Sadakat Kadri recounts a revealing encounter at an ancient North Indian shrine in an excerpt from his new book, Heaven on Earth
The north Indian city of Badaun is barely known beyond the subcontinent, but among the Muslims of India it has a great reputation. Seven ancient Islamic shrines encircle the town, collectively drawing visitors from miles around, and one spiritual specialty has always brought them immense local renown. They are said to facilitate the exorcism of jinns. That is a weighty claim among the poor, the credulous, and the desperate. Genies of the region are not popularly imagined to be the bountiful servants of lamp-rubbing legend. They are mercurial creatures, capable of wreaking havoc, who routinely seize control of people’s lives. Victims are suddenly plunged into depression or discontent, possessed of unusual ideas, and urged to speak, to lash out, even sometimes to kill. Entire families suffer as a consequence, and dozens are therefore to be found at the largest of the shrines, where they camp out in a shanty-filled cemetery pending miraculous interventions on behalf of their afflicted rela- tives. The scene is permanently alive, serviced by a nearby market, and it swells into some- thing of a carnival as day-trippers arrive by the hundreds on the eve of Friday prayers. The spectacle had horrified and fascinated me in roughly equal measure ever since I first visited Badaun — my father’s birthplace — in 1979, at the age of 15. Elderly relations had warned me then to steer well clear of the place after dark on a Thursday night. In the spring of 2009, I finally got round to disobeying them.
I reached the shrine long after dusk, and its neem tree glades were pulsating to the drums and accordions of an ululating troupe of musicians. Picking my way through knots of pilgrims, past shadowy figures who babbled in the darkness or lunged from wooden posts to which they had been chained, I eventually reached the marble courtyard at the mausoleum’s centre. The everyday bedlam of India looked to have merged with a scene from The Crucible. In a moonlight that was fluorescent, bright-eyed girls were whipping their hair into propellers while older folk, senile or despondent, chattered to tombstones. As I fidgeted with my camera settings, a teenage girl next to me stepped forward, assisted by anxious relatives, to quiver and collapse into the waiting arms of two shrine employees. Others strode forward to swoon in their turn, and were expertly scooped aside to make way for fresh fainters. Whooping children, barely able to believe their luck, cartwheeled around the hysterics and their helpers throughout. It was hours before the chaos gave way to chirrups and a semblance of peace returned to the sepulchres.
Walking back to my relatives’ home across a meadow filled with tottering 14th-century funeral vaults, I wondered how to make sense of what had just occurred. I had come to India in search of colour after a year immersed in libraries, but it seemed almost as though I had found too much. A survey of Islamic legal history demands flexibility if it is to entertain rather than anesthetise, but fitting tales of jinn exorcism into an account of the shari‘a called for the literary equivalent of a crowbar — until a few hours later. By then, I had found another shrine: a postage stamp of a necropolis, comprising a dusty courtyard, an ancient banyan tree, and a chiffon-draped tombstone. In the afternoon heat, the otherworldly excitements it might ordinarily have inspired had slowed to a crawl. Two women were gazing at the central slab, motionless beneath their burkas, as though it might shuffle away at any moment. A man stood before the headstone, his palms cupped in prayer, while his young son raced around and kissed surrounding memorials. The only sign of any transcendental goings-on at all came from a woman who was chanting breathlessly as she strode to and fro beneath the lush branches of the banyan tree, watched by a squatting husband and mournful children. But when I lined up the scene for a photograph, it turned out to contain far more than met the eye. A mustachioed man who was tending a smouldering sheaf of incense sticks at the gnarled roots of the tree raised his hand forbiddingly. “No photographs,” he ordered. “She is making her plea to the king of the jinns.” Throughout the previous night, I had wondered how, precisely, a person possessed by a jinn could expect to obtain relief, and I obediently lowered my camera. The man clearly possessed some kind of authority, for he was selling a selection of holy knickknacks that were neatly laid out next to the green coverlet of the shrine’s main tomb, and I decided to strike up a conversation. Using a combination of quizzical gestures and atrocious Urdu, I asked if he had any charms worth taking on the three-month trek to Syria and Istanbul that I had lined up. His first suggestion was an amulet to ward off the evil eye. When I pondered it skeptically, he proffered a leather pouch containing a secret verse of the Qur’an. It apparently guaranteed good fortune, God willing, so long as the purchaser did not try to read the contents. That seemed a bargain, and as rupees changed hands, I seized the moment. Why no cameras? He nodded solemnly toward the thick cluster of banyan roots and explained that they enthroned the king of the jinns — whose court was now in session.
