Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh

Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh

Type of Holiday: Religious (Muslim)
Date of Observation: Twentieth day of the Muslim Month of Safar
Where Celebrated: Pakistan
Symbols and Customs: Chaddar Procession, Charitable Distribution of Milk and Food, Naat Poetry Recitations, Qawwali Music, Religious Lectures and Discussions

ORIGINS

The Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh is a holiday in the religious tradition of Islam, one of the world's largest religions. According to some estimates, there are more than one billion Muslims worldwide, with major populations found in the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. In Europe and the United States, Islam is the second largest religious group, with some seven million adherents in the United States. During the early years of Islam, the faith spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula into regions that are today occupied by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Muslims are not just Arabs. Muslims-followers of Islam-are found in many different ethnic groups all over the globe. In fact, Arabs make up less than twenty percent of Muslims.

The word Islam is an Arabic word that means "surrender to God." Its other meanings include peace, safety, and health. The central focus of Islam is a personal commitment and surrender to Allah, the Arabic word for God. In Islam, the concept of Allah is universal and eternal. Allah is the same in every religion and throughout the history of humankind. A person who follows Islam is called a Muslim, which means one who surrenders or submits to Allah's will. But Islam is not just a religion of belief; it is a religion of action. Five specific deeds are required of followers; these are called The Five Pillars of Islam. They are 1) Sha- hadah-confession of faith; 2) Salat-prayer/worship; 3) Zakat-charity; 4) Sawm- fasting; and 5) Hajj-pilgrimage.

The message of Islam was brought by Muhammad (570-632 C . E .), who is considered a prophet of Allah. The holy book of Islam is the Qur'an (also sometimes spelled Koran or Alcoran). According to Islamic belief, the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad by Allah over a period of twenty-three years. Authorship of the Qur'an is attributed to Allah, and not to Muhammad; Muhammad merely received it. Muslims believe that because it originated with Allah, the Qur'an is infallible.

There are two main sects within Islam: Sunni and Shi'ite. Sunni Muslims are the majority (estimated at about eighty percent). They recognize the authority of the first four Caliphs, including Ali, and they believe that the Sunna (the example of the Prophet Muhammad) is interpreted through the consensus of the community. Shi'ite Muslims also look to special teachers, called imams. The imams are the direct descendants of Muhammad through Fatimah and Ali. These individuals are believed to be inspired and to possess secret knowledge. Shi'ites, however, do not recognize the same line of Islamic leaders acknowledged by the Sunnis. Shi'ites hold to a doctrine that accepts only leaders who are descended from Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and her husband Ali. Many Shi'ite subsects believe that true imams are errorless and sinless. They receive instruction from these leaders rather than relying on the consensus of the community.

The Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh celebrates the life and work of the Muslim mystic and saint Ali ibn Uthman al-Jullabi al-Hujwiri (died circa 1070). He is perhaps better known by his nickname, Data Ganj Bakhsh, which means "the master bestower of treasure." The word urs can be translated as "wedding celebration." Throughout Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, Muslims celebrate the death anniversaries of many saints. These death anniversaries are called urs, or wedding celebrations, in affirmation of the belief that death brings the saints into union with God.

Relatively little is known about the life of Data Ganj Bakhsh. It is believed that he was born in the late tenth or early eleventh century in Gazna, Afghanistan. He traveled widely in the Middle East and Central Asia. For example, he is thought to have visited Azerbaijan, Tabriz, Baghdad, Damascus, Samarkand, Nishapur, Khurusan, Egypt and a number of other places. In 1039, the saint settled in Lahore, Pakistan. Data Ganj Bakhsh was a Muslim, but also a Sufi. This means that he followed Islam's mystical path, pursuing a genuine experience of connection with God through various spiritual pursuits and practices. In fact, the saint achieved fame for writing the first book on Sufism issued in the Persian language. This book, called Kashf al-Mahjub li-Arbab al-Qulub, or "The Unveiling of the Hidden for the Lords of the Heart," argues that Sufism is a distinctive path within Islam and explains the Sufi insights into God.

