Nizamuddin Auliya: The Dervish of Love


And love.

It is all that matters in this courtyard.

Bibi Zuleikha’s father, Khwaja Arab, was a man of riches in Bukhara when the Mongol Chinghiz Khan eyed the riches of the city. He sacked Bukhara, looted its wealth and murdered thousands.

Bibi Zuleikha, Khwaja Arab and their family escaped the bloodbath and fled Bukhara, leaving behind all their wealth. Khwaja Ali, a friend of Khwaja Arab, also survived the mass murder. They travelled to Lahore and settled in Badaon, a quiet city, free of political intrigues.

Khwaja Arab gave his daughter, Zuleikha, in marriage to Khwaja Ali’s son, Ahmad. They had a daughter, Zainab, and a son, Mohammad.  Ahmad passed away soon after Mohammad was born in 1244.  Mohammad would later be known as Nizamuddin. Zainab told Nizamuddin how their father had died.

One night, their mother, Bibi Zuleikha, heard a voice in her dream, saying she should choose between her husband or son as one of them was destined to die. She said Nizamuddin should live. Khwaja Ahmad fell ill soon after and passed away.

The child Nizamuddin was different. He was a diligent student, but destiny would take him on a journey, a Path travelled by Chishti dervishes before him.

Destiny was also playing another hand. A little away in Patiali, around 1253, Saifuddin Shamsi, a Turk, was celebrating the birth of his second son.

The Mongols had driven thousands out of Central Asia. Saifuddin joined the army of the sultans of Delhi. He married, Daulat Naz, the daughter of Imad-ul-Mulk, the army minister of the sultan.

Abul Hassan Yameen Al Deen was born to Saifuddin and Daulat Naz. He was born into riches and a milieu where brother killed brother and nephew his uncle to sit on the throne. The sultan’s court was a cauldron of intrigue, deceit, and murder. Abul Hassan’s father, Saifuddin, was the sultan’s soldier, his grandfather, Imad-ul-Mulk, a key member of the royal court, the epicentre of political deception. Abul Hassan was cradled in this air of evil design, distrust and conspiracy.

Abul Hassan would grow up to be known as Amir Khusro — the master poet and musician; the confidante of sultans; and the favourite disciple of Nizamuddin — the dervish who despised politics, who shunned sultans.

Nizamuddin studied hard. But Badaon could not cure his thirst for knowledge. He wanted to move to Delhi, the seat of education at that time. It was 1260. Bibi Zuleikha agreed. The family left Badaon.

The Turkish aristocracy held sway in Delhi. The politics was cutthroat. Sixteen-year-old Nizamuddin’s strength  was his mother, Bibi Zuleikha. The family was poor: they had no money to find a roof to shelter, no money to buy bread.

The family found an inn, which only allowed women to stay. Bibi Zuleikha and Nizamuddin’s sister, Zainab, moved there.  The sultan’s army minister, Imad-ul-Mulk, gave Nizamuddin shelter in one of his homes close by.

Saifuddin Shamsi, Imad-ul-Mulk’s son-in-law, had been killed in battle. Imad-ul-Mulk was bringing up his grandson, Amir Khusro. Nizamuddin and Khusro lived in the same house.  A Sufi ascetic, Najeebuddin Mutawakil, lived next door. Resigned to the Will of his Maker and lost in His devotion, Najeebuddin was so poor that even during Eid, when feasting is the norm, all he could offer guests was a glass of water.

Grandeur and opulence lived side by side with poverty and penitence. Nizamuddin saw both worlds. He lived in one and had no desire for the other. He was content being hungry. His mother had shown him other riches: trust in the Maker and His ways.

Ever since he was a boy, Nizamuddin had one longing — he wanted to place his head at the feet of Baba Farid, a dervish, who lived in Ajodhan, now Pakpattan in Pakistan.

Nizamuddin was 12 when a wandering minstrel, Abu Bakr Kharrat, came to Badaon, to see his teacher. He praised Bahauddin Zakariya, a Sufi master of the Suhrawardi sect in Multan, and then spoke of his visit to Baba Farid. For some inexplicable reason, Baba Farid lived in Nizamuddin’s soul.

