“Love Towards All, Malice Towards None”:
Ajmer’s Message of Universal Love
By Dr Amineh Hoti
Following a conference in Germany where scholars from the Abrahamic faiths from around the world met to find ways to understand each other, I arrived in London to a refreshingly warm summer. Worrying headlines continued of war in Syria and the displacement of millions of bewildered refugees. Simultaneously, there was news of a white British man who drove his car into a mosque killing and injuring elderly people praying during Ramadan. There was also news of white teenagers—aged 15 and 16—on motorbikes going around London throwing acid on ‘Muslim-looking’ people driving by in cars – many innocent victims were left with damage on their faces for life – one of them was not Muslim! This level of reciprocal hatred is an ugly situation and has made the diverse population that is based in London uncomfortable in public spaces.
In America, the level of mad hatred towards Muslims and “Others” is also high: one former white US Marine, in response to the Paris attacks in 2015, fired dozens of shots into a mosque near his home in Connecticut. The imam of the mosque pointed to a sign outside the mosque which read, “Love towards all, Malice towards none.” The imam said, “How did he miss that sign! This is who we are.” He added, “We didn’t let it scare us, so when we had an interfaith congregation, we reached out to him, forgave him and embraced him. And he had tears in his eyes. It changed him.”
In the UK, Kristiane Backer, a former MTV Europe presenter who had become inspired by the message of love in Islam and written her story in her book, From MTV to Mecca, had invited me for dinner. Kristiane’s Chelsea home was distinguished by the Pakistani wooden carvings on her front window and I noticed a gold framed couplet by Allama Iqbal hanging on her wall. She had prepared a delicious Pakistani meal of biryani, chicken handi, dahl, raita, salad, bengan and okra. The spices and the salt were just right.
Amongst her guests were an English yogi who teaches at SOAS, a Sri Lankan student of philosophy, Raaid, a Lahori computer scientist, Tariq Hamid, a Pakistani army officer teaching at Sandhurst Military Academy, Major Uqbah Malik. There was also Alexis McNally, a landscape gardener and convert to Islam, Clare Pelham from the US, a neighbor of Kristiane and film script writer, a Sufi architectural scholar Taimur Sahib – the founder of Hast-o-Neest in Lahore, two young bright Pakistani lawyers, Sikander Choudhri and his wife, and finally Umku, the daughter of Pakistan’s female former ambassador to the US, Begum Abida Hussain. The chief guest was 34-year-old Syed Salman Chishty—the direct male descendent of the famous Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty who is buried in his dargah (shrine) in Ajmer Sharif, where each year on his death anniversary over one million people from all faiths descend to pay their respects in what is called an ‘Urs’ celebration.
As the conversation began, Syed Salman Chishty told us about Ajmer Sharif. In his book Journey into Islam, Professor Akbar S. Ahmed noted Ajmer as one of three models for Muslims (https://www.brookings.edu/book/journey-into-islam/). Ajmer was the universal model whereas the Wahabi/Salafi Deobandis, in response to colonialism, believe in creating boundaries around Muslims and finally the Aligarh model embraced modernity but balanced it with faith.
From the 11thCentury onwards when there was a strong hierarchy and an impenetrable caste system in the sub-continent during the rule of the Hindu king, Prithvi Raj dynasty where a few were more privileged than others, the message of Khwaja Sahib from Ajmer was instantly appealing to everyone, especially those who were poor and on the periphery as it was a simple message based on the idea of love and acceptance of humanity in all its colours and faces. “People can be themselves here – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, everyone,” said Salman Sahib, “Khwaja Sahib’s message is based on a universal message inspired by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) and spread not through words but with actions. Khwaja Sahib carried so much grace and light/noor, that he attracted many people. He never tried to convert anyone but only spoke with them. That is why so many people of all faiths and non-faith come to Ajmer every year”.
