Hazrat-i-Dehli: The Making of the Chishti Sufi Centre and the Stronghold of Islam

in Article
Published on: 06 December 2018

Raziuddin Aquil

Raziuddin Aquil is Reader in History at Delhi University. His books include 'Sufism, Culture, and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India' (2007), 'In the Name of Allah: Understanding Islam and Indian History' (2009), 'Sufism and Society in Medieval India' (2010), and two co-edited volumes, 'History in the Vernacular' (2008), and 'Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India' (2016).


This article aims to explore the connections between the emergence of Delhi as a major Sufi centre and sanctuary of Islam and its becoming the seat of political power.[1] If Ajmer was the Mecca of Islam in Hindustan, Delhi emerged in the 13th and 14th centuries as its Medina. Three out of the first five ‘great’ Chishtis of the Sultanate period chose to live in Delhi and their tombs have subsequently contributed to the process of the sacralisation of the place, appropriating it as a Chishti wilayat or spiritual territory and, indeed, providing it the respectable sobriquet of ‘Hazrat-i-Dehli’, or the venerable Delhi. The city acquired the status of the foremost centre of Islam at a time when the Mongol upsurge had led to the destruction of all the great Islamic cities in Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East, including Samarqand, Bukhara and Baghdad.


Indeed, Delhi served as a refuge to a host of displaced immigrant populations who brought with them varieties of religious and intellectual traditions, leading to contestations amongst various claimants to power and authority. Yet, at the start, the liberal and accommodative Chishtis endowed Delhi with a cosmopolitan character, preventing it from taking a monolithic form such as that assumed by Multan and even Lahore, where difference was eventually eliminated to make them cities for Muslims only. Even institutionalised and orthodox (ba-sha‘ra) Chishtis distanced themselves from, and even opposed, the extremist agenda of giving non-Muslims the option, ‘Islam or death’, while ensuring that the interests of Islam and Muslims were safeguarded. Though the urban conglomerate of Delhi remained the bastion of Muslim power for close to six centuries and its landscape is dotted with mosques, madrasas (Islamic seminaries) and dargahs (shrines or tombs) of the Sufis, the exclusionist, juridical interpretation of the shari‘a (Muslim laws) was set aside in favour of the more inclusive approach to Islam practised and propagated by the Chishti Sufis.



Emergence of Islam

A wide variety of sources from the early 13th century onwards have documented the arrival of Muslims and establishment of the Delhi Sultanate.[2] Early Muslim historians or chroniclers have focused on the activities of the sultans and their courts. These accounts are lengthy panegyrics on the achievements of the Turkish sultans.[3] Sufi literature, by contrast, provides valuable material on the life and conditions of the people. In particular, the malfuzat (conversations of a Sufi saint compiled by one of his disciples in his lifetime and generally checked and edited by the Sufi himself ) and tazkiras (biographical dictionaries of the Sufis) are useful for an assessment of the religious and cultural milieu, and, as we shall see later, they are valuable for understanding the politics of the time as well.[4] The compositions of poets supplement our information.


The Turkish forces of Shahab-ud-Din Muhammad Ghuri, led by Qutb-ud-Din Aybak, captured Delhi (c. 1193) without much resistance and set about eliminating the symbols of Rajput power and prestige. Some temples were demolished in the wake of the conquest. Their debris was utilised to construct a congregational mosque (Jama Masjid) at Lal Kot (Singh 1999:101–04). It was later called Quwwatul Islam or Qubbatul Islam mosque, highlighting the might of Islam. Though iconoclasm may have played a role, places of worship were generally plundered for their wealth. Alternatively, their destruction was aimed at hammering home the point that the old regime had been overthrown. It could no longer protect the people and their religious places.


In the event of the Turkish conquest of Delhi, people were supposed to know that the Turks and their sultan had established a new, Islamic order. Indeed, the minaret attached to Delhi’s congregational mosque, known as the Qutb Minar, was later perceived as a victory tower (vijayasthambha). Whether the call of the muezzin (crier) for prayer was heard by all the people or not, the 72.50 metre-high Minar represented the visual enunciation of Muslim power. The adjoining structures of the Qutb complex, including the mosque, the tombs of Sultan Shams-ud-Din Iltutmish and Imam Zamin, and the additions by Sultan Ala-ud-Din Khalji (Alai Darwaza, Alai Madrasa and Alai Minar), together constitute a rich site of the architecture of the emerging Delhi Sultanate.[5]


The Muslim population of the city was, however, already increasing rapidly in the early decades of the 13th century. Significantly enough, the enthronement of Qutbud-Din Aybak (who ruled from 1206 to 1210) coincided with the election of Genghis Khan as the great leader of the Mongol hordes. The advent of the Mongols led to large-scale devastation in Central and West Asia in the next 50 years. Major centres of Islam like Bukhara and Baghdad were sacked. Delhi was the only place where Muslims could escape the wrath of the Tartars. Islam prospered in Delhi, with the name of the Caliph still being mentioned in the Friday sermons (khutba) and on coins (sikka). A number of Sufi saints also came to settle in Delhi. The Qutb complex and the fast-expanding Mehrauli area constituted a conspicuous intersection of the political and sacred geography of the city. No wonder, in course of time, the capital acquired the venerable epithet of ‘Hazrat-i-Dehli’!


