“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
The Delhi Sultanate is a series of curious events put together, which has time and again demanded scholars to ponder over the performativity of its truth through a fresh perspective. It was a time of invasion and expansion. Movement of people were taking place in both large and small numbers to equally long and short distances within and around the Sultanate. These movements were occurring for numerous reasons like trade, pilgrimage or education but what’s even more fascinating is the shift in capital of the monarch and territory, not just in terms of fluctuating borders but also from within.
The successions of crowned heads was also a cause of change in provincial rulers which sometimes overlapped the reigns in between but on other times changed abruptly leading to a timely makeover of the Sultanate’s map and the need to keep establishing a dynasty’s rule with each new ruler making the movement of people, the military and travel, in general during the 13th and 14th centuries, all very important. But how does one examine these developments? The Malfuz Literature is a unique genre that records the conversations of a Sufi master through the pen of the devoted disciple. These texts were rhetorical and didactic in nature organized to impress readers with the spiritual merits of the protagonists.
Amir Hasan Sijzi (d.1337) recorded the conversations of his master, Shaykh Nizam ad-Din Awilya (d.1325), in the form the Fawā’id Al-Fu’ād (Morals of the Heart) between 1308 and 1322 C.E. The first and foremost representative of its genre. It communicates the numerous skills, diverse moods, and the remarkable sensibilities of its austere subject, capturing the spirit of Shaykh’s towering manifestation, in the form of his conversations with Sufi adepts, novitiates, casual visitors.
The text makes fleeting mentions of people travelling. It casually mentions that the Suhrawardi Sufi Shaykh Baha ad-din Zakariya travelled a lot. And how once Shaykh Luqman Sarkhasi missed the Friday prayers causing the ulema of the city (Delhi) visit him and investigate his wellbeing on horseback.
When Nizam ad-Din narrates stories of various saints in several cities across and outside the Sultanate, it not only shows his intellectual prowess as the author intended but also throws light on the movement of ideas, gossips, rumours and information. For all this material, Nizam ad-Din has both travelled to seek knowledge and learned from men who themselves have travelled extensively, which he then passed to his disciples in the form of this malfuzat which simply can be called table talks.
It was common for urban notables and Sufis to accompany the army during expeditions and campaigns. Sijzi, himself has done so on various occasions. Nizam ad-Din himself travelled with the advancing army along with Shams Dabir, when Sultan Ghiyas ad-din Tughluq attacked Lakhnauti (present day Gaur, India-Bangladesh Border). The army travelled both on land and by boat, having required to go on campaigns regularly during post-monsoon and pre-summer seasons, especially through land routes due to the road being damaged because of changing seasons affecting mediums of communications between the various regions under the Sultanate making these campaigns indispensable in order to maintain the authority of the Sultan outside Delhi.
It was also the time when increasing number of refugees fled from central Islamic lands in the face of Mongol raids. The text talks of Shaykh Badr ad-din Ghaznavi who travelled from Ghazna to Lahore. Though he started to feel homesick, instead of going back to Ghazna, he moved towards Delhi due to the Mongol threat. When he arrived at Delhi, he received report from his homeland that the Mongols had reached city and martyred his mother, father, and all his close relatives. Nizam ad-Din also narrated the story of the city of Lahore’s destruction at the hands of the Mongols through augury of the moon.
Falling sick while travelling was an ordinary occurrence. Once Nizam ad-Din Awliya went on a trip, while he was covering a long distance on horseback, he began to feel unwell and grew thirsty. As he dismounted his horse near a pond, he fainted with pain due to stomach cramps. Another instance talks about Khwaja Ibrahim Khwass, a high time traveller who never stayed at a place for more than four days but when a young boy joined him on his journey and fell ill, he had to halt at a place for three months to look after him.
It is essential to comprehend that travel in the pre-modern era mostly took place on foot, horseback, wheeled carts or boats. Covering even short distances required a substantial amount of time. It took four days for Shaykh Farid ad-Din to make a journey from Hansi to Delhi on his Shaykh’s death. Hence, wandering to even the peripheries of the city could require a night’s halt, as the animals needed rest and sustenance, besides travelling after dark was perilous, for the wilderness near the city were infested with highway robbers who took up residence in this mawas regions.
Though travelling was a common occurrence in those days, it was a serious decision to make. Dreams were being interpreted to see if someone will be going on a journey. There was a widespread cultural traffic in these signs, which occurred at all levels of society. At the highest level, the discovery of hidden patterns was a pleasurable aesthetic and intellectual pursuit of the elite. They were undergirded by a strong cosmological framework. According to the learned traditions of the time, patterns of letters, words, numbers, and even colours had an association with rhythms of the cosmos. Mastery of a system of knowledge that could encode, decode, and manipulate such patterns was considered to be critical.
The text also makes mention of a group of ascetics who fasted and went on journeys. This can make one ponder at how and where religious groups were moving to expand their order.
