Considered as the anarchists of Islam, fakirs are muslim ( male) wanderers who live on charity and the love of Allah. They are not magicians who perform “miracles” such as lying on a bed of nails, eating fire, raising bodies,…even if some of them do mortifications.
Most of them are “ajlaf”. They are the descendants of low caste hindus who converted to Islam during the Muslim invasions and the Mughal era ( in the mediaeval times and the following centuries), compelled to do so by poverty or to win the protection of a new lord. They did it by entire castes… or they were seduced by the message of a sufi, a muslim mystic.
Located in the state of Rajasthan ( India), Ajmer is the fakir’s Mecca, the main muslim pilgrimage centre of the subcontinent. They come from all over India, sometimes on foot, to pay homage to Moinuddin Chishti, a sufi master who lived in the 12°-13° centuries. Usually called “Gharib Nawaz” ( the saviour of the poor), many people ( be they muslims or not, be they Indians or not, be they poor or not) gather to the saint mausoleum through the year. During the annual celebration to commemorate the death of the master, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to visit his tomb. Even though the presence of the fakirs is forbidden inside the “dargah”, they find this a propitious ground. Indeed, pilgrims are generous : charity is an obligation, the giving of alms one of the five pillars of Islam.
Being followers of the sufi teachings, fakirs believe the Divine doesn’t think, He sees Himself in fraternity, in poverty. So, material riches are illusory as is the world around. As disciples of poverty, the only hierarchy they recognise is that of the heart. Condemned by orthodox Islam, which reproaches their bohemian style of life, their lack of sense of responsibility ( Fakirs don’t work, they have no children. They just wander, beg…and smoke cannabis.), the fakirs disturb. But if they upset preconceived notions, it is so that others do not stay enclosed in their own certainties, so that they question their own beliefs. To go beyond the doctrines, the precepts, the particularisms, because the sufi message is universal.
Fakirs and sufi followers like to join together in burial places around the tomb of the sufi saint. Just to meditate…and smoke as well. Cannabis circulates freely and the fakirs say that smoking the “chillum”, an earthenware pipe, enables them to approach Allah,…and contemplating the Divine is a way to reach the Paradise, “Firdous”.
Such gatherings also signify that death is not the end of life, that there is a dialogue between the world of life and the world of death. So that the deceased may help us ( if we pay homage to them) and the living do not forget them. The past, present and future being joined, distinguishing them is futile.