April 1999
Cover Story

Rab is also Ram’

Most people think Islam came to India as an invading force. That there were such invasions is an undeniable part of history. But few people know that the first Muslims had come much earlier, and were welcome here. Some came as traders, others as refugees. In fact, Arab literature is full or references to India — Indian weaponry, textiles, and spices. There was a lot of interaction, and travel between Indians and Arabs. The Prophet Mohammed had even named his first daughter Hind. Within 30 years of the Prophet’s death, there were small Indian settlements near Mecca and Medina. One such colony was called Arz–ul–Hind. Indian arts, philosophy, even mathematics — which in Arabic is called hindusa since it originated in India — were part of the Arab world. At the time of the Islamic invasions, the Sufis, true followers of the Prophet, kept themselves aloof from the rulers and their courts. They knew that the ways of rulership and the path of Islam did not match. The religion of rulers is the power of their throne. The ruler does not worship God, only his own throne. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya followed this practice of aloofness so strictly that Badshah Jalaluddin Khilji decided to don a disguise to meet him. But the Hazrat’s follower Amir Khusrau warned the Hazrat of Khilji’s impending visit, and Hazrat Nizamuddin left Delhi on that day. He said: "There are two doors in my house. If the Badshah enters from one, I will leave from the other." But for the ordinary people, those doors were open day and night.

Feroz–bin–Tughlak went one day to meet Hazrat Chiragh–e–Delhi without notice. The Hazrat had a rule that he was never to be disturbed while he was at prayers or meditation. His two young nephews Syed Zainuddin and Syed Kamaluddin would receive visitors. When Feroz–bin–Tughlak came, it so happened that neither of the two boys was present. Since no one would dare disturb the hazrat, the Badshah was forced to wait. A tattered rug was spread for him, which he disdained to sit on. Then it started raining. The Badshah left in a huff, saying: "Who says I’m the Badshah around here! He is the Badshah, whom no one even dares to inform that the Badshah has arrived."

The rulers had many Sufis killed. During the reign of the cruel despot Mohammed Tughlak, terrible atrocities were performed on Hazrat Chirag–e–Delhi. They even pierced his neck and threaded a rope through it to drag him to the court when he refused to answer the Badshah’s summons. They wanted to forcibly take Hazrat Chirag–e–Delhi to Sind were the Badshah was dying, but the king died before they reached Sind. When we talk of the mystic tradition of the Sufis, two words come to mind. These are khanqah and dargah. The khanqah is the place where the living Pir or Fakir resides and worships. When he passes away, the place becomes a dargah. Khanqah means a place of worship.

Of course, a mosque is also a place of worship, but the rules governing conduct in a mosque and khanqah are quite different. For instance, a person who has consumed alcohol can never enter a mosque. In a khanqah, too, it is not desirable for a person to enter in a state of intoxication. But in a khanqah it is taken for granted that a devotee has come out of love for Allah, through a relationship of love with the followers of Allah. The doors of the khanqah are always open to all — good and bad — in the hope of turning the bad into good — through love.

(Transcribed from The Sufi Way, a six part television serial by film–maker Gopal Sharman and theatre activist wife, Jalabala Vaidya)


Aqawwali in Awadhi dialect in praise of a Sufi named Haji Waris Ali Shah describes the saint’s early life by drawing a parallel with the childhood of Lord Krishna. The opening stanza of the qawwali goes:

Deva dasi/Kunwar Kanhaiya

Mohan Pyare/Bansi dhari

Janam ke raja

Sunder chaila/Shyam behari.

Visitors to the imposing marble mausoleum of Waris Shah in the small town of Deva outside Lucknow can hear this even today. The cult of Waris Shah is testimony to the syncretic nature of Indian Islam. Waris Shah was an immensely popular Sufi who died as recently as 1905. He proclaimed the equality of all faiths, "Rise above all boundaries of race and religion for he who is Rab is also Ram."

Thousands of Hindus were drawn to his fold and even today over half the worshippers at Deva Sharief are non–Muslims.

Sufis like Waris Shah carried the message of a more humane egalitarian Islam to the masses who responded due to the oppressions faced by their castes. Many of the rituals practised in the Sufi dargahs are clearly Hindu in origin and not to be found elsewhere in the Muslim world: pilgrimages to the shrines of saints, giving offerings and making vows, burning chiragh and incense over the tomb of a saint, partaking of sweets and food given as offerings at the shrines as sacred portions, circumambulation of the shrine, touching relics of the departed saint and the general belief in their healing effect are not indigenous to Islam but a result of Hindu practices. Even the practice of worshipping saints by giving them a divine status and attributing magical powers to their tombs is alien to Islam and clearly inspired by Hindu devotionalism. Hence Sufis and Sufism always attacked by Muslim orthodoxy.

(Excerpted from an article by Saba Naqvi Bhaumik, Indian Express Sunday Magazine, March 7, 1993).


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