Islam was brought to India by the Muslims from Arabia and the Middle East. They came carrying their sacred book Al Quran that enshrines the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims believe that the Quran is the divine revelation to Prophet Muhammad from Allah.
Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, Arabia in 570 AD and he received the first revelations from Allah in 610 AD. At a time of conflict and moral confusion in Arabia, the words of this great philosopher and teacher brought guidance and enlightenment to the people. Later these sacred words were compiled in the holy scripture of the Muslims, the Quran.
Prophet Muhammad’s religion was called Islam, meaning submission to the will of Allah and his followers were Muslims, the people who had surrendered to Allah. He taught of the oneness of God who is compassionate (Al Rahman) and merciful (Al Rahim). God hates injustice and oppression and all are equal before him.
As the Quran says, “God is the light of heaven and earth.”
Prophet Muhammad spoke of the five Pillars of Faith for the Muslim. First is the profession of faith in Allah and his greatest apostle (shahadah). Then prayers (salat), as Muslims pray five times a day facing in the direction of their holiest site, the Kaaba in Mecca. Muslims are asked to perform acts of charity (zaqat). They are to fast during the month of Ramazan, when Prophet Muhammad received the divine revelations (sawm). Finally Muslims are to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime (haj) if they can afford it.
Today Islam is a world religion and cities across the globe echo to the mellifluous notes of the azaan, calling the faithful to prayers. The exquisite verses of the Quran offer guidance and bring solace and peace to millions of Muslims across the world.
India was first introduced to Islam through the arrival of Arab traders who came and settled along the western coast in Kerala and Gujarat as early as the 7th century AD. Later in the 12th century as Muslim dynasties were established in Delhi by Afghan and Persian kings, Islam became a part of the religious fabric of the land.India was first introduced to Islam through the arrival of Arab traders who came and settled along the western coast in Kerala and Gujarat as early as the 7th century AD. Later in the 12th century as Muslim dynasties were established in Delhi by Afghan and Persian kings, Islam became a part of the religious fabric of the land.
By the 16th century the Mughal Empire covered nearly the whole of the Indian subcontinent. Islamic contribution to Indian culture reached its zenith during the reign of the Mughals creating a cultural landscape of remarkable synthesis in every field of the arts. India excelled in architecture, crafts, music, painting and literature and was admired across the world.
Between the 12th and 18th century there were a number of Muslim kingdoms in India and each patronised the building of palaces, fortresses, mausoleums and mosques. The Sultans of Delhi, the Mughals, the rulers of the Southern kingdoms like Golconda and Bijapur and the Nawabs of Lucknow all built exquisite mosques that are classics of medieval architecture. Today at these mosques, thousands bow in prayer
every Friday and also during the month of Ramazan. Then the air reverberates with joy as the festival of Id is celebrated across the land.
Another stream of Islam that has thrived in India is the mystical faith of Sufism. India is also one of the largest centres of Sufism, with four main Sufi orders or silsila – the Chishti, Qadriya, Naqshbandi and Suhrawardi. The Sufi faith was introduced into India by the Chishti saint Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti and has remained a part of the life of the people. The shrines of the Sufi saints, like those at Ajmer Sharif and Delhi sway to music and prayers. These dargahs are visited by people rich and poor, of every faith who are drawn by the humane, tolerant and inclusive faith.
Congregational mosques are at the heart of Muslim society in India and they have been built all across the continent. From the simple, white washed building in a village to the giant domes and soaring minarets of the great royal mosques, where people gather for the noon prayers on Fridays and on important religious occasions as well as five times a day. Some of the most famous mosques were built by the Mughal kings and even by royal women like Princess Jahanara’s mosque in Agra and Fatehpuri Begum’s mosque in Delhi. These mosques are also some of the finest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture and are admired for their elegant designs.