Destiny had brought Nizamuddin to Delhi and to Najeebuddin Mutawakil, Baba Farid’s brother.  His poverty was abject, but it did not shake his faith.  Bibi Fatima Sam, a neighbour, would send the family bread when they were on the edge of starvation. Like Bibi Zuleikha, Najeebuddin extended his hands only before his Maker.

Nizamuddin completed his education and wanted to be a judge. He ran to Najeebuddin asking him to read the Surat Al Fatiha as a blessing for his success. He said nothing. Nizamuddin asked again. And Najeebuddin said: “Don’t be a judge, be something else.”

This changed Nizamuddin’s life.

Nizamuddin was at the mosque one night. When morning broke, the muezzin recited this verse from the Quran:

“Has not the time arrived

For the Believers that

Their hearts in all humility

Should engage in the remembrance of God.”

That was a sign. Nizamuddin was 20. “I have to go to Shaikh Farid,” he told his mother.

Nizamuddin was nervous when he travelled to Ajodhan. Baba Farid knew he was coming. It was destined.

The 90-year-old Shaikh realised Nizamuddin was trembling with awe. He welcomed Nizamuddin with these words: “The fire of your separation has burnt many hearts. The storm of desire to meet you has ravaged many lives.”

Nizamuddin mustered up the courage to say he wanted to kiss his feet. Baba Farid knew he was tense. “Every newcomer is nervous,” he said as he calmed Nizamuddin’s mind.

Lessons of a dervish

Nizamuddin returned to Delhi from Ajodhan after spending time with Baba Farid, learning the life and ways of Chishti Sufis.

The creed was simple: Devote your life to God, serve the poor and the needy to realise the Maker. Do not till the land as it will make you beholden to the tax collector. Once you are beholden to the tax collector, your soul will be preoccupied with worry and material want. And once the tax collector has your soul, there is no time for the Almighty. Do not indulge in shughl or government service — the sultan is not your master, the Maker is. Never meet a sultan, stay away from the court. Eat frugally when food comes as futuh or unasked for gifts. Distribute everything that comes as futuh among the poor, never keep anything for the next day because God will provide. Storing food proves you have no trust in your Maker. Bring happiness to the human heart — it is more important than ritualistic prayer.

Moinuddin Chishti, the mystic who introduced Chishti Sufism to the Indian subcontinent, lived by one principle: Be as generous as the river, warm as the Sun and as hospitable as the earth. The river gives water to everyone; the sun showers warmth without discrimination; and the earth provides its bounty despite us stamping on it.

This was the Chishti mystic’s life: Serve the poor. But first you had to conquer all your primal fears: You had no source of food — you had to rely solely on God to provide; you had no home — you lived in a mosque or trusted in God to provide a shelter; you had a simple tunic that you washed and wore. You had to obliterate the desire for man’s basic needs for survival: food, shelter and clothing. There was nothing. And in that nothingness, there was God because there was trust. There was resignation to His Will — a creed so simple that it defies human instinct. A creed that would make kings knock on the doors of dervishes because there was no fear; no want; no expectation; no self. There was only God.

Taste of hunger

Nizamuddin lived the life of a dervish in poverty and prayer. Oncethree days had passed and there was nothing to eat. Someone knocked on his door and handed him a bowl of khichri. “Nothing in life tasted better,” Nizamuddin would reminisce.

Baba Farid’s teachings and the principles of the Chishti mystics were ingrained in Nizamuddin. He had surrendered himself to the Will of the Maker. He had no source of food, he wore a simple Sufi tunic and he had no shelter. He returned to Delhi from Ajodhan and found refuge in Amir Khusro’s uncle’s house. Adjacent to the palatial buildings of courtiers, Bibi Zuleikha and Baba Farid’s brother, Najeebuddin Mutawakil, lived in run down houses, in present day Mehrauli.

