Go anywhere in the Muslim world and you will bump into a shrine, tombs, sacred relic, or footprints of the Prophets. No doubt you have witnessed the footprint of Prophet Muhammad at the Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Istanbul, and climbed the Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka to see the footprint of Adam. But there are even more marvellous vestiges out there from blessed tortoises to sacred crocodiles, moving walls and revered trees, and even a celebrated shrine on the sex mountain! They all come neatly, not to say sacredly, wrapped in mythology, legends, traditions and what have you. So here is our list of some noteworthy relics for you to seek out.
1. Footprints Everywhere
Sacred footprints are ubiquitous all over the Islamic World. Widely discussed in scholarly circles has been a pair of carved footprints at the Rozabal shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir, which is sometimes ascribed to Jesus, but more often to a local Sufi saint who may very well just be an Islamised version of the Buddha. An object of fervent devotion up until today is the Qadam Sharif, the footprint of Prophet Muhammad in Paharganj, Delhi. A complex of dargah, mosque and madrassa was built around this footprint in medieval times and an ‘urs’ festival is held in its honour once a year. Other holy traces can be found across the Muslim World as well: An imprint of the hand of Imam Ali is revered on Maula Ali Hill in Indian Hyderabad. A royal eunuch (khwajasara) of the Nizam once discovered this imprint after being guided to it by a dream vision of the Imam himself. Another imprint of the hand of Ali can be found on the Khyber Pass, in local Pashtun legend often identified with the Arab city of Khaybar. Hoofprints of the horse of Imam Ali’s son Hazrat Abbas can be seen at the Murad-Khani shrine in Kabul.
2. The Tomb of Seth, Son of Adam, in Ayodhya
Islamic mythology relates that Adam touched down on Earth in Sri Lanka, so it’s not too surprising that according to some traditions his son Seth spent his life in India and is buried there. A tomb of Seth can be found in Ayodhya, of all places. Its existence once helped eighteenth century scholar Azad Bilgrami make his point about South Asia being the original Holy Land of Islam. The tomb’s dimensions are unusual: Seth`s grave is nine metres long, supporting pious traditions, which claim that human beings in the age before the Great Deluge were much taller than humans today. South Asia is not the only region on earth that claims special proximity to the Garden of Eden, however. Similar claims have often also been made about Mesopotamia, and so it does not come as a surprise that another tomb of Seth, with equally surprising proportions, can also be found in Mosul, Iraq. Tragically, the tomb in Mosul was destroyed by ISIS in 2014. Given Ayodhya’s troubled recent history of religious extremism, we are lucky that the Indian tomb still remains largely unharmed today.
3. Narrow Passages
At several shrines devotees try to pass through narrow passages of different kinds to gain the blessings of particular Muslim saints. At the shrine of Bahauddin Naqshband in Bukhara, visitors are shown the fallen trunk of a mulberry tree that once grew out of the staff of the saint. It is said that whoever is able to crawl under that trunk will have a prayer answered. Near Hacibektas in Turkey, on the other hand, visitors able to pass through a hole in a particular rock at the retreat cell of the saint are promised all their sins will be forgiven. Success in passing under such tree trunks or through tight holes may be attributed to the powers of fate and divine intervention. Nevertheless it is probably not a bad idea to go through a careful and honest assessment of one‘s physical proportions before attempting such ventures.
4. Walls That Moved
A legend appearing in several parts of the Muslim World tells us about a saint riding on a wall, defeating another saint riding on a lion in a battle of supernatural feats. The Dutch anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen once traced several variants of this legend from South and Central Asia to Kurdistan and Anatolia. The identity of the two battling saints shifts according to local context. But the detail of the victorious saint making a lifeless wall move as his mount is always the same. The wall in question can still be visited at several locations. Most notably in Turkey in Hacibektas, where Hajji Bektash himself once rode it, and in India at the shrine of Shah Mina Sahib in Lucknow. There apparently also exists a shrine erected on the spot where the Punjabi Sufi Bu Ali Qalandar rode a wall in an occult battle with the Sindhi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.
