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The Perfect Saint

The embrace of Data Sahib by a majority of Pakistan’s Islamic schools of thought has cemented Ali Hujwiri Ganj Baksh’s as a national icon

by Khaled Ahmed

Linus Strothmann of the Institute for Geographical Sciences, Freie Universitat, Berlin, has written a book on Lahore’s most beloved saint, Data Sahib Ali Hujwiri Ganj Baksh—popularly known as just Data Sahib—titled Managing Piety (OUP 2016). Covering the historical and present-day importance of Data Sahib’s shrine in the midst of the Punjab capital and its accommodation of various schools of thought, he writes: “In Pakistan, the control of space and place is more contested than in many other countries, as can be seen in recent examples of lost or contested control in spaces such as Swat or parts of the border region to Afghanistan, but also in more tangible places like the Red Mosque in Islamabad, which was stormed by state forces in 2007 to regain authority over the site.”

The reason behind the “universality of Data Sahib” is that he was not associated with any particular Sufi order. That was because he lived in the 11th century, a time when institutionalized orders had yet to evolve. The Muslim aristocracy in medieval Delhi owned him; and in recent times the shrine became appropriated by major Pakistani politicians, most importantly Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq. With this appropriation came major architectural changes to the shrine that have altered the general visual impact of it to a degree unknown for shrines in this country. It stands out as a modern building, presenting a largely delocalized Islam, without any reference to South Asian building styles. This has made it a thorn in the side for many western scholars working on South Asian Muslim shrines. As one academic on Pakistani shrines put it: They have taken away the character and atmosphere of the place—a possible reference to its neglect by western scholars.

Barelvis and the anti-saint complex

The veneration of saints among South Asian Muslims has been rejected by many more strait-laced sects. One is the Ahl-e-Hadith, also called Wahhabi, while another is a group that became influential through its critique of the veneration of saints, the Deobandis, named after the seminary of Deoband. As a reaction to the growing groups of Muslim reformers critical of veneration of saints, another group evolved, today called Barelvis. Formally the followers of Ahmed Raza Khan (1855-1919) from Bareilly, a city in northern India, the group has since evolved into a broad Sufi-oriented movement. The self-descriptive name of the movement was Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat, but this is little used in Pakistan today, with most Barelvis simply terming themselves as Sunni.

The shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh is the resting place of a man, known in his lifetime as Sheikh Abu al Hasan Ali bin Uthman bin Abi Ali al-Jullabi al-Ghaznavi al-Hujwiri. Today, he is also referred to as Ali Hujwiri, or just Hujwiri. Commonly Hujwiri is known as Data Ganj Bakhsh, the bestower of treasures. In his home turf of Lahore, it is common for people to refer to him simply as Data Sahib or even just Data.

Kashf al-Mahjub

Information about the saint is based on local oral history and his own sole surviving book, the Kashf al-Mahjub (The Revelation of the Veil). Considered the first treatise on Sufism in Persian, Kashf al-Mahjub is well known among Central and South Asian Sufi scholars as well as scholars of Persian literature. The book has been translated into various languages including Urdu, Punjabi, Russian, and English and has made the saint known to an audience outside Lahore and Pakistan. Apart from the Kashf al-Mahjub there are few available sources with original information about the saint, with one being the Sakinat al-Awliya (Ship of the Saints), written by Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, which contains a short biography of the saint and an evaluation of Kashf al-Mahjub.

The exact date of birth of Ali Hujwiri is unknown. While the death of a saint marks the final stage of becoming one with God and is thus recorded and discussed by biographers, there lies no significance attached to the date of birth. One careful approximation is that he was born either in the last decade of the 10th century or the start of the 11th century. As his name and nisba imply, Hujwiri was from the town of Ghazni in today’s Afghanistan, then the center of the Ghaznavid Empire. He most likely lived in the suburbs or nearby villages of Jullabi and Hujwer for some time. In Kashf al-Mahjub, Hujwiri names his eight other books, all of which are lost; he also mentions that his manuscripts had been stolen from him twice already, and his name was erased from their covers, which is why he put his own name inside the Kashf al-Mahjub several times

The man and the saint

The majority of information in the book about Hujwiri’s personal life is connected to his meetings with other Sufi sheikhs and scholars. He also mentions half-a-dozen teachers as giving him instructions. Through Khuttali, Hujwiri is connected to Husri and Shibli, and to the most important Sufi of the times, Junayd of Baghdad.

Hujwiri traveled as far as Ramla (in Syria) in the west, the region of Pars (in today’s Iran) in the south, and Turkistan in the north. The most eastern city mentioned is Lahore, but India is overall mentioned twice, in likely references to places west of Lahore, such as Delhi. Hujwiri lived the first part his life during the reign of Mahmud Ghaznavi, who ruled from 998 until his death in 1030, a period in which the Ghaznavid Empire saw a massive expansion that included almost all of today’s Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India.

Travels and travails of the saint

In Kashf al-Mahjub, Hujwiri mentions that he accrued significant debt in Iraq, while also mentioning some cities numerous times, such as Nishapur, Damascus, Tus, and Ghazna. Since Nishapur in Khurasan and Baghdad in Iraq were the two centers of Sufism in the 10th and 11th centuries, it is likely he spent most of his time there.

When Hujwiri mentions Lahore we find that he was brought there by force and that, at least to him, it was not a favored city: “My books have been left at Ghazni while I myself have become a captive in the district of Lahore, which is located in the suburbs of Multan.” No date is mentioned in the Kashf al-Mahjub for when he arrived in Lahore, but it is likely that this happened after the Ghaznavids lost large parts of their western territories. This included the loss of Merv (1037 A.D.), Nishapur and Herat (1038 A.D.). There is some controversy over Hujwiri’s year of death, with the most accepted view being he passed away in either 1072 A.D. or 1077 A.D. in the Islamic lunar calendar’s month of Safar. The urs celebrations of Data Sahib in Lahore are held from the 18th to 20th of Safar annually.

