12th-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani is integral to the spiritual life in my native Kashmir, the Himalayan Valley he never visited over 4,000 km from his burial site in Iraq
Sometime in the late 11th century, a teenager left his native Gilan in modern-day Iran for higher education in Baghdad in what is now Iraq. He bade his mother goodbye promising he will always tell the truth whatever the situation.
It was not too long before circumstances put him to the test on whether he would make good on his pledge. A group of bandits waylaid the teenager’s caravan en route to Baghdad. The gang looted his fellow travellers before asking him if he had anything of worth when they could not find him carrying anything visibly valuable.
The bandits were shocked when the teenager told them he had a princely sum of 40 dinars sewn under the armpit of his shirt. They were initially dismissive and did not believe him thinking why would he risk losing the money he was claiming he had.
After some time, when the bandits gathered on a nearby hill to divide the loot, the gang leader got to know about the teenager’s insistence. The leader called him and inquired whether he indeed was telling the truth.
The teenager insisted he was and prompted the gang leader to order the cloth to be ripped up. When he found the money, he asked him why he did not keep quiet to save his money. The teenager replied he stuck to the truth because of the promise he had made to his mother.
The response moved the bandit leader to tears and inspired him to repent. The rest of the gang followed suit and returned the loot.
This was the first instance, the story goes, of someone repenting at the hands of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, who would go on to be regarded as the king of Muslim saints. Many more would follow as the saint attracted innumerable followers, who fanned out across the world to carry his message.
The saint, a direct descendent of the Prophet, continues to enjoy a legendary reputation for miraculous powers across the world. The waliullah, or friends of God, as saints such as Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani are known, are considered spiritually so powerful that they can inflict punishment upon sinners.
The saint’s appeal is not limited to Baghdad, where he lies buried in Bal al-Sheikh locality, or Iraq alone. It is universal. The saint 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.
He is invoked far beyond the warren lanes of Bal al-Sheikh. As the founder of the biggest Sufi order globally—Qadiriyya—his name is among the most familiar in the Muslim world.
Hamza Malik of SOAS University of London has compared the familiarity of his name among Muslims to figures such as St Paul, one of the leaders of the first generation of Christians and the most important Christian figure after Jesus, or St Patrick, who is believed to have played a key role in converting the Irish to Christianity.
During his lifetime, another story goes, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, was once preaching in Baghdad when he stopped suddenly. Gilani took off his wooden clog, raised it in his hand, and tossed it up in the air.
The clog vanished and is said to have fallen on a man’s head in India to save a distressed woman’s honour. The woman is believed to have called the saint’s help against the man, who was attempting to molest her.
In Baghdad, Bab al-Sheikh locality remained largely untouched by the hatred and violence, which had many Iraqis at each other’s throats, and strengthened the faith of the saint’s devotees in his spiritual powers.
The shrine remained the neighbourhood’s anchor and bound people together. Devotees from different sectarian backgrounds were at the shrine when we arrived there as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in 2016.
Bab al-Sheikh continued to do what it did best. It stayed strong and united, drawing inspiration from the saint. Iraq was then in the middle of a civil war, which was triggered a decade earlier when a bomb ripped through the Askari Mosque in Iraq’s Samarra, left scores dead, and deepened social fissures.
The bombing at the Shia shrine sparked the civil war and retaliatory sectarian violence. The conflict would displace over a million and leave more than 6,500 civilians dead in 2013 alone
A rapprochement was in the works. The schisms were far from over, but Bab al-Sheikh, a dusty maze of streets on the eastern bank of the Tigris in Baghdad, stood out as a shining example of co-existence.
Old bonds continued to thrive in Bab al-Sheikh, which held out hope that the reconciliation would eventually succeed fully in unifying the country. Deep inside its warrens, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, and Christians continued living cheek by jowl rebuffing the toxic mix of religion and politics that was tearing Iraq apart.
The neighbourhood gets its name from the saint’s epithet and residents believe he (1077-1166) watches over them 10 centuries after he passed away. Trust was the bulwark against the war that came hard to the locality’s edges but Bab al-Sheikh residents did not let sectarianism drive a wedge between them.
Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani’s shrine preserved the spirit of coexistence in Bab al-Sheikh. A sense of calm and tranquillity struck me as we arrived at the shrine. 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.
The shrine within the walls of Baghdad’s old city became the mother shrine of the Qadiriyya Sufi Order 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.
Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani arrived in Baghdad 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.
For many Muslims, writes Malik, the saint is ‘not just a historical personality. He is rather a figure of living importance. His spirit is believed to continuously provide spiritual sustenance and aid to those who seek and need it.
The saint is an integral part of the spiritual life in my native Kashmir, the Himalayan Valley he never visited over 4,000 km from his burial site in Baghdad. Myane Dasgeera, the invocation to the saint, is perhaps the third most common in Kashmir after that to God and the Prophet Muhammad.
When a Kashmiri, the story goes, fell sick in Mecca during the Haj pilgrimage, he called his relatives to ask them to pray for him at the saint’s shrine.
Locally known as Dastageer Sahib, the saint’s shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, houses a relic of the saint. An Afghan traveller is believed to have brought the relic there. He handed it over to the then-governor of Kashmir, Sardar Abdullah Khan, who gave it to Syed Buzargh Shah, a Qadri Sufi.
The Srinagar shrine was constructed at Khanyar in 1806, especially to house the relic. The relic is displayed to devotees who throng the shrine on important occasions.
At the Baghdad shrine, a soup kitchen remained an oasis of acceptance when Baghdad was riven with sectarian bloodshed. We met Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds there swearing by unity.
Sunnis and Shias queued for serving lentils, chicken, and rice without anyone caring about sectarian, ethnic, or religious lines that blur completely at the shrine, which is also an important site for a ritual marking the end of mourning for their loved ones among Shia women.
As we walked into the shrine’s marbled courtyard, we bumped into a group of Indian pilgrims. Yameen Ansari, a journalist in our delegation, knew the leader of the 100-member group Abdul Hameed Salim-ul-Qadri, the caretaker of a Qadiriyya shrine in his hometown of Badaun in India’s Uttar Pradesh.
Qadri was lodged at the shrine and was visiting Iraq for pilgrimage two years after his son Usaid-ul-Haq, who lies buried in the graveyard attached to the shrine, was killed in a terrorist attack near Baghdad.
He showed us around and accompanied us to the saint’s burial chamber next to which we offered our afternoon prayers as devotees continued to trickle in chanting the saint’s name.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide