by Tanvir Ahmed, Austrian Academy of Sciences
One gray afternoon in Samarkand, the wind soughing in the chinars around Khwaja Ahrar’s grave, I passed some time swapping stories with an elderly pilgrim. At some point, we came to the subject of other shrines in the city—which my companion would mention with the honorific Samarqand Chahar Bagh-e Awliya—and I was told a historical anecdote about the nearby tomb of Prophet Daniel. My companion related how, in times past, the conqueror Timur had marched on the country of Iraq, but to his surprise, was unable to capture it. It turned out that the failure was due to Prophet Daniel’s earthly remains, interred in Iraq and bringing a constant “rain of blessings” down upon it. Upon becoming aware of this, Timur sent men to dig up the body and steal it so that his conquest could proceed. As Iraq was subjugated, Prophet Daniel’s corpse was swept off to Timur’s own capital, where we were sitting right that very moment, sheltered by that same rain of blessings.
The event of Timur’s encounter with Prophet Daniel’s corpse exemplifies a fairly widespread feature of holy figures’ postmortem existences in Muslim societies: the ability to continue acting in the world long past the moment of death. This ability often entangles the bodies of prophets, saints, and other such “friends of God” in processes of conquest and resistance. In the case above, Prophet Daniel’s corpse functions as an artifact of extreme potency: repulsing a force that came to dominate immense swaths of territory in Central Eurasia and beyond. It operates alongside the living who wage a more conventional defensive war. Yet at the same time, the corpse’s power can be subverted by a few thieves with spades. It cannot stop its own deportation and cooption—not unlike the living artisans, scholars, and slaves forcibly deported to imperial capitals by Timurid expeditions. Upon being reburied in Samarkand, Prophet Daniel’s corpse also serves to generate a particular sense of history. The act of uprooting and replanting brings our present into a historical frame defined by an act that took place in the mid-fourteenth century. The glories and vicissitudes of Samarkand throughout the intervening centuries must be negotiated in light of the divine graces generated by the prophetic corpse.
Such narratives signal the significance of the unyielding dead in understanding Muslim sociopolitical worlds. A key facet of that significance is the act of narration itself. The inscription, circulation, and modification of these tales gears audiences to recognize the vast power and possibility woven into the graves around them. The dead are locked within the perpetual motion machine of worldly events as causal elements. In other words, things can happen—or not happen—because of the dead. The explanatory possibilities enabled by the dead, in turn, can challenge our own longstanding narrative habits today.
To highlight the wide-ranging salience of the unyielding dead, I could relate stories from contexts across present-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and beyond. But for now, let us focus on three narratives from Kabul and its environs, dealing with incidents from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The tales told below are taken from ethnographic evidence collected by scholars across the past fifty years. What I want to do here is to take another look at the sociopolitical and historiographical work being done by the narratives; and ask what reading them together, as part of a broader historical pattern, might do to our present ways of thinking about the past.
Our first narrative takes us to the tomb of Seh Baba, about forty-seven miles east of Kabul, in 1842. In this account, a British army, bent on vengeance for their recent military failure, passed through Seh Baba on their way to burn Kabul. Upon seeing the ancient oak overshadowing the tomb, they tied horses and elephants to the trunk and attempted to pull it down. When this failed, they turned to hacking at the wood with axes and swords, only for the blades to break against it. The British forces had no choice but to leave the oak where it was.
“The oak symbolizes the eventual British withdrawal,” claims the American anthropologist who wrote of the story. But much else is implicated in the account of Seh Baba’s grave. The tree’s resistance is explicitly framed by two moments of imperial violence: a past British occupation of Afghanistan and a future burning of Kabul. Placed as it is within that framework, the miraculous endurance of the tree at Seh Baba invites us to carefully consider why it survived.
