Nizam ad-din Awliya: Morals for the Heart: Conversations of Shaykh Nizam ad-din Awliya
Recorded by Amir Hasan Sijzi
Translated and Annotated by Bruce B. Lawrence
Publisher: New York, Paulist Press, 1992.
Morals for the Heart was compiled by a disciple from notes taken during informal conversations between Shaykh Nizam ad-din Awliya and his disciples. It sheds much light on Sufi spiritual teachings, and gives a wonderful glimpse of how a great Sufi shaykh interacted with his disciples.
An extensive introduction by Khaliq Ahmed Nizami provides essential background about Nizam ad-din, who lived in Delhi from 1238 to 1325. During this early Mughal period, the power and opulence of the empire contrasted strongly with the poverty and suffering of the masses. Nizam ad-din himself had grown up in abject poverty, often enduring near starvation. At the age of twenty, he went to meet Shaykh Farid, then aged ninety. Reportedly, the young Nizam ad-din was so overcome by awe that he trembled and was unable to speak. Shaykh Farid looked at him and said:
The fire of your separation has burnt our hearts. The storm of desire to meet you has ravaged our lives.
Only three years later, at the age of twenty-three, Nizam ad-din became Shaykh Farid’s successor. For the next fifty years, the khanqah (residence and meeting hall) of Nizam ad-din was a sanctuary not only for spiritual seekers, but also for the poor and downtrodden. Its free kitchen operated round the clock serving thousands of meals a day. As the Insan-i-kamil (Perfect Man), Nizam ad-din was a model of the balance between the outer and the inner. “He used to say that what the `ulama [scholars] proclaim through speech, the Sufis express through their behaviour.” The sultan punished drunkards, prostitutes, and thieves with draconian brutality, but if they came to the khanqah Nizam ad-din treated them kindly, often giving them subsistence money to help them change their ways. He said, “If we ignore the sinner and the miscreant, who will look after them?”
Just as Nizam ad-din was generous with the destitute who came to his gate, so he was unstinting with the spiritual seekers:
Though the shaykh followed his schedule meticulously, he was always available to visitors who came to him at odd hours. One day he told Amir Hasan Sijzi … “It is customary among shaykhs that no one goes to them except between sun-rise(ishraq) and mid-day (zuhr) prayers. But it is not so with me. Anybody can come at any time:
In the lanes of taverns and inns of vagabonds there is no restriction – come, sit and be at home.”
Amir Hasan Sijzi began taking notes of each ‘assembly’ he was able to attend. When Nizam ad-din noticed that Sijzi was taking notes, he asked to see them. The shaykh then went over the notes, correcting them and filling in missing parts. The resulting book Fawa’id al-fu’ad (Morals for the Heart) quickly became popular reading in many Sufi orders. Perhaps Sijzi had no idea he would be credited with creating an entirely new genre of spiritual literature, that of notes taken during meetings with the shaykh, which became an important channel for spiritual teachings.
Morals for the Heart follows the meandering conversations of 118 assemblies, each one dated, over a fifteen-year period. In these conversations, we see something of the shaykh’s teaching style. While making a point, he often interspersed a line of verse spoken from memory.
The master began to speak about the discourse that one hears from saintly and grace-filled persons, and how such discourse evokes a pleasure that none other can match. For when you hear the same discourse from someone else, it does not evoke the taste for God. Who can match the person who speaks from a station in which he has been touched by the light of divine intuition? … And then some verses from Shaykh Sa`di graced his blessed lips:
Who else but I can try to talk of loving You?
Since others have no basis, their words do not ring true.
Frequently, he used stories to illustrate teachings that were subtle and capable of many interpretations. For example, he told a story in which God sent a prophet to scold an ascetic:
Go tell that ascetic: “What do you gain from those discomforts caused by your strict observance? I have not created you but for chastisement!” As soon as the prophet had given this message to the ascetic, the ascetic got up and began to twirl around. “Why,” asked the prophet, “did this disclosure make you so happy that you’ve started dancing?” “At least He has remembered me,” replied the ascetic, “He has taken me into account. I have experienced His reckoning, for:
Even though He says He’ll kill me.
That He says it can’t but thrill me.”
Nizam ad-din used colourful language. He called initiation ‘grasping the hand of the shaykh’, an evocative expression carrying a sense both of forging a bond of allegiance and of relying on the strength of the master, taking his refuge.
“Whoever grasps the hand of a shaykh and pledges loyalty to him,” observed the master, “has made a pact with God! He must remain firm in his commitment, for if he becomes distracted from his resolve, in such circumstances on whom or what can he depend?”
Anecdotes were continually woven into the conversation, often about Shaykh Farid, revealing the deep affection between master and disciple. Other stories relate to various Sufis familiar to his listeners. Take, for example, the following account about Baha ad-din Zakariya, who later became a well-known shaykh in the Suhrawardi order:
He had been with Shaykh Shihab ad-din but seventeen days when, on the seventeenth day, Shaykh Shihab ad-din conferred on him his blessings … So rapid was his success that some of the older disciples took offense, complaining, “We have spent so many years in the saint’s presence and yet we had no such favours conferred on us.” Their murmurings reached the ears of Shaykh Shihab ad-din. He made this reply to them: “You brought wet wood. How can wet wood catch fire? But Zakariya brought dry wood. With one puff, he went up in flames!”
The normal etiquette on entering the shaykh’s presence was to kiss his hand. In fact, each session in the notes begins something like: “on such-and-such a day I was privileged to kiss the hand of the emperor of all the worlds.” Nizam ad-din understood the human psychology behind the formal gesture: “In every case,” remarked the master, “those who kiss the hands of shaykhs and dervishes hope that thereby the hand of forgiveness will be extended to them.” Disciples apparently worried about their priority or rank to sit near to the shaykh:
Conversation turned to proper conduct in the saint’s assembly, that is, how to enter the presence of the pir(saint) and locate the right place to sit down. “Proper conduct,” observed the master, “is that a person who enters the saint’s assembly should sit down in whatever empty place he espies. It is not fitting, at the moment that one comes to visit the pir, to be thinking: ‘Whom should I sit ahead of or behind?’ Wherever a person sees an opening, he should sit down, since every visitor is on the same footing.”
Though its use of Sufi terminology and unfamiliar names may make this book challenging reading, it offers us the invaluable opportunity of listening in on the conversations of a great shaykh and his disciples from many centuries ago.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.