Jama Masjid, Delhi
In the 17th century the Mughal emperor Shahjahan built Shahjahanabad, a new capital city in Delhi. Here the Jama Masjid was the main congregational mosque where the emperor arrived in gorgeous procession to pray. This majestic mosque, the largest in India, was completed in 1658 AD and stands on a hill facing the Red Fort and close to the Old City’s main thoroughfare, the Chandni Chowk.
The Jama Masjid is a harmonious blend of onion domes, tapering minarets and giant gateways built in a blend of marble and red sandstone. There are flights of steps on each side to reach the four double story gateways. The marble prayer hall on the west has a magnificent facade of arches and the domes are in black and white stripes. The vast expanse of the courtyard is surrounded by pillared corridors and during prayers can hold up to twenty five thousand people.
Jami Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri
The Mughal emperor Akbar built a new capital city at Fatehpur Sikri a few kilometres outside Agra in the 1570’s. Here he first built the imperial mosque, the Jami Masjid which was the largest mosque of his time. Then in the middle of the open courtyard he placed the shrine of his revered Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chishti. Built all in marble the mausoleum glows like a jewel in the red sandstone surroundings.
This is a truly beautiful and tranquil mosque that reflecting Akbar’s inclusive, tolerant spirit, welcomes people of every faith. It was built by Indian craftsmen and reflecting Akbar’s humane spirit it used an elegant blend of both Islamic and Indian motifs and architectural styles. At one end of the courtyard looms the giant imperial gateway called Buland Darwaza, the Gate of Victory. It was built by Akbar as a celebration after he conquered Gujarat.
Haji Ali, Mumbai
The delicate minarets and dome of this mosque silhouetted against the setting sun is one of the iconic images of the city of Mumbai. This unusual mosque stands on an islet at the end of a long and narrow causeway, surrounded by the cerulean waters of the Arabian Sea. The mosque has the grave of the 15th century saint Sayed Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, who renounced all his worldly possessions and meditated here. Another legend says that Haji Ali died on his way to Mecca and his casket floated back to his homeland. The mosque and the tomb were built at the site where the casket touched land and can only be reached at low tide.
Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad
This mosques stands near the famous gateway of Charminar in Hyderabad and is one of the largest in the country. The mosque was started by the ruler of the kingdom of Golconda, Sultan Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah in 1614 AD. Then the kingdom was conquered by the Mughals and the mosque was completed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in1687 AD. It is said that the mosque was given this name as soil was brought from Mecca and made into bricks that were embedded above the gateway. The triple arched facade was carved from a single piece of granite.
The mausoleums of Sufi saints are called dargahs, the royal court of a penniless man of God. These are abodes of peace of compassionate saints, called Pir, Sheikh or Khwaja by their devotees. The Sufi saints were scholars of Islam and respected teachers who chose a path of mystic worship and an austere lifestyle. The world of the Sufis is an open and welcoming one with an emphasis on love, harmony and tolerance. At its heart is the teacher-disciple tradition of the pir and murid; the most famous being that of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya and his poet disciple Amir Khusro.
“Be generous like a river, affectionate like the sun and hospitable like the earth,” said the great Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti encapsulating the spirit of Sufism. The Sufi shrines are open to people of all faiths and sway in joyous praise of their Khwaja through incense and flowers, prayers and music sessions called sama as devotees lay silk and velvet chadars ( cheet of cloth) on the grave. Here the Urs is held on the day the saint passed away and was united with the divine.
As they say, after a while the palaces of kings lie silent and forgotten but the dargahs of the Sufi saints stay alive for centuries in the heart of people.
Ajmer, Dargah of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti
The Dargah at Ajmer, Rajasthan is the oldest and most respected Sufi shrine in the country. Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti came to India in the 13th century and established his seminary (khanqa) at Ajmer. He led a life of austerity, poverty and prayer and even today is identified with the poor and called Garib Nawaz, the patron of the poor. Following his example, all preachers of the Chishtiya order chose lives of great simplicity, giving away all their possessions and feeding the poor.