The institutions of the Sufis like the hospice (khanqah) and the shrine (dargah) have indeed contributed a great deal to the making of Delhi’s harmonious culture since the early decades of the 13th century. In particular, the arrival of the Sufis of the Chishti order (silsila) ensured that force and violence were not used for converting the general population to Islam. Much as the Islamic orthodoxy (identified here as a rigid commitment to Hanafite Sunni Islam propounded by the ulama, or theologians) strove for the total annihilation of the infidels (kafirs), the Sufis’ belief in tolerance and universal brotherhood proved to be more appealing to the early Sultans. The rulers themselves disliked the arrogance of the ulama and felt that the Sufis’ position on such questions as the treatment to be meted out to Hindus, and generally on matters related to shari‘at, was more appropriate. Delhi was thus going to have a multicultural and multi-religious complexion. Controversial religious issues, which had the potential to rend the pluralistic fabric of the city, did enter the public arena occasionally, but in the end sanity and a basic respect for pluralism prevailed.




In a way, it augured well for Delhi’s history that the earliest Muslim to have been born in the city after the Turkish conquest went on to become a Chishti Sufi of considerable reputation for syncretistic proclivities. Sheikh Hamid-ud-Din (died 1274) was a disciple and spiritual successor (khalifa) of none other than the great Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Mu‘in-ud-Din Chishti Ajmeri (died 1236). Mu‘in-ud-Din, in turn, had been directed by Prophet Muhammad in a dream while in Medina to go to Hindustan. The Khwaja’s arrival coincided with the conquest by the Turks. The Sufi tradition claims that Mu‘in-ud-Din had prophesied Shahab-ud-Din Ghuri’s victory in the second battle of Tarain in 1192. The Chauhan ruler, Rai Pithaura or Prithviraja, was said to be harassing the sheikh and his disciples at Ajmer.[6] Later traditions also suggest that the Sufi sheikh had to display his miraculous power to subdue the opponent. The sheikh’s charisma won him a large following and converts, and his khalifas spread in different directions. Hamid-ud-Din, referred to earlier, went to live in a village near Nagaur. He cultivated a small plot of land, became a vegetarian, and led a life conforming to a seemingly Hindu environment (Faruqi 1963).


Mu‘in-ud-Din Chishti chose a more sophisticated Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki (died 1236) for the cosmopolitan spiritual territory (wilayat) of Delhi. Bakhtiyar Kaki was born at Ush, located on the bank of the Jaxartes in Central Asia. He had met Mu‘in-ud-Din for the first time while staying in Baghdad, and had become his disciple. Amongst the noted Sufis in the Abbasid capital at that time were Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani and Sheikh Abun Najib Suhrawardi. Bakhtiyar Kaki followed his preceptor(pir) Mu‘in-ud-Din, also referred to in later Sufi sources as the ‘Sultan of Hind’, and reached Delhi in the reign of Shams-ud-Din Iltutmish (r. 1211–36). The Sultan welcomed the sheikh and invited him to live in the city. Hesitant at first, he agreed to the ruler’s request. Kaki, called so for his supposedly miraculous ability to produce kak, or bread, to sustain his family, had to compete for space in the spiritual geography of the city. Not to talk of the ulama, quite a few eminent Sufi sheikhs of various orders had come to settle there. Many of them had just arrived following the Mongol invasions in Central Asia and Iran.


Bakhtiyar Kaki found the most powerful antagonist in Sheikhul Islam Najm-ud-Din Sughra, a Sufi of his own order. Najm-ud-Din and Bakhtiyar Kaki’s pir Mu‘inud-Din were disciples of the same sheikh, Khwaja Usman Harwani. Najm-ud-Din was not taking kindly to the growing popularity of Kaki and his influence in political circles. Iltutmish himself was a devotee and, according to a later tradition, had become a khalifa or spiritual successor of the sheikh.


Seeking to prevent the tensions between Najm-ud-Din and Bakhtiyar Kaki from escalating, Mu‘in-ud-Din, who was on a visit to Delhi, asked his disciple to leave the place and accompany him to Ajmer (Siyar-ul-Auliya 1978:64). The news of the departure of the saints was perceived as a sign of calamity by the Sultan and the people. They followed the sheikhs for miles, crying and wailing. Touched by the grief of the ruler and the ruled alike, Mu‘in-ud-Din allowed Bakhtiyar Kaki to remain in Delhi (Siyar-ul-Auliya 1978: 65). As a patron saint of the city, Kaki enjoyed prestige and authority, and influenced the Sultan’s style of governance. It is related that once the Prophet appeared in the dreams of both the Sufi and the Sultan and indicated a particular spot for building a tank (Hauz-i-Shamsi) to overcome Delhi’s water shortage.


