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Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part – 16



By Anna Suvrova

The Ascetic of Pakpattan

There is an undoubted correlation between the extent of remoteness of the dargh or Khanquah of a Muslim saint from imperial capitals and big cities of South Asia, on the one hand, and the nature of his cult and his type of sainthood, on the other. Metropolitan saints, such as Data Sahib and three of the five Great Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya fraternity, possessed universal baraka, and were devoid of group or motivational specificity. These are the saints of the entire social environment - from the sultan to the beggar; these are the saints for all seasons and events of life; their sainthood is of a ‘general type’, and the practice of the veneration of each of them, in spite of inevitable local variations, has a stable commonality of the basic constituent elements. But the further into the thick of people’s life fate happened to bring a mystic or a missionary who was destined to be glorified as a saint, the more individual and selective became his baraka and the more unusual and quaint his cult seemed to be, having incorporated into itself the colours and forms of the local substratum.

Conscious centrifugal movement of the South Asian Sufis begins with Khwaja Mu‘inuddin, although it may be difficult to consider somewhere as strategically important as Ajmer as an out-of-the-way place. It is true that already the next generation of saints, Baba Farid, Baha’uddin Zakariya Multani, Jalaluddin Tabrizi and Jalaluddin Surkhposh Bukhari, preferred to settle down still further away from major imperial centres, which at different times Lahore, Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri were considered to be. In Punjab or Bengal the authority of Shar ‘at, the discipline of Sufi orders and the once omnipotent charm of the Persian language grew weak and together with them the impulse of Islamisation also abated. Remaining as islets in the sea of non-Muslim population, Sufi mystics were obliged to change over from noble Persian to native dialects and idioms, to write spiritual poetry in accordance with the rules of local prosody and to compose songs to local tunes.

At the same time this ‘localism’ was more often synonymous with that peculiar to the common people, and the culture which provincial Sufis had to use as their base did not have the classical and cosmopolitan nature (naturally, within the limits of the world of Islam) that was to be found in the capitals. The genres of classical poetry - mathnawı, ghazal, ruba‘ı, qiţ‘a -for ages used by Sufis on the Indian periphery, yielded place to the Indian doh, pada and sorat’ha, to the indigenous folk forms of brahm sa (songs of various seasons), Gujarati chakkinama (hand- mill songs) and charkhinma (spinning-wheel songs), Punjabi kfı, Sindhi w Baluchi jumjuma, etc.; that is, the genres and genre forms, devoid of Islamic origin and content, acquired a new, Sufi context.

Originally writing only in Persian and subsequently going for bilingualism, the South Asian Sufis turned out to be standing at the sources of one or another form of modern Indian literature or some tradition of vernacular writing. Thus, for example, the fame of the founder of Punjabi, Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Gujarati, Kashmiri and Baluchi literatures is ascribed correspondingly to Baba Farid (the thirteenth century), Muhammad Gesudaraz (the fifteenth century), Bayazid Ansari, Qadi Qadan, Muhammad Jiv Jan, Habba Khatun (all of the sixteenth century) and Jam Durrek (the eighteenth century), each of whom to a greater or lesser extent is revered as a saint.1

Preaching strict monotheism and inculcating the idea of the veracity of faith in only one God into their flock, provincial saints and Sufis at the same time emphasized that differences between Islam and other religions is in the field of cult and ritual, and that is why they are superficial and false. Assertions that a Sufi ‘is neither a Muslim nor a Hindu’ and that one need not follow the outward norms of religion laid down by ‘ulama are repeated in the South Asian devotional poetry with the persistence and constancy of an incantation. Later on these assertions became the conventional tradition of the Sufi poetry that was summed up by the Punjabi poet-mystic Khwaja Ghulam Farid (1841-1901) in one of his kf:2

