XIII. The Orthodox Reaction

        [[166]] THE OLD spiritual orders of Islam in India adopted the practice of keeping out of affairs of state, but toward the end of Akbar's reign a new religious group, following quite different traditions, entered the subcontinent. This was the Naqshbandi movement, which was introduced into India under the leadership of Khwaja Baqi Billah. The order's intention of seeking to influence temporal rulers is indicated in the statement of one of its leaders: "If I were after spiritual prominence, no disciple would be left with the other saints. But I have another mission—to bring comfort to the Muslims. To achieve this, I have to associate with the worldly rulers, gain influence over them, and thereby fulfill the objects of the Muslims."/1/

        Khwaja Baqi Billah was born at Kabul in 1563, and after completing his scholastic education there and at Samarqand he visited several saints for spiritual training. Ultimately he was initiated in the Naqshbandi order by a leading saint of Bukhara, who asked him to make India the center of his work. Khwaja Baqi Billah came first to Lahore, where he spent more than a year before moving to Delhi. Partly owing to his great spiritual powers, and partly because he represented the order belonging to the native land of the ruling family, he acquired a prominent position in the religious life of the capital. He was particularly active as a link between the various nobles who were displeased with Akbar's religious innovations. One of these was Shaikh Farid, who, according to Jesuit accounts, extracted a promise from Jahangir, Akbar's heir, to uphold Islam in the kingdom./2/ Other nobles who had great regard for the khwaja included Qulich Khan, [[167]] the devout viceroy of Lahore, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, the commander-in-chief of the Deccan, and Khan-i-Azam, the deputy of the realm. In some of the khwaja's letters there are references to Sadr Jahan (the head of the religious endowments under Akbar) coming to him for spiritual training. The khwaja died in 1603, but before his death the Naqshbandi order had been firmly established in India.

        Khwaja Baqi Billah's most prominent disciple was Shaikh Ahmad, popularly known as Mujaddid Alif Sani (reviver of Islam during the second millennium). He was born at Sirhind on June 26, 1564, and was educated there and at Sialkot. He established himself at Sirhind, but he was soon attracted to Akbar's capital, Fathpur Sikri. Here he moved in the most distinguished intellectual circles, and seems to have favorably impressed Abul Fazl and his versatile brother, Faizi. Shaikh Ahmad's views and temperament had little in common with those of the two brothers (though he himself passed through a period of youthful free-thinking and at one time wrote verses with the poetic surname of Kufri, the "heretic"), but they had enough respect for each other's learning to be able to carry on this intellectual comradeship in spite of the difference in views. The shaikh is even stated to have helped Faizi in the completion of his commentary on the Quran.

        He visited Delhi in 1599 and went to see Khwaja Baqi Billah, who asked him to spend a few days in his hospice. Within two days Ahmad requested the khwaja to take him into discipleship. After having initiated Shaikh Ahmad into various stages of spiritual development under the Naqshbandi order, the khwaja wrote: "Shaikh Ahmad is … rich in knowledge and vigorous in action. I associated with him for a few days, and noticed truly marvelous things in his spiritual life. He will turn into a light which will illuminate the world."

        Shaikh Ahmad returned to Sirhind, convinced that he had a major role to play in the religious life of the times. He twice visited Delhi during the lifetime of the khwaja, who deputed him to work at Lahore. After the khwaja's death, he retired to Sirhind, which remained the main seat of his activities. He carried on his work partly through personal guidance and oral instructions, but he had discovered his literary gifts, and believed that he could also fulfill his mission by writing letters on religious and public subjects to important personages [[168]] of the day. Khwaja Baqi Billah had, by his warm praise and encouragement, made Shaikh Ahmad aware of his potentialities. He had also facilitated the achievement of his task by providing him useful contacts with persons in key positions in the state. Shaikh Ahmad was able to make full use of these opportunities. A profound scholar, a master of polemics, and possessing a polished and forceful literary style, he began sending letters to important nobles bemoaning the sad state into which Islam had fallen in India and reminding them of their duty./3/ The rhetoric and appeal of these letters kindled a religious fervor which, although it took some time to bear fruit, profoundly affected the history of Islam in India by strengthening the position of the orthodox in places of power.

