankets) perfumes, sandalwood paste, ‘ghilaph’ and ‘neema’. The ‘qawwali mehfils’ that shape up in the ‘mehfilkhanas’ are quite the popular rituals at the fair, and hundreds of men and women immerse themselves I the glorious hymns of the saint which then culminate in a mass prayer in memory of Khwaja Chisti.”
After reading the article and comparing it with the events I had encountered at Masjid Izzuddin near the Muthara Road in Delhi, I began to understand why some Indian (even those who came all the way from India) who claimed to be Muslims were very keen to go to Pulau Besar to pray and give their offerings at graves of saints there such as ‘Makam (Grave) Sultan Ariffin’ and ‘Makam Tujuh Beradik’ (Graves of the Seven Brothers).
Some Malays too practiced this un-Islamic rituals, I remember when I was a young boy of about eight years old (1970), one of my uncle took me to Pulau Besar and on the island we stayed in a ‘surau’ (small masjid) not far away from the so called ‘sacred grave’. Some of the devotees who I saw at Pulau Besar brought along with them goats and sheep to be slaughtered near the graves.
Thinking about this ‘brelwi’, now I am in better understanding as to why the keepers and guards at Masjid Nabawi (Prophet’s Masjid) aggressively push and shove away pilgrims especially Indians who tried to rubbed their hands or clothes at the railings or stopped too long near the Prophets and two of his ‘sahabah’ (companions') – Abu Bakr's and Umar's – graves.
And in Agra too, the millions of tourists including from overseas (me included) who sweat it out to Taj Mahal which is declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and considered one of the seven wonders of the world, are actually visiting the graves of Moghul emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal!