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9. Stamping the Earth with the Name of Allah

Zikr and the Sacralizing of Space among British Muslims

Pnina Werbner

Twice a year, winding their way through the drab dilapidated streets of Birmingham, Manchester, or London’s immigrant neighborhoods, processions of Muslim men celebrate anniversaries of death and rebirth. As they march, they chant the zikr, the remembrance of God. This chanting not only purifies their hearts and souls, but also sacralizes and “Islamizes” the very earth, the buildings, the streets and neighborhoods through which they march.

The two events celebrate Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, the anniversary of both the Prophet’s birth and death, and the Urs, the anniversary of a Sufi saint’s death and his final unification with the Prophet and God. The Urs starts with a julus (procession) and culminates in a du‘a, or supplicatory prayer, delivered on behalf of the whole community of worshippers. Here I am concerned mainly with the significance of the procession, as movement in and through space, and the performance of zikr as part of the procession.

Urs: Midday, Birmingham, May 1989

We arrive from Manchester, a coachload of men, a minibus of women, a few private cars. The men congregate at the gates of a park, not far from the Dar-ul-Uloom, Birmingham, the religious center of Sufi Abdullah, who is head of a Naqshbandi regional cult in Britain. He is the leading deputy, or khalifa, of Pir Hazrat Shah, known throughout Pakistan as Zindapir, the “Living Pir.” Zindapir in turn is the most illustrious disciple and deputy of Hazrat Muhammad Qasim, Baba Qasim, a renowned saint of the Naqshbandi order who arrived from Afghanistan and established his lodge headquarters, Mohara Sharif, in the Muree hills in the late nineteenth century. The anniversary of Baba Qasim’s death (in 1943) is being celebrated today. Zindapir founded his own lodge, known as Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif, in 1951, in the barren and lonely Kohat hills, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. He has built it up, during the past forty years, into a vast regional cult focused on the lodge headquarters in Kohat, and stretching from Karachi in the south to Abbotabad in the north, and from Lahore in the east to Birmingham and Manchester in the far west.


The men congregate at the entrance to the park. Venerable elderly men with graying beards and turbans, energetic young men, teenage boys, and little children, all wearing white traditional Pakistani clothing and green caps (fig. 31). They come from all over Britain, as well as from Birmingham itself. As in other processions described in this volume (Slyomovics, Schubel), participants carry banners with written texts. In this case, each group carries a green or black banner inscribed with golden Islamic calligraphy, usually with the kalimah (“God is one and Muhammad is his Prophet”) or other verses from the Qur’an. Leading the procession are several cars elaborately decorated with green, gold, and red tinsel, carrying Islamic insignia on a green background. There is a palanquin of cloth on the roof of one of the cars. Another car carries a loudspeaker, to the blare of which the assembled men respond:

“Nara-i takbir” [“Say: He is Greatest”].

Response: “Allahu akbar” [“God is Greatest”].

“Nara-i risalat” [“Say: Prophethood”].

Response: “Ya Rasul allah” [“O Prophet of God”].

“Zindapir” [“The Living Saint”]!

Response: “Zindabad” [“Live forever”]!

“Mera pir” [“My Saint”].

Response: “Zindabad!”

“Tera pir” [“Your Saint”].

Response: “Zindabad!”

“Islam zindabad” [“Islam live forever”].

Response: “Zindabad!”

“Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif” [“The Lodge Ghamkol Sharif” (Zindapir’s headquarters)].

Response: “Zindabad!”

Leading the procession is a group of some seven or eight khalifas, deputies of Zindapir and of Sufi Abdullah, venerable sages with flowing beards. Each khalifa wears a black robe, a juba, a gift from the shaikh in Pakistan, over a new white cotton robe. Heading the procession is Sufi Abdullah himself, one of the most prominent Sufi saints in Britain today. He is a giant of a man, his head held high, his massive white beard covering his face. It is the face of a man who has known the heavy toil of twenty-five years’ work in the iron foundries of the Midlands. He carries a long cane and strides ahead of the procession, looking for all the world like a latter-day Moses, a biblical shepherd leading his flock.

Figure 31. Sufi Abdullah and other khalifas leading the procession on Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, Birmingham, England, 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
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It is time to start. I follow the procession in my car, accompanied by the women who have come with me from Manchester, and who are as keen as I am to witness the march (in which women do not participate). In front of the procession and flanking it on either side are English policemen who accompany the march, redirecting the traffic and clearing the way ahead of the marchers. We move past the Dar-ul-Uloom and continue through Small Heath and Sparkbrook toward the Birmingham Central Jamia Mosque. As the men march they recite the zikr. Melodiously, “La-ilaha-il-Allah,” (“Allah is God”) or, more stridently, “Allah-Hu, Allah-Hu” (“God is present”). Now and then the chanting is interrupted by the same loud, high-pitched calls of the loudspeakers on the cars, to which the marchers respond with answering refrains.

The men march through the streets of Birmingham, through Asian commercial areas, shabby, run-down but teaming with life (fig. 32). Grocery stores advertising ritually slaughtered halal meat, their vegetables and fruit piled high outside on the pavements, sari and clothes stores stocked with shining silks and colorful synthetics, Asian traditional jewelry stores with their delicately designed gold earrings and necklaces, Asian sweet shops with their sweets piled high in perfect conical towers, Muslim banks, travel agents, restaurants and takeaways. Aromas of cumin, cloves, and cinnamon follow us as the men turn the corner and march into a residential area, tall three-story terrace houses overlooking narrow streets. Curious bystanders stare at us as we pass, English residents and shoppers, Pakistani women carrying their babies, young men idling on the sidewalk. Now we move into a second commercial area. Then, once again, back to terrace-lined neighborhoods. The procession itself extends for some half a mile, several hundred men of all ages marching along, three or four abreast. It is a three-mile walk. Finally, over the crest of the hill, we see the Central Birmingham Mosque. Set somewhat apart from other buildings, flanked by a busy thoroughfare, its minarets beckon the tired marchers. We reach the mosque, the march is over. The women are waiting at the mosque together with the cooks of the langar, the ritually prepared and blessed food offered freely to all those attending the Urs. It is food cooked in the name of God by pure men who perform zikr as they cook; it is tabarruk, blessed. Like all actions at the Urs—the procession, the prayers, the praises of the Prophet, the reading of the Qur’an—the giving of food is a source of merit, sawab.

Figure 32. The Urs procession, displaying written texts, Birmingham, England, 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
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The traders have also arrived and have set up their stalls in the courtyard, displaying a colorful variety of wares: bottles of scent from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, cassettes of famous devotional singers (qawwals), recorded khutbas (sermons) of venerable Muslim sages, hagiographies of saints and other books in Urdu and Arabic, pictures of famous saints, Qur’anic and Sufi calligraphy in bold gold lettering, framed in golden frames and ready for hanging in the terrace houses we have just passed. There are food stalls selling tea and bottled drinks. The traders are there for the profit; they need not be followers of Sufi saints, although many are. They come twice a year, on the Urs and Eid-Milad-un-Nabi.

At the steps to the mosque, the lord mayor of the City of Birmingham awaits, together with several Muslim city councilors and the Pakistani vice-consul, who is based in Birmingham. The end of the julus is also an occasion for the leaders of the order to honor local notables and public figures, who, in turn, dignify the festivities with their presence. Despite its cultural and religious specificity, the celebration thus allows for the creation of a shared institutional space where Muslims and non-Muslims can assert common public values. The presence of the lord mayor signals the order’s identification with civic institutions and its interest in cooperating with them. Indeed, the chairman of the order’s management committee is closely tied to the Labour Party in the city, and the order has been a recipient of a major grant to build a community center on its premises.

The Maulvi opens the proceedings with a prayer, followed by the Pakistani chairman of Sufi Abdullah’s Dar-ul-Uloom Committee, a jovial, blue-eyed, spectacled accountant, who makes the opening statement. He thanks the guests for having come on the procession, despite arriving home late last night after participating in an anti-Rushdie demonstration in London the previous day. His opening speech is followed by short speeches by the lord mayor, the vice-consul, and two councilors. Finally, the pir stands up and raises his hand in du‘a, supplicatory prayer. The congregation below the crowded steps raise their hands silently as he prays. This is the first supplication, which seals the julus and opens the mosque proceedings. The second and culminating du‘a late tonight will seal the Urs as a whole. That second prayer would be attended, I was told, not only by the living congregation present at the Urs but by the living souls of all those auliya, saints, who have reached and merged with God and the Prophet, including Hazrat Muhammad Qasim, the departed saint in whose name the Urs is being held.

Urs: Ghamkol Sharif, Kohat, Pakistan, October 1989

Preparations for the Urs have been going on for several weeks. As the time of the Urs approaches, more and more murids (disciples) of the shaikh arrive to help with voluntary labor. The lodge nestles in the valley, climbing the slope of a hill, surrounded by hills on all sides, a series of stone buildings with internal courtyards, walled enclosures, walled orchards of apples, oranges, and lemons, well-tended vegetable gardens, and cattle and goat pens. Surrounding it is a perimeter wall, running along the slopes of the hills, protecting the lodge from the leopards that come down from the mountains during the winter snows. It is a lovely, prosperous, tranquil scene. The courtyards of the houses and hospices are surrounded by green lawns and bordered with flower beds and shady trees. The beautiful mosque is elaborately decorated in white, green, and dark red, its three domes and delicate minarets set against the blue skies and the hills beyond. Two fountains of pure water splash into pools on either side of the entrance to the vast open courtyard, shaded by a giant banyan tree. All is quiet apart from the sound of zikr echoing in the mountains and the splashing of the water fountains. Because of the beauty and the abundance, visitors and Zindapir himself have associated Ghamkol Sharif with paradise (P. Werbner 1990b: 271–72).

It was not always thus. When the shaikh arrived here in 1951, there were only the bare mountains. The darbar contains several key landmarks of the pir’s settlement in this “jungle” (wilderness). Of these, one is the cave in which the pir first settled, sent by the Prophet, where he spent three days and three nights without eating or drinking. Then God said to him: “I have not sent you here to close yourself up inside a cave. Go out and meet the people.” This cave, now just beyond the perimeter wall, has been preserved as it was, apart from a lone electric bulb lighting the interior. It has become something of a shrine, and pilgrims to the lodge climb the hill and leave pledges of their requests in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the thornbushes outside the cave. From here, the pilgrim has a perfect view of the lodge and the valley below.

A second landmark is another cave at the heart of the lodge, which towers above the mosque and all the other buildings on the slope of the hill. The cave is reached by a steep staircase and has been converted into a windowless room. Its floor is covered with Persian carpets and its whitewashed walls are decorated with pictures of the Ka‘ba in Mecca and a chart of the spiritual genealogy of Sufi saints leading to Zindapir. Outside this cave is the rock on which the shaikh sat and preached to his disciples for many years before the mosque was built.

There were no roads, no orchards, no cattle, no electricity, at that time. Water was carried several miles from a spring on the other side of the hills on donkeys. Before the shaikh came, the area was the abode of a famous dacoit from the fierce Kabaili tribes that live beyond the hills. He was said to have robbed the British and stored his booty in one of the caves in the valley.

It has taken almost four decades to build the lodge to its present state of perfection. Virtually all of the labor that went into this building has been voluntary. Even the electricity and the digging of the well were provided by the government free of charge. They were not asked for, they were simply given. But a good deal of the building work, the construction, the extension of water pipes, electricity, and sewage lines, the building and decoration of the mosque, the planting of orchards—all these have been achieved gradually, year by year, during the weeks preceding the annual Urs.

The khalifa who runs these arrangements has taken over the job from his father before him. He is also the darban, the gatekeeper of the shaikh, who handles the guests and decides how long they will spend with him. He carries the keys to all the locked buildings, storehouses, and gardens, supervises the preparation of the langar and meals for the guests and the feeding of people during the Urs, and, indeed, all the preparations for the Urs.

The murids arrive in groups, many of the helpers about three weeks before the Urs. There is a good deal of building going on, and rocks are being broken with sledgehammers by hand and carried in baskets on the workers’ heads from the rocky hillsides. This year the murids are in the process of building a watchtower on the periphery to guard the lodge. The khalifa supervising the building work is an ex-army man from Jhelum District. Another khalifa, from Faislabad and also an ex-army man, is supervising the decoration of the lodge buildings and hillsides with elaborate colored lights and neon signs, as well as the various extensions needed for the new buildings. Some of the lighting is already in place from Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, which was celebrated last week. There are chains of moving flashing colored lights, brightly lit colored signs, spinning neon spoke wheels and the Arabic inscription “Allah-Hu” extending across the hillside. Most spectacular, perhaps, is the decoration of the mosque, each of the three domes being lit with chains of light, which spin around it. Teams are setting up broad metal chapati grills and giant tandur pits for baking nan, clearing the ground of rocks and stones for sleeping spaces, connecting new electricity and water lines, extending sewage lines and building sumps, and clearing areas for the coaches carrying the pilgrims. The mosque is being cleaned and redecorated, and the elaborately designed iron gates are being repainted with blue and red flowers by a local “artist,” another murid. One of the fountain pools flagging the entrance to the mosque is being whitewashed.

People at the lodge perform zikr at all times of the day and night. Even as they work, they perform the zikr. Some, especially the khalifas supervising the arrangements, have not slept for many nights, yet still they continue with this labor of love, performing the zikr as they work (cf. Lings 1971: 18–19, on North Africa). The hills echo with the melodic sound of “La-ilaha-il-Allah,” “La-ilaha-il-Allah.” The shaikh comes out to inspect the work’s progress, accompanied by a group of khalifas. Nothing happens in the lodge without his knowledge. He is the ultimate planner and decision maker.

We meet two young men from Birmingham, here to attend the Urs. They have many wonderful tales of the karamat, miracles, associated with the shaikh. One tells a story about the zikr:

The people here do zikr all the time. Even when they are working they do zikr. When I came here the first time, I insisted that I wanted to do some work. So they gave me an area to clean. I was cleaning one of the rooms when I heard someone doing zikr in one of the other rooms. But when I looked into that room there was no one there. But still I kept hearing the zikr. Then I looked up and saw that there was a pigeon sitting on the edge of the roof doing zikr. I had heard that the pigeons do zikr here.

The house we are staying in, a two-room house with a bathroom, running water, and sewage line surrounded by a walled garden, was built last year for the English Pakistani pilgrims led by Sufi Abdullah who attended the Urs as a group. The house is beautifully furnished, with a three-piece suite, coffee tables, Persian carpets, and European beds—for this is, after all, what British Pakistanis have come to expect as normal, and the shaikh provides only the best in hospitality for his guests.

The preparations continue. More and more murids arrive and join the work, speaking of their great love of the shaikh, of his devotion, his purity, his dedication. He never sleeps and barely eats; all he does is pray day and night and devote his life to God. The cooking areas are being prepared with great pots, towers of utensils, and wood piled high. Another guardroom is being built outside the women’s quarters. Canvases are extended over the whole area, so the women are screened from onlookers on the hills. The organizers rush around madly, making sure everything is working. People are arriving in buses and trucks. Some carry banners, which they place around the pir’s courtyard, and they put banners on the colorful tents they set up too. Decorated in green, white, and red, the tents are secured on tall bamboo stakes, with wide gaps between the walls and the roofs. On the ground, they lay thin rugs. Although it is October, it is very hot in the sun, and it is getting very dusty.

Everywhere zikr is being sung. People sing zikr on the trucks when they arrive, sometimes fast—“Allah-Hu,” “Allah-Hu”—sometimes slow and melodious—“La-ilaha-il-Allah,” “La-ilaha-il-Allah.” What they sing also depends on the driving speed or the work tempo. From time to time, other prayers are blared over the sound system, but the sermons have not started in earnest yet.

The groups continue to arrive. They come from all over Pakistan. Some have been traveling for forty-eight hours, a thousand miles. A city of tents arises in the arid valley inhabited by 60,000–100,000 men, women, and children, an enormous crowd brought in by convoys (qafilahs) from every big town in Pakistan and many of its villages. All have come to attend the Urs and receive the pir’s blessings; they will share in his final du‘a (fig. 33). There are no processions. They have traveled great distances in the name of Allah, traversing the length and breadth of Pakistan, singing zikr all the way.

Figure 33. The final du‘a at the Urs at Ghamkol Sharif, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, October 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
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Hijra and the Sacralizing of Space

Sufism is conceived of as a journey along a path (suluk) leading toward God. The central ritual practice on this journey is zikr, the remembrance of God. Those who continuously practice zikr find their lower selves (nafs) and their very bodies transformed. A young khalifa of Sufi Abdullah’s, alluding to complex Naqshandi cosmological theories, explained to me:

There are seven points of energy in our body through which the spiritual power of Allah enters the body. If you do zikr correctly, and in my case it didn’t take long, then your heart starts doing zikr all the time, every moment of the day and night, even when a person is doing other things. Like now, when I’m talking to you.

This merging of body and cosmos are the means of purifying and transcending the vital self, which is recovered as the eternal soul (see also Subhan 1960: 61–71).

But Sufi Islam is not only a journey within the body and person, conceived of as a journey toward God. It is also a journey in space. The sacralizing of space is not, it must be stressed, simply a coincidental feature of Sufi cultic practices. It is a central, essential aspect of Sufi cosmology and of Sufism as a missionizing, purificatory cult. Beyond the transformation of the person, Sufism is a movement in space that Islamizes the universe and transforms it into the space of Allah. This journey or migration (hijra), which evokes the migration of the Prophet to Madina, empowers a saint, just as it empowers the space through which he travels and the place where he establishes his lodge.

The journey is twofold: on the one hand, into the wilderness, the “jungle,” beyond human habitation, a place of capricious jinns and dangerous outlaws, of predatory nature beyond civilization; on the other hand, toward the land of infidels, kufristan, of idolaters, hypocrites, backsliders—the “unbelievers.” It is these dangerous journeys that endow a Muslim saint with his charisma. He who stays home and grows fat on the land may be rich and powerful; he will never be the founder of a Sufi regional cult, he will never be revered and worshipped as one of God’s chosen friends. It is the divine transformation in space that is the ultimate proof of the divine transformation of the person.

About a week after the Urs in Birmingham, Sufi Abdullah came to Manchester to celebrate the gyarvi sharif[1] with the congregation at the Dar-ul-Uloom there. After the celebration and the shaikh’s final du‘a, he received supplicants with various problems and ailments seeking his advice and blessings. I went in to see the pir with several other women. When my turn came, we talked first of the Urs and Islam and he turned to me and added:

You ask about the julus. It is written in the Qur’an [and here he quoted a qura’nic verse in Arabic] that you must do zikr [remember God] when you are standing, when you are walking, when you are lying down. According to the Hadith, when you walk along saying zikr, then everything, including people and objects and things of nature, will be your witness on the Day of Judgement that you have performed zikr, yes, even the stones and buildings.

Werbner: “Even the earth?”

Yes, it is said in the Hadith that once you have said zikr stamping on the earth, the earth will wait for you to come back again.

Sufi Abdullah came to England in 1962. He had known Zindapir when he was still in the army, when he first became a pir, and he had shared with him some of the arduous experiences of the wilderness of the Kohat hills during his long leaves from the army. In the late 1950s, there were many among the shaikh’s disciples, especially ex-soldiers, who were going to England to seek their fortunes. It is said by some that Sufi Abdullah approached the shaikh and asked him if he could go to England. Reluctantly, the shaikh agreed to part with him, and appointed him to be his first khalifa in England. According to a British Pakistani visitor to the Urs in Ghamkol Sharif, however, when it came to actually leaving his shaikh, Sufi Abdullah had “cried and wanted to stay, but the shaikh told him he must go.”

Zindapir told me that he had sent Sufi Abdullah to England because the people there, the Pakistani labor migrants, did not even know how to pray, they did not celebrate Eid, they did not fast on Ramzan, they did not perform the zikr, they had forgotten Islam. They needed a spiritual guide to lead them on the path of Allah. Before Sufi Abdullah left, Zindapir made him his khalifa. He was one of his earliest khalifas and most trusted companions.

One of the speakers at the Urs in Birmingham talked of this mission fulfilled by Sufi Abdullah and men like him:

It is all because of those God-loving people who started the movement to raise the religious consciousness in you [the people present at the Birmingham mosque gathering] years ago, and enabled you to raise the flags of Islam, not only in the U.K. but all over the world, and especially in kufristan [the land of the infidels] of Europe.

Whether it is to the land of infidels or into the wilderness, the saint’s journey is a lonely journey, filled with hardship. It constitutes the ultimate ordeal. This is why the followers of an “original” saint like Zindapir or Sufi Abdullah speak somewhat dismissively of the gaddi nashin, the descendants of illustrious founding saints and guardians of shrines, whose charisma is derivatory and who are seen to benefit materially from the cults their glorified ancestors founded. They respect them greatly, but they are not “real” saints. A true friend of God is a man who endures incredible hardship. Zindapir told me:

When I first came here, the land was barren and hostile, and it had never witnessed the name of Allah. Yet look at it today, a green and pleasant land [abad—cultivated, populated], all owing to the faith in Allah of one man. No one had ever worshipped here since the creation of the world, it was a wild and dangerous place, a place of lions (my own son saw a lion). Now the earth is richer in religion than many other places. One man is the cause of it all. One man came here and did zikr, and this place became a place of habitation.

In his final sermon on the last day of the Urs, Zindapir elaborated on the transformation of the wilderness and especially on Allah’s favor to the graves of the pious. One of the guest speakers at the Urs in Ghamkol Sharif stressed this relation between the love of God and the sacralizing of space in the course of his sermon:

When a man starts loving Rasul-i Pak [the Pure Messenger, Muhammad] then everything starts loving him. Every part of the universe—the water, the flowers, the morning dawn, the moon, the roses, the green plants—everything starts loving that man. And this is the love of Rasul-i Pak, which has given beauty to the flowers and beauty to the whole of the world. And whatever is present here is due to the love of Rasul-i Pak and the love of Allah.

The Sufi Saint as Tamer of the Wilderness

Zindapir and other speakers at the Urs repeatedly evoked the trope of the Sufi saint as tamer of the wilderness, a trope related closely to another, that of the Sufi saint as bringer of natural fertility. Zindapir’s story is of the successful overpowering by the Sufi saint of the devil, on the one hand, and of wild animals, wild men and the bare wilderness itself, on the other. It is the mastery of the soul’s own lower self (nafs) and its wild, animal-like passions, its desires and temptations. The way to the valley of the cave is thus a concrete embodiment of the battle of the nafs, the inner jihad (see Schimmel 1975: 4, 98, 119; Rao 1990: 19; Nicholson 1989: 108–9; and Attar 1990: 158, 164, 273).[2] The jihad is replicated externally in wilderness settings (see, e.g., Nizami 1955: 36, 114). The control of nature is an important feature of a Sufi saint’s claim to charisma.

The centrality of a Sufi saint’s power over the earth and nature is explicitly personified in Sufi theosophy by the mystical rank of abdal, part of the esoteric set of beliefs regarding the ranked community of saints. According to this set of beliefs, there are at any one time forty living saints in the world who are abdals. These saints, I was told, make the grass grow, give food to birds, and ensure the fertility of the earth (see also Nicholson 1989: 123–24).

Just as saints are internally ranked, as well as being intrinsically superior to ordinary human beings, so, too, places in Sufism are ranked. Their ranking corresponds to the ranking of the saints who are alive or are buried there. Thus another speaker, a well-known maulvi, speaking in Urdu, told the congregation:

[To] the people who are resident in Pakistan and the friends who have come from outside Pakistan: I would like to say clearly that nothing in the universe is equal. Everything has its own status and honor.…Even the piece of land where we are sitting now has different honors. For example, not every peak of a mountain is the peak of Tur [Mt. Sinai]. And not every piece of land is the land of Madinah Sharif. And not all stones have been honored to become the House of Allah, the Ka‘ba [in Mecca]. And not every domed mosque is Al Aqsa [the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem]. And not all hills could be the hills of Ghamkol Sharif. People may wonder why the people of Pakistan and people from outside Pakistan have come here after obtaining visas and spending a great deal of money? What have they traveled so far for? All the speeches have been made. What are they waiting for? I know that they have all come here only to share in the du‘a of Khawaja Zindapir…wherever Khawaja Zindapir has placed his foot on the earth, he has turned it into a garden and flower bed.…When love makes its place in the heart of man, the world is changed altogether.

…I request all of you to place your hearts at the feet of Muhammad Mustafa (P.B.U.H.) so that they be cleaned of sins and desires. Because when my Lord, the sacred Prophet, came on this earth and placed his feet here, the whole land was declared a pure and orderly place—East and West were cleansed [purified]. We, the Muslims, have been allowed in the absence of water to do ablution with sand or dried mud. Before the coming of the Prophet, no person was allowed to do his ablutions with sand or mud and no one was allowed to pray on the earth anywhere they chose. When my Lord Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) put his sacred feet on the earth, the earth was declared a pure place and we were allowed to say our prayers wherever we liked, and to do our ablutions with sand and dry mud. How was this permission given? It is clearly written in the Qur’an: You may do ablution with dry mud. This earth became pure, not because we cleaned it with soap but because of its relation with the feet of the Prophet (P.B.U.H.)

…And, O audience, if the prayer of a person is accepted because of his contact with the dust that touched the feet of Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) I say to you that all the murids who have come to Ghamkol Sharif should come once a year, if you could, you should come daily, because in the hijra of Ghamkol Sharif there is a lover of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Spatial Dimensions of Sufi Muslim Individual Identity

The spirituality of a Sufi pir is embodied in the space he has sacralized. His divine blessing purifies his spatial dominion and endows it with sanctity. For Sufi Muslims in Britain who are followers of Sufi Abdullah, Darbar-e-Alia Ghamkol Sharif is the center of their symbolic universe. The separation and distance between Kohat and Birmingham or Manchester are overcome in their symbolic imagination to create a single, unitary cosmic order. As Muslims and “brother-disciples” (pir-bhai) within a single regional cult, they are united in their expression of love for two men: Sufi Abdullah in Britain and Zindapir in Pakistan. Their religious identity as Muslims and Sufis is particularized through this love and loyalty and revitalized periodically through pilgrimage and celebration at the spaces these holy men have sacralized by their religious activity.

I stress that they are members of a single “regional cult” rather than simply of a Sufi “order” (R. Werbner 1977: ix). The distinction is important. The Naqshbandi order stretches from Iraq and Turkey in the west through Persia and Afghanistan to the whole of South Asia. It is only in theory a unitary organization. As a distinct order, it recognizes slight variations in Sufi mystical practice on the path toward unification with the Prophet and God. The regional cult built up by Zindapir is, by contrast, an active organization with a known hierarchy of sacred centers and subcenters and recognized chains of authority. It is a known universe of specific communities linked together in devotion to a single man.[3] For disciples living in Britain, their various communities are united with all the other communities centered on Ghamkol Sharif, even though the majority of these communities are, of course, located in Pakistan itself. Regional cults are not contiguous, spatially bounded territorial organizations; they are spatially discontinuous, interpenetrating organizations linked together through a common connection to ritually sacred centers and subcenters (see R. Werbner 1989: 245–98).

The great regional cults in Pakistan today were founded recently (see Gilmartin 1979; Hafeez ur-Rehman 1979), and some of today’s vicegerents will ultimately found new centers, which in time may become the foci of viable new cults, whose moral and religious excellence may outshine the tired inheritors of present-day shrines. It is, above all, the “living pirs,” those who venture beyond the established order, even as far as Britain, who endow Sufi Islam with its continued vitality.

Julus and Hijra

I have argued that the charisma of a holy man is objectified, and thus proved, through its inscription in space. The saint has inscribed his charisma on the new place he has founded, and this very act of inscription constitutes the ultimate proof that he is, indeed, a saint. But there is a further question that needs to be asked if we are to understand the significance of movement through space for British Pakistanis: why is it that for these immigrants, the holding of the julus in Britain seems to represent a radical departure from previous practices, a new movement imbued with deep subjective experiential significance?

To answer this question we need to recognize that the julus embraces a plurality of meaningful acts.[4] It is, of course, above all a religious act, in which the name of Allah is ritually inscribed in the public spaces Muslims march along. Through the chanting of zikr, British Pakistanis Islamize the urban places where they have settled.

Historically, the holding of Muslim public processions can be seen as constituting a radical shift in the terms in which Muslim immigrants have come to present and represent themselves to the wider society. During the initial phases of migration, the only public religious signs of an Islamic presence in Britain were the stores and mosques immigrants built or purchased. Outside mosques, ritual and religious activities took place in the inner spaces of homes, which were sacralized through repeated domestic Eid and communal Qur’an reading rituals (see P. Werbner 1990a, chs. 4 and 5; Qureshi, this volume). Sacred Islamic spaces were thus confined within fortresses of privacy, whether mosques or homes, and these fortresses protected immigrants from external hostility (McCloud, this volume). When Sufi Abdullah first held a julus in Birmingham around 1970, he was warned that such an assertion of Islamic presence might expose marchers to stone throwing and other attacks. Sufi Abdullah, not a man easily intimidated, went ahead with the procession anyway. Over the years, it has sometimes been the target of attacks, mainly verbal, from outsiders, but the organizers of the processions take pride in the fact that these events have never become the scene of trouble or violence.

Marching through immigrant neighborhoods, the processions not only inscribe the name of Allah on the very spaces they cover—they also call Muslims back to the faith. The julus is, as one khalifa told me, above all an act of tabligh, of publicly saying to other Muslims, Look at us: we are proud of being Muslims, we are willing to parade our Muslimness openly in the streets, we believe that Islam is the last and best religion, containing the true message of God, the whole message, including even its hidden truths; and we are not afraid to show our pride in our religion openly and publicly. But, he explained, we are also making clear that if you want to be a good Muslim, you have to choose; you can’t be a part-time Muslim.

The processions specifically assert the legitimacy of a particular Islamic approach—that focused on saints and their shrines—which has come under attack from other reformist movements in South Asia. In Britain, they represent an act of assertion in a struggle between different Islamic approaches, all competing for local hegemony. They also attest to the ascendancy of a particular Sufi regional cult in a city. In Birmingham, Sufi Abdullah holds the processions, to which all the other Sufi orders are invited. In Manchester, the procession was, until 1991, dominated by members of the Qadri order, whose khalifa controlled the central mosque.

As in Toronto and New York, processions literally address non-Muslims as well (cf. Schubel, Slyomovics, this volume). Although the banners carried in the Birmingham processions I observed were in Urdu and Arabic and inscribed mainly with verses from the Qur’an, in Manchester in 1990, by contrast, banners in English made implicit references to the Rushdie affair, demanding a change in the blasphemy laws. Other banners in English declared that Islam was a religion of peace, implicitly referring to the association in the public mind of Muslims with violence, which the Rushdie affair generated. The banners in English are thus part of the missionizing activity of Muslims in Britain. They appeal to an English audience of potential converts—people who feel that Christianity or secularism have somehow failed them, and who are seeking a new religious truth. Whatever the nature of the procession itself, in both cities, the meetings held either before or after the procession included invited English dignitaries and officials, and the speeches made in them referred openly to the current political concerns of Muslims in Britain (for a detailed analysis, see Werbner, forthcoming).

The processions are open to anyone. Many of those who march are members of the Muslim underprivileged or working class. By marching, they assert their pride in Islam, their self-confidence and power. Whether explicit or implicit, once people have marched openly in a place, they have crossed an ontological barrier. They have shown that they are willing to expose themselves and their bodies to possible outside ridicule for the sake of their faith. Once they have organized a peaceful procession, they know they are capable of organizing a peaceful protest. Such processions can thus be seen as precursors to more overt (democratic) political protest. Marching through the streets of a British city, then, is in many different kinds of way an assertion of power and confidence. This is, I think, why the holding of the processions seems to have a deep subjective experiential significance for those who participate in them.

Finally, and most simply, the julus is an expression of the rights of minorities to celebrate their culture and religion in the public domain within a multicultural, multifaith, multiracial society. Seen thus, Muslim processions do not differ significantly from Chinese New Year lion dances, public Diwali celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day processions, or Caribbean carnivals. They are part of a joyous and yet unambiguous assertion of cultural diversity, of an entitlement to tolerance and mutual respect in contemporary Britain. Through such public festivals and celebrations, immigrants make territorial claims in their adopted cities, and ethnic groups assert their equal cultural claims within the society.


This essay has shown the importance of space in Sufi practices generally. It has also demonstrated that as Pakistani Muslim migrants have migrated beyond the boundaries of their natal countries to create Muslim communities in the West, they have also created fertile ground for new Sufi cult centers. In Britain, all saints are “living” saints. Through hijra they have become the original founders of a new order in an alien land. In marching through the shabby streets of Britain’s decaying inner cities, they glorify Islam and stamp the earth with the name of God. If, like Sufi Abdullah, they are powerful vicegerents of a great saint, they retain their link to the cult center, they pay homage to it, go on pilgrimage to visit it, marvel at its beauty, and share in the powerful godliness of its keeper.

Once a year, pilgrims from Britain led by Sufi Abdullah meet pilgrims from Pakistan, led by Zindapir, in Mecca on hajj. Zindapir provides free food to all needy pilgrims on the hajj, and it is Sufi Abdullah’s responsibility to organize the langar, the cooking and distribution of the food. The two men, friends and companions of old, who have been separated for a quarter of a century by five thousand miles of land and sea, thus meet annually at the sacred center of Islam, part of what has become, through the process of migration, a global sacred network generated by a belief in and love of one man, following a divinely ordained mystical path.


This paper is based on research on Sufi cults in Pakistan and their extension into Britain conducted during 1987–91. I wish to thank the Economic and Social Research Council (U.K.) and the Leverhelme Trust for their generous support. A version of this chapter appeared in Cultural Anthropology 11, no. 2, and I would like to thank the journal for permission to republish parts of the article in the present volume. I am deeply indebted to Zindapir, Sufi Abdullah, and all their murids in Manchester, Birmingham, and Ghamkol Sharif for their generosity and interest in the research. I also owe special thanks to Bashir Muhammad, who guided me patiently and selflessly along the path to knowledge, to Rashid Amin, and to Nyla Ahmed, my assistant in Britain, whose support and understanding of Islam have been invaluable. The paper was presented at the SSRC conference on Spatial Expressions of Muslim Identity in the West at the Harvard Middle East Center in November 1990; at the Oxford History Seminar; and at the Department of Anthropology, Queen’s University, Belfast. I would like to thank Judith Brown, Terence Ranger, Hastings Donnan, and the other participants for their perceptive comments. I am also particularly grateful to Barbara Metcalf for her very stimulating editorial comments on an earlier version of this text.

1. This is the Urs of Shaikh Abdul ul-Qadir-Gilani, the great saint of Baghdad (d. 1166). [BACK]

2. Legends of North African saints’ miracles also evoke the mastery of the wilderness. See Goldziher 1971: 270; and see also Eickelman 1976: 33–34; Meeker 1979: 229–30. [BACK]

3. Trimingham (1971: 67–104) calls such “regional cults” ta’ifa, but the name does not appear to be commonly used by Pakistanis. [BACK]

4. The cultural and political significance of public processions varies widely. The display of dominance in official state processions may be contrasted with potentially explosive religious-communal processions, such as those in Northern Ireland. There are pilgrimage processions (see, e.g., Sallnow 1987), annual ritual processions (see Fuller 1980), English miners’ processions, memorial processions, and processions that form part of broader rituals of revitalization, such as carnival processions before Lent. Although all processions may be said to constitute existential displays of power and territorial occupation/demarcation, their significance differs widely in different cultures and localities, and at different historical moments. [BACK]

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