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

Muslim Saints of South Asia: The eleventh to fifteenth centuries


By Anna Suvrova


This book studies the veneration practices and rituals of the Muslim saints. It outlines the principle trends of the main Sufi orders in India, the profiles and teachings of the famous and less well-known saints, and the development of pilgrimage to their tombs in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Ajmer Sharif


A detailed discussion of the interaction of the Hindu mystic tradition and Sufism shows the polarity between the rigidity of the orthodox and the flexibility of the popular Islam in South Asia. Treating the cult of saints as a universal and all pervading phenomenon embracing the life of the region in all its aspects, the analysis includes politics, social and family life, interpersonal relations, gender problems and national psyche.


The author uses a multidimensional approach to the subject: a historical, religious and literary analysis of sources is combined with an anthropological study of the rites and rituals of the veneration of the shrines and the description of the architecture of the tombs.


Anna Suvorova is Head of Department of Asian Literatures at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow.  A recognized scholar in the field of Indo-Islamic culture and liter- ature, she frequently lectures at universities all over the world. She is  the author of several books in Russian and English including The  Poetics of Urdu Dastaan; The Sources of the New Indian Drama;  The Quest for Theatre: the twentieth century drama in India and  Pakistan; Nostalgia for Lucknow and Masnawi: a study of Urdu  romance. She has also translated several books on pre-modern Urdu prose into Russian.



Series Editor: Ian Richard Netton

Professor of Arabic Studies

University of Leeds

The RoutledgeCurzon Sufi Series provides short introductions to a variety principles of the facets of the subject, which are accessible both to the general reader and the student and scholar in the field. Each book will be either a synthesis of existing knowledge or a distinct contribution to, and extension of, knowledge of the particular topic. The two major underlying series are sound scholarship and readability.



The Sufi poetry and teaching of Mahmud Shabistari

Leonard Lewisham


Herbert W. Mason


Mysticism and the rhetoric of sainthood in Persian Sufism

Carl W. Ernst


An early Sufi Master

A. G. Ravan Farhadi


Bernd Radtke and John O’Kane


Mehdi Amin Razavi


An introduction to the mystical use of classical poems

J. T. P. de Bruijn


Lloyd Ridgeon


The defence, rethinking and rejection of Sufism in the modern world

Elizabeth Sirriyeh




An analysis of the al-hikmah al-’arshiyyah

Zailan Moris


The teachings of al-Ghazali and al-Dabbagh

Binyamin Abrahamov


Spiritual exercises for Suhrawardi Sufis

Qamar-ul Huda


Listening and altered states

Kenneth S. Avery


The eleventh to fifteenth centuries

Anna Suvorova





The eleventh to fifteenth centuries Anna Suvorova


First published 1999

By Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow

This edition published 2004

By RoutledgeCurzon

2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada

By RoutledgeCurzon

29 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001

This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005

“To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s  collection of thousands of eBooks please go to”

RoutledgeCurzon is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group

© 2004 Anna Suvorova; English translation M. Osama Faruqi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage  or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

A catalog record for this book has been requested

ISBN 0-203-59271-9 Master e-book ISBN


ISBN 0-203-34445-6 (Adobe e Reader Format)

ISBN 0-415-31764-9 (Print Edition)








Foreword                                                                                                     ix

Acknowledgements                                                                          xii

1      The Indian tomb                                                                 1

2      The hermit of Lahore                                                          35

3      The old man of Ajmer                                                         59

4      The ascetic of Pakpattan                                                     81

5      The peacemaker of Delhi                                                     105

6      The spiritual sovereign of Multan                                          132

7      The warrior saints                                                               155

8      The mendicant saints                                                          178

Epilogue                                                                            199

Notes                                                                                                           204

Glossary                                                                                                      222

Bibliography                                                                                                230

Index                                                                                         237




Christopher Shackle


In many ways the new millennium is indeed a New Age for humanity, a time in which we are all inexorably becoming ever more closely linked with one another. Human nature being what it is, however, the multiplication of increasingly close economic ties and mechanical social connections is a process which too often outruns our capacity to understand and to appreciate the diverse religious and cultural traditions with which we now find ourselves in such immediate contact. To use the fashionable image, the other against which we once were safely able to define ourselves at such a comfortable distance is now a much more immediate presence. Given the instincts all too successfully instilled by the early evolution of mankind, the instant reaction to this situation is to sense the threat of strangers getting too close rather than to perceive the opportunity of getting to know some different new friends and something of from where they come.


