Bruce Lawrence’s Morals for the Heart: You may not see Nizamuddin but you can hear him

Amir Hasan Sijzi came to his master Nizamuddin Auliya looking worried. It was Friday, September, 19 1310, he writes in Fawaid Al Fuad. “I obtained the benefit of kissing his feet. In this week I was distressed because there had been an interruption in my salary’s payment. As soon as I called on the master, he began to tell me a story. ‘A man who had come to call on me shared this anecdote with me. Listen to the following tale. There was an urban Brahman. Though he was very wealthy, the chief magistrate of that city fined him, seized all his possessions and reduced him to poverty. The Brahman became destitute. He was hard pressed to make ends meet. One day, he came across a friend. How are you? asked the friend. Well and happy, replied the Brahman. How can you be happy since they have seized everything you possess? The Brahman replied: I still have my zunnar (sacred thread).”’

 “On finishing the story, the master — may God remember him with favour — asked me: ‘Did you understand the context of the story?’ “Yes, I did,”’ I replied. “For on hearing the story, I felt an inner contentment. I realised that the master had told the story to calm the heart of this helpless creature. The master added: ‘You should never experience distress on the account of the interruption of your salary or the non-attainment of worldly goods. If the whole world passes you by, don’t fret; you must maintain the love of God at all times.”’

‘Praise be to God that I was able to grasp the context for this moral instruction that the master gave me!’

Amir Hasan Sijzi was born in Badaon in 1253 and from the age of 13, he started composing verse and prose. Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin’s favourite disciple, and he were close friends. Both were poets at the sultans’ courts; both ran to Nizamuddin when the perversions of kings shattered their souls.

There is a story by the late sixteenth century historian Mohammad Qasim Hindu Shah, better known as Firishta, on how Khusro and Amir Hasan first met. Khusro was walking with Nizamuddin when they came upon a baker’s shop. A young man, the same age as Khusro, was sitting there. Khusro took a liking to him and asked: “How do you sell bread?” “I place the bread on one of the scales and ask the person to put money on the other scale. If the money is heavier, I give him the bread,” Amir Hasan replied. “And what if the person is poor?” “I should accept his love and humility instead of money.” Khusro was enchanted.

Amir Hasan, it is said, then left the shop and pursued knowledge, and together with Khusro would visit Nizamuddin.

Amir Hasan was a man about town and legend has it that he even liked his drink. According to Jamali, a contemporary, the change came when one day Amir Hassan was drinking by a river bank with a few friends. Nizamuddin was returning to Ghiyaspur from Mehrauli after visiting the grave of Shaikh Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. A drunk Amir Hasan apparently said this to Nizamuddin:

 “We know each other as friends;

If association exercises any effect, where is it?

Your piety has not diminished my sinfulness;

What is more powerful – your piety or my sinfulness?”

Nizamuddin took pity. “Society does have its effect,” he replied. Amir Hasan fell at his feet and became a disciple. From 1308 to 1322, he recorded the words Nizamuddin spoke at his assemblies and compiled a book in Persian with his master’s blessings called Fawaid Al Fuad. Dr Bruce Lawrence translated the book into English as Morals for the Heart.

The journey of discovery

Amir Hasan recorded the first assembly on 27 January, 1308. Nizamuddin said: “The penitent is equivalent to the upright since the upright is he who never drinks throughout his life or commits a single sin, while the penitent is he who has sinned and repented of his sin. The two are equivalent in accordance with this Tradition of the Prophet Mohammad, may peace be upon him. “A person who repents of his sin is like someone who has never sinned.”

If this put Amir Hasan at ease now that he had given up the ways of a drunk, Nizamuddin spoke again years later on 5 April, 1319. Who is more virtuous — the pious or the penitent? Nizamuddin told a story. Once two men were having a lively discussion. One said: “The pious is more virtuous than the penitent.” The other said: “No, the penitent is more virtuous than the pious.” The debate continued with no answer. Nizamuddin said they approached a prophet of the age and asked him. “I cannot make a pronouncement on my own. I will seek inspiration to see what command I receive from on high,” the prophet said.

He asked them to spend the night under one roof. In the morning, they should ask the question to the first person they see. He was a weaver. “Dear Sirs, I am a weaver, unversed in any field of knowledge. How could I possibly solve this problem? I only know this much. In weaving a garment, I often break a piece of thread. That thread, once I’ve repaired it becomes stronger than a thread which has never broken.”

Amir Hassan went on to compile Fawaid Al Fuad with the devotion of a penitent. Amir Khusro said he was ready to exchange all his works for it. But in time, as hundreds of years passed, the treasure of Fawaid Al Fuad was lost. The Persian manuscript, regarded as a guide for Chishti Sufis, was no longer found easily. And then destiny played its hand.

“In the late 1960s I had trained as an historian of religion at Yale University. My life’s journey took me to Arabic, then Persian, and also Sanskrit. I loved the soft side of Islam, Persian more than Arabic, with Sanskrit inviting me into a world of imagination and experience beyond either Arabic or Persian,” says Dr Bruce Lawrence.

“I began teaching in 1971, then a year later had the chance to travel to India for the first time. I had been to Pakistan once, but never India before summer 1972. I visited many places, one was Aligarh, the other was Nizamuddin’s shrine in Delhi. Both shaped my life in ways that I could not, and did not, understand back in 1972,” he recalls.

“Between 1974 and 1976, I spent two years living in India, and in Aligarh. I occupied the Nizami Villa, with my wife and four children.  All the children went to school in Aligarh. My wife enjoyed local friends. I spent my time either reading and translating at home or traveling to various places in India. I read Fawaid Al Fuad, Amir Hasan’s account of Nizamuddin’s table talk, but I never imagined that I would someday attempt to translate it into English.”

Dr Lawrence’s mentor was Khaliq Ahmad Nizami. “He was the kindest man I have ever known, but also a fiercely energetic and devoted scholar of Indian Sufism. It was he who insisted that I also learn Urdu, along with Indo-Persian, while in Aligarh. When it came time to leave after two years in his home, and also in his university (Aligarh Muslim University), he had one request: translate Fawaid Al Fuad into English. Make it sing for Americans and other English speakers. It was a quest that occupied me for more than 15 years.”

Syed Ausaf Ali, a scholar with the Hamdard Foundation, now the Hamdard University, in Tughluqabad, invited Dr Lawrence back to India to begin his translation of Fawaid Al Fuad in June 1980.

This is Dr Lawrence’s account of that journey:

 ‘Jawhar-e jan matla’-anwar-e u

Ma’dan-e jan makhzan-e asrar-e u!

“The gem of the soul is the height of his lights,

The source of the soul is the treasury of his secrets.”

“Today, I return to the tomb of Nizamuddin. The cab driver from Palam did not know where Defence Colony was. I couldn’t remember the road, but I did remember Nizamuddin. And as we drew near his resting place, I had the urge to stay in the Lodhi Hotel (rather than in Defence Colony), perhaps because I wanted to be near this saint whose ascetical light still casts its rays on we who approach him in the twenty-first century.

“The poor are his — and how many they are, swarming to that worn out, marbled tomb. God, but they are rich, clothed with his blessing, uplifted by his glance and in touch with God whose mercy he dispenses. But what is it that emanates from his tomb, that aroma which I do not find elsewhere?

 “Mera nasim-e tu bayad. Sabah koja ke nist?

I need your breeze. Where is there not the morning breeze?”

A manuscript that survived time

Amir Hasan recorded Nizamuddin’s discourses over fourteen years from 1308. On completing the fourth fascicle, Amir Hasan writes: “From the time I first began to record these words till today when I reached the conclusion, there elapsed a full twelve years, and this sum of twelve years, having forged in the crucible of Truth, has been transformed into the gold coin of twelve months in the eyes of present-day moneychangers. It is to be hoped that this gold coin will now become a seal stamped on the hearts of (readers), ensuring both the full value of true faith and its universal circulation, if God Almighty wills. And God alone knows the truth.”

Dr. Bruce Lawrence at Amir Hasan Sijzi’s mazaar.

Dr Bruce Lawrence has preserved that gold in English — a seal to be stamped on the hearts of readers today. His has been a journey from a Christian boy who lost his father at age nine to letting you feel Nizamuddin is sitting next to you as you read the dervish’s beliefs.

