The life and legacy of Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad — A personal perspective

More than a story of religiosity or personal piety, Shaikh Muhammad's life is a synthesis of the mystical and modern.
Published February 10, 2020

It was all very Californian, I remember thinking, as I drove through Lahore’s leafy suburbs for the first time. Tree-lined avenues and manicured lawns; freshly-tarmacked boulevards and vast, palatial residences glittering beneath the summer sun — I could not help but think that this was Punjab’s answer to Beverly Hills. “Dikha, Fahrid”, I remember my grandfather saying in his rustic old-city Punjabi, “sada Lahore kitna khoobsurat baniya”.

Navigating the newly-sprung localities at the city’s eastern edge, we happened upon a 'ring road' which — I have since learned — commands particular notoriety amongst the city’s folk. A spaghetti junction of sorts, this concrete network is a gateway to Lahore’s beating heart — the dazzling cultural core of Pakistan — which transports its users, in a mere thirty minutes, from Allama Iqbal International Airport to the celebrated Mall Road: the wide commercial stretch which since the British Raj has accommodated banks, bazaars and businesses.

Our destination, however, was not a plush hotel nor a rooftop restaurant. There would be plenty of time to explore the nerve centre of the city, but for now, our stop was the unassuming Barki Road: a major but relatively peaceful pathway, close to the historic Saddar Bazaar, and flanked by successive layers of new build housing colonies, schools and institutes of technology.

Then only 19, I remember taking it all in. ‘New Lahore’, they called it — clean, green and full of opportunity. But as we meandered down a series of side alleys, and pulled up at a dusty village tucked away behind the plush living quarters of the prestigious Defence Housing Authority (DHA), I came to learn that New Lahore had some very old foundations.

By this time, the sun had set, and I could see the glint of a lantern hovering on the horizon, illuminating the night skies nearby from atop a distant dome. As we trekked further along the narrow, muddied backstreets, we stumbled into a maze of bazaars where rose petals, marigold garlands and embroidered decorative sheets — emblazoned with such sacerdotal slogans as ya Gharib Nawaz and haq Farid ya Farid — seemed to be the most in-demand commodities.

I always knew of my family’s connection with Sufism; but it was perhaps not until I left that labyrinthine marketplace, and beheld for the first time the magnificent, marbled mausoleum that lay behind it — fittingly named the Darbar-e-Khawaja Vali or 'Shrine of the Master Saint', for those less well-acquainted with the Urdu language — that I came to appreciate fully the lasting impact of pirs in and across Punjab.

The urs season was in full flow by the time we had arrived.

In one corner, bearded men sat contemplatively, rolling their rosary beads in one hand and sipping spiced chai with the other. Children raced around with freshly-fried jalebis or packets of candied almonds — depending on who reached the sweetmeats first — whilst a select crowd of aunties attended to gargantuan degs, the cauldron-like pans in which biryani bloomed and lentils and legumes simmered away. In the distance, a group of moustachioed musicians lounged around, clad in sequinned waistcoats and mirror-studded Sindhi caps, taking a moment to tune their harmoniums and practice their Persian before downing yet more silver-leafed paan parcels. And as for the maulvis and malangs — the latter in full-bling, with chunks of turquoise, onyx and carnelian dangling from their necks — these were to be found meditating in anticipation of the auspicious hour, with incense burning nearby and the scent of sandalwood spiralling into the night’s sky.

As colourful as these characters were, I had little time to fully sit and savour the scene, let alone strike up a conversation. The adab of visiting the sepulchres of saints — I would later learn — dictates that devotees must, as a matter of propriety, first pay their respects before exploring the environs. And so, my grandfather led me hastily through a set of sturdy silver doors and into the inner chamber of the darbar. What awaited me was a unique concoction of spirituality and artistry. The four walls were adorned with Seraiki tilework and intricate Multani murals, giving way to a majestic arrangement of Persian floral motifs that laced their way across the domed ceiling — redolent, almost, of the great domed artwork I had learnt about in books on Mughlai and Safavid architecture. Between these geometric compositions sat a series of inscription-bearing plaques, rehearsing elegies, devotional poesy and quatrains of the great poets Khusro and Jami in flowing, Farsi script.