The site of Hauz-i-Shamsi, along with the adjacent Auliya Masjid, Jahaz Mahal and the Jharna, a picturesque spring garden, was significant not only as a source of water, but also became a rendezvous point for the spiritual and intellectual elite of the city. Much to the chagrin of the puritanical ulama, music assemblies (mahfil-i-sama, qawwali) were frequently organised, the Chishti Sufi Bakhtiyar Kaki being the moving spirit behind them.[7] The sheikh died in an ecstatic state induced by Persian poetry, listening to a particular couplet for over four days: kushtagan-i khanjar-i taslim ra, har zaman as ghayb jan-i digar ast (‘To the victims of the dagger of submission, there comes a new life from the unseen every moment’). His funeral prayer (namaz-i- janaza) was to be led by the most pious person in the dominion. It was none other than Sultan Shams-ud-Din Iltutmish, celebrated in Sufi tradition as a mystic in the garb of a king. The saint was buried in Mehrauli at a lonely place he himself had chosen. The burial of a number of Sufis and rulers in the vicinity led to the emergence of a big necropolis over the centuries. The shrine complex and its neighbourhood had become very crowded by the early 14th century, as recorded in Fawa’id-ul-Fu’ad, the discourses (malfuzat) of Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Auliya (died 1325). Iltutmish survived the sheikh for only a few months and was interred in an elegant tomb of his own in the Qutb complex, not very far from the dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki. Knowingly or otherwise, the Sultan, whose authority as the head of the hierarchy of theologians and jurists was undisputed, followed his contemporary Abbasid caliph al-Nasir’s approach of using the prominent Sufi order as the official organisation of popular Islam under the ruler, combining pietistic legality of the ulama with spiritual adventures of the Chishti Sufis (for the caliph’s approach, see Arjomand 2004). No wonder, Sufi institutions like khanqahs and jama‘atkhanas flourished along with mosques and madrasas.



Continued Rule of the Chishtis

Returning to the Chishti narrative, before his death, Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki had nominated Sheikh Farid-ud-Din Ganj-i-Shakar as his spiritual successor. Also known as Baba Farid and especially venerated in Sikh tradition (for his devotional poetry incorporated in the Guru Granth Saheb), the sheikh, called a mad boy (diwana bachcha) in his younger days, had met Bakhtiyar Kaki at his native Multan and joined the order as his disciple. He was at Hansi in Hisar district (now in Haryana) at the time of Kaki’s death and could only reach Delhi three days later. Soon the sheikh decided to leave for Hansi, notwithstanding the reminder from fellow mystics and followers that Qutb-ud-Din had chosen him for the wilayat of Delhi. Farid defended his decision to leave the place, as on account of blessings received from his pir, he could no longer differentiate a city from a desert. Farid may have been uncomfortable with Delhi’s volatile political culture. Bakhtiyar Kaki’s problems with his fellow sheikhs in Delhi may also have been at the back of his mind. Farid, thus, returned to Hansi before shifting permanently to Ajodhan, deferentially referred to as Pak Pattan (now in Pakistani Punjab). It is at Ajodhan that Farid’s reputation as a charismatic spiritual leader was built, which made him something of a living legend (see Aquil 2003b; Eaton 2003; Nizami 1955).




One of the notable omissions in accounts of the so-called seven cities of Delhi is Kilokhari. Touted as the new city of Delhi (shahr-i-nau), it remained the most ‘happening’ place for roughly the whole of the 13th century. Seeking to break free from the normative model of a medieval Islamic city, Hazrat-i-Dehli’s fun-loving creatures were increasingly moving out in search of a ‘decent’ place. Uncomfortable with the arrogance of the ulama, who represented Islamic orthodoxy, even a number of Sufis preferred to stay away from the old Delhi, corresponding to the present-day Mehrauli area of south Delhi. In any case, the old city was soon overpopulated with large numbers of immigrants from Central Asia and Iran, fleeing from major centres of Islamic civilisation and culture destroyed by the Mongols, as noted earlier.


