by Sadia Dehlvi
I Love Delhi, for it is the city of my birth and it is my prayer that I may die here, that my mortal remains should mingle with the earth in whose bosom my ancestors lie. More importantly, Delhi is the ground where my beloved Sufis walked upon and chose as their final resting place. While the sultans of Delhi were writing the political destiny of most of India, the Sufi scholars were engrossed in keeping the flame of spiritual enlightenment burning in their khanqahs. These ‘auliya’ or ‘friends of God’ taught that true worship is service to humanity, regardless of religion, race and region.
Baghdad was the centre of Sufis in the ninth century. The 13th century saw the Mongols in Central Asia making Islam the victim of their barbarism. Thousands of people were massacred; mosques burnt and learning centres were destroyed. Among those who escaped were innumerous Sufis and a large number of them made Delhi their home.
Delhi thus became the centre of Islamic studies and mysticism by the end of the 13th century. Both historians and citizens began to refer to Delhi as Hazrat-e-Dilli, Dilli Sharif, Dar-ul-Auliya, Baghdad-e-Hind and Khurd-e-Mecca or the little Mecca. Prayers to bless the city and its people are found in the prayer books of these Sufis. Amir Khusrau wrote:
Delhi, the refuge of faith and equity
Delhi is the garden of paradise
May its prosperity be long lived
If Mecca happens to learn about this garden
It may circumambulate around Hindustan.
The landscape of Delhi is dotted with sultans’ tombs but no one lights even a candle in their memory. At the Sufi shrines, lamps are lit, holy scriptures are recited, poor are fed and prayers of a thousand pilgrims answered. During the political upheavals, people of Delhi were constantly reassured by the Sufis at the khanqahs to which they had constant access.
The first Sufi centre in Delhi was established around the year 1221 AD by Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki who was the khalifa or spiritual leader designated to Delhi by Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti or Gharib Nawaz of Ajmer. It is believed that the city of Delhi cannot be destroyed as long as Khwaja Qutub’s shrine exists, for heavenly blessings are showered on the city. Gharib Nawaz taught that the highest form of devotion to God was, ‘to develop river-like generosity, sun-like bounty and earth-like hospitality.’ Sultan Iltutmish was an ardent devotee of Khwaja Qutub and built the Qutub Minar in Delhi to perpetuate his memory.
Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki’s chief disciple was Baba Farid, the first Sufi poet of Punjab whose shrine is in Pakpattan (Pakistan). Baba Farid’s khalifa was Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya who dominated the spiritual landscape for nearly 60 years. He survived three dynasties of seven Delhi sultans without ever visiting a durbar. Hazrat Nizamuddin preached that ‘bringing happiness to the human heart was the essence of religion’ and often said, “On the day of Resurrection amongst those who will be favoured most by God are the ones who have tended to a broken heart.” His successor, Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmood, who came to be known as Chiragh Dilli, furthered the teachings of the Chistiya Sufi order.
The Sufis of Delhi had a significant role in the religious and cultural history of South Asia. They were great patrons of art, literature and language. They considered languages as modes of communication to bring people closer. It was at Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s khanqah in Delhi that his disciple and famed poet Hazrat Amir Khusrau excelled. Khusrau took great pride in writing verses in regional languages. The beginnings of the tradition of Sufiana Qawwali is attributed to him, for adapting Arab and Turkish musical instruments and enriching the traditions of Indian classical music. His poems and odes are still sung today.
Delhi has been traditionally known as ‘Bais khwaja ki chaukhat’, the threshold of 22 Sufis although the important shrines of the city far exceed this number.
There was a healthy exchange of ideas between the Sufis and the Hindu yogis in an atmosphere of goodwill. The Sufis borrowed meditation and concentration techniques from the yogis and never hesitated to benefit from the spiritual experiences of mystics belonging to other communities. The Sufi empire in Delhi represents the religious tolerance that Indian society strives for and cherishes. Sufi shrines thus stand witness to our multi cultural identity with people from various faiths continuing to seek solace and blessings at the threshold of these exalted Divines.
Published in the Hindustan Times Delhi Edition on January 26, 2007
Credit for the image above right