An inner view of the domed ceiling
An inner view of the domed ceiling

Right before me, at the centre of the shrine, stood a tall sarcophagus made of marble. The focal point of the shrine, it was pearly white and draped with a green and gold decorative chadar into which the names of the Panjtan Pak were gloriously stitched. Its surface scattered with rose petals, its headstone adorned with flower wreaths the colour of mustard. This was the final resting place of a great vali, my grandfather told me: a saint of the highest order.

Questions swirled round in my head. Who was this man, and what was his story? It begins in the Old City of Lahore, some two centuries ago, at a time when the world order was being dramatically remade in the shadows of the empire.


Here rests Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad — scholar, sage, and saint. Born in Lahore in the mid-19th century, he was the son of a jurist-turned-freedom-fighter, Khawaja Imamuddin Ī, who earned considerable prominence — and eventually a mini fiefdom — for agitating against the rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his successors. But Shaikh Muhammad was not to inherit his father’s political persuasions, nor his vast landholdings. Instead, his gifts were more spiritual in nature.

The grave of Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad, adorned with roses and flower wreaths. Devotees sit nearby, some meditating, others reading from the Holy Quran.
The grave of Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad, adorned with roses and flower wreaths. Devotees sit nearby, some meditating, others reading from the Holy Quran.

It is said that he possessed wisdom beyond his years and acquired a mastery of the religious sciences — doctrine, scripture and exegesis — at an exceptionally tender age. But, ultimately, the life of the clergyman was not for him either. Still only a child, he left the hustle and bustle of Lahore’s Inner Walled City — famous, even today, for its charms and challenges — in pursuit of answers to life’s great existential questions. After experimenting with the mysticism of various varieties — of which there was no shortage in the Punjab of yesteryear — he soon came to the realisation that God, the focal point of all devotion, was as beyond the reach of magic and divination as much as He transcended the silos of dogma and liturgy.

It is at this point that, according to legend, a caravan carrying pilgrims towards the Holy Land passed by. Seeing worshippers of all stripes and colour geared up for this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, the young boy jumped aboard, embarking on a precious yet perilous journey from the fertile plains of Punjab into the rocky, mountainous terrain of Hejaz in western Arabia.

The destination was Makkah — the Mother of Cities, home to the most sacred sanctuary in Muslim belief — which at the time was under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Sultans and their local governors, the ‘Alawiyya Sherifs, a dynasty of governing superintendents tracing their descent from the House of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him). Here in Makkah, and still only an adolescent, Shaikh Muhammad would perform the rites of Hajj and dedicate his life to selfless service to God and mankind. At first, he chose to sweep the streets of the holy city, an act of humility and devotion, worlds apart from the life he might have lived as the son of a feudal chief in the agricultural oasis that was pre-Partition Punjab. Later he shifted to Madina, the Prophet’s City, where he busied himself with scholarly pursuits and humanitarian endeavours. Eventually, he would assume responsibility as Imam of Masjid Al-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque, so-named because Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had prayed, lived, and was laid to rest within its sacred precincts some 1400 years ago.

But it was not his clerical duties that led Shaikh Muhammad towards spiritual enlightenment or self-realisation. Instead, it was the esoteric life that beckoned, day-by-day and night-by-night. Classical Islamic civilisation had nurtured several strands of mystic belief — ranging from orthodoxy to syncretism — producing phenomena as diverse as whirling dervishes, wandering ascetics and the more philosophically-minded Persian ‘Men of Light’ who sought to harmonise Neoplatonism, Avicennism and Islamic theology as early as the 12th century. Despite all the eclecticism of these externalities, however, these movements shared a single, essential belief — which we might broadly classify as Sufistic — which was the idea that, deep down, man is a formidable being with the ability to transcend his ego and its trappings — pride, materialism and superficiality — in return for a taste of Divine Union. It was this proposition — the allure of experiencing the Creator himself through the acquisition and application of esoteric wisdom — that called out to Shaikh Muhammad and prompted him to seek out the spiritual sages of his era.

Yet every luminary the Shaikh consulted — from Bukhara to Baghdad, from Dehli to Damascus — was seemingly incapable of opening for him the doors to mystical learning. Each Ālim, Akhund and Mujtahid would return the same verdict — offering to instruct him in the rudimentaries of theory, but ultimately conceded that the knowledge he sought was beyond their savoire-faire. Disappointed — some might say dejected — Shaikh Muhammad continued with his duties in Madina, until one night, according to legend, he was gripped by a powerful, life-changing vision. Here, he beheld the image of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who instructed the Shaikh to seek out a teacher of scripture by the name of Maulana Hamid. A resident of Shaidani Sharif in the Seraiki Belt — then in the Princely State of Bahawalpur, today in the heart of South Punjab — Maulana Hamid would be the one to take the Shaikh towards his ultimate destination.

Inspired and impelled by this experience, Shaikh Muhammad left his life and livelihood in Madina, journeying to the westernmost edge of the peninsular, where he would board an Ottoman vessel bound for India and set about traversing the Arabia sea. His destination: Bombay — the bustling commercial capital of the British Empire. From here, he would meander through the rich landscapes of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Sindh, before finally arriving at a distant, dusty place — Chau-Darī, or the 'Town with Four Gates' — at the site of Liaquatpur in today’s Pakistan.

Here, he would encounter Maulana Hamid for the first time — an erudite, frugal dervish whose magnum opus, the Diwan-e-Hamid, remains a masterpiece of 19th century metaphysical literature. Penned in classical Persian, the diwan consists of a series of stand-alone poems which — when pieced together — elucidate a theory of Wahdat al-Wujud, or ‘unity of being’, which for generations inspired the Sufis of South Asia and the Chishtiyya school of thought in particular. Conceptualised first by Ibn ʿArabi — the legendary Arabo-Andalusian mystic of 12th-century Seville — the idea centres on the belief that humanity and the cosmos are mere reflections of the one, true Divine Essence. Man, creation and cosmological order — these are not discrete ontological or phenomenological entities, but instead manifestations of an eternal, transcendent reality of Godliness. This points towards a fundamental truth at the core of the Muslim faith: that despite man’s molecular state, he is spiritually inseparable from the Divine Reality of Allah, Khuda, Parvardigar.

There is something remarkably Rumi-esque about Shaikh Muhammad’s tutelage under Maulana Hamid. The Shaikh, a doctor of law, would need to leave behind his scholasticism — together with its methodologies, assumptions and, some might say, rigidities — if he were to embark upon this journey of mystical discovery with success. Just as Shams-i-Tabrīzī had opened Rumi’s heart to a world of secret knowledge, so too did Maulana Hamid unveil for Shaikh Muhammad newer experiential dimensions. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Shaikh Muhammad spent a total of 12 years living with his Pir-o-Murshid, or spiritual mentor, during which time, tradition tells, he attained the higher stations of sainthood and assumed formal leadership of the Chishty-Nizami Sufi Order: an ancient spiritual fraternity placing the utmost value on altruism, tolerance and personal piety. The supreme success of the Tariqa was its ability to meld Perso-Islamic and indigenous subcontinental traditions in its iteration of Islam, resulting in such magical phenomena as qawwali gatherings — designed to induce spiritual awakening through the recitation of poetry set to musical verse — as well as charitable institutions such as langar-khana, where meals would be freely and habitually distributed to the destitute.