Bibi Zuleikha had passed, entrusting Nizamuddin to the care of his Maker. Nizamuddin had nothing. But he felt secure. “If my mother had left me a house full of gold and jewels, it would not have given me any pleasure and consolation. This bereaved heart was consoled when she said she had entrusted me to God,” Nizamuddin would recall years later. Her words comforted him. They calmed his soul. He trusted in his Maker and cared for little else.

Nizamuddin soon found a home in Ghiyaspur, but food was still a scarcity. He had to starve for days. When he could not take the hunger any longer, Nizamuddin would put a tablecloth at the door. People could leave anything to eat. He would end his fast with whatever he was given. Once a beggar walked past and saw food outside Nizamuddin’s door. He thought they were left overs. Nizamuddin had not eaten. The beggar took the food away. Nizamuddin smiled. “It appears that there is still imperfection in our work and for that reason we are being kept in hunger.”

Nizamuddin had a few disciples by now and all went hungry when there was nothing to eat. There was a woman in the neighbourhood who earned a living by spinning thread. She would bake bread at iftar. She once heard that Nizamuddin and his disciples had been starving for four days straight. The woman sent them some flour she had saved. Nizamuddin asked one of his disciples to mix it with water and put it to boil. It had not been fully baked when a dervish suddenly appeared and shouted: “If you have anything to eat, do not hold it from me.”

Nizamuddin asked him to wait because the bread had not baked. The dervish grew impatient, and Nizamuddin, rolling his sleeves, brought the boiling pot before the dervish. He picked up the pot and smashed it to the ground. “Shaikh Farid has bestowed spiritual blessings on Shaikh Nizamuddin. I break the vessel of his material poverty,” the dervish said as he left.

From that day on, futuh or unasked for gifts, flooded Nizamuddin’s khanqah. His disciples grew and the poor came in hundreds every day. No one left hungry from his khanqah in Ghiyaspur. Nizamuddin knew poverty well. He had gone hungry too.

Nizamuddin had visited his master thrice in his lifetime. Baba Farid had granted him the right to enroll disciples in 1265. While conferring the right or Khilafat Namah, Baba Farid said this to Nizamuddin: “You will be a tree under whose soothing shade people will find comfort.” He predicted Nizamuddin would not be present when he would pass.

Nizamuddin was taken aback. This was a massive responsibility he could not shoulder. “You have bestowed a great honour on me and have nominated me your successor. This is a great treasure for me. But I am a student and dislike any worldly connection. I have looked at it with disdain. This position is very high and beyond my capacity to shoulder. For me, your kindness and favour are enough,” he said.

Baba Farid understood Nizamuddin was hesitant and said he would do well in his task. Nizamuddin was still concerned, and his master reassured him with conviction: “Nizam! Take it from me, though I do not know if I will be honoured before the Almighty or not, I promise not to enter Paradise without your disciples in my company.”

The poor, the hungry, the rich and those thirsting for spiritual comfort began thronging Nizamuddin’s khanqah in Ghiyaspur. He had become a force. The people needed him. Sultan Jalaluddin Khilji too decided to pay Nizamuddin a visit. The sultan did not know of his aversion to kings and politics.

Nizamuddin declined his request. Jalaluddin was not taking no for an answer. He would come to see him anyway.

“My house has two doors. If the sultan enters through one, I will exit through the other,” Nizamuddin said. Jalaluddin was adamant. He had to see the Shaikh. The sultan planned a surprise visit. Amir Khusro, who was employed at the sultan’s court, knew his master, Nizamuddin, would be upset should the sultan enter his house. He told Nizamuddin, who left for Ajodhan to see his master, Baba Farid.

Jalaluddin was incensed when he heard that Khusro had betrayed him. Khusro was brought before the sultan. “In disobeying the sultan, I stand to lose my life, but in being false to my master, I stood in danger of losing my faith,” Khusro said.