“My early life was one of tragedy and opportunity, intermingled and each productive. The tragedy was the death of my father when I was nine. The oldest of four sons, I found myself burdened with new responsibilities, emotional and practical, that shaped me going forward. That was in 1950.

“By 1953 I was studying at a private school where daily religious devotion helped clear my head, and enliven my heart. I found myself in a class for the religiously restless in 1957, and to my surprise, reading great literature with spiritual undertones appealed to me more than math and science, the most natural, easeful direction for my academic pursuits.

‘It was really an act of chance, or blessing that led me to take a class in Islamic philosophy during my freshman year in college. I also decided to study Arabic, but neither Islam nor Sufism was on the horizon during those days. I was committed, or so I thought, to pursuing a career in the US Foreign Service. Perhaps, if I were lucky, I might be assigned to some Middle East country where I could use my Arabic, and also discover aesthetic dimensions of the mysterious East,” Dr Lawrence says.

But was Nizamuddin calling?

“Two years of service in the US Navy, following graduation from college, dispirited me about any form of government labour. I found myself bridled by the bureaucracy but also the presumptions of a life committed to the pursuit of national interests. Laudable in the abstract, they pinched in the particular.

“I opted to go to divinity school instead of the Foreign Service, after my discharge from the Navy in 1964. For three years I studied in Cambridge, MA, at Episcopal Divinity School, an affiliate of Harvard Divinity School. I then had the chance to continue these studies in a PhD program at Yale University. Following ordination to the Episcopal Church, where I remain to this day as a minister serving its ideals in academic garb, I studied more Arabic, but also Persian and Sanskrit, before earning my PhD in 1972.

“My real education, however, began the following summer. I had a chance, my first, to go to India, and included on that pilot trip was a visit to Aligarh and to Professor Khaliq Ahmad Nizami.

‘Professor Nizami immediately drew me into the world of Indian Sufism, the Chishtis, and Shaikh Nizamuddin. I spent two years — 1974 to 1976 — in India and in Aligarh, and it was at the end of that time that Professor Nizami asked me to undertake an English translation of Fawaid Al Fuad.

“It became, and remains, the happiest book of the sixteen or seventeen books I have written, co-written, edited or co-edited. I spent long hours with each of the sessions, but even more I felt the guiding presence of a spirit — call it Baraka — that led me to persist. Especially blessed was my meeting with a fellow scholar, Dr Christopher Shackle, in 1989, and it was he who provided, or helped me to provide, most of the verse translations in what is now Morals for the Heart.

“I am indebted to many for the privilege of doing this book — Professor Nizami for inspiration, Dr Shackle for assistance, and, above all, to Shaikh Nizamuddin for solace and satisfaction at hearing his voice in English, as I, and others, have heard it in Persian through the skill of his disciple and recorder, Amir Hasan Sijzi.”

But how do you explain a boy growing up in Christian environs would make Nizamuddin come alive to the extent that you feel his physical presence in the translation that took fourteen years, almost the same time Amir Hassan took to compile Fawaid Al Fuad?

Dr Lawrence says: “I was a religious rebel, that is, a rebel against religion — God — the world, especially after my father died at such an early age. He was 54, I but nine and also the oldest of his four sons. Professor Khaliq Ahmad Nizami had the air of a father. He became a kind of second father to me, but without being paternalistic, either demanding or expecting too much from me as his foreign protégé. He used to say: ‘If you can’t see the saint, go to the book, in this case,Morals for the Heart, and let your finger alight on a passage. It will speak to you. You may not see the saint but you can hear him.’”

Note- Bruce B. Lawrence is professor of Islamic Studies Emeritus at Duke University and adjunct Professor at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Vakf University, Istanbul. His research interests include: South Asian Sufism; Islamic Cosmopolitanism; the Multiple Roles and Uses of the Qur’an. In addition to his translation, Morals for the Heart (Paulist Press, 1992), other recent books include: Sufi Martyrs of Love (with Carl Ernst; Palgrave, 2002); The Qur’an – a Biography (Grove/Atlantic, 2006); and Who is Allah? (UNC/EUP Press, 2015). His next monograph is The Koran in English – A Biography, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

Twitter Feeds

Facebook Feeds