Looking ahead of us, the oasis village of Uch Sharif, nestled deep in the eastern Punjab of Pakistan, emerged from the desert. As we entered it was throbbing with people. Today was not only Friday, Jum’ah, but the ‘urs of a famous saint, Sayyid Bukhari.
An ‘urs is a yearly celebration of the death date of a famous wali (friend) of Allah. In Pakistan and the Indian sub-continent Islam was spread, upheld and revitalised by Sufis. The people who loved these men often built beautiful structures around their tombs, sometimes with an adjoining mosque. These darbars as they are called became places for Muslims to come to, and by the life-example and barakah of the dead wali, to remember, possibly with greater humility and awareness, their relationship to Allah.
Our van headed into the bazaar, becoming a wedge parting a sea of people. The colourful clothes and flowing turbans blended into one another. A collage of living colour and movement. The road began to climb up into a narrow winding street of walls and doors leading onto courtyards. We went as far as we could, stopped, and began the walk to where the main gathering was taking place, at the tomb of Sayyid Bukhari.
All around us were graves, lumps of mud piled up in shifting lines spread out over a continuously rising area. We were now several hundred yards up the hill. Later I learned that once there was no hill at all, and that over the years it had been gradually built, one grave over another, the final resting place of more than 100,000 people.
Uch Sharif is an ancient city. It existed as a trade centre during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). Later, after the arrival of Islam, it became a centre for religious teaching with universities and schools of Islamic knowledge. Sufis from many parts of the Muslim world came to teach and live in what was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Now there remain only reminders of that time.
The ‘urs was being held in the courtyard of the mosque in honour of Sayyid Bukhari. We were now on a path leading to its entrance. In front of us was an arched door. I could see only slightly through the door, as there were many people stopped at its entrance removing their shoes. But what I could see was fantastic: a courtyard spread out across the very top of the hill. Arriving at the entrance, I removed my shoes and entered.
There were people everywhere; men, women and children, all dressed in an array of colours like so many flowers gleaming in the sun on a bright summer day. I put my shoes down on the ground where they soon disappeared in the pile that grew at every moment. But I didn’t care. No one did; it was taken for granted that everyone would find their shoes later. We began moving through the crowd stepping over people, each foot searching for a piece of ground to balance on before going on. Hands stretched out from every direction helping our balance until we found space to sit.
I sat enthralled by the mass of people praying, singing and crying to their Lord: their faces as timeless as their worship. Time had stopped. My sense of being a tourist or visitor fell away and my heart began to open to this experience.
The Qawwali singers began to chant their songs about the prophet (s.a.w.) and his noble character and qualities, as well as songs about following the path of love for Allah. The sounds of their drums and musical instruments filled the air. With each breath we imbibed a portion of their intoxication.
Looking around, my eyes fell upon what seemed to be the vortex of the gathering across the courtyard; I moved towards it. It was the door to the tomb of Sayyid Bukhari.
I had never been in a tomb like this before. Upon entering it, I remembered the tomb of the prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in Medina. There was a similar taste, but reverence for the prophet and his unattainable station forbids further comparison. I entered the tomb and immediately felt cooled from the desert sun. It was just the dark coolness of a mud building, but felt like entering a garden.
The tomb of the saint was lit up and the inside covered by mounds of flowers that sparkled in contrast to the deep green cover over the stone grave. I had no idea of the correct courtesy, of how to approach the situation I found myself in. Suddenly I was compelled to touch the green cover. I buried my face in it. I felt as though I were being brought through a tunnel whose end was complete darkness. For a moment there was nothing but cool, uninterrupted blackness. Tears burst from my eyes and a hand tugged at my shirt, indicating it was time to move on.
Finally, the celebration ended. From death had come life. People began to disperse and we headed back to the village of Ahmadpur from where we had come. On the journey I remembered a saying that my shaykh so often repeated: From the womb to the tomb; what is in between is nothing other than realising our ultimate fate and by this realisation discovering our beginning.
By hajj Mustafa Shawqi