Hadrat Pir Meher Ali Shah Of Golra Sharif
One of the most illustrious of such Islamic scholars and Sufis in the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent was Hadrat Sayed Pir Meher Ali Shah of Golra, District Rawalpindi (now Islamabad. Pakistan). Born in 1859, the period of Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah’s mission spanned nearly half a century until his passing away in 1937. During this period, he attained rare scholarly and spiritual heights, imparted religious knowledge and guidance to thousands of their seekers, and provided solace and prayers to the myriad others that thronged to him for this purpose. The remainder of this booklet describes the salient attributes and achievements of this great man and his mission.
Ancestry and birth
Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah was a direct descendent, from the side of both of his parents, of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) of Islam, and of his son-in law and principal spiritual successor, fourth Righteous Caliph ‘Ali. The fact that all the illustrious prophets of God during the past three thousand years or so, including Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), were descendents of Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim), underscores the importance of lineage in matters religious and spiritual. While personal qualities and effort are as essential in these fields as in any other, chaste lineage and family environment undoubtedly provide the backdrop in which piety and virtue can geminate and thrive. This in no way contravenes the principle of equality at the general human level which Islam so strongly stresses.
In the 25th generation, Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah descended from a scholar and sage of unequalled renown in the Muslim world, namely, Hadrat Shaikh ‘Abdul Qadir Gilani. Widely acknowledged as the greatest Sufi divine of all time, Shaikh ‘Abdul Qadir was born in Gilan (Iran), but received his religious and spiritual education at Baghdad, which was then the foremost Islamic centre of learning, and spent the rest of his life teaching and dispensing spiritual guidance there. The Shaikh is popularly known as the Ghauthul A’zam (The Great Helper), Mohyuddin. The Reviver of Religion), and Piran-e-Pir. The Pir of Pirs). These titles signify, respectively, the Shaikh’s outstanding spiritual capacity to give succour to those in distress, his great services in revitalizing Islam and its hold on the minds and actions of his contemporaries, and his ascendancy over other sufi masters of his own and other generations. The Shaikh’s shrine in Baghdad is a place of pilgrimage for sufis and non-sufies alike from all parts of the Muslims world.
The ancestors of Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah had migrated in the mid-fifteenth century A.D. from Baghdad to the Province of Bengal in India, whence their offspring later moved to other parts of the Subcontinent and finally settled down at Golra in the province of Punjab towards the end of the 18th century. Here it was that Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah was born on the first day of Ramadan (the Muslim fasting month) in 1275 A.H. (1859 A.D.). His family had been known for piety and saintliness even before him. His father, Sayyid Nadhar Din Shah, during his youth, had been condemned to be publicly burnt alive by the local Sikh ruler providentially vindicated when the fire blazing all around him failed to touch his person a miraculous incident that had added greatly to the family’s prestige and veneration. Nevertheless, it was only with the advent and rise to eminence of Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah that the family as well as its abode, Golra, acquired wide and enduring fame.
The early years and education
Hadrat Meher ‘Ali Shah, to be referred to henceforth mainly as “Hadrat”, was a uniquely endowed child, possessing extraordinary intelligence, memory, physique, and other qualities of head and heart. His birth had been spiritually foretold much in advance, and many portents testified to his being a born wali (saint). His early religious education was arranged by his parents and elders under carefully selected and eminent local teachers. Later, he himself sought out the best available teachers in remote parts of the Sub-continent, and traveled to their schools to complete his education. Hadrat’s rare intellect, his thirst for learning, and his single-minded devotion to studies enabled him to cover all known fields of Islamic religious education, and to start teaching himself at Golra, by the relatively early age of 20 years. His phenomenal memory enabled him to memorize the entire Qur’an just by reading it several times, and without any conscious or systematic effort towards that end. His teachers included, among others, Maulana Lutfullah of Aligarh and Maulana Ahmad Ali of Saharanpur, both of country-wide contemporary fame. He also tried to join the school of another famous scholar and teacher, Maulana Ahmad Hasan Muhaddith of Kanpur, but the latter could not admit him because of his impending journey to the Hedjaz for Haj (the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Holy Ka’bah, the House of God, at Makkah) – a journey that used to take months in those days of relatively slow transport. Many years later, when Hadrat’s own fame spread far and wide, Maulana Ahmad Hasan used to regret his having turned away a pupil of such outstanding caliber and potential. He in fact once traveled to Pakpattan, the resting place of Hadrat Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar, another very great name among the Muslim sufis of the Sub-continent, on the occasion of the latter’s annual ‘Urs which Hadrat used to attend regularly, solely to earn the privilege of meeting him.
