Signs from Allah: History, Science and the Soul in Islam
35. Islam in Persia-Part 2
By Prof. Nazeer Ahmed
Imam Al Ghazzali (d. 1111), perhaps the single most important integrator of Islamic knowledge in the first millennium of Islam, had brought tasawwuf into the mainstream of Islamic sciences. Indeed, through his own example, he had made tasawwuf the focus of Islamic life. Following his work, intellectual activity in the spiritual dimension of Islam accelerated. The towering personality of the age who represented this dimension was Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani (d 1186).
Shaykh Abu Muhammed Mohiuddin Abdul Qader Jeelani was born in Jeelan in northern Persia in 1077. It was a period of intense intellectual activity and the Shaykh received his early training from local ulema. In 1095, as a young man of eighteen, he set out to Baghdad seeking additional knowledge and training. He sought and received instruction from the luminaries of his age, including Shaykh Abu Wafa Ibn Aqil, Shaykh Muhammed Al Baqlani and Shaykh Abu Zakariya Tabrizi. At the age of fifty, he received his ijaza (diploma) from Shaykh Kazi Abi Saeed Al Muqrami and was commissioned to head the madrasah of Shaykh Kazi Abi Saeed in Baghdad.
Shaykh Abdul Qader’s fame soon spread throughout the land. The courtyard of the madrasah was too small to hold the crowds, so the lectures were moved to the Jami Masjid. The Jami Masjid too proved to be too small so the lectures were moved to a vast open field on the outskirts of the city. It is said that as many as 70,000 people listened to the Shaykh at one time. Scribes recorded his sermons and passed them on for posterity.
The lectures of the Shaykh covered every facet of Islamic life, including kalam, hadith, Fiqh, tafheem ul Qur’an (commentaries on the Qur’an), ethics, Seerat un Nabi (life and example of the Prophet) and tasawwuf. He was strict in his observance of the Shariah and chided those who were remiss in their observance of its injunctions. In the intense spiritual atmosphere of the age, many self-proclaimed ulema claimed that their special insights into religion gave them an excuse not to observe the obligatory prayers, fasting and zakat. Shaykh Abdul Qader chided them and declared that any position not based on the Shariah was atheism. The Shaykh’s exposition of tasawwuf, recorded in Al Fathu Rabbani, is a veritable fountain of spirituality and has inspired Muslims and many non-Muslims for over 800 years. The Shaykh’s humble disposition endeared him to the poor and his forthrightness and rectitude brought him the respect of the high and mighty. Sultans and emperors alike waited to see him and partake of his wisdom.
Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani inspired a galaxy of Sufi sages in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. After he passed away in 1186, his disciples carried his message to the far corners of the Islamic world. The Qadariya Sufi tareeqa was established to give concrete expression to his spiritual and social ideals. It was the first of the many tareeqas that were to dominate the Islamic landscape after the 13th century. The Qadariya tareeqa radiated its influence to every continent of the Old World and was instrumental in bringing millions into the fold of Islam. As late as the 19th century, Uthman Dan Fuduye, inspired by visions of the great Shaykh, waged his struggle to establish a just social-political order in West Africa. In India and Pakistan, he is referred to as Ghouse ul Azam Dastagir and is accorded a position of honor next to only that of the Prophet and the early Companions.
The work of Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani and those who immediately followed him was the life raft that rescued Islam after the Mongol devastations. For an entire generation, between 1219 and 1250, the horsemen from Mongolia roamed the Eurasian continent destroying ancient cities, reshaping, reforming and remolding entire societies. The concurrent challenge from the Crusaders of the West was no less menacing. Indeed, the Crusaders made a determined attempt to convert the Mongols to Christianity, or at least to forge an alliance with them with the avowed intent of extirpating Islam. Following the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1261) the military threat subsided but the threat of losing Asia to non-Islamic ideologies remained.
And it was tasawwuf that rose to take up the challenge and rescue Islam in its gravest hour. The genius of tasawwuf lay in its ecstatic and inclusive character. It was the Islam of the heart, not of the mind. The disappearance of a city culture that had supported the Islamic edifice of Fiqh and fatwa had thrown the mantle of leadership to the countryside where Islam was based on emotion and devotion. The khanqahs established by the Qadariya and other Sufi orders became the focus of Islamic life. A qanqah had five distinct functions. First it was a mosque wherein the faithful offered their obligatory prayers. Second, it was a madrasah where instruction was provided on the Qur’an and the sciences of Fiqh. Third, it was a retreat where individuals could seek solitude and focus on their inner selves or congregate for dhikr (recital of the name of God). Fourth, it was a place to mold the very character of people under the watchful guidance of a shaykh and teach them the virtues of selfless service, chivalry, courage, devotion to the Divine and a universal outlook on life. And fifth, it was a place of rest for the weary traveler, or a refuge for the family fleeing from the persecutions of the times.
Persian ecstatic Islam more than met its challenges. By 1295, the Il-Khanid (Mongol) Ghazan accepted Islam and Persia was back in the forefront of Islamic life. From the Persian heartland, Islam spread to the subcontinent of India-Pakistan and projected itself into the Archipelago of Malaysia and Indonesia. To the west, it reinforced its presence in sub-Saharan Africa and grew to be the dominant faith on that continent. The Ottomans who emerged after the Mongol-Tartar deluge were themselves heavily influenced by tasawwuf. And it was out of the caldron of Sufi ideas that the Safavid dynasty emerged.
With the destruction of the urban centers of learning wherein Arabic was the medium of instruction, Farsi emerged as the medium of expression for ecstatic Islam. Five hundred years of association with Islam had transformed Farsi and had exposed it to the rich lexicon of Arabic. And now it was the turn of Farsi to take center stage. It was through Farsi that sublime poetry and exquisite prose found their expression in the post-Mongol, Timurid, Safavid, Mogul and Ottoman periods.
(The author is Director, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC; Director, American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, CA; Member, State Knowledge Commission, Bangalore; and Chairman, Delixus Group)
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