The Order of Hearts

Nizamuddin Awrangabadi came to Delhi hoping to find a spiritual guide. Hearing a great deal about shaykh Kalimullah he wanted to meet him. When he went to the shaykh, sama’ (audition of Sufi music) took place and the doors of the khanaqah were closed. It was their custom not to allow strangers to participate in the sama’. Nizamuddin knocked on the door and was permitted to enter. Everyone was greatly surprised, but shaykh Kalimullah said: ‘Know you all that this persoon is not a stranger!”. The reason was that the spiritual guide of shaykh Kalimullah had informed him that a persoon possessing such and such features and named Nizamuddin would come to him.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Awrangabadi, who later on became the spiritual successor of the shaykh, showed the utmost courtesy to all, who came into contact with him. He would offer something to every visitor. He is the author of several books on Sufism, the most important of them is entitled Nizam-al-Qolub (The Order of Hearts). This Chishti manual deals with very many rituals and spiritual practices, like zikr, breath control, etc.

The reason for composing this manual was a request to compose an explanation of the benefits of azkar (pl. of zikr), joining these precious pearls into a single string, which would be the order of hearts (nizam-al-qolub) for the religiously sincere and the people of conviction.

Although this Chishti manual has many benefits, it is strongly recommended that it should not be used without the permission of an authorized spiritual guide.

“Nizam” in the name of the book of course refers to its author shaykh Nizamuddin Awrangabadi. Nizam also means “order” and here we are confronted with a masterfully arranged spiritual universe, in which everything has its fixed place and its order, nizam. Qolub is the plural of qalb, which means heart. The spiritual practices mentioned in the Nizam al-Qolub purify and influence our hearts (qolub):

Moral qualities have found through him a glorious order;
The heart has a copy of the treasure grove of the mysteries.

Carl Ernst makes it clear that the longest chapters of the Nizam al-Qolub treat of breath control or provide classifications and groupings of the most commonly used zikr. This manual illustrates the Chishti approach to zikr in four ways:

It contains detailed prescriptions of spiritual practices that are widely found wherever Sufism can be found.
It provides a series of particular exercises attributed to Chishti shaykhs.
It mentions practices of other Sufi orders, but also belonging to the Chishti repertoire.
There are specific references to spiritual practices connected to India and its Yoga background, which have been accepted by the Chishtis.

One of the longest chapters, i.e. chapter 3, is describing paas-e-anfaas (the control of breath). The murshid of the author, the Chishti shaykh Kalimullah, is explicit in his warnings in case such a practice gets wrongly performed: ‘You should be careful not to suspend the breath to such an extent that you become deadly sick!’

Some of the longer descriptions of shaykh Nizamuddin of Awrangabad are especially interesting for the effects they describe:

‘By holding the breath (habs-e-dam), as soon as the breath becomes engaged, and you begin to breathe, you should raise up the breath to the brain. When the breath becomes short, you should gradually exhale until the breath is no longer perceived. This is called peace and serenity. It is best to remain active in the zikr of Allah, Allah by contemplation while holding the breath’.

The possible outcome of the same is that you might be enabled to develop yourself spiritually.
The shaykh continues: ‘When the upper and lower breaths join the breath of life, they become one. A Qur’anic allusion to this is ‘the meeting place of the two oceans’. This is the station (maqam) of the water of life (aab-e-hayaat) […]. Deep inward intuitive knowledge (‘elm-e-ladonni) appears. It is such knowledge (as mentioned in the Qur’an) ‘by which We taught him a knowledge from Us. One has a long life and meets Khidr (a.s.), while becoming the Sufi of the age’.

The prerequisites show that this practice is not for all and sundry: ‘Celebacy, asceticism and isolation’.

A modern Chishi pir once went to Kalyar Sharif in the company of a Canadian murid. He then pointed out a dervish who appeared to be a very young man but who could have been the grandfather of the Canadian, because of his advanced age. The dervish was asked how it was possible that he looked so young. He answered: ‘Because of a carefree life’. He remained silent, but probably also practiced the holding of his breath.

The following hierarchy – which is specific to the Chishti teachings – exists in the practice of the zikr:

The recitation of 3 fundamental names of Allah:
As-Samee’ – the All-Hearing
Al-Baseer – the All-Seeing
Al-‘Aleem – the All-Knowing

This next level to which you can proceed, consists of 5 names, among which are as-Samad – the Everlasting, and ash-Shaheed – the Witness.

The third level consists of 12 more names:
Al-Quddoos – the Holy
Al-Wadood – the Loving
Al-Baqee – the Subsistent
Az-Zaahir – the Manifest
Al-Baatin – the Hidden
Al-Ghafar – the Forgiver
Al-Haleem – the Clement
An-Noor – the Light
Al-Hadee – the Guide
Al-Badee’ – the Commencer
Al-Qayyoom – the Self-subsisting.

After having been given the realization of the previous 3 levels you can try to clothe yourself with other names among the 99 most beautiful names of Allah. After this fourth level there are qualities at the fifth level, like e.g. Arham ar-Rahimeen – Most Merciful of the merciful ones.

The above instruction is not complete, as you will have noticed. Some of the names of the asma al-husna moreover, appear to be almost but not exactly each other’s synonyms, so it would be easy to replace a certain name mentioned by shaykh Nizamuddin of Awrangabad by another almost similar one. This is necessary because you should only perform a certain Chishti practice when receiving specific instructions by your murshid. These instructions also may describe what is the preferred bodily posture, how many times to recite a certain quality, how to combine it with a certain breathing exercise, etc.

A very disciplined kind of breath control appears to be important in the teachings of shaykh Nizamuddin of Awrangabad. Modern people, who have a full-time job, will face difficulties when combining this job with the time needed for the complete set of invocation practices and the severity of remarks like:

“My dear! You should so hold your breath in one recitation that you run out of breath and become unconscious. You should practice it in such a way that a thousand breaths a day and a thousand breaths a night become easy for you”.

So do not try this at home! Wait until you get the instructions of your own spiritual guide and do not start experimenting on your own. The benefits of this Chishti manual are many, but it is like every other tool: It should be used wisely!