Review: Our Sufi heritage

Updated 02 Sep 2013


LITTLE do the inhabitants of this strife-torn, blood-soaked subcontinent realise that it is the repository of one of the richest treasures of mysticism in the world. Islamic mysticism or Sufism commands the devotion of millions across religious and other divides. In recent years, however, it has been abused in the West and here by charlatans for personal gain. Even Kathak has been portrayed as ‘the Sufi dance’.

“Mysticism can be defined as love of the Absolute — for the power that separates true mysticism from mere asceticism is love”, wrote Annemarie Schimmel, adding that “love for the Sufis is the only legitimate way to educate the base faculties”. But if Schimmel’s magisterial work, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975), an enduring classic, is not everyone’s cup of tea, Mehru Jaffer’s books, The Book of Muinuddin Chishti and The Book of Nizamuddin Aulia use simple elegance to present her research.

In the galaxy of Sufi saints, the star that shines the brightest is that of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, popularly known as Gharib Nawaz — patron of the poor. He founded the Chishti silsila (order) of Sufis in India. The other major silsilas are Qadaria, Suhrawardy, Naqshbandi and Mawlawi. Sufism, especially its Chishti order, has enriched us after Gharib Nawaz died in 1236. Jaffer records in The Book of Muinuddin Chishti: “The Chishti Sufi order was originally founded in Central Asia and Muinuddin was the first one to introduce the Chishtiya way of life in India, where he lived for over four decades. His disciples, Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, Baba Farid Ganj Shakar, Mubarak Hamiduddin Nagauri, Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Delhi later fanned out into different parts of the Indian subcontinent and spent their lives trying to match their deeds to their words.” She traces the travails in Muinuddin’s early life and his fateful meeting with a stranger that changed his life.

The Chishtiya order spread rapidly; unlike the Suhrawardis, the Chishti order believed that “music illuminates the heart”. To read Regula Qureshi’s erudite study, Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali (Oxford University Press, 2006) is to realise how, like much else associated with Sufism, the qawwali which is essentially devotional music has also been debased for commercial gain: “The principles of a qawwali, as we know them today, are a gift to the world from Amir Khusro, the poet disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya who died more than a century after Muinuddin Chishti”.

Muinuddin meditated for 40 days at the shrine of Hazrat Ali bin Usman Al-Hujwiri, a great scholar and saint whose work Kashf al-Mahjub (Revelation of Mystery) is the first comprehensive Persian treatise on Sufism. Muinuddin emerged from it exceptionally inspired. He “praised Hujwiri and hailed him as ‘Ganj Baksh’, the perfect pir, because he continues even in death to shower beneficial treasures upon humanity. Hujwiri’s shrine is like light from heaven that illuminates the path of all who have lost their way. To them he is the teacher supreme.” Imagining the visit of Muinuddin Chishti to the shrine of Hujwiri, Mohammad Iqbal has even mentioned this visit in his Asrar-i-Khudi (Secrets of the Self).

Jaffer writes: “Despite his admiration for the people, the poetry of the devotees and the wisdom of the sages, Muinuddin remained a practicing Muslim throughout his life, strictly observing all rituals as dictated by Islam. But neither in his teachings nor in his company did he ever demand the conversion of non-Muslim admirers who visited him.“[He] had studied the Quran and was familiar with the legal, theological and mystical contents of the Holy Book, and he acknowledged the Prophet (PBUH) as the best example of a saint.

“In a letter to Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, his disciple in Delhi, Muinuddin wrote: ‘The basic foundation of these instructive letters is, of course, Islamic, for they conform to the teachings of the Quran and the sacred traditions of the Prophet. But despite their Islamic fabric these teachings … conform to similar teachings imparted to the world from time to time by various other religious founders and sages for the salvation of mankind’. To this day Islamic mystics observe all acts of piety as mentioned in the Quran, including regular prayers and fasting.”

Scholar Raziuddin Aquil has remarked, “If Ajmer was the Mecca of Islam in Hindustan, Delhi emerged in the 13th and 14th centuries as its Medina. Three out of the first five ‘great’ Chishtis of the Sultanate period chose to live in Delhi” (Hazrat-i-Delhi: The Making of the Chishti Sufi Centre and the Stronghold of Islam; South Asia Research, 2008, Vol. 28, pp. 23-48). Among them stands the peerless Hazrat Khwaja Syed Muhammad Nizamuddin Aulia, Mehboob-i-Ilahi (Beloved of God). Scholars differ on the year of his birth (1236-1242). He grew up in turbulent times and witnessed murders and oppression by the rulers. Jaffer writes: “Nizamuddin transformed the mystical movement in Delhi into a mass humanitarian activity, helping human souls to respond in a positive and loving manner to the many challenges of the day like anger, pain and suffering. The moral and spiritual principles practiced by Nizamuddin became the backbone of countless Chishti cloisters spread all over the country during his lifetime, and continue to guide the Chishti way of life to this day.”

The late Prof Khaliq Ahmad Nizami wrote an authoritative biography of the saint (The Life and Times of Shaikh Nizam-ud-Din Auliya: Oxford University Press, 2007) in which the appendix contains the text of the Khilafat Namah given to him by his mentor Shaikh Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar. In The Book of Nizamuddin Aulia, Jaffer writes: “The main cause of the conflict between Nizamuddin and the rulers of his time was his refusal to extend moral support to the policy of endless expansion of territory practiced by the Delhi sultans. Nizamuddin believed that the desire to possess property, particularly by force, was unfair and cruel. He did not believe in hoarding wealth … According to [him], a preoccupation with the external and material world prevented human beings from following suluk, or the mystical path leading to the discovery of the precious and sacred in the self.”

To complete the chain, on his deathbed Nizamuddin Auliya made a list of his spiritual successors. Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Delhi’s name topped the list. “Once Nasiruddin asked Nizamuddin’s permission to return to the peace and quiet of life in the forests, Nizamuddin replied that he should not run away from the world. The master suggested that Nasiruddin should learn instead to be still in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life and to be alive and animated while at rest, to try and eke sound in silence, and quiet in crowds. Nasiruddin stayed on in Delhi for more than three decades. And when he was chosen as Nizamuddin’s successor in Delhi, Nasiruddin accepted the master’s cloak, prayer rug, staff and sandals and pondered over what he should do next.”

Nasiruddin earned the title of Chiragh-i-Delhi, and is considered to be the last of the five great Chishti masters. “Syed Muhammad Gesu Daraz, the most deserving disciple of Nasiruddin, who was sent to south India to perfect the Chishti way of life there, once told his audience that after the total exodus demanded by Muhammad bin Tughlaq to south India, all of Delhi was drowned in darkness. The presence of Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Delhi was the only ray of light in the city at a time when the sultan ordered learned scholars and mystics around as if they were his subordinates.”

Mehru Jaffer comments on the teachings of the masters as she traces their lineage and sums up the core accurately: “Nizamuddin’s most meaningful gift to South Asia is his interpretation of Islam as a poetic and sublime experience of life. Countless citizens became interested in Islam during his lifetime as Nizamuddin introduced ideas of love and life through verse and storytelling. Above all, his message was communicated to countless visitors and followers by the way he lived his life. His followers watched him pray, meditate, fast and consciously turn away from all pomp and show. His earnest interest in the simple, everyday details of life and the world around him, like stopping to smile at a bud waiting to burst into bloom in the first flush of spring, amazed and impressed those around him.”

“The people were inspired by the way Nizamuddin lived his life every day, by his practice of religion, and their response to Islam was emotional. Islam was … overflowing with fearless love for the creator, and compassion for all creatures in the world.”

The writer is an author and a lawyer

The Book of Muinuddin Chishti By Mehru Jaffer Penguin Books, India ISBN 9780143065180 155pp.

The Book of Nizamuddin Aulia By Mehru Jaffer Penguiun Books, India ISBN 978-0143419174 164pp.