Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali

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Letter XXIII

The Soofies.–Opinion of the Mussulmauns concerning Solomon.–The Ood-ood.–Description of the Soofies and their sect.–Regarded with great reverence.–Their protracted fasts.–Their opinion esteemed by the Natives.–Instance of the truth of their predictions.–The Saalik and Majoob Soofies.–The poets Haafiz and Saadie.–Character and attainments of Saadie.–His ’Goolistaun’.–Anecdotes descriptive of the origin of that work.–Farther remarks on the character and history of Saadie.–Interesting anecdotes illustrative of his virtues and the distinguishing characteristics of the Soofies.

The life of King Solomon, with all his acts, is the subject of many an author’s pen, both in the Arabic and Persian languages; consequently the learned Mussulmauns of Hindoostaun are intimately acquainted with his virtues, his talent, and the favour with which he was visited by the great goodness of the Almighty. In the course of my sojourn amongst them, I have heard many remarkable and some interesting anecdotes relating to Solomon, which the learned men assure me are drawn from sources of unquestionable authority.

They affirm that the wisdom of Solomon not only enabled him to search into the most hidden thoughts of men, and to hold converse with them in their respective languages, but that the gift extended even to the whole brute creation; by which means he could hold unlimited converse, not only with the animate, as birds, beasts, and fish, but with inanimate objects, as shrubs, trees, and, indeed, the whole tribe of vegetable nature; and, further, that he was permitted to discern and control aerial spirits, as demons, genii, &c.

The pretty bird, known in India by the name of Ood-ood,[1] is much regarded by the Mussulmauns, as by their tradition this bird was the hurkaarah of King Solomon; and entrusted with his most important commissions whenever he required intelligence to be conveyed to or from a far distant place, because he could place greater confidence in the veracity of this bird, and rely on more certain dispatch, than when entrusting his commands to the most worthy of his men servants.

The ood-ood is beautifully formed, has a variegated plumage of black, yellow, and white, with a high tuft of feathers on its head, through which is a spear of long feathers protruding directly across the head for several inches, and is of the woodpecker species. The princes, Nuwaubs, and nobility of Hindoostaun, keep hurkaarahs for the purpose of conveying and obtaining intelligence, who are distinguished by a short spear, with a tuft of silk or worsted about the middle of the handle, and the tail of the ood-ood in the front of their turban, to remind them of this bird, which they are expected to imitate both in dispatch and fidelity. I am told, these men (from their early training) are enabled to run from fifty to sixty miles bare-footed, and return the same distance without halting on the same day.

The religious devotees of the Mussulmaun persuasion, who are denominated Soofies,[1] are conjectured, by many, to have a similar gift with Solomon of understanding the thoughts of other men. By some it is imagined that Solomon was the first Soofie; by others, that Ali, the husband of Fatima, imparted the knowledge of that mystery which constitutes the real Soofie. I am acquainted with some Natives who designate the Soofies ’Freemasons’ but I imagine this to be rather on account of both possessing a secret, than for any similarity in other respects, between the two orders of people.

My business, however, is to describe. The Soofies then are, as far as I can comprehend, strictly religious men, who have forsaken entirely all attachment to earthly things, in their adoration of the one supreme God. They are sometimes found dwelling in the midst of a populous city, yet, even there they are wholly detached from the world, in heart, soul, and mind, exercising themselves in constant adoration of, and application to God; occasionally shutting themselves up for several weeks together in a hut of mud, thatched with coarse grass, with scarce sufficient provision to support the smallest living animal, and water barely enough to moisten their parched lips during the weeks thus devoted to solitary retirement and prayer.

When these recluses can no longer support their self-inflicted privation, they open the door of their hut, a signal anxiously watched for by such persons as have a desire to meet the eye of the holy man, of whom they would inquire on some (to them) interesting matter; probably regarding their future prospects in the world, the cause of the ill-health and prospects of recovery of a diseased member of their family, or any like subject of interest to the inquirer.

The Soofie, I am told, does not approve of being thus teased by the importunities of the thronging crowd, who beset his threshold the instant his door is heard to open. Being weak in body, after the fatigue of a protracted fast of weeks together, his replies to the questions (preferred always with remarkable humility) are brief and prompt; and the Natives assure me dependence may always be placed on the good Soofie’s reply being strictly the words of truth. On this account, even if the oracle’s reply disappoint the hopes of the questioner, he retires without a murmur, for then he knows the worst of his calamity, and if God orders it so, he must not complain, because Infinite Wisdom cannot err, and the holy man will assuredly speak the truth.

The practice so long prevailing in Europe of visiting the cunning man, to have the hidden mysteries of fate solved, occurred to my recollection when I first heard of this custom in India.

’Will my son return from his travels during my lifetime?’–was the inquiry of a truly religious man, whom I knew very intimately, to one of the professed Soofie class, on his emerging from his hut. The reply was as follows:–’Go home!–be happy;–comfort your heart;–he is coming!’ By a singular coincidence it happened, that the following day’s daak produced a letter, announcing to him that his son was on his way returning to his home and his father, who had for some years despaired of ever again seeing his son in this life.

It is needless to say, that the veneration shown to this Soofie was much increased by the singular coincidence, because the person who consulted him was a man of remarkable probity, and not given to indulge in idle conversations with the worldly-minded of that city.

There are many men in this country, I am told, who make Soofieism their profession, but who are in reality hypocrites to the world, and their Maker: actuated sometimes by the love of applause from the multitude, but oftener, I am assured, by mercenary motives. A Soofie enjoying public favour may, if he choose, command any man’s wealth who gives credit to his supposed power. All men pay a marked deference to his holy character, and few would have the temerity to withhold the desired sum, however inconvenient to bestow, should the demand be made by one professing to be a Soofie.

The real Soofie is, however, a very different character, and an object of deserved veneration, if only for the virtue of perfect content with which his humble mind is endued: respect cannot be withheld by the reflecting part of the world, when contemplating a fellow-creature (even of a different faith) whose life is passed in sincere devotion to God, and strictly conforming to the faith he has embraced. My Native friends inform me,–and many reprobate the notion,–that the Soofies believe they resolve into the Divine essence when their souls are purified from the animal propensities of this life by severe privations, fervent and continual prayer, watchings, resisting temptations, and profound meditation in solitude. When they have acquired the perfection they aim at, and are really and truly the perfect Soofie, they rarely quit the hut they have first selected for their retirement, and into which no one ever attempts to intrude, without the Soofie commands it. He enjoys the universal respect and veneration of all classes of people; he has no worldly rewards to bestow, yet there are servants always ready to do him any kindness, amongst the number of his admirers who flock to catch but a glimpse of the holy man, and fancy themselves better when but the light of his countenance has beamed upon them. Proudly pre-eminent, in his own eyes, is the one amongst the multitude who may be so far honoured as to be allowed to place a platter of food before the Soofie, when the imperative demands of Nature prevail over his self-inflicted abstinence.

Some Soofies shut themselves in their hut for a few days, and others for weeks together, without seeing or being seen by a human being. Their general clothing is simply a wrapper of calico, and their only furniture a coarse mat. They are said to be alike insensible to heat or cold, so entirely are their hearts weaned from the indulgence of earthly comforts.

I must explain, however, that there are two classes of the professedly devout Soofies, viz. the Saalik, and the Majoob.[3] The true Saalik Soofies are those who give up the world and its allurements, abstain from all sensual enjoyments, rarely associate with their fellow-men, devote themselves entirely to their Creator, and are insensible to any other enjoyments but such as they derive from their devotional exercises.

The Majoob Soofies have no established home nor earthly possessions; they drink wine and spirits freely, when they can obtain them. Many people suppose this class have lost the possession of their reason, and make excuse for their departure from the law on that score. Both classes are nevertheless in great respect, because the latter are not deemed guilty of breaking the law, since they are supposed to be insensible of their actions whilst indulging in the forbidden juice of the grape.

Haafiz,[4] the celebrated poet of Persia, it is related, was a Soofie of the Majoob class, he lived without a thought of providing for future exigencies, accepted the offerings of food from his neighbour, drank wine freely when offered to him, and slept under any shed or hovel he met with, as contented as if he was in the palace of a king.

