The book of Nizamuddin Aulia reveals the life and teachings of the most beloved and revered of medieval Sufi saints. Nizamuddin Aulia was born in 1236, in great poverty. He grew up in a tumultuous world and saw three dynasties and seven sultans wreak havoc over an entire nation in the name of religion. Staying away from the corridors of power, the mystic chose instead to dedicate his life to the Sufi vision of love and spiritual enlightenment and to serving the needs of the poor.
If Muinuddin Chishti introduced Sufism to India, Nizamuddin helped spread his message across the country as the head of the chishti Sufi order. Even today, his shrine in New Delhi, the Nizamuddin Dargah, draws countless devotees and visitors. In this rich, colourful book, Mehru Jaffer tells the story of Nizamuddin Aulia from man to saint, vividly bringing alive the history of the period.
Mehru Jaffeer was born and brought up in Lucknow. She teaches Islam in South Asia at the Webster University and the University of Vienna, Austria. She is the author of The Book of Muhammad and the Book of Muinuddin Chishti. This is her third book.
It makes me very happy to hold The Book of Nizamuddin Aulia by Mehru Jaffer, a female author whose life-long affair with reading and writing is something I admire.
For the last two decades I have been visiting Delhi almost every year. After all Delhi is darul aulia, or the home of Sufis. The city is scattered with the remains of numerous pious people. It is no secret that two kinds of people rule Delhi: one is the politician and the other is the pir. Politicians use power to influence populations while pirs practice and spread love.
While in Delhi, I never leave without praying at the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia because of the ceaseless love that the memory of the fourteen-century sage continues to evoke in human hearts even more than eight centuries after his death.
Every time it is the same story. I walk into the dargah filled with awareness of Nizamuddin and am drawn towards his memory by an invisible string, only to be separated from his tomb by a screen beyond which women are not allowed to venture. What can I say except that it is unfortunate that the screen of ignorance continues to keep human beings torn away from themselves even in this day and age.
The truth is that in the end there is no male or female. There is only the being, in the tradition of a tasawwufi, or Islamic mystic. I feel that it is the natural desire of both women and men to want to get intimate with what they imagine to be their source of existence.
In the eighth century, Rabia Basri, woman and Sufi, wrote that love cannot be differentiated-that speech is born from the longing of all human beings to express that which cannot be explained. It is impossible to describe the beloved when you are one with him. It is impossible to describe the beloved when the beloved is the one in whom you exist and you are the one in whom exists the beloved.
Despite screens, despite veils and the daily creation of countless dualities, this book is proof that good things like love, compassion, devotion to becoming one and wholesome in the spiritual tradition of wahdut al-wajood, or the unity of being, are in no danger of vanishing away from life.
Above all, this book in the English language about the life and times of a fourteenth-century Sufi sage of South Asia is precious because it makes Nizamuddin speak to the whole world.
In her easy-to-read style of writing, Mehru Jaffer assures us with this biography that life cannot get worse than it is, so long as the ideas of pious human beings like Nizamuddin Aulia continue to inspire us.
Hazrat Sheikh Khwaja Syed Muhammad Nizamuddin Aulia, the famous Sufi saint of the Chishti order, was born in 1236. These were times both troubling and exciting. To appreciate the life of this sage it is essential to return to the tumultuous times that he grew up in.
The thirteenth century was a period of tremendous political change not only in South Asia but throughout the vast continent of Asia. The Mongolian tribes had descended in large hordes from their abode in the remote valleys of the lofty Altai Mountains to conquer most of Asia. Eventually, they marched deep into Europe as well. This was a time when long-established political orders were toppled and high cultures were crushed under the ambitious feet of emerging, new powers.
Apart from the many raids by the Mongols, there was also a conquering spree by the nomadic Turkic warrior tribes of Central Asia, who had converted to Islam. They had already wrested fertile fields from Persian rulers, including the area around Kabul. Now they eyed the even more agriculturally lush lands of the South Asian heartland. Countless wars continued to be waged over the possession of land in the Indian Subcontinent.
