Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the Sufi Path, and Radical Islam’s Wall of Terror

Vinay Lal

[12 October 2007]

A bomb exploded at the venerable site of the dargah of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer yesterday and left two people dead, besides injuring many more. If this act of terrorism aims to enhance the objectives of extremist Muslims, one must ask what is to be gained by targeting such sites? What understanding of Islam do the perpetrators of such atrocities have, and what might possibly unite them with Hindu extremists?

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, who was born in (most likely) the Sistan province of Persia in 1141 CE, may have been a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. His parents are thought to have died when he was 15 years old, and he is said to have gained a mystical experience upon encountering a famous monk by the name of Sheikh Ibrahmi Qandozi. Thereafter, according to the received version of his life, he is said to have sold his fruit orchard, inherited from his father, and left for Bukhara. Along with his teacher, the revered Sufi dervish Khwaja Usman Harooni (of Haroon, Iran), to whom Chishti is described as having rendered peerless service, Chishti traveled widely in West Asia for close to two decades, spending considerable periods of time in Khorasan and Samarkand, before bringing the Chishtiya [or Chishtiyyah] Silsila (order) to India.

Chishti settled down in Ajmer with his followers and came to be known as ‘Gharib Nawaz’, Protector [or Emperor] of the Poor. Chishti dwelled on the importance of respecting religious differences, keeping aloof from the established political order, and liberating oneself both from material possessions and systems of patronage. His teachings are said to be encompassed most concisely under the ideas of ‘Wahdat-al-Wujud’ (‘Oneness of God’) and ‘Sulh-i-Kul’ (‘Peace with All’). However, these dicta were to be understood not merely as abstract injunctions to lead the good life, but rather as moral imperatives to render service to fellow human beings, and in particular to the poor, the sick, and the afflicted.

Chishti acquired a massive following and has long been considered the most influential of the many important Sufi teachers and saints who have graced the Indian subcontinent over a millennium. It is during Akbar’s time, in the second half of the sixteenth century, that Chishti’s shrine at Ajmer emerged as a major pilgrimage center, and Akbar himself is described in the Akbarnama as having been attracted to the Sufi saint’s teachings and having gone on foot to meet the saint to render him homage. Chishti’s 13th-century shrine at Ajmer, much like other famous Sufi shrines in South Asia, among them Delhi’s Nizamuddin Dargah, attracts huge numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and practitioners of other faiths. The birth anniversary (urs) of the saint (pir), which is held over the first six days of the lunar month of Rajab, brings his followers to Ajmer from around the world, though the dargah’s supreme importance is also underscored by the fact that Maulana Azad and Jawaharlal Nehru together piloted legislation that uniquely places the shrine under the jurisdiction of the Indian Parliament. The day-to-day management of the shrine is under the jurisdiction of the dargah committee, which was established under the provisions of the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act of 1955.

In the history of the dargah, the extraordinary place it occupies in the religious lore of the Indian subcontinent as a supremely venerable site of syncretic practices, and the teachings of Chishti himself, lie all the clues that might be needed to understand why the sanctity of the Ajmer dargah has now been violated by terrorists. Many commentators, at least in the West, have described extremist or fundamentalist Islam as locked in battle with moderate Islam, but in the Indian subcontinent those do not appear to be the best terms to describe some contemporary currents in Islam. There is more than the faint suggestion that Islam should make itself ‘moderate’ so as to make itself more presentable to the West, as though being presentable or palatable to the West was the highest obligation of a faith such as Islam.

What the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti signifies is the fact that, though Islam and Hinduism were cast by colonial commentators, and some of their modern-day successors, as religions occupying an adversarial relationship to each other, perhaps in few other places of the world have two religions which are so unlike each other in many crucial respects forged such an extraordinarily close relationship. The dargah and teachings of Chishti are supremely emblematic of the unique Indo-Islamic culture that has flourished for close to a millennium. Whoever the perpetrators of the terrorist attack on the dargah may be, they are joined in their thinking by the Hindu extremists – who, not coincidentally, targeted similar syncretic sites of religious belief and practice in Gujarat during the pogrom of 2002. If we recognize that Islam is much less monolithic than is commonly supposed to be the case, then it also follows that Islamic terrorists have an impoverished understanding of their own faith. Though they may believe that they are the custodians and protectors of Islam, they fear its suppleness and diversity. Radical Islam’s wall of terror is foolishly designed to protect Islam not from outside enemies, but from Islam’s own softer, mystical and syncretic aspects.

— Vinay Lal, copyright 2007.