Sufi Devotional Practices

Debate and dispute about Sufi practices

The Marahra Pir’s [Sufi masters] knew that many of the practices in which they engaged were the subject of heated controversy in North India. Ever since the Dar al-Ulum had been founded by Maulanas Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi [d. 1877], Rashid Ahmad Gangohi [d.1905], and other ulema at the town of Deoband in 1867, a renewal movement had been growing in British north India. The Deobandi ulema frowned upon customs such as ‘Urs’, trying to discourage them on the grounds that asking a Sufi Saint to intercede with Almighty Allah was tantamount to shirk or polytheism.

Some of the Deobandi ulema were themselves somewhat ambivalent about this issue, moreover, Haji Imdad Ullah ‘Muhajir’ Makki [1817-99], a Pir to whom many of these Deobandi’s owed allegiance, had written a pamphlet (risala) in its favor.

Haji Imdad Ullah, who was the Pir of Muhammad Qasim and Rashid Ahmad, and many other ulema who were educated at the Deoband madrasa, in 1894, wrote a pamphlet entitled Faisla-e Haft Mas’ala [Decision on 7 problems].

In this pamphlet he took a conciliatory line towards the 7 issues he addressed, urging the ulema and all Muslims generally not to allow questions such as ‘Urs’, which were supplementary to their faith to divide them. He noted that after death the dead are tested on matters of belief by 2 angels who visit the grave, and enjoy the peace and happiness of union with the beloved, Allah, only upon passing the test. The origin of the word ‘urs’ is a hadis about the 2 angels Munkar and Nakir, who approach the dead person in the grave and ask 3 questions:

Who is your Lord? What is your din? What do you say about this man [pointing to the beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace)]? If the person answers all 3 questions correctly – if he says, that is: My Lord is Almighty Allah, my din is Islam, and this is Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), the last Prophet of Allah – the angels tell him to ‘sleep as the bride (urus) sleeps’. The reward for true belief, thus, is peace after death and the joy of union with Almighty Allah, as of a new bride with her husband.

For the living, therefore, it is fitting (especially if the dead person had done them some tangible or intangible service during his lifetime) that they should pray for him and transfers the merit (sawab) of their prayer to him, so that he may answer the angel’s questions correctly. Haji Imdad Ullah argued, furthermore, that the ‘urs’ brings together a large number of Sufi Pirs linked o different saintly lines (salasil, pl. of silsila), thus enabling those in search of a Sufi Pir to find one and to become initiated to him in discipleship. The Pirs too were able to meet each other; all this was a source of grace (baraka) to the participants. These were the advantages of honoring the dead on a specific day.

The controversy about the permissibility of holding and ‘urs’ was tied in with the question of sama, or singing, with or without instrumental accompaniment, which among Sufis was a means of inducing spiritual ecstasy. Haji Imdad Ullah quoted a hadis in which the beloved Prophet said, "Do not make my grave a place of rejoicing". He interpreted this to mean that there should be no noisy dancing, or festivities, at the gravesite; but Sama (literally ‘hearing’, listening to music) itself was not prohibited as long as it is within the bounds of sharia.

Haji Imdad Ullah’s rather ‘middle of the road’ position on this issue was similar, it appears to that of Sayyid Nuri Miyan (may Allah be pleased with him). While Sayyid Nuri Miyan (may Allah be pleased with him) himself did not listen by choice to music, he did not prevent his guests from doing so, and, in fact, joined them at such gatherings (majalis). But he did in very select (khass) company under all the necessary conditions of sobriety. The Marahra Sufis, according to Maulana Ghulam Shabbir Qadiri (may Allah be pleased with him), Sayyid Nuri Miyans (may Allah be pleased with him) biographer, looked upon Sama and musical accompaniments to singing as aids in the Sufi’s path, helping him reach a higher state (hal). Since Sayyid Shah Al-e Rasul’s (may Allah be pleased with him) time, however, Sama had been stopped at the urs at Marahra, and Sayyid Nuri Miyan (may Allah be pleased with him) did not restore it.

The ‘urs-e Nuri’, the largest and most important ceremony in the Barkatiyya khandan (family), which affirmed the family’s corporate unity most forcefully, was the annual urs for one of the ancestors.