The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

A brief gaze into the world of the medieval Muslim Ulema and the elite Sufi Mashaikhs offers us shocking but valuable information about the medieval Muslim history of India
The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

In this series

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The Depraved Annals of the Muslim Aristocracy in Medieval India
The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs
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The Appalling Lifestyle of the Muslim Aristocracy
The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

The second broad category of the Muslim aristocracy was generally speaking, the Ulema and the Mashaikh. The word Ulema, plural of Alim (someone who is learned in Islamic scripture), continues to play a central role in the Muslim community. Arun Shourie provides one of the most detailed and brilliant expositions of the Ulema in his classic, The World of Fatwas, notable for its exhaustive treatment of the subject and the spine-chilling revelations it contains. When we compare Arun Shourie’s work with the overall history of Islam itself, we find that nothing has really changed in the last 1400 years.

The Ulema proper from the time of the so-called Delhi Sultanate up to Tipu Sultan’s time can further be divided as the elite and the poor classes. However, both classes enjoyed great respect and reverence within the Muslim community including the Sultans and Nawabs because of the semi-divine status they commanded as the repositories of the sacred Islamic lore and were heavily subsidised by the Islamic state.

The Ulema belonging to the elite layer were directly patronised by kings, courtiers, and nobles, and lived a life of extraordinary wealth and wielded great power. Opting for a thoroughly Islamic education was a highly lucrative career option during the Muslim period because it opened up a direct door to Government service. First rate Islamic scholars were in great demand. The most coveted position was that of the Sadr-i-Jahan (Chief Justice or the Highest Religious Officer). Then there were other positions: Qazis (judges), Muftis (interpreters of law), Muhtasibs (censors of public morals), Imams (who led prayers) and Khatibs (reciters of the Quran).

Imparters of Bigoted Education

Apart from this, members of the Ulema were also tasked with providing a thorough Islamic education to the sons of Sultans. What this translated to on the ground was that the Ulema took young boys under their wing and transformed them into hardcore bigots. Thus, by the time these boys became Sultans, they implemented the same cruel state policy of persecuting their Hindu citizens in peacetime.

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The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

However, the Ulema education was not always successful. The case of Balban’s grandson, Kaiqubad is illustrative. As long as Balban was alive, he had kept a hawk-like watch over Kaiquabad. he appointed a confidential group of strict and ultra-orthodox Islamic tutors of various hues who surrounded Kaiquabad and “watched him so carefully that he never cast his eyes on any fair damsel, and never tasted a cup of wine. Teachers instructed him in the polite arts and in manly exercises, and he was never allowed to do any unseemly act, or to utter any improper speech.” All this discipline evaporated overnight, the moment Kaiquabad sat on the throne. By the time he had turned eighteen, Kaiquabad had thoroughly transformed Balban’s court into a vast sanctuary of vice and depravity. Clowns, jesters, jugglers, singers, songwriters, and actors were suddenly in great demand and were paid lavishly. The price of wine skyrocketed. Prostitutes appeared in the “shadow of every wall and elegant women sunned themselves in every balcony.” Quite naturally, his ministers, courtiers, noblemen and officials of all ranks were quick to imitate the new sultan’s graces. It took less than six months to shatter everything that Balban had so painstakingly, ruthlessly built. The whole administrative machinery crumbled like a palace of dust.

Absolute Control

In essence, the hold of the Ulema over politics was nearly absolute and total. Indeed, the Ulema proved highly adept at political machinations. If the Sultan was weak, the Ulema ran riot. This situation owes to a fundamental reason: the Ulema was completely indispensable to the Sultan as the interpreters of Muslim law. In a manner of speaking, the Sultan merely executed their ruling and recommendation. This was because most Sultans were uneducated and many were illiterate as well. Their speciality was barbarism and savage warfare. The Ulema legitimised their savagery by quoting the relevant verses from Islamic law that justified the barbarism.

Nowhere is the perfected skill of the Ulema’s intrigue more visible than in the succession wars fought throughout the Muslim period. The Ulema was a willing handmaid and instigator of these cabals. They aligned themselves with various warring factions of the Sultan’s family and nobles and adroitly sensed the changing direction of the wind. They would instantly dump the coterie they had sworn loyalty to if the coterie ended up on the losing side.

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The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

This brutal facet of the Muslim history of India has another side to it. As the guardians of the Muslim community’s welfare, morals and religious life, the Ulema should have ideally sided with the community as a whole. Instead, at every step, they sided with the Sultan or the ruling elite. The aforementioned succession battles invariably meant the large-scale bloodletting of innocent citizens—Hindus and Muslims alike. The Ulema was not only blind to this but in many cases, encouraged it. A classic case is the role the Ulema played in ensuring Razia Sultana’s downfall and horrible death. Indeed, the Ulema instigated and engineered Razia’s ouster for her only crime: of belonging to the “wrong sex.” The whole episode makes for truly sickening reading.

The Ulema was indeed the central pillar supporting Muslim despotism. In return, it not only enjoyed brute political power and influence but like its counterpart in the political aristocracy, it indulged in wanton licentiousness and unbridled wine-drinking.

The Sufi Mashaikhs

The other class of the Muslim religious aristocracy is that of the Mashaikhs who largely originated from the Sufis. Like the Muslim invaders, the early Sufis also came to India from Central Asia. These fall into several broad categories. One batch migrated into India to escape the violent Muslim politics of Central Asia. Another batch came as religious preachers. Yet another batch came, in Sita Ram Goel’s words, as “reconnaissance agents” who passed on intelligence to alien Muslim adventurers and facilitated their invasions. All these categories of Sufis found safety and shelter in India owing to two major reasons: the short-sighted civilizational approach of Hindu kings who gave them refuge, and the existence of various Muslim kingdoms which obviously patronised them.

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The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

Eventually, the Sufis became a powerful force in the Muslim community thanks to their status as Islamic divines and saints. By the 12th century, a good percentage of these Sufis came to enjoy a special status as Mashaikhs. By the end of the 13th century, they had emerged as a semi-aristocracy owing vast tracts of land, substantial wealth and led a plush lifestyle.

The Mashaikhs (and in general some prominent Sufi “saints”) typically operated from their Khanqahs (also spelled as “Khankah,” “Khaneqa.” It is also known as a Ribat), a place for large Sufi congregation akin to a religious retreat or cloister. The Khanqah also functioned as a hospice, rest house, and provided free meals round the clock for the Faithful. Sometimes, the Mashaikh who owned the Khanqah lived a frugal lifestyle personally but he and his family controlled its purse strings. Thus, the prominent Sufi, Shaikh Muinuddin adopted a simple lifestyle but also owned a vast Khanqah, and his sons controlled huge acreages of land.

Nizamuddin Auliya: the Gold Standard Bigot

A study of these Sufi Mashaikhs will be incomplete without mentioning the name of its most notorious practitioner, the arch-bigot, Nizamuddin Auliya. A glimpse into the lifestyle of this pious “saint” will suffice to expose a mere slice of his reality. In a life of nearly a century, Nizamuddin Auliya witnessed the reign of seven Sultans. His sprawling Khanqah remained a parallel power-centre to all of these Sultans, a sultanate within a sultanate. Auliya also birthed almost four generations of bigoted disciples the most famous of who are the poet Amir Khusrau and the bloodthirsty chronicler, Ziauddin Barani.

Auliya’s Khanqah was directly patronised by at least two powerful Sultans of Delhi: Ala-ud-din Khalji and Muhammad bin Tughlaq. He held his own Durbar in this Khanqah to which nobles, courtiers and other Muslim elite regularly flocked.

Nizamuddin Auliya’s Khanqah’s fame as a centre of Sufi piety had another side to it: it was a magnificent den of depravity, a major reason why it was such an irresistible magnet for the Muslim aristocracy. A huge attraction was Auliya’s Sama sessions. In general, a Sama session involved the singing and performance of Muslim devotional music as a congregation. Broadly speaking, the origins of the alleged Sufi “music” so popular among Hindus today can be traced to this institutionalized practice. There’s a fundamental reason Auliya’s Sama sessions were in such high demand and attracted the Muslim aristocracy in such large numbers. In these sessions, Auliya and other Sufi Shaikhs and Qalandars strongly emphasised the importance of a practice named Nazar-ilal murd, literally meaning, “gazing with intense concentration on good looking boys.” The age of these “beardless boys” ranged between twelve to sixteen. In some of these Sama occasions, Nizamuddin Auliya lapsed into “great fits of ecstasy” looking at these boys. It is superfluous to describe the meaning of “ecstasy” in this connection. Hashish was liberally distributed and wine flowed like a river in these Sama sessions. It was not uncommon for some Sufi Faqirs to enter into “love affairs” with newly-wedded brides of other men.

Like the Ulema, the Sufi Mashaikhs openly dabbled in politics and palace intrigues. Two examples suffice. The first is the Dervish (a Sufi sect) named Sidi Maula who instigated a coup against Jalal-ud-din Khalji and paid a terrible price for it.

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The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

The second is the selfsame Nizamuddin Auliya. His brand of political scheming is encapsulated in the infamous phrase he himself coined: Dilli Dur Ast. The phrase has its origins in the manner in which he contrived the murder of Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq at the hands of his own son, Muhammad bin Tughlaq. When Ghiyas-ud-din went to Bengal on a military expedition, Auliya predicted that he wouldn’t return alive. This pious Sufi had keenly smelled political ambition in Muhammad and keenly encouraged it. However, when Ghiyas-ud-din returned and was nearing Delhi, a panicked Muhammad ran to Auliya for help and counsel. At which point, the bearded bigoted saint gently smiled and told Muhammad, Hanuz, Dilli dur ast – Delhi is still far away. It was a signal to Prince Muhammad to murder his own father. Today, we have half-baked Hindu “commentators” who proudly affix “Dilli dur ast” as a badge of honour on their Twitter handles and blog tag lines.

Worse than these inane bloggers is the standing eyesore of a railway station in Delhi named Hazrat Nizamuddin in the honour of this unparalleled fanatic.

As we noted earlier, Amir Khusrau was one of the more illustrious and equally bigoted religious spawn of Nizamuddin Auliya. Khusrau proved a worthy successor of Auliya in political intrigue, backstabbing and naked opportunism. He was one of the few Muslim elite who escaped the gory aftermaths of succession battles in which scores of former Muslim elite were brutally murdered, blinded or thrown on the streets, reduced to beggary. Till the very end, Khusrau’s diabolical genius found a way to ingratiate himself with every new Sultan. Amir Khusrau can be favourably compared with the latter-day schemers and courtiers of the Nawab Nehru dynasty.

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The Awful World of the Ulema and the Shocking Decadence of the Sufi Mashaikhs

As I have written elsewhere on The Dharma Dispatch, the record of the Sufis in India is among the more successful subterfuges of history that our eminent distorians have pulled off. In reality, there is nothing saintly about the Sufis. Quite the contrary, they lived lives of extraordinary debauchery and decadence, and without exception, were unvarnished bigots.

Closing Notes

As we have noted earlier in this series, a comprehensive study of the Muslim aristocracy beginning with the period of the so-called Delhi Sultanate up to Tipu Sultan is a much-needed endeavour to more fully understand the true nature of the Muslim rule in India, the dark period that undid everything that Sanatana Bharatavarsha had so painstakingly built up.

The other observable reality is that every political system is sustained by the support of its aristocracy and elite, who ultimately decide and impact the daily life of the ordinary citizen.

Consider our present time.

As long as the Nehru dynasty was at the helm, the aristocracy it bred ensured that corruption, crony capitalism, deracination, self-shame, cultural repudiation, and betrayal of India’s national interest was largely the accepted norm. This among others is why Will Durant lamented that “most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years.”


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