Niẓām al-Dīn Awliyāʾ

views updated


NIĀM AL-DĪN AWLIYĀʾ (ah 636725/12381325 ce) was a major ūfī saint of the Chishtī order. Under his leadership, the order expanded into a mass movement across India. Great men of letters from Amīr Khusraw (d. 1325) to Muammad Iqbāl (d. 1938) have eulogized his religious charisma and sought solace in prayers at his grave. Muammad Tughluq (r. 13241351) was a pallbearer at his funeral and built the mausoleum over his grave. It is a measure of Niām al-Dīn's authority with the people that Bābur (r. 15261530), founder of the Mughal dynasty, felt it necessary, during his conquest of Delhi, to pay his respects at the shrine. It remains a major site of pilgrimage for non-Muslims as well as Muslims.

Niām al-Dīn's paternal and maternal grandparents were refugees from Bukhara, two of many distinguished families who fled the depredations of the Mongols in Central Asia. They eventually settled in Badaon, a city to the east of Delhi, where Niām al-Dīn was born. When he was perhaps five, his father died. His religious temperament was forged during the years of privation that followed. His mother, Zulaykhah, faced extreme hardship with a serene reliance on the compassion of God that proved a decisive, lasting influence. She recognized in her son an instinct for learning and devotion and encouraged it. His intellectual talents recommended him to the best of Badaon's teachers, and he excelled in all branches of the Islamic sciences.

At sixteen, knowing he could get no further as a scholar in Badaon, he asked permission to go to Delhi. His mother consented, and the family moved to even deeper penury in the capital. In later life, Niām al-Dīn recollected with pleasure how often his mother would say, as if announcing an honor, "Today we are the guests of God," meaning that there was no food in the house. He soon established a reputation as a devout scholar with formidable debating skills. He considered a career as a qāī, intending to help the people by dispensing justice. But instinctive asceticism and mystical yearning, deepened by the example of his teachers (in Badaon, Shādī Muqrī and ʿAlāʾal-Dīn Uūlī, and in Delhi, Khawājah Shams al-Dīn and Kamāl al-Dīn Zāhid), had marked him for a different vocation. Accounts he heard of the sanctity of Bābā Farīd al-Dīn Ganj-i Shakar, then head of the Chishtī order, stirred his heart. He visited the venerable shaykh in Ajodhan (now Pak Pattan) in northwest Punjab, and there enrolled as his disciple.

According to traditional accounts of Niām al-Dīn's life, Bābā Farīd perfected his moral character, erasing from it traces of pride in academic reputation. When Niām al-Dīn was only twenty-three, Bābā Farīd appointed him as his successor, ordering him to found a khānqāh (lodge) in Delhi and to "take the spiritual kingdom of Hindustan." Niām al-Dīn settled in Ghiyathpur, a village beside the river Jumna, a little way outside the capital. Originally a straw hut, the khānqāh of Niām al-Dīn became the largest of its kind in India. His reputation grew, as did the futū or unsolicited gifts upon which the khānqāh depended. People from all classes, including the social and political elite, sought his counsel; many submitted to the rigors of khānqāh life to become disciples. His famous disciples included Nāir al-Dīn Chirāgh in Delhi, Qub al-Dīn Munawwar in the Punjab, Burhān al-Dīn Gharīb in the Deccan, the famous poet Amīr Khusraw, the historian iyāʾ al-Dīn Barānī, and the noted scholar Fakhr al-Dīn Zarrādī.

Niām al-Dīn never turned anyone away, whatever their initial motives for calling on him, and he did his utmost to satisfy them. He is said to have had achieved such self-transcendence that he lived the problems of others as his own and attended to them with unfailing compassion. He taught through parables (typically presented as anecdotes from the life of holy men) with implicit relevance for the questioner's situation. The latter then had to engage his own resources to work out the course of action appropriate for him, and was thereby relieved of the psychological burden of having felt helpless.

The people's trust in Niām al-Dīn also rested on the moral reputation of the khānqāh. Following the traditions of the order, any association with political power was rejected; government employment was forbidden to senior disciples; gifts with conditions attached or gifts (like grants of property or land) offering a regular income were refused. Poverty was allowed to alternate with plenty in the resources of the khānqāh. Income from futū was distributed to the poor as soon as received, or expended in the form of food prepared and served in the khānqāh. All who entered the discipline of the khānqāh, whatever their eminence outside, were expected to and did serve the poor at table. Such service was essential training for, and the primary expression of, service of God. Niām al-Dīn encouraged Islamic scholarship and insisted on the normal rites and other demands of the sharīʿah. The goal of his efforts was a deeper relationship with God, and his Islam was vigorously tolerant and inclusive. Non-Muslims as well as Muslims were drawn to the khānqāh as a haven of gentleness and spiritual serenity.

The formative years of the Delhi khānqāh coincided with the expansion and consolidation of the Delhi sultanate during the reign of ʿAlaʾ al-Dīn Khaljī (r. 12961316). The sultan's invitations to the saint were always refused, but the sultan neither resented nor feared the other's popularity: ambitious himself, he recognized the absence of worldly ambition in the saint, and exempted his khānqāh from the intrusive control he favored for all aspects of political and economic life in his dominions. Later Niām al-Dīn again became the object of court intrigue focused on his sanctioning of music as an aid to religious rapture, which the court scholars disapproved. But these machinations, though a nuisance, did not impede Niām al-Dīn in his calling: the order continued to expand, and people still flocked to him for guidance and blessing.

A lifetime of vigils and fasting weakened the health of Niām al-Dīn. He continually suffered ailments of the stomach and bowels. He died on April 3, 1325, and was buried in the garden of the khānqāh. He left no written works. Niām al-Dīn's legacy was a lived example, cherished and relived through the centuries by his followers. They remember his example of spiritual wakefulness expressed as service to humanity and his teachings that emphasized that divine compassion was ever present, without discrimination of class or creed: the role of those who loved God was, accordingly, to mirror his compassion and relieve the human distress that arises from physical and spiritual poverty.


The most important collections of Niām al-Dīn's teachings and anecdotes (malfūāt ) are the Fawāʾid al-fuʾād by asan Sijzī (Lucknow, India, 1884) and Durar-i Nizāmī by ʿAlī Jāndār (Hyderabad, India, n.d.). Fawāʾid al-fuʾād has been translated by Bruce B. Lawrence as Niām ad-Dīn Awliyā: Morals for the Heart (New York, 1992). Useful biographical accounts are available in Jamāl Qiwām al-Dīn, Qiwām al-ʿaqāʾid (Hyderabad, India, n.d.), and Mīr Khurd, Siyar al-awlīyāʾ (Delhi, 1885). The best contemporary chronicle of the Delhi sultanate is iyāʾ al-Dīn Baranī, Tārīkh-i Fīrūz Shāhī (Calcutta, 1860). In English a popular biography of the saint is Khaliq A. Nizami, The Life and Times of Shaikh Nizam-u'd-din Auliya (Delhi, 1991). For a history of the period, see Mohammad Habib and Khaliq A. Nizami, eds., A Comprehensive History of India, reprint ed. (Delhi, 1982). For an excellent historical account and evaluation of the Chishtī order, see Khaliq A. Nizami, Religion and Politics in India during the Thirteenth Century (Oxford, 2002).

Azra Alavi (2005)