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Muslim Saints Of South Asia: The Eleventh To Fifteenth Centuries Part – 18



By Anna Suvrova

The Peacemaker of Delhi

It is difficult to name a socio-cultural sphere on which Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1242-1325) might not have exerted ennobling influence, whether it is religion, politics, education, literature, music or, above all, the style of human relations. It is not only the eminent hagiographers, Amir Hasan Sijzi, Amir Khurd, Hamid Qualandar, ‘Abdul Haqq Muhaddith Dihlawi, Dara Shikoh and others1 who have written accounts of Nizamuddin Auliya’s life; most of the historians of the Delhi Sultanate have also written profusely about him.

The eminent historiographer Zia’uddin Barani stands testimony in Trıkh-i Fırozshahı (‘Chronicles of Firoz Shah’) to the saint’s all-pervading influence on the society contemporary to him:

Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din had opened wide the doors of his discipleship ... and admitted (all sorts of people into his discipline) nobles and plebeians, rich and poor, learned and illiterate, citizens and villagers, soldiers and warriors, freemen and slaves and these people refrained from many improper things, because they considered themselves disciples of the Shaikh; if any of them committed a sin, he confessed it and vowed allegiance anew. The general public showed an inclination to religion and prayer; men and women, young and old, shop-keepers and servants, children and slaves, all came to say their prayers ... Many platforms with thatched roofs over them were constructed on the way from the city to Ghiyathpur;2 wells were dug, water-vessels were kept, carpets were spread, and a servant and a hafiz was stationed at every platform so that people going to the Shaikh may have no difficulty in saying their supererogatory prayers ...

Owing to the influence of the Shaikh, most of the Mussalmans of this country took an inclination to mysticism, prayers and aloofness from the world and came to have a faith in the Shaikh. This faith was shared by ‘Alauddin and his family. The hearts of men having become virtuous by good deeds, the very name of wine, gambling and other forbidden things never came to any one’s lips .. . Out of regard for one another the Mussalmans refrained from open usury and regretting (ihtikar), while the shop-keepers, from fear, gave up speaking lies, using false weights and deceiving the ignorant ... In short God had created the Shaikh as a peer of Shaikh Junaid and Shaikh Bayazid in these later days and adorned him with that divine love which cannot be understood by human wisdom. The virtues of a Shaikh - and the art of leading men (in the mystic path) found their fulfilment and their final consummation in him.

Z-ın fan matalab namı

Kan khatm shodast bar-i Nizami

Do not try to obtain eminence in this art for it has come to an end with Nizami. (Nizami 1955: 75-7)

Even making allowance for exaggeration, characteristic of medieval historians, it is obvious that Nizamuddin Auliya played a unique role in Delhi around the end of thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth centuries. Thus, when in the year 1299 the army of Mongols under Qutlug Khoja’s command came up to the wall of the capital, its inhabitants rushed to Ghiyathpur to seek protection in Shaikh Nizamuddin’s Khanqah, so great was their faith in the saint’s omnipotence. Following the doctrine of his order, Nizamuddin Auliya spent his entire life in intentional and voluntary poverty. However, the situation in Ghiyathpur, located close to the capital, was very different to the conditions in out-of-the-way Ajodhan: although Baba Farid’s Murıds were short of money even for salt, futuh (unasked offerings) came in an endless stream to the cloisters of the saint of Delhi, and was used by Shaikh Nizamuddin wholly on the establishment of schools and hospitals for the poor and on assistance to those who had lost all their possessions in a fire or to peasants affected by drought.

