India is known, among others, as the land of gods, saints and holy men and women. And one common saying in that wonderful land of the Ganges with a civilization that goes back thousands of years, is, as well-known poet and lyricist, Javed Akhtar says it so beautifully in one of his lyrics:
« Mere desh mein mehman ko bhagwan kehla ja ta hai
Wo kahin se aata hai, wo yahin ke hota jata hai«
(« In my homeland, guests are honoured like gods. Wherever they come from, they become one of us. »)
A classic example of that is the Persian mystic or Sufi, Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisti, who came to India from Arabia and stayed in the country to become part of the Indian spiritual folklore — more particularly in the Indian town of Ajmer, in the State of Rajasthan. In fact, nowadays, the town of Ajmer in India is a household name — not because of the State of Rajasthan where it is located but more because of the famous Dargah (Shrine) of Sheikh Moin-Uddin Chisti or « Khwaja Gharib Nawaz » (The Benefactor of the Poor) as he is more popularly known. Indeed, it is because of him that the town has long come to be respectfully referred to as AJMER SHAREEF (Ajmer the Blessed City) or ‘holy city’ that has been drawing thousands of devotees of the Sheikh to his Shrine incessantly every day for the past eight hundred years or so.
Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisti was a celebrated Sufi or Derveish or Fakir, who arrived in India, pursuant to a dream he had in Mecca in which he ‘saw’ the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) of Islam urging him to travel to India to take the universal Message of Islam to the Indian sub-continent. That was in the twelfth century. The Sheikh was then fifty-two years old. However, the exact date of his birth is not known but it is said that he was born in Khurasan, Persia, and that he had travelled in the middle Eastern countries before ending up in Mecca to perform the Hajj (Muslim Pilgrimage), which is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith.
Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisti was orphaned early in life. His father was a very pious and learned man, who saw to it that his son got the best education in religion. Unfortunately, by the time Moin-uddin was barely thirteen, his father passed away. All he left his young son was a small fruit garden and a well and the religious education he had imparted to him. But young Moin-uddin was no ordinary child. He was given to a life of piety since his early age. He was used to praying, meditating and reading the Holy Qur’an. One day, Sheikh Moin-uddin was in his garden when a Fakir (Dervish) or holy man by the name of Ibrahim Qunduzi stopped by. Young Moin-uddin was attracted to him. It is recounted that he ran to welcome him and offered him a bunch of grapes from his garden. The Fakir was pleased and accepted the grapes with grace. He took a piece of bread from his pouch and mixed it with the grapes and put them in his mouth and chewed them and then offered the morsel of the chewed bread to young Moin-uddin. In order not to show disrespect to the holy man, young Moin-uddin took the morsel and ate it. And, suddenly, he felt a change in him. He felt kind of ‘enlightened’; kind of transformed. The old Fakir disappeared as he had appeared — from nowhere — into the air but touched young Moin-uddin’s life forever.
Young Moin-uddin, from then on felt himself a ‘new’ person and a new phase in his life would begin. He would withdraw from all worldly things and, eventually, he would sell his orchard and distribute the proceeds among the poor and set out on a new life as a wandering fakir (dervish). He would leave Khurasan, his hometown, and visit, among other places, Samarkand and Baghdad where he became a disciple of the Khwaja Usman Harooni — a notable member of the Chisti Silsila — a branch of Sufism. Moin-uddin would stay with Pir Harooni for several years and become a follower and a Sufi too. Then, at fifty-two years of age, he decided to travel again and spend his life as a Sufi amidst the common folk, who came to revere him, adore him with love and affection, touched as they were by his austere, charismatic and pious persona. After his association with the Chisti Silssila (school of Sufism), Moin-uddin came to be referred to by the reverent title « Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisti« . He was honoured and respected as a ‘holy’ man, a Derveish, a « Wali of Allah ». Moin-uddin Chisti finally got to Mecca with a retinue of followers. He did the Hajj (Islamic Pilgrimage). Thus, when he arrived in Mecca with his retinue, he was already looked upon as a ‘holy man’. And, it was in the holiest city of Islam that he got the ‘call’ from the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) « to go to Hindustan » — the land of the ‘Hindus’ and deliver the peaceful Message of Islam.
However, the Raja of Ajmer, Prithviraj Chauhan, had been warned by his astrologers of the coming of « a dangerous dervish » and the Raja became all leery about it. He alerted his guards, who were on the lookout for the ‘holy man’. Indeed, Sheikh Moin-uddin and his retinue of 40 men finally showed up late in the day in Ajmer in 1192 A.D., looking for a place to spend the night. His choice fell on an open area or plain in the town. However, when he tried to set up camp there, the king’s guards stopped him saying that the plain was reserved for the Raja’s camels only and, understandably, the Sheikh and his party were chased away. Sheikh Moin-uddin left without argument but before leaving he told the guards that by next morning, they would come looking for him. Sheikh Moin-uddin and his group left the plain and went to set up camp by Anansagar Lake of Ajmer.