Certain personalities were beyond the reach of the moral coding of society applicable to the general public. Even the ulema and urban notables did not attempt to get into their bad books. This is evident when a district magistrate takes a disliking to Baba Farid in Ajodhan (present day Pakpattan, Pakistan) because of his sama practices inside a mosque and knowing well, that the authorities of Ajodhan don’t have a say in the Shaykh’s way of life, he went to Multan and appealed to the Ulama there but upon mentioning the person in question of such an act, even they dismissed the complaint immediately. This high handedness can also be witnessed in the case Nizam ad-Din when he speaks speaks of pilgrims and scoffs at how upon returning from Mecca they speak of nothing else but their pilgrimage, calling it unhealthy boasts. He even cited an example of a preacher from Lahore whose sermons commanded the attention of his listeners and providing them with a sense of spiritual comfort but after returning from pilgrimage, he no longer that spiritual comfort in his sermons. He did not completely shun the significance of performing Hajj but rather presented a justification for not performing it himself by implying that though it is mandatory for every Muslim, pilgrimage can be avoided by a spiritual master in order to safe guard his soul from corruption and unnecessary pride.
Despite the popular image of being apolitical, there are stories of Sultans and men from all strata of society who visited the Chishti Khanqahs (hospice) and offered homage and gifts for their maintenance. They even travelled long distances to make these visits, making a strong implication towards the ruling class’s need to maintain peace with local religious head since in moments of uncertainty and danger—disease and disturbance—the knowledge of the unseen and spiritual world possessed by the Sufis become vital and they exercised authority on the local population due to their popularity as men of God. Sultan Nasir ad-din when proceeding towards Multan made a halt at Ajodhan to call on Baba Farid. Sultan Ghiyas ad-din, while he was still a military official known as Ulugh Khan, also came to visit Baba Farid. He offered some money and the ownership deeds for four villages to the Shaykh, the money being for the benefit of dervishes, the land for the Shaykh.
In terms of education, travelling long terrains to take lessons from learned saints and scholars was not unheard off. Maulana Razi ad-din Saghani moved from Badaun to settle in Kol (present day Aligarh, India). From there he went on the pilgrimage and after visiting Baghdad, he returned to the vicinity of Delhi. As he was leaving Kol, he bought a pair of shoes for the journey but he soon realised that it wouldn’t be possible to complete on foot. So he continued the rest of the journey on the horse that the governor’s son, who was his disciple, gifted him as a farewell gift. After having performed his pilgrimage, in Baghdad, he met Ibn-I Zuhri, who was a leading master in tradition. Nizam ad-Din also spoke of a scholar who travelled all the way from Bukhara to learn from Shaykh Baha ad-din Zakariya.
The text hardly mentions women travelling except for in instances where they have been described as great companions for arduous journeys but who also at times pose as ‘distractions’ from a man’s faith. It speaks of only two pious women of faith, the first being Baba Farid’s mother who died while travelling from Kahrwal to Ajodhan and the other being, Qamar who was a charming and beautiful singer but converted to Islam in her later years and became a disciple of Shaykh Shihab ad-din ‘Umar Muhammad Suhrawardi, left Baghdad to perform Hajj.
The text also traces the movement of people taking place for trade. A dervish from Bihar, wearing an elegant cloak, visited the hospice of Shaykh ‘Ali Sijzi, who gave him 500 jitals. The dervish took the money and began trading and with the profits, he bought slaves. Then Shaykh ‘Ali advised him to take these slaves to Ghazna, where the dervish could make even bigger profits. This identifies Ghazna as a leading market for slave trade and that people were visited neighbouring markets in order sell slaves and livestock.
When Baba Farid took up residence in Ajodhan, he requested his younger brother Najib ad-din to accompany their mother from Kahrwal to Ajodhan. Shaykh Najib ad-din complied. En route they stopped beneath a tree to rest. Both were thirsty, and Najib ad-din went in search of water. On his return he did not find his mother where he had left her. Aghast, he searched for her everywhere possible but without avail. Distraught, he returned to Baba Farid. The Shaykh at once ordered for some food to prepared and offer alms, as was customary for a funeral. Sometime later, Najib ad-din was passing by the same area, he came to the exact spot and decided to search again. This time he found some human bones and assumed that a lion or some other wild animal must have attacked her while he was away. Readers receive a glimpse of the geographical condition and possible presence of flora and fauna in the surrounding areas, namely the mawas regions. The routes connecting various cities and towns were embraced by thick forestation and being attacked by carnivores was exceedingly thinkable.
People also travelled for ziyarat (visitation) of an ancestor or spiritual master’s grave. Nizam ad-Din went to Badaun to pay respects to saints of the past. The text eloquently exemplifies the excellent qualities possessed by Sufi saints but faultily wraps up the possibility of them travelling to forge alliances and indulging in activities not so agreeable to their public personalities.
The very reason why Shaikh Nizam ad-Din Awliya makes passing remarks on travel implies its regularity at that time. The medieval traveller journeyed both long and short distances in and around the Sultanate, sometimes covering even the vast terrains of India, Central Asia and Persia and other times to neighbouring villages of Delhi or even the water reservoir at the peripheries of the city, with a certain element of risk. These movements took place for seeking knowledge, commencing trade, making military conquests, searching for employment or simply a new home and were affected by factors such as climate, flora and fauna, and political upheavals. But none the less, travelling was not just essential but also a part of the quotidian life.
Amir Hasan Sijzi, Fawa’id al-Fu’ad. Translated by Bruce B. Lawrence. (New York: Paulist Press 1992)
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