How India Turned a Turkish Invader into a Saint Revered by Hindus and Muslims Alike

Shahid Amin, Conquest and Community.The Afterlife of warrior saint Ghazi Miyan, Orient BlackSwan, Delhi, 2015, pp.327, price, Rs.?

Shahid Amin
Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan
Orient BlackSwan, 2015.

The much-awaited book, Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan, by India’s premier social historian Shahid Amin is an exploration of the life of the 11th century saint Syed Salar Masud who fell in battle against local Hindu (Pasi) chiefs 350 miles east of Delhi in 1034 CE. Known as Ghazi Miyan, he is most remembered for having forsaken marriage for martyrdom and for being popularly perceived in North India as the nephew of the well-known conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni. It is believed that his parents entered the sub-continent with Mahmud and he was born in Ajmer.

The case of Ghazi Miyan merits historical attention because historical facts do not corroborate the popular belief and perception of his India career. That he was at best a  ‘fictional nephew’ of the conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni is evident from his conspicuous absence from the pages of contemporary medieval texts and historical writings informed by them. The link with the conqueror and the conquest begins to be established almost three centuries later when the 14th century historian Ziauddin Barani in his Tarikh-i-Firozshahi (1357) refers to the martyred Ghazi as one of the heroes of Mahmud of Ghazni’s campaigns. And a century later, Abul Fazl, the court historian of Akbar, testifies to the Ghazi’s blood relationship with Mahmud of Ghazni.

Shahid Amin’s story of Ghazi Miyan is pioneering and enthralling as it navigates through historical fact and fiction, gives each its due, and retells the tale of the martyred saint of Bahraich – in northeast Awadh – where he lies buried. He picks up the story of Ghazi Miyan where other stories end, and unpacks the entangled referents of truth and belief to offer a brilliant social history of eastern Awadhi society. This history offers a refreshing perspective on the act of conquest. Here, the memory of one of the most gory Afghan-Muslim conquests becomes the beginning also of one of the most cosmopolitan and long lived cults of the region. Indeed in Amin’s retelling of the Ghazi tale, the conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni gets an exceptional spin as his bloody forays in India get entwined in the story of the birth, marriage and martyrdom of Ghazi Miyan. Indeed, the guts and gory image of conquest gets displaced with the miraculous and the wondrous profile of the warrior saint. In Amin’s captivating account, Ghazi Miyan emerges as a venerated Sufi whose popular appeal stretches to Hindus and Muslims alike, and who carves out a comfortable niche for himself in the later nation state’s historical sensibility, much to the disquiet of some sections. The book offers a novel method of writing a nuanced history of the nation state that engages with the reality of past conquest rather than erasing its memory from society’s sense of self.

Pilgrims getting reading for the journey to the mazhar of Ghazi Miyan in Bahraich. Credit: Vipin Patel/YouTube

Pilgrims getting reading for the journey to the mazhar of Ghazi Miyan in Bahraich. Credit: Vipin Patel/YouTube

Amin’s riveting account of the afterlife of Ghazi Miyan is richly informed by an impressive array of historical sources. These range from the 17th century hagiography of the saint – the Mirat-i-Masudi – to British administrator commentaries, gazetteers and official reports, folk songs, ballads, and late 19th century Urdu and Hindi printed material. As the points of emphasis and sequence of events – and the borrowing of cultural motifs – change in different renditions of the Ghazi story, there is no denying the fact that the Turk Sufi saint continues to occupy a major space in the historical consciousness of ordinary people. Amin urges us to factor this historical consciousness into the narrative of the nation state. The story he tells us is compelling also because it points at new ways of writing the history of conquest: its popular reception, its memory and the critical role that these spin offs play in the making of a community of devotees that over-rides denominational differences between Hindus and Muslims in North India. Amin’s book is rich in detailing the making of the Ghazi Miyan cult, and the coming together of a community of devotees whose most distinguishing feature is their cultural and religious heterogeneity.

As he narrates the wondrous life of Ghazi Miyan that made him the stuff of popular folklore, he takes us through the predominantly Hindu pastoral cattle rearing society of eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is here that the cult of the Ghazi was shaped. The varied narrations of Ghazi Miyan’s life, that range from the Persian Mirat of Abdur Rahman to the Awadhi and Bhojpuri ballads of Dafalis or Muslim balladeers in more recent times, forefront his miraculous power. Their divergences and overlaps notwithstanding, the predominant trope that emerges is that of an exceptionally gifted warrior saint who embeds himself in the local Awadhi society by his supernatural powers: his blessings make an infertile local milkmaid conceive a son, and give back vision to an elite blind Muslim woman, Zohra of Central Asian origin, encouraging her to devote her life in divine love for him. His shrine and tomb at Bahraich, built by this blind devotee Zohra, becomes the major pilgrim site in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Pilgrimage to the Bahraich burial site becomes critical both to the creation as well as the longevity of his cult.

Music at the shrine of Ghazi Miyan, Bahraich. Credit: Vipin Patel/YouTube

Music at the shrine of Ghazi Miyan, Bahraich. Credit: Vipin Patel/YouTube

It also becomes the pivot around which a community of devotees is produced who in their written and oral renditions of the Ghazi tale transcend denominational religious and caste identities. Sites and cenotaphs across the Awadh countryside commemorate the martyrdom of the Ghazi and keep alive the memory of the military campaign where commanders of his army had laid down their lives. These sites create the sacred geography centred on the Bahraich shrine and knit together the pilgrims into an eclectic community of devotees. Not surprisingly, there is no dearth of reformist Muslim and Hindu printed literature in Urdu and Hindi at the end of the 19th century that raises an eyebrow on the cult of the Ghazi.

So what is so refreshing in Amin’s tale of Ghazi Miyan? The location of the narrative at the cusp of fact, belief and memory makes this tale a particularly textured piece of social history. One where conquest is not elided but displaced by a relatively benign image of the wondrous and miraculous feats of a warrior saint; where the past is not idealised but seen as contentious; where the Turk is embedded in local north Indian society by invoking the motifs of kin and family relations and borrowings from the great epics of the subcontinent. Amin is able to offer this beautiful slice of history because of his enviable command of the vast range of sources in multiple languages.

The shrine of Ghazi Miyan, Bahraich. Credit: Vipin Patel/YouTube

The shrine of Ghazi Miyan, Bahraich. Credit: Vipin Patel/YouTube

This delightful history of Ghazi Miyan is an equally pioneering history of Muslim conquest and the complex embedding of its protagonists in Indian society. Our biggest challenge today is to see that these contentious relationships between the Muslim conqueror and the Hindu vanquished that constitute our historical past are given their rightful space in the meta narrative of the nation state. This is of utmost relevance in our present times when the historical past is being tailored to fit the narrow confines of a Hindu rashtra. Amin’s book is the best critique of the homogeneity discourse that sadly threatens to colour our historical past. One only hopes that the barakat of Ghazi Miyan rescues our past and our profession from this onslaught.

Seema Alavi is Professor, early modern South Asia, Delhi University

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