These are hard times for holy shrines in many Muslim countries. Often targeted by fundamentalist militants who reject practices of popular religious devotion as un-Islamic, many ancient and famous ziarats have been destroyed or damaged. The last on the list seems to have been the tomb of Yunus (Jonah) near Mosul, Iraq, reportedly blown up by ISIS militants on 24 July under the pretext that Muslims there strayed from Islam. In contrast, Afghanistan has witnessed few such episodes of intolerance, and it still hosts many sacred shrines, although they often suffer from neglect and decay. That of the Kherqa-ye Sharif or Kherqa-ye Mubarak in Kandahar is among one of the most famous. The Cloak of the Prophet, hosted there, played an important role in the birth of Afghanistan in the 18th century and connects two geographical poles of the country, southwestern Kandahar and mountainous Badakhshan in the northeastern corner. Bette Dam and Fabrizio Foschini have looked into the Cloak’s history and into the stories related to it at both ends of the country.The Mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani in Kandahar, where the Cloak was initially meant to be hosted. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini
Every Afghan knows about the Kherqa-ye Sharif, though many have not gone to Kandahar in recent years to visit it, as was common before the decades of war made such a trip rather risky. In fact, the Cloak, which belonged to Prophet Muhammad, enjoys a certain renown even among foreigners, Muslim or not, because of its recent appearance in the realm of international politics. In the spring of 1996, the Taleban leader Mullah Omar displayed it to a crowd in Kandahar in what is considered to have been a turning point in his claim to supreme leadership over all of Afghanistan.
According to Muslim traditions, a heavenly cloak or kherqa was the only physical token from Prophet Muhammad’s Mi’raj, his spiritual journey to the skies in the company of the archangel Jibrail (Gabriel). As such, it constitutes per se a wondrous sign, whose holiness is believed by many Muslims to work further miracles. Near to his death, the Prophet instructed his cousin and son-in-law Ali to give the Cloak to a Yemeni called Uways Qarani, whom he had never seen but who he knew would accept Islam and who was bound to become a major character within the first Muslim community. After the latter’s death, according to the Maktubat of Miyan Faqirullah Shikarpuri – the khalifa (local Sufi leader deputed by a superior spiritual guide) of a Naqshbandi Sufi circle in Kandahar, who in late 18th century left a history of the Cloak in his collection of fatwas – the Kherqa was laid in the Ghar Hira, the cave near Mecca where the Quranic revelations started. Discovered some years later, it was taken to Baghdad and then to Bukhara. From there, the story of its further movements becomes more debated.
Today, the Cloak is hosted in its namesake shrine in Kandahar, the Kherqa-ye Sharif, a mosque standing in front of Ahmad Shah Durrani’s mausoleum. It was in fact the founding father of Afghanistan who brought the holy artefact to Kandahar in 1768. While it is agreed that the relic arrived in that year in the then Durrani capital, it is not certain from whence. Previous possession of the Cloak has been attributed to Bukhara in current-day Uzbekistan or to Faizabad in Badakhshan province.
Among eminent scholars of Central Asian modern history, opinions as to the movements of the Kherqa are divided. In his seminal study on the relations between Bukhara and Afghanistan, J. L. Lee supports the argument that the Kherqa was given by the Bukharan leader Mahmud Bi to Ahmad Shah as a part of the peace treaty of 1768, which separated the respective territories (or better, areas of influence) along the banks of the Amu Darya. In Waqf in Central Asia, R. D. McChesney gives a full appraisal of both hypothesis, while another historian of 18th century South and Central Asia, Jos Gommans, considers the Badakhshi origin more probable. Afghan historians of the early 20th century are also evenly split about the issue, with Afghan historian Faiz Mohammad Katib, in his Siraj ul-Tawarikh, upholding the Bukharan origin and his colleague Mir Ghulam Mohammad Ghubar, in Afghanistan dar Masir-e Tarikh, convinced of the Badakhshi claim. The latter is also, quite reasonably, the version most commonly upheld by ordinary Afghans.
The two options do not exclude each other. Shah Wali Khan Bamizai, Ahmad Shah’s trusted minister who had been in charge of part of the expeditionary troops in the North in 1768, had already campaigned into Badakhshan and occupied Faizabad before turning westward to rejoin Ahmad Shah and the main Afghan army facing the Bukharan advance towards Balkh. As Faizabad, too, had long been theoretically under Bukhara’s sovereignty – although, because of its remote location, it was usually de facto independent and only occasionally sent tributes or gifts – one can argue that during the negotiations, the Bukharan ruler agreed that the Kherqa, already in Badakhshan for decades and carried from there by the Afghans as war booty, officially changed hands as part of the peace terms. It is also questionable if the surrender of such a valued holy relic without it being already in enemy’s hands would have been accepted without controversy by the religious establishment of Bukhara, a city famous for its unusually large, powerful and orthodox ulama class.
What prompted Ahmad Shah to be so interested in the Kherqa to formally include its rightful possession in the peace treaty? McChesney makes a compelling argument about the significance of such a transfer: with the Kherqa, the role of the champion of Sunni Islam in the Eastern Islamic World passed from Bukhara to Kandahar, together with political, economic and cultural centrality. Leaning towards ‘our’ Badakhshi theory does not deny this interpretation, which is even more meaningful for the mountainous region. For Badakhshan, the transfer of the Kherqa from Bukharan (nominal) sovereignty to that of the Afghans, meant the beginning of a long-lasting shift to Kandahar and then Kabul in terms of political, economic and cultural relations. Moreover, as most new rulers trying to give a more lasting basis to their conquests than pure personal charisma, Ahmad Shah must have become a keen collector of holy relics, which, in Islam as in Christianity (at least in Catholicism), provided powerful symbols of sovereignty and tools for patronage and support among the religious establishment and the public. The manner in which the Kherqa was transported from the North to Kandahar, with public displays crowded by visitors at every stop (and in particular in Kabul and Ghazni), is that of a organised state machinery trying to reap consensus among the population. Also interesting is the ceremony that was connected to the transport itself: every day the camel that had carried the relic would be released with a banner tied around its neck stating that whoever found the animal could keep it, in a sort of ‘itinerant’ almsgiving.
Camels feature prominently also in the Faizabadi folklore related to the arrival and departure of the Cloak. According to the author of the early 14th century regional chronicle Tarikh-e Badakhshan, Mirza Sang Muhammad Badakhshi, the relic was being carried from Bukhara to India by three members of the Dahpidi Sufi order (1) who were stopped and forced to settle in Faizabad by Yari Beg (1657-1707), the founder of a local dynasty who ruled Badakhshan until the definitive Afghan administrative annexation of the province between 1869-73 (this would be consistent with Miyan Faqirullah, who set the date of the relic arrival in Badakhshan around 1697). Locals in Faizabad nowadays insist instead that the holy relic arrived in a box tied on top of a wandering camel – a tale reminiscent of that of the arrival of Ali’s body to Mazar-e Sharif and probably originating in an ancient pattern of ‘camel divination’ that had been used by the Prophet Muhammad himself to choose the spot of his house in Medina.
What is certain is that Faizabad blossomed – as much as was possible for the small capital of a mountain princedom – around its shrine. The very name of the city was changed after the arrival of the blessed presence of the Cloak (Faiz Abad meaning ‘the abode of the blessing’) from the previous Jauzgun (‘plenty of nuts’). The three Sufis were installed as wardens of the shrine and after their deaths, successors followed suit, coming to form a particular religious group locally referred to as khwaja. Even after it was emptied of the Cloak, the shrine and its custodians continued to retain a special status, and a devotional circle survives around them to this day.
Also according to local lore, when, after conquering Faizabad, Shah Wali Khan (but in the folk tale Ahmad Shah himself) showed interest in the relic, the custodians of the shrine bade him promise that he would not carry the Cloak away. To this, the Afghan leader committed. He pointed to a large stone in the courtyard and said, much to the custodians’ relief, that he was not going to trespass it with the Cloak. However, he then had the stone loaded onto a camel and the Cloak onto another, which was to always follow the first. The Cloak travelled therefore to Kandahar without ever trespassing the stone (which is also still hosted in the Kherqa-ye Sharif complex).