Indeed, the next day, when the day dawned, the guards did come looking for Sheikh Moin-uddin at the behest of their king. They apprised the Sheikh that the Raja’s camels were all drowsy and would not get up. And the king was worried. They offered their apologies to the Sheikh for their ‘rudeness’ to him and his friends. The Sheikh, who was, in actuality, one who embodied goodness, kindness and humility, accepted the apologies and assured the guards that by the time they went back to the camels, they would all be up and standing. And, indeed, they were.
That karamat (miracle) of Sheikh Moin-uddin ‘amazed’ Ajmer as the story spread around. And it was just the beginning. Sheikh Moin-uddin would dazzle the folk of Ajmer with more and more karamats like causing a lake to dry as he asked one of his followers to get him a gourd of water. It is reported that, as the follower kept on filling the cup, the lake’s water level kept on dropping till it dried up completely. The Sheikh’s austere and humble demeanour impressed all who came in touch with him so much so, the ranks of his followers (murids) and devotees grew by leaps and bounds. It is said, often whole villages would convert to his faith and become his assiduous followers — a fact that has not diminished until to-day — almost a thousand years after his death and burial in Ajmer. His fame, his celebrity grew as an austere ‘holy man’, ‘a wali of Allah’ who worked miracles. So much so, long after his demise in 1235 A. D., Emperors, Kings, Maharajas, Rajas, Sheikhs, Imams not to mention the thousands of common men and women would continue to make pilgrimages to his grave (Dargah) to seek his ‘intercession’ to the Lord for the fulfillment of a vow or wish — and the crowd would include not only Muslims but as many non-Muslims as well. The love, the charisma, modesty and spiritual enlightenment he had displayed in his day, had won him the heart of people from far and wide and very justly no one is ever surprised to-day to learn that Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisti of Ajmer is an integral part of Indian religious heritage and its rich spiritual folklore. People embraced the Sheikh with open heart. Indeed, Sheikh Moin-uddin saw all men and women as creatures of One God — Allah — and he showed love for all of them. So much so, it is little wonder then that nearly one thousand years after his death, people still throng to his grave in Ajmer to solicit his ‘help’ for the fulfilment of a vow, or seek a cure of some illnesses etc. That no one ever comes back empty-handed from his Darbar (Mausoleum) in Ajmer, is proven by the fact that even to-day some 150,000 men and women devotees continue to visit his grave site every day.
It should be pointed out that Hindu India, with its proverbial magnanimity and spirit of tolerance, came to accept Khwaja Gharib Nawaz as a Master, as a Pir, as a Wali. And many Indians became convinced by his message of peace and love and embraced Islam and became his devout followers. However, it would be a misconception to imagine that Islam arrived in India with Khwaja Gharib Nawaz or, for that matter, with the Mughal conquerors. It did not. In fact, Islam had entered India with the Arab traders and merchants in the South, in Kerala long before the Mughals. Indeed, the first masjid ever built in India was in Kerala and it dates back to 690 A.D. It stands till to-day although renovated and refurbished and is known as the Cheramun Jummah Masjid. The original masjid was built by Malik Deenar — an Arab trader.
Sure, the Mughals rulers were Muslim by faith and their rule over India lasted centuries but they were no proselytisers. They were interested more in military and political power than in spreading their religion of Islam among their non-Muslim subjects. The question arises then, how did Islam spread in India ?
In to-day’s India, as the world knows, Muslims constitute the second largest religious minority group and, India is officially ranked the second country with the largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. How did that happen, one is tempted to ask? The credit for the spread of Islam in India generally goes to the Sufis or mystics, like Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisti, who touched thousands with their example of austere living and exemplary demeanour. And, as history tells us, Sheikh Moin-uddin Chisiti was one of the many in the distinguished line of Pirs and Sufis who have, over the years, graced India and have left their indelible legacy of faith, love, and piety among the people they lived and served — thereby touching the lives of millions by their exemplary piety often causing the followers to gladly embrace the faith of the Master.
And, it is also a fact that when these Masters passed away, their burial sites became places of pilgrimage. Well-wishers and devotees went out of their way to build them Mausoleums that became Dargahs (Shrines) that, through the years became landmark stations of prayers and worship. The Dargah of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz is a classic example in point. Among his well-known well-wishers was the great Emperor Akbar, who was a great devotee of the Khwaja. He built the Akbari Mosque as part of the Ajmer complex in 1570 A.D. while his grandson Emperor Shah Jahan added the Shah Jahani Masjid. As a matter of fact, the Ajmer Shareef complex is huge and covers several acres with mosques, Bazaars and Shopping areas around the Mazar Shareef (Mausoleum).
There are, in India, thousands of Dargahs and Mausoleums raised by devotees and well-wishers to honour their Master Sufis, who served their fellowmen and women in terms of their spiritual well-being. And, as the world knows, thousands of followers, even to-day journey to their grave sites to pray and solicit their blessings. To gauge by the affluence of the incessant line of pilgrims who continuously throng the Dargahs day in day out, one can deduce that the trip of the devotees to the Dargahs is never in vain. As an exercise in faith, it transcends all obstacles.
(to be continued)