Delhi’s Jama Masjid: An Untold Story by Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi

As Delhi is the heart of India, Jama Masjid is the heart of Delhi, and the heart of Jama Masjid is Asaar Saharif--the relics of the holy Prophet (peace be upon him)!

Today, this writer feels impelled to tell the story of Jama Masjid, the magnificent mosque which stands out in the annals of the history as an emblem of Indo-Islamic art and architecture and its beautiful aesthetics. Built by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1656 and designed by Ustad Ahmad Lahori, the mosque beautifully reflects the Indo-Islamic style of architecture imbued with Arabic, Persian and indigenous architectural influences. The structure oriented towards the holiest city of Islam, Makkah was made from red sandstone with white marble inlay. Incredibly, it sits on an elevated stone platform that is accessible by stairs from the eastern, northern, and southern entrances. Over 5000 artisans under the supervision of Wazir Saadullah Khan took the uphill task of accomplishing the construction of Jama Masjid with the amazing architectural features adorning it and making it worthy of great visitations from around the world. But the real story of Jama Masjid is little known and untold.

Authentic legends tell us that during the Mughal Period, when Emperor Shahjahan was entirely engaged in the construction of royal palaces and magnificent buildings in the then Shahjahanabad [now Old Delhi], he also thought of constructing a great towering mosque in Delhi. For years, this could not be decided as to what shape the mosque should take. However, one night the king saw a beautiful mosque in his dream which he took as a helping hint from the Almighty Divine. But by the time he woke up, the image of his dream faded out from his mind.

Shahjahan was so sad. In quest of his confusion, he called for an immediate meeting in his court and narrated his dream. They had a long discussion on this dream but they could not arrive at a conclusion. Ultimately, Shahjahan ordered his Diwan Sa’adullah Khan to announce an ordinance in public, stating that, “whoever shall submit a Map or Design of His dream mosque would be highly rewarded from the treasury of the King”.

After this announcement, a lot of designs and maps were presented to the King but none of them was approved of. At last, Fazil Khan, a cook who was also a close disciple of Hazrat Hare Bhare Shah Khwaja Sayyed Abul Qasim Sabzwari (R.A.) presented his design. Drawn by Fazil Khan, this design was found to be closest to the image of King’s dream mosque and as per the royal announcement, Fazil Khan was chosen for the promised Award.

But Fazil Khan did not accept the award. He rather requested that his award is first handed over to his Murshid, the honourable Sufi Master of Delhi in his times, Hazrat Khwaja Sayyed Abul Qasim Sabzwari popularly known as Hare Bhare Shah. Although Shahjahan had heard his name but the value and virtue of Hare Bhare Shah was introduced only that day. He immediately ordered for preparation of his visit to Hare Bhare Shah. Emperor Shahjahan and Fazil Khan both went together to meet the Sufi Sheikh and they were received with great warmth and affection. Hare Bhare Shah accepted the award and then bestowed that upon Fazil Khan, and offered lots of dua’a for the king.

Notably, Hazrat Bhare Shah was a nature-lover Sufi saint of Delhi. He used to live in the valley of mount Hajlah where both Shahjahan’s Dream Mosque as well as his sacred shrine were built. The shrine of Hare Bhare right in the heart of Old Delhi, just below the steps of the Jama Masjid, is truly unique with a neem tree growing above it. Besides the courtyard of Hazrat Hare Bhare Shah is the grave of the famous ‘dancing dervish’ of Delhi, Sarmad Kashani more popular as Sarmad Shaheed, originally a Jewish mystic and a Persian-speaking Armenian poet who travelled as a spiritual pilgrim and turned into an Indian Sufi  and made the Indian subcontinent his permanent home during the 17th century. While his spiritual mentor or Murshid’s tomb is green in colour to donate immortality, Sarmad Shaheed’s grave is red to mark his martyrdom.