We might find a clue about a hundred miles to the northwest and three centuries back, in the environs of Istalif. In the early sixteenth century, another conqueror, Zahir al-Din Babur, took power in Kabul and set about documenting his new domain. Among the sites he noted was a spring called Khwaja Seh Yaran, “round which three sorts of trees grow:” plane trees, Judas-trees, and holm-oak. Babur reports that people in the region considered the appearance of the three tree species there to be “a gift made by three saints” (the eponymous Seh Yaran). Upon noting the site’s beauty, Babur ordered that it be enclosed by stonework and furnished with viewing platforms.
This preceding appearance of “Three Saints” around Kabul shows us a more specific historical space being constructed through the topos. The founding and flourishing of sites like Seh Yaran and Seh Baba are rooted in the historical arrival of Muslim holy figures in the region, who nourish the environment. Against the concussive waves of conquest, the fruits of holy figures’ labors stand out as nodes of stability, emerging victorious from encounters with men who would be kings. Far from being an illustration of atemporal Afghan endurance in the face of foreign invasion, the narrative about Seh Baba is an argument: one should attend carefully to saintly traces in the country, for they—and the present human networks maintaining them—are more reliable than the other available institutions governing social life. Here, the critical precondition for this argument is the appearance of the British troops: their violence is what reveals Seh Baba to be a locus of extraordinary resistance. Through that resistance, the conquerors are ultimately folded up into a vast and miraculous history.
Our second story takes us to a site off the Kabul River, in the city of Kabul itself. The figure interred here, Shah Do-Shamshera, is widely held to be a Muslim warrior of an early generation beheaded in battle at Kabul. Following its decapitation, the warrior’s body kept fighting with a sword in each hand—earning its title of “The King of Two Swords”—until eventually falling at the present site of its grave. Anecdotal evidence shows that some residents of Kabul also identified Shah Do-Shamshera with the person of Hazrat ʿAli, cousin and successor of the Prophet Muhammad.
In the 1920s, when King Amanullah ordered the expansion of Kabul’s roads, it was decided that Shah Do-Shamshera’s corpse would have to be moved. Workers armed with handmade tools and European heavy machinery alike were dispatched to the saint’s grave. However, as the work progressed, the picks and spades began coming up bloody out of the earth. Several workers injured themselves with their own tools. When the machines were moved against the gravesite, they mysteriously broke down. When word reached King Amanullah, he immediately called a halt to the construction effort; and instead of disinterring Shah Do-Shamshera, he had a mosque built at the site.
At a glance, this narrative might seem relatively distinct to us from the first. We are dealing not with conquest but construction; not with a foreign army but a local sovereign. Indeed, these are the distinguishing factors which so often organize our narrations of Afghan history today. But those distinctions break down when we approach the basic fact of what is happening to the shrine itself: political violence is wielded to uproot a blessed object, and sequential failures result in the withdrawal of that same force. Through this similitude, the body of Shah Do-Shamshera and the tree at Seh Baba are embedded not only in epochs of modernization and imperialism, but within a pattern looping through the past millennium, in which graves regularly check the overreach of governing power.
What is at stake, in the story of Shah Do-Shamshera, is a historical vision: the idea of Kabul generated through the corpse’s presence. Through Shah Do-Shamshera, Kabul is brought into a certain intimacy with the first generation of Islamic history—perhaps even to the Prophet Muhammad’s own family. This is accomplished not only through the decapitated corpse but the specific site of its rest. The history of Islamic Kabul has its traces in the very earth itself. To remove the corpse damages the tangible fabric of that historical vision, which is accessed by devotees in steady quotidian rhythms.
Safeguarding that history means positing an ideal relationship between the king and the saintly body. The correct action—here taken by Amanullah—is recognition of the latter’s status followed by patronage. The narrative here explicitly centers the need for human maintenance of holy sites in the narrative present. While the account of Seh Baba ends with the British simply giving up, here, the king’s decree is foregrounded. Holy corpses are powerful, but certainly not all-powerful. In fact, the potential precarity of their situations is a precondition of the narratives being told here. Blessed trees and saints’ bodies can be damaged, moved, even lost. Such misfortunes represent the loss of access to potentially potent intercessory forces. The need is to cultivate and maintain proper relationships with them, to make sure such misfortunes do not take place.
