The best of assemblies: 35 sufi tales


The sayings of the Chishti shaykh Nasiruddin Mahmud, who was known as “The Lamp of Delhi” have been collected in Khair al-Majaales (= The Best of Assemblies ). I remember seeing an Urdu translation of this book in a small bookstall at the dargah of Khwaja Mo’inuddin Chishti in Ajmer. I did not buy it. The Persian original must be hard to get as knowledge of Persian is leaving in India these days. Some of the anecdotes as given below can be found in Khair al-Majaales, while other stories have been derived from different Chishti sources:

Tale 1
In a story in The Best of Assemblies a prince of Rum happens to hear the first line of a qasida of Hakim Sanaa’i:

O you who have heard about Rum and about China,
Rise and come to behold the empire of Sanaa’i.

The prince then sets out for an actual journey to Ghazna in search of this unknown empire. He finds that its ‘ruler’, i.e. Hakim Sanaa’i, is living as a dervish in extreme poverty. When he meets Hakim Sanaa’i, the Hakim is absorbed in pious meditation next to a tomb. The true meaning of the claim is revealed to the prince after he has renounced
the empire of his father and has put on a dervish’ cloak.

While he was wearing this garment, God showed him things, which caused the prince to swoon. When he returned to consciousness, Hakim Sanaa’i said to him: “Have you seen our empire?”
He answered: “I have seen it. You have said too little in this line. Not only Rum and China, but all the kingdoms of the world are nothing”.

Only when the prince has dismissed all his servants and distributed his belongings among the people, is Hakim Sanaa’i willing to accept him as a human being ( mard ) and to share his own empire with him.

Tale 2
Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya told the following story: ‘Once a dervish arrived at the hospice of Shaykh Junayd Baghdadi – may God sanctify his lofty secret – just as the new moon was due to appear that signalled the beginning of the blessed month of Ramadan. That dervish requested the Shaykh to permit him to lead the ‘tarawih’ prayer. The Shaykh granted his request. Every evening thereafter he recited the entire Qur’an. ‘Each night,’ said the Shaykh, ‘take one loaf of bread and one jug of water to the cell of that dervish’.

As the Shaykh had commanded, they took a loaf of bread and a jug of water to his cell every night. After he had recited the tarawih prayer for thirty evenings, the time of celebration (‘id) arrived, and the day after ‘id the Shaykh bid that dervish farewell. He left. After his departure they searched his cell, and found all thirty loaves of bread untouched. Each night he had consumed one jug of water and nothing more’.

Tale 3
Here is another story from the Chishti pir who has become known as The Lamp of Delhi :

A man named Shaiba makes a prophecy, that the father of Hakim Sanaa’i would have a son who would be a friend of God and who would receive unveilings and would have supernatural powers ( u saaheb-e velaayat va saaheb-e kashf va saaheb-e karaamaat baashad ). Shaiba is a divana , a wise fool.

Hakim Sanaa’i is born after the death of Shaiba, so his father sends him to the grave of Shaiba to sit there for forty days to seek the fulfilment of the prophecy. On his way back, the young Hakim Sanaa’i meets with a leprous dervish sitting on a bench in front of an enclosure. This dervish is as possessed as Shaiba must have been: he has asked God to send him this disease as a means to keep the people away from him. He is also the one who confirms the prophecy through an act of initiation.

He sends the young man out to buy some biscuits and soup by selling his own turban and then offers him a drink from the soup, having stirred it with his leprous fingers. When he sees that the boy swallows the polluted soup without any sign of disgust, the dervish declares: “As long as one has not swallowed blood, one has not yet become really human. You just have swallowed blood; so go on our way, for you have now become truly a human being”.

Tale 4
Hakim Sanaa’i is said to have shared the ceremony, as has been described in the previous tale, with a friend who later became the Sufi shaykh ‘Uthmaan-e Harbaabaadi. The promise of a great future in the realm of Sufism extended, according to the Chishti shaykh Nasiruddin Cheragh-e Delhi, to either of the boys: “The Khwaja opened to Sanaa’i the road to the art of poetry so that his poems reached all the horizons. He became both a master of words ( saaheb-e sokhan ) and a friend of God ( saaheb-e velaayat ). As for ‘Uthmaan-e Harbaabaadi, he became a friend of God. To him the road to Sufism was opened”.

About this second person we know little more than that he lived in Ghazna as a vendor of cheap food, but was at the same time, the author of a commentary on the Qur’an. He was, apparently, regarded as a great Sufi by the early Chishti shaykhs.

Tale 5
The Chishti pir Nasiruddin Cheragh-e Dehli said:

One day Mawlana Husamuddin came into the presence of shaykh Nizamuddin (may God sanctify their secrets).
He said: ‘Mawlana Husamuddin, today we saw one of the abdaal (changed ones)’.
He asked: ‘Where did you see him?’
He said: ‘I was making a visit to the tomb of Bibi Sam. It is near the enclosure of a pool. A man appeared carrying cucumbers on his head, which he brought down to the edge of the pool. He stored the cucumbers away and performed ablutions in such a way that I was astonished. When he finished his ablutions, he performed two rakaat of prayer with perfect equanimity. I was astonished from the experience of seeing his prayer. Then he went into the water and washed his basket 3 times. Then, one by one, he washed the cucumbers, offered prayers to the Prophet and put them into the basket, until he had washed all the
cucumbers in this way. Then he picked up the basket and 3 times put it down into the pool. He picked it up again and set it on the edge so that the water trickled out. From utter astonishment, I arose. There was a silver coin in my turban, which I took out and offered to him’.

I said: ‘Master accept this’.
He said: ‘Shaykh excuse me’.
I said: ‘Master, for a couple of coppers you wash your cucumbers repeatedly and take such pains. God, the Elevated, now sends you a silver coin as a gift. Give us the explanation, why won’t you take it?’
He said: ‘Sit down, so that I can tell you’.

That man and I both sat down. Then he began to tell this:

‘My father used to do the same job. I was small when my father passed away. My mother taught me enough rules of worship, that I knew how to pray five times a day. After that, when the hour of her passing took place, she called me near and said’: ‘We have tied up something with a knot. Get it out and bring it’.

‘I put my hand on that thing and there was a knot in it. I put it before my mother. She opened it up and did something particular. She said:

‘This is the way to prepare the burial shroud, to wash the corpse and to perform the burial in the tomb’.

She gave me about 20 dirhams and said: ‘This is the fortune of your whole life. When your father went into the garden, he picked cucumbers and vegetables and sold them. Thus he spent his whole life. You also pick cucumbers and vegetables and sell them. Don’t support yourself in any way but this’.’

Shaykh Nasiruddin said: ‘When the man finished his tale, I realized that he was one of the abdaal (changed ones). He accepts nothing from anyone except under duress. May God have mercy on him and on all the pious ones!’

Tale 6
A grandson of shaykh Najibuddin, who was a vagabond, places an inkpot, pen and paper before shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya and asks him to write a letter of recommendation to a particular malik so that he is able to get something from him.

“How can I write to him?” the shaykh apologized, “he does not come to me. But tell me what you expect from him and I will give it to you”.
“Give me what you like but write the letter also,” said the visitor.
“No,” replied the shaykh, “it is not the custom of dervishes to write letters, particularly when I have never met him and he has never come to me”.

The man started abusing the shaykh “Nizamuddin! You are the disciple of my grandfather and his slave ( banda ). I am the descendant of your Khwaja. I say write this letter and you do not”. So saying he raised the inkpot, threw it on the ground and rose to depart.

The shaykh stretched his hands, caught hold of his skirt and said: “You go away displeased. Cast away your anger and then you can go”.

Tale 7
One day shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya entered the room of his murshid when he was alone. He placed his head on his feet and requested him to pray for the steadfastness of his faith. Baba Farid acceded to this request. Later on he lamented why he did not request Baba Farid to pray for his death while listening to Sufi music.

Tale 8
Once a reference was made in the circle of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya to an incident of shaykh Abu Sa’id Abul Khair’s life that a man inflicted two strokes of stirrup-leather on an animal in his presence. Shaykh Abu Sa’id sighed as if the strokes had hit him. A man objected to this.

Shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya explained it thus: “When the soul becomes strong and attains perfection it absorbs the heart (the emotional centre); when the heart becomes strong, it absorbs the body. In consonance with this law, it is possible that when a man’s heart is affected, the effect of it should appear on the body”.

Tale 9
One day Baba Farid was sailing in a boat with his sons and murids . Everyone, except shaykh Baba Farid and shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya, was asleep.

All of a sudden Baba Farid called out: “Nizam!”

Shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya immediately responded: “I’m present!”

Baba Farid then said: “I meant my son Nizamuddin”.

After some time Baba Farid called out: “Nizamuddin”.

Again shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya replied: “I am present”.

“Come!” – remarked Baba Farid. “I wanted to bless my son Nizam, but God wants to bless you”.

Tale 10
Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya’s relations with non-Muslims were determined by two basic postulates:

• All human beings are the children of God on earth.

• You should adopt the ways of God in your dealings with human beings. The bounties of God – sun, rain and earth – don’t discriminate between one person and another.

