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CHISHTIYAH. One of the main Sufi brotherhoods of South Asia, Chishtiyah takes its name from the village of Chisht, near Herat in western Afghanistan, where it is said to have originated. Its supposed founder in India, Mu’inuddin Chishti (d. 1236), is a shadowy figure surrounded by many legends. The brotherhood has spread throughout present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; it is characterized by its extreme enthusiasm for ecstatic listening (sama’) to music and poetry. In spite of its popular appeal, which by the eighteenth century had brought it more adherents than any other brotherhood in South Asia, the Chishtiyah has now been overtaken in this respect by the rival Qadiriyah. Nonetheless, it has continued to play an important role in harmonizing Islam with indigenous Indian culture, sometimes in ways which have attracted the criticism of Muslim jurists, although it has always claimed to remain within the bounds of Islamic legality.

The golden age of the greatest Chishti leaders extends from the brotherhood’s foundation to the middle of the fourteenth century. They were not academically inclined or sophisticated intellectuals; rather, they insisted on a practical and emotional mysticism in which the close relationship of elder and disciple was particularly stressed. In the thirteenth century the Chishti masters did not write books at all, but in the fourteenth century records of their successors’ conversations were compiled. These are still the most important examples of Indo-Muslim Sufi prose literature and give the modern believer a vivid picture of the medieval teacher in the context of everyday life. They also bear witness to strained relationships with the Suhrawardi brotherhood in Multan (in modern Pakistan), whose leaders were accused by the Chishfis of excessive formality, self-enrichment, and snobbishness. By contrast, the Chishtis have portrayed themselves as constantly embracing poverty and avoiding contact with temporal rulers. Some Western scholars have viewed these claims with skepticism.

Chishti doctrinal simplicity was reinforced by the prolific writer Muhammad Gisu Daraz, who died in 1422 at Gulbarga in the Deccan. He upheld the theistic positions of classical Sufi thought and devotionalism as opposed to the innovative and monistic views of Sufism’s most influential theorist, Ibn `Arab! of Murcia (d. 1240). He also defended the controversial Chishti habit of prostrating oneself in front of one’s elder. New perspectives were brought by an important transitional figure, `Abd al-Quddus (1456-1537) of Gangoh in Uttar Pradesh, who was a vigorous advocate of Ibn ‘Arabi’s doctrines of the “unity of existence” (wahdat al-wujud) and the “perfect man” (al-insdn al-kamil). He departed from his predecessors’ insistence on accepting only nonrecurrent gifts rather than permanent grants from rulers, and he adopted Hindu techniques of meditation and breath control. `Abd al-Quddus was also the most fervent defender of the famous Chishti practice of worshiping upside down while hanging suspended by a rope tied around the ankles.

After a period of decline, the brotherhood was revitalized in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Shah Wall Allah Dihlaw! (1703-1762), the most important Muslim thinker of the eighteenth century, was affiliated to the Chishtiyah, but he belonged to the Naqshbandiyah (which he preferred) and the Qadiriyah as well. He declared that the Chishtis were best at adapting early Muslim preaching to contemporary conditions.

By the nineteenth century Chishtis were often hereditary recipients of income at the shrines of their early leaders, living off offerings or the revenue generated by local tenant farmers. Under British rule Chishti elders were often associated with attempts to reform Islamic institutions, which met with little success, precisely because of the structures of allegiance and authority to which these elders belonged. In the nineteenth century the important Muslim revivalist center of Deoband in Uttar Pradesh was staffed by teachers who were Chishti in their method of training, although they also claimed to unite the traditions of all the Sufi brotherhoods. They were proud of the early Chishti masters’ alleged aloofness from rulers, but they tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the extravagant observances at the masters’ tombs.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the authorities have repeatedly condemned the officers responsible for Mu’inuddin Chishti’s shrine, at Ajmer in Rajasthan, for extreme rapacity, corruption, and incompetence. The number of pilgrims coming there on the anniversary of Mu`inuddin’s death has risen from twenty thousand in 1879 to around one hundred thousand in the 1990s, making it the most important Muslim pilgrimage center in India. At this shrine the Chishti tradition of distributing free food to the poor is continued, but now much of the food cooked for this purpose is in practice sold. In 1950 the Indian government annexed the lands of the “servants” (khudddm) of the shrine, who attend to its ceremonies and pilgrims, and they are now dependent on offerings. At the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya’, who died at Delhi in 1325, the hereditary custodians claim to be descended from Muhammad as well as from Nizamuddin’s family or disciples. A high-status group, they are noted for their persianized Urdu and refined manners and do not intermarry with people of lower pedigree. Although much of their land has been lost, most of them have income from rents, along with that from pilgrims, to whom they give advice and amulets.

At their shrines the Chishtis have a flourishing and well-developed musical culture designated by the term qawwali, meaning a group song genre of Hindustani light classical music which presents mystical poetry in Persian, Hindi, and Urdu; it is performed in Sufi assemblies in order to produce religious emotion and ecstasy. In these assemblies particular devotion is expressed toward ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, who is seen as the Prophet’s first successor in the Chishti initiatory chain of masters. The performers are hereditary specialists in a close but deferential relationship with their Sfifi patrons. Sometimes they elucidate medieval Persian poetry with additional lines in the vernacular, and sometimes their poetry resembles folksong, drawing on Hindi devotional idioms. It is perhaps in this combination of Islamic and regional elements that the greatest achievement of the Chishtiyah is to be recognized.

[See also Music; Qadiriyah.]


Currie, P. M. The Shrine and Cult of Mu`in al-Din Chishtf of Ajmer. Delhi, 1989. Rigorously critical historical and anthropological survey.

Digby, S. “`Abd Al-Quddus Gangohi (1456-1537 A.D.): The Personality and Attitudes of a Medieval Indian Sufi.” Medieval India 3 (1975): 1-66. The best study of an individual Chishti writer. Gaborieau, Marc. “Les ordres mystiques dans le sous-continent indien: Un point de vue ethnologique.” In Les ordres mystiques dans l’Islam: Cheminements et situation actuelle, edited by Alexandre Popovic and Gilles Veinstein, pp. 105-134. Paris, 1986.

Gilmartin, David. “Shrines, Succession, and Sources of Moral Authority.” In Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, edited by Barbara D. Metcalf, pp. 221-240. Berkeley, 1984.

Jeffery, Patricia. Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah. London, 1979. Perceptive anthropological study of the custodians’ wives and daughters at the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya’.

Metcalf, Barbara D. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton, 1982. Challenging reappraisal of the contribution of traditional Indian Muslim teachers.

Nizami, Khaliq Ahmad. Some Aspects of Religion and Politics in India during the Thirteenth Century. 2d ed. Delhi, 1974. Provides a fine survey of early Chishti organization, practice, and thought, but has a heavily apologetic bias.

Qureshi, Regula B. Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali. Cambridge, 1986. Sophisticated ethnomusicological analysis of Chishti performances.

Troll, Christian W., ed. Muslim Shrines in India: Their Character, History, and Significance. Delhi, 1989. Contains sympathetic and detailed descriptions of practices at Chishti shrines.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/chishtiyah/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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