By Arun Ganapathy
The author visits the shrine of the great sufi saint, Abdul Kadir Gilani and is enchanted by this great saint’s humanity and compassion
Go to Gavzul Agzam,” (pronounced Azaam) said the owner of my bed and breakfast place in Samarqand, “you will find peace and rest and…” She left her sentence incomplete, choosing instead to gesticulate. I took her advice, a car, and a guide, and went deep into the Urgut Mountains of Samarqand in Uzbekistan.
Gavzul Agzam is not a place. It actually means ‘Great Help’ and is the first two names of Gavzul Agzam Abu Muhammad Muyiddin Sayyid Abdul Kadir Gilani, the founder of the Quadiriya order of the Sufis who lived and taught in Baghdad in the 11th century. He was one of the greatest mystics of Islam and recognised in his lifetime as a “Pir – o – Piran” or a Master of Masters among the Muslims.
The legends relating to him say that he was born in the Jilani region of Iran in 1079, and belongs to the lineage of the prophet Mohammed. At the age of 10, he went to school and when he was 18, he joined a caravan on its way to Baghdad, then the mecca of learning in the Muslim East.
In Baghdad, he pursued the study of Hanbali law under several famous teachers. Abu Said Ali al-Mukharrimi taught him the Fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence; from Abu-Bakar-bin-Muzaffar, he learned the Hadith, the prophet’s teachings, from the renowned commentator, Abu Muhammad Jafar, the Tafsir, commentaries on the Koran and from Shaikh Abu’l-Khair Hammad bin Muslim al-Dabbas he learned Sufism.
It is said that even while he was studying, he resorted to spiritual practices like fasting and would not ask for food from anyone, even if he had to go without any meal for days together.
Then one day, he suddenly abandoned all learning and set out on a spiritual journey, which took him to the wilderness of Iraq. For the next 25 years, Gavzul Agzam was lost to the world. He wandered through the ruins of Iraq, living on liquid, fasting for days on end, denied himself sleep, and prayed at night. In the course of these austerities, he reached ecstatic states, which were difficult to describe. His mystical states here are likened to those of Jelaluddin Rumi.
When he came back to Baghdad in 1127, at the age of 50, he was recognised as a ‘Wali’ (Friend) of Allah. At first, he was reluctant to address people, but when the Prophet Muhammad urged him to do so in a dream, he began to preach in public, and soon attracted a large following. His teachings covered a wide range of topics from clarifications of Islamic law to spiritual practices like fasting and the necessity for leading a life without expectations. He set some of his teachings in written form, most notably in a collection of sermons called the Al-Fath ar-Rabbani and the Futuh al-Ghaib.
During this time, he also performed miracles. The legends and literature about him abound with stories of healing, and ability to read the thoughts and actions of others. Once the Khalifa Aimustanjid Billah came to Agzam and presented him a few bags of gold. He refused the gift but when the Khalifa begged and pleaded for their acceptance, the Hazrat took two bags and pressed them. Blood oozed out of them, indicating that the wealth was amassed by oppressing people.
People could reach out for his help just by thinking of him, and he would respond to those in adversity from afar. Once, when a gang of marauders was setting upon the members of a caravan on their way from Samarqand, they appealed for help to Gavzul Agzam. The story goes that a thundering shout was heard that frightened away the marauders and rendered a safe passage to the caravan.
In another miracle of a similar nature, he came to the help of a girl, who called out to him in distress from the mountains towards which we were now heading.
There were no road signs along the way, and our car kept winding and climbing – forever it seemed – through landscape that was like the Biblical wilderness. Every so often, we stopped at a dun-coloured village, and asked the old men sitting outside the choikhana (tea house) for directions. It is just a kilometre away, they would reply and we would drive – to the next village, ask again, and get the same instructions. Finally after many such, ‘it’s-just-a-kilometre-away,’ we arrived at a large wattle building.
Inside the gate, it was like another world; the barren regions we had just crossed fell away and we were suddenly in a Garden of Eden. Vines trailed on a trellis over a pathway that rose in steps through a garden of eucalyptus trees, plum trees, quince trees, bushes and fronds, I could not even name. Where they ended, there was a pond on one side and a cool blue and white shrine surrounded by tall chinar trees. This was the shrine, commemorating the Miracle.
“Once a young lady,” said the caretaker, “who lived in these parts was on her way to fetch water. A shepherd who was nearby caught her. The young lady said she would be with him after saying her namaaz. She began her namaaz and called out to Gavzul Agzam. ‘O Pir, help me,’ she cried into apparent nothingness.
Gavzul Agzam, who was in Baghdad at that time, heard the shout asking for help. He was preparing for prayer, and just at that moment, was washing his left foot. Therefore, he took off his left kavush (leather shoes on wooden soles) and threw it over his shoulder backwards. The kavush flew and hit the shepherd.” And what happened?
“It killed him instantly. At the place where the kavush fell, a plane tree grew up and a spring was struck. It soon became a pilgrimmage place for many people. They came here for the water for it can heal more than 70 diseases – and the women” – and here my caretaker lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper – “came for child-bearing.”
It explained the large circle of women I had seen at the entrance and the giddy amulets I had seen in the stalls. It also explained the line of women, queuing up to consult (or perhaps confess to) the old imam-like figure sitting on a large wooden karvot (Uzbek divan) under a frame tent, in the shade of the trees.
The caretaker opened the door to the shrine and let me in. Inside it was cool and carpeted. It had white windows and a high dome, the inside of which was painted to look like Chinese presentation porcelain.
There was a tomb in the centre draped in green satin, and embroidered with calligraphy in gold. Who or what was buried here? Was it some relic of the saint?
“Ask him,” said the caretaker motioning me towards the wizened imam-like figure. He was reading a ‘sura’ to a woman when I approached him. He asked me if I had washed. When I nodded in the affirmative, he asked me what I wanted to know.
“Tell me something, anything, on Gavzul Agzam’s life and his miracles.” He picked up a cobra file, tied in cotton string and began to recite the names of Gavzul Agzam. There were eleven. Most of them started with Syed, Mohiuddin Abdul Kadir Giloni and ended with a different last name. (Qutbullah, Rehmatullah, Amanullah, Sadaullah). Was this like some mantra to be invoked if one wanted Gavzul Agzam’s help?
“No, Gavzul Agzam already knew of your need for help even as you started for this place. His psychic power, developed early in his life, was such that when a person took seven steps from his home in the direction of this place, Gavzul Agzam knew of it and from there on was under his protection.
“Once a group of leading scholars of the town decided to visit him, and test his knowledge by asking him a hundred difficult questions. On their arrival, not only did Gavzul Agzam tell them of their purpose but also gave each question the correct answer.”
I pressed the imam-like figure – I still did not know his identity – for more information about himself, and his own connection with Gavzul Agzam. Was he a direct descendant of the master? He looked at me for a moment and his eyes danced under his bushy eyebrows. I waited, as I felt there was something he wanted to reveal. But he just fell silent and instead pointed to the flat sweet bread in front of him, and asked me to eat some.
Far below in the valley there was a hubbub – someone had died in the village, said the guide to me. The villagers, in a line of black and gold nodding kolpoks (Uzbek hats), w ere on their way to pay their last respects, moaning.
I knew our conversation had ended. I walked back to the entrance with a nagging feeling in my head, of something incomplete. This really is a place, as my landlady had said where you can find peace and rest and… the missing word, I realised was … a sense of mystery.
Arun Ganapathy is a freelance writer and trainer based in Delhi. His travels and interests in sacred sites have taken him from Bhutan to Mexico.
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