By Maria Sartaj
Long after Shams of Tabriz had left his company, Rumi, the 13th century Sufi master from Konya, consistently pined for his Deedar (sight). One can almost imagine him longing for his companion, burning up the midnight oil, whilst writing the following verse: lovers do not finally meet somewhere; they are in each other all along. Today, a lover is a person one becomes romantically entangled with but in the olden days and especially in the context of Sufi poetry, a lover was anyone you sought with your soul. The entity the heart sets itself on fire to be united with. It is mostly God, or one who shows the path leading to God, and sometimes it can even be the person that sets us free from the unseen burden on our shoulders. The human heart consistently seeks a genuine friend: it is friendship that forms the foundation of any solid relationship.
Around the same time, far away from Turkey in a Delhi ruled by Sultans, was a young boy sitting outside the Khanqah (abode) of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia. Showing a spiritual inclination early on, the parents of Khusro had brought him to the gates of Nizamuddin for tutelage. However, young Khusro refused to enter the inner chamber where Nizamuddin sat along with his other students. Khusro was in a mood to test the revered mystic’s powers. Ameer Khusro, who would later go on to be credited as a pioneer in Hindustani classical music and even with the invention of the Tabla, wrote a quatrain on a piece of paper while sitting outside in the courtyard, but did not send it inside. The contents of which said: “This poor boy has come to your door, shall he enter or return?” In a few moments, a slip arrived from the Aastana (room) of Nizamuddin with the message: “Do come in, dear soul, so that you and I can become trusted friends.” Telepathy? Perhaps. Or maybe the beginning of a lifelong companionship and devotion between the two men, where two spirits mingled into one without thinking of benefits.
Khusro went on to become Nizamuddin favourite disciple and aide; he was also a merchant as but spent many a night composing songs about his Pir’s aura and humanitarian efforts. Savour the following lyrics from Mann Qibla Raast, his Persian couplet often sung in Qawwalis, which essentially said: “Every people has a road, a religion, a place of worship/My Qibla is towards the crooked cap of Nizamuddin.” Such was the indelible bond between them. Today, those words would be considered blasphemous, and Ameer Khusro would have been threatened with fatal consequences by our narrow-minded mullahs had he lived in Pakistan.
On the other hand, Rumi had been a renowned scholar, sticking mostly to prescribed Islamic tenets, with a stainless reputation and hailed from a scholarly family. Life had been a fairly easy ride for him until Shams happened to him. Some say Shams was a weaver of baskets who travelled from place to place, often testing the spiritual patience of its inhabitants and running into trouble with orthodox Islamic scholars. Shams was a notorious heretic, who after turning a sexagenarian, had a dream about meeting his match in divinity. Someone he could share his knowledge with, who would take the work forward; Rumi would eventually become his spiritual Waaris (inheritor), friend and an equal.
After their initial encounter Rumi was so taken up by Shams’ magnificence that they locked themselves up in a corner of Rumi’s house for 40 days, stepping out only rarely to savour some pieces of bread and milk while endlessly discussing God and His luminance. The western world mostly knows Rumi as a poet but this aspect of him crystallised only after Shams came into his life, and whirled him out of his comfort zone, opening his inner eye to look at the Batin (hidden) meaning of God’s words, overlooking its literal sense.
The people of the town started speaking ill of Rumi, “What is a man of his stature doing with that crazy dervish Shams?” they muttered. The gossip had no effect on Rumi’s association with his spiritual master; real Sufis have always disregarded the dominant narrative. By their belief they are compelled to judge a person only by his or her character and not reputation, which is a transitory thing anyway.
In Delhi, the kitchens of Nizamuddin Basti (locality) were open to all; fresh Langar (feast) was prepared daily to feed the hungry irrespective of their faith, class or creed. Nizamuddin Aulia along with Ameer Khusro spent most of their daytime fasting, only sitting down to have food in the evenings, but not before inquiring, “Have all the hungry people of my city been fed? I hope not a single person in Delhi goes to bed on an empty stomach.” Khusro went on to join the royal courts as a master composer, a man of letters, but never abandoned serving his master’s mission of giving.
Whether it was Rumi or Ameer Khusro, the 13th century Islamic world was a time perfused with an air of selflessness; the religiously inclined Sufi hearts outperformed each other but in the areas of virtue and sacrifice, slashing their ego to atomic bits with daily practice. Little weight was given to material pursuits; in fact, they were believed to turn a man away from his communion with God and the revelation of secrets.
Sufis denied help from kings, sat with the poor, and often expressed joy after disappointment, when things did not go as per their plan. It was God’s plan: they soothed themselves with this truth. Hundreds of years later, people still take their names together, often in the same breath: Rumi and Shams, Khusro and Nizamuddin. The level of commitment to their beloved was so profound that the association continues even in the afterlife.
In Qawwalis penned by Khusro, his mentor’s name keeps popping up, and when people read Rumi they end up looking for his Shams.
Maria Sartaj is a freelance columnist with a degree in Cultural Studies and a passion for social observation, especially all things South Asian.