By Anna Suvrova
The hermit of Lahore
Everywhere at the places where bare and barren desert was interspersed with a spring, patch of land, a small or big oasis, at that time there lived the hermits, some in total solitude, others in small fraternities, they lived in poverty and in love for the neighbour, devoted to a certain melancholic ars moriendi, a certain art of dying, of withdrawal from the world and one’s own self and transition to Him, to the Saviour, to the radiant and eternal kingdom.
Visited by angels and demons, they composed hymns, drove away the demons, healed, blessed, as if having made up their mind to compensate for earthly delight, rudeness and carnality of many bygone and many future epochs with the powerful upsurge of enthusiasm and with the ecstatic action of renunciation of the world. (Hesse 1945, 1: 387-8)
These words of Hermann Hesse about Christian saints are equally applicable to the South Asian Auliya. One of the most intriguing questions, arising in the course of study of the cult of saints, happens to be: who became a Wali in the mass consciousness of the faithful and why?
The answers to these questions are relatively clear in the case of hermits and ascetics, about whom Hesse has written, and also in the case of heroes and martyrs, to whom wonder-working powers can be easily ascribed. The lives of characters from legend and folklore are by definition fabulous, but it is far more difficult to discern any strict regularity in the canonization of many historical people.
The Shaikh of the Naqshbandiyya fraternity, ‘the renovator of the second millennium’, Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624), for example, possessed unique spiritual energy and had unprecedented influence over his contemporaries as well as on later generations - it would be difficult to name any well-known mystic or even temporal thinker of the subsequent epoch who was not in some way influenced by the concept of wahdat ash-shuhud (‘the unity of witness’) formulated by him.
He had actually set the already mentioned ‘Naqshbandi reaction’, which significantly changed the face of Indian Sufism, in motion. In spite of his particular services to the Muslim community, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, after his demise, never became a public saint, although his tomb in Sirhind enjoyed universal esteem, and Muhammad Iqbal in one of the verses of the collection Bal-i Jibrıl (‘Gabriel’s Wing’) glorified the dust from his tomb, which is usually done only with respect to the saints.1
Another favourite of Iqubal, depicted by him in the poem Javıd Nama (‘Book of Eternity’) - the ruler of Mysore Tipu Sultan (1750-99), the active fighter for faith - who died a martyr’s death -was also not honoured with sainthood. The stormy biography of Tipu Sultan, full of striking heroic events, provided ample opportunity to ascribe miracles and supernatural deeds to him. In a notebook, now preserved in the India Office Library, Tipu used to write down his visions, in which the saints and great poets of the past visited him.
In one such vision he saw caliph ‘Ali, who conveyed the Prophet’s message to him: Muhammad (PBUH) says he will not set foot in paradise without Tipu Sultan (Schimmel 1980: 169)! For anyone else such ‘facts’ in the biography (or autobiography) would have been quite sufficient for malfz t and manaqib, but for some reason this did not happen with Tipu: although he is remembered in folk songs and performances of traditional theatre, nobody reveres him as a saint.
Finally, the halo of sainthood is also somehow missing from the head of Iqubal, the spokesman of Indian Islam in our age (to be fair, he never laid claim to it himself).
His power over the minds of the compatriots and acclamation by the Western elite, his leading role in the historic drama of the formation of Pakistan, his place in the memories of subsequent grateful generations, led to the poet’s mausoleum near the gates of Badshahi Masjid being transformed into one of the main sights of Lahore.
However, all these, as it turned out, are landmarks on the way to worldly (let us concede even world-wide) fame, but not to sainthood. Whereas a certain contemporary of Iqbal, unknown beyond the borders of Punjab, Mihr ‘Ali Shah (1859-1937), a recluse, living a long way from the socio-political storms of those times, is revered as the most outstanding Pakistani saint, and his Dargah Golra Sharif (Islamabad) is a place of mass pilgrimage.2
These examples, in my view, confirm that neither religious services, socially significant work, a heroic death nor martyrdom by themselves ensure man sainthood. A person, possessing great spiritual energy, acquired the fame of a saint only if his deeds were imbued with the radiance of the supernatural. The romance of sainthood was nourished mainly by mythologems and Wanderlegenden, invariably impinging upon the collective imagination.