Before the Mongols it was warriors like Mahmud Ghazni, the most famous of all the Ghaznavid rulers, who attacked South Asia seventeen times from his capital in modern-day Afghanistan. The Ghaznavid dynasty was founded in 975 CE by Turkic warriors who conquered a large part of the Panjab as well. After the annexation of the Panjab by Ghazni around 1020, the province was populated with numerous Arab and Muslim immigrants from other nations. Muhammad Ghori, of the Ilbari Turkic tribe, was the next significant Muslim ruler to invade India. Also from Ghazni, Ghori laid the foundation of Muslim rule in India. It was his slave Sultanate of Delhi. Ghori conquered Delhi in 1192. After his conquest, the stream of Muslim immigrants only swelled. A battle a day was fought over who the next custodian of the world’s wealth would be, and poets and philosophers were not to be left behind. As the soldier picked up his sword to slaughter, the Sufi stood up to confront the politics of the day with a song.
Sufis spend their life contemplating the positive aspects of life and the spirit of Islam. Sufis see beyond the zahir, or obvious appearance of reality, and the literal word of the Koran. Their attempt is to fathom the batin, or hidden meaning of the word of the creator of the world. The word ‘sufi’ is thought to have been derived from the Arabic ‘suf , or wool, or from ‘safaa’, to clean-perhaps even from ‘sophia’, the Greek word for wisdom. But it is not a name that Sufis call themselves by. Those engaged in attending to the unseen, mystical and spiritual aspects of life are called Sufis by other people. Islamic mystic see themselves as tasawwufis. They are concerned with tasawwuf, or spiritual, ecstatic meditation upon the wonder of creation. The lords of the world may amass material wealth, position and praise but the mystic seeks experiences and feelings of joy, love, and togetherness with other human beings. To be in love ad infinitum with creator, creation and all creatures great and small is the nature of a tasawwufi. A tasawwufi spends an entire lifetime nurturing the spiritual aspect of the self.
When Muslim armies burst out of the arid Arabian Desert after the founding of Islam in the seventh century in search of more fertile lands, a parallel caravan of Muslims, who stood against death and destruction and war and violence, also made their presence felt. As Muslim warriors competed with each other in conquering territory, Muslim mystics wandered around the world conquering the hearts and winning the trust of people.
The thirteenth century is remembered as the time when military strategists as well as great mystics and scholars came of age in the Islamic world.
One of the most beloved among all Muslim mystics is Jalaluddin Rumi, whose family fled Bukhara in Central Asia, which had been turned to ash by Genghis Khan’s marauding Mongol armies. Rumi migrated west to Konya, in the central Anatolian region of modern-day Turkey. The wondrous words of Rumi’s Persian poetry and his humble and humane lifestyle helped to heal many a hurt in those wounded times.
Unlike Rumi, many other Persian-speaking Muslim immigrants and mystics sought refuge in South Asia. The region saw a flood of ideas, celebrating life,t hat flowed in simultaneously with the repeated military attacks by Muslim warriors from the region that forms modern-day Afghanistan. Soon after Mahmud Ghazni conquered the Punjab, Hujwiri, or Data Ganj Bakhsh, a Persian mystic, settled in Lahore. Hujwiri studied the Koran and wrote Kashf al-Mahjub, or ‘Unveiling the Veiled’, in the eleventh century, which is a commentary on the spiritual life of a Muslim. Hujwiri died in Lahore in 1071 and his tomb remains a place of pilgrimage. Hujwiri is South Asia’s first Islamic mystic and his writings are an essential guide to the spirit of Islam. Muinuddin Chishti, a Persian-speaking Arab from Sistan in modern-day Iran, followed in the footsteps of Hujwiri, coming to South Asia in 1192 while on his way to Ajmer. Muinuddin lived in Ajmer till 1230 and it is here that he founded the Chishti order, the most popular of all mystical ways of life in South Asia. The lives of Muinuddin Chishti, Bahauddin Zakariya Multani, Farid of Ajodhan, his disciple Nizamuddin Aulia and many others tell of the spiritual glory of the thirteenth century.
After the arrival of Persian-speaking Turkic Muslim conquerors the air in Delhi was thick with suspicion between the conquerors and the conquered. Cushioned by a life of plenty, members of the ruling elite were also engaged in bloody rivalries with one another.
The lieutenants of Muhammad Ghori had conquered the fertile Ganga valley in 1192 and had marched all the way to Ajmer, the capital of Prithviraj Chauhan, the ruler of the Hindu Chauhan dynasty. The victory over their home by an army led by people of a different ethnic background, practicing a different religion and speaking a different language made ordinary citizens recoil in fear. To battle their insecurities, the people became inward-looking and began to take refuge in conservative practices that were more familiar to them.
For every tolerant and progressive teacher in South Asia, this period saw hundreds of orthodox Brahmins and self-styled preservers of the Arya Dharma take up arms against attacks from the barbarians who overran the holy land of Bharatavarsha. Under their influence, the complex rules of the Hindu way of life became, if anything, stricter and were more rigidly applied.
At different moments during this time, Hindus and Muslims were attracted to, but were also filled with fear, suspicion, and revulsion for, each other. The two communities did live side by side but it took centuries for people with seemingly opposing view of the world to interact with each other in any creative way and to accept the way of life of the other as given.
At the time of Nizamuddin’s birth, the Muslim conquest of Delhi was barely a few decades old. After his conquest of Delhi in 1192, Muhammad Ghori returned to Ghazni, leaving his newly acquired lands in the care of Qutubuddin Aibak, his most trusted general, who was also an Ilbari Turk.
Aibak, the warlord and employee, took on the title of sultan for added dignity once his master Ghori died in 1206. Following Ghori’s death, Aibak ruled Delhi as its legitimate ruler.
The Mamluk, or Slave Sultanate of Delhi, is so called because Aibak, its founder, was first and foremost an employee, a hired soldier of Ghori. Aibak died in 1210 after building the Qutub Minar, the tower of victory that still stands in Delhi.
Aibak was a typical example of the ferocious Central Asian warriors of the time-merciless and strict. His valour and extreme partiality to his Ilbari comrades endeared him to the historians of his age, who praise him as having been a ‘beneficent and victorious monarch’. ‘His gifts were bestowed by hundreds of thousands, and his slaughters likewise were by hundreds of thousands.’
The Ilbari Turkic warriors were the first Muslim conquerors of Delhi, and chroniclers portray the Ilbari noblemen as being either fierce fanatics or worthless debauchees. The fanatics possessed the merits of courage in warfare, with a rough sense of justice when dealing with Muslims. Hindu ‘idolaters’ and Mongol ‘devil-worshippers’ had no rights in their eyes and deserved no better fate than to be sent to hell.
Muslim historians delight in telling tall tales of holy wars, with the army being sole source and means of government. In these early times of Islam in South Asia, the Muslim sultans accepted Hindus as vassals. Hindus were employed as officers and troops, and as clerks in the revenue administration. This was done to acquire a firm political hold, with the help of the local population, over the regions now called Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gwalior and Sindh as well as some parts of Rajasthan and central India. Bengal was practically independent, although some of the more severe sultans enforced upon it formal submission to the suzerainty of Delhi and the occasional payment of tribute. Hindu chiefs remained dominant in the Allahabad area, Malwa and Gujarat, and the rest of India continued to be governed by numerous Hindu monarchs, of widely varying importance, to whom the tragedies of the sultanate were matters of indifference.
When Hinduism and Islam met in South Asia it proved to be an encounter of the most extraordinary kind. This is because Hinduism and Islam represent apparently opposing views on everything in life, including the idea of God, creation and death. The former believes in many deities while the latter says God is one. Muslims believe in heaven and hell while Hindus in reincarnation. For Muslims the nature of God is unimaginable and separate from human beings, while Hindus spend much time imagining what the creator of the world may be like, through representations in sculpture and in art. Belonging to a much younger religion, the warriors of Islam were filled with a stronger religious zeal and were more adventurous, which perhaps helped them conquer South Asia.
Forced to live with an older religion and civilization, over time, Muslims became interested in the people and religions of South Asia. A mutual interest developed, which led to a better understanding between the two communities. While Hinduism is naturally more inclusive, in Islam the concept of ijtehad, or enlightened attitude towards religion, allows Muslims to practice sulh-e-kul, or peace with all. Eventually intermarriages, conversions, economic interests and the gentle way of life of mystics attracted many more to Islam.
However, initially, there was no question of engaging with each other socially, and marriage between Hindus and Muslims was a strict no. The political and economic situation was delicate during this period and many courtiers were averse to non-Muslims being elevated to positions of power. Revolts by Hindu rulers against the sovereignty of Muslims broke out frequently, particularly in the border provinces. The Mongol tribes were an ever-present threat and there was considerable suspicion of Hindus who had been conquered by the Turkic Muslim warriors.