Data Ganj Bakhsh was also widely respected as a Sufi master-that is, an expert practitioner of Sufism and mentor to those wishing to become Sufis. It is said that he was first called "Data Ganj Bakhsh" by a devoted follower about 100 years after his death. This devotee, named Mu'in ad-Din Muhammad Chisti, felt that he had received so many spiritual insights and blessings after meditating at the tomb of Data Ganj Bakhsh that he needed to thank him. So Chisti faced the tomb of the saint and praised him, naming him "the master bestower of treasure" and the perfect guide for the illuminated saints as well as the struggling and imperfect people of this world. During his lifetime Chisti himself gained great renown as a spiritual master and was later known as a saint.

Data Ganj Bakhsh died and was buried in the city of Lahore, which falls within the state of Punjab, in eastern Pakistan. Soon after his death, a shrine and mosque were built to honor him. The mosque and shrine soon became a site of pilgrimage and remained a popular destination for Muslim pilgrims from all walks of life throughout the Middle Ages. Today the mosque is one of the most famous and visited shrines in south Asia. It is large enough to hold 50,000 people. Many devotees of the saint gather there on Thursday evenings to pray and read the Qur'an. (Thursday evenings are considered part of Friday, the Muslim holy day.)

The Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh is one of Pakistan's most popular festivals. Each year it attracts around a million participants. Devotees of the saint come from all over Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and the United States in order to participate in this three-day affair. Festival-goers enjoy visiting the saint's tomb, praying and reading the Qur'an in the saint's mosque, and shopping at the many stands that spring up around the mosque at the time of the festival.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Chaddar Procession

Groups of devotees honor the saint by marching through Lahore holding the edges of sheet-like expanses of fabric called chaddars. These beautifully decorated cloths are thrown over the tomb as a respectful and prayerful gesture. Green colored cloths are favored during this festival, green being the color most closely associated with the Prophet Muhammad and with the Muslim religion itself. As the marchers pass through the neighborhood streets, well-wishers toss bills and coins onto the chaddar as an offering to the saint.

The festival officially begins with the laying of the first chaddar on the saint's grave. This task is usually undertaken by an important official from the Punjabi government, accompanied by high-level religious and political dignitaries.

Charitable Distribution of Milk and Food

Islam places great importance on feeding the poor and helping the needy. In fact, Muslims are expected to make a yearly charitable contribution of at least two percent of their wealth and income for this purpose. This principle can be seen in action at the Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh, where milk and meals are distributed for free to the very poor. These meals consist mainly of a combination of grains and beans. Many pilgrims contribute to the food giveaway. The city's milkmen collect and donate milk during the three days of the festival

Naat Poetry Recitations

A naat is a poem honoring the Prophet Muhammad or one of his family members. These poems may be read or chanted like songs by a solo singer or by a singer accompanied by a drummer. Accomplished naat singers are often found performing before eager crowds at Islamic religious events. The Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh is just such an occasion.

Qawwali Music

Qawwali music is a kind of Muslim devotional music that is especially popular in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It features talented singers that express the devotion that they feel for God, the Prophet Muhammad, or the example set by a particular saint through their music. Good qawwali singers combine passionate lyrics and expressive singing styles. Popular qawwali singers travel to Pakistan specifically to perform during the Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh. A special enclosure is constructed for these performances. In recent years festival organizers have arranged for round-the-clock performances of qawwali music and naat poetry recitations.

Religious Lectures and Discussions

Festival organizers draw together various scholars and Muslim religious officials to give public lectures on the writings and teachings of Data Ganj Bakhsh. These lectures, which take place over the course of the three-day festival, are free and open to the public.

FURTHER READING

Aslalm, Nareen. "960th Urs of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh [RA] in Lahore form April-9." Pakistan Times. www.pakistantimes.net/2004/03/23/metro1.htm Aslam, Nasreen. "962nd Urs of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh [RA] Begins." Pakistan Times. www.pakistantimes.net/national030210601.htm Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Gulevich, Tanya. Understanding Islam and Muslim Traditions. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004.

WEB SITES

Lahore Bazaar www.lahorebazaar.com/lahore/saints/data_gunj_bakhsh.asp

Pakistan Embassy www.pakistanembassy.com
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The meeting reviewed the arrangement of 967th Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh Syed Ali Hajwari (RTA).