The spiritual journey
Having equipped himself with the knowledge of all aspects of the Islamic shariah (temporal code), Hadart diverted his attention, in line with the family tradition, to the spiritual field. He was first initiated into his ancestral Qadiriyah sufi school by his father’s maternal uncle, Pir Fadal uddin. Later, for further spiritual elevation, he sought induction into the Chishtiyah Nizamiyah order at the hands of its leading contemporary light, Hadrat Khwaja Shamsuddin of Siyal Sharif (distt. Sargodha, the Punjab). His formal links remained throughout with these two schools, to which he initiated seekers of spiritual guidance at his hands. Some years later, during his visit to the Hedjaz for Haj, he was admitted to, and permitted to initiate people into, the Chishtiyah Sabiriyah order by Haji Imdadullah Mohajir of Makkah, who had been greatly impressed by Hadrat’s erudition and scholarly prowess during discussion on an important but complex religious issue.
The period of Hadrat’s spiritual growth was marked by wide travels, extended spells of self-imposed seclusion for purposes of contemplation, prayer and meditation, fasting, and diverse spiritual exercises. These, inter alia, included muraqabah, (contemplation) on a stone slab of the size of a prayer mat, which was placed outside his hujrah (prayer cell). On this slab, Hadrat often spent whole nights (including the long and exceedingly cold winter ones) sitting motionless in single-minded contemplation until the break of dawn, when he rose to prepare for his morning prayers. During daytime, the same slab used to serve as a seat for his teaching and related activities. There are also numerous spots in the districts of Lahore, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan, and Rawalpindi, and in the hills around Golra, where Hadrat spent long periods in prayer, dhikr (remembrance), and reflection. These spells constitute recognized essential elements in classical Islamic Sufism as aids to soul-purification, and are meant to enable the salik (i.e., wayfarer or traverser of the ‘Path’) to “graduate” and become a mentor for others. They are rooted in the Holy Prophet (PBUH)’s own periods of retirement into the cave of Hira outside Makkah for contemplation and prayer, which preceded his formal elevation to prophethood. They tend sometimes to be compared to Christian monasticism (i.e. , monkhood). The comparison is, however, totally invalid and misleading. First, how could the Sufi adopt monasticism or anything patterned on it when, according to the Qur’an, monasticism was not enjoined by God even upon the Christians but they imposed it upon themselves? (cf. LVII-27). Second, seclusion under Christian monasticism is intended generally to be life-long, whereas in Sufism it is a temporary and passing phase among a succession of consciously planned phases. And third, Christian monasticism seems to stem from the concept that worldly life is essentially sinful and must be abjured completely if salvation is to be attained. Islam categorically rejects this concept, and maintains that all human actions are virtuous or otherwise depending upon whether or not they are performed according to Divine Will or Injunction.
The foregoing argument is endorsed by the New Encyclopedia Britannica (op. cit. , Vol. 8, p. 245), which traces the origins of monasticism to Christianity, and compares the Christian monastic practices to those in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism, but makes no mention of Islam in this context.