Kristiane noted how surprised she was when she attended Syed Salman’s wedding last year and travelled through Rajasthan, how everyone she met from Sikh to Jain, to Buddhist and Muslim without fail said, “I love Ghareeb Nawaz,” the affectionate nickname of the saint, “and” they added, “we visit him once a year.” Khwaja Sahib is known as “Ghareeb Nawaz” which means “the helper of the poor.”
Salman Sahib explained that “the term ghareeb does not only mean poor, it includes any person who is a stranger, a traveller, needy or in search, so even if you are a millionaire but you are travelling or a refugee you may be ghareeb in this sense because you do not have your basic comforts as you would at home.” Life itself is a journey and, therefore, in our travels through life, each one of us is ghareeb. “The highest form of worship is to make your love for God an integral part of your work in serving humanity. So Sufism is Ishq-e-Ilahi, passionate love for God, which is inextricably interlinked with Khidmat-e-Khalq – serving humanity. People need reminders of the divine and the best way to clean the heart is through zikr (remembrance of the divine presence).”
Salman Sahib reminded us that “the corporate world focuses on the material dimension alone, the body, and on instant gratification. This allows very little room for spiritual realization. However, when you are deprived of a spiritual sense, light or noor is taken away from your face as if you are only a dead soul. But silence is the best cure and it allows for a greater understanding of the self.” This point was interesting to me as Sufi Muslims are ‘silent,’ non-intrusive lovers of the divine and of humanity, whereas those who want to impose on others their views loudly, are given more attention in the media with screaming headlines of Muslims as terrorists.
I would rather that the media encourage the softer more gentler voices within Muslim society in order to encourage peace and harmony within the wider world society because the more the media shows ‘Islam’, the religion, as violent, the more local Western people will begin to hate the people who are Muslims without realizing the fact that only a small number of Muslims responding politically, not religiously, are the so-called “terrorists”. What the world needs is healing, not more raised temperatures towards people who are different.
At the dinner, we then spoke about Qawali in which is the remembrance and praise of God and his Prophet (pbuh) and so Salman Sahib said, “In the Chishty tradition, if a Sufi does not hear Qawali for more than three days it is said he dies, of course not physically, but spiritually.”
Major Uqbah, the dynamic young officer, said he knew very little about Ajmer and added, “There are many ways to understanding religion and living it and this is just one of the ways, not the only way”. It was interesting to note this statement from Major Uqbah who is the first Muslim teaching at the Military Academy Sandhurst and as an army man trained to fight with the gun I could understand that for him Salman Sahib’s gentle sufi message was a different approach. Salman Sahib continued explaining the impact of Ajmer and when Kristiane turned up the music to play A.R. Rahman’s famous tribute to Moinuddin Chishty, ‘Khawaja mere Khawaja’
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ5wV2AcWbM his face lit up and excited he told us that “A.R. Rehman, was an Oscar winning musician and a great Bollywood hero, who used to sit at the back of the ‘shahi qawals’ of Ajmer Dargah Sharif and would listen in complete humble silence and take inspiration from Ajmer. He used to just sit there humbly and clap with the clapping boys, even when he became famous!” In his song he says, “By loving you, Khwaja, I have reached Mustafa.”
Salman Sahib reflected, “When you make your work your meditation – when it reflects your longing to become closer to the Prophet and the divine, your work becomes eternal. But to do this you need to be humble and learn – the biggest struggle or jihad al akbar, as the Prophet said, is fighting your own ego, your selfish desires and needs, and respecting the rights of others and the sanctity of life.” This is a powerful message for those who think that jihad is just to fight others; it is also a message that must be promoted more by Muslims to help non-Muslims understand the true meaning of jihad and that it is not just a violent act towards others - this meaning in popular terminology has been imposed on the term.