Located along the bank of a then much cleaner Yamuna, Kilokhari attracted the city’s elite probably more than any other locality in the 13th century. Right on the banks of the river, which subsequently moved away eastward, Kilokhari and the adjacent Ghiyaspur were fast expanding. By the end of the century, the settled area stretched roughly from the place where Humayun’s Tomb was later built to the Okhla crossing on the Mathura Road. Sufis, princes, intellectuals, poets, singers and other like-minded people either settled in the area or frequently visited it. Some came in search of peace and tranquillity, while others for their share of fun and frolic. Whereas the city’s patron saint Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Auliya brought it on the then-expanding map of the sacred geography of Islam, the bohemian Sultan Mu‘iz-udDin Kaiqubad’s escapades brought it a high degree of infamy in conservative Muslim circles. References to the music assemblies, both of the pietistic, mystical nature and those catering to more popular tastes, can be found in contemporary and near contemporary writings, for instance, Barani’s Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi (n.d.: fols. 60b; 73b–77b).


It is, however, unfair to reject the monarch as a sex maniac, blind to the finer aspects of the society and culture that he ruled. Early sources refer to the construction of his palace and gardens overlooking the Yamuna. He had also built a congregational mosque where no less a personality than Nizam-ud-Din Auliya reportedly performed his Friday prayers. Though the Sufi sheikh lived at Ghiyaspur at the far end of the settlement, he had a house at Kilokhari as well. The sheikh may also have performed the congregational ‘Id prayers at Kilokhari itself. While the mosque has been lost to the vagaries of time, the very existence of the ‘Idgah, located on what is now Mathura Road, near the Okhla flyover, is threatened, too.


A new era in Delhi’s history begins with the emergence of the Khaljis; some scholars even like to call it a revolution. Kilokhari was, however, left to its own devices. Time has taken its toll on this once-picturesque capital city of Delhi. It is also an example of how an important architectural heritage can just be wiped off the landscape. The various localities (shahar and muhallat) of Delhi were established over the centuries only to be left in ruin. Powerful rulers of force, grand palaces and lofty titles emerged on the scene, but were soon relegated to the pages of history. Similar was the fate of the courtiers, their glory lasting only for a short period.



Hazrat Khwaja Nizam-ud-Din Auliya

One personality who defies this pattern is Chishti Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Nizamud-Din Auliya (died 1325). Also referred to as Sultan-ul-Mashaykh (Sultan of the Sufis) and Mahbub-i-Ilahi (Beloved of God), the saint’s shrine (dargah) in central Delhi has attracted a large number of devotees over the centuries. It is also an example of transcending exclusionist religious boundaries even while fundamentalism and obscurantism loom large in the public arena. What is the secret behind this continued popularity of the saint and his tomb?


The charismatic Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din’s life is well documented. Fawa’id-ul-Fu’ad, a large collection of his discourses, was compiled in his lifetime, and checked and corrected by the saint himself. It is supplemented by Khayr-ul-Majalis, comprising conversations of his immediate successor (khalifa) Sheikh Nasir-ud-Din Chiragh-i-Dehli. Two early biographical dictionaries (tazkiras)— Qiwam-ul-Aqa’ id and Siyar-ul-Auliya—corroborate the accounts. Besides, the voluminous writings of the saint’s two close disciples, Amir Khusrau (Afzal-ul-Fawa’id, n.d.; Rahat-ul-Muhibbin, n.d.) and Ziya-ud-Din Barani (Fatawa-i-Jahandari), further supplement the information.


Later authorities have largely depended on these writings for their reconstruction of the life of the saint. The most respected of these biographies remains the Akhbar- ul-Akhyar (n.d.) of Sheikh Abdul Haqq Muhaddis Dehlawi, compiled in Persian during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with a recent Urdu translation (see Akhbar-ul-Akhyar 1990). The Fawa’id-ul-Fu’ad was also originally in Persian and is available in two recent English translations (Faruqui 1996; Lawrence 1991). Utilising these sources, one can chart the life of the saint, even if one ignores a vast set of popular Sufi writings such as Afzal-ul-Fawa’ id (n.d.), Rahat-ul-Muhibbin (n.d.) and Rahat-ul-Qulub (n.d.), which were in circulation in the 14th century, but tend to be dismissed by modern authorities as ‘apocryphal’ and therefore useless, though it is difficult to agree with such a proposition.


Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din was born and brought up in Badaun, now in western Uttar Pradesh.[8] Like many qualified young religious scholars (alims) of his age, Nizamud-Din too moved to the dar-ul-khilafa (Delhi) in search of job opportunities. He was also compelled to do so as the responsibility of maintaining the family, comprising his widowed mother and sister, rested on his shoulders. The city, indeed, attracted madrasa graduates to staff its administrative and religious institutions. They were absorbed into various positions like imams and khatibs (prayer-leaders of the mosque), qazis (judges) and muftis (jurisconsults). Nizam-ud-Din himself was known to be trying for a qazi’s post, before Sheikh Najib-ud-Din Mutawwakil, younger brother of the Chishti saint Baba Farid, drew him to the mystic path (tariqa).