The previous account shows how, obviously, the locals resented the departure of their major treasure. However, in his chronicle, Badakhshi writes that the removal of the relic was the only loss that the province experienced because of the Afghan occupation – it may be argued that mountainous Badakhshan did not have much more to be snatched as tribute, either.
As it is, in 1768 the Cloak made its triumphal entry into Kandahar in order to “facilitate its protection and visit by the people,” in the words of Massud Akhundzada, the last exponent of the family of religious caretakers who have since been in charge of the ziarat of Kandahar. (2) He relates that when Ahmad Shah brought the Cloak to Kandahar, everybody was vying for the role of custodian of the precious relic. Ahmad Shah decided that whoever was able to open the lock of the box where the Cloak was without the keys – just by uttering “Allah Akbar” – was meant to become its warden. After many failed, it was Akhundzada’s ancestor who opened the lock and gained the role of custodian of the Cloak that his family has enjoyed ever since.
As is often the case in Afghan history, the religious establishment was cooperative but not completely subservient to political authority, even with respect to Ahmad Shah’s most famous prize. In the Siraj ul-Tawarikh, Faiz Mohammad Katib narrates how King Habibullah, visiting Kandahar in 1907, noticed how the internal chamber of Ahmad Shah’s mausoleum had originally been built in order to host the relic. The ulama of Kandahar had instead decreed that the Kherqa ought to stay in the mosque where it had been placed upon its arrival, and not be moved in connection to the whims of a political leader.
The oral memory transmitted in the custodians’ family lends a vivid recollection of the days when the Cloak arrived. Ahmad Shah had ordered that it be hosted in the nearby mosque while his mausoleum was being built, and therefore he ordered the mosque’s carpets to be dusted and washed to properly host the holy relic. A young man in the crowd had just donned brand new clothes and frowned upon the idea of soiling them with the dust that would engulf the area of the religious complex. With a ‘dandy’ attitude not uncommon, now as then, among Kandaharis, he decided to leave the city centre altogether and went for a doze in an abandoned graveyard at the outskirts of town waiting for the dust-storm to be over. There, however, he dreamt of Judgment Day, where he would inevitably be pulled into hell by people who reasoned, against his loud protests, that “he had tried to keep away from the dust of the Cloak and thus deserved hell.” Needless to say, as soon as the young man woke up, he rushed back to the mosque’s alley and threw himself in the dust, confessing his fault.
The Cloak, a single piece of cloth made of camel’s wool that according to Akhundzada is of undefined colour (people who saw it cannot agree on it afterwards, some saying it is brown, some black and some red), has since been kept inside the mosque, locked within three boxes, the first two wooden, the last made of silver. The mosque that hosts it is a low building with walls decorated with green and red slabs of Helmandi marble and glazed tiles with floral patterns in vivid colours, and with portals embellished by muqarnas, beehive-shaped niches. The injunction made by Ahmad Shah to the Kandahari elites that the Cloak not be taken out of the shrine without the consent of the ruler of the time seems to have been always respected. Influential individuals have occasionally been granted access to the Cloak, but only in the form of a quick glimpse at the contents of the boxes. Zaher Shah (who notably stopped short of opening the last box because of his uncontrollable emotion) and Pir Ahmad Gilani, among others, asked to view the relic privately. But only in a few cases was the Cloak brought out for public display, and almost always at critical political junctures.
The first time recorded is in the spring of 1929, when King Amanullah displayed the Kherqa in an attempt to rally supporters for his campaign to recapture Kabul, whence he had been ousted by the rebels of Habibullah Kalakani (also known as Bacha-ye Saqqao). The move proved quite popular with the Kandaharis, although it could not prevent the ultimate failure of Amanullah’s efforts to regain the throne.