How we detest the mullah’s preaching! In holy Ibn ul Arabi’s teaching3 our faith stands confident and sure, and so my way is quite inverted -All prayers and fasts have I deserted: My waywardness is not obscure! Fakhar Zaman 1995: 457; translated by C. Shackle)

In the early stages of the formation of a literary norm in the Siraiki language in which Ghulam Farid wrote his verses, the important poets of Punjab and Sindh continue to develop this theme, which originated in medieval poetry. Sultan Bahu, famous for the fact that he concluded each line of his verses with the mystic exclamation hu,4 said about the Sufis: Na oh Hindu na oh Momin Na sajda den masiti hoo Dam dam de vich dekhan maula Jinhan jan kaza na kiti Hoo, They are neither Hindu nor Muslims, Nor do they bow down to pray in mosque. In every breath they see God and never miss the mystic cry of Hoo! (Tariq Rahman 1995: 30)

The great Punjabi mystic Bullhe Shah echoes       him even more explicitly: Hindu na nahin Musalman Bahe tarinjan tuj abhiman Sunni nahin na hum Shia. Sulah kul ka marag liya We are neither Hindus nor Muslims We sit and spin leaving pride of creed We are neither Sunnis nor Shias We are non-violent towards everyone. (Tariq Rahman 1995: 334)

Sindhi mystic Sachal Sarmast (1739-1829) gives a modified version of the ame theme in a sorat’ha in Siraiki: Jaheen dil pita ishq da jam Sa dil mast o mast madam Deen mazahib raehnde kithe Kufr kithan Islam. Those hearts have drunk the cup of the wine of love Their heart remains ever intoxicated, Religion, creeds do not remain intact -Nor do paganism nor Islam. (Tariq Rahman 1995: 30)

However, these are all nothing but effusions of Sufi proselytizing rhetoric, which, as has been already mentioned above, should not deceive us and serve as the basis for inferences about the supra-religious mode of life of mystics and saints. Thus, contrary to their own assertions, Sultan Bahu, Bullhe Shah and Sachal Sarmast were pious Muslims, regularly visiting the mosque and observing all the injunctions of the Sharı ‘at. What is more, even while assimilating the vernacular and aspects of folklore, and accommodating regional and ethnic traditions, as well as going through the process of the ‘adoption of simplicity’ and naturalization, Sufis never deserted the mainstream of tașawwuf. This refers to the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunna. It must also be said that old legends and modern speculations notwithstanding, Sufis rarely became mu’ahhids, i.e. the Unitarians, for whom it is all the same, which one and only God -Ram or Rahman - to worship.5 In their turn, the people amongst whom the provincial Auliya lived and preached venerated them to the best of their ability - in accordance with the laws of their ancestors, painting their cult in the gay colours of local rites and rituals, so far removed from the precepts of Islam.

Nevertheless, the powerful wave of Indo-Persian Sufism, which had risen so high in the imperial capitals, became divided, spread across the boundless expanses of the subcontinent, merged with the water of already existing springs, filled dried-up riverbeds, was absorbed by the local soil and fantastically changed the South Asian cultural landscape. One of the most striking examples of such a deep penetration into the indigenous layers of the Indian substratum is the literary and mystical activity and cult of the eminent saint of the subcontinent, Shaikh Fariduddin Mas‘ud (Baba Farid). Third in succession among the great Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya order, he spent the greater part of his life in the desolate uninhabited Ajodhan, named Pakpattan (‘the Ferry of the Pure’) in his honour - the semantics of this toponym is extraordinarily similar to the literary meaning of the Hindu tirtha. Shaikh Farid, almost literally, became the ‘passage’ of sainthood, having passed on the baraka of his outstanding Murshid, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, to his own no less famous murıd, Nizamuddin Auliya. Having significantly transformed the respectable conduct of the moderate, ‘sober’ mystic and drawing inspiration from the tradition of ‘intoxicated’ majdhu¯bs, he is also the people’s ideal intercessor and a model world-renouncing ascetic. He has himself formulated his credo in the following Persian verses: Khham ki hamısha dar hawa-yi tu ziyamKhkı shawam wa ba-zır-i pa-yi tu ziyam Maqșud-i man-i banda zi kaunain tu-yı Az bahr-i tu mıram zi bara-yi tu ziyam (Nizami 1955: 2)

I wish to live always yearning for You, to become dust and live under Your feet. My object in both worlds is You, I have to die for Your sake and live for Your sake.

