David Mamet has defined satire as ‘a type of wit that is meant to mock human vices or mistakes, often … to expose political missteps or social inadequacies in everyday life, sometimes with the goal of inspiring change.’ It would be astonishing to most readers – Muslim and non-Muslim – to consider that a regional saint from the fourteen century, one whose primary language was Urdu (then known as Hindavi or Hindustani), spoke in Persian to his audience, not only spoke but spoke with such eloquence that his words are still remembered, his counsel revered till today. The words of Shaykh Nizam ad-din Awliya, also known as Mahbub-e-llahi or God’s Beloved (d. 1325), are laced with what might be called ‘Sufi satire’, described in several instances below from his recorded conversations with diverse groups in his open forum or khanqah setting.
The impulse to collect saintly discourse is not unique to India nor represented solely by this Chishti master. There exists also a collection of impromptu reflections from Mawlana Jalal ad-din Rumi (d. 1273). A brief comparison highlights differences as much as similarities. The Fihi ma fihi (Signs of the Unseen) of Rumi was collected after his death by disciples. There is no dating for the selections, arranged in seventy-one sessions, some twelve pages long, others just a paragraph. The tone is apodictic, stressing how saintly behaviour reflects the ability to engage those in power without being subdued to worldly principles or pursuits. The referents are often the urbane, wealthy and powerful of thirteenth century Anatolia, whether jurists and scholars, courtiers or kings, and one imagines they must have been among the primary audience for the published version.
By contrast, the Fawa’id al-fu’ad (Morals for the Heart) of Nizam ad-din was collected during his lifetime, written down with permission from the saint, and later reviewed – and, one learns, also corrected – by him. There are 188 sessions, sorted out into five fascicles, the shortest seventeen meetings, the longest sixty-seven. They cover fourteen years of the saint at the peak of his public prominence, from early 1308 to late 1322, that is, from his-mid sixties to late seventies. He died in 1325 at about eighty-two years of age.
What is most remarkable is the diversity of those who came to him. His khanqah or public audience hall stood near the capital of Delhi by the side of the river Jamuna; it’s cool refreshing breeze added to the serenity of the atmosphere. It comprised a big hall in the centre, with small rooms on both sides. An old banyan tree stood in the courtyard, somewhat away from the centre, yet its branches also provided shade to a part of the roof also. A veranda surrounded the courtyard, so a few men could sit there comfortably without obstructing the passage of others. Nearby was the kitchen.