That explained the photography ban — in a sense — but what, I wondered, was the likely outcome of the woman’s complaint? “The king will listen to both sides and make a ruling,” replied the shrine’s custodian. “Will the jinn then leave?” I inquired. “Maybe, maybe not,’”he replied with a wiggle of his head. “Or maybe a hanging.” Startled, I asked how that would work. He laughed, slapped a hand around my shoulder, and pointed to a colourfully deco- rated bough of the banyan. “The jinn, not the woman.” “Physically hanged?” I asked mean- inglessly. “Yes . . . actual fact,” he replied. “If that is required by the shari‘a.”
The claim was as surprising to me as it ought to have been predictable. I already knew that the invisible world is considered no less subject to God’s law than the visible one and that jurists have often had occasion to consider the rights and obligations of genies.
A tenth-century writer named al-Shibli once wrote about the lawfulness of their marriages with human beings, for example: though aware of unions that had been fruitful, he warned of inevitable antagonisms and urged all readers to stick to their own kind. At many Sunni madrasas, jinns are thought to be so committed to observance of the shari‘a that chairs are left empty for them during jurisprudence classes. And as I found out later in the spring of 2009, their activities are still liable to be considered at the very highest level. The realisation came in Damascus, at a question-and-answer session chaired by Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah. The Lebanese Shi’a cleric (who has since died) used to be routinely characterised in the Western media as the “spiritual leader of Hezbollah,” but hostility to Israel never made him controversial in Syria and Lebanon. There was one aspect of his teachings that did give rise to dispute, however — his relative liberalism when it came to sexual taboos — and at the meeting, the sniggering students of a rival cleric demanded to know whether he thought it lawful to have sex with a jinn outside marriage. “Why are you wasting my time?” he snapped. “It’s fine so long as you use a condom. Next question, please.”
Some people might find it odd or even offensive that a book about the shari‘a should open with a discussion of jinns, let alone a reference to sexual congress with them. Westerners have been exoticising Islam for centuries, and a work that sets out to scrutinise Islamic jurisprudence by reference to the supernatural can only invite suspicion. But though intercourse with genies is the kind of subject that would certainly have intrigued many an Orientalist scholar in years gone by, the fact that its lawfulness came up for discussion in a 21st-century Shi‘a seminary is ample proof that it retains legal significance.
Ayatollah Fadlallah’s response, for all its contempt, also has contemporary relevance — because he was either right or wrong to imply that thousand year-old legal traditions might have become redundant. And though any respectable Islamic jurist would ridicule the suggestion that jinns should be hanged from a sturdy branch, it is perfectly sensible to wonder what makes an execution so absurd — and what safeguards exist to prevent other people from making similar mistakes about God’s law. The question is important. At least eleven of the world’s 50 or so Muslim states possess constitutions that acknowledge Islam to be a source of national law— and several invoke the shari‘a to punish defend- ants who are considerably more tangible than a jinn.
I found myself before the king of the jinns in the first place because the tomb at the shrine’s centre belonged to one of my direct ancestors. Abdullah was an Arab born in Mecca in the twelfth century, and his journey to India had been an eventful one. He left home in around 1192, the same year that Delhi fell to Muslims for the first time, and reached Lahore at the height of a ferocious regional conflict. After marrying off his son and traveling companion and apparently settling down for almost two decades, he then made himself scarce all over again. Crossing the Punjab, he got to Delhi just before the sultan accidentally and fatally impaled himself on his pommel during a polo game in 1210. A succession crisis ensued, and when a battle-hardened slave general was elevated to replace the sultan the following year, Abdullah set off for the recently conquered outpost in which the new ruler had earned his reputation. It was there, in Badaun, that his wanderings finally came to an end.