Saadie,[5] the Persian poet, was, during the latter years of his life, a Saalik Soofie of the most perfect kind. Many of the inspirations of his pen, however, were written in that part of his life which was devoted to the world and its enjoyments; yet most of these indicate purity of thought in a remarkable degree. Saadie’s life was subject to the most extraordinary vicissitudes; he possessed an independent mind, scorning every allurement of wealth which might tend to shackle his principles. He is said to have repeatedly rejected offers of patronage and pecuniary assistance from many noblemen, whilst he still loved the world’s enticements, declaring he never could submit to confine himself to attendance on an earthly master for any lengthened period. His wit, pleasing deportment, and polite manners, together with the amiable qualities of his heart, rendered him a general favourite, and they who could boast most intimacy with Saadie were the most honoured by the world; for, though but the poor Saadie, he shed a lustre over the assemblies of the great and noble in birth or station, by his brilliant mind.

The ’Goolistaun’[6] of Saadie has been so often eulogized, as to render it unnecessary for me to add a single word in commendation of its style and morality; but I will here take leave to insert an anecdote translated for me by my husband, in allusion to the incident which prompted Saadie to write that work, under the title of ’Goolistaun’ (Garden of Roses). I will also here remark, that in the principal cities of Persia, the Mussulmauns of that age were not equally rigid in their observance of the law interdicting the use of fermented liquors, as are those of the present day in Hindoostaun. Many young men among the higher orders indulged freely in the ’life-inspiring draught’, as they were wont to call the juice of the grape.

’Shiraaz was the abode and the presumptive birth-place of Saadie. In his early years he was led by a love of society to depart from the rigid customs of his forefathers, and with the wild youth of his acquaintance to indulge freely in nightly potations of the forbidden juice of the grape. He had long delighted his friends and favourites by sharing in their nocturnal revels, and adding by his wit and pleasantry to the mirthful moments as they flew by unheeded.

’At a particular season of the year, a convivial party were accustomed to assemble in a garden of roses, from midnight to the rising sun, to indulge in the luxury of wine during that refreshing season; as to receive the first scent from the opening roses as they expand with the dawn of the morning, constituted a delight, proverbially intoxicating, amongst the sons of Persia. Saadie composed many airs for the occasion, and gifted by Nature with a voice equalled only by his wit, he sang them with a melody so sweet as to render him almost the idol of his companions.

’At one of these seasons of enjoyment, the festival was prepared by his circle of friends as usual, but Saadie delayed his visit. The whole party were lost in surprise and regret at an absence as unexpected as deplored. Some time was passed in fruitless conjecture on the cause of his delay, and at last it was agreed that a deputation from his well-beloved associates should go in quest of their favourite. They accordingly went, and knocked at the door of his room, which they found was securely fastened within. The poet inquired “Who is it that disturbs my repose, at this hour, when all good subjects of the King should be at rest?"–"Why, Saadie, Saadie!” they replied, “it is your friends and associates, your favourites!–have you forgotten our enjoyments and this season of bliss? Come, come, open the door, Saadie! away with us! our revels await your presence. Nothing gives enjoyment to our party until you add your smiles to our mirth.”

’"Let me alone,” replied Saadie; “enjoy your pastime, if such it be to ye; but for me, I am heartily ashamed of my late wanton pursuits. I have resolved on mending my ways, whilst yet I have time; and be ye also wise, my friends; follow Saadie’s example. Go home to your beds, and forsake the sinful habits of the world!”

’"Why Saadie, what aileth thee! art thou mad?–or has the study of philosophy drawn thee from thy former self, whilst yet thine hairs are jet with youth? These reflections of thine will suit us till far better when time hath frosted our beards. Come, come, Saadie, away with us! let not the precious moments escape in this unprofitable converse. You must come, Saadie; our hearts will break without you!”

’"Nay, nay,” responded Saadie, “my conscience smites me that I have erred too long. It suits not my present temper to join in your mirth."–"Open the door to us at any rate,” sounded from the many voices without; “speak to us face to face, our dear and well-beloved friend! let us have admission, and we will argue the subject coolly."–Saadie’s good-nature could not resist the appeal, the door was unbarred, and the young men entered in a body.

’"We have all wickedly broken the law of the faithful,” said Saadie to his guests; and he tried to reason with his unreasonable favourites, who, on their part, used raillery, bantering, argument, and every power of speech, to turn Saadie from his steady purpose of now fulfilling the law he had wilfully violated. They effected nothing in moving him from his purpose, until one of the young men, to whom Saadie was much attached, spoke tenderly to him of the affection both himself and friends entertained for him, adding, “It is written in our law, that if a Mussulmaun be guilty of any sin, however great, (and all kinds of sin are therein enumerated), and he afterwards sincerely repents before God, with fasting and prayer, his sins shall be forgiven. Now you, Saadie, who are deeply versed in the way of wisdom, and better acquainted with the words of the Khoraun than any other man on earth, tell me, is there in that holy book a promise made of forgiveness for that man who breaks the hearts of his fellow-creatures? With us there are many hearts so devotedly attached to you, that must assuredly burst the bonds of life by your complete and sudden desertion of them, so that not one sin but many shall be hurled by their deaths on your conscience, to be atoned for how you may.”

’Saadie loved them all too dearly to resist their persevering proofs of affection, and he suffered himself, after a little more argument, to be led forth to the scene of their revels, where, however, he argued strongly on the impropriety of their habits and refused to be tempted by the alluring wine. He then promised to prepare for them a never-fading garden of roses which should last with the world; every leaf of which, if plucked with attention, should create a greater and more lasting bliss about their hearts than the best wine of Shiraaz, or the most refined aromatic had hitherto conveyed to their sensual appetites.’

After the evening in question, Saadie abstained from all participation in the revels of his friends, and devoted his hours to retirement that he might accomplish the ’Goolistaun’ he had pledged himself to cultivate for their more substantial benefit and perpetual enjoyment. The simplicity, elegance, purity of style, and moral precepts conveyed in this work, prove the author to have been worthy the respect with which his name has been reverenced through all ages, and to this day, by the virtuously disposed his work is read with unabated interest.

Saadie did not remain very long at Shiraaz after his conversion, nor did he settle any where for any long period. The Persian writers assert that he disliked the importunities of the world, which, sensible of his merits as a poet and companion, constantly urged him to associate with them. He, therefore, lived a wandering life for many years, carefully concealing his name, which had then become so celebrated by his writings, that even beyond the boundaries of Persia his fame was known.

As his manner of life was simple, his wants were few; he depended solely on the care of Divine Providence for his daily meal, avoiding every thing like laying by from to-day’s produce for the morrow’s sustenance. He considered that provision alone acceptable, which the bounty of Divine Providence daily provided for his need, by disposing the hearts of others to tender a suitable supply. In fact, he is said to have been of opinion that the store laid up by men for future exigencies lessened the delightful feeling of dependance on the bounty of God, who faileth not, day by day, to provide for the birds and beasts of the forest with equal care as for the prince on his throne; he would say, ’I shall be tempted to forget from whom my bread is received, if I have coins in my purse to purchase from the vender. Sweet is the daily bread granted to my prayers and dependance on the sole Giver of all good!’

To illustrate the necessity of perfect content, he relates, in his writings, the following interesting anecdote:–’I was once travelling on foot, where the roads were rugged, my shoes worn out, and my feet cut by the stones. I was desirous of pursuing my journey quickly, and secretly mourned that my feet pained me, and that my shoes were now rendered useless; often wishing, as I stepped with caution, that I possessed the means of replenishing these articles so useful to a traveller.

’With these feelings of dissatisfaction, I approached the spot where a poor beggar was seated, who, by some calamity, had been deprived of both his feet. I viewed this sad object with much commiseration, for he was dependant on the kindness of his fellow-beggars to convey him daily to that public spot, where the passing traveller, seeing his misery, might be induced to bestow upon him a few coins to provide for his subsistence. “Alas! alas!” said I, “how have I suffered my mind to be disturbed because my feet pained me, and were shoeless. Ungrateful being that I am! rather ought I to rejoice with an humble heart, that my gracious Benefactor hath granted me the blessing of feet, and sound health. Never let me again murmur or repine for the absence of a luxury, whilst my real wants are amply supplied."’