The Shaikh explained his philanthropic activities purely on religious grounds: There are two forms of devotion. One is mandatory (lazim), the other is supererogatory (muta‘addı).3

Mandatory devotion is that from which the benefit is limited to one person, that is, to the performer of that devotion, whether it be canonical prayers, fasting, pilgrimage to Arabia, invocations, repetitions of the rosary, or the like. But supererogatory devotion is that which brings benefit and comfort to others, whether through the expenditure of money or demonstration of compassion or other ways of helping one’s fellow man. Such actions are called supererogatory devotion. Their reward is incalculable; it is limitless.(Amir Hasan 1992: 95)

By nature Shaikh Nizamuddin was endowed with a gentle and pliant disposition alien to vanity and arrogance, possessed the healthy temperament of a sanguine person, a majestic appearance and, finally, innate artistry, which to a large extent was the secret of his all-conquering charisma. The feats of asceticism performed by Baba Farid left him indifferent, although, in contrast to his Murshid, he observed celibacy till the end of his days. Probably, this required self-abnegation of a high degree, because Nizamuddin was remarkably handsome: tall, slender, light-complexioned, with beautiful curly hair (which led Baba Farid to exempt him from having his head shaved, obligatory during the ritual of initiation). In spite of his celibacy he was not indifferent to women’s virtues, and treated women of his immediate environment with touching tenderness and chivalry. The Shaikh used to say:

Renouncing worldliness (tark-i dunya) does not mean, for instance, that one becomes naked, wearing only a loin cloth and sitting (in solitude). Renouncing worldliness means, instead, to wear clothes and to take food while at the same time keeping in continuous use whatever comes to hand, feeling no inclination to hoard and no attachment to material objects. That [disposition alone] is tantamount to renouncing worldliness. (Amir Hasan 1992: 88-9)

Nizamuddin preached that there is no necessity whatsoever for asceticism and mortification of the flesh, if a man concentrates only upon God, and makes use of worldly goods without any personal interest, but only for sustenance of life or the fulfilment of duty (for example, duty to one’s family) as enjoined by religion.4 Possession of private property, high social status and success in life, in the opinion of the saint, only consolidate a man’s links with the material world, whereas he should live without too much baggage, i.e. he should manage with the minimum, and should make a donation of the surplus to the needy. With respect to earthly blessings and, in the first place, to wealth and worldly fame, the Shaikh divided mankind into three categories: first, those who thirst for these blessings and spend all their days in their pursuit; second, those who reject all mundane comforts and consider the world itself to be hostile; and, finally, the most worthy of the lot, those who display neither hostility nor attachment to this world.

In other words, Nizamuddin stood on the Path which would be regarded as ‘middle’ in all respects. He himself, of course, belonged to the last category, never running after fortune but also not condemning this aspiration among others. Thus, to the puzzling question of a former schoolmate, who had become a successful Quazi, as to how he, i.e. Nizamuddin, who was studying so hard to become a Faqıh, did not feel ashamed to wear patched up cast-off clothes, the saint replied with calm dignity:

Na hamrahıtu marrah-i khesh gır birau

Tora sa‘dat bada marnigunsarı


Our ways are different, be off and follow your path. Let success fall to your lot, and failure - to mine. (Amir Khurd 1978: 239)

The Shaikh developed the Chishti concept of non-violence into a doctrine of socio-religious tolerance and pacifism. He refused to extend moral support to the policy of the expansion of the Delhi Sultans, which turned out to be the actual cause of his conflict with the authorities. When the Shaikh’s associates Amir Khusro, Amir Hasan Sijzi and Ziauddin Barani, who were in court service, compiled chronicles and wrote odes eulogizing the military victories of the Sultans, he avoided their direct criticism, but in his usual manner of allegorical admonition used to reiterate: ‘If someone puts a thorn [in your path] and you put a thorn [in his], there are thorns everywhere’ (Amir Hasan 1992: 180).

 The exhortation, so familiar to us from Christian teaching, to love our enemy permeates the entire malfat of the saint. He used to say: ‘It is like this among men that you are straight with those who are straight with you and crooked to those who are crooked.

