I never ever thought of ever having a date with Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi Mujaddid-i Alf-i Sāni, the Redeemer of the second Millennium who lies buried at Sirhind in Punjab. But destiny willed otherwise and the Shaikh beckoned me to his tomb at Sirhind!
Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind was an uncompromising orthodox with whom I can never see eye to eye. Like Jahangir, I also believe that he had “opened a shop of sedition” and strife between communities.
I had heard of the Shaikh from my childhood when we used to go to Agra to visit the tomb of Qazi Nurullah Shustari who had been allegedly done to death due to Shaikh Ahmad’s insinuations. Again I heard of him when I read one of Professor Khaliq Ahmad Nizami’s piece where he alleged that Nur Jahāñ caused the incarceration of the Shaikh as she was a Shia and held him responsible for the execution of the Shia Qazi!
My real exposure to the Shaikh was however when I was doing my MA in history and Professor M Athar Ali taught us about him and his movement. It was a much more moderate view of Sirhindi which I had heard so far! And then I read Yohanne Friedman’s detailed article on him. And then ultimately I went through the pathbreaking article written by Irfan Habib where he analysed the thought and writings of Shaikh Ahmad threadbare.
Belonging to the Naqshbandi Silsila (Order), Shaikh Ahmad was a disciple of Khwaja Baqi Billah, buried in Delhi. He believed that Islam had been severely contaminated with heterodoxy. Shi’ism and Hindus had both so polluted the true faith, that the true piety had disappeared and that as a new millennium was starting, there was the need of a Redeemer. He believed that he himself was that great Redeemer who was destined to save the religion of Islam: he was the Mujaddid of the Second Millennium.
He wrote letter after letter to various nobles (and interestingly none apparently replied or even acknowledged these letters) that to sit with Shias and Hindus was similar to eating food with dogs!
Sirhindi also wrote a treatise under the title “Radd-e-Rawafiz” to justify the slaughter of shias by Abdullah Khan Uzbek in Mashhad. In this he argues:
“Since the Shia permit cursing Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and one of the chaste wives (of the Prophet), which in itself constitutes infedality, it is incumbent upon the Muslim ruler, nay upon all people, in compliance with the command of the Omniscient King (Allah), to kill them and to oppress them in order to elevate the true religion. It is permissible to destroy their buildings and to seize their property and belongings.”
In one dream included in his Maktūbāt, he narrated how he while being taken to heavens to meet God, passed the stages of the Four Pious Caliphs and with the exception to the Prophet (thankfully) he reached closest to the God!
He wrote that in this dream when an angel led him towards heaven, he reached a stage where there was a beautiful mansion which he was told was of the fourth Caliph, Imām Ali. He proceeded further and reached a second mansion which was that of Uthman. He was urged to go further and thus he reached the mansion of second Caliph. He then went further where he found the mansion of Abu Bakr the first Pious Caliph. However, his journey didn’t end there, as he was beckoned to go beyond these limits and go closer to God than any of them!
Jahangir was left with no option but to throw him in jail in 1610-11 where he remained for around a year. In the Tuzuk Jahangir says that Shaikh Ahmad had opened a dukan of sedition and strife which had to be quelled. Subsequent to his release the nature of his letters changes. The second volume of his Maktubat are now devoid of rabidly communal claims as contained in volume one. All the rhetoric against the Hindus and Shias is now gone! He is ultimately said to have died by 1624. He however remained popular even after his death.
Later day Mujaddidi sources also allege that he played an active role in the execution of the Shia divine, judge and scholar Qazi Nurullah Shushtari. The contemporary sources of the period however are absolutely silent on this issue.
The Mujaddidi sources, especially those like Rūd i Kausar and Āb i Kausar stress his political role. The compilations of his letters in three volumes, Maktūbāt i Imām Rabbāni, have letters which he allegedly wrote to many high nobles of Akbar and Jahangir where he is found critical of Akbar’s and Jahangir’s religious views. He is also found exhorting the nobles to act against such moves. The Mujaddidi sources also claim that it was due to Shaikh Ahmad that Jahangir got the throne: Jahangir’s accession was a triumph of Islam!
Unfortunately these claims are belied by history! No historical source of the period mention him or his alleged role! Even Jahangir on coming to the throne took measures, and openly declared that he was following the footsteps of his father and that his religious views were the same as that of his father! And this finds support from the newly discovered Jahangiri source, the Majālis i Jahangiri compiled by Abdul Sattar Lahori!
Further, Irfan Habib has perceptively pointed out: yes the letters written to various nobles by Shaikh Ahmad are there in his own collection. But did any of the alleged nobles ever reply back to him? We have no evidence that any grand noble was ever in his influence or ever took any notice of him. It was just self claim and posturing!
While on a visit to Patiala for a conference, I had the chance to visit the “shrine” of this orthodox saint at Sirhind, now called Fatehgarh Sahib.
At Fatehgarh Sahib, I skipped the Jahangiri Bāgh and Palace complex, but decided to visit the tomb of the controversial saint. It was as if he was beckoning me! So after visiting a few early Mughal period tombs and the Gurudwara, we headed straight to where the Shaikh lies buried: in fact the only “Muslim” shrine or structure in the whole region which is “living” and “thriving” with visitors and curious travellers like us!
In spite of his own teachings to not revere the dead, a big shrine has been built over his grave, an annual Urs is also held despite his teachings and chadors (grave covering cloth) are offered.
His dargah appears like any other dargah of a Sufi who’s rituals he was critical about: the same type of reverence being showered to the grave, the rituals of chadorposhi and the mujawirs eyeing your pocket for nazrana! However the whole layout of the complex as well as the main shrine, reminds one more of the Gurudwara architecture of the nearby area.
The complex spans over several courtyards, individuals tomb structures as well as simple graves of the devotees of the Shaikh. One of the prominent tomb is that of an Afghan king, Shāh Zaman and his wife.
I had no wish to meet him at a spiritual level, but as a historian I had a date with him on 19th March 2017: it provided me neither with spiritual solace or satisfaction as a historian: as the place is nothing but a modern structure- a whim of some modern disciple of the Naqshbandi Silsila, the only chain of Sufis who have nothing to do with Imam Ali!