Folk Islamic Ritual #2: Veneration of Pirs at Dargahs

Understanding folk Muslim rituals help us understand the worldview of folk Muslims. Understanding the worldview of folk Muslims aids us in making disciples among them. In the previous blog on folk Muslim rituals, we discussed devotional singing, called na’at, and how na’at shows us that folk Muslims in South Asia approach God through mediators. Folk Muslims understand the gospel well when we present Jesus as the greatest mediator. This lesson builds on that lesson by describing dargahs and pirs.

This is the relatively unknown Dargah of a Pir known as Hazrat Mohammad Shakil Shah in Mussoorie in Uttarkhand, India. The tiled structure between the two tree trunks is the grave. This tomb has been there long enough that these this tree has grown through the structure. Despite its age, the tomb is well maintained. The box is for devotees of this Pir to give financial offerings. No living Pir sits at this tomb. There are many thousands of small dargahs like this one throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Dargahs are shrines that contain tombs (Urdu kabr or mazhar) of deceased Sufi mystics known as pirs. Pirs are spiritual leaders in folk Islam that often wield enormous political and social power. In most sects, pirs are Sayyid, meaning that they claim to be descendants of the tribe of Muhammad. Pirs are Sufis who seek spiritual union with Allah and function as conduits of power (Urdu karamat) and blessing (Urdu barkat) from Allah. Pirs are known to provide spiritual guidance to their followers. Followers obey their pir’s direction absolutely.

There are two general approaches to the veneration of saints at dargahs. One is through a formal piri-muridi relationship, while the other is a simple petition of the saints. Piri-muridi refers to a solemn devotion of a disciple (Urdu for murid) to a Sufi pir involving some kind of initiation rite. The murid pledges obedience, and the pir bestows a spiritual barkat or empowerment on the murid. Phil Parshall wrote about an experience with a Naqshbandi pir who would initiate “his disciples by pressing his finger into their chests just over the heart. At that time, the devotee becomes filled with God and actually hears the voice of Allah within his body.”[1]

            Most devotees at dargahs never enter this kind of formal relationship. Instead, they go (or are brought to dargahs) to ask for help for practical needs in their lives.[2] Different dargahs are reputed to have barkat for different needs. For example, Pir Kaliyar Sharif in Uttarakhand is known to free visitors from demonic spirits. In visits to this dargah, I have seen individuals chained to trees and buildings outside the dargah complex by their families as they wait for deliverance from evil spirits. Inside the dargah, I was once almost knocked over as demon-possessed individuals writhed on the ground as Sufi leaders tried to cast demons out of them (apparently unsuccessfully). Pir Budhan Ali Shah in Jammu is known to help women become pregnant.[3] One missionary I know told a Muslim friend that he and his wife were having trouble becoming pregnant. His Muslim friend brought the missionary and his wife to this shrine to try to help them. There are thousands of dargahs across South Asia. In particular, the Punjab province in Pakistan contains a high concentration of dargahs

            Visitors to dargahs undertake acts of veneration.[4] They never turn their back on the tomb and wear topis (Urdu for “skullcap”) to give respect. Most visitors offer money, flower, or light clay lanterns in veneration of the Sufi. Devotees prostrate (Urdu sijda) themselves as an act of homage to the saint. All of these acts accompany the supplication of the visitor who believes that the saint can provide barkat as a conduit of Allah’s power. Sufis are renowned for supernatural ability to do things like teleport, walk on water, or fly.[5] In India, it is reasonably common for Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and others to go to dargahs for barkat. In larger dargahs, there are generally pirs and other Muslim holy men who can create magical amulets, cast out demons, prophesy, and otherwise aid visitors in their spiritual needs. There is perhaps no more controversial question in Islam in South Asia than the role of pirs and dargahs in Islam. Many sects of Islam embrace these practices, and many others decry them. However, for the majority of Muslims in South Asia, the power of the dargah is more important in their lives than the mosque. 

            Because of the amount of respect pirs hold among folk Muslims, it can be helpful for Christian ministers to Muslims to adopt some of their habits. For example, pirs tend to live simple lives, wear shalwar kameez, and act as spiritual leaders. Christian’s can emulate these practices to be viewed more as spiritual leaders by folk Muslims. Additionally, pirs should ideally seek for union with Allah. Christians ministering to folk Muslims need to pursue a genuine spirituality with Christ, abiding in Him. Many Muslim leaders act more like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Scripture and long for spiritual leaders that genuinely know God. Additionally, Christian ministers to folk Muslims should act as spiritual leaders by praying for folk Muslims, providing spiritual guidance from the Bible, and following a defined path for disciples.  

If you found this article helpful, click below to read all of my articles on Folk Islamic rituals.

[1] Phil Parshall, Bridges to Islam: A Christian Perspective on Folk Islam (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006), 33.

[2] Usha Sanyal, Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet. Makers of the Muslim World  (Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2006), 92-93.

[3] In Pakistan, similar shrines exist to Aban Shah that would have been very close to this shrine before partition. The shrines in Pakistan derive some of their practices from Shiva worship which is the primary Hindu god of the Jammu region. Khalid, 9-38. 

[4] Ibid 106-107.

[5] Ibid 108-109.

7 thoughts on “Folk Islamic Ritual #2: Veneration of Pirs at Dargahs

  1. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is interesting and complex. Interesting how you find success. Thanks for sharing.


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