By Makarand Paranjape
Sufi traditions of peace and coexistence are very powerful as an expression of people’s Islam in our subcontinent, but unfortunately the ruling clergy has never given them either recognition or validity
The dargah (shrine) of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, more popularly known as Garib Nawaz or the comfort of the poor, is considered, after Mecca and Medina, to be the most sacred shrine of Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. The hospice of the great saint and founder of the Chistiya silsilah (Chisti strain or tradition) of Sufism in India goes back several hundred years, almost to the earliest period of the Muslim conquest of India. What is more, it serves as an interesting parallel, if not contrast, to the ”official” Islam that clerics and kings in Delhi usually espoused.
This dargah, representing years of Sufi traditions, which is open to everyone regardless of caste, creed, faith, age, or gender, twenty-four hours a day, not only posed a powerful challenge to the Hindu orthodoxy of the time, but also to the Muslim orthodoxy represented by the ulema (orthodox Islamic clerics). While the dominant Hindu practices emphasized caste hierarchies and exclusion, the dargah of the saint was the refuge of the most lowly, humble, and oppressed people of the land. While the Muslim priestocracy preached the supremacy of Islam, the religion of the conquerors, the Chistis demonstrated their love and acceptance of people of all faiths.
The Chistis, unlike many other Sufi traditions or orders, always kept a healthy distance from the power politics of the court. They practiced extreme poverty and simplicity. Their fondness for music soon endeared them to the masses. Like the shrine of any Hindu saint, the dargah of the Sufis became a center not only of the worship of the pir or guru, but also a place of healing, refuge, and wish fulfillment. No wonder, people of all faiths, Hindus and Muslims alike, flock to these shrines even today.
My recent visit to the great dargah at Ajmer Sharif, India was memorable. It was a Thursday and the whole sanctuary was clogged with devotees. As we approached, we were confronted and solicited by the inevitable money-mongering middlemen who flock such places. But we managed to escape their clutches.
Once inside, we seemed to have entered a medieval world. Men, women, and children in all kinds of attire hurried about here and there. There was a long line of people trying to get inside the shrine to pay their respects at the saint’s tomb. We too were ushered into the rather full, even sticky chamber.
So many people jostled to kiss the cold marble or the silver railing. At the head of the grave were two khadims or servants of the shrine. They were collecting heaps of notes for a brief genuflection. I joined the ranks of the faithful, kneeling down and touching my forehead to the floor. All around me were people in various attitudes of prayer or solicitation.
As I was hustled away, I tried my best to jostle for a small space for myself where I could concentrate for a few moments. Luckily I managed standing room right opposite the headstone. Slowly, the initial unpleasant sensations and recoil from the money-mongering dissipated. A peace descended into my being. I remembered the members of my family and my friends, praying for their well-being and spiritual progress. I prayed for peace and forgiveness too, hoping that the spirit of the saint would thrive and guide the people of this land. I remembered the other saints of the lineage, not only Khwaja Kutbutddin Bakhtiyar Kaki of Mehrauli, but also Baba Farid Ganjeshakkar, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Khwaja Nasiruddin Chirag-e-Dilli, Khwaja Bande Nawaz of Gulbarga, and the other great masters of the Chistiya silsilah at Khuldabad, Hyderabad, Aurangabad and elsewhere in the subcontinent. Coming to this root shrine was like bowing to them all.
Just then one of the attendants beckoned to me. Placing my head under the green chadar or sheet, he invoked, in the most moving and sincere manner, the blessings of the saint on me. I felt loved and protected; my heart welled up with gratitude and compassion. I knew that my visit had been successful.
Outside, the ”walis (Islamic devotional music) were going on. Seated in front of the shrine, the present gaddi nashin, heir to the lineage, Syed Umuruddin Baba, son of Syed Kutbuddin Sakhi, sat solemnly. He was the present Khalifa (representative of Prophet Muhammad or Allah on earth), and therefore the object of devotion of all those who sat in the courtyard. While all of us looked at him, he looked only at the shrine or the sky.
The most interesting thing was that he was dressed in saffron and looked just like a Hindu sage or holy man. Even the chaubdars or attendants wore saffron turbans! As I sat down to listen to the devotional music, the sparrows—and there were hundreds of them overhead—showered us with their droppings! This was a different kind of prasad or dessert indeed! It was clear to me that one had to disregard the unsavory and focus on the essential if one wished to progress in spiritual life.
As I left the shrine, I couldn’t help comparing this experience of love, oneness, and togetherness with the hate-filled words of the Shahi Imam (Islamic religious head) of Delhi, who had urged his listeners to support jehadi terrorists in Afghanistan, Israel, and Kashmir. Sufi traditions of peace and coexistence are indeed very powerful as an expression of people’s Islam in our subcontinent, but unfortunately the ruling clergy has never given them either recognition or validity. It was interesting that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and his Begum were unable to visit this dargah of Garib Nawaz during their visit to India last year. ”How could they,” someone said, ”the Khwaja did not call him because he did not come with peace in his heart.”
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