Tale 11
One day Khwaja ‘Azizuddin told Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya about an after-meal conversation in a feast he had attended. The people present there were saying that Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya’s life was free from all sorts of worries. On hearing this Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya said: “Nobody in this world has more worries and agonies than myself. So many people come to me and report their woes and misfortunes to me. All these accounts sear my heart and my soul”.

Tale 12
Baba Farid in his old age used to say about himself (= Mas’ud): “For 40 years Mas’ud did as God wished him to do, now what he wishes is done”.

Tale 13
While on his way to Delhi, the eminent Sufi shaykh Jalaluddin Tabrizi passed through Kahtwal. He enquired from the people whether there was any mystic in the town. They replied in the negative, but added that there was the son of the Qazi, Fariduddin, who was generally thought to be mad. The young Baba Farid was always busy in his devotions and prayers behind the mosque of the town. Shaykh Jalaluddin went to see him.

On the way someone presented a pomegranate to him. Shaykh Jalaluddin took it as a present for Baba Farid and, breaking it, offered it to him. Baba Farid was fasting and did not partake of it. When shaykh Jalaluddin had left he found a pomegranate seed lying on the ground. He picked it up, put it away and took it at the time of breaking the fast.

This single seed caused a sudden spiritual illumination within him. He deeply regretted why he had not accepted the whole of the fruit, which would have given him more spiritual blessings, but later when told this to his spiritual guide, his murshid remarked: “All the spiritual blessing was in that one seed. It was destined for you and it reached you. There was nothing in the rest of the fruit”.

This remark is responsible for the practice amongst the Chishtiyya Sufis to eat the entire pomegranate, lest the blessed seed be missed.

Tale 14
One day Baba Farid was reading Nafa’ , a book on Islamic Law. Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtyar Kaki had come to Multan from Aush and was staying in that mosque. Baba Farid’s insight discerned in the visitor a spiritual guide of infinite capabilities. Khwaja Qutbuddin busied himself in prayers soon after his arrival and Baba Farid sat down near him with the book in his hand, eagerly awaiting the moment when the shaykh would finish his prayers.

After his prayers the visitor turned to Baba Farid and asked affectionately: “Mawlana! What book is this?”

“It is Nafa’ !” – replied Baba Farid.

“May there be naf’ (benefit) for you in its study”, said the Khwaja.

“There is benefit for me in your mercy and blessing”, submitted Baba Farid and then placed his head at the feet of the Khwaja and recited the following verses:

Maqbul-e to joz moqbel jaavid nashod

Vaz lotf-e to hich banda nawmid nashod

‘Awnat bekodaam zarra paiwast dami

Kaan zarra beh az hazaar khurshid nashod

It implies eternal acceptance, if one is accepted by you.

And no one is disappointed when being blessed by you.

Any particle becomes better than a thousand suns,

By receiving even a little bit of attention by you .

Tale 15
A poorly dressed dervish came to Baba Farid who gave him something and permitted him to depart. The dervish remained standing and asked the shaykh to give him the comb, which he had taken out from its cover and placed on the prayer-carpet. As the comb was not worth anything and had been long used by the shaykh, he did not reply to the request. The dervish began to shout loudly: “If the shaykh gives me this comb, he will receive plenty of blessings.” “Be off”, Baba Farid replied, “and do not disturb me any more. I throw you and your blessings into the river.”

Tale 16
The Chishti shaykh Badruddin Ghaznavi did not stay out of politics and attached himself to a certain treasurer. The treasurer constructed a khanqah for the shaykh and offered to pay for all his expenses. Shaykh Badruddin accepted this offer although it was against the traditions of the Chishti order.

However it was not possible for the shaykh to escape from the consequences. The treasurer got involved in an embezzlement and withhis ruin came the ruin of shaykh Badrudddin Ghaznavi.

Much woried and perplexed he wrote to Baba Farid: “One of the servants of the ‘diwan’ had built a khanqah for me and had arranged for the boarding and the lodging of the dervishes. Now a charge of embezzlement has been brought against him. I am much worried and disturbed. Kindly pray for his release and the welfare of the dervishes”.

“He who does not follow the principles of his spiritual guide”, wrote Baba Farid in reply, “is confronted with such troubles and worries that his heart gets no peace. Who, among our masters, did ever construct a khanqah for himself and reside there as you have done? It was not the practice of shaykh Qutbuddin and his master Khwaja Mo’inuddin to construct a khanqah and set up a shop. Wherever they went or sojourned, they tried to conceal themselves from that people”.

