The Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī hosts many different relics related to the Ahl-al Bayt, but the most important are those belonging to ʿAlī, Husayn, ʿAbbās ʿAlamdār and ʿAlī Asġar.
By Michel Boivin
The Sensorial Experience of the Presence in Absence
Of course, the final purpose of a visit to the Qadamgāh is to experience the sacred through the presence of a saint, a prophet or a god, an encounter with the divine. In this respect, another main distinction between the pādukā and the qadam is how they are used. For the pādukā, the ritual of touching is of primary importance, and probably more so than the act of seeing. According to Nugeteren “… this reaching out, kneeling and touching includes various physical gestures of devotion involving multiple senses and the entire human bodies”.
In the case of the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī, the qadams are protected by a showcase that allows the believer to see, but prevents him or her from touching the qadams. When was this set up? I cannot answer this question, but one can surmise it was possible to touch them in the past. As a matter of fact, in devotional rituals and actions pertaining to local Sufi piety, touching is a main gesture, a means to forward the sacred, the baraka. After touching a sacred object, the devotees will put their hands over their faces, literally smearing themselves with baraka. Some relics are covered with a showcase or even a silver leaf, such as the gulūband in Sehwan Sharif, and it is said it is for protection. As a matter of fact, it does not diminish the experience, because for the devotees, the relic is powerful enough to transmit the baraka to him/her across the “protection”. Consequently, they do in fact perform the ritual act of touching.
The qadam is different if compared to other relics. The mantle of Muhammad can procure great spiritual merit. It can be seen as a medium, transmitting the baraka from his body to the believers though the act of touching. But with the qadam, it is a different kind of sensorial experience. First there is the function of medium; if the believer can touch the footprints, he or she will come in contact with ʿAlī. But it goes even further: the trail left by ʿAlī is evidence that HE WAS HERE. The qadam is thus an indisputable proof of his presence, despite his absence.
Once again, the act of seeing or visualizing is of primary importance, both in Muslim and Indic religious cultures. This is the transformative act that makes an absence present. The presence in absence is realized through the process of seeing and visualizing. I make here a distinction between both: seeing is the physical process, allowing someone to see something or somebody, while the visualization is the interiorization of the previous act, the act of seeing the spiritual reality of the person. Depending on the religious traditions, this reality can be named cosmic, esoteric, or mystic self, but in each case, it is located beyond the bodily shape of a person.
In Sindhi the act of both seeing and visualizing is described by two main terms: darshān and dīdār. These two terms belong to two different linguistic repertoires, as well as two different religious contexts. The term darshān, from Sanskrit, is especially used by the Hindus, while the term dīdār originates from Persian, and is mostly restricted to Muslim esotericism, both Sufi and Shiʿi. Notwithstanding, in Sindhi, both are used indifferently in Sufi, as well as Ismaʿili and Hindu terminology. There are many definitions of darshān/dīdār, but put briefly, it means “the visualization of the divine”. This is the first step. The second step, the final goal of the believer, is the encounter with the divine. The act of visualization leads to this final step (see Ruffle’s article in this volume).
How are qadams relics and what kind of relics are they? To answer these questions, I must try to create a typology of relics. I surmise that there are three main categories of relics: 1. Objects belonging to a god, a prophet, or a saint, such as clothes, arms, cups, and other items; 2. Human remains, such as heads, hairs etc.; 3. Footprints. On a ritual level, one can detect a number of differences within the worship of the pādukās. In the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī circumambulation is not possible. While this is the main ritual in the Sufi dargāh, the agency of the qadams just makes this impossible. Another distinction is that in the Qadamgāh, there is gender segregation. Men and women are not allowed to pray together when facing the Qadamgāh. In fact, the most important space, the bigger one, is reserved for the men.
The qadam and the pādukā also share features, such as for example the competition with other relics. In this regard in Indic context, the pādukā can be seen as a murtī, a statue, while in Muslim context, this is not possible, even if figurative representations circulate, such as posters. Consequently, the competition that the qadam and the pādukā faces, is not with identical relics. Indic temples are replete with statues of gods and goddesses, gathered in a single temple. In a Muslim context, the competition would be more with other sites that contain relics, especially Sufi dargāhs. But as we saw in Hyderabad, as well as in many other cities such as Sehwan Sharif, there was a pretty harmonious combination of both repertoires that allowed these sites to be incorporated into a sacred itinerary.
Furthermore, if there is competition, it is good to remember that there are only a few qadams devoted to Sufis: most qadams are attributed to Imam ʿAlī. Consequently, it is relevant to make clear that this specific category of relics is tightly framed and associated with a specific sacred figure of Muslim piety: that of ʿAlī. It is well known that ʿAlī embodied the best qualities a human can be gifted with: loyalty, courage, and righteousness. In other words, ʿAlī is the perfect, exemplary Muslim, and as such, he is THE model, the mard-e Mardān, meaning the man, the human being par excellence. The qadam is the best relic, as through the presence in absence, it grants the believer his or her dearest wish: to meet ʿAlī, the insān-e kāmil, the Perfect Man of esoteric Islam.
