When Syed Jalal al-Din al-Ahmad al-Kasani Dahbedi moved to the outskirts of Samarkand, one of his first tasks in settling was to plant ten willow trees. The place became known as Dahbed after that, and it was there that the saintly teacher, gardener, and modest farmer lived out the rest of his days. He crossed over around 1542 (~948 Hijri calendar).
Almost 500 years would pass before these feet would make their way there. The stop wasn’t planned. It happened to be on the way to Imam Bukhari’s resting place.
A couple of caretakers were sweeping the Syed’s walkways and tending his gardens. The caretakers were wearing their prayer coats. They offered warm salaams, then returned to the their chores.
There was a comfortable serenity to the place. It was virtually empty. Other than the new Uzbek friend who had driven, no one else was around. Even the languorous sun was slowly easing into its clothes for the day.
The sound of the brooms made a rhythmic zhikr. Brush to the left, “All-…“. Brush to the right, “-ah…”. Brush to the left, “All-…“. Brush to the right, “-ah…”. Back and forth and back and forth, the brooms whispered, All- and –ah, All- and –ah, All-...-ah.
It was easy to see why the Syed had never left.
Imam Bukhari's place of repose was about a half hour’s drive to the north.
Say the name “Bukhari,” and literally billions of people across time would know who you’re talking about. Yet somehow, this purportedly educated 49-year-old (on that day, in fact) had gone the first 46 of those years oblivious. Worse, after learning about the imam's famous collection of ahadith (sayings of Muhammad (ﷺ)), it had taken yet another 2 years before trying to learn anything about him.
There’s not space here to go into the imam’s devotions and wonders. So, maybe it’s enough to say they had resonated so deeply they were the prompt for this trip to Samarkand.
By the time we arrived, rows of cars were already parked in the lot. Buses, too. The souvenir stalls were open, with the hawkers trying to push their prayer beads, prayer carpets, and handicrafts. We had to walk by every one of them, both on the way in and out. In retrospect, it seems miserly not to have bought anything. It wouldn’t have been about the souvenir. Nor would it have been about charity. It should have been that there is simply something to be said for friendly fair trade. As a Turkish friend once said about deal-making, “I eat. You eat. We are all happy.”
The Bukhari compound is surprisingly large. At the center of the open courtyard is a beautiful mausoleum. A stone crypt sits above the ground. It's only a marker, though, because the actual resting place lies beneath the structure, behind a door that's almost always locked.
An imam sat on a bench under a portico. We joined a group of visitors who had seated themselves in a line beside him. His mellifluous voice boomed out a recitation of the Qur’an. He made du’a. At the end of his recitation, everyone stood and gave him a little money. We followed suit. Then we made our salaams.
The Uzbek friend talked with one of the guards to see if they would allow access behind the locked door. The answer was no. He talked with someone else. Same answer.
The guards' no was disappointing but not unexpected.
Well...That’s not entirely true. There was a bit of surprise. Okay...In full candor…There was almost a sense of entitlement the door would open. It’s not pretty to say or hear that now, but there it is.
We stayed there for a while. It's a special place, full of barakah. There have been too many prayers and recitations of the Qur'an to be otherwise. Besides, barakah is not bound by walls. Some people say they sometimes smell roses and musk emanating from the mausoleum.
Eventually we walked over to the museum area and looked at all the gifts that had been donated over the years, including swaths of the kiswa (the fabric that covers the Ka’bah) and a photo of the place where Muhammad (ﷺ) is buried. There were also some beautiful Qur’ans and artwork.
We separated afterwards. It’s not clear where he went, but I went back to the mausoleum. The place is almost hypnotic really, like watching the flicker of a candle flame. You can’t take your eyes off it.
This time, the approach was made from the back, not the front. A couple of meters away, give or take, an air of contrition hit. The feet stopped. It was nearly like someone had urged, “Mind your manners.”
There came a deep sense of remorse for what had happened earlier. In this place, in front of where such a man rests, how could someone have been guilty of such ingratitude? Such self-importance? Such greed for more, more, always more?
This was a heartbreaking reality.
Then, while asking forgiveness, it became apparent how low a scoundrel I could really be. Because, again in full candor…There was even in that moment of contrition still almost a sense of entitlement to the door opening. And ironically, that sense was because of the very act of contrition. In other words, it was as if saying, "Yes, I was horrible. So now that I've admitted I was horrible, maybe a reward for admitting that??" This isn't just not-pretty to say or hear. It’s downright ugly.
This was another heartbreaking reality.
Every motivation fell into question. Could any sincerity be found after that? Tears welled up. There was nothing else I could do. Nothing I could do could change anything.
The pretending stopped. The mask dropped. A flood of past hypocrisies roared in, and nothing was done to suppress them. All that could be done was to surrender into, yes. Yes, I did that. Yes, I did that. Yes. It was a full-on, wide open admission of everything unseemly, including that the heart still hoped there could be more to this story.
It was a third heartbreaking reality. Or perhaps the only reality? Allahu a'lam.
The Uzbek friend made his way back over. He was excited. An imam was with him. They both waved to follow.
We returned to the same bench where the other imam had been. No one else sat with us this time. Everyone had made their way to other parts here and there. We were the only two around, but for a family standing at the mausoleum. The imam recited Qur’an. We waited silently. The family finished up their du’a and photos, and then there was a break. No one else came. It got as quiet and empty as Dahbed.
The imam stood and waved again. I followed. We walked from the bench to the mausoleum. Down the steps we went. He took out his keys and inserted them into the the giant lock. He opened the door, took off his shoes, walked through, and waved one more time.
Once we were both inside, he shut the door.
The interior of the chamber was modest, a very different place from what was outside. We sat. He again recited Qur’an and made du’a. Then he allowed a few moments of silence.
We couldn’t stay long. We had to mind our manners.
*From ibn Arabi's The Seven Days of the Heart