Najib-ud-Din took him to Farid’s hospice at Ajodhan (Pak Pattan) in Punjab. Impressed by the erudite young scholar, Farid immediately enrolled him as a disciple and soon appointed him as his successor. Nizam-ud-Din, thus, joined the illustrious list of saints of the Chishti order (silsila), comprising Khwaja Mu‘in-ud-Din Ajmeri, Khwaja Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki and Khwaja Farid-ud-Din Ganj-i-Shakar. Nizam-ud-Din’s successor, Nasir-ud-Din Chiragh-i-Dehli completes the chain of the ‘great’ Chishti tradition, which is known to have played a crucial role in shaping the political and cultural outlook of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th and 14th centuries. They are particularly known for their religious tolerance and broad-mindedness. It is their liberal attitude, coupled with their perceived ability to perform miracles and their consequent popularity, which brought them in conflict with Islamic orthodoxy and, in the case of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, with the rulers as well.


The saint’s encounter with two Delhi Sultans, Qutb-ud-Din Mubarakshah Khalji (ruled 1316–20) and Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq (ruled 1320–25), is particularly celebrated in Chishti memory (Aquil, 2003a). Even as Nizam-ud-Din was concerned about the political instability of the period, the rulers were evidently angry over his indifference towards the court (darbar) and its rituals. Seen from the point of view of the saint, his visit to the court would have amounted to accepting the superiority of the ruler over his own claim to authority in his wilayat or spiritual territory (Digby 1986; Digby 1990). Indeed, the Sufis’ claim to power and authority in society was a continuous source of tension for the kings and the ulama alike. In such a situation, the Sufis had to defend their actions in the light of the shari‘at. Occasionally, they also resorted to their so-called paranormal powers to defeat opponents. Reports of their victory in such cases contributed to their authoritative position in society.


This happened in the case of Nizam-ud-Din’s conflict with his antagonists as well. He had to defend the legitimacy of his interest in music (sama or qawwali) in the light of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. The conservative ulama, however, insisted that he must follow the Hanafite interpretation of Sunni Islam, according to which listening to music was a forbidden act. In such a condition, the Sheikh was left to curse his detractors. The saint’s righteousness was established with the Sultans and their supporters being eliminated in quick succession. While a close confidante killed Qutb-ud-Din Mubarakshah Khalji, Ghiyas-ud-Din’s death in an accident on the outskirts of Delhi was suspected to be the handiwork of his own son, who enthroned himself as Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq (ruled 1325–51). Ghiyas-ud-Din was returning from a campaign in Bengal and had sent an imperial order (farmān) asking Nizam-ud-Din to leave the city. The saint had, however, responded in his characteristically humorous way: hunūz dill dūr ast, that is, ‘Delhi is yet far away’ (for the ruler).[9] Dill dūr ast remains a common refrain for those who cannot make it even now. Incidentally, the king never did return to the city. According to the Chishti tradition, the provocation of the saint’s jalāl, the wrathful aspect of his personality, led to the Sultan’s elimination. By contrast, Nizam-ud-Din Auliya blessed Muhammad Tughluq and announced the bestowal of kingship on him even before Ghiyas-ud-Din had died (Qiwam-ul-Aqa’id 1994:96). However, Nizam-ud-Din did not live to see the rule of the eccentric Sultan Muhammad Tughluq. In his death in 1325, Delhi had lost a messiah. His hospice at Ghiyaspur (near Humayun’s Tomb, constructed later on this site because of its association with the saint) was a continuous source of sustenance for people. His image of a benevolent miracle-worker helping people in times of crisis, coupled with his charitable endeavours and a broad worldview aimed at winning the heart of the people across the barriers of institutionalised religions, had added to the charisma. This role was subsequently taken up by his dargah, which soon emerged as a major pilgrimage centre, located in the heart of modern-day Delhi.


Chishti relations with the Tughluqs deteriorated somewhat under Nizam-ud-Din’s successor, Nasir-ud-Din Chiragh-i-Dehli (Nizami 1991b). The latter managed to keep the Chishti tradition alive in Delhi at a time when Muhammad Tughluq was reported to have turned hostile towards the Sheikh, even as he was generally insisting on the cooperation of the Sufis and ulama in strengthening his hold in the Deccan. Though contemporary accounts concerning the shifting of the capital to Devgiri, renamed Daulatabad, are extremely exaggerated, Sufi tradition celebrates the Chishti Sheikh’s insistence on staying back in his wilayat. His house was said to be the only one where the lamp kept burning in an otherwise deserted Delhi. This earned him the title of Chiragh-i-Dehli or ‘the lamp of Delhi’ and it speaks of the Sheikh’s confidence and his sense of responsibility that he was actively involved in the enthronement of Firuz Shah Tughluq (ruled 1351–88), after Muhammad Tughluq died while campaigning in Uchch in Sindh.