Measured by inadequate Indian yardsticks, the abundance of information and stories about Shaikh Farid in hagiographic literature is explained by the extraordinary popularity of his cult. In the first place, there are the already mentioned malf .at recorded by Amir Hasan Sijzi and Amir Khurd, who in the course of many years noted down Nizamuddin Awliya’s recollections of his famous murshıd and his predecessor. Particularly rich in details is Siyar al-awliy, since both the grandfather and father of its author, Amir Khurd, were also Shaikh Farid’s disciples, who had for years lived by his side.

Anecdotes from the saint’s life and quotations from his discourses are included in all major hagiographic collections - from the early and reliable Siyar al-‘rifın of Jamali Kanboh and Akhbr al-akhyr of ‘Abdulhaqq Muhaddis Dihlawi to the later and quite inauthentic Gulzr-i abrr of uhammad Ghauthi Shattari and Jawahir-i farıdı of ‘Ali Asghar.6 Shaikh Farid belonged to the new generation of South Asian awliy who were indigenous natives of the subcontinent. His grandfather, 7 who had arrived in Multan from Kabul, was given the post of a qdı in the small town of Kahtwal, where the future saint was born (in the year 1175) and spent his childhood. In the years of his childhood the greatest influence upon Farid was exerted by his mother Qarsum- bibi, a woman of deep piety, although having somewhat strange notions about pedagogy.8 Faw’id al-fu’ad narrates a story about a miracle, connected with the power of her prayer: once, at night, a thief got into the house, and was literally blinded by the radiance emanating from the praying woman. The thief repented and beseeched Qarsum-bibi to pray for recovery of his sight. She heeded his persuasions and soon the burglar was healed, adopted Islam and started living an irreproachable life (Amir Hasan 1992: 221).  Apparently, the inhabitants of medieval Kahtwal were not too devout, as young Farid’s religious zeal evoked sneers on their part, reflected in the sobriquet ‘The judge’s possessed son’ (Qdı baćć dwana).

In any case, when Kahtwal was visited in transit by the well- known Persian mystic, the future eminent saint of Bengal, Jalaluddin Tabrizi, and he inquired whether there were any Sufis in the town, he was told about the Judge’s young son. Jalaluddin visited Farid, bringing a pomegranate with him as a gift. The youth, who was fasting, declined the refreshment, however from the pomegranate one seed fell out, which he ate after ifţar, i.e. after breaking the fast? As soon as the pomegranate seed touched his lips, he experienced his first mystic enlightenment. Here it will be appropriate to recollect the story of spiritual awakening of young Khwaja Mu‘inuddin, who had tasted of the sesame seeds, resented to him by a majdhub. For several years Farid regretted that he did not eat the whole pomegranate - in that case the experience undergone by him would have been more pervasive. However, later Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki set him at rest, explaining that only one seed contained the saint’s Baraka and this very seed fell to Farid’s lot (Hamid Qualandar 1959: 219-20). In the course of time having enquired his own murids, Shaikh Farid was adamant that they should always eat the whole pomegranate offered to them, so that, God forbid, they may not miss the sacred seed.

Having been educated until then at home, Farid, at the age of 18, set off to Multan to continue his studies. This town in Punjab in the thirteenth century had become a stronghold of the Suhrawardiyya fraternity and was within the wala¯yat, i.e. the limits of spiritual jurisdiction of the head of this order, Baha’uddin Zakariya Multani. By a happy coincidence, usual for all the saints’ lives, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, in the course of his journey from Central Asian Aush to Delhi, arrived in Multan at the same time. His relations with the head of the Suhrawardis were quite strained, and he was in a hurry to leave the town as soon as possible. One brief meeting in the mosque near the Sara’i Khalwa’i was enough to bind the teacher and the disciple for life.