This was the world that Nizamuddin was born into. It was a world filled with fear, suspicion and uncertainties, and one that was politically and socially volatile. Throughout his life, Nizamuddin witnessed terrible suffering and saw human beings do horrific things to each other. He was very young when he heard about a royal command to have rebels crushed under the feet of elephants. He heard that his fellow Turks routinely cut human bodies into two, that hundreds of people frequently met their death at the hands of flayers, being skinned from head to foot, their skins stuffed with straw and their bodies suspended over the many gates of the city. The plains of Hauz Rani and the gtes of Delhi remembered no punishment like this, nor had one ever heard such tales of horror. In July 1260, Balban, the sixth Slave sultan after Aibak and also the most ruthless, captured 12,000 insurgents and put them all-men, women and children-to the sword.
Nizamuddin was told how rulers disgraced themselves in scandals, debauchery and murders. He heard that due to famine, many starving people drowned themselves in the river.
Nizamuddin’s heart bled to hear that Sidi Maula, a fellow mystic, had been executed by Jalaluddin Khilji, the founder of the Khilji dynasty. The sultan resented Sidi Maula’s popularity and accused him of being a rogue, a magician and an alchemist.
However, all that Sidi Maula had done was keep an open house and feed hundreds of poor people every day. He was kind and considerate to the crowds of suffering people who came to him for succour.
According to Ziauddin Barani, the early fourteenth-century historian Sidi Maula had an unusual way of paying for what he purchased. He would ask the seller to take such-and-such amount from under such-and-such brick. Once the brick was lifted, gold and silver coins, shining brightly as if freshly minted, would be found. When stories of similar miracles reached the ears of the courtiers, they became distrustful of the mystic. They were uncomfortable at the thought that Sidi possessed powers that helped him perform karishmas, or miracles.
At the same time, rulers also wished for the blessings and approval of a sage like Nizamuddin. In return they offered him gifts of gold and villages but the sage steadfastly refused, maintaining his distance from the politics, power and intrigue of the royal court. Sultan Jalaluddin Khilji was especially anxious to receive the blessings of Nizamuddin. He was badly in need of solace and assurance at a time when the power struggle in Delhi left him feeling fearful and insecure. He felt helpless and exhausted when faced with the constant turns and twists of the politics of the day. He even threatened to pay a surprise visit to Nizamuddin’s residence if he continued to refuse his invitation to come to court. When he heard about the proposed visit of the sultan to his home, Nizamuddin sent a message saying that his home has two doors: ‘If the sultan enters by one I will make my exit by the other’.
Jalaluddin, the founder of the Khilji dynasty, was a Turk but his ancestors had migrated from their homeland in Central Asia before the Ilbaris. The Khiljis were already settled in parts of north-west South Asia when the Ilbari Turks conquered that part of the world and chose Delhi as their capital in 1192. In Delhi, the Khiljis were considered a community distinct from the Ilbari Turks, the founders of the Delhi Sultanate. The Ilbaris were the pure ones while the Khiljis were seen as desi Turks, because they had already given themselves in marriage to the local population. They were not considered fit to be rulers but were hired as soldiers by the Ilbaris who looked down upon the Khiljis as their social and cultural inferiors.
Balban, the Ilbari ruler who is believed to have never laughed, began his rule in 1266. He faced a shortage of Ilbari soldiers to fight Hindu rebels and to resist against the repeated attacks by the Mongols. The relationship between Delhi and the Turkic people of Central Asia had been severed by the time of the Mongol invasions. It was no longer easy for the ethnically pure Ilbari Turks to travel to South Asia. As an Ilbari Turk, Balban loathed the idea of recruiting Afghan Muslims and Indian-born Muslims into his army, but he was eventually forced to do so.
Later, Balban’s successors were unable to contain the ethnic rivalry between the older, purer Turkic nobility that had first conquered Delhi, and the new forces that competed for power. By 1290 it was Jalaluddin, a Khilji, who succeeded in grabbing the throne from an Ilbari and he became famous as the first Indian Turkic usurper of Delhi.
The possession of the throne of Delhi by the Khiljis was more than just a dynastic change. It was also a takeover of the past, a goodbye to the old ways, by ambitious and talented forces that refused to remain on the periphery of power. Jalaluddin’s revolt against the Ilbaris was a success. His six-year rule is remembered as being mild and generous. Jalaluddin was much admired for introducing reforms in governance without totally destroying and disrupting the previous way of life.