5. The House of Khadijah
Many relics from the early Islamic period have been destroyed by the zeal of both: Wahhabisation and modernisation of the two holy cities, Makkah and Madinah. Yet, believers of a more traditional persuasion still try to find remains of these blessed sights during Hajj or Umrah. This has turned into a painful experience for those pious visitors who have tried to discover the remains of the house of Prophet Muhammad`s first wife Khadijah, the very house that was the centre of the early years of the Prophet`s mission. The original site is now partly covered by a block of public toilets. A very visible sign of the divide that separates modern Islam from the Islamic past.
6. Bayazid Bistami’s Turtles
It is unexpected enough that ninth century Persian Sufi saint Beyazid Bistami has a tomb in Bangladesh’s Chittagong (besides having one in Iran and another one in Afghanistan). Even more unexpected are the sacred turtles that live in the pond belonging to the shrine. According to local legend, the turtles were once evil djinn who incurred the wrath of the saint and were transformed by him. The species inhabiting the pond is rare and endangered. Scientifically the species is known as the ‘black softshell turtle’ but the locals call them ‘Bostami turtle’. Believers feed them out of reverence for the saint.
7. The Crocodiles of Manghopir
Pir Mangho was a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali, as well as a Sufi who settled in the area of modern Karachi. He became the patron saint of the Indo-African Sheedi community in particular. Hundreds of crocodiles live in a lake by the shrine and devotees regard these large reptiles as manifestations of the sacred presence of the Pir, revere them and feed them. The late German scholar of Islamic spirituality and mysticism, Annemarie Schimmel, made it a point to mention in one of her books that she found the turtle shrine in Chittagong far more horrifying than the crocodile shrine of Manghopir. We wonder what was her problem with cute little turtles?
8. Musa the Burqa-wearer
The Iranian city of Qom, which is the centre of Shi’a Muslim learning, sports numerous remarkable shrines. Most well-known are of Fatima Masumah, the sister of Imam Reza, and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. A little more obscure is the shrine of Musa Mubarqa (or, in Iranian Persian pronunciation, Musa Mobarregheh), Musa the Burqa Wearer. This son of Imam Taqi, the ninth of the twelve Imams of the Shi’a, was so beautiful that during his life-time he had to wear a burqa in public to not distract the businessmen in the bazaars of Qom. If Musa Mubarqa were alive in our day and age, he would find travelling through several European countries more challenging than walking through the bazaars of Qom. Or do modern burqa bans in Europe also apply to young men?
9. The Shrine on Sex Mountain
Legend has it that in medieval Java, prince Pangeran Samodro fell in love with his stepmother Nyai Ontrowulan; and fled to Kemukus Mountain with her, where the two were eventually killed by the king’s soldiers. A shrine developed around their graves. And since at least the nineteenth century, devotees have been visiting the shrine, engaging in eyebrow-raising rituals that involve having mandatory sex with someone who is not one‘s legal spouse. Pilgrimage to (and illicit sexual activity on) Kemukus Mountain is supposed to ensure material success and wellbeing. The ritual may have its roots in pre-Islamic Tantric ideas, but most of the Indonesian pilgrims nowadays see themselves as devout Muslims. Not surprisingly, the shrine and its rituals have drawn the anger of other Muslims and several times in recent years authorities have attempted to ban religious and sexual activities on Mount Kemungus, colloquially often referred to as the Sex Mountain.
10. Sacred Relics at the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul
Another footprint of the Prophet can be found in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. Together with other relics: The pot of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, the staff of Moses, the sword of David, the sword of Ali, the mantle of the Prophet, a hair from the beard of the Prophet, and others. Most of these relics came into Ottoman possession from their Abbasid predecessors as Caliphs of the Sunni world. During Ottoman times, these kutsal emanetler (sacred relics) were exhibited to the public during special occasions. Believers longed to offer reverence to them and gain blessings from the prophets as a result. With the advent of the Turkish Republic, these objects were displayed in the museum. A Qur‘an recitation plays all day in the chambers of the kutsal emanetler. Is this out of respect for the relics, or staged drama for tourists? Your guess is as good as ours!