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November 7, 2003

Ayodhya’s Forgotten Muslim Past

Yoginder Sikand 

The Ayodhya controversy continues to drag on, with no sign of any solution in sight. Hindutva ideologues insist that Ayodhya must be theirs alone. Reinventing tradition and myth, they claim that Ayodhya has always been Hindu, thus promoting it to the status of a Hindu Vatican. Yet, as critical historians have pointed out, this claim is completely unsubstantiated. In his slim yet insightful booklet, Communal History and Rama’s Ayodhya, Professor Ram Sharan Sharma writes, ‘Ayodhya seems to have emerged as a place of religious pilgrimage in medieval times. Although chapter 85 of the Vishnu Smriti lists as many as fifty-two places of pilgrimage, including towns, lakes, rivers, mountains, etc., it does not include Ayodhya in this list’. Sharma also notes that Tulsidas, who wrote the Ramcharitmanas in 1574 at Ayodhya, does not mention it as a place of pilgrimage.

Long before the emergence of the cult of Rama and of Ayodhya as a place of pilgrimage in the Brahminical tradition, the town is said to have been a holy city for the Buddhists. As Buddhism was forcefully challenged by Brahminical revivalists in early medieval India, many Buddhist shrines were taken over and converted into Hindu temples. It is thus possible that Ayodhya, too, met with the same fate. This explains why some Buddhists today are demanding that they be treated as an interested party in the current dispute.

The Buddhist claim is not unfounded. According to Buddhist tradition, Ayodhya, then known as Saket or Kosala, was a major city in the kingdom of Shuddhodhana, father of the Buddha. The fifth century Chinese traveler Fa-hsien visited Ayodhya and mentioned a tooth-stick of the Buddha in the town that grew to a length of seven cubits, which, despite being destroyed by the Brahmins, managed to grow again. Two centuries later, another Chinese Buddhist traveler Hsuien Tsang came to Ayodhya, where he noted some three thousand Buddhist monks with only a small number of town’s other inhabitants adhering to other faiths. At this time Ayodhya had some one hundred Buddhist monasteries and ten large Buddhist temples. The Hindutva argument that Ayodhya has always been a Hindu holy city is, as this clearly suggests, patently untenable.

In the Hindutva imagination, the relation between Muslims and Ayodhya is one characterized by continuous large-scale destruction and bloodshed. Serious historians have forcefully challenged this image, and have pointed to the fact that the spread of Islam and the emergence of Muslim communities in the area owed principally not to violent invaders but, rather, to the peaceful missionary work of Sufi saints. Considerably before the emergence of Ayodhya as the centre of the cult of Rama, it appears that several Sufis had settled in the town. With their message of love and compassion, based on an ethical monotheism, they attracted a large number of followers, particularly among the ‘low’ castes, victims of the Brahminical caste system. In other words, Ayodhya’s association with Islam and Muslims dates to a period much before the construction of the Babri Masjid in the sixteenth century.

As many local Muslims themselves believe, Ayodhya is a particularly blessed town. They consider it to be the ‘Khurd Mecca’ or the ‘small Mecca’ because of the large number of Muslim holy personages who are believed to be buried therein. These include, or so local tradition has it, two prophets, Hazrat Sheesh, son of Adam, and Noah, or Hazrat Nuh. In addition, there are said to be more than eighty Sufi shrines or dargahs in Ayodhya. Interestingly, most of these shrines attract both Muslim as well as Hindu devotees.

A number of Sufis seem to have made Ayodhya their centre for spiritual teaching and instruction from as early as the twelfth century. One of the first of these was one Qazi Qidwatuddin Awadhi, who came to Ayodhya from Central Asia. He is said to have been a disciple of Hazrat Usman Haruni, the spiritual preceptor of India’s most famous Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. Another great Muslim mystic of Ayodhya of pre-Mughal times was Shaikh Jamal Gujjari, of the Firdaussiya Sufi silsilah. According to a popular local story, the Shaikh would regularly go out of his house carrying a large pot of rice on his head, as the men of the Gujjar milkmen caste did, which he would distribute among the poor and the destitute of Ayodhya. This is how he earned the title of ‘Gujjari’. His spiritual preceptor, Musa Ashiqan, who also lies buried in Ayodhya, would liken his distributing food among the poor to sharing the love of God with all mankind.

Ayodhya also seems to have been home to a number of spiritual successors of the renowned fourteenth century Sufi of Delhi, Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. The most important of these was the famous Sufi Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Dilli, who lies buried in what is today New Delhi. Shaikh Nasiruddin was born in Ayodhya, where he learnt the Qur’an from one Shaikh Shamsuddin Yahya Awadhi. At the age of forty, he left Ayodhya for Delhi to live with Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. Yet, he would often return to Ayodhya to visit his relatives and make disciples who, in turn, grew into great men of religion. These included people such as Shaikh Zainuddin Ali Awadhi, Shaikh Fatehullah Awadhi and Allama Kamaluddin Awadhi. Other khulafa or spiritual deputies of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya from Ayodhya include Shaikh Jamaluddin Awadhi, Qazi Muhiuddin Kashani, Maulana Qawamuddin Awadhi and Shaikh Alauddin Nilli.

Ayodhya is also home to one of the few shrines of female Sufi saints, the dargah of Badi Bua or Badi Bibi, said to have been the sister of Sheikh Nasiruddin Chiragh-i Dilli. She is said to have been particularly beautiful, because of which many men offered to marry her. She, however, remained unmarried throughout her life, devoting herself to serving God and the poor. When she was asked why she refused to marry she would answer, ‘I only love God and nothing else’. She is said to have been greatly troubled by the local mullahs, perhaps because of her refusal to marry. One day, so the story goes, the mullahs of the town appeared before her, insisting that if she were really a pious Muslim she should follow in the path of the Prophet Muhammad and marry. To this she replied that she indeed did follow in the path of the Prophet and offered to get married, but laid down the condition that her husband must be a truly pious man. The Kotwal, chief police officer, of the town, who was attracted to her, dispatched a messenger to her asking for her hand in marriage. Badi Bua declined to speak through a messenger and asked the Kotwal to come before her himself. The Kotwal willingly complied.

When the Kotwal appeared before her, Badi Bua asked him why he wanted to marry her. His reply was that he was in love with her eyes. Without a moment’s hesitation, so the story goes, she plucked out her eyes and gave them to the Kotwal. The shocked Kotwal, realizing that Badi Bua was no ordinary woman but a true devotee of God, fell at her feet and begged her for mercy.

Stories of these and other Sufis of the town are today almost completely forgotten, for there are now hardly any Muslims left, almost all of Ayodhya’s Muslim families having fled in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. However, visible signs of centuries’ old Muslim presence continue to dot the town—the crumbling minarets of ancient mosques, neglected graveyards rapidly slipping under a dense cover of weeds, the broken walls of what must have once been grand Sufi lodges. Some of these structures came down along with the Babri Mosque, vandalised by bloodthirsty Hindutva mobs more than a decade ago. In the violence that followed even hallowed Sufi shrines, such as the dargahs of Shah Muhammad Ibrahim, Bijli Shah Shahid, Makhdum Shah Fatehullah, Sayyed Shah Muqaddas Quddus-i Ruh and the Teen Darvesh, were attacked.

Today, some Sufi shrines still survive in Ayodhya, continuing to be visited by local devotees in the hope of a miraculous cure to their woes or in search of solace. Strikingly, and despite the almost total takeover of the town by votaries of Hindutva, several of them are carefully tended to by local Hindus, particularly ‘low’ castes—a silent reminder of a past now rapidly being forgotten and one that perhaps can never be relived again.