It is not particularly difficult to imagine the circumstances of this bygone meeting, which took place in the same year, 1193, that the founder of the Chishtiyya fraternity reached the limits of Delhi. A youth, emaciated by fasts and with entangled hair, is sitting in a corner of the mosque, reading the manual on Muslim law, N fa‘, and looking askance at an older man wearing a travelling jubba and a high felt cap of foreign style, from under which locks touched with grey are hanging down. Having performed his prayers, the stranger turns round and asks the youth what he is reading. ‘This is Nafa‘’, says the youth in a whisper, since a well-bred young man is supposed to answer an elder’s question in a low voice and with downcast eyes.

‘May there be benefit (naf‘) for you in its study’, says the newcomer affectionately, preparing to depart. A sudden flash illuminates Farid’s consciousness - the Sufis call this state of mind ishraq. He darts off and prostrates himself before the unknown person with the exclamation: Maqbl-i tu juz muqbil-i jawıd nashod Wa-z lu.f-i tu hech banda naumıd nashod.Your chosen one is chosen for ever, and because of your generosity no one remained without hope. (Hamid Qualandar 1959: 220)

The meeting in the mosque drastically changed Farid’s fate: having completed education ahead of time in the madrasa in Multan, he left for Delhi to appear before his murshid, where he underwent the rite of initiation (bai‘a) and took up residence in Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s Khanquah in Mehrauli for almost twenty years. Here it was his fortune to get acquainted with Khwaja Mu‘inuddin himself during the latter’s visit to the capital in connection with the already mentioned problem of ihya. Having seen Farid emaciated by fasts, the Khwaja exclaimed: ‘Qutbuddin! How long will you burn this poor fellow in the fire of penitence?’ (Nizami 1955: 91). According to the laws of ethics of Sufi ţarıqas, a senior in the hierarchy was not supposed to address a junior, bypassing his immediate preceptor.

That is why, according to another version, the Khwaja did justice to Farid’s zeal, but again addressing Bakhtiyar Kaki: ‘Baba Bakhtiyar! You have caught a noble falcon which will not build its nest except on the holy tree of Heaven. Farid is the lamp that will illuminate the Silsila of the durweshes’ (Nizami 1955: 21). After this an honour unprecedented for the Chishtiyya fraternity was conferred on Farid - he was simultaneously blessed by his own pır as well as by the latter’s Murshid. The uniqueness of this event was later noted by Amir Khurd in Siyar al-awliy:

Bakshish-i kaunain az shaikhain shod dar bab-i tu Bdshhıyftız-ın bdshhn-i zamn Both the worlds have been granted to you by the two Shaikhs, You got a kingdom from these two kings of the age. (Amir Khurd 1978: 72)

In the very first years of Farid’s sojourns in Delhi his inclination for igorous ascetic practice (zuhd), which distinguishes him both from his predecessors and his successors in the fraternity, became apparent. The Chishtis were ‘moderate’ mystics and in excessive passion for asceticism they saw temptation and arrogance, so incompatible with their propagation of humble and selfless service to God and His creatures. Encouraging the self-restraint which is obligatory for a mystic, they nevertheless did not allow it to exceed the limits of the rational; from their point of view extreme asceticism ran counter to divine Providence and human nature, hampered fulfilment of religious law and simply attracted idle curiosity to itself. Besides that, asceticism in the form of self-torture was associated in the eyes of Muslims with wandering ascetics (sdhu) and members of an esoteric sect of Naths whom Sufi literature calls by the collective term jogı.