The mighty Alauddin Khilji, the sultan, who everyone feared, was wary of one man, tucked away in a corner of Ghiyaspur, the epicentre of faith in Delhi: Nizamuddin. His khanqah was pulsating with life. Futuh flowed into his khanqah like the Jamuna River adjacent. It never ebbed. Food was served to people who came to see him from early in the morning to late into the night. The roads to his house were packed with people: the atmosphere was that of a fair. Nizamuddin fasted all day, and even when he was served food at dawn before he started his fast, morsels would stick to his throat. He could not eat because someone had gone hungry somewhere in Delhi.

The poor, the scholar, the rich and the noble would come to Ghiyaspur in search of food, knowledge, spiritual sustenance and security. No one left Nizamuddin’s house with an empty soul. The trouble-mongers in Alauddin’s court tried to sow intrigue in the sultan’s mind. Nizamuddin, they said, was a threat to Alauddin Khilji. A Sufi fakir, who had nothing in this world, who fed hundreds daily, who lived in the trust of his Maker, was a potential usurper. The irony — a powerful emperor would have to spend sleepless nights because of God’s beggar.

Khilji thought of a ruse to gauge Nizamuddin’s designs. He wrote him a letter seeking advice on matters of the state. The sultan’s son, Khizr Khan, delivered the letter. Nizamuddin did not open it. He said: “We dervishes have nothing to do with the affairs of the state. I have settled in one corner away from the men of the city and spend my time praying. If the sultan doesn’t like this, let him tell me so. I will go and live elsewhere. God’s earth is extensive enough.”

Khilji, though calm with Nizamuddin’s declaration, was still not feeling snug. The sultan ran a successful empire because he had a sophisticated spy network. Alauddin did not tolerate two people gathered in a street corner. The fact that hundreds were sitting and eating together in Nizamuddin’s khanqah was loathsome. Conspiracy would be born in a gathering so large. Alauddin posted his spies in Nizamuddin’s khanqah. He needed to know what was transpiring behind the walls of his khanqah, which otherwise seemed lost in prayer and helping the less fortunate.

Nizamuddin realised he was being watched. He asked his disciples to add a rice dish to the menu that was served to the people who came to the khanqah. The sultan was incensed at this festival of food that played out every day in the dervish’s home. Nizamuddin was told about his rage. He added some more dishes to the menu — halwa and samosas. The sultan was dumbstruck.

Amir Khusro, the court poet of sultans, turned to Nizamuddin when the intrigues of the court and the blood-letting became too much to bear. He found sanctuary at the khanqah.

“What do you desire?” Nizamuddin once asked Amir Khusro. “The sweetness of verse,” he replied. “Go and bring that bowl of sugar from under the cot. Eat some and sprinkle the rest over your head,” Nizamuddin said.

“Repeat my prayer, for your permanence is dependent on my permanence. They should bury you next to me,” Nizamuddin would often tell Khusro.

When his master would retire for the night, no one would be allowed to enter his chamber, only Khusro  could. “What news Turk?” Nizamuddin would ask. And the poet would tell his master what had transpired in the treacherous court and the kingdom that day.

When Khusro would leave, Nizamuddin would close the door. A candle would be seen burning in his room. Nizamuddin was immersed in prayer. He would recite this couplet: “Come sometimes and have a glimpse of me and the candle. When breath leaves me, the flame goes out of the candle.”

He remained like that for most of the night. Nizamuddin would emerge in the morning with an ecstatic glow around him. His eyes would be red. Khusro would ask in whose embrace had Nizamuddin spent the night because his eyes were so red, yet his face was radiant. But even Amir Khusro, the courtier, who played sultans like a violin, could not sit in the same room as Nizamuddin for too long. He would tremble and run out of the room ever so often. When one of Nizamuddin’s devoted disciples, Burhanuddin Garib, asked Khusro why he was running out of the room constantly, he replied: “When a mirror is placed before a Sun, how can one see his face in it?”