In other words, an ideal saint is not at all an active hero of his time, a person in the public eye like Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, but rather his modest, and therefore more mysterious, contemporary, who remains in the shadows like, for example, Miyan Mir (1550-1635), one of the guardian saints of Lahore to whom Dara Shikoh has dedicated the hagiographic work Sakın t al-Auliya (‘The Calmness of the Saints’).3
The cause of the transformation of an actually existing person into a saint is closely bound up with how the historical biography correlates with the hagiographic. Usually only the latter, compiled posthumously, is available to us.
Even in those rare instances, when historical chronicles or the saint’s own compositions have preserved for us the authentic facts of his life (most often these are travels, pilgrimages to tombs, meetings with other mystics), it is practically impossible to single out that decisive episode, that abrupt upsurge (or downswing) of his life story, on which the edifice of sainthood was subsequently erected.
Biographies of many Indian saints, had they been authentic, would have seemed to have been inadequate in their lack of significant events: early and prolonged discipleship, initiation into the fraternity, monotonous years of life in the Khanquah, instruction of Murıds (disciples), occasional journeys and, crowning it all, death on the threshold of sainthood.
It is clear that the real destinies of these people were settled not in public, but exclusively in the sphere of spiritual search. The manaqib, presenting these destinies adorned with the garland of striking, wonderful, at times adventurous events, only metaphorically actualize the path of the mystic, full of ordeals and spiritual enlightenment, leading to the cognition of God.
For this very reason biographies of the most outstanding Auliya, like Data Ganjbaksh, Mu‘inuddin Chishti, Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Auliya, Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dilli, and Shah ‘Abdul Latif Bhitai, written by contemporary scholars, come under the category of mixed biographical-hagiographic genre, where scanty facts of history are generously adorned with picturesque material of hagiographic literature.
About one thing there is no doubt, the question of sainthood was finally decided only by death, by union with the Divine Beloved; that is why tradition seldom records the date of birth of a saint, apparently because of its uselessness, but always the exact date of his assumption, which becomes the cult anniversary of his ‘urs.
We have to concede that the decisive factor of transformation of a mystic into a saint was by no means his worldly life, even if full of virtue, great deeds of asceticism and renunciation, but the wonderful gift of baraka, which the disciples and followers, neighbours and members of the community of the saint or some other groups of the social environment began to sense all of a sudden and without any definitive reason.
Hagiographic literature is never tired of narrating the occasions of fortuitous revelation of baraka: on coming across an unknown tomb a passer-by, or a shepherd, or a merchant, travelling in connection with his commercial business, is all of a sudden overcome by spiritual trepidation, followed by spiritual or physical healing. In greater measure this applied to the tombs of unpretentious ‘spontaneous’ saints - vagrant Qualandars, lonely recluses, peculiar malamatıs, in short, to all those not connected with fraternities and in their lifetime not having influential patrons or devoted murıds. The posthumous fame of those who strove for spiritual perfection in the lap of the fraternity was taken care of by the ţarıqa itself, which canonized its Shaikhs even in their lifetime.
As the news spread in the region about the baraka radiating from the tomb, it came to be regarded as a local shrine - inhabitants of the neighbouring villages, or of the nearby Mohalla’s (quarters) of a town, or members of a particular caste and trade community started thronging around the tomb.
The involvement of sultans, members of their families, military leaders, big landowners and other important dignitaries of this world considerably consolidated the status of the saint. The representatives of state authority or simply rich people often reconstructed, enlarged and beautified the tomb, instituted Waqf for its maintenance, awarded lands and money to the saint’s descendants.
Such a fusion of spontaneous lower-class reverence with the recognition of the tomb on the part of the upper strata of society, taking institutional and material form, once and for all consolidated the reputation of sanctity for the tomb.
The unrestrained yearning in the consciousness of the masses for the materialized embodiment of everything having a bearing on faith called into being the images of the saints, at times from absolute obscurity, without any regard whatsoever for logic or rational explanation. As has been already mentioned, wherever faith rests on figurative concepts it is hardly possible to discern any marked difference between the types, degree and, let us add, motivation of sainthood of the elements constituting it.
One candidate for saint-hood became a saint because he was a highly learned person and possessed comprehensive knowledge; another, because he held all kind of knowledge in contempt and was illiterate;4 a third, for meekness and charity; a fourth, for his stern and vindictive disposition; a fifth, owing to his ascetic feats and strict piety; a sixth, because of his deviant and eccentric conduct - the list of these mutually exclusive ‘reasons’ of sainthood, which hardly explain anything, can be continued to any length.
The cult of Auliya grew on the soil of not intellectual but pragmatic Sufism, which, with all the diversity of trends, fraternities and sects, can be reduced to two main schools - sukr (intoxication) and sahw (sobriety). The first school, also called Taifuriyya, is connected with the name, already more than once referred to, of the Persian mystic Bayazid (Abu Yazid) Taifur al-Bistami (died 875).
The ecstatic rapture and intoxication’ with the love of God are typical of his teaching in the first place. He was one of the first to describe the spiritual sensation of complete dissolution of one’s own ego in God, a state that he called fana. Elaboration of the postulates of the second school, Junaidiyya, can be traced back to the person of the Baghdad mystic Abul Qasim Junaid (died 910).
Whilst acknowledging the validity of al-Bistami’s teaching of fana, Junaid considered it to be an inter-mediate stage, because ‘it is incumbent upon a perfect mystic to proceed further, to the state of “sobriety”, in which his personal cognition of God could make out of him a more perfect human being with absolute self-control and composure’ (Islam 1991: 69). Junaid’s teaching was considered to be moderate and was more acceptable to the representatives of normative Islam than was the teaching of Taifuriyya.
One of the earliest South Asian saints, with the long-winded Muslim name Abul Hasan ‘Ali ibn Uthman al-Jullabi al-Hujwiri al-Ghaznavi, whom the faithful call by the nickname Data Ganjbaksh, was the guardian saint of Lahore and belonged to the Junaidiyya school. The cause of the transformation of this scholar, historian and propagator of Sufism into a well-loved popular saint turned out to be his book Kashf al-mahjub (Revelation of the Veiled), whose authority I have already invoked more than once.5
Al-Hujwiri (died between 1072-6) is the author of the first-ever written work in Persian where the history, ideology and practice of Sufism and also brief biographies of seventy-four of the most well-known Sufi Shaikhs are systematically presented.
The book exerted great influence on the entire subsequent hagiographic tradition: references to and borrowings from it are to be found in such famous works as ‘Attar’s Tadhkirat al-Auliya (Memoirs of the Saints) and Jami’s Nafahat al-uns (Whiffs of Friendship). Dara Shikoh, constantly quoting al-Hujwiri in Safınt al-Auliya, gives an appraisal of his predecessor’s work: ‘Among the books on tasawwuf not even one has-been composed so well as the “Revelation of the Veiled”, and no one can raise any objection to it’ (Dara Shikoh 1965: 22).
Information about al-Hujwiri is well known at least from V. A. Zhukovsky’s foreword to the edition of the Persian text of Kashf al-mahjub (al-Hujwiri 1926: 15) and R. Nicholson’s preface to its English translation. I would, therefore, dwell on them only in witness of the fact that one’s biography cannot serve as the basis for sainthood. According to R. Nicholson, al-Hujwiri was born in the last decade of the tenth century or in the first decade of the eleventh century in Ghazna. Dara Shikoh explains the three-tier nisba of the saint - al-Jullabi al-Hujwiri al-Ghaznavi by the fact that Jullab and Hujwir are two regions of the city of Ghazna (Dara Shikoh 1965: 56). A Sunnite of Hanafi Madhab, born to a family known for its piety, he received a traditional Muslim education and at an early age showed the faculty of a religious writer and a vocation for mysticism.
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: