Review: Ajmer Sharif: Awakening of Sufism in South Asia

 by Reema Abbasi, Word for Peace

In this era of religious strife, Reema Abbasi’s book on Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti is timely

By Lamat R Hasan

 “Do teach me, o’ sire of heavenly rank,
How to lead my life amongst enemies!”

– Mohammed Iqbal

We live in conflicted times, the divide between us and Them stark, the lynch of the Other the newest rage. In that sense, Reema Abbasi’s book on Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, the Sufi saint whose resting place is the Ajmer Sharif dargah, is timely.

For the Khwaja, fondly addressed as Gharib Nawaz, is visited each year by millions cutting across religious and economic strata, the spectacle reinforcing confidence in India’s plurality. His resting place silently upholds the syncretic tradition of the subcontinent, disregards divisions of all kinds, reinforces the spirit of humanity, and quietly swims against political and social undercurrents.

And that is Abbasi’s main contention. For her, the strife and conflicts of the 21st century are no different from those Gharib Nawaz experienced when he left Sistan (on the Iran/Pakistan border) to make Ajameru home – as Ajmer was called then – eight centuries ago.

The saint was born in 1141, two decades before the birth of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, and was witness to several obsessive conquests. The chain of attacks ruined the region’s peace and unsettled ordinary folks, who saw the wealth of the great Silk Road being contested by several armies.

“It was no longer possible to live and love in Chisht” – the name of the once-peaceful town near Herat in present day Afghanistan – and home to the hermits of the Chishtiya Silsila or order. The hermits dispersed and wandered in search of calm. Gharib Nawaz made his way into the subcontinent through Multan to practice the Chishtiya way of life never forgetting that “respect for other human beings is the most obvious manifestation of a person’s devotion to god”.

He chose Ajmer, staying away from the political centres of power, welcoming the distressed and the hungry without prejudice, making them believe in the power of love. He discouraged religious supremacy and patriarchy by example – his wife was a central leader and his only daughter became a caliph – an aspect practiced at his seat, but not at other shrines of his lineage.

Abbasi’s earlier book “Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience”, too, dealt with places of devotion for minorities, minorities dealing with insecurities.

Abbasi acknowledges that most of the literature available on the saint is in Persian. So when folklore made it difficult for her to penetrate to the facts, Hamiduddin Nagori came to the rescue. Nagori documented the saint’s life – his passion for music and how he brought qawwali with him – during the saint’s lifetime.

However, Abbasi’s research goes beyond Gharib Nawaz. She documents details of his heirs and his famous and favourite disciples who helped carry forward his legacy – which was strangely forgotten for a long while right after his passing away in 1236. It is indeed intriguing that Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya did not mention a word about Gharib Nawaz in his book “Fawaid a-Fuad”.

Gharib Nawaz’s legacy was resurrected in the 16th century, and how! Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan became a patron. In the 30 years that he ruled, he visited the shrine five times, making generous donations. Princess Jahanara, his daughter was also a devout follower. In her biography of the saint, she calls herself a faqira, the ascetic, who came into the Chishti fold – four centuries after the saint’s passing away.

Emperor Jehangir was cured of a deadly affliction after he meditated at the shrine and Emperor Akbar after his victory over Bengal placed two large drums (nigaare) at the doorway of the shrine.

However, the biggest surprise is that Aurangzeb, an orthodox king, was a patron. Aurangzeb’s first visit to the shrine was after he executed his brother Dara Shikoh in 1659. The shrine underwent several architectural changes – from baked bricks to wood to red stone to onyx to silver filigree – thanks to its many patrons.

It also experienced cultural and social assimilation. Rasm-e-Basant, first introduced into the Chishti Silsila by Amir Khusrau, poet and Hazrat Nizamuddin’s beloved disciple, soon found its way to Ajmer Sharif. So did Holi with the devotees smearing gulal, and Diwali with oil lamps being lit and the communal kitchens serving strictly vegetarian fare.

The timing of the chronicling of the legacy of Gharib Nawaz seems perfect as there is a dire need to “awaken” and offer a befitting a counter-narrative to our differences that are being accentuated in the subcontinent. In that sense Abbasi scores a grand “A” for coming up with this coffee-table edition.

Read more: Photo Essay | Belief beyond borders

However, there is also a grand flaw. The book frequently asserts the absolute necessity of Gharib Nawaz’s philosophy in our conflicted times little text is devoted to this aspect. As a result, the details that are there of the architectural splendour of the shrine are often repetitive. The composition of the 200 pictures in the book is often poor and some of them are off Wikipedia pages.

Still, Abbasi has done us all a favour by showing us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. By telling us that stand we must and be heard even if the shrines are being bombed, and qawwals being gunned down. Most importantly, she reminds us that we need to dissolve our differences the way it is done at Gharib Nawaz’s shrine, for that is the only hope in these times of lynch.

 

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