Openness is certainly the basic requirement for this process of mutual understanding to take place, and is sorely needed if we are properly to move together into the new world of global co-existence into which we have all so rapidly been thrust. But understanding requires not just openness but also knowledge, as is nowhere more apparent today than in the lethal fog of misunderstandings too often born of closed minds and ignorance which prevents so many from a proper appreciation of the world of Islam. The events of recent years have shown, as never before, the urgent need for informed and sympathetic accounts of the kind which alone can hope to help open hearts as well as minds.


It is just such a window of understanding which is opened through this book by Professor Anna Suvorova, herself a distinguished Russian scholar of Urdu literature and South Asian Muslim culture. In its original version, it was deservedly very well received in Russia, which has its own clear needs for studies of this kind.

It now appears in a somewhat revised version which should do equally well with English readers. Indeed, it might be said with some justification that it now comes before an audience for which it is even more appropriate, given the historic ties between Britain and South Asia and the huge significance of the South Asian Muslim diasporas in Britain and other Western countries today. Her subject is one of absolutely major cultural, religious and historical significance. Collectively, the opulations of Pakistan and Bangladesh, with their overwhelming Muslim majorities, and the very large Muslim minority of India constitute the largest sub-group of Muslims in the world today. Although divided by the modern national boundaries established in the twentieth century, they share a common heritage going back to the substantive foundations of Islam in the Indian subcontinent from the eleventh and twelfth centuries onwards.


At the centre of that common patrimony stand the figures of the great Sufi saints, who played so large a role in bringing Islam to South Asia and in crossing the fundamental religious divides of their day in such a way as to appeal also to the Hindu population, and who through the devotion inspired by their poetry and by their tombs have continued to play so large and inspiring a role in the imaginative world of South Asian Islam down to the present day. It is for this reason that, long after the names of so many famous rulers, out-standing poets and learned theologians who flourished in the centuries of Muslim rule in India have been almost completely forgotten, the titles of Sufi masters like Baba Farid Shakarganj or his disciple Nizamuddin Awliya immediately evoke a living presence.


While there is no shortage of material on the great Sufis of early South Asian Islam, much of it is not always very easily accessible even to those who have a good idea of what they are looking for. One of the many things that Anna Suvorova has done so well in this book is to bring together so much that cannot easily be found together elsewhere. The sheer number of saints, from many different centuries and widely different geographical areas, is itself impressive as is the clarity with which each is characterized. In compiling her fascinating account, Suvorova naturally draws particularly on the best twentieth-century scholarship, as exemplified in the work of Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, Bruce Lawrence, or the late Annemarie Schimmel, all helpfully listed here in the bibliography for those inspired to take their reading further. Useful as this bringing together of the work of others is in itself, the book offers much more.


As befitting an author whose own keen literary sensibility is evident from her passing references to a wide range of authors from Thomas Aquinas to Borges, she makes wonderful use of the large body of poetry and prose associated with the great Sufis, whether as the works of their own pen or the productions of their followers. Most of this literature was written in Persian, the Latin of mediaeval South Asia, and has become generally unfamiliar there today. And yet just how vivid it remains at its best can be seen in the numerous passages which are aptly cited from its supreme masterpiece, Amir Hasan’s memoir of Nizamuddin Awliya, which he called Faw’id al-fu’ad or Morals for the Heart. Readers of the book should be equally appreciative of the several vivid first-hand descriptions of the great shrines which continue to keep the memory of the saints alive today, and which combine a keen artistic eye with sometimes wry but always sympathetic observations on some of the inconveniences and puzzling obstacles which are perhaps inseparable from pilgrimage anywhere.


When all these qualities are allied to Anna Suvorova’s clearly passionate belief in the centrality of her subject to a modern humane understanding of South Asian Islam, the result is a wonderful introduction to a wonderful subject. Its message has never been timely.






First of all let me admit in all frankness that the idea to write The Muslim Saints of South Asia (published in Russian in 1999) was prompted by the works of Professor Christopher Shackle of SOAS, University of London, on provincial Indo-Pakistani Sufism. I read them avidly with a feeling of growing admiration that almost imperceptibly turned into desire to explore the subject from my own viewpoint. At all the stages of the work on this book Professor Shackle generously shared his profound knowledge of Indo-Pakistani Sufi literature with me. Therefore it is a double gratitude that I wish to express to Professor Shackle for the role played by him in the destiny of the book.


I also wish to thank my colleague Dr David Matthews of the Language Centre, SOAS, who was such a well-disposed reader of this book in its Russian original and whose remarks were a great help to me while preparing the English version of the book. My very special thanks go to Mr Muhammad Osama Faruqi of Idara-e-Adabiyat-e-Urdu (Hyderabad), the well-known translator of fiction, the winner of Sahitya Akademi Award who at his own risk translated the book from Russian into English. I am very grateful to my dear friend Professor Vladimir Braginsky of SOAS who invariably supported all my academic pursuits and wrote the first review of the Russian publication for the Bulletin of SOAS.