On Maulana Hamid’s command, the Shaikh would eventually settle at Lahore — the city of his childhood — by now a thriving, cosmopolitan capital in which communities coalesced and political interests collided. His mission was simple — to attend to the needs of the people. A scholar of religion he may have been, but his primary purpose in Punjab was not to evangelise. Instead, it was to address the spiritual and temporal maladies of the multitudes of the fin-de-siecle — to provide counsel to a people living at the crossroads of seismic change, a people confronted by the gargantuan, transformative forces of urbanisation, industrialisation and mass mobilisation. Hagiographical accounts abound with stories of the spiritual feats of Shaikh Muhammad — of his lengthy supererogatory prayers, his mastery of the hallowed numerological traditions of ‘Ilm-e-Jafar, and even legends of his miracle-working. But what is less apparent — and to my mind, more important — is how the Shaikh imbued in his followers a sense of principled pragmatism as a new-age modus operandi was ushered in. Adherents of mediaeval Sufism may have preferred an ascetic-quietist mode de vie, but in the teachings of Shaikh Muhammad, we glimpse the mysticism of a modernist. His advocacy of upward social mobility, for example, goes against the grain of the anti-materialism inherent in some Sufi traditions. It reveals a mindset which sees the pursuit of worldly prosperity as compatible with sojourns of the soul; and which construes civic responsibilities as part and parcel of the path towards self-actualisation. Perhaps this was setting the scene for a paradigm shift at the grassroots — away from atomism towards a sense of collective progress — which would find parallels in the theories of society advanced by Allama Iqbal, in particular his notions of a collective consciousness shaped by the Mard-e-Momin ideal.


When Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad breathed his last on 5 April 1926, he left behind a legacy. His followership — according to ‘fifth-generation’ mureeds — numbered into hundreds of thousands, with entire tracts of Punjab and upper Sindh professing their allegiance to him. His admirers hailed from the literati as well as the traditional spiritual elite; amongst their ranks were Khawaja Ghulam Farid, the celebrated bard of South Punjab; Khawaja Hasan Nizami, the erudite essayist who would inherit the hereditary custodianship of Nizamuddin Dargah in Dehli; and Pir Mehr Ali Shah, whose shrine at Golra Sharif remains a focal point of spirituality for the people of the Potohar Plateau to this very day.

But it was not just the pious — but also the politically influential — who glimpsed in Shaikh Muhammad the rare combination of virtue and leadership. According to popular tradition, an adviser to the viceroy and his troupe of colonial administrators would habitually visit the Shaikh at his residence near Lahore’s burgeoning railway lines.

An Englishman amongst their number — a Liverpudlian with a penchant for daguerreotype portraiture — was apparently so taken aback by the Shaikh that he implored him for permission to take his photograph, calling him the "most handsome man in British India". The Nawab of Bahawalpur, it is said, was left deeply moved by his encounter with the Shaikh; and Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, would even donate his land in Lahore for the construction of the tomb I pay homage at.


Sitting beneath the shade of an Indian lilac tree, marvelling at the shrine and its surroundings, I was struck by the full spectrum of devotees I encountered. Here were the turbaned titans of Punjab’s feudal elite, sitting alongside buffalo-herding, staff-bearing yeomen; Gucci-clad Gulbergians snapping selfies with chadar-clad, tasbih-twirling nomads; and Sunni maulanas sharing sweet rice with Shia students visiting from a nearby imambargah. It was quite the sight: Sulh-e-Kulh — the seminal theory of tolerance developed by practitioners of subcontinental Sufism — in practice.

And in the mix was me. What was I to make of all this? Born and raised in Britain, I was taught to be rational, empirical and critical in the way I viewed the world. Yet here I was, mesmerised by this burial chamber, and already deeply attached to the story of the saint whom it memorialises. One could easily view such places as relics of the past. Dominant discourse tends to construe shrines as the vestigial remains of a bygone age — Sufi saints, they say, brought solace and spirituality to the rural lumpenproletariat at a time when society was defined by radical inegalitarianism, their khanqahs — or “houses of devotion” — offering a promise of alternative modes de vie to those seeking refuge from the scourge of caste domination or imperial aggression. But their contemporary relevance — or so the social savants like to say — is limited to the poorer, rural agrarian classes whose shrine visitation is closely linked with a quest for material and existential security occasioned by harsh economic realities. The swelling middle classes — endowed with economic opportunities and the recipients of a centrally-mediated iteration of ‘orthodox’ Islamiyat — do not face the same challenges, and have no need, therefore, to seek out oracles from beyond the grave.