It also seems necessary here to correct a mistaken conclusion drawn by those critics of sufism who have interpreted the call made by many sufi masters for the “abjuration of the world” in its purely literal sense and equated it with a plea for hermitism. What the sufi masters have in fact meant is not the renunciation of worldly life and its pursuits as such, which would be palpably un-Islamic, but abstention from the love of and too much pre-occupation with worldly goods, luxury, and comforts to such an extent as to become forgetful of God and of one’s duty to Him. This sufi approach is supported by several verses of the Qur’an, of which two may be cited here: (i) “O ye believers, when the call to prayer is proclaimed on Friday (the day of Assembly), hasten earnestly to the remembrance of Allah, and leave off business; that is best for you if ye but knew. And when the prayer is finished, then ye disperse through the land, and seek of the Bounty of God (i.e., resume your usual activities of life) and celebrate the praises of Allah often that ye may benefit.” (LXII, 9-10); and (ii) “O ye believers, let not your riches or your children divert you from the remembrance of Allah; if anyone acts thus, they are the losers.” (LXIII-9). In accord with the spirit of these Qur’anic admonitions, many of the renowned sufi masters pursued different vocations and trades to earn honest living, simultaneously with their pursuit of the spiritual path. This is also in complete accord with the Prophet’s saying which forms the basis of the adage: “Al-kasibo habibullah i.e. , Allah loves him who earns his living by working.
Furthermore, history records numerous instances in which the sufis waged valiant struggles, both with the spoken and the written word as well as with the sword when this became unavoidable, against forces of tyranny and oppression. The participation of sufi dervishes in the Muslim military campaigns in different countries has already been mentioned on page 18 above. The sufis also played a prominent role in reviving the spirits of the Muslim ummah after the greatest calamity that had befallen the Islamic world in the shape of the Mongol invasion of the mid-seventh century A.H., which destroyed everything that came in its way. They were even instrumental in the large-scale conversions to Islam of the Qadiriyah and Naqshbandiyah schools are known to have waged armed jehad against the Russians in the Central Turkestan both during Czarist rule and during the period since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Finally, to quote The New Encyclopedia Britannica once again, sufi masters “have raised their voices against social inequality and have tried, even at the cost of their lives, to change social and political conditions for the better and to spiritually revive the masses.” (cf. Vol. 22, 1985, p. 24).
In line with the foregoing quotations from the Qur’an and the hadith, the great sufi poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, whose celebrated Mathnavi ranks among the loftiest sufi works and was termed by ‘Abdul Rahman Jami as “the Qur’an in Persian language, sums up the sufi view of “the world” in the following verse:
(What is the world? It is not vocation, riches, sons or wives, but forgetfulness of God.)
In Islamic sufism, therefore, the seclusion, contemplation and prayer are meant to enable the sufi to single-mindedly traverse the various stages of spiritual growth, and thereby prepare himself for an eventual role of mentorship which he must perform in the full blaze of the public eye. And this is precisely what happened in Hadrat’s case. The period between his spiritual “graduation” in 1889 A.D. (1307 A.H.), and his passing away 48 years later, was wholly devoted by Hadrat to the dispensation of knowledge and spiritual guidance to the hundreds of thousands who sought them at his hands.
Visit to the Hedjaz (Saudi Arabia for Haj)
Haj, i.e., the pilgrimage to Holy Ka’bah at Makkah, is prescribed as an obligatory religious duty, to be performed at least once in his or her lifetime, for every adult Muslim man and woman who can afford the journey financially and physically. Visit to pay homage (ziarah) at the tomb of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) at Madinah is an integral and essential part of the Haj programme. Besides operating as a means of consolidating the unity of the world Muslim community, Haj and ziarah confer untold religious and spiritual benefits upon individual pilgrims, especially those who are mystically inclined. Hadrat undertook this sacred journey in 1307 A.H. at the age of 31, accompanied by one of his disciples. During his stay in the Hedjaz, he met several well-known religious personalities, including Haji Imdadullah Mohajir of Makkah (cf. footnote 41) and Haji Rahmatullah Mohajir of Makkah. Maulana Muhammad Ghazi, who was then teaching at Madressah Saulatiyah, the leading religious school at Makkah, was so deeply impressed by Hadrat’s erudition and overpowered by this magnetic personality that he left his job at Makkah and accompanied Hadrat on his return journey to Golra. He spent the rest of his life teaching and benefiting from Hadrat’s company at Golra, where he also served as the principal tutor of Hadrat’s only son and successor, Hadrat Sayyid Ghulam Mohyuddin, affectionately nicknamed by Hadrat as Babuji.
The journey to Madinah, a little over 400 kilometers from Makkah, used to be performed on camelback in those days of slow and primitive transport, and took several weeks. It was during this journey that Hadrat was honored with a vision of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in dream, which, besides other spiritual benefits, inspired him to compose a na’t, i.e., poem in the Prophet’s adoration, in the Punjabi language that has attained wide popularity in sufi circles.
Character and attributes
Hadrat’s attributes and achievements are too numerous and wide-ranging to admit of elaboration in this booklet. They will therefore be touched upon here only briefly and selectively. A full account of Hadrat’s life and work is contained in his detailed Urdu-language biography by Maulana Faid Ahmad, titled Mehr-e-Munir, which has already been mentioned in the Preface to the booklet.
The attributes of Hadrat set out in the succeeding paragraphs add up to a combination that is rarely found in religious personalities, and that earned Hadrat the esteem of phenomenon in this part of the world.
a. Erudition and learning
The solid scholarly base of classical Sufism was noted earlier (pp.8-9). In line with this tradition, Hadrat devoted his early years to the learning and mastering of all basic religious sciences of Islam and the rest of his life to furthering that knowledge and imparting it to others. To his store of shariah knowledge, he added a deep study of all important Sufi literature. In some of this literature, e.g., the Mathnavi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and the writings of Shaikh Mohyuddin Ibn-ul-‘Arabi, he was acknowledged as a leading authority in the Sub-continent. In the understanding, exposition, and balanced interpretation of the latter’s concept of wahdat-ul-wujud, Ultimate Oneness of Being) in particular, with its myriad fine and subtle nuances, Hadrat stands very high among the ‘ulama and sufis of the Sub-continent. He also had mastery in the ‘science of numbers, (ilm-ul-adad) or ‘ilm0ul-huruf, science of letters), which is regarded in sufism as the root of science and is said to have been pioneered by Imam Ja’far Sadiq, a great grandson of Fourth Caliph ‘Ali.
As a result of all this, Hadrat developed in course of time into one of the most eminent religious-cum-mystic scholars this Sub-continent has produced. His ability to write and speak masterfully in Arabic and Persian, which have been the two principal languages of Islam throughout its history, brought him recognition in the entire Muslim world. A substantial part of Hadrat’s writings is in these languages. Those who had the privilege and good fortune of listening to him on religious and spiritual matters were spell-bound by his mastery of exposition, strength of argument, depth and breadth of knowledge, sharpness of intellect, and above all his ability to explain the most complex issues in simple and concise but convincing terms for the benefit of persons with average intelligence. His sittings were always attended by a sprinkling of scholars, seeking to advance and sharpen their knowledge of various rissues, yet he spoke to everyone at his respective level of understanding. In short, Hadrat had been blessed that rare capacity to imbibe and impart knowledge which is given only to the very select few.