Abdullah’s journey through war zones to the jungled fringes of the Islamic world was as arduous as it sounds. Although Badaun gave him a wife and at least one more son, it was a very uncongenial place. Two battles, separated by seven years, had left its fields pockmarked by hundreds of graves. Its Muslim conquerors were confined to a garrison, commanders of a militarised cemetery that was surrounded by a seething Hindu sea. But Abdullah was undaunted, because he had come on a mission.
He was a Sufi, in an era when Islamic mystics were as fervent as they were introspective — far more like the warrior monks of Christendom than the flying carpeteers of later legend. And though he almost certainly wielded a sword earlier on his journey, his outlook was not a military one. He had come to Badaun to battle for souls.
As far as Abdullah would have been concerned, the task on which he was engaged was a sacred struggle — a jihad — but the way that he and thousands of other Sufis chose to pursue it was distinctive. In their missionary work, they accentuated similarities rather than differences.
Instead of condemning Hindus as irredeemable polytheists, they recognised their pantheon to be different expressions of the one God. They fused Islamic prayer with Hindu mantras to create the ecstatic devotional music known as qawwali. And in a country that was littered with pocket temples and accustomed to worship through the senses, they transformed the graves of fallen warriors into the nuclei of magical shrines: incense-wreathed and saffron-threaded portals into an unseen world where it was said that jinns could be tamed, the dead might speak, and supplicants’ wishes become saints’ commands. The package sold. Bolstered by practical incentives — the enhanced status that Islamic egalitarianism promised low-caste Hindus, for example — Islam won hearts and minds by the thousands. Within a decade of Abdullah’s arrival, Badaun itself was on track to become one of the most important centres of Islamic culture in northern India. Abdullah’s own legacy was so enduring that eight centuries later, he was still being venerated by descendants of the men and women he had helped to convert.
I had been very pleased to learn about Abdullah from my father, who recited his adventures from an old genealogy shortly before I set off for India. His existence had furnished me with a useful lineage, and though academic texts often insist that Sufism has no connection with the colourful fantasies of Orientalist legend, his reputation turned out to be gratifyingly magical. Abdullah is known in Badaun simply as Pir Makki, or the Holy Man of Mecca, and devout believers assured me that he was a saint of the highest order. His influence over the unseen world was all but unquestionable — why else would the king of the jinns frequent his shrine? — and hundreds of scribbled prayers around his grave testified to intercessory powers that could tackle problems from matrimonial strife to exam nerves. According to the shrine’s amulet vendor, his uncanny abilities had been evident even during his lifetime. Anxious not to abandon followers in Mecca, he had taken the trouble to teleport himself back once a week to lead their Friday prayers.