With Chiragh-i-Dehli, the first cycle of the five ‘great’ Chishtis came to an end, for he did not nominate any of his disciples as his chief successor in the Chishti order. A large number of Chishti Sufis, mainly the disciples of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, had spread all over Hindustan, Bengal and the Deccan, but their control over Delhi was weakening.[10] Politically, too, Delhi’s power was waning. Even as Timur or Tamerlane had invaded and sacked Delhi (1398), the leading Chishti saint Bandanawaz Gesudaraz, a disciple of Chiragh-i-Dehli, avoided being a victim of the calamity by leaving for a safer bastion in the Deccan. The connections between the rise and decline of the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the corresponding graph of the Chishti masters in the period are too striking to be ignored.



Important Features of Chishti Sufism in the Delhi Sultanate

The foregoing account is relevant for our understanding of a number of key themes in the history of Chishti Sufism, which emerged as an important devotional movement with its base in Delhi and Ajmer in the 13th and 14th centuries. This is also significant as the Chishtis occupy an important position in the history of Sufism and are noted for their crucial social and political roles in the Indian environment (see Rahman 1949, Rizvi 1978, Aquil 2007). The larger issues include (a) miracle or karamat as a source of authority, (b) relations with the sultans and nobles, (c) Sufi music, cultural appropriations and possibilities of defying the writ of orthodoxy, even while remaining within the fold of Islam, and (d) attitudes towards non-Muslims and issues of conversion and Islamisation.


A recurring theme in the Sufi literature, both hagiographies and the compilations of malfuzat, is the authoritative position of the Sufi Sheikhs in the society and politics of the Delhi Sultanate. An important source of the Sheikh’s authority was his perceived ability to perform miracles. The Sufi sources are replete with stories of incredible feats of the saints. This is as true of Nizam-ud-Din’s authoritative ‘discourses’ as of many other ‘popular’ Sufi writings from the 14th century. Indeed, the two main Chishti texts, Fawa’id-ul-Fu’ad and Khayr-ul-Majalis  are full of fantastic anecdotes of miracles attributed to the Sufis of the past. Nizam-ud-Din Auliya himself believed in miracle as an integral part of Sufi discipline, but he was against those who advertised their own ability to perform them. For him, it was obligatory for saints to hide their supernatural exploits and binding on prophets to display them. The Sheikh classified miracles into four categories: mu‘ajiza (miracles of the prophet), karamat (marvels of the saints), ma‘unat (paranormal feats of saintly people, including non-Muslim yogis and Brahmins) and istidraj (occasional tricks performed by an obstinate sinner or magician). He also believed in the power of the evil eye (nazr) and black magic (jadu/sehr). He criticised the rationalist mu‘tazila for treating them merely as fancy ideas and not a reality. A liberal, tolerant approach towards other, often competing, religious traditions did not make the Chishtis rational. Chishti tradition was a part of Sunni Islam and, in a measure, it followed Imam Ghazali in attempting to wed theology with mysticism and in condemning rationalists or philosophers. To this end, the use of political power was not abhorred.


Some scholars have suggested that the Sufis, particularly the early Chishtis such as Baba Farid and Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, kept themselves away from politics and government of their times, as they believed that involvement in politics led to materialism and worldliness, which they wished to avoid (see for instance Rizvi 1978). A careful perusal of the sources, however, reveals the claim to be unsustainable. In theory, the Chishtis may have felt the need to keep their distance from the king and his nobles, but in practice this was not always the case. We have examples from the careers of leading Chishti saints of their proximity to political power in Delhi, as in the case of Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki and his companions, even as they resisted becoming veritable courtiers. Differences over the question of power and patronage in the wilayat, spiritual or political territory, led in some cases to severe conflict between the Sufis and the monarchs in the Sultanate capital. Nizam-ud-Din Auliya’s troubles with Qutb-ud-Din Mubarak Shah Khalji and Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq have been noted earlier. Alternatively, examples of their collaboration abound. Sufi literature particularly highlights the cordial relations between Nizam-ud-Din Auliya and Sultan Ala-ud-Din Khalji, after the initial suspicions of each other’s intentions were set to rest. Thus, the relationship between Sufis and rulers was very complex, and reveals that the mystics were not indifferent to the context in which they flourished.


The Sufi Sheikhs were not ascetics. They were supposed to live amongst the people and help mitigate their sufferings. For Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, as recorded in his Fawa’id-ul-Fu’ad, renunciation of the world (tark-i-duniya) did not mean that one should wear a langota or loin-cloth and set off to live in the forest. Shunning all the anxieties of attachment to this world, whether private and public, the Sufis called for soul-searching, remembrance of God beyond the ritual prayers of the mosques, meditation in solitude and wandering around as dervishes to the Muslim cities and non-Muslim or semi-Islamised hinterlands. At the end of their quest, they re-appeared with claims of personally experiencing the truth of Islam, of the loving God and the righteousness of the path of the Prophet (strengthening here the ulama’s position). As religious exemplars, then, the Sufis were supposed to guide the Muslims, ignoring or tolerating human weaknesses, and also to bring non-Muslims to the fold of Islam. Their claims for religious and, at times, political authority could  lead them to run into trouble with the ulama, who interrogated their religious practices and resorted to violence to keep them in check. Music was one such contested practice.