b. Strict observance of the Shariah
As noted in earlier sections of this booklet, all eminent Sufis of Islam based their spiritual development on a thorough knowledge and a strict observance of the Islamic shariah, and regarded even slight deviation from the dictates of the shariah as antithetical to true sufism and tantamount to sin. Indeed, classical Sufism was inconceivable without this combination of temporal and spiritual rectitude. In course of time, however, as happens with all human institutions, the combination tended to develop kinks and many latter-day Sufis started seeking or claming spiritual elevation without due knowledge or observance of the shariah. Inevitably this caused the gradual decline of Sufism from its pristine glory; it even brought some discredit to this one-time illustrious institution. The critics, who chose to judge Sufism, not by the lofty standards set by its classical masters but by the diluted ones of the latter-day pseudo-Sufis, quickly multiplied and are found in large numbers today. Nevertheless, the truly eminent Sufis have never wavered from the classical path, and shariah observance has remained their hall-mark. Being in the line of the truly great, Hadrat strictly followed the dictates of the shariah in all that he said, did or preached. He strongly discouraged deviation from the path of the Qur’an and the sunnah, not only in matters of religious ritual (e.g., the daily prayers) but also in day-to-day social affairs, such as those pertaining to mutual dealings, religious tolerance, marriage and divorce, treatment of dependents or neighbors, and so on. This accounts for the universal esteem in which he was held by all schools of religious and secular thought.
c. Balance and moderation
Both as a scholar, a sufi, and a human being, Hadrat’s method was marked by that balance and moderation which is the essence of Islam, which distinguishes it from other great faiths known to man, and of which the Holy Prophet (PBUH) himself was the epitome and the perfect exemplar.
In a long life fully and cleanly lived, Hadrat maintained an exquisite balance between his religious and secular obligations. In the former sphere, he imparted religious and spiritual light to hundreds of thousands; taught the famous Mathnavi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, and the writings of Shaikh Mohyuddin Ibn-ul-Arabi; issued fatawa, authoritative rulings) on important religious issues referred to him; participated in scholarly religious debates when ever this became absolutely necessary; campaigned untiringly and effectively against movements seeking to disrupt the Muslim community; and indulged ceaselessly in meditation, prayer, and remembrance of the Supreme Being which is the essence of Islam. In the secular sphere, he maintained all family and other wordly relationships and did so in strict accord with the Islamic shariah. In short, his life exemplifies what a poet has summed up in a beautiful Persian verse:
(I do not ask thee to forsake the world; only be with God, i.e. , remember Him, wherever thou mayst be.)
On religious issues, Hadrat’s approach, unlike that of some of his contemporaries, was based on absolute moderation and tolerance for points of view different from his own. On those rare occasions when it became absolutely necessary to express his disagreement with others, he would do so very mildly and in the most refined manner so as not to give the slightest offence. For example, in relation to a religious scholar who was and is held in high esteem by a particular sect of Muslims, he once observed: “His scholarly greatness and his services to Islam are beyond dispute. However, on certain issues on which there is consensus among the Muslim ummah, he has chosen to adopt an extreme and a rigid stance. (cf. Mehr-e-Munir, op. cit. , p. 142.” This attribute of Hadrat helps prove the truth of the view expressed by a present-day scholar that “there is a linear relationship between the depth of knowledge and the degree of tolerance.”
Carefully avoiding the extremes of the various sects that have created everlasting schisms in the Muslim ummah over the centuries, Hadrat exhorted his followers and others to always emphasise the points of union rather than those of disunity. Averse to petty sectarian controversies, he nevertheless did participated at times in debates involving fundamental religious questions concerned with the preservation of the pristine purity of Islam. For example, he stood up firmly against those new sects which tended to reject the Prophet’s hadith as an authentic source of the Islamic shariah and to rely on the Qur’an as the sole such source. He also strongly repudiated views involving eh slightest disrespect to the august personality of the Prophet (PBUH) of Islam. Even in these matters, however, while he invariable clinched the issue with brilliant decisive points, he never indulged in the acrimony usually associated with such occasions. His fatawa (rulings) on religious issues were marked by the same moderation. Except for the Qadianis who blatantly infringed the fundamental Islamic doctrine of the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), he never denounced any other of the parochial Muslim sects as kafir (infidel). Instead, he tried, most often successfully, to bring them round to the correct point of view through persuasion and patient argument. In brief, he sought to resolve rather than aggravate parochial differences, to promote love and understanding rather than fan hatred and acrimony, and to forge unity rather than foster schism.
