This Path is not about religion: Just faith

The lyrical notes enveloped his senses. He was mesmerized. A band of wandering minstrels was exhorting Moinuddin Chishti. And just then Moghul emperor Akbar was enveloped by a yearning; he had to go to Ajmer. It was sometime during the 1560s.

The emperor travelled to the shrine to pray and distribute money among the poor who had sheltered in the sanctuary of Garib Nawaz. Whether it was to celebrate a battle or pray for a son, the emperor turned to Moinuddin Chishti.

The mighty qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan mesmerized millions with his artistry, weaving notes with such intensity and flair that seekers on the Path would be taken to another world – the sanctuary of serenity.

But Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s father did not want him to follow in his footsteps and become a qawwal. He wanted his son to become a doctor. Nusrat had other dreams. The child did not understand why a white shrine appeared as he closed his eyes every night. A relative explained why. Nusrat had this yearning. In 1979, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan realized his dream: he sang at the dargah of Moinuddin Chishti.

Bollywood’s emperor in waiting Shah Rukh Khan traveled to Ajmer In early 2011. He asked nothing for himself because God had blessed him with abundance, but he prayed for family and friends.

A few weeks later, the emperor himself, Amitabh Bachchan, journeyed to Ajmer. A 40-year-old wish was fulfilled.

In May this year, President Ram Nath Kovind, visited the shrine and offered a chadar to the Sufi saint. Kovind’s journey to Ajmer comes at a critical time in the history of India, when some sections of society are fanning the flames of hate on religious lines; when love and understanding are threatened; when tolerance is in jeopardy, when humanity is all but forgotten.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of qawwali’s finest exponents; Shah Rukh Khan, an actor adored by billions; Amitabh Bachchan, an institution; Ram Nath Kovind, the head of the largest democracy in the world. What is this yearning; this longing for Garib Nawaz?

But then again, what is this yearning of millions of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians? Baba Farid would, perhaps, describe it as ‘dard.’

Moinuddin Chishti was born in 1138 in Sistan in Persia. His parents died when he was 15. The boy inherited an orchard and a millstone to eke out a living. His world would change when a dervish Ebrahim Qandoozi visited his orchard and blessed him. The young Chishti set out to find a guide and was led to Osman Harouni, a scholar of great repute. He stayed with his teacher for long years, mastering religious studies. Harouni and Chishti performed Haj and proceeded to Madinah. It was there in Madinah that a yearning enveloped Chishti to settle in Ajmer.

Rajasthan or Rajputana, as it was then known, was a treasure. Kings and conquerors yearned for Rajputana. But Chishti wanted nothing of kings and conquerors: he wanted to serve the poor, the hungry, the wretched, the unwanted, the widow, the orphan.

He settled on a hill close to Ana Sagar Lake. Chishti was about 50 then; Rajputana was ruled by the daunting Prithviraj Chauhan. But the mighty Prithviraj Chauhan, who had the world at his feet, was wary of this fakir. He ordered one of his councilors Ajai Pal, supposedly the master of magic, to neutralize him. The fakir stole the hearts of king and councilor – not through magic or violence: it was through his unflinching belief in peace.

The path of non-violence and love was the essence of his thought. He was steadfast in his conviction that bringing happiness to the heart was the supreme prayer. No one would go hungry from his doorstep. And because of his devotion to the poor and hungry, he is called Garib Nawaz or ‘helper of the poor’. Chishti himself fasted regularly and ate sparingly.

Chishti’s philosophy of love is simple: you must be as generous as the river, as warm as the Sun and as hospitable as the earth. He set up the Chishti order in India, said to be founded by Abu Ishaq Shami of Syria who introduced Sufism to the town of Chisht, a little distance away from Herat in present Afghanistan

The sub-continent in the 12th century was a cauldron of political tumult. The raids by Mahmud of Ghori, the resistance of the Rajputs and the battle for Delhi – the land was turbulent. But Moinuddin Chishti spurned politics, had little time for king and courtier. His sole mission was to soothe human pain. The soul was to be fed through prayer, tolerance and love. Devotional music was an avenue to realise the Almighty. If there was no humanity, no compassion, no understanding, no consideration, there was no life.

Streams of people came to him every day, some looking for spiritual healing, some for emotional sustenance, and some were just plain hungry. Chishti sheltered them all: he healed wounds and fed empty stomachs. For about 40 years, he devoted himself to the people of Ajmer and surrounding areas.

Chishti passed in 1230 and was buried in his prayer room.  Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki of Delhi carried on the work of Chishti. And like his master, Kaki would be lost in the Divine listening to sama.

The story goes that Kaki had been awestruck for four nights and days. There was an assembly of sama in the khanqah of Shaikh Ali Sanjari.  The singer recited a couplet:

“All those by the knife of submission killed;

Each moment from God with new life are filled.”