The Chishti Tradition and Music

In the opinion of some scholars, interest in music, among the authorised forms of remembrance (zikr) in the Chishti tradition, distinguished it from other silsilas such as the Suhrawardis, their major mystical rivals in the Sultanate period. It is suggested that the Chishti practice of sama or qawwali served a valuable practical function: It not only separated the Chishtis from the Suhrawardis, but also opposed them to the official ulama. Thus, music became, if not the monopoly of the Chishtis, the preeminent symbol crystallising their position (Ernst and Lawrence 2002). Though the difference between the Chishti and Suhrawardi approaches to music is generally known, the Suhrawardi attitude towards musical assemblies has not been explored properly. Several leading Suhrawardis of the Sultanate period were fond of devotional music. Hamid-ud-Din Nagauri, a Suhrawardi contemporary of Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki, was one of them. Later, Ilm-ud-Din Suhrawardi defended Nizam-ud-Din Auliya during the controversial mahzar (judicial inquest) in Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq’s court in Delhi. Evidence of qawwali being held in the presence of Baha-ud-Din Zakariyya, the leading Suhrawardi saint of 13th-century Multan, may also be found in authoritative early tazkiras. Also, within the Chishti order, there were differences over the use of instruments and performance by female singers. While Fakhr-ud-Din Zarradi permitted the use of the drum and tambourine in music assemblies, his preceptor Nizam-ud-Din Auliya did not recommend the instruments. Nizam-ud-Din was also against the participation of female qawwals, but his disciples did employ both instruments and female singers in their music assemblies. The ambivalence is also reflected in later reports, which attributed the invention of several musical instruments to Nizam-ud-Din’s closest disciple and courtier, Amir Khusrau (Ansari and Sahar 1989; Mirza 1986).


Similarly, the Shattaris, a branch of the Suhrawardis, were close to the Chishtis in their preference for music as a spiritual exercise. Music, then, as a neat marker of Chishti practice as against Suhrawardis and other Sufi orders will not hold. Nor is the use of Hindi verses typical of the Chishtis. The Rishi Sufis of Kashmir, too, used non-Arabic vocal zikr formulae. Like the Chishtis, the Shattaris were also open to the idea of adopting spiritual practices belonging to non-Muslim mystical traditions. It has traditionally been argued that the Chishti attitude towards the doctrine of wahdat- ul-wujud (monism as a reality) propounded by Ibn Arabi was an important marker of difference between the Chishtis and Suhrawardis in the Sultanate period and between Chishtis and Naqshbandis in the Mughal era. It is also suggested that the Chishti belief in the wujudi doctrine brought it very close to various streams of non-Muslim mystical traditions, and, therefore, made it tolerant and accommodative.[11]



Chishti Attitudes to Non-Muslims

This brings us to questions concerning Chishti attitudes towards non-Muslims, conversion, Islamisation, claims of local Muslim communities converting to Islam, and the long-term cultural accretion around the shrines. There is a vast body of literature on these issues, both in early Sufi writings and later secondary sources, which historians have tended to ignore. Sufi literature clearly reveals how the Chishtis were not averse to the idea of conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, either directly at the hands of a leading pir, or through a long process of Islamic acculturation in localities made sacred by the shrines of medieval saints. The sources also record a large number of anecdotes of miraculous encounters between the Sufis and non-Muslim miracle-workers or spiritual power-holders such as yogis, sannyasis, gurus and Brahmins (Aquil 1997–98; Aquil 2003a).


Provoked by the competing claims to territorial authority, these stories narrated by Nizam-ud-Din Auliya and his disciples are significant for a more informed understanding of the religious complex and the processes of diffusion of Islam. Even if the accounts of miracles cannot be proved rationally, in recounting them, Sufi writers and biographers were celebrating the image of the saints as propagators of Islam wherever they settled down. Such reports appear in both the ‘authoritative’ texts such as Fawa’id-ul-Fu’ad and Khayr-ul-Majalis and in the so-called ‘spurious’ compilations like Afzal-ul-Fawa’id (n.d.) and Rahat-ul-Muhibbin (n.d.); they are important for understanding Sufi tradition on its own terms. Contrary to the modern political ideals advanced by secularists and imposed on the past, Chishtis have long celebrated the Islamising role of their preceptors led by Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din Chishti. A critical, dispassionate appreciation requires that even as exaggerated accounts of conversion are questioned, the Sufis’ interest in conversion and the spread of Islam should be recognised. This is not the case with much of modern historical writings.