Our third story takes us to “the middle of one of Kabul’s busiest highways” in the 1970s. Rising from that highway was a shrine, the name of which is not given. The narrative about it is sparse and brief: at the relevant time, Soviet engineers brought bulldozers and other machines to bear against the shrine, but ultimately “were unable to move a single rock.”
I suggest that an analysis of more detailed accounts, such as those of Seh Baba and Shah Do-Shamshera, can enrich our understanding of relatively more obscure events, like that of the highway shrine above. The tellers of all three tales might wish for us to interpret them as signs of shrines’ ultimate primacy over other institutions, such as armies and royal courts and technocrats from abroad. Through that primacy, offered as a historical constant, the differences between opposing forces are blurred. British soldiers, Afghan kings, and Soviet engineers are unified through their failures against the dead. This possibility carries with it an invitation to rethink our widespread narrative habit of placing shrines, graves, and tombs in the frameworks of modern Euro-American sociopolitical time. By this, I mean that it might at first seem perfectly sensible to speak of a medieval shrine, or a Timurid grave, or a tomb patronized in the Cold War period. But as we have seen above, if we listen carefully to this set of narratives, the tree at Seh Baba’s tomb does not exist in British imperial time: the British soldiers exist as transients in its time. The King of Afghanistan comes as a supplicant to a corpse embedded within the city’s early Islamic moment. A modern highway must split around a grave’s walls.
Through their presumed immovability, Kabul’s unyielding dead act as historical seismographs, registering moments of dramatic change. The way narratives about them are encountered provides a much-needed check on current visions of the past, many of which are deeply indebted to written works put forward by elite men. As has recently been demonstrated, Islamic spaces and times are not static coordinates that can be plotted along a grand unified theory of history (itself organized through modern Euro-American civilizational conceits); rather, we can see them as products of specific coming-togethers of sociohistorical factors. We must approach the shrines of Kabul—and those everywhere else—in a similar fashion. The resulting portrait is of a dynamic space in a state of constant reconfiguration through a diverse array of pasts. We can only begin painting that portrait by stepping back from historiographical practices which seek to know the world by looking first to what those with the most power say about it.
I would like to close this essay with a brief return to the moment that opened it, at the shrine of Khwaja Ahrar in Samarkand, in conversation with my companion there. During our mutual introductions, my companion asked from where my spouse and I had come (our purpose as fellow pilgrims was presumed from the beginning). When we answered, it was clear that the places listed were not immediately recognizable. Yet as we spoke, my companion on that afternoon would refer to something that caught on my ear: “our history” (emphasis added). My instinctive reaction was to catalog all the ways in which this was patently not the case: along metrics of citizenship, nationality, and so on. It took some consideration to see the problem in my thinking. Had I met my companion in another context, or been trading different kinds of stories, the aforementioned factors might have been more immediately salient. But his casual insistence in that moment that we shared a history seems more to me than either the kindness of hospitality or a supposed identitarian affinity. Rather, it had to do with the exchange of tales between us. By speaking of Prophet Daniel’s body and all that followed, for that moment, we might have indeed been inhabiting “our history.” That collectivity should—must—be treated as an ephemeral one, existing through and because of a specific convergence of circumstances.
I am lingering on my companion’s choice of words because of the tales related throughout this piece. I have characterized the narratives above as ones of immovability, detailing refusals to yield to forces from without. This might shade them as conservative, even nativist, accounts: closing ranks around valued pasts. But there are other possibilities. Speaking of the unyielding dead does not necessarily have to signify restriction. It can also be a way of generating openings and creating new (fleeting, contingent, delicate) communities that grow around ideas of solidarity. This is a sensitivity that we might carry into our explorations of history in order to grasp the radical possibilities of past worlds, and perhaps to let their traces guide our practices into better futures.
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I am grateful to Carolina-María Mendoza, Sabauon Nasseri, Paolo Sartori, and William E.B. Sherman for reading and commenting on draft versions of this piece. Both the present work and my efforts more generally continue to benefit from these exchanges.
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