But among dervishes, it is like this, that you are straight with those who are straight with you, and with the crooked, you are also straight!’ (Amir Hasan 1992: 181).  Shaikh Nizamuddin linked the inclination for violence and revenge with man’s bestial self (nafs), and peaceful disposition and tolerance with his spiritual heart (qalb). If people or nations who happen to be under the influence of nafs run into each other, endless strife is inevitable. However, if the corroding action of nafs is met with the neutralizing counteraction of qalb, then enmity dies out, like acid neutralized by alkali. According to Nizamuddin forgiveness is spir-itual sublimation, expulsion of all dark passions and unregulated emotions. ‘If there be trouble between two persons, one of them should seize the initiative and cleanse himself of ill thoughts toward the other. When his inner self is emptied of enmity, inevitably that trouble between him and the other will lessen’ (Amir Hasan 1992: 191)

Like his predecessors in the fraternity, Nizamuddin‘s relations with the high and mighty of this world were strained, but they were spoiled once and for all after the accession of Ghiyathuddin Tughlaq (1320-5) to the throne. The problem was that the preceding Sultan, Nasiruddin Khusro (the same Khusro Khan Barwar, a low-caste Hindu converted to Islam, who had usurped the throne as a result of a coup, and who ruled for less than a year), had sent 500 thousand tank to the Shaikh as futuh, which were accepted by him and distributed to the last coin for charitable purposes. The new Sultan, however, declared all the financial operations of the usurper to be illegal and demanded of the Shaikh a return of the money into the treasury.

The saint replied to this with a firm refusal, declaring that in a Muslim state treasury belonged to the faithful: money was taken from them and was returned to them. Unable to bring influence to bear upon the Shaikh by force, the Sultan manipulated displeasure of a section of the ‘Ulema against him, who on pretext of the age-old problem of permissibility of Sama ‘, convened a religious assembly Mazhar and tried to turn it into a court for trial of the Shaikh.

 In the maz.har Nizamuddin quoted a Hadith in his defence, however, the qadı, Ruknuddin Walwalji who was hostile to him, interrupted him declaring that the Shaikh was not a Mujtahid, i.e. a theologian having the right to decide questions of faith independently and so could not cite Hadiths as an argument. Although the ma. Har came to an end with the failure of the party hostile to the Shaikh; the latter nonetheless felt deeply offended, mainly, by the disrespectful attitude of the ’Ulema towards the Prophet’s Sunna.

And it was then that in a state of mind far removed from gentle mildness, he predicted terrible ordeals and devastation for Delhi. As is generally known, this prophecy did not take long to come true during the reign of

Ghiyathuddin’s son, known to us as Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The most well-known prediction of the Shaikh made in connection with the conflict between him and Ghiyathuddin Tughlaq had an equally dismal consequence. The latter, having failed to defeat the Shaikh by manipulating the ‘Ulema, decided to exile him from the capital. Setting off to Lakhnauti on a military expedition, he issued a Farman, according to which eighty-years-old Nizamuddin was directed to leave Delhi by the time the Sultan returned there.

It was then that the saint uttered the famous phrase which became a popular saying: ‘It is still far away to Delhi’ (Hanz Dillıdur ast).5 Really, the Sultan’s return journey to the capital ended in disaster -in Afghanpur the pavilion, erected in a hurry for the court reception, collapsed upon him. Ghiyathuddin was brought to Delhi in an unconscious condition, where he soon after died. It has to be said that modern scholars regard this episode of the saint’s life as merely a legend, considering that nurturing such an evil intent, even if so indirectly expressed, was absolutely not in keeping with his nature.

Once the conversation has turned to the saint’s relations with the state, then their contradictions and inconsistency also have to be noted. He invariably rejected the donations of the legitimate Sultan, Jalaluddin Tughlaq, whereas for some reason accepted futuh from the time-server and usurper Nasiruddin Khusro. Sultan ‘Ala’uddin Khalji (1296-1316), who had done a lot for the consolidation of Islam, turned Ghiyathpur into a thriving suburb of the capital, since he sincerely believed in Nizamuddin’s sainthood and tried his best to win his favour. In doing so he ran across the saint’s stubborn resistance. The Shaikh did not even open ‘Ala’uddin’s letter, handed over to him by prince Khizir Khan, telling him that the Sultan should be informed that:

We dervishes have nothing to do with matters of state. I have taken up residence as far away as possible from the townsfolk and spend all the time praying for the Sultan and the faithful. If it is not to the Sultan’s liking, let him just tell me. I will go away and take up residence somewhere else. There is enough room in God’s world. (Amir Khurd 1978: 167)

At the same time Nizamuddin consented to accept two of the Sultan’s sons - Shadi Khan and Khizir Khan - as his murıds (the latter even became his favourite). In honour of the initiation of the princes the Sultan held a luxurious reception in the Khanqah and showered gifts upon the dervishes, which were graciously accepted. ‘Ala’uddin’s successor, Qutbuddin Mubarak Shah Khalji (1316-20), who won the battle for the throne, harboured inimical feelings towards the Shaikh because of the support rendered by him to his brother, Khizr Khan.6 Mubarak Shah used to speak sharply against the saint in darbar, and even tried to send hired assassins to him. He promised a reward to whoever brought him the Shaikh’s head, and forbade his courtiers to visit Ghiyathpur. But Nizamuddin’s fame had created a peculiar immunity for him, and the courtiers, apparently, did not take much notice of the ban imposed by the depraved and cruel ruler.7

Contemporaries’ privy to Nizamuddin Auliya’s predictions could claim that the Sultan’s ignominious death had been foretold. We also know of the following story from Barani’s chronicles. Mubarak Shah built a palace mosque Masjid-i Miri and ordered that all the ‘Ulema and Sufi Shaikhs of the capital should present themselves there for the weekly ongregational prayers. Nizamuddin ignored the Sultan’s order, justifying his refusal by the argument that on Fridays all the poor of Delhi gathered together in his Ghiyathpur mosque, and they needed him as imam more than the Sultan, who, even without him, had at his disposal many ‘ulama and Sufis.

For one of the prayer assemblies in the Sultan’s mosque the Shaikh sent his trusted servant Iqubal, thereby infuriating Mubarak Shah still more. He threatened Nizamuddin with punishment if he did not present himself for the Friday prayers (șala¯t al-jum‘a) on the first day of the next month. In response to this threat the Shaikh is supposed to have dejectedly observed that a dismal end awaits the person who wants to deprive the faithful of their leader at a prayer meeting. And, it is true, the Sultan did not live to see the first day of the next month - the day before, he was killed by his favourite Khusrow Khan Barwar.

Nizamuddin Auliya also made quite a few happy predictions, which promised success and prosperity. Thus, for example, he predicted to an unpretentious officer of the Sultan’s army, Hasan Gangu, that he would be the founder of a new, powerful state, and, having given him a breadcrumb pressed on one of his fingers, told him to take care of it as the banner of his future Sultanate (Nizami 1992: 38).

And so it happened that after the Shaikh’s death, in 1347, as a result of the revolt of the military aristocracy against the Tughlaq dynasty, the Bahmani kingdom was established in the Deccan, of which Hasan Gangu, who ruled under the title of ‘Ala’uddin Hasan Bahman Shah, became the first Sultan. Till the end of his life he looked upon his undreamed success as a gift from the saint, and, being a grateful man, showered the centres of Chishtis in Deccan with money and privileges. After the coronation he distributed four hundred pounds of gold and a thousand pounds of silver in charity in the name of Nizamuddin (Sherwani 1953: 56).

The dramatic ups and downs of the relationship with the Delhi Sultans should be ascribed not so much to some individual characteristics of the Shaikh’s nature, as to the lack of coincidence of Islamic theory with the practice of the authorities. Most of the rulers, being servicemen, pragmatic and spiritually not enlightened, did not correspond to the the theocratic ideal of a pious and just sovereign, whom Nizamuddin and his brothers would have liked to see on the throne. The Sultans primarily considered those things which were deemed external (.ahir): expansion of the state’s territories, of its protection from enemies and of maintaining social stability by strict military and political measures. Internal (ba¯ţin), moral and religious, questions were of interest to them only to the extent necessary for ensuring legitimacy of their rule. Generally speaking, under the conditions prevailing in the Delhi Sultanate it was almost impossible to pursue a consistent religious policy in the course of a single reign. The ideological vice sometimes unjustifiably contracted its jaws and sometimes, all of a sudden and just as arbitrarily, loosened its grip. The measure of religious rigidity depended on the stability of the Sultan’s position on the throne, on his expansionist ambitions, military successes or defeats or simply on his mood.