Maulana Azad who was a great admirer of Sarmad Shaheed and his concept of the Divine Love, was reportedly a frequent visitor to his shrine. In the words of Sarover Zaidi, a social anthropologist, Sarmad’s shrine is “not just a built structure but also a performance—of his life and death, his ideas, his poetry as also his love, rebellion and critique of the social order. It provides space to that which cannot be ordered, that which falls off the confines of orthodox religion, worship and societal norms; it provides solace to ideas of love and rebellion, annotated so fantastically in the red that is at once familiar and shocking”.

Today, the Jama Masjid is famed as the largest mosque of Delhi with no parallel to it in the entire country. It served as the imperial mosque of the Mughal emperors until the demise of the empire in 1857. In fact, the first freedom movement of India–the 1857 revolt against the British was supported by a Fatwa from the the same Jama Masjid. Right from Allama Fazle Haque Khairabadi to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Ulama who stood for the Indian freedom movement spoke from Jama Masjid’s Mimbar (pulpit) to the Muslims of India. In 1947, during a Friday prayer of 23rd October, Maulana Aazad delivered a sermon from its pulpit or Mimbar when the Partition of India was underway, causing massive damage and population movements in Delhi. Azad implored the Muslims of Delhi to remain in India, and attempted to reassure them that India was still their homeland. He spoke highly of his belongingness to Islam as his religion and India as his nation:

“I am a Muslim and profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Islam’s glorious traditions of the last 14 hundred years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy…I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the invisible unity of Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total make-up without which its noble edifice will remain incomplete.

The tomb of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is also located adjacent to the mosque. Today, Jama Masjid remains in active use during Ramazan, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha, Eid Milad-un-Nabi, and is one of Delhi’s most iconic sites, closely identified with the ethos of ‘Purani Dilli’ i.e. Old Delhi or Delhi 6. Hazrat Hare Bhare Sahib lived in Delhi during the Period of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb and he is believed to have inspired and initiated Sarmad Shaheed who was originally an Armenian Jew. The most compelling imagination at this historic mosque is the imagery of Sarmad walking up the stairs of Jama Masjid with his head in his hand. Great modernist Muslim artist of recent times, Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi drew out a whole series titled Sar-ba-Kaf inspired by this imagery. “Lingering possibly at each corner of such a vivid and repeated imagery is the idea of a dialogue with the self. Each story of chopped heads is as much about the social as it is about our selves,” writes Sarover Zaidi.

Tellingly, Sarmad began to dance on the steps of the Jama Masjid after his head was cut off on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb (on the fanatic fatwa of the clergymen declaring him a ‘heretic’). It was only due to Hare Bhare Shah that he stopped doing that. For, he warned the dead body of Sarmad that if it didn’t stop, it would completely destroy Delhi.

Significantly, Hazrat Hare Bhare Shah Khwaja Abul Qasim Sabzwari came from Sabzwar in Iran. His teachings were peaceful and pluralistic as he preached the oneness of God and brotherhood of Mankind. And he followed and practised the beautiful traditions of the holy Prophet (pbuh). It is believed that the holy Prophet appeared in a dream of the Sufi saint and praised the mosque adoring its magnificent architecture. Therefore, an area of the mosque where the Prophet is believed to have appeared in the vision, has been barricaded in the ablution tank (Hauz) to show respect and veneration to the holy Prophet. Also, a stone with the footprint of the holy Prophet along with many other Relics are also preserved in the heart of Jama Masjid as part of what is called Dargah Asaar Sharif. As Delhi is the heart of India, Jama Masjid is the heart of Delhi, and the heart of Jama Masjid is Asaar Saharif–the relics of the holy Prophet (peace be upon him)!


Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is an Indo-Islamic scholar and English-Arabic-Urdu writer. He has graduated from a leading Sufi Islamic seminary in India, and acquired Diploma in Qur’anic sciences and a Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies. He has also participated in the 3-year “Madrasa Discourses” program initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA.

Currently, he is serving as Resident Scholar at the Aulia Council of North America, New York, USA, and is also a Consulting Editor for the council’s quarterly periodical “Sufi Times”.

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