But even so, what was the need to create this form of relics, when others existed in Sufi mausoleums? Could this particularly powerful relic make up for a possible geographical remoteness from the most important holy places? This is certainly only a hypothesis, but it seems to me that the case of the Wakhan is significant in this respect. The Wakhan is a province located on the border of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. The Wakhanis live in very hard-to-reach valleys, and they are mostly Ismaʿili Shiʿites. Locally, it is known as qadamgāh-e pīrān, or the “place of saints’ footprints.” There is also another shrine, the farmān khānā, or “The House of Orders,” where, among other relics, Holy Hair (Mui Mubārak) of the present Imam, the fourth Aghā Khān, Shāh Karīm, as well as his picture (aks-i mubārak) are kept.
Iloliev observed how this mausoleum has changed since the late nineteenth century. The architecture has been modernized, and many relics have been added over the years, as if this build-up has strengthened the spiritual influence of the site. Nonetheless, the most amazing place in Wakhan is a shrine devoted to the qadamgāh of Fāṭima. It contains a sanatorium with two pools of natural hot spring water with miraculous powers. The members of the local government own cottages nearby, as if the place were a resort for tourists. Local people firmly believe that the site is frequented by the spirit of Fāṭima, and a hole with warmer water is said to be her womb.
In a Muslim context, where iconographic representation of the sacred is explicitly forbidden by the Qurʾan, the qadam as relic is singular. It is not the figurative representation of ʿAlī, although we can find many in the bazars, around the dargāhs and the qadams. It is not a sacred object, a relic, which is blessed and considered as a baraka medium, for any reason. In itself, the qadam is not an object, as it is hollow. The qadam allows the believer to act in a measured and controlled transgression, because of the Quranic interdiction of idolatry, and because it simultaneously puts him in the presence of the most sacred character of Islam after Muhammad. Consequently, the qadam is an iconic representation of iconicity, thanks to its liminal status.
Like the pādukā, the qadam is polyvalent. They are objects of political alliance, polarization of devotion, and social control, as well as ethnic integration. I have suggested that the installation of the qadam in a shrine in Hyderabad could have resulted from an attempt to create a new devotional Shiʿi pole, as Shāh ʿAbbās operated with the Qadamgāh Imām Reżā near Nishapur. This attempt was cut short by the British conquest.
The veneration of footprints is a well-spread tradition all over South Asia, and shared by the different religions. The footprints belong to the subcategory of bodily relics, but work on a specific register: the expression of a presence through absence. The absence of the body is compensated by the presence of footprints. While the saintly character is obviously absent, there is a material trace that proves he has been present, and it creates a peculiar form of presence: the presence in absence. The aim of this chapter was manifold. It shows that apart from the political and social roles that have been attributed to the qadam by different components of local society, its growing success also comes from the bridging of basic devotion of the local Sufi pattern, with the display of an authentic Shiʿi identity.
The Mowlā jā Qadam started as a symbol of the political alliance between the Qajars and the Tālpūrs, and it was for them probably a tool for the reinforcement of their legitimacy as Shiʿi rulers. However, it was only just before the British conquest that the last Tālpūr decided to build a shrine and to exhibit the sacred relics. Later, the partition caused a significant renewal of the population of Hyderabad; although the population was first predominantly Hindu (2/3), it became predominantly Mohājir. Riots between Mohājirs and Sindhis occurred in the wake of the partition and, although the onomastic details are not known, the Mowlā jā Qadam was transformed into the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī.
Today, the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī hosts many different relics related to the Ahl-al Bayt, but the most important are those belonging to ʿAlī, Husayn, ʿAbbās ʿAlamdār and ʿAlī Asġar. It works on two different registers: everyday life is framed according to the Sufi repertoire of devotion, while the main events of the Shiʿi liturgical year provide another repertoire of devotion. Daily life is made of manat, when people light chirāgh, tie threads and fix locks. These “ritual” actions are quite common in a Sufi context. The second register is more related to Shiʿite events, like for example the Moḥarram processions. Finally, lectures on different “Islamic” topics are delivered at the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī. Informants mentioned repeatedly that Christians and Hindus also visit, and that after listening to them, some have converted to Islam. This last aspect of the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī is a topic for future research.
In conclusion, the religious identity of the Mowlā jā Qadam is complex. It performs certain functions of the piṛ, but must be considered as a dargāh, according to the common rituals that are performed there. It is a centerpiece of the Shiʿite processions, and the ẕākirs used to deliver sermons on different issues related to the Moḥarram tragedy, as well as on other issues. It is thus relevant to speak of a liminal status, because it is located at the meeting point of Sufism and Shiʿism. It is this liminal status that allows it to attract different categories of pilgrims. On the other side, we can also observe that the Qadamgāh has now surpassed political issues, which characterized the first period of its history, but also ethnic issues. As a result, although it retains a distinct identity, the Qadamgāh has been absorbed into the local religiosity imbued with Shiʿism and Sufism. In other words, it still works as a sample, among others, of the shared religious legacy of Sindh. (Concludes)
About the Author
Michel Boivin is the author and editor of fifteen books. His most recent book is entitled The Sufi Paradigm and the Makings of a Vernacular Knowledge in Colonial India: The Case of Sindh (1851–1929) (New York, Palgrave McMillan, 2020).
Originally published in Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World- Online Publication Date: 09 Feb 2021