And finally I extend my thanks to my Russian colleagues: Dr Natalya Chalisova who helped me in reading and transliterating old Persian texts and Ms Mira Salganik who consulted me in everything related to the presentation of the English manuscript to the Publisher.





Everyone who has had the good fortune of travelling through India and Pakistan has been surprised by the abundance of saints’ tombs, which are powerful places of pilgrimage and objects of popular devotion. It sometimes seems that certain regions of the Indian subcontinent - Sind, Punjab, Gujarat, the Deccan - are nothing less than extraordinary sacred necropolises, where someone’s venerated tomb is located almost at each and every step of the way. For example, on the hill of Makli near the town of Thatta in Pakistan, according to popular belief, one hundred and twenty-five thousand saints are buried! The eighteenth-century Sindhi historian Mir ‘Ali Shir Qani, who has dedicated The Book of the Hillock Makli (Maklnama, 1778) to this place, has written: ‘The dust of this hillock is antimony for the eyes of those who have been endowed with insight, and its earth is the seedbed for the grain of the concealed’ (Qani 1967: 11).


Another hillock, Shahpura in the Deccan, where many Sufi mentors (Shaikhs and Syeds) were buried in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, is not unlike the hill of Makli in this respect. Similarly, the towns of Punjab Multan and Ucch, where many celebrated mystics have been laid to rest, have become ‘lands of bliss’, as has the eastern part of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (in former times the territory of the principality of Awadh and Rohilkhand); here as far back as the eleventh century those warriors for faith who became saints in popular perception have found eternal rest.


Muslims were, in the first instance, the social media where the cult of the saints and their tombs developed. The Hindus, who adhere to the practice of cremation and not burial, it seemed, did not have any particular basis for veneration of the saints’ tombs.


But in the course of many centuries of intercourse and living together these two major communities have actively influenced each other, and one of the consequences of such an influence has been the accession of the Hindus to the Islamic cult of saints and to the rites of the veneration of their tombs. Judging by historical sources, everything connected with the relics of the Sufi preceptors, warriors for faith and miracle workers, carried the greatest spiritual authority within the most diverse strata of medieval society, irrespective of social status and religion.

 Dargah Hazrat Nezamuddin Aulia (r a)


Thus, in the year 1747, when the Afghan conqueror Ahmad Shah Abdali invaded India, a minister of the rulers of the Kalhora dynasty, Diwan Gidumal, himself professing Hinduism, met him and presented him with the most precious treasure of Sind - a bag containing dust from the tombs of the local awliya.1

Several graves of Sufi sheikhs on the territory of Punjab also became objects of veneration for the community of Sikhs, among them the tomb of Shaikh Fariduddin (also known as Baba Farid) ranks high. Discourses of this Muslim mystic have found a place in A¯di Granth - the sacred book of the Sikhs. Among the devotees of the tombs of Muslim saints were not only people of other faiths but also marginal groups: horrifying stranglers - thugs, worshipping the cruel goddess Bhavani; the Mevati tribe, whom the English used to call ‘robbers’; transvestites (hjr) and nomadic Gypsies (Banjara).


In other words, it was not at all obligatory to be a pious Muslim in order to participate in the cult of saints. Human life in medieval India, as, for that matter, in any society with a traditional type of culture and a retarded type of conscious-ness, was wholly determined by religious concepts. For a Muslim, in particular, there remained not a single opinion, event or deed in which connection with the Qur’an, the Sunna of the Prophet and Islam as a whole, could not be perceived. Perception of the external world, the macrocosm, and the inner, spiritual world, the microcosm, was exclusively religious, which generated an intensity of faith in all strata of medieval society. The all-embracing imperative of Islam, in particular the dictates of Sharı ‘at, it seemed, did not leave room for secular, religiously neutral spheres in human activity: from birth to death each step of the true believer had to be correlated with the norms and injunctions of faith.


However, even in such an intensively saturated atmosphere of religious devotion, sincere piety and effective transcendence could not be constant and general. Precisely because exceptional plenitude of religious experience and whole-hearted concentration upon questions of faith was strictly enjoined upon the entire population, deviation of an individual person or social group from this universal norm is particularly noticeable.