Over the course of my travels, however, it became apparent that Abdullah’s standing with the home crowd was no guarantee of admiration farther afield. The saint-and shrine-dominated rituals of Badaun are associated with one particular set of Indian believers — known as Barelvis — and though there are millions of them, they have long been in conflict with another sect named after a famous madrasa town called Deoband. And many Deobandis take the view that pioneers such as Abdullah were actually responsible for vast amounts of damage. Instead of promoting Islam by cleaving to the path laid down in the seventh century by the Prophet Muhammad, they had borrowed from the sensuality of Hinduism. The consequence had been terrible spiritual corruption and the incorporation of innovations ranging from musical prayers to incense sticks. According to the Deobanis, asking saints to intercede with God was not Islamic at all; it was an act of idolatry akin to worshipping a monkey or an elephant. Claims to exorcise people according to the shari‘a were equally preposterous: jinns inhabited a parallel universe, and insofar as they might sometimes possess human beings, that was the unchallengeable will of God. Similar complaints about Sufi heterodoxy date back centuries, and they have some history on their side. Among Abdullah’s near contemporaries in late-thirteenth- century Cairo and Damascus were mystical sects of a notoriously inventive sort, known for practices that ranged from cannabis consumption to penis piercing. The willingness of early Indian missionaries to accommodate local customs does not lack for circumstantial evidence either. One of the men who led Badaun’s conquest is buried in a mosque along-side his horse — as well as a lion, a snake, and, most mysteriously, a parrot. Another mystic of the era known as Mangho is honoured in northern Karachi with a shrine that accommodates 200 sacred crocodiles, all of them supposedly descended from his head lice, and worshippers often wrap up their prayers at the nearby mosque by sacrificing bags of offal to the reptiles. And though signs of sacred penis piercing are nowadays scant, cannabis retains a degree of popularity: in the anarchic Sindhi shrine of Sehwan Sharif, narcotic potions are liberally shared as religious ecstasy kicks in, and hopes of spiritual communion in the Sufi mausoleums of Lahore inspire would-be mystics to smoke charas by the fistful.
The eclecticism does not prove that cross- fertilisation is inherently irreligious, however. The point is made most vividly with architectural examples. The magnificent turquoise-tiled mosques of cities such as Esfahan and Shiraz owe their existence to the encounter of Muslims with an alien people — the Mongols. Istanbul’s skyline, a bubble bath of stone that is about as emblematically Islamic as any sight on earth, visibly mirrors the domed basilicas of Christian Byzantium, and the Ottomans who produced it were steeped in Sufism. Indeed, Islam would have been incapable of developing such traditions without a capacity to learn and borrow. That struck me forcefully when I visited the ghostly ruins of a city called Anjar, built from scratch less than a century after the Prophet’s death, which now nestles among garlic fields in a quiet corner of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Its lizard-infested villas, palaces, and frescoed bath houses are perfectly Greco-Roman — not only in terms of inspiration, but also, in the case of dozens of Corinthian pillars lining its grassy cardo maximus, in terms of materials.
Such ruminations would belong to a travel diary rather than a book about the shari‘a were it not for one fact. Conservatives have imag- ined Islamic law to be as eternal as any other aspect of the faith, and arguments about authenticity have therefore had tremendous legal consequences. That is, to a certain extent, consequent on the very notion of Islam — with its commitment to a revealed text and an in- spired Prophet — but it has affected approaches to historical scholarship as well. The idea has become widespread that God’s revelations were built into practical rules by people untainted by impurities — companions of Muhammad, heroic early generations, and omniscient jurists — whose probity transcends the vagaries of place and the passage of time.
That claim raises issues similar to those I once encountered in a very different part of the world — the United States. As a law student at Harvard in the late 1980s, I had learned that many American conservatives consider the Founding Fathers of the United States to be possessed of incontestable wisdom. Some went further, arguing that God had manifested His will through their deeds. According to certain lawyers, that could oblige judges to interpret the federal Constitution according to its eighteenth-century meaning, or even require that they consider the Founders’ views when resolving contemporary legal controversies: limits to the death penalty, for example, or governmental restrictions on free speech. Back then, I had felt that the deference to ancient vocabularies and dead people’s thoughts had the whiff of a séance about it. Pinning down a person’s meaning and motives is hard enough when he or she is alive. The collective intention of a large and diverse group of the deceased is difficult to conceptualise, let alone know. The traditionalist approach toward interpreting the shari‘a does not, on its face, look very different. It seems more akin to ancestor worship than any grave-venerating ritual could be — simply because, notwithstanding my personal debt to Abdullah of Mecca, holy wisdom does not automatically pass down through the generations.
Sadakat Kadri was born in London and educated at Cambridge and Harvard. A London barrister, he specialises in rule of law and human rights issues and has worked in countries from Turkey to Myanmar. He is the author of The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson and a winner of the Spectator/Shiva Naipaul travel writing prize.