Three Letters of Counsel
By Ibtisaam Ahmed
During the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the 19th century, the Russian administration in Central Asia found 32 000 villages, lands and estates that were established as waqf. The documents bear the name of Khwaja Ahrar (d. 1490) and the awqaf supported the study of sacred knowledge, building mosques, building madrassas, building and maintaining bridges and roads. Much of this Naqshbandi sufi’s teaching was based on khidma, or service. He said, “It is not in books that I’ve discovered tasawwuf, but in serving my fellow creatures. Everyone has a road to follow and mine has been the road of service. I try to be of service to everyone and of everyone I have high hopes.”
Part of serving meant advising the political and ruling elites on how best to govern and some of Khwaja Ahrar’s letters of counsel still survive. Below are three excerpts from three different letters.
“In accordance with the noble passage, “If you help Allah, He will help you,” it has always been the wish and the desire of this faqir that his Majesty may be engaged in the strengthening of the Shari’a of the Prophet Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah. Although the signs of his Majesty’s success are increasing over time, the request of this helpless one is that, purely for Allah’s sake, he [the Sultan] may expend all his resolve to receive increasing success from the Almighty in annulling the strange evil customs of the people of desire so that the Muslims may find tranquility, the darkness of the people of desire may be reduced, and the lights of the Shari’a [according to the ayat], “Light upon light, Allah guides to His light whom He wills” may appear in such a way that the fetters of desire may be sent to oblivion. Although the signs and the propagation of the deen of the Prophet Muhammad are apparent and clear in the rule of his Majesty, not one moment of rest must be taken from demanding its increase, because the tranquility of the Muslims is in the good fortune of his Majesty. Although my requests from his Majesty are many, the summary of all of them is that the acquisition of spiritual virtues, which is linking to the following of the beloved of the First and the Last, should not be neglected for the sake of the worldly interests established by the people of desire.”
“I am being so bold as to request that, purely for Allah’s sake, his noble mind be directed to ensure that the Muslims of this side (Mawarannahr) and that side (Khurasan), through the friendship that may be achieved between the rulers, not suffer. Although reports have come that would prevent the presentation of such words and such requests, the likes of us faqirs should have nothing else but this request. Peace!”
“In the time of your rule, you should make the greatest effort in honoring the people of learning, whom Allah through His pure and unblemished favour, has ennobled as the manifestations of the lights of knowledge — which are reflections of the infinite splendor of Allah. Now also, committing even greater impropriety, I request that, for the sake of the spread of knowledge [‘ilm] and the Shari’a, that your excellency show great care for the awliya, who are manifestations of such lights. Although this faqir does not have the authority to request this, your excellency has already given twice as much as is required to that group which is the recipient of divine favour. Nonetheless, I am requesting that, purely for the sake of Allah, all of the saints whom the Almighty has honored with the light of knowledge may be accorded respect and honour.”
These excerpts demonstrate three key pieces of advice that Khwaja Ahrar offers to a political leader. The first is the encouragement of maintaining the boundaries prescribed by the sacred law. The second is trying to reach peace with rival rulers so that the people do not have to suffer the perils of war, and the third is to honour the awliya.
The letters originally penned in Farsi, were personally delivered by trusted couriers, most of whom were murids who traveled regularly between Samarkand and Herat. Preserved in a single album for over 500 years — they “add to our knowledge of Khwaja Ahrar’s activities, influence and world view and broader our understanding of social etiquette, pious ideals, economic transactions, peacemaking, patronage, and the trials and tribulations of daily life”.
The life of Khwaja Ahrar was a dynamic one and can be understood by the following statement made by him:
“On the spiritual path of the masters of wisdom (khwajagan), whatever the moment demands, one must act accordingly.”