        But Shaikh Ahmad's letters touched on more than just religious revival, and it was this that placed him in serious difficulties. Some of his letters stated that in his trances he saw that at one time he had gone ahead of all the Companions of the Prophet. The theologians criticized these claims, and asked Emperor Jahangir to take action. The wazir, Asaf Khan, who was a Shia, could not have been fond of the anti-Shia views of Shaikh Ahmad, and he is said to have pointed out the political dangers inherent in the growing influence and organization of Shaikh Ahmad. In 1619, through the governor of Sirhind, he was summoned to the emperor's court and asked to explain his statements. The shaikh behaved at the court with great dignity and courage. He made it clear that there could be no question of his considering himself superior to the Companions of the Prophet, and gave an explanation of the relevant entry in his letters. The emperor seemed to be satisfied with this, but he took offense when somebody pointed out that the shaikh had not performed the sijdah (deep obeisance), which Akbar had prescribed for everybody coming in the royal presence. The shaikh's reply that he was not prepared to perform the sijdah before any human being seemed to be open defiance, and he was imprisoned in Gwalior fort.

        After about a year the shaikh was released from the fort, presented with a dress of honor and a thousand rupees for expenses and given an option of accompanying the royal camp or returning to Sirhind. [[169]] The shaikh preferred to remain in the royal camp, and this enabled him to visit the whole of the empire, and even establish friendly contacts with the emperor. It appears that Jahangir came to hold the shaikh in great respect; in his autobiography he twice refers to having made large offerings to the saint, and among the shaikh's letters there is one addressed to the emperor. In another letter the shaikh gave a detailed account of a lengthy conversation he had with the emperor on religious subjects, with the emperor apparently taking a great interest.

        Shaikh Ahmad was in the royal camp for nearly three years. His letters written during this period contain few biographical details, but the entries in Jahangir's autobiography suggest that during this period the easy-going Jahangir was unusually religious. It would not be surprising if the emperor's orthodox mood were due to the shaikh's presence in the camp. For example, in describing the conquest of Kangra and his visit there in early 1622, Jahangir says: "I went to see the fort of Kangra, and gave an order that the qazi, the Chief Justice, and other learned men of Islam should accompany me and carry out in the fort whatever was customary, according to the religion of Muhammad. Briefly … by the grace of God, the call to prayer and the reading of the khutba and the slaughter of a bullock, which had not taken place from the commencement of the building of the fort till now, were carried out in my presence. I … ordered a lofty mosque to be built inside the fort."/4/ It is more than probable that Shaikh Ahmad was one of "the learned men of Islam" who accompanied Jahangir to Kangra. Soon after, the saint's health began to fail, and with the emperor's permission he returned to Sirhind. Here he lived in seclusion, devoting himself to charity and prayers, until his death on December 10, 1624.

        Shaikh Ahmad was the most forceful and original thinker produced by Muslim India before the days of Shah Waliullah and Iqbal. Indeed he occupies a high place in the religious history of the entire Muslim world, for his exposition of tawhid-i-shahudi was a distinct contribution to Islamic thought. Perhaps even more important was the attitude [[170]] of vigorous self-confidence and self-assertion which he contributed to Muslim thinking, the like of which had been seen rarely since the days of Ibn Taimiya in the eighth century.

        The white heat of revivalist fervor which one finds in his writings is not visible among early members of his order, the Naqshbandi. In spite of Shah Waliullah's emphasis on moderation (see Chapter XIX), the Mujaddidiya revival, associated with the shaikh, ultimately superseded other branches of the Naqshbandi order, not only in the subcontinent but in the Ottoman empire as well. This is remarkable considering that the main order was of Central Asian and Turkish origin. The influence of the Mujaddidiya seems to have been a factor in creating those forces which ultimately led to the rise and widespread acceptance of Wahhabism.

        In discussing Akbar's religious policy, reference was made to the circumstances which made its failure inevitable. The inability of the Hindus and Muslims to evolve a common spiritual brotherhood was the result of the basic fact that to the Hindus the Muslims were (and are) untouchables. This attitude of the Hindus, nourished by the revivalistic fervor of the Vaishnava Gosains of Mathura, became more marked during Akbar's era of toleration. The writings of the shaikh, which reveal the anguish he felt at the low position of Islam under Akbar and even later, also militated against the success of Akbar's policy. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the swing of religious policy from Akbar to Aurangzeb was in some measure due to the influence and teachings of Shaikh Ahmad.

        His forceful and eloquent letters addressed to the leading nobles at Jahangir's court, calling on them to rise in defense of Islam and uphold the dignity of their religion, have great power and effectiveness. These letters were meant not only for the individuals to whom they were addressed; they were really "open letters" and were no less forceful than the poems with which Byron tried to engender enthusiasm for the cause of Greek independence, or with which Hali tried to reawaken Indian Muslims. Copies of them were supplied to the shaikh's disciples and admirers, and given wide circulation.

        Some Naqshbandi writers state that Aurangzeb became a disciple of Khwaja Muhammad Masum, son and successor of Shaikh Ahmad, [[171]] but even though Aurangzeb's contemporary, the satirist Nimat Khan Ali, refers to it in his Wiqaya, the connection is not certain, since it is not mentioned in the historical accounts of the reign. The official history of the period, however, does refer to his visits to the emperor's court, where he received high honors and rich gifts. After his death, his son, Shaikh Saif-ud-din, came to stay at the royal capital and apparently was in close contact with Aurangzeb. The court history speaks of his being a formal witness at the wedding of Prince Azam Shah. Next year, on June 3, 1669, the emperor visited the saint at his residence for one hour late at night, and then returned to the palace./5/

        Even more remarkable than these historic links between Aurangzeb and Shaikh Ahmad's family is the fact that almost all the steps which are associated with Aurangzeb's religious policy had been advocated so forcefully by the shaikh in his letters. Shaikh Ahmad had seen those days when, according to him, "non-Muslims carried out aggressively the ordinances of their own religion in a Muslim state and the Muslims were powerless to carry out the ordinances of Islam; if they carried them out, they were executed." He had described with great anguish those tragic days those who believed in the Holy Prophet were "humiliated and powerless, while those who denied his prophethood enjoyed high position, and used to sprinkle salt on the wounds of the Muslims with ridicule and taunts."

        These developments had filled Shaikh Ahmad with anger and hatred against Akbar and the non-Muslims. What had troubled him even more was that with Akbar's withdrawal of patronage from Islam, and an aggressive religious revival among the Hindus, non-Muslims had started persecuting Islam. "The non-Muslims in India," he wrote, "are without any hesitation demolishing mosques and setting up temples in their place. For example, in Kurukshetra there was a mosque and the tomb of a saint. They have been demolished and in their place a very big temple has been erected." Hindus were even interfering with Muslim observances. "Moreover, non-Muslims openly carry out their observances, but Muslims are powerless to carry out [[172]] openly many of the Islamic injunctions. During Ekadashi, Hindus fast and strive hard to see that in Muslim towns no Muslim cooks or sells food on these days. On the other hand, during the sacred month of Ramadan, they openly prepare and sell food, but owing to the weakness of Islam, nobody can interfere. Alas, the ruler of the country is one of us, but we are so badly off!"

        Shaikh Ahmad was convinced that the considerations shown to Hindus in Akbar's reign had emboldened them, and that this policy must be reversed. In a number of his letters he expressed regret at the abolition of jizya and urged its revival. In another letter he demanded the abolition of the ban on cow slaughter. He called upon the Muslim nobles not to associate with non-Muslims and unorthodox Muslims, including Shias. In a letter to Shaikh Farid, one of the chief nobles, he went so far as to say that the company of Muslim nonconformists was worse than that of non-Muslims. Once the preacher at the principal mosque of Samana did not follow the Sunni practice of mentioning all the four caliphs in his Id sermon; Shaikh Ahmad immediately wrote an open letter to the religious leaders of the city, rebuking them for the neglect of their duties, and for their failure to deal "aggressively and offensively" with that "unjust preacher."

        Shaikh Farid and other leaders did not accept the extremist point of view, and in some of his letters Shaikh Ahmad has expressed his disappointment with Farid's failures and omissions. But his warnings and his denunciations had their effect, and there is no doubt that he had a wide following in the highest places. Is it a mere coincidence that the attitude which Aurangzeb had toward Shias—at least during his early days—was identical with that of Shaikh Ahmad?

        Elsewhere in India other saints and prophets were upholding orthodoxy with scarcely less vigor and success than Khwaja Baqi Billah and Shaikh Ahmad. On the northwest frontier Sayyid Ali Shah Tirmiz, known as Pir Baba, and his disciple Akhund Darweza took as their special task the uprooting of the heretical Raushaniya sect which flourished in the mountains. Pir Baba's descendants wielded great influence among the Pathan tribesmen, and three centuries later provided a rallying point against the Sikhs and the British.

        Signs of religious activity of a somewhat different nature, but conducive [[173]] to the strengthening of the forces of orthodox Islam, were visible at about the same time in Bengal. The religious history of Muslim Bengal is as yet unwritten, but there are indications that after the vigor and energy displayed by Chaitanya and his prominent disciples, and particularly the vigorous expression which their devotions and religious yearnings found in the new Bengali literature, Islamic influences in the area gradually weakened, especially outside the principal cities. This happened partly because the waves of the immigrant Sufis and preachers had subsided, but the lack of knowledge of Persian and Arabic among the general populace also prevented the propagation of Islam. At the same time, a vigorous new Bengali literature was coming into existence, often under the patronage of the Muslim rulers. This was concerned largely with the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Muslim masses, not well-versed in any language other than Bengali, heard the Bengali poems and stories connected with these themes or saw them acted at Hindu festivals under the patronage of the Hindu landlords. Their mental background thus became more Hindu than Islamic.

        As a counter-measure to the popular Bengali Hindu literature, marked literary activity among Bengali Muslims took place at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century, with a special emphasis on the writing of lives of the prophets and other saints in the language of the people. Sayyid Sultan, a leader of this movement, gave the reasons for the literary activity in his Wafat-i-Rasul:

All the Bengalis do not understand Arabic;
None understands the words of your religion.
Everyone remains satisfied with [Hindu] tales.
I, the despised and sinful, am in the midst of these people.
I do not know what Ilahi [God] will ask me in the afterlife.
If He asks, “ Having been in their midst, why did you not tell them about the religion?” and blames me for this fault, I will have no power to give a proper reply. Considering this, I have composed Nabi-vamsa [a history of the Prophet's family] for the benefit of the ignorant people.
For this reason many people blame me for having polluted this religious book. [[174]]
When the learned read from the books, which are in Arabic, and do not translate them into Hindustani [i.e., Bengali], how can our people follow?
In whatever language God has given one birth, that alone is his highest treasure.

        Thus, as men like Shaikh Ahmad appealed to the upper classes to maintain the Faith through their political power, men like Sayyid Sultan took the Prophet's message to the common people. Both appeals explain the resurgent power of Islam in the century following Akbar's experiments.


/1/ For fuller commentaries on religious movements, see S. M. Ikram, Ab-i-Kausar, Rud-i-Kausar, and Mauj-i-Kausar (Karachi, 1958).
/2/ C. H. Payne, Akbar and the Jesuits (London, 1926), pp. 204 and 248. The accuracy of this account is denied by I. M. Habib in "The Political Role of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah," Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Session of the Indian History Congress, 1960 (Calcutta, 1961), Part I, pp. 209–23. The view given in the text, however, is the one usually accepted. See Cambridge History of India (Cambridge, 1928), IV, 152.
/3/ Shaikh Ahmad, Maktubat-i-Iman-i-Rabbani (Lucknow, 1877).
/4/ Memoirs of Jahangir, trans. by Alexander Rogers and H. Beveridge (London, 1909), II, 161 and 223.
/5/ Saqi Mustad Khan, Maasir-i-Alamgiri, trans. by Jadunath Sarkar (Calcutta, 1947), pp. 49 and 53.

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