A theological college within the walls of Baghdad’s old city became the Qadiriyya Sufi Order’s mother shrine when the 12-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani was buried there
Much of modern-day Baghdad came into existence when the nationalisation of oil in the 1970s created new jobs and drew people from all over Iraq to the city. New neighbourhoods sprang up in the city’s east and west to accommodate the growing population that more than tripled over 20 years.
The American occupation and the civil war that followed would take a heavier toll in the newer areas. The residents in these areas were from all over, which did not matter until social fissures deepened. Trust was the only bulwark left against the chaos, wrote Sabrina Tavernise and Karim Hilmi in their New York Times piece on Baghdad’s Bab al-Sheikh locality at the height of the bloodshed in 2007.
The war came hard to the locality’s edges but Bab al-Sheikh residents did not let sectarianism drive a wedge between them. Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and Christians continued living there cheek by jowl rebuffing the toxic mix of religion and politics that was tearing Iraq apart. 12th-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani’s shrine remained the neighbourhood’s anchor and bound people together. It preserved the spirit of coexistence in Bab al-Sheikh, which gets its name from his epithet.
A sense of calm and tranquillity struck me as we arrived at the shrine as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in 2016. The serenity was a far cry from the palpable tension in the fortified Green Zone across the Tigris. There was no visible security at the shrine unlike in the heart of Baghdad, where armed soldiers and barricades seemed to cover every inch of land. An unmanned walkthrough gate was all the shrine had in the name of security.
We walked into the shrine taking the most accessible of the three doorways—off Kifaḥ Street—into it. An alleyway off the main road led to a wooden door with embossed brass in an arched brick frame. Verses inscribed above the entrance on ceramic tiles called Gilani ‘of those men whose companions never experience doubt or fear of the uncertainties of time; and that although the suns of earlier men have faded, his will forever remain high in its orbit.’
Devotees would invariably use a knocker on the door before stepping into the shrine, which is oriented in a south-westerly direction to ensure the saint’s burial chamber and the adjacent prayer halls face Mecca. The door from Kifaḥ Street led us straight into the shrine’s open central courtyard. A second entrance off Gilani Street on the opposite side had a marble façade. The façade had carved inscriptions of Quranic verses related to the story of the Prophet Moses and his brother, Aaron.
The third entrance nearby had tiles bearing inscriptions from the Quran in which God describes his awlia, or friends, as ‘being those who will not experience fear or be sad. They are those who believe and who avoid wrongdoing. They will be rewarded both in this life and in the hereafter.’
Other inscriptions included ya Allah, ya Muhammad (Oh God, Oh Muhammad)’ and three of God’s 99 names. An older main entrance, which was now redundant as a gateway, is similar in design to the Kifaḥ Street gateway. Two verses inscribed nearby invite the seeker to come to the saint’s door when other avenues have become narrow as God has chosen to bestow upon this saint the gift of answering needs.
Two minarets soar into the sky from the shrine’s central courtyard. The oldest of them is closest to the burial chamber. The minarets have inscribed phrases such as ya Allah, ya Muhammad, names of God, and a Quranic quotation in which God tells his worshippers that to him ascends the good word, and the good deed raises it on them.
The shrine within the walls of Baghdad’s old city became the mother shrine of the Qadiriyya Sufi Order he founded ’s when the saint was buried there. It was earlier a theological college before becoming a hospice for Gilani’s followers and students in the 12th century.
The Qadiriyya would become the biggest Sufi order globally, making the saint among the most familiar in the Muslim world. He is known as Sulṭan al-Awliya’ (king of the saints), Muḥiyyiddin (reviver of the faith), Ghaus-ul-Azam (great helper), and Dastageer (hand-holder) in different parts of the world. The saint taught and preached for 32 years until his death in 1165. The college’s portico became the nucleus of the shrine after he was buried there.
The dome of the Qadiriyya shrine stood out in the skyline centuries after Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent built it in the 16th century when the Ottomans were seeking to bind the empire’s people. Suleiman also completed the restoration of Shia Imam Musa al Kadhim’s shrine, reflecting his inclusive approach. He sought to treat his subjects well irrespective of their sectarian identities and visited both Shia and Sunni shrines.
Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani’s shrine is believed to have even survived the 1258 Mongol invasion that left Baghdad in ruins and ended the Abbasid Empire. It later fell into disrepair. Suleiman renovated the shrine after capturing Baghdad in 1534. The sultan constructed the new dome after finding it derelict. He also ordered the construction of a hospice for the poor, and widows besides setting up endowments for the shrine.
Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani arrived in Baghdad over four centuries earlier in 1095. He studied the Prophet’s traditions, Sufism, Arabic philology, theology, and jurisprudence as per the Ḥanbali School—one of the four Islamic schools of jurisprudence.
The saint spent 25 years wandering in the deserts of what is now Iraq as an ascetic. In 1127, he returned to Baghdad and began the preaching career that brought him to prominence as the Abbasid Empire was fragmenting.
The saint considered it his religious duty to work for society’s welfare and particularly for the weak and vulnerable. He considered the service of mankind a spiritual duty. Amid growing materialism and immorality, the Sufi movement expanded the symbol of Islamic mysticism.
A soup kitchen at the Qadiriyya shrine remained an oasis of acceptance when Baghdad was riven with sectarian bloodshed. ‘I cannot live away from the kitchen. It is my peaceful world. We Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds, are all living as brothers and never discuss our sect. We are all Iraqis,’ Abu Saif, a Shia, who worked at the mosque, told Reuters in 2007 as Haj Hameed, a Kurd cooked in the kitchen.
Reuters noted the diversity in the kitchen is matched by the crowd of Sunnis and Shias who queued for serving lentils, chicken, and rice. ‘It is here, and only here, that no one pays attention to whether we are Sunnis or Shi’ites,’ Abu Saif told Reuters as he broke into tears.
Sectarian, ethnic, and religious lines blur completely at the Qadiriyya shrine, which is an important site for a ritual marking the end of mourning for loved ones among Shia women. The ritual involves a change of black clothes for coloured ones at a prayer hall adjacent to the saint’s burial chamber and giving discarded garments in charity.