Kaki was overwhelmed. Leaving the assembly, he returned home. He remained awestruck. He kept asking those around to recite the same couplet. As soon as it was recited, he became awestruck. When the time for prayer arrived, he would say them and people would repeat the same couplet.

The ecstasy continued to overwhelm him. For four nights and days he continued in this spiritual state. On the fifth night he expired.

Shaikh Badruddin Ghaznawi later recounted: “I was present that night when his death was imminent. I became drowsy and fell asleep. In my sleep I dreamt of Shaikh Qutbuddin. He had arisen from this place where he was, and he continued to go higher and higher. Turning to me, he said: ‘Look, the friends of God, never die.’ When I woke, I saw that the Shaikh had already journeyed to the Abode of Permanence — may God have mercy on all saints.”

Baba Farid was Kaki’s successor. But as he spread tolerance, love and compassion among his people and soothed human hearts, he waited for someone to come.

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

Bibi Zuleikha, Khwaja Arab and their family managed to escape the massacre and fled Bukhara, leaving behind all their wealth. Khwaja Ali, a friend of Khwaja Arab, also survived the carnage. They traveled to Lahore and then 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.

Nizamuddin  was brought up by Bibi Zuleikha, a deeply religious woman, who instilled piety in the child. They were impoverished – for days there would be nothing to eat. When Nizamuddin would return from school, hungry, he would ask his mother what there was to eat. And she would reply: “Today, we are the guests of God.” Nizamuddin knew then there was not a morsel at home. But those words gave him solace.

And just as emperor Akbar had yearned for Moinuddin Chishti after a band of minstrels was exhorting him, Nizamuddin heard of Baba Farid through one such singer Abu Bakr Kharrat. He knew he had to go to his master. And, when the time was right, he travelled to Ajodhan, now in Pakpattan, to see Baba Farid.

The 90-year-old Shaikh noticed 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 stayed with Baba Farid for months, imbibing the principles of tolerance, love of all human beings across all faiths and compassion. Nizamuddin healed the human heart. His principle was simple: if an enemy places thorns before you and you place thorns in his path, there will be thorns all around. There could be no room for hate.

Nizamuddin finally settled in Ghiyaspur in Delhi on the banks of the Jamuna River. He led an austere life and propagated the purity of thought.  Food flowed aplenty as people gave generously. The kitchen of his khanqah was busy through the day, feeding the poor and hungry.

He fasted all day and ate very little. Food would not go down Nizamuddin’s throat as someone had gone to sleep hungry. His days were spent in prayer and healing the hurt. He abhorred the politics of Delhi and had little time for kings and emperors. Though several expressed their desire to see him, Nizamuddin would not entertain them. He wanted nothing of king and courtier, save for one: Amir Khusro.

Nizamuddin, like Chishti, Kaki and Baba Farid, believed in sama, a Sufi practice of listening to music, as a form of prayer. Khusro give Nizamuddin something special –  qawwali. Khusro spoke of divine love – where the lover longed for union with her Maker.  He once wrote of Chishti: My courtyard is blessed as my love has come home. If two lovers spend the monsoon together, the night is blessed for the bride. The monsoon in which my love doesn’t come home, let that monsoon be set on fire.

Nizamuddin spent his life devoted to the poor, feeding the hungry, giving hope to the hapless. When the blood on the battlefield took its toll on Amir Khusro, he would seek serenity in the calmness of Nizamuddin Auliya’s khanqah. The master soothed the tumult in the court poet. They were two halves of one soul.

Khusro was away in Bengal on a campaign when Nizamuddin passed. On hearing the news, he galloped back to Delhi and went to his master’s grave. Stricken by grief, he said: “The fair maiden lies on a bed of roses; Her face covered with a lock of hair; Let us O’ Khusro, return home, the dark dusk blankets the four corners of the world.”

Such was the love between master and disciple that Khusro passed away of grief within six months of Nizamuddin’s death in 1325. They were buried a few meters apart.

So, why do the millions – Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs journey to Ajmer? Why do they seek solace in Kaki’s dargah? Why do they seek serenity in Farid’s shrine? Why do they place their foreheads at Nizamuddin’s doorstep?


Do these shrines soothe troubled souls? Do these shrines fulfil dreams? Do these shrines answer prayers? Perhaps, they do.

These shrines are testimony to the convictions and beliefs of men born centuries ago. Those beliefs are still alive and provide refuge to the poor, the hungry, the wretched, the widow and the orphan.  Eight centuries on, no one goes hungry from their doorsteps.

The lamps in these shrines will always glow because they are symbols of unity, of religious tolerance. They are symbols of kindness and compassion. They are testimony to hope.

This Path is not about religion: Just faith

Picture Credits-

  1. Mr. Bandeep Singh
  2. Mr. Aalok Sony
  3. Mr. Daulat Chishty.

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