The system of asceticism (tapas) practised by them, including the famous ‘standing between five fires’ (i.e. between four bonfires and under the parching midday sun), evoked a persistently negative response from Sufi authors, suspecting in Hindu tapas a means of acquiring supernatural power, in other words an endeavour to compete with God. Having become an ascetic (Zahid), Farid to some extent violated the principles of his Silsila. The albeit apocryphal and fabricated malfat which describe not so much his spiritual perfection as his physical self-tortures mean that those Sufis were right who considered that asceticism attracts the unnecessary attention of the ‘simple folk’ to the feats of the body to the detriment of spiritual feats.

Thus, Gulzar-i abrar and Jawahir-i farıdı are full of stories about what exactly Shaikh Farid fed on, because in the course of many years he ate practically nothing. One of the main relics of the dargh in Pakpattan was the wooden pancake (qurș-i chobın), a flat round board with gnawed edges which, according to the tradition, the saint used to nibble when torments of hunger became intolerable. Indirect confirmation of the fact that this relic is not a latter-day invention is to be found in Farid’s own poetry:

Pharıd roti merı katha ki, lavañu merı bhukkha

jinnhan khadhi coparı, ghañe sahanhige dukkha


My bread is made of wood, and hunger is my salt, those eating buttered bread will suffer pain’s assault. (Shackle 1993: 270)

For the famous nickname Ganj-i shakar (Treasury of sugar) the saint is also indebted to the peculiarities of his ‘diet’. In order to alleviate hunger during prolonged fasts, he used to stuff his mouth with pebbles, which immediately turned into lumps of roasted sugar.

At first Farid considered this miracle to be Satan’s trick, but Qutbuddin reassured him, quoting a verse from Sana’i:

Sang dar dast-i tu gohar garda

Zehr dar kam-i tu shakar garda


A stone turns into a pearl in your hand, The poison becomes sugar in your mouth. (Amir Khurd 1978: 67)

For that matter, even Qutbuddin, we may recall, is indebted for his nickname to a miracle connected with food-stuffs or rather with their absence. ‘Stale bread’ (kak) and ‘sugar’ (shakar), which brought fame respectively to him and his disciple, are miracles of the same origin: these are the gustatory hallucinations of a starving man. Once the conversation has turned on Shaikh Farid’s ration it should be noted that hagiographic literature has recorded it for us in full: the saint lived mainly on a soup made of the wild fruits of thorny bushes called delah, which his disciples used to gather for him. When Nizamuddin Awliya happened to be on duty in the kitchen he endeavoured to flavour this broth with a pinch of salt borrowed from others, which, as with incurring any other debts, was strictly forbidden to the murıds.9 But the harmless deception could not escape the notice of the omniscient saint, and the soup flavoured with the ‘iniquitous’ salt was thrown away.

Farid used to subject himself to the most difficult form of fast, șaum-i D’udı, taking food one day and fasting the next day. On meat days in the evenings, at the time of ifţar, he permitted himself to drink a cup of sherbet and eat a piece of oat bun with clarified butter (ghee), ignoring his own prediction about the troubles which await those who eat bread with butter. Going by rural yardsticks, these tasty delicacies were taken from the zanbıl, the container made from a dried hollow gourd which the murıds used to take from house to house in the neighbourhood, asking for alms. Shaikh Farid preferred donations in kind instead of money and apparently this is why in the Khanqahs the difficulties involving salt occurred because salt had to be bought for money.

Still more difficult than șaum-i D’udı was the chillah, a forty-day fast in complete seclusion. Farid requested his Murshid to bless him for this asceticism a number of times, but was refused. Later, apparently, having decided to teach his stubborn disciple a lesson, Qutbuddin suggested that he should perform chillah-i ma‘kus, i.e. an inverted chilla.

