Patron of the poor

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST


The Chishtis: A Living Light by Muneera Haeri; Oxford; pages 211, Rs.395. The Sufi Saint of Ajmer by Laxmi Dhaul; Thea Enterprises, Mumbai; pages 97, Rs.750.

IN the galaxy of Sufi saints, the star that shines the brightest is of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, popularly known as Gharib Nawaz - patron of the poor. He belonged to the Chishti Silsilah (order) of Sufis. The other Silsilahs were Qadaria, Suhrawardy, Naqshabandi and Maulawi, named after Maulana Rumi. Sufism, especially its Chishti order, has enriched India. Gharib Nawaz died in 1236. Shaikh Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, widely regarded his heir, died in 1235 and is buried in Mehrauli on the outskirts of Delhi. Another pupil, Hamiduddin Sufi Suwali (d.1276), a vegetarian, worked in a rural area, Nagaur in Rajasthan. Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar (d.1265) is buried in Pakpattan in Pakistan. He was greatly influenced in his youth by Shaikh Qutub. Delhi can claim two more Chishti saints - Shaikh Nasiruddin, Chiragh-e-Delhi (lamp of Delhi; d.1356) and the legendary Nizamuddin Awliya (d.1325) whom Amir Khusrau so dearly loved. The most celebrated pupil of Chiragh-e-Delhi was Muhammad Hussain Gesu Deraz of Gulbarga.

The two authors have, each in her own way, written books of remarkable quality on that rich heritage. Muneera Haeri, of Scottish origin and a convert to Islam, is married to a teaching Sufi Shaikh, Fadhlallah Haeri. Laxmi Dhaul, a devout Hindu, holds an M.Sc. in Biochemistry and is busy setting up a renewable energy power plant in Karnataka.

Haeri has written of the Chishti order with brief, well-researched biographies of all its five notables as also one of Shah Ghulam Muhammad Habib, known as Hazrat Soofie Saheb in South Africa. He was born in Kalyan, near Mumbai, in 1850 and went to Natal at the instance of Chiragh-e-Delhi. As Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence writes in his Preface, one might presume that the book speaks to a Muslim audience. "And yet the true depth of his book is its disengagement from a local idiom of parochial interest to Muslims only; it opens out the lives of these masters as a spiritual treasure that beckons all engaged persons to examine their own lives in the light of these saints, their discipline, their devotion and, above all, their stories."

Haeri herself reaches out to other faiths, especially Hinduism, in her chapter on Gharib Nawaz. He was born in Sijistan in eastern Iran, around 1141 and was inducted into the Chishti order by his mentor Khwaja Usman Harwani. The founder of the order, Abu Ishaq Shaml, was sent by his mentor to Chisht, a town near Herat in Afghanistan. Gharib Nawaz brought their teachings "to neighbouring Hindustan. The inspired teachings of Gharib Nawaz appealed to both Muslim and Hindu seekers of truth and acted as a bridge between these two peoples at a time when Hindu north India was facing an increasingly dominant Muslim presence."

Order is perhaps a poor translation for Silsilah; "chain" better conveys its import. Haeri writes:

"Chishti traditions say that Gharib Nawaz studied for six years among the Sanskrit scholars of Multan and familarised himself with their belief and language... The Muslim believes the Quranic revelations to be the final revelation that supersedes all others but at the same time he acknowledges unity amid diversity. Hence he is willing to examine and, where possible, adapt what is permissible from the spiritual disciplines that have been used by other cultures.

"The desire for spiritual enlightenment is not exclusive to Islam. The Hindu yogis too had great knowledge. We do not know much about the specific influence of the Chishti teachers before Gharib Nawaz or what methods they used to help their pupils. We do know, however, that under the direction of Gharib Nawaz and his spiritual heirs there developed a distinctive school of sufism. It retained its fidelity to the teachings of Islam but also incorporated some Hindu practices. This enabled the Chishtis not only to attract Hindus to their gatherings but also to form a spiritual bridge between the two groups."

One cannot but admire the author's liberal outlook and catholicity: "In reality, the penetrating eye of the gnostic would have enabled Gharib Nawaz to pierce the veils perpetrated by gross interpretations of Hinduism and Islam to discover some similarities between the mystics of both faiths... The Hindu seeker of knowledge had to follow a guru or teacher as the sufi did his shaykh. The Hindu disciples served his master with the same dedication and obedience as his Muslim counterpart. The Hindus also had a long, liberal tradition of recognising and revering holy men who were not of their faith. According to oral Chishti traditions, by the time he reached Ajmer, Gharib Nawaz was well versed both in Sanskrit and in Hindu culture. Thus, we can understand how he would have been able to communicate with the spiritually oriented among the Hindus with sensitivity."

Laxmi Dhaul's book is a feast for the eyes with its photographs by Sanjay Singh Badnor. The bibliography testifies to her scholarship. The book takes the reader through every nook and corner of the Dargah complex at Ajmer, through the photographs and arresting text. The daily rituals, the customs and what happens in the Urs (the death anniversary of the saint) are all described in great detail. A chapter on Sufism explains its main tenets and traditions, particularly the one of murid (disciple) and pir (mentor). Qawwali has been debased by Bollywood. The author's appraisal of Qawwali in Sufi practice is informative. Those who went into raptures over Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan knew nothing of the duo Mubarak Ali-Fateh Ali (Nusrat's father). They were uncompromising purists. Nawab Jaffar Imam has translated and written explanatory notes on certain prayers said at the Dargah and the rituals performed there.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment