By Anna Suvrova
The Old Man of Ajmer
A pious erudition, gentle contemplative quietude, a concentrated and secluded spiritual life, typical of so many Sufis, was not necessarily the only ideal image of a saint during his lifetime, in the eyes of ordinary people. Undertaking a journey into himself (since the Path to the Absolute in the end turns out to be a journey to the very depth of one’s own ego), ‘polishing the mirror of his heart’, a mystic-introvert could become a cult figure of popular Islam.
This could only occur where there could be some sort of easy transformation into an accessible ideal, for example, the transformation of the scholar-theoretician al-Hujwiri into the people’s benefactor, Data Ganjbakhsh.
Later in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, the superficial religiosity of the newly converted social environment, while still clinging to a quite deep-rooted faith, with its extremes, fears and ecstasies, called into being the most common type of saint: energetic intercessor and extrovert, accessible to a great number of people.
In other words, it was the ideal of a saint-social worker. Subsequent centuries of Indian history introduced hardly anything new into this romance of sainthood, since the types of saints, as the saints themselves, reside outside the limits of time and are translated from generation to generation.
To be more exact, mass consciousness of the faithful made quite contradictory demands in respect of the image of a saint: on the one hand, manaqib depict saints as Zahids (ascetics), who had renounced all worldly things and had done away with all worldly bonds (inkr al-kasb), on the other hand they portray them in the very midst of people’s lives, actively intervening in the course of historical events and responding to the worldly passions (shahawat) of ordinary people.
That is why most of the South Asian Auliya combines in their person both types of saints: being hermits withdrawn from present- day reality and at the same time being men well-versed in temporal affairs and regulators of people’s fates.
Towards the end of existence of the Delhi Sultanate, the social work, enormous in terms of the volume of help rendered and the range of social strata covered, which was carried out by saints and the ţarıqas connected with them, started prevailing over the task of proselytizing and providing spiritual sustenance for the faithful, which was typical of the earlier period. Help was given by way of money and food to thousands of indigent people, the resources of the awqaf and offerings of private persons being utilized.
Constant intercession before a temporal power on behalf of the disgraced and aggrieved, and intervention in political conflicts, fraught with the threat of internecine war among the nobility or destruction and ruin of some group or other of the social environment, substantially changed the notions about wilayat, leading both to the further consolidation of the institution of saints in public life of the period and to its steady secularization.
It was also at this time, in the fifteenth century, that the role and professional and group differentiation among the South Asian saints finally takes shape. This was brought about by the purely utilitarian requirements of direct practical help on the part of the saint, which was discussed in Chapter 1.
The main contribution to the creation of the social image of the saint as an intercessor for the unfortunate and consoler of the distressed was made by the aforementioned great Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya order, who had set the example of an extraordinarily active life.
In their broad-based and multifaceted activity, lyrically delightful mysticism, full of sentimental tender emotion, paradoxically existed side by side with the programmatic practicality of spiritual preceptorship and with ideas of universal service, manifested in the first instance in the social adaptation of neophytes and in material support for the poorest strata of the population.
In spite of all this the Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya fraternity, in accordance with the Sufi principle of Khilwat dar Anjuman (‘seclusion in the midst of the people’), constantly observed strict asceticism, experienced ecstasies, visions and revelations, peculiar to true clairvoyants. In other words, living and working in the midst of laymen, they themselves contrived to avoid worldly temptations.
Although the Chishtiyya Silsila had its origins outside South Asia, in Eastern Khurasan, during the times of the Delhi Sultanate a fraternity of the same name took shape and developed exclusively in the territory of India, becoming, side by side with the Suhrawardiyya order, the most popular and widespread ţarıqa.
The founder of the Silsila, Iraqi mystic Abu Ishaq ash-Shami (who died in 1097), settled down in the small town of Chisht at a distance of 100 kilometres from Herat (now in Afghanistan) and that is where he founded a Khanquah. The fraternity itself later took its name from this toponym. Ash-Shami traced his spiritual genealogy to the Prophet and Caliph ‘Ali through Hasan al-Basri and Ibrahim bin Adham who were eminent mystics of the first centuries of Islam. Its affiliation to the Mesopotamian school of Junaid determined the moderate Sunni nature of the preaching and activity of the first Chishtis.