The bond of destiny

Nizamuddin suffered from extreme depression when his young nephew, Taqiuddin Nuh, his sister, Zainab’s son, passed away. He became withdrawn. His disciples were worried. They had never seen their master this way. Khusro did not have the magic up his sleeve to cure the depression until one day he saw a group of women, dressed in yellow, dancing and singing their way to a temple. He stopped them and asked what they were doing. Celebrating Basant, they replied. The courtier dressed up like a woman in yellow and went dancing and singing to his master. Nizamuddin smiled. Every year, Basant is celebrated at Nizamuddin’s shrine to mark the day Khusro got the master’s smile back from the depths of grief and depression.

If the sultan Jalaluddin Khilji pampered Khusro, Nizamuddin cradled him like a child, never letting go of his hand. Nizamuddin fondly called Khusro TurkAllah, the Turk of God. “I am weary of everyone, but I am never weary of you. I get weary of everyone, even weary of myself, but I am never weary of you,” the master would say. The slave, God Almighty willing, would be next to the master even in Paradise.

Once in a dream, Nizamuddin saw at the end of Manda bridge, near the gate in front of the house where Najeebuddin Mutawakil stayed, water flowing, serene and pure. Mutawakil was sitting on a high place. It was an exhilarating experience, he would recall. Nizamuddin thought of asking God to bless Khusro. The master knew his prayer would be answered.

Khusro would pray most of the night himself. Once Nizamuddin asked him: “Turk, what is the state of being occupied?” “There are times at the end of the night when one is overcome by weeping,” he replied. “Praise be to God, bit by bit is being manifest,” Nizamuddin said.

Nizamuddin loved Sama, it was a path to the Divine. Khusro transformed Sama into Qawwali for his master.

And Khusro’s couplet sums up what his master Nizamuddin stood for: tolerance.

“Oh you who sneer at the idolatry of the Hindu,

Learn also from him how worship is done.”

The master would often quote this line by Shaikh Abu Said Abul Khair. “There are as many Paths to The One as there are grains of sand.”

And, perhaps, love embodied in Nizamuddin, is best reflected by these couplets he would recite:

“May God befriend all those who are my foes,

May all who hurt me gain increased repose.

May all who in my path place thorns from spite

Lead lives that flower like a thorn-less rose.”

Nizamuddin was much ahead of his times in thought and outlook. When women were being treated as nothing but menial servants of the house, he held them in the highest respect. There was never a question of discrimination. “When a tiger comes out of its forest den, nobody ever asked if it’s a male or female,” was his argument. The wisdom of a woman had shaped his master, Baba Farid’s life. Baba Farid’s mother was his anchor. Mai Sahiba, Nizamuddin’s mother, meant the world to him. She instilled in him unwavering trust in the Maker and patience in times of distress. She was his life.

Nizamuddin’s disciple and Amir Khusro’s close friend, Amir Hasan Sijzi, had a slave named Malih, who he freed on his master’s advice. Malih once brought a number of daughters to see Nizamuddin. One of them had just married. On seeing the daughters, Nizamuddin asked: “What is this? Everyone who has one daughter enjoys a barrier against Hell, and you have four! The father of four daughters is well endowed.”

All the Chishti Sufis before him — Shaikh Moinuddin Chishti, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Baba Farid — married and had families as was incumbent according to religion, but Nizamuddin did not have time for love and family. For him, there was just one love and his heart had space for none else.

The many years of fasting, penitence and poverty had started to tell on Nizamuddin. It was 1325, Nizamuddin now 81 was ailing, but the sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughluq was still hounding him. He thought Nizamuddin was a threat, but there were more serious issues in his empire. There was trouble brewing in Bengal and Avadh. The generals were at it again, mismanaging affairs. Off the sultan went, taking Amir Khusro with him to put things right.

The sultan’s son Ulugh Khan headed straight to Nizamuddin’s khanqah. The master asked him to sit on his cot, but the prince refused out of respect. “We asked you to sit on the cot. Sit.” He asked his attendant Lalla to bring a chair for Ulugh Khan’s general Jahan. Ulugh Khan said: “The Shaikh has given the throne to me and wazir (prime minister) to you.”

The prince’s father was battling in Bengal. The mission over, he started his journey back home, sending word ahead that Nizamuddin should leave Delhi before he made an entrance. “Hunooz Dilli door ast (Delhi is still far away),” Nizamuddin said.

Ulugh Khan, meanwhile, prepared for his father’s arrival and ordered that Delhi be dressed up for the occasion. Fearing that the arrangements wouldn’t be complete on time, Ulugh Khan got a pavilion erected in Afghanpur a short distance from Tughluqabad.

Father and son met, food was served and the feasting began. Ulugh Khan left the pavilion to bring some elephants he had captured in war to be paraded before his father, the sultan Ghiyasuddin. The son had barely left the pavilion, when it collapsed, burying Ghiyasuddin and his trusted nobles. By the time the rubble was removed the sultan was dead.

Ulugh Khan was crowned sultan and he took the name of Mohammad Bin Tughluq. Amir Khusro was still journeying back from Bengal. His master, Nizamuddin’s health was fading away quickly. They say Khusro was uneasy in Bengal and wanted to return to Delhi. He didn’t want to leave his master’s side in the first place. He felt something was wrong. Khusro hastened home.

Ghiyaspur knew it was just a matter of time that the master would be reunited with his Love. As Amir Khusro galloped towards Delhi from Bengal, Nizamuddin went to the mosque to offer Friday prayers. He entered into a state of ecstasy. He kept bowing and prostrating repeatedly. Nizamuddin returned home and fell unconscious. When Nizamuddin recovered, he asked whether he had offered his prayers. “Today is Friday. Have I offered my prayers?” He prayed repeatedly as tears flowed down his cheeks. “It is time, it is time,” he whispered.

But in that state of ecstasy, Nizamuddin summoned all his relatives and disciples.  “Be a witness that if this man (Lalla) holds back anything instead of distributing among the needy, he will be responsible before God.”

He ordered Lalla to give everything away. Lalla followed his master’s orders, but kept a bit of corn so that residents of the khanqah would get to eat something. Nizamuddin heard what his attendant had done and was upset. “Why have you kept this sand?” he asked Lalla. He called the needy and gave everything away.

The Dervish reunites with his Love

Grief gripped Nizamuddin’s khanqah. The man who filled their hearts with warmth and grace would no longer walk the halls comforting the needy, making them smile again. It was hard to imagine. 

But there was another very basic need: how would they get food? For decades people donated to the khanqah out of their love and respect for Nizamuddin and the needy, but the days of starvation were long gone. These were days of plenty.

Nizamuddin was extremely weak now, but he heard their worries. “Those of you who live at my tomb will get enough to eat. No one will go hungry,” the master said.

Amir Khusro was still journeying back from Bengal. The master went home. It was 1325.

Lalla was called. Did he know where the master wanted to lie? “Yes, under an orange tree in a garden,” he replied. The master would walk to the garden about two kilometres from his khanqah and sit under the orange tree. Sultan Mohammad Bin Tughluq was among the pallbearers.  The patched cloak that Baba Farid had given the master covered him. His prayer mat was put under his head.

But this was too big a void to fill. Who could have that compassion? Who could have that sense of humour? Who could have that balm of comfort?

The emptiness set in.

Khusro once said: “The Khwaja is not made of water and clay. The lives of Khizr and Jesus have been mixed to form his being. Wherever his breath reached, mountains of grief gave way.”

There was no breath to cure this grief. Instead, it seemed the mountains of grief could — and would — take life away. Khusro was reunited with his master six months later.

When Nizamuddin was a young boy, he would go bounding to his mother, asking for food. And she would say: “Nizam, today we are the guests of God.” He knew what that meant, there was no food at home, but he would long to hear those words.

Nizamuddin is no longer the Guest of God, he is Mehbob-e-Ilahi, Beloved of God. For he lived only for one Love.

Nothing else mattered.

Photo credit – Bandeep Singh

In this courtyard today, nothing else matters.

Just faith.

And love.

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