In this context, one of Hadrat’s major contributions was the compilation of a book entitled Tasfiah Mabain Sunni wa Shi’ah (Sunni-Shiah Reconciliation), which was intended to decisively resolve the long-standing differences between Islam’s two leading sects (the Sunni and the Shi’ah) that have caused incalculable damage to the world Muslim community over the past 12 centuries. Unfortunately, Hadrat passed away before the final completion and publication of this book. After a careful review, the book has been recently published with suitable explanatory notes alongwith Hadrat’s other writings. A gist of the contents of this book appears under item of Appendix I to this booklet, which gives an annotated list of the published writings of Hadart Meher Ali Shah.
d. Religious tolerance
As noted earlier, the spread of Islam in various parts of the world, especially in the Indo-Pak sub-continent, owes a great deal to the missionary work of the Sufis. Yet the Sufis set unrivalled examples of religious tolerance as well. Their own lives on the loftiest principles of Islam; those around them were led to embrace this model because they found it irresistibly enchanting and better than anything they had seen or experienced before. Not the slightest coercion was used for this purpose. The Sufis captured the hearts of people with sheer beauty of character and nobility of conduct. They answered hostility and bigotry with compassion, forgiveness, and a total lack of malice. In times of need, they extended succour to all, irrespective of caste, colour or creed. As a result, even those who did not embrace Islam came to have feelings of deep respect for them as human beings. This respect endured even beyond their earthly lives. As briefly noted earlier (page 20), the shrines of eminent Sufis are held in reverence and visited by many non-Muslims a remarkable phenomenon considering that these same Sufis had been responsible for drawing thousands of their co-religionists away from their ancestral faith.
After encountering initial hostility from the non-Muslim ruler and residents of Golra, mentioned on page 23 above, the family of Hadrat Pir Meher Ali Shah came to command their respect and thereby live in peace in their newly-chosen abode. This respect grew with time and attained its peak during the period of Hadrat and his successor, Hadrat Babuji. The harmony and good will thus developed was demonstrated in full measure during the country-wide communal discord that erupted at the time of the emerging states of India and Pakistan, accompanied by massive loss of life and property on both sides. During this crisis, Hadrat Babuji first gave protection of life and property to the local non-Muslim residents, and later escorted them personally to the Indo-Pakistan border and saw them cross safely over to India. The feelings of gratitude and obligation thus generated found moving expression during the first few visits that Hadrat Babuji made to India after Independence, when hundreds of Hindus and Sikhs received him with deep affection and played host to him during his stay in that country.
For political reasons, the conditions for travel between the two countries worsened with the passage of time. As a result, Hadrat Babuji visited India very infrequently during the later years. Nevertheless, the feelings of affection for him of his non-Muslim admirers in India endured undiminished, and many of them were in regular correspondence with him until his passing away in 1974 A.D.
Like all truly great men, Hadrat was modest and humble in spirit as well as in bearing, and deeply disliked pride and conceit of any kind. This was in line with the Qur’anic denunciation of these things at several places (e.g., XVII-37, 38; XXXI-18; and XL-35), and with the Prophet’s saying that no person with even an iota of pride and conceit shall enter paradise. A profound and brilliant scholar, he always called himself a mere “student” of religion and “dust of the feet” of the great early masters. He called his disciples “friends” and “associates” and never sought distinguished posture in their company. He lived frugally and ate very sparingly. His dress was also simple and usually white, but always spotlessly clean as enjoined by Islam. He often indulged in pleasantries with the poor and the lowly, making everyone of his myriad followers feel he was kinder to him than to everyone else. His reverence of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) , of the Ahl-e-Baet (i.e, members of the Prophet’s household), of the Prophet’s Companions, and of the great old spiritual masters, was profound and complete. He also treated with great respect his teachers as well as their family members, and even those others who were in any way associated with them. He was thus a true exemplar of the following verses of the great Rumi.
(We seek of God the capacity for “respect” because the disrespectful never receive God’s grace)
(The disrespectful is not only bad himself; he also kindles fire, i.e., spreads evil, in the entire universe).