Tale 17
A qalandar came to Baba Farid at the time when the shaykh was active in his devotions in his room. He sat down on the prayer-carpet of the shaykh, which was lying outside the cell of Baba Farid. Mawlana Badruddin Ishaq entertained the visitor and brought food for him. Having enjoyed the food, the qalandar took out some hemp leaves from his leathern bag and began to prepare a mixture. Some drops fell on the prayer-carpet of the shaykh.

Mawlana Badruddin stepped forward and tried to stop the qalandar from polluting the prayer-carpet. The qalandar got enraged and was about to hit his begging-bowl on Mawlana Ishaq that shaykh Baba Farid rushed out from his room and got the qalandar’s hand.

“Forgive him for my sake,” asked Baba Farid.

“The dervishes don’t raise their hands,” replied the qalandar, “but when they do so they don’t take them down”.

“Throw it on that wall,” said Baba Farid. The qalandar threw the begging-bowl against the wall, which fell down instantly.

Tale 18
Once there was a shaykh, who was a man of spiritual powers, and there was a qazi, who was a man of ascetic disposition. The shaykh manifested numerous supernatural powers, but the qazi was not impressed and refused to become his murid. Finally the qazi said he would become his murid only if he agreed to keep a chilla with him, that is to have a forty-day contest with him.

The shaykh enquired: “A chilla of men or a chilla of women?” The qazi was nonplussed by the question, for he had never come across this distinction in the books and wanted to be enlightened about the same.

“The chilla of women,” replied the shaykh, “means that on the first day you perform ablutions and have a bath, and then retire to a retreat and have your meals for forty days, and then come out with your bath and ablution intact (that is without sleeping or other conditions which break your ritual purification). And the chilla of men means that you have two flayed sheep and two maunds of bread every day, and on the fortieth day you come out with your ablutions intact”.

The qazi was flabbergasted, but acquiesced in keeping the chilla of men. There were two chambers in the shaykh’s house, one of which was given to the qazi and the other was kept by the shaykh for himself. When the first day had passed and the time for the breaking of the fast arrived, each of them were served two roast sheep and about 160 lb of bread as had been agreed upon. The shaykh consumed his portion. The qazi being a man of ascetic habits and small appetite, could take only two pieces of bread; the balance that remained, was also cleared by the shaykh.

The shaykh then performed his night prayers. The qazi suffered from a twisting of the bowels, but pretended to offer his prayers. The shaykh rebuked him for offering prayers without full ritual purity and advised him to break his chilla, which he readily did. The shaykh, just to show that he could keep his word, maintained the chilla schedule for twenty days. The qazi fell at his feet and became his murid.

Tale 19
The Chishti shaykh Nasiruddin Cheragh Dehlavi makes it clear that according to him there is no contradiction between earning an income (kasb) and trust in God (tawakkul). His words are: “Being engaged in kasb does not involve a negation of tawakkul. If a man with a family is engaged in kasb, and his heart’s eye is focussed not on kasb but on Haqq (God, Reality, Truth), then he practises tawakkul”.

Tale 20
Once someone invited Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya to a diner to which he had also invited fifty to sixty other people. The dinner was naturally preceded by a samaa’ (music) session. As news got around that the shaykh was coming to the samaa’ people started coming from all sides to listen to the samaa’. When it was over, the host found he had a thousand people on his hands. His endeavours to send away the uninvited persons attracted the shaykh’s attention. He insisted that everyone present should share the available food, and he threatened to leave if anyone was turned away.

Tale 21
A dervish came to see shaykh Nasiruddin Cheragh Dehlavi and complained of his sufferings at the hands of someone. The shaykh advised him to bear his sufferings, remarking: “If someone has been cruel to you, you in return act in the tradition of the dervishes and pardon him”.

Tale 22
Shaykh Nasiruddin, the “Lamp of Delhi”, in one of his conversations recited the following quatrain of shaykh Abu Sa’id Bin Abi’l-Khair twice:

Dar dida bejaay khaab aabast maraa

Ziraa ke bedidanat shetaab ast maraa

Guyand bekhaab taa be khaabash bini

Ay bikhabaraan che jaay khaab ast maraa

This means:

My eyes, instead of sleep, tears they keep,
As in order to see You, my patience I cannot keep.
They tell me to sleep, so that I may see You in my sleep.
O, ignorant ones! How to find room for me to sleep?

Tale 23
Hamid Qalandar writes about his shaykh Nasiruddin: “He has so broken his ego, that if I call him shaykh, he is annoyed and if I attribute a supernatural power ( karaamat ) to him, he resents it’.

Tale 24
Shaykh Nasiruddin gave this advice: “Do not talk to anybody with the intention of captivating his heart”.

Tale 25
In his early days of poverty shaykh Nasiruddin was helped by his friends who themselves had very meagre means of livelihood. Once the shaykh fasted for two days without being able to take anything at the time of breaking of the fast. A kindly neighbour, Nathu Patwa, brought to him two pieces of bread with some gravy on them. The shaykh relished this humble food more than the most sumptuous feasts ever arranged in his honour. Even when he was at the height of his fame and had a free kitchen for the poor, where a large number of people had their meals, he had not forgotten the gift of his kind neighbour.

Tale 26
Shaykh Nasiruddin received every visitor with special attention. This was his opinion:

Darwish raa mibaayad ke baa hama khalq chonaan baashad ke bedaanand ke in az an-e maa ast.

“A dervish should behave himself with everyone in such a way that everyone should think that he is one of them”.

Tale 27
Shaykh Nasiruddin said: “Some visitors come excited and worried and say: ‘Hurry up and do this work’, and if that is not possible they speak ill and quarrel. A dervish has to bear this with patience”.

Tale 28
Shaykh Nasiruddin told the people: “Not an ant will bite you, but as a punishment for some wrong committed by you”.

Tale 29
Once there was no rain in Delhi. The sultan requested the Sufis to pray for rain. Hazrat Qazi Hamiduddin of Nagore then asked for samaa’ (audition of Sufi music) to be organized. The sultan arranged the food and he music. As soon as the samaa’ started, after the food, the rain began to fall in torrents.

Tale 30
Bibi Fatima Sam reposed great faith in Hazrat Najibuddin Mutawakkil; in fact she was a devotee. He treated her as his sister. When there was nothing in the house to eat, she used to send some breads. Once she sent only one bread. He, out of a joke, said: “O, great God! Make the sultan of this city acquainted with our condition, so that he may send us something substantial!” Then he smiled and said: “Alas! The sultans do not possess that inward cleanliness, by which they may be acquainted (with our condition)”.

Tale 31
Hazrat Nasiruddin, the Lamp of Delhi, said: “Asceticism constitutes the capital of a dervish, but that asceticism should be purely for God and not with the object of winning the public applause or that people may take him to be one of the friends of God. The sincerity with which asceticism is carried on is the main thing and then alone it will be effective. Thereby God will cause him to reach the coveted goal”.

Tale 32
Once Hazrat Qazi Muhyiuddin Qashani fell seriously ill. There was no hope of his recovery. When Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya came to know of his illness, he went to see him. Hazrat Qazi Muhyiuddin Qashani stood up to pay him his respects. From that moment on he began to recover. When his spiritual guide left, he said that apparently Hazrat Mehbub-e-Elahi (the Beloved of God, the title of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliya) had come to see him, but inwardly he had absorbed his malady.

Tale 33
Shaykh Nasiruddin used to recite this Persian quatrain:

Donyaa shah raa o qaisar o khaaqaan raa

Dozakh bad raa behesht har nekaan raa

Tasbih fereshta raa sanaa’ har ensaan raa

Jaanaan-e maa raa o jaan-e maa jaanaan raa

For the king, Caesar and the emperor, the world will be,

Let hell be for the bad and for the good paradise will be.

Let angels and men say words of praise on their rosaries:

For me is my Beloved and for Him my soul will be.

Tale 34
Shaykh Nasiruddin liked this Persian quatrain often cited by shaykh ‘Ainul-Quzat Hamadani:

Bar khaasta ze jaan o tan mibaayad

Sar aamada ze khishtan mibaayad

Dar har qadami hazaar band afzun ast

Zin garm ruye band shekan mibaayad

Stand up against your body and mind!

Towards yourself you should be unkind!

At every step there are another thousand bonds:

Break all bonds with this distress of mind.

Tale 35
One day, after offering the first obligatory prayers of the afternoon, shaykh Nasiruddin retired in his room for rest. There was no attendant at the door and even Mawlana Zainuddin ‘Ali, who was usually present at that time, was away.

A qalandar, called Turab, managed to enter the room and began to injure the shaykh with a knife. He inflicted eleven wounds on his body. The palm of the shaykh was severely injured and his fingers were so mutilated that he could not, during the rest of his life, take a pen in his hand or raise his finger while offering prayers. When blood gushed out of his wounds and ran into the water-hole, some murids of the shaykh rushed into the room bewildered and dazed.

They were about to retaliate upon the qalandar, but the shaykh intervened and asked Mawlana ‘Abdul Maqtaddir Thanesari, shaykh Sadruddin Tabib and Mawlana Zainuddin ‘Ali to swear on oath that they would not harm or harass the assailant in any way.

“I hope your knife has not injured your hand,” he asked Turab and presenting some money to him told him to run away before the news went round.