In the fraternity of Chishtis such an ascetic practice was not popular; Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dihli, on being asked whether chillah-i ma‘kus was lawful, had replied that he had not come across it in the books of Shariat - dar kutub-i ‘ilm-i .ahir naddam (Nizami 1955: 25). This is exactly why certain Indian scholars saw in Shaikh Farid’s asceticism the prevailing influence of Indian Yogi practice.

However, Sufi sources, including Faw’id al-fu’ad,10 asserted that even the old man from Mayhana, Abu Sa‘id b. Abul Khair (into whose tomb the miraculous pigeon used to fly) performed at the end of the tenth century șalat-i ma‘kus, i.e. prayer, head foremost. In the eighteenth century Shah Waliullah referred to this practice in connection with Chishtiyya fraternity: ‘And there is a namaz among the Chishtis, known as șalat-i ma‘kus. We could not find any authority for it in the Traditions of the Prophet or in the sayings of the jurists. We therefore did not discuss it at all. Its legality or otherwise is known to God alone’ (Nizami 1953: 145).

Obligatory conditions for performance of chillah-i ma‘kus were a mosque, a well and a tree by its side. The ascetic tied a length of rope to a branch of the tree and attached the other end to his leg. He then dived head downwards into the well. Thus, suspended in total darkness, he used to spend forty days and nights, without taking food and water. From time to time he was pulled outside (for which purpose some assistant’s services were required), so that he could offer prayers in the mosque. It is not known whether Farid managed to find favourable conditions for his ascetic feats in Delhi, but rumours to the effect that he was preparing to subject himself to inverted fast evoked morbid excitement amongst visitors to the khanqah in Mehrauli. This too apparently influenced Farid’s decision to leave the capital and to look for a more secluded place.

Qutbuddin reluctantly and with tears let go his favourite murıd, having appointed him his successor and bequeathing to him a complete set of spiritual regalia, including sajjada (prayer carpet), khirqa, dastar (turban), na‘lain-i chobı¯n (wooden sandals) and ‘așa (staff), on which, instead of a pillow, Farid always rested his head.11

Having left Delhi the saint moved to his native land Punjab. At first he stopped in a small town, Hansi, where he lived in the house of one of his first disciples, Jamaluddin Hansawi. It was here that his second fateful meeting in a mosque took place, this time with the anti-hero of medieval Muslim historiography, Nur-i Turk, who had in the year 1236 placed himself at the head of the insurrection of the Carmatians in Delhi.

Surrounded by a crowd of his henchmen, Nur-i Turk, took notice of Farid, as always clothed in rags, and respectfully bowed low before him.12 During Shaikh Farid’s long life a number of people, some even more powerful than Nur-i Turk, had bowed before him, but in his old age the saint used to recollect exactly the rebel’s bow.13

From Hansi the saint moved to Ucch, where, near the deserted mosque of Masjid-i Hajj, and with the help of a mu’adhdhin, he at last realized his cherished dream and undertook chillah-i ma‘kus for forty nights. Before dawn the mu’adhdhin, holding the rope, used to pull him out of the well, so that the saint could perform his ablutions (wud’) and offer morning prayers (namaz-i șubh) standing on the ground.

It is not known how long this ascetic impulse continued: in Jawahir-i farıdı ‘Ali Asghar, with his inclination for fantastic hyperbole, asserts that Farid performed the inverted fast over a period of ten years. For that matter, according to his calculations, the saint lived for more than hundred and twenty years. In any case Shaikh Farid’s chillah-i ma‘kus firmly went down in Chishtiyya tradition, and stories about it evoked the admiration of the audience for a long time to come. In the fifteenth century Muhammad Gesudaraz’s disciples wondered why blood did not flow and food was not ejected from the eyes and mouth of the saint who had spent so much time suspended upside down. To which Gesudaraz reasonably replied that in the body of the saint, which had withered up almost to the state of a skeleton, there was no longer any such substance left which could flow out (Husaini n.d.: 231).

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:


Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries --- Part 1

Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries - Part 2

Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part - 3

Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part – 4

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