The Sultans of Delhi failed even to fully realize the official conception of dınpanahı,8 or the defence of faith, not to mention the more flexible doctrine which took into account the interests of the Hindu majority and which the rulers of regional Muslim principalities were able to work out after the decline of the Sultanate. It is only natural that the Sufis could not expect anything from such an authority, whose arbitrariness could not be brought under control by any laws of the Sharı ‘at: in the first instance this authority prevented the realization of their conception of social welfare, and also hampered the social work which generations of spiritual preceptors were carrying out amidst the people. That is why many mystics, including the Chishti Shaikhs, deliberately refused to collaborate with the state - an attitude which at times seems to be biased or unpatriotic.

In contrast to his predecessors in the fraternity, Shaikh Qutbuddin and Baba Farid, who discontinued systematic religious education as soon as they took to the Path, Nizamuddin Auliya continued to study Fiqh and ‘ilm al-Hadith even when he was already a mystic. By all the standards of his time he could be regarded as a real scholar and intellectual. In the religious circles of Delhi he was valued as an erudite Muhaddith and a brilliant polemicist, having the reputation of a ‘destroyer of assemblies’ (Mahfil Shikan). Alas, at a mature age he was unable to give evidence of this latter talent, because Chishti ethics forbade participation in religious and philosophical discussions.

Throughout his life Nizamuddin was an ardent bookworm. He never parted with his vast library, which was a matter of particular pride for his Khanqah in Ghiyathpur. Side by side with ‘authentically passed on books’ (kutub. hirat ar-riwaya) of Hanafi creed and vast Sufi literature, there were in this library not a few dıwans of Arab and Persian poets and several manuscripts of the saint’s favourite book, Maqmat of al-Hariri. Since the daily routine in Nizamuddin’s Khanqah is known in detail thanks to Amir Hasan and Amir Khurd, it is evident that even at an advanced age the saint used to spend all the night through in reading. Fortunately even to old age he had preserved good eyesight, making it possible for him to decipher manuscripts by the light of a single candle, and, unfortunately, throughout his life he was a martyr to insomnia. Red and inflamed from night vigils, his eyes were the only detail which spoiled the Shaikh’s beautiful features.

Nizamuddin began studying Fiqh and the science of Hadith in his native Badaun (now Uttar Pradesh), where he spent the first eighteen years of his life. Badaun had the reputation of a town of ‘ulam – Sultan Iltutmish had established here one of the well-known madrasas, almost as good as the one in the capital. Here were born Raziuddin as-Saghani, compiler of Mashriq al-anwar,9 the most authoritative of the medieval South Asian collection of Hadiths, Amir Hasan Sijzi, the outstanding historian ‘Abdul Quadir Badauni and many other celebrities. Nizamuddin often remembered his native town and in his speech used the dialect Purb, common in Badaun (the eastern dialect of Hindawı). He even used to playfully assert that the vows made by him to God were expressed in Purbı verses.

Many Central Asian Sufis, members of Silsila-i Khwajgan (predecessors of the Naqshbandiyya fraternity), had long since settled in Badaun. Both the grandfathers of the saint, natives of Bukhara, and also his father, Khwaja Ahmad, were associated with this order. 

The saint’s real name was Muhammad, but he became known to his contemporaries and descendants by his family name Nizamuddin, to which his disciples and devotees added the grammatically odd nickname Auliya, i.e. ‘saints’.10 Nizamuddin’s father died when he was still an infant, and the boy’s upbringing passed completely into the hands of his mother, Bibi Zulaikha. Just as in Baba Farid’s biography, so it was in his disciple’s life that is an important role in the first initiation of the future saint to the emotional and internalized perception of faith fell to the lot of the mother.