However, by the end of the twelfth century Chisht had already ceased to be a peaceful or favourable place for Sufis. Together with the entire neighbouring region, it had turned into an arena for the fierce struggle of the Ghorids, rulers of the principality of Ghor (between Ghazna and Herat), for superiority over the other Turkish clans.
Apparently, that is why the eighth Khalifa in the chain of succession of the Chishtis1 and the true founder of the fraternity, Mu‘inuddin Sijzi (1142-1236), preferred to move from the capital of Ghorids in Firozkuh, aspirant to the fame of new Ghazna, all the way to Rajasthan, to the southern frontiers of Mu‘izzuddin Ghori’s2 empire.
Historical information about the early period of Khwaja Mu‘inuddin Sijzi’s life has not survived to this day. Later hagiographic sources, for example, ‘The Virtues of Saints’ (Siyar al-Auliya) of Amir Khurd or ‘The Notes about the Pious’ (Akhbr al-akhyar) of ‘Abdul Haqq Muhaddith Dihlawi, compiled several centuries after the death of the founder of the Chishtiyya fraternity, are based on the malf. transcribed to him, but pass over in silence as to the authenticity of their isnad. From Mu‘inuddin’s pre-Indian past only this much is known: that he was born in Sistan (or Sijistan, hence his nisba ‘Sijzi’) and became an orphan when he was fifteen years old.
He lived a life of idyllic simplicity on a scanty income from a garden and a watermill, inherited from his father, until a wandering Majzub, Ibrahim Qunduzi, walked into his garden.
Tradition goes on to narrate a typical Silsila situation of spiritual awakening for the Chishtiyya: having chewed some sesame seeds the majdhub put them into the youth’s mouth, as a result of which he immediately felt the irresistible call of the Path. The next day Mu‘inuddin sold the garden and watermill, distributed all the money among local dervishes and left Sistan forever.
Having spent several years in Samarqand and Bukhara, where he studied religious subjects, Mu‘inuddin reached Harwan, a suburb of Nishapur, where he became a murıd of Chishti shaikh ‘Uthman Harwani, whom he served over a period of twenty years.
Having obtained from the preceptor the garb of the fraternity (khirqa) and a prayer rug (Sajjada) as a token of an inheritance of bliss, Mu‘inuddin set off to Baghdad, where, according to certain hagiographic sources, he called upon the ‘great intercessor’ ‘Abdul Qadir Jilani.3
In the course of the same journey he had the honour of spending some time in the company of Najmuddin Kubra, the founder of the Kubrawiyya fraternity and two of the most famous relatives in the world of Sufism - Najibuddin Suhrawardi, the spiritual founder of the Suhrawardiyya Silsila, and his nephew Shihabuddin Abu Hafs ‘Umar, the eponym of this order.
It is worth noting here that the famous treatises on questions of ethics and the practice of Sufism - ‘The Ethos of the Novices’ (dab al-murıdın) by Najibuddin and ‘The Benefits of Knowledge’ (‘Aw rif al-ma‘arif) by Shihabuddin Abu Hafs - became normative manuals for Chishtis, who had not created their own didactic literature.
The subsequent wanderings of Mu‘inuddin Chishti in Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan by their line of travel resemble al-Hujwiri’s journey described above, but, alas, without the commentaries of the traveller himself they are not of much interest.
As was the custom among dervishes (musfiran), he moved from one sacred tomb to the other, having visited the sepulchre of Abu Sa‘id bin Abul Khair Mayhani already known to us from Kashf al-Mahjub, the tomb of ‘Abdullah al-Ansari in Herat, the grave of Shaikh Nasiruddin in Astrabad and many other not so well-known Mazars.
On the way he visited the Khanqahs of contemporaries famous for their spiritual services, in particular that of Abu Sa‘id Tabrizi (Murshid of the eminent saint of Bengal Jalaluddin Tabrizi) and also that of Yusuf Hamadani, one of the founders of silsila-i khw jagan.
On and off he brought Shias to the lap of Sunni orthodoxy, and set orthodox Sunnis on the path of tașawwuf.4 At last Mu‘inuddin reached Ghazna, where the circuit of his wanderings came to a close: the Prophet appearing in a dream sent him to India to convert non-believers.
Like the majority of his predecessors, Mu‘inuddin arrived in India through Lahore, part of the Ghori domains since the year 1185; this historic moment for the destiny of South Asian Sufism has been depicted by Muhammad Iqubal in his Masnawi.
The date of passage of the future saint through Lahore can be determined quite easily: most of the historians, including Abul Fazl in ‘The Akbarian Codes’ (’in-i Akbarı),5 affirm that this happened in the year when Mu‘izzuddin Ghori inflicted the final defeat on the famous hero of Indian history, folklore and literature, Prithviraj Chauhan III, who was at the head of the confederation of Rajput princes.
The crushing defeat of Prithviraj’s army near Taraori (to the north of Delhi) and his execution took place in 1192. This means that Mu‘inuddin Sijzi arrived in India when he was fifty years old and in no way could be called ‘a youth from Merv’ as he is referred to by Iqubal.
Going by the same chronology he could not have met Prithviraj, nor could he have engaged in a prolonged struggle with him. However, hagio-graphic tradition pays no heed to chronology and that is why Mu’inuddin spiritual victory over Prithviraj, whom the Muslim literature names Pithaura Ra’i, constitutes one of the brightest episodes of the saint’s life.
Although Mu‘inuddin became the founder of the most humane and peaceful of all the Indian fraternities, he himself was a mystic of the earlier type - a champion of faith, placing the task of propagation of Islam above everything else, intolerant of followers of other faiths and merciless to opponents.
It is true that the later Chishti tradition endeavoured in every way possible to soften the image of the saint and was never tired of eulogizing his boundless charity and selfless love for all fellow men. He is said to have claimed that: ‘The highest form of devotion is to redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless, and to feed the hungry’ (Nizami 1961: 97) - a phrase which became the credo of the Chishtiyya fraternity.
In this sense Mu‘inuddin was a follower of Bayazid Bistami, who had in his time declared that a Sufi should be endowed with ‘a generosity like that of the ocean, a mildness like that of the sun, and a modesty like that of the earth’ (Schimmel 1980: 24). However, all this programmatic charity is relevant to the last period of the saint’s life in Ajmer, when Khwaja Mu’inuddin position in Indian society was sufficiently strong and he himself had finally won the respect of the authorities and veneration of the believers.
The beginning of the Khwaja’s Indian venture seemed to be more clouded. The fact that he felt the hostility of the ‘territory of war’, hich India in the twelfth century happened to be for a Muslim who had lived throughout his life on the ‘territory of Islam’, was also noted by Iqbal in his Masnawi:
A young man, cypress-tall, Came from the town of Merv to Lahore. He went to see the venerable saint, That the sun might dispel his darkness. ‘I am hemmed in,’ he said, ‘by foes; I am as a glass in the midst of stones. Do thou teach me, O sire of heavenly rank, How to lead my life amongst enemies?’ (Iqbal 1977: 96-7)
With the exception of the image of ‘a young man, cypress-tall’, which remains on Iqbal’s conscience, the poet is right in all other respects: indifference of the authorities, hostility of the ‘Ulema and envy of his Sufi brothers tormented Khwaja in Lahore and Delhi as well as during the first years of his life in Ajmer.
Thus, during his sojourn in Lahore, where Mu‘inuddin had found shelter in Dt Darbar, he evoked the envious hostility of Shaikh Husain Zanjani, 6 the eldest Lahore mystic. Later in elhi he was accorded quite a cold reception by the powerful Shaikh ul-Islam Najmuddin Sughra. The first years of life in Ajmer, if one can trust certain hagiographic sources, were marked by tense face-to-face between the Khwaja and the Rajputs.
Mu‘inuddin Sijzi had arrived in India at a turning-point in its political history: defeat of Prithviraj III had made it possible for the Ghorids to capture the territory formerly ruled by Rajputs, in particular, Ajmer. Qutbuddin Aibek, a military leader from amongst Turkish slaves (Ghulams), became the vicegerent of the conquered lands. It was he who occupied Delhi in 1193, which had remained under the rule of Rajputs even after their defeat near Taraori.
Anna Suvorova is the Head of the Department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences), Professor of Indo-Islamic culture at the Institute of Oriental and classical cultures (Russian State University for the Humanities), member of the International faculty in National College of Arts (Pakistan), fellow of Academic Advisory Board, Centre for Study of Gender and Culture (Pakistan), fellow of Royal Asiatic Society (UK).
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: