The urs is a pilgrimage and the Arabic term ziyara (from the root zara), which means to ‘pay visit to’, is commonly used in the Urdu in the specific sense of visiting a saints tomb. The Urdu word mazar, meaning tomb or shrine, is likewise derived from the same Arabic root. Whether one visits a tomb during an urs or at any other time of the year, such a visit is respectfully termed ziyarat.
Unlike the hajj in Mecca, only men attended the urs at Marahra, and women were strongly discouraged from visiting graves, and various ill effects were believed to occur to them if they did so. Imam Ahle Sunnat Ahmad Raza Khan Qadiri (may Allah be pleased with him) was asked whether woman could attend the urs of Kwaja Sayyid Moinuddin Chishti (may Allah be pleased with him) at Ajmer. His reply was unequivocal: a woman would be cursed by Almighty Allah and by the person whose grave it was from the moment she resolved upon making such as visit, until she returned home. The only grave which woman may visit, and indeed must visit (such an act being Sunna, and almost wajib) was the beloved Prophet’s grave in Medina, should they go on Hajj.
Beliefs about the dead are clearly central to what takes place at an urs. Imam Ahle Sunnat Ahmad Raza Khan Qadiri (may Allah be pleased with him) wrote at some length on the subject, citing hadis to support his arguments. When asked whether it was permissible to dig up an old graveyard of Sunnis and build residential houses on the land, he responded in a fatawa in 1904-5 that this would be an act of disrespect toward the dead buried there, and was not emitted in the Hanafi school.
Citing proofs from hadis, riwayats from the sahaba (Companions of the Prophet) and tabe’in (those who followed the Prophet’s Companions), in addition to proofs from fiqh, he argued first that bodies of the highest categories of beings (prophets, sufi saints, and martyrs) do not disintegrate after death. Furthermore, after death the spirits of the auliya become even more powerful than before. When someone reads the Fatiha at the grave of a wali (friend of Allah), the spirit (ruh) of the latter recognizes him. Similarly, if someone acts disrespectfully towards his grave, he is troubled by it. Sayyid Nuri Miyan (may Allah be pleased with him) related the following incident:
Close to our home in Marahra, in a jungle, there is a graveyard of martyrs (ganj-e shahidin). Someone used to take his buffalo there. In one place the ground was soft. Suddenly, the foot of the buffalo went in. It was discovered that there was a grave at that spot. A voice came from the grave, ‘O you! You have caused me great discomfort. The foot of your buffalo hit me on the chest’. [Ahmad Raza Khan – Ihlak al-Wahhabiyy, pg 18.]
As for ordinary Muslims, although their bodies decay over time, their spirits continue to inhabit their graves, and must be respected. The fatawa continues:
Dear God! When the Prophet has told us not to sit on graves, or lean against them, or put our feet on them, and when the ulema have warned us against walking on new paths in a graveyard, or sleeping near a grave, it is incumbent on us, when go to pay our respects and do pilgrimage (ziyarat) at a grave, to do so from a [respectful] distance…. We have been told that dead Muslims and live ones both derive honor from the same things.
In his Malfuzat, Imam Ahle Sunnat Ahmad Raza Khan Qadiri’s (may Allah be pleased with him) also said that the dead can hear better than the living, and can communicate with the living, just as the living, in turn, can intercede for the dead and be instrumental in changing their fate in the hereafter.
The interactive relationship between the living and the dead helps us understand the concept of isal-e sawab, or transfer of merit, in which the prayers of the living act as a kind of intercessionary factor in changing the fate of the dead person. This is what Haji Imdad Ullah was referring to in his defense of the urs, when he said the prayers of the living could help the dead man answer the questions of the two angels correctly, and thereby ensure his ultimate entry into heaven.
Equally, however, ordinary folk approach a shrine in the hope that the dead saint will intercede for them. The chain of transmission starts at the grave of the local Pir, and goes right up to the beloved Prophet, who is closest to Almighty Allah, and whose intercession on one’s behalf will never be denied.