About humility, Salman Sahib told us the famous story of the great Mughal emperor Akbar. As an emperor of one of the biggest dynasties the world has ever seen, Akbar at the peak of the 300-year rule of the Mughal Empire desired a son to carry on his dynasty. Emperor Akbar had many wives including a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian, but he could not conceive a son. So, Sufi master Khawaja Salim Chishty of Fatehpur Sikri, who happened to be the spiritual teacher or Pir of Emperor Akbar, advised him to visit the famous saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisthy in Ajmer Sharif, through whose prayers he may conceive a child. Akbar was told by Khawaja Salim Chishty that it was not in his destiny to have a son but if he wanted to reverse destiny, which Salman Sahib explained is not static but constantly in flux by the virtue of prayers and blessings, he had to go to visit the dargah grave or mazaar of the saint – not as a king, but as a beggar or a faqir.
So Akbar – the most powerful and the greatest of the Mughal emperors - walked barefoot for 400 kilometers in the hot Indian desert and arrived as a humble man in Ajmer Sharif and in submission to God requested to grant him a son. Akbar’s prayers were answered and Akbar Badshah’s (king) son was named Salim. Emperor Akbar, in gratitude, donated one of the largest cooking cauldron to the dargah of Ajmer Sharif. Even today, Ajmer’s charitable helpers cook in this massive pot, which is as big as a small house with a ladder inside the cauldron, preparing 3,000 kg of food every day for the poor and for visitors, regardless of religion, colour or gender. The wisdom or hikmat behind this, as Salman Sahib says, is that it is a continued service to humanity. It is khidmat-e-khalq (helping humanity) regardless of the receiver’s faith or background. In a time when some have closed doors to war-fleeing refugees in Europe and the US and others are killing their own citizens and neighbours, as in Bosnia and Mayanmar, here is a lesson for all the world – to reach out to all people and feel empathy for them as if they are one’s own community.
Salman Sahib’s own background is interesting as he had completed his early studies in a Catholic school and then received an offer for an MBA from LSE, UK, and Islamic Studies at Al Azhar University in Cairo. He went to Saudi Arabia to study the Arabic language but he said that it was interesting that there were no studies of sufism in Saudi, he got a good insight into how Saudi universities work and who they fund: “If you studied in a Saudi university, they look after you for the rest of your life and even fund a mosque in your country but that also means that they bring in some of that particular way of thinking.”
Salman Sahib said that in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he was lucky to find a small hidden near-Sufi order called the Ba'Alawy – a Sufi order from Hadhramaut, Yemen who were driven out in the 18th and 19th centuries by the House of Saud / the Al–e-Saud. Sufi Islam is widely known as being inclusive and universal. So in underground gatherings and soundproof rooms they carried out their spiritual "Dhikr" remembrances of the Divine. Salman Sahib said he visited them every Monday. But Salman Sahib’s young life was affected when news came from Ajmer that his father had died in a car crash – the suddenness of his father’s death while he was abroad meant he could not attend the last rites of his father’s funeral. This caused him great pain. He said he offered himself to this service in the divine’s way like “a blank paper” and took over the seat of caring for the thousands of people who visited Ajmer Dargah Sharif. He described his calling by saying, “My heart is blooming like a rose and there is a needling pain for sufferings of humanity”. As illustrated by Faridud din Attar, all human beings are capable of carrying out good and highly virtuous behaviour: “It is recognizing the universal truth and transcending boundaries that is key to peacebuilding.”
From Khwaja Sahib in Ajmer Sharif to saint Sari Sultan in Sarajevo in the 14th century, Sufi Muslim saints led people through example – their message was simple – it was one of acceptance of all people and a deep love for humanity.
As Salman Chishty said we need wisdom hikmat to live in this life dominated by news of wars and terror. But there was also hope, as I left the dinner, above us divine blessings hung in a frame in calligraphy in Kristiane’s entrance, while wishing me goodbye, Salman Sahib read a beautiful prayer, which in the context of London’s troubles with hate crimes and the wider turmoil of our world is profoundly meaningful for me: “May the Divine inspire your pen/ qalam and your peacebuilding work.”