Alauddin, the second Khilji ruler, is remembered as one of the most energetic and innovative sultans of his time. He was a nephew and son-in-law of Jalaluddin, although he did not hesitate to decapitate his uncle to make himself king. The younger Khilji paraded Jalaluddin’s head mounted on a spear around the army camp and distributed plenty of gold among the soldiers to buy their loyalty.
Alauddin had shed more innocent blood than any Pharaoh was guilty of … He ruthlessly killed off everybody who he supposed endangered his throne, cutting up root and branch of all the nobles who had served under his uncle, save three only. Even innocent women and children were not spared … up to this time no hand had ever been laid upon wives and children on account of men’s misdeeds.
When Nizamuddin heard what was going on at court it greatly saddened him. He listened to the many stories of extreme crudity and cruelty, and he grieved. At the vulgarity of it all he would beat his breast lightly in helplessness. He was happiest when he was surrounded by the poor although he never stopped government officials and army officers from visiting him. ‘These people waste the time of this fakir,’ he said of merchants, princes and warriors.
Alauddin massacred many men but he was a great builder. Once it was suggested to him that the foundations of a new fort at Siri in Delhi, if sprinkled with blood, might prove auspicious for the sultan. He did not hesitate to order that thousands of ‘goat-bearded Mongols’ living peacefully in the city be immediately sacrificed for the purpose.
Alauddin’s rule began in 1296, at the peak of Nizamuddin’s fame. All sorts of people, the elite and non-elite, visited Nizamuddin’s retreat and asked for his blessing. Some sycophants tried to poison the sultan’s mind against Nizamuddin. It was whispered to Alauddin that Nizamuddin’s popularity was politically dangerous for the ruler. To test Nizamuddin’s wordly ambition, the sultan wrote a letter requesting him to come to court as his spiritual counselor. Without opening the invitation from court, Nizamuddin replied:
We dervishes have nothing to do with the affairs of state. I have settled in a corner away from the men of the city and spend my time in praying for the Sultan and other Muslims. If the Sultan does not like this, let him tell me so. I will go and live elsewhere. God’s earth is vast enough.
Alauddin’s great love was a eunuch called Malik Kafur, a military general. His Majesty was infatuated with Kafur and eventually his love and lust cost him his life. After the death of Alauddin, Kafur first installed Alauddin’s infant son on the throne. Very soon the child was murdered together with most of the other members of the royal family. After sitting on the throne for thirty-five brutal days, Kafur was beheaded and Mubarak Shah, another son of Alauddin, took over.
Mubarak Shah was more evil than Alauddin and Kafur put together. He gouged out the eyes of his brothers Shadi Khan and Khizr Khan, both of whom were followers of Nizamuddin, and had them killed. During a reign that lasted four miserable years, historians note that the sultan did little more than spend time in drinking, listening to music, debauchery, pleasure, scattering gifts and gratifying his lusts.
When Mubarak Shah ascended the throne in 1317, he expected to be congratulated in person by one and all in Delhi, including Nizamuddin. He did not care that people hated him for having blinded his younger brother so that he could be king. He did not care that it did not make people happy to be forced into his presence. All that mattered to him was fawning flattery and praise.
The sultan was to preside over a lavish ceremony in celebration of the new moon visible on the first day of the month. A feast was organized and the occasion was used as yet another excuse to get sycophants to bow before the king. It bothered Mubarak Shah that everyone who mattered in Delhi came to pay obeisance to him, except Nizamuddin.
Already suspicious of Nizamuddin’s reputation as the spiritual leader of Delhi, affectionately called the sultan of the soul, Mubarak Shah could not fathom why the hallelujahs for the sultan never matched up to the praise for Nizamuddin. He sent his lackeys to warn Nizamuddin of the consequences of not participating in the royal ceremony to be held again the following month. Nizamuddin gave His Majesty’s messengers polite audience and then sent them away saying that he did not waste his time playing courtier.
Ignoring the celebrations at the court of Mubarak Shah, Nizamuddin was returning after a long vigil at his mother’s grave. On the way home, he met his neighbor who told him that Mubarak Shah had been stabbed to death that evening by Khusro Khan, the sultan’s favourite catamite, who now sat on the throne of Delhi.
The murder of the disgraceful ruler marked the end of the mighty Khilji dynasty.
The rule of the usurper who followed Mubarak Shah did not last long. Within months, Khusro Khan was murdered by Ghiyasuddin, the founder of a new dynasty of rulers of Delhi called the Tughlaqs.
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