In this context, mention may also be made of the court-poet and closest disciple of Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, Amir Khusrau, who is much admired in modern secularist scholarship for his ‘patriotism’ and other such virtues expected from a good Muslim. However, his court chronicles are full of hostile references to Hindus, condemning them as kafirs or infidels (Friedmann 2003 [1986]). Khusrau celebrated the Sultan washing the earth clean with the blood of the impure idol-worshipping Hindus, whom he also referred to as the Pharaohs of infidelity. Ignoring Khusrau’s reports on the countless infidels being sent to hell for the satisfaction of the Sultans, historians highlight his patriotism (if not ‘nationalism’, though indications are to this effect also), by quoting all the nice sentiments expressed by him about the goodness of the land of Hindustan, often confused with the whole of India, and achievements of its people in various fields. However, Khusrau’s glorification of Hindustan might have been related to the Muslim supremacy and splendour of Islam (Ahmad 2003 [1963]). The poet appreciated reports that the strong men of Hind were trodden underfoot and were ready to pay tribute, and that Islam was triumphant and idolatry subdued. Khusrau was convinced that religious truth was to be found in Islam alone, and Friedmann (2003 [1986]) notes that in this respect he does not differ from the consensus prevailing among the Muslims in his time and place. Many Chishtis, indeed, believed in the superiority of Islam over other religious traditions and took considerable pains to establish that.


Nizam-ud-Din Auliya’s other disciple and courtier, Ziya-ud-Din Barani, certainly did not differ with Khusrau on this question, as recent studies on Barani’s provocative views on the political ideals and the nature of polity in the Delhi Sultanate have shown (Alam 2004; Aquil 2004). It is important to note, however, that Khusrau’s approach towards Brahmins worshipping the sun, stones and some animals was different from that of Barani. For the latter, all these smacked of polytheism, while Khusrau explained that these are not considered as similar to God, but only a part of His creation. Khusrau would go to the extent of saying that as a religious group, the Hindus were better than many others, including Christians. Evidently, there is a need to de-sanitise modern histories of Chishti tradition by taking into account all the evidence, and not just one set of comments alone.



Conclusion: Cultivating Delhi’s Pluralism

Sufi interaction in the Indian environment was not always marked by conflict, however. Interactions between diverse religio-intellectual traditions at various levels were distinguished by the concern to learn about and from each other, and to carve out a modus vivendi. This is reflected in music, painting, architecture, growth and development of vernacular literature, and evolution of ‘syncretistic’ communities that incorporated beliefs and practices common to Islam and other religious currents. To start with, this initiative came from the great tradition of the Chishti Sufis of the 13th and 14th centuries: three out of five of them lived in Delhi and shaped the liberal character of the city, ensuring—deliberately or otherwise—that it did not take the homogeneous shape of a predominantly Muslim city, as was the case with Multan, controlled by their more orthodox Suhrawardi rivals in the same period. No wonder, despite the hostile sectarian and communal environment all around, Chishti dargahs have continued to flourish in Delhi, making it a sacred city, a prominent pilgrimage centre for devotional Islam in the subcontinent.




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[1] Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Cultural Studies Seminar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, 14 December 2005, and at the Second International Conference on Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilisation, organised by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Manushi, New Delhi, 17–20 December 2005. I am grateful to Partha Chatterjee, Anjan Ghosh, Narayani Gupta, Shail Mayaram and Tilottama Mukherjee for appreciating the value of this work.


[2] For modern political histories, see Habib and Nizami (1992); Jackson (1999).


[3] See, for instance, Tabaqat-i-Nasiri (1970) of Minhaj-us-Siraj and Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi (n.d.) of Ziya-ud-Din Barani.


[4] See Afzal-ul-Fawa’ id (n.d.), Rahat-ul-Muhibbin (n.d.), Rahat-ul-Qulub (n.d.).


[5] For relevant discussions see Mujeeb (1972) and Juneja (2001); it is also discussed in Kumar (2002).


[6] For details see Aquil (1997–98). On the Sheikh’s life and career, see Currie (1989).


[7] On Sufis’ interest in music, see Lawrence (1983).


[8] For a traditional narrative of the Sheikh’s life, see Nizami (1991a).


[9] For an early 15th-century recorded version of the Sheikh’s remark: dehli az tu dur ast, see Tarikh-i-Mubarak Shahi (1931 edn: 96–7). The use of tu, instead of the more respectable shuma for ‘you’, that is, the Sultan, clearly shows the Sufi’s contempt for the latter.


[10] For Sufism in Bengal, see Latif (1993) and Haqq (1975). On Deccani Sufism see Eaton (1978) and Ernst (1992).


[11] See for instance Rizvi (1978). For a different opinion, see Aquil (2007).