The social scientist in me could see the logic behind this line of thinking. But as the qawwals kickstarted their performance with a rendition of Raag Gavati — a rhythmic mode inherited from Classical Hindustani meter — I was struck by a stark reality. There was a certain magnetism about this place — an arresting, alluring sense of spirituality — capable of captivating both ardent audiences and scientific sceptics in equal measure. The Sufis call it Faiz: an energetic effusion emanating from the Sahib-e-Mazar, or denizen saint, with the capacity to bring about a transformation in our spiritual, existential and intellectual faculties. This sense of evolution along a teleological trajectory, I realised, is as relevant today as it was in pre-modern, pre-industrialised societies. The quest for a higher existence — one might even say, for perfection — has been a feature of human history since the onset of civilisation. Whilst some prefer philosophy, psychology, ideology or science as their means of experiencing a heightened sense of ontological experience, I came to learn that the culture and practice of saint reverence continue to draw in millions around the world to this very day. Even I — the angrezi munda, as the locals called me — was deeply stirred, entranced even, by the spellbinding effect of this place, its tone and tenor.

Far from being obsolete, in my opinion, devotional religious practice — call it Sufism, Tasavvuf or something else altogether — is enjoying a resurgence in Pakistan. Despite decades of opposition from fundamentalist forces — and let’s not forget the ample aversion from various schools of modernists too — Sufism is very much alive in 2019. One might even go so far as to say we are witnessing a "third wave" of Sufi thought — the first being its nascence, the second its middle-age preponderance — in which Pakistan’s Generation X has begun to rediscover and reclaim an element of their identity which, for decades, either went neglected or was systematically repressed. From Coke Studio’s revitalisation of classic Sufiana Kalam, through to the hundreds of thousands of followers who flock annually to the shrines of Baba Farid at Pakpattan, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan, and Data Ganj Baksh at Lahore, the renaissance is fully flowering.

Some readers might think I am writing in truisms here. It is fairly self-evident, they might say, that the culture of Pakistan is coloured — to use a Khusravi literary trope — in the dye of Sufism. This much is evident from the language, allusions and leitmotifs which punctuate its artistic landscape. But it was not until I came face-to-face with the institutions of devotional religious practice in this country that I — the third-generation pardesi — began to appreciate the profundity of Sufism in providing meaning to millions in an era of existential insecurity — whilst simultaneously continuing to shape identities, inform dialogue, and inspire creativity.

When the Urdu poet Khaki visited the mazaar of Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad in the mid-19th century, he was moved to pen a panegyric. Extolling the virtues of the late saint, his manqabat was splendidly titled “Mamba-e-Jood-o-Sakha”. Popularised decades later by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, its verses would see Khaki implore his contemporaries and countrymen to seek out the small shrine tucked away behind Lahore’s Cantt.

"See how his life will dazzle — the one who cherishes a connection with this court," Khaki would advise his audience, presciently and assuredly. Many years on from my first visit, I think I finally now understand what he meant by this.

The life and legacy of Khawaja Shaikh Muhammad is more than a story of religiosity or personal piety. It is a story of synthesis between the mystical and modern, an account of spiritual awakening at a time of radical reconfiguration in the spheres of society, economy and governance. As such, it is replete with lessons of relevance to today’s space-age sufis and digital-era dervishes — lessons capable of transcending cultural and cognitive conditioning, delivering direction at a time where conflict and confusion prevails.

Header image by author: A night-time view of the exterior of the shrine