This article is based on a recent lecture by this writer at New Delhi’s Dayal Singh College, located in close proximity to the blessed presence of Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, on the one hand, and the Lodi Gardens on the other. It revolved around what is cherished as the best in India’s inclusive political culture, devotional practices showing the way for peaceful coexistence, remarkable achievements in the cultural arena, whether in excellence in the vast and high literary fields or in exquisite examples of built heritage dotting the landscape, with Mughal emperor Humayun’s magnificent tomb not far away either. These and several other crucial markers of urbanity, elegance, fashionable character of people of heterogeneous kind, respect for even the different and the unfamiliar, emphasis on infrastructure development and institution-building, despite dirty underbelly of deprivation and depravity which pull the city down, have made Delhi what it has come down to us from medieval times. Build and rebuild, rather than destroy, is the lesson from the past, from which we must learn for a better tomorrow.
The careers and contributions of Chishti Sufis have a significant role in the making of India’s wonderful pluralistic culture in which an amazing diversity can peacefully coexist. Through their practices, Sufis were able to show a tolerant and accommodative face of Islam, which tends to get ignored in the usual emphasis on Islamic societies breeding terror. Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, whose shrine is in Mehrauli in Delhi, consolidated the presence of the Chishtis in the city at a time when Delhi Sultanate was also expanding and establishing its power early in 13th century. Emerging half a century later, Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya remains a much-celebrated patron saint of Delhi for over 700 years now. His dargah attracts, besides large numbers of ordinary people, criminals, thugs, politicians and ministers. Much of what we know as Sufism as an Islamic spiritual movement in India was articulated by him in his discourses and reported in voluminous writings of his close disciples (including foremost cultural personality of Amir Khusrau, poet and nobleman Amir Hasan Sijzi, and political ideologue and historian Ziyauddin Barani).
Hazrat Nizamuddin’s successor Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehli carried forward the tradition of Chishti excellence as exemplary characters. However, he did not nominate any disciple as the main successor of the silsila in the next generation. By his time, Chishti Sufis had spread to large parts of upper North India, Bengal and the Deccan and established themselves as charismatic devotional figures with wide followings. In this emerging sacred geography of Sufism, Delhi retained an eminent position, even though the shrine of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer emerged as the most important Sufi centre in India.
Sufi traditions included contested practices such as music, qawwali and other forms of poetry of love, and relations with custodians of Sunni Islam as well as ruling regimes, especially the Sultans of Delhi, with whom there was both a conflict of claims to authority and consensus on how to conquer and govern. Thus, Sufis played important roles in shaping political culture and controlling involvement of religion in it. Opening of the door to their hospices (jama’atkhana/khanaqah) and later the shrines (dargah/darbar/mazar sharif) to all sections of people, across religious, caste and gender divide, meant creating a spiritual space where boundaries could be crossed. This was possible through the Sufis’ monistic doctrine of unity of existence—belief in doing away with all distinctions between God and human beings and between human beings themselves.
Together, all these added to the formation of a spiritually-imbued environment at Sufi shrines. It encouraged purification of the soul, cultivation of the heart completely devoted to God, and, since the latter is supposed to have created everything, love and respect for all His creations. The annual Urs celebrations (death anniversary) at Sufi shrines continually reinforce these values of considerable cultural and political import. They bring together people from various sections of society in a spiritual atmosphere in which arbitrary and hostile social and political boundaries collapse. The qawwals (singers and musicians) sing praise for religious exemplars (God, prophets, spiritual masters) and keepers of shrines pray for sincere aspirations of devotees and for peace and tranquillity in society in general. Love for God and service to humanity is the principal mantra at the shrines—the significance of which is intolerable for divisive groups that thrive on violence.
Despite pressures from puritanical fundamentalists, this model of devotion and respect for Sufi shrines and their relevance for critical social and cultural roles can be seen thriving in other towns and cities as well. The continuous need for a broad-based and inclusive political culture means cosmopolitan character of Sufi-oriented Islamic principles will continue to be invoked for respecting social difference and creating communal harmony.