DHARABI, Pakistan – One evening in February, something strange occurred in this rural village in central Pakistan.
It was dusk on Feb. 27, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, the 12th Rabi ul Awwal, 1431 in the Islamic calendar.
Rabia Attari, the wife of, Muhammed Tanveer, the village tailor, saw a strange light coming from the ground in front of their house.
"It had been raining quite hard and the ground was wet," Attari, 24, said. "Right before my eyes, I saw a patch of earth dry up and become pure white. As I moved closer to look, I could smell the sweet scent of roses." Attari pointed out that she had no garden and there were no flowers nearby.
"Suddenly, a blinding light appeared above the spot," she said. "I saw an impression of what looked like a foot or a shoe, it was surrounded by this light. My husband was at prayer, I called him to come quickly."
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Atari's husband, Tanveer, 30, is soft-spoken and has the dignified stance of a wizened philosopher, like someone who has suddenly had a great responsibility thrust upon him.
"When I came home from the mosque, it was quite dark but this image was shining," Tanveer said. I called the Imam (the leader of the mosque) and all my friends to come and see and we started to recite the holy verses."
He said his mother told him that this image resembled the pictures that exist in Turkey and Egypt of the Holy Prophet's sandal.
Spontaneous pilgrimage site
True or not, it is just the sort of grand tale that can capture the emotions of thousands and create a wellspring of excitement and hope, beyond the reach of reason.
After the local TV channels broadcast the strange happenings in Dharabi, a village with less than 15,000 inhabitants, thousands more came to see. They traveled on foot, by car and in buses, from all over the country; the religious clerics came too. At heart, for all, was one question: was this a paranormal event?
Today, "The Miracle at Dharabi," as it is called, even has its own Facebook site.
"This is a scam. It's scandalous," said Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted Pakistani nuclear physicist.
He gave what he thinks is the likely explanation for the phenomenon. "These people cook sweet rice in the ground with twigs and organic flammable materials. After the rains, the organic flammable material decays and converts into methane, or marsh gas, which catches fire spontaneously. The illumination these people saw was probably this decaying matter which caught fire."
Try telling that to the crowds in Dharabi on a recent day. Arriving at the site, they rubbed their arms with the sacred soil, as if a spell had been cast upon them; then they prayed. Men, women and even children, pushed and shoved to get close. Many placed bottles of water and bags of sweets directly on the site as they wanted to eat and drink holy food.
The local police ordered Tanveer to fence in the area and place a cement cover over the alleged shoeprint; they were afraid they could no longer keep the swelling mobs of worshippers and curiosity seekers under control.
Mufti Abdul Aziz Hanif, a jurist of Islamic law, argued that the occurrence at Dharabi was against all probability. "No such incident has taken place in Islam in 1500 years – so how come it happens now."
Nevertheless, that hasn't stopped some people from making money from the alleged miracle.
Shortly after the incident occurred, Muhammed Iqbal abandoned his work in the village fields and opened a stall on the road leading to Tanveer's house. He sells bottled water, sweets and twinkling images of the holy shoeprint, and he isn't the only one.
Hawkers line the road for miles turning this once dusty dirt pathway into a bustling bazaar. It seems like everyone was cashing in on the mysterious ways of God.
Iqbal told us that business was very good. "Listen," he said, recalling what happened. "I came that night because I had to see this for myself. Religious scholars came too. How can you explain that the ground remained illuminated for three days? There is no explanation, it is a miracle."
Maulana Hassin-ud-din-Shah, the chief cleric of one of Pakistan's leading religious schools didn't want to rule anything out. "We cannot say that the Holy Prophet visited this place," he explained. "That would be blasphemous. But we do think that this impression could be an image of the sandals he wore."
Tanveer had to move his family to another location. His house is swamped, day and night, with worshippers.
When we asked those who had gathered, whether they believed that a miracle had occurred here, everyone responded much the same. "Yes," they said. There was no doubt.
"Those who have come and seen, they have made this decision on their own," Tanveer pointed out. "It's not our job to make people believe."