One of my objects in detailing the anecdotes of Saadie in this place, is to give a more correct idea of the Soofie character of that particular class called Saalik, to which he ultimately belonged.

The next translation from the life of Saadie will show how beautifully his well-tempered spirit soared above those difficulties which the common mind would have sunk under. His fame, his superior manners, were of that rare kind, that distance from his birth-place could be no obstacle to his making friends, if he chose to disclose his name in any city of Asia.

I have no dates to guide me in placing the several anecdotes in their proper order; this, however, will be excused, as I do not pretend to give his history.

’On one occasion, Saadie was journeying on foot, and being overtaken by the Arabs, (who, or a party of, it may be presumed, were at war with Persia), he was taken prisoner, and conveyed by them, with many others, to Aleppo. The prisoners, as they arrived, were all devoted to the public works (fortifying the city), and obliged to labour according to their ability.

’Saadie, unused to any branch of mechanical labour, could only be employed in conveying mortar to the more scientific workmen. For many months he laboured in this way, degrading as the employment was, without a murmur, or a desire that his fate had been otherways ordained. Hundreds of men then living in Aleppo would have been proud of the honour and the good name they must have acquired from the world, by delivering the Poet from his thraldom, had they known he was amongst them, a slave to the Arabs; for Saadie was revered as a saint by those who had either read his works, or heard of his name, extolled as it was for his virtues. But Saadie placed his trust in God alone, and his confidence never for an instant forsook him; he kept his name concealed from all around him, laboured as commanded, and was contented.

’Many months of degrading servitude had passed by, when one day, it so happened that a rich Jew merchant, who had formerly lived at Shiraaz, and there had been honoured by the regard of the idolized Saadie, visited Aleppo, on his mercantile concerns. Curiosity led him to survey the improvements going on in the city; and passing the spot where Saadie was then presenting his load of mortar to the mason, he thought he recognized the Poet, yet deemed it impossible that he should be engaged in so degrading an employment, who was the object of universal veneration in Persia. Still the likeness to his former friend was so striking, that he felt no trifling degree of pleasure, whilst contemplating those features whose resemblance recalled the image of that holy man who was so dear to him, and brought back to his recollection many delightful hours of friendly converse, which at Shiraaz had cheated time of its weight, and left impressions on his heart to profit by during life.

’"I will talk with this man,” thought the Jew; “surely he must be related to my friend; the face, the form, the graceful manner, and even in that rude garb and occupation, he so strongly resembles my friend, that I cannot doubt he must be of the same kindred.”

’Drawing near to Saadie, the Jew accosted him with, “Who are you, friend,–and whence do you come?” Saadie’s voice dispelled every doubt of the Jew, their eyes met, and in a few seconds they were clasped in each other’s warm embrace, the Jew lamenting, in terms of warm sympathy, the degradation of the immortalized poet, and sainted man; whilst he in turn checked his friend’s murmurings, by expressing his conviction that the wisdom of God knew best how to lead his confiding servants to himself, declaring his present occupation did not render him discontented.

’The Jew went without delay to the superintendant of the public works, and inquired the sum he would be willing to receive in lieu of the labourer whom he desired to purchase, carefully avoiding the name of Saadie lest the ransom should be proportioned to the real value of such a slave. The man agreed to take one hundred and ten pieces of silver (each in value half a dollar). The sum was promptly paid, and the Jew received an order to take away his purchase when and wherever he pleased. He lost no time in possessing himself of his treasured friend, conveyed him to the city, where he clothed him in apparel better suited to his friend, and on the same day Saadie accompanied the benevolent Israelite to his country residence, some miles distant from the city of Aleppo.

’Arrived here, Saadie enjoyed uninterrupted peace of mind for a long season, his heart bounding with gratitude to God, who had, he felt assured, worked out his deliverance from slavery and its consequences; and as may be supposed from such a heart, Saadie was truly sensible of the benevolent Jew’s kindness, with whom he was constrained to remain a considerable time, for the Jew indeed loved him as a brother, and always grieved at the bare probability that they might ever again be separated; and desiring to secure his continuance with him during their joint lives, he proposed that Saadie should accept his only daughter in marriage with a handsome dowry.

’Saadie resisted his friend’s offer for some time, using arguments which, instead of altering his friend’s purpose, only strengthened the desire to secure this amiable man as the husband of his daughter. Saadie assured him he was sensible of the offence his friend might give to the opinions of his people, by the proposal of uniting his daughter to a man of another faith, and that their prejudices would bring innumerable evils on his good name by such an alliance. “No,” said Saadie, “I cannot consent to such a measure. I have already been a great trouble to you, if not a burden; let me depart, for I cannot consent to draw down on the head of my friend the censures of his tribe, and, perhaps, in after-time, disappointments. I have, indeed, no desire to marry; my heart and mind are otherways engaged.”

’The friends often discussed the subject ere Saadie gave way to the earnest solicitations of the Jew, to whose happiness the grateful heart of Saadie was about to be sacrificed when he reluctantly consented to become the husband of the young Jewess. The marriage ceremony was performed according to the Jewish rites, when Saadie was overpowered with the caresses and munificence of his friend and father-in-law.

’A very short season of domestic peace resulted to him from the alliance. The young lady had been spoiled by the over-indulgence of her doating parent, her errors of temper and mind having never been corrected. Proud, vindictive, and arrogant, she played the part of tyrant to her meek and faultless husband. She strove to rouse his temper by taunts, revilings, and indignities that required more than mortal nature to withstand replying to, or bear with composure.

’Still Saadie went on suffering in silence; although the trials he had to endure undermined his health, he never allowed her father to know the misery he had entailed on himself by this compliance with his well-meant wishes; nor was the secret cause of his altered appearance suspected by the kind-hearted Jew, until by common report his daughter’s base behaviour was disclosed to the wretched father, who grieved for the misfortunes he had innocently prepared for the friend of his heart.

’Saadie, it is said, entreated the good Jew to allow of a divorce from the Jewess, which, however, was not agreed to; and when his sufferings had so increased that his tranquillity was destroyed, fearing the loss of reason would follow, he fled from Aleppo in disguise and retraced his steps to Shiraaz, where in solitude his peace of mind was again restored, for there he could converse with his merciful Creator and Protector uninterrupted by the strife of tongues.’

[1] Hudhud, the lapwing, hoopoe. In the Koran (xxvii. 20, with Sale’s
    note) the bird is described as carrying a letter from Solomon to the
    Queen of Sheba. On another occasion, when Solomon was lost in the
    desert, he sent it to procure for him water for ablution.

[2] The term sufi, derived from suf, ’wool’, in allusion to
    the garments worn by them, was applied in the second century of Islam
    to men or women who adopted the ascetic or quietistic way of life. See
    Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 608 ff.: D.B. Macdonald, The
    Development of Muslim Theology, 1903: E.G. Browne, A Year Amongst
    the Persians, 1893.

[3] If a Sufi becomes, by devotion, attracted to God, he is called
    Salik-i-majzub, ’an attracted devotee’: if he practises
    complete devotion, but is not influenced by the special attraction of
    God, he is called Salik, ’a devotee’ (Hughes, Dictionary of
    Islam, 612: Jaffur Shurreef, Qanoon-e-Islam, 197).

[4] See p. 255.

[5] See p. 255.

[6] Gulistan.


Introductory Notes  •  Preface to the Second Edition  •  Introduction  •  Introductory Letter  •  Letter I  •  Letter II  •  Letter III  •  Letter IV  •  Letter V  •  Letter VI  •  Letter VII  •  Letter VIII  •  Letter IX  •  Letter X  •  Letter XI  •  Letter XII  •  Letter XIII  •  Letter XIV  •  Letter XV  •  Letter XVI  •  Letter XVII  •  Letter XVIII  •  Letter XIX  •  Letter XX  •  Letter XXI  •  Letter XXII  •  Letter XXIII  •  Letter XXIV  •  Letter XXV  •  Letter XXVI  •  Letter XXVII  •  Bibliography of Works

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