A mausoleum was built at the death of the Khwaja in 1233 AD. Kings like Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan came to pray here. Akbar walked from Agra to Ajmer and then built a mosque, the Akbari Masjid near the shrine. The entrance gate was built by a Nizam of Hyderabad in 1915. Silver doors lead into the serene mausoleum where the Khwaja lies under a silver canopy, his grave covered by silk chadars. Within the precinct are a number of other mosques and the two giant cooking pots called degs in which food is cooked for feeding the devotees. The Urs commemorating the death of the Khwaja is held every year in the first six days of the month of Rajab of the Hijri calendar.
Delhi, Dargah of Sheikh Nizamuddin Chishti
Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya is called Mahboob-e-Ilahi, beloved of the God for his devotion to the divine and selfless service to humanity. He came to Delhi in the 13th century and built his seminary in a village called Ghiyaspur by the river Jamuna. In the home of a pir everyone, king or commoner, is equal. It is said that the Sheikh came into conflict with Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq. The Sultan was building his fortress when the Sheikh began to build a step well (baoli) and workers preferred to work for him instead of the Sultan. Even banning the sale of oil to stop the people from working at night failed. Today Ghiyasuddin’s Tughlaqabad Fort is a desolate ruin while the Dargah is alive with prayers, filled with devotees and the ancient baoli still survives.
The Sheikh was a legend for his generosity and gathered many philosophers and preachers around him. The precinct has the domed dargah, built all in marble and decorated in delicate inlay work. Nearby stands the Jamat Khana mosque and the grave of Amir Khusro, poet, historian and musician who was the Sheikh’s greatest disciple. Khusro wrote songs in his praise that are still sung by the qawwali singers. Jahanara, the poet daughter of the Mughal emperor Shahjahan chose to be buried here, and there is also the grave of the Mughal king Muhammad Shah.
Fatehpur Sikri, Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chishti
The history of this dargah begins with a childless king seeking the blessing of a Sufi pir and his magnificent act of gratitude. The Mughal emperor Akbar came to meet Sheikh Salim Chishti at a small village called Sikri near Agra and the Sheikh assured him that he would have three sons. The prediction came true and a grateful king decided to build his new capital city at Sikri. At the heart of the imperial citadel was the congregational mosque the Jami Masjid and in its courtyard he built the marble mausoleum of his spiritual guide and preceptor.
The small, serene dargah is built all in marble and gleams like a jewel in the surrounding of red sandstone. There are intricately carved serpentine brackets holding up the pillars. Delicately chiselled perforated marble screens encircle the veranda filling the surrounding passage in dappled light and shadow. The tomb is covered in silk, the air redolent with incense and above the cenotaph is a wooden catafalque covered in glittering mother of pearl.
In front of the dargah there is a small pool and near it the qawwali singers sit singing the praises of the gentle and wise Sheikh Salim. His spirit still blesses childless women who tie red threads of hope on the marble screens. Akbar and his favourite saint shared a spirit of generosity and tolerance that is still alive today.
Nagore, Dargah of Hazrat Shahul Hamid
Hazrat Shahul Hamid is popularly called Pir Miran Sahib. This dargah is in the small coastal town of Nagore near Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. Meeran Sahib of the Qadiri order was born in the 16th century. He travelled widely and was deeply respected for his piety, simplicity and faith. It is said that he cured a ruler of Thanjavur of an ailment and when offered great riches only asked for a small plot of land where the dargah now stands. The dargah has an unusual architectural design with a tapering silver dome and five white washed minarets that were built by different kings over a number of years. It has a tank called Peer Kulam, devotees believe that bathing in its waters cures them of diseases.
Dewa Sharif, Dargah of Haji Waris Shah
This dargah is in Barabanki district near Lucknow. It is dedicated to the Sufi saint Haji Waris Shah who was born at Dewa in the 19th century. He came from a family that traced its lineage to Hazrat Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. He performed the Haj many times and stayed at Dewa preaching the message of love and amity till his death in 1905. Millions of devotees of every faith visit the shrine especially during the Dewa Mela in October when there are music and poetry sessions and the celebrations end with fireworks.