Shortly after, around 1935, it was taken out again by royal order with the hope of bringing an end to the cholera epidemic that had been vexing Kandahar. The Cloak was displayed in an old mosque in the city, and the inhabitants asked to come and see it, while prayers and sacrifices of cows and other animals were performed. Reportedly, the ceremony was successful. (3)
The Kherqa would have to wait a full 60 years to be on display again. In the spring of 1996, reportedly at the suggestion of a gathering of ulama, who argued this could be the right occasion to pray to God to solve the problems of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar decided to take the Cloak out of the Kherqa-ye Sharif shrine. He first went there one evening with some associates and bodyguards and was allowed to see it. One week later, he was on top of the main city mosque’s roof, holding the Cloak in front of a huge crowd. The most pious among the crowd were so impressed by the presence of the Cloak that some fell unconscious and recovered only days later, while others threw their shawls in the air trying to touch the sacred garment. This event was seen then, and by increasingly more commentators over the following years, as a pivotal moment in the career of the Taleban leader. His claim to a religious rank like that of Amir al Mu’minin (commander of the faithful) was, if not spurred, certainly enhanced by this episode. Thereafter his bid for the leadership over the whole of Afghanistan was couched in religious terms, ideally detaching him from other competitors.
The connection with Mullah Omar also gave the Cloak exposure to foreign media, and in the years following 2001, many a journalist picked one or another aspect of its story (read here, here and here). However, more recently the shrine has come to the attention of the Afghan media because of an alleged 2010 attempt by Iran to ‘steal’ the fence currently in place inside the shrine and replace it with a new one, an accusation which, in the polarised political environment of the country, created a major outcry in the parliament and in some sectors of the public opinion. The custodians themselves were later rather dismissive of rumours about such a plan, saying that the new fence had been brought as a customary gift to the shrine by visitors from the Iranian government. It seems that they had received permission from an official of the Kandahar governor’s office to remove the old one, when the local information and culture department became aware of the fact and raised the alarm. Much later, this episode was picked up by some members of the parliament, arguably more with the aim of blaming Iran than urging for better care of national monuments.
The story of the Iranian incident might well have been exaggerated (for example, the fence was reported as having been from Ahmad Shah’s time, while it had actually been built at the time of Habibullah’s visit in the early 1900s), but it is true that it created public outcry only because of the perceived aggression by a neighbouring country. Inside Afghanistan, instead, a veritable war on the national artistic heritage is being waged by local smugglers and international collectors, with the complicity of corrupted officials and in the midst of much public indifference. Or, simply, public indifference and government neglect often contribute to the deterioration of historical buildings and artefacts that could be easily protected or refurbished.
This risks affecting even places and objects that have played important roles in the country’s modern history, like the Kherqa-ye Sharif, and that shaped the perceptions and ideas of Afghanistan as a nation. Afghanistan, as an ‘imagined community’, revolves much about Islamic landmarks and practices, including those connected to popular devotion. If these were to be forsaken because of indifference or damaged because of sectarian hatred, it would not only be a sad loss in terms of historical heritage: it could be taken also as a symptom of the bad state of health of the Afghan nation.
(1) The continuous association of the Kherqa with Sufis must not surprise: the Cloak also has a direct connection to Sufi symbolism, as the bestowal and donning of a cloak formed an important part in the initiation ceremonies of many Sufi turuq (brotherhoods). The very historical character of Uways Qarani has been turned by some Sufi orders into a symbol of the possibility of attaining exalted spiritual status even without seeing the Prophet. As a note, Qarani’s tomb in the Syrian city of Raqqah was bombed by militants in March 2014.
(2) This claim of “protection” was of course an excuse, but it should not sound completely preposterous. Shortly before, in 1759, a Chinese army had pursued the fleeing Muslim rulers of Kashgar and Yarkand to the borders of Badakhshan, where they took shelter. Encamped on the Pamir, the Chinese had intimated to the ruler of Faizabad that he extradite them. Rather than facing religious blame for having surrendered fellow Muslims to infidels, the local ruler opted for executing some of the fugitives on charges of banditry on his subjects, and co-opted the remainders in his administration and army. The incident prompted the Durrani diplomatic reaction, with the envoy of an Afghan embassy to the Chinese court.
(3) The custodian of the Kherqa also related the miraculous healing of blind and stammering individuals who visited the shrine, as well as the interview to which he was summoned, in the late 1990s, by an Arab supporter of the Taleban regime. This person, apparently a Wahhabi, refuted the possibility of miracles after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Ironically, though, even the graves of many Arab Taleban supporters, most likely strict Wahhabi themselves, have become a popular shrine charged with miraculous powers in Kandahar.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020