If Qarsum Bibi, as we will recall, brought up Farid in truly Spartan spirit, without sentiments, Bibi Zulaikha represented a mother’s image which is more comprehensible to us: loving, thoughtful and infinitely self-sacrificing. All the vital intentions of this woman were governed by maternal instinct: thus, being pregnant with Nizamuddin she had a prophetic dream, where a voice from the heavens told her to choose between husband and unborn son, since one of them was fated to die. Bibi Zulaikha unhesitatingly chose the son and the lot of a widow, which, to tell the truth, is unusual for a South Asian wife, who, being a Muslim, is not forbidden by faith to remarry. After all, the husband is the master and the ruler, and she could give birth to some more sons. But the choice was made, and Khwaja Ahmad passed away soon after the son’s birth.

Acquiring the child in exchange for so heavy a sacrifice, Bibi Zulaikha literally trembled over him and dreamt only of her son getting an adequate education and becoming a qadı. That is why when Nizamuddin gave expression to his desire to study in the capital, where education was better but life was costlier; she without a moment’s hesitation sold all of her property in Badaun in order to give him the opportunity. Since Nizamuddin did not acquire his own family, his mother lived with him till her very demise, which, undoubtedly, determined the special emotional closeness between them.

Deprived of the breadwinner and torn from its native roots, the family (Nizamuddin also had an elder sister) lived in awful poverty in Delhi; however, such a biblical poverty is commonplace in the lives of all the great Chishti Shaikhs. However, the attitude to this poverty was special, even reverential, since the absence of any means of subsistence made it possible for a pious man to give evidence of Tawakul - complete trust in God. Later Nizamuddin recalled:

My mother and other relatives starved together with me. Once we did not have anything to eat for three whole days, when a man with a tureen of porridge rice and split pulse (Khichraı) knocked at the door. Nothing seemed to me to be so delicious as this Khichra, which appeared before me as if by some miracle. ‘Today we are God’s guests’, my mother used to say every time when there was no food left in the house. From these words an inexplicable delight used to fill my heart, and I always wished to hear these words. If in our house there was shortage of food for several days, I used to wait impatiently when my mother will again utter this phrase. (Amir Khurd 1978: 113)

It is obvious that the saint got from his mother the lessons of emotion-ally joyful resignation to God’s will in those circumstances when an ordinary mortal would have grumbled. In spite of the fact that the weekly income of the family was three jitals (going by the market prices of those times just a few buns could be purchased for one jital), Bibi Zulaikha contrived to engage the most brilliant teachers for her son. Later he used to say that he was lucky enough to have the best spiritual preceptor (Murshid) and the best teacher (mudarris) of the epoch. And if the first one is undoubtedly Shaikh Farid, behind the figure of the second one was hiding the modest teacher from Badaun, Maulana ‘Ala’uddin Usuli, the man of sense and erudition, under whose supervision the future saint not only mastered the basic manuals on Hanafi law, al-Quduri’s Mukhtas¸ar and al-Marghinani’s Hidayat al-mubtadi’, but also comprehended the general laws of intellectual knowledge and theological discourse.

While a student who might hope to become a qd. ı paid more attention to fiqh, the Sufis largely promoted the study of Hadith. In Delhi at various time Nizamuddin had a number of teachers, but he was most deeply influenced by Maulana Kamaluddin Zahid, with whom he learnt Mashriq al-Anwar by heart. It is interesting that the ijaza, the certificate given by Maulana Zahid to his pupil and bearing witness to his high qualification as Muhaddith, is dated 1280. If copyists have not made a mistake as to the date, it turns out that the Shaikh continued his studies for several years after becoming the head of a major fraternity and the most authoritative Sufi of Delhi. It should be noted that additional value to this certificate was imparted by the fact that Maulana Zahid happened to be a pupil of Maulana As‘ad al-Balkhi, a pupil of Raziuddin as-Saghani, the author of Mashriq al-Anwar, so that getting the ijaza from him could be considered prestigious even for a mature theologian. Nizamuddin retained interest in the science of Hadith throughout his life; in his Khanqah he often organized meetings, in which he retold and interpreted the Prophet’s Hadiths to the visitors.

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

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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