‘The Revelation of the Veil’

Kashf al-Mahjub is most often translated as The Revelation of the Veil, with Hujwiri claiming in it to have written several books in his youth. This indicates he was likely an old man at the time he wrote the Kashf al-Mahjub and was most probably living in Lahore. The book is presented by Hujwiri as an answer to a question put before him by Abu Sa’id al-Hujwiri, a friend who had traveled to Lahore with him.

The book is a kind of handbook of Sufism, a task Hujwiri took up with great commitment. The superficial enactment of Sufi practices is a thorn in the side for Hujwiri and he criticizes these on several occasions, including: “It is unlawful to play dishonestly with the dress of the saints because it is better to remain a true Muslim than falsely pretending like Sufis.” On another occasion, Hujwiri presents an anecdote in which a group of Sufis he encounters while traveling through Khurasan treat him with disrespect because he did not carry the “Sufi equipment,” indicating that such paraphernalia have little to say about the inner state or devotion of a Sufi. Hujwiri sees the discredit given to the Sufis in reaction to those who enter the path of Sufis with wrong intentions. In regard to dancing, Hujwiri is very clear in his disapproval. However, he leaves a backdoor open for those who move “in ways that resemble dancing” while in a state of ecstasy.

Cult of the tomb

The Chishti revivalists sought progress within the traditional forms of religious authority already popular in western Punjab. They continued to emphasize the khanqahs (hospice for Sufis) and shrines as local religious centers, and they relied on traditional forms of influence, the piri-muridi (master-disciple) relationship and the urs. In broad terms, the Chishti revival had more influence in rural areas while the Ahl-e-Hadith held sway in the urban centers. Therefrom a class of ulema slowly emerged that played an important role during the British reign in defending Muslims against Hindu and Christian polemics and n the establishment of madrassas all over northern India.

The first political figure to write about Ali Hujwiri was the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh in his Sakinat al-Auliya. The son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and brother and rival of Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh was himself a follower of Sufis and a disciple of Mian Mir, one of Lahore’s most revered saints, respected also by the Sikhs. Dara Shikoh was also a friend of the seventh Guru of the Sikhs. Like his great grandfather Akbar, he was interested in building bridges between the major faiths of the subcontinent. About the Kashf al-Mahjub he said: “Among the books on tasawwuf (Sufism) not even one has been composed so well. He surpasses all the saints of India and no new saint can set foot in this land without first obtaining his spiritual permission.”

The problem was, and still is, however, that one can hardly speak of one Islam when looking at the various practices and beliefs evident in Pakistan. The biggest division is that of Shia and Sunni, still causing many deaths in violent conflicts every year. Within the Shia there are Twelver-Shias and Ismailis and within the Sunni there are a number of prominent sects across Pakistan, including the Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahl-e-Hadith and recently Salafi (sometimes referred to as Wahhabis and often named together with the Ahl-e-Hadith).

A touchstone of Pakistani rulers

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1986 and Nawaz Sharif in 2007 both made Data Sahib their first stop after coming back to Pakistan from exile. Among the Sufis said to have entered the subcontinent and stopped at Data Darbar were: Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid, Mian Mir, Madho Lai Husain, Sultan Bahu, and Bulleh Shah, all revered as saints in Pakistan today. Although a remarkable list, one should keep in mind that Lahore was one of the stations on the Great Trunk Road from Central Asia (Kabul) to the Indian cities of Delhi and Agra (and further to Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh). Stopping here was, thus, almost inevitable.

Pakistan’s national poet Muhammad Iqbal associated a “sober” Sufism with Hujwiri, contrasting to the present-day (early-20th century) pirs and caretakers of the shrines, in whom Iqbal saw a class of ruthless exploiters of the rural masses. This stance on the class of traditional caretakers of the shrines was subsequently taken up by his son, Javid Iqbal, in his book The Ideology of Pakistan and Implementation, which suggested in 1960 the establishment of a department for the takeover of shrines. While critical of Sufi practices and shrines, Muhammad Iqbal had great affection for Sufism and visited the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh regularly. The idea of a separate state for Muslims in the Subcontinent actually occurred to Muhammad Iqbal at Data Darbar.

Allama Iqbal and Data Sahib

Iqbal references Moinuddin Chishti, who at this time was already the most venerated saint of the subcontinent, thus turning his visit to the shrine into something of an accolade for Hujwiri. To him, it was Data Sahib who brought Islam to the subcontinent and with it an age of justice. Next, Iqbal refers to Hujwiri as a guardian of the Quran, emphasizing his compatibility with formal Islam and in the next line gives him the credit to have caused the House of Falsehood to “fall in ruins,” referring to those pretenders of Sufism of whom Hujwiri writes about critically. The last line of interest here is: “The dust of Punjab was brought to life by his breath,” which is a reference to the dust of the graves of the numerous Punjabi saints.

One could hardly find a better saint than Hujwiri for the political elite to identify with. His shrine is a space that accommodates everybody, a remarkable development in Pakistan’s evolution as a religious state. The shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh has transformed from one shrine among many into the country’s largest and most complex sacred site. In this process, Hujwiri has become almost a trademark, with the name being used for uncountable shops, products, schools, publishers, government institutions and even a former airline. Data Sahib is among figures that are prominently displayed in school books, where his story is told as that of a very pious Muslim coming to Lahore to preach Islam.

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1 comment

Khalid Mehmood April 22, 2022 - 3:10 pm

i love data shab


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