Many examples from medieval Indian history and culture give an indication of a horrific lack of conformity to the letter and spirit of Islam: heresy, blasphemy and manifest worldliness are all apparent, in spite of the outward show of other-world oriented and pious intentions. The cause of this lack of conformity is not so much the latent process of secularization of consciousness of the medieval Indian, which the supporters of ‘historical progress’ concepts try so hard to discover, as the extra-ordinary heterogeneity, plurality and ‘impurity’ of the spiritual and cultural landscape of the Indian subcontinent.


The advent of Islam in India and its encounter with the local religions, in the first instance with various doctrines of Hinduism, brought about a sharp increase in the number of religious concepts and images, particularly in the popular Islam of the lower social strata. The intermixing and syncretism, and so the impurity and flexibility of all these latter-day creeds, horrified serious Muslim theologians, generally referred to as orthodox. Here it should be remembered that the Christian concepts of ‘orthodoxy’, ‘heresy’, and ‘sectarianism’ do not convey the essence of Islam as a religion and can be used only conditionally.


In Islam there is neither now nor was there earlier any single theological school generally accepted throughout the Muslim world. It has also lacked an institution that legalizes dogmas, like ecumenical councils in Christianity. Elaboration and interpretation of religious tenets were not within the jurisdiction of caliphs or sultans, state or spiritual institutions. ‘Orthodox’ opinion was formed by private persons (‘Ulama), whose authority was based exclusively on their knowledge in the sphere of theology.


Such authorities could be those holding official posts like muftı,qdı, imam, faqıh, and mujtahid, as well as those who were not office-holders, but were nevertheless highly influential philosophers and Sufis. The opinion of such an informal leader and his school, accepted by a Caliph, Sultan or Padishah, became official only over a limited segment of time and space, without being obligatory for the rest of the Muslim world. Hence there is the potential for various interpretations of religious issues, so characteristic of Islam. As far as India is concerned the Sunni Islam of the Hanafi creed (madhab) can be considered (but again quite conditionally) ‘official’ or ‘orthodox’, or rather normative, since that is the creed which was recognized by most of the rulers and spiritual authorities of the Delhi Sultanate and the empire of the Great Mughals.


Deviation from the Sunnism of those of the Hanafi denomination was, however, by no means characterized as heresy (zandaqa). Only those representatives of religious trends and movements posing a threat to the theocratic foundations of the state, such as Isma‘ilis and other extremist Shi‘a sects, Mahdavis (adherents of the self-proclaimed Messiah Mahdi of Jaunpur), Roshanites (followers of the Afghan mystic Bayazid Ansari) and some radical Sufis (such as the proponent of egalitarianism Shah Inayat of Jhok or Shaikh Sarmad Kashani), were proclaimed as kafirs and enemies of the true faith. It is not difficult to appreciate that such ‘heretics’2 posed a greater threat to state power than to the authority of religion.


Thus, the Isma‘ilis, suffering constant persecution on the part of authorities, from time to time stirred up rebellions, or gathered mutinous rabble under their banners. One such action was the rebellion of Carmatians in Delhi under the leadership of Nur-i Turk in 1236. Roshanites made up the main body of armed opposition to the power of the Great Mughals and carried out successful propaganda among the Pashto peaking tribes of the North Eastern Frontier province. Shah Inayat incited Sindhi peasants not to pay taxes and to take land away from the landed gentry, whereas Shaikh Sarmad supported Prince Dara Shikoh against his brother Aurangzeb in the struggle for the Mughal throne.


The role of the initiators of Hindu-Muslim cultural dialogue fell to the lot of Sufi preachers and missionaries of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, who, in order to introduce Islam to the broad masses of the urban population and to be understood better, actively made use of the concepts, images and legends of local religions and cultural traditions. In the course of this proselytizing activity a certain correspondence between the teachings of Islam and the doctrines of advaita Vedanta was established as also between the preaching of Sufis and Hindu mystics like Naths, Sants and Bhaktas.

 Kachhauchha Sharif


Consequently, by the fifteenth century in many regions of the subcontinent a unique cultural syncretism had taken shape, which is known as ‘mixed’, ‘composite’, ‘common’ culture or the culture of  Hindu-Muslim synthesis. Existence of this culture in North India (the region between the Ganges and the Jamna), in Kashmir, Punjab, Sind, Bengal, Gujarat and the Deccan considerably strengthened inter-religious peace and as such was also a source of strength for the social and political unity of such unwieldy imperial formations as the Delhi Sultanate and the empire of the Great Mughals. And although dissemination and protection of true faith was considered to be the duty of Muslim rulers, at a particular stage they supported an active syncretism of Sufi fraternities, as they gave priority to the political unity of the state over religious ‘purity’.

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

Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part – 5

Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part – 6

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Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part – 8

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