Mullah Shah

[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]

Mullah Shah was born a.d. 1584, in the village of Erkesa in Badakshan, a mountainous and inaccessible country to the north of the Indian Caucasus. His family, which was of Mongol origin, held a certain position, and his grandfather had been judge of the village. At the age of twenty-one the young man quitted his relatives and his country, and went back to Balkh, then a centre of learning in Central Asia. He made great progress there, especially in the knowledge of Arabic. After some time he left Balkh, and turning his steps southward, arrived at Kashmir, where he continued his studies, but an irresistible thirst after truth made him feel the necessity of seeking a spiritual guide, and he resolved to go to Lahore, where there lived a celebrated saint, Sheikh Mian Mir.

The reception he met with was not favourable. Mian Mir at first repulsed him, but allowed himself at last to be overcome by the perseverance of the young man, and taught him Sufi exercises according to the rule of the Qadiri order of dervishes. The stifling heat of Lahore did not suit the health of Mullah Shah, who accordingly resolved to spend the summers in Kashmir, returning to Lahore for the winter. He led this life for several years, till he had passed through all the stages of asceticism, but his spiritual guide would not lead him to the supreme goal of mystical science, which is termed "Union with God," or "knowledge of oneself."

Mian Mir only spoke to him of it in an enigmatic way and said, "Do not cease to study thyself and thine own heart, for thy goal is in thyself."

In the year 1636 a.d. he returned again, as usual, from Lahore to Kashmir, and practised his austerities without relaxation, when one day, by the special favour of the Divinity, and without the assistance of any spiritual preceptor, "the desired image" revealed itself to him. By this expression is understood, in mystic phraseology, union with God, and the conception of Absolute Being, which is equivalent to the knowledge of one's self. When Mullah Shah thus attained the goal of his mystical aspirations he was in his forty-seventh year, and had been engaged twenty-seven years in the spiritual exercises of the Sufis. When he returned to Lahore, he informed his spiritual guide that he had attained union with God. The latter advised him not to divulge the fact, and not to give up his ascetic practices. In Kashmir Mullah Shah had collected round him a little circle of devoted disciples. The strong emotional condition into which Mullah Shah's new spiritual experience had brought him did not prevent him from doing his best not to offend against the religious law, and he was in the habit of saying to his friends, "Whoso does not respect the precepts of the religious law is not one of us."

Mullah Shah had always been of a retiring disposition, but in his present mood he carried his self-isolation so far that he closed the door of his house and only received his intimates at fixed times, when he dropped his habitual reserve. The spiritual power of Mullah Shah had become so great that every novice whom he caused to sit in front of him and to concentrate his mental faculties on his own heart, became clairvoyant to such a degree that his internal senses were unfolded, and the unseen world appeared to him.

Mullah Shah expressed himself in very bold terms regarding the manner with which he conceived God and His relation to humanity. Thus he said, "Since I have arrived at understanding the absolute Reality and that I know most positively that nothing exists besides God, existence and non-existence are in my eyes the same thing." In one of his poems he says, "The sage who knows himself has become God, be sure of that, my friend." In another poem, which caused a temporary estrangement between himself and the Sheikh Mian Mir, he said:

"My heart by a thousand tongues cries to me 'I am God.' What reproach of heresy can they bring against me that this utterance comes to my lips?

"Those who had attained union with God used to say, 'I am Absolute Being.'

"But I only say what I have heard from the mouth of Sheikh Mian Mir."

In the meantime the number of his adherents daily increased; persons of all classes in society became his adherents; even women became capable of mystical intuitions by the effect of his prayers and without having seen him. However, the increasing number of those who wished to approach him commenced to be inconvenient, and he said, "I am not a sheikh of dervishes who receives novices and builds convents."

"Neither the mosque nor the dervish-convent attract me,
But the purity of the desert and the freedom of the open country."

In the year 1634 a.d., a certain Mir Baki, a descendant of the prophet, attached himself to Mullah Shah, and experienced in a short time ecstatic states; he then preached the doctrine of union with God without any reserve. At the same time he claimed to be free from the precepts of the religious law. The following lines were composed by him:—

"Why should my hand let go this sparkling cup of my soul,
I already realise the aspirations of tomorrow."

Which lines, rendered into prose, seem to mean, "Why should I pass my life sadly on in self-maceration and austerity? I prefer to anticipate now the delights which they speak of as belonging to the future life." This is epicureanism, pure and simple, such as we find it in the odes of Hafiz and the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam. When Mullah Shah heard of these extravagant utterances, he caused Mir Baki to be expelled from the town. At the same time the doctrines of Mullah Shah regarding union with God began to make a great deal of sensation, and a large number of influential men who belonged to the Conservative party raised against him the accusation of heresy without really understanding his teaching. They quoted some of his verses against him, and said, "Mullah Shah is beginning to imitate Mansur Hellaj. He should be brought to trial and sentenced to death." They unanimously drew up an indictment against him and affixed their seals; a large number of religious functionaries joined them, and they submitted their petition to the Emperor Shah-jehan, requesting him to pronounce sentence of death against Mullah Shah. The Emperor consented, and despatched a firman to that effect to Zafer-Khan, governor of Kashmir. Shah-jehan's son, the prince Dara-Shikoh, had been absent, and only learned what had happened when he returned. He immediately went to his father and represented to him that Mullah Shah was a pupil of Sheikh Mian Mir, a man renowned for piety, and that the Emperor ought, before pronouncing final judgment, to ask the latter regarding the conduct of his former disciple. The prince concluded by saying that in such a matter haste was ill-omened, because to deprive a man of life is to pull down a building of which God is the Architect. The Emperor accepted this appeal graciously, and ordered the execution to be deferred. Meanwhile the news of the condemnation of Mullah Shah had spread and reached Kashmir, but the respite obtained by the Prince was still unknown there. The friends of Mullah Shah were in despair, and used their utmost endeavours to persuade him to fly. But he answered, "I am not an impostor that I should seek safety in flight; I am an utterer of truth; death and life are to me alike. Let my blood in another life also redden the impaling stake. I am living and eternal; death recoils from me, for my knowledge has vanquished death. The sphere where all colours are effaced has become my abode."

"Once," he added, "I used to bar the door of my house with a bolt in order not to be disturbed by anyone, but now I will leave it wide open, in order that whoever wishes to make me a martyr may enter at his pleasure."

Mullah Shah thus awaited death in an attitude of imperturbable calm, but fate had decided otherwise. Not long afterwards the Emperor Shah-jehan went to Lahore, and in the company of Prince Dara-Shikoh paid a visit to the Sheikh Mian Mir, and questioned him concerning Mullah Shah. Mian Mir told him that Mullah Shah was apt to be carried out of himself when in an ecstatic state, and that then he sometimes spoke without observing the reserve necessary on the doctrine of union with God; but he adjured the Emperor at the same time to take no steps against his old pupil, "For," he said, "this holy man is a consuming fire, and woe to you if he be irritated, for he could destroy the world. In any case prevent the orthodox party from persecuting him, otherwise some dreadful disaster may happen."

This advice made a deep impression on the Emperor, who thanked Prince Dara-Shikoh for having prevented his carrying out the sentence of death. He said, "These theologians have tried to persuade me to kill a visionary dervish; I thank thee, my son, for having prevented my committing an act of injustice." Some time afterwards the Emperor went to Kashmir, but he did not see Mullah Shah, who had become so fond of solitude that he rarely showed himself in the city.

In 1635 a.d., the Sheikh Mian Mir died at Lahore, and in the same year one of the chief nobles of the court named Najat Khan became a disciple of Mullah Shah. About the same time, Mozaffer Beg, one of the Emperor's suite, devoted himself to his service, and his example was followed by several of his friends. But no sooner had they been initiated into the mystical doctrines than they believed themselves privileged to dispense with the prescribed fast of Ramazan and the obligatory prayers, considering that the religious law no longer applied to them. Being informed of these irregularities, Mullah Shah prayed the governor to have them removed from the town.

About this time he made a collection of his verses, among which are the following:—

"If alchemy can change dust into gold, thou marvellest;
But asceticism is an alchemy which changes dust into God.
If a man dives into the ocean of Deity what does he become?
As a drop which falls from the clouds into the sea."

Regarding pedantic theologians, he says:—

"Well I know these preachers who do not practise,
Their memory stored with a hundred thousand traditions,
While their mind is empty of ideas."

In 1639 the Emperor Shah-jehan came a second time to Kashmir, and took up his dwelling in the park called Zafer-abad, in a pavilion which commanded a delightful view of the lake. No sooner had he arrived than he sent for Mullah Shah, who came without delay. The Emperor received him with marked kindness and conversed long with him on subjects relating to the Sufi sciences.

This same year is remarkable for an event which had important results for Mullah Shah and his followers. The Prince Dara-Shikoh, who had saved Mullah Shah's life by his intervention, had always been marked by keen religious feeling, and often spent whole nights in prayer and meditation. He had often heard of the extraordinary powers of Mullah Shah, but had never had the opportunity of seeing him, as the sheikh still maintained his habits of retirement. Little by little, a feeling of irresistible curiosity took possession of the Prince; he determined to see the holy man who was so highly spoken of, and one night, accompanied by a single servant named Mujahid, he left his palace and directed his steps towards the dwelling of Mullah Shah. The latter had in his courtyard an ancient plane-tree, and was in the habit of sitting at the foot of it during the night, lost in meditation. Having arrived at the house, the prince ordered his servant to wait near the door, and entered the courtyard alone. Seeing the Sheikh seated at the foot of the tree, he stopped and remained standing till the master should speak to him. The latter knew very well who the new-comer was, and that little persuasion was needed to make him one of his disciples; but he made as though he did not see him. A long time passed thus, till the Sheikh broke the silence by asking the Prince "Who art thou?" The Prince did not speak. Mullah Shah then said again, "Why dost thou not answer? Speak, and tell thy name."

The Prince, filled with embarrassment, replied, "My name is Dara-Shikoh." "Who is thy father?" "The Emperor Shah-jehan," "Why hast thou come to see me?" "Because I feel drawn towards God, and seek for a spiritual guide." On this Mullah Shah exclaimed sharply, "What are emperors and princes to me? Know that I am a man devoted to asceticism. Is this hour of the night the time to come and trouble me? Go, and do not show thyself here a second time."

Deeply wounded by this reception, the Prince withdrew and re-entered his palace, where he spent the whole night weeping. But in spite of all his disappointment, he felt himself drawn the next night by an irresistible attraction towards the saint's dwelling, but the latter this time did not even condescend to speak to him. Mujahid, the servant who accompanied the Prince, became angry, and said to his master, "What miracles has this crabbed dervish shown you that you should come here every night and expose yourself to such indignities? Ordinary dervishes are cheerful folk, not uncivil and morose like this old man. For my own part, I set no great store by this asceticism, and the only thing that makes me uneasy is your putting faith in it." The Prince answered, "If Mullah Shah was an impostor, so far from treating me as he has done, he would, on the contrary, have prayed God to bring me to him. It is precisely his independent spirit and irritated manner which proves him to be an extraordinary man." That same night when Mujahid returned home, he was seized by fever and carried off in a few hours. Dara-Shikoh, when informed of this terrible event, was profoundly moved. He reproached himself bitterly for not having at once punished his servant's insolence, and considered the death of Mujahid as a divine punishment which menaced him also. He immediately sent for the Qazi Afzal, one of his most devoted friends, and told him of his anxiety. The latter was a friend of Akhund Mullah Muhammad Synd, a disciple of Mullah Shah, and at his instance the Sheikh consented to see the prince.

Dara-Shikoh could not pay his visit during the day, from fear of arousing public curiosity, but as soon as night fell, he presented himself before the Sheikh, whom this time he found seated in his cell. Before crossing the threshold, the Prince saluted the holy man with profound respect, and the latter bade him enter and be seated. The cell was lighted by a single lamp, whose wick was smoking; in his eager desire to discern the venerable features of the Sheikh, the Prince dressed the wick with his own fingers. This simple action gained him the Sheikh's affection. At the end of some days he bade him to blindfold himself, then he concentrated his attention upon him in such a way that the invisible world was revealed to the view of the Prince, who felt his heart filled with joy.

Dara-Shikoh had a sister, the Princess Fatimah, to whom he was deeply attached. As soon as he had become a disciple of Mullah Shah and his heart had been opened to the intuition of the spiritual world, he hastened to inform his sister. This news made such an impression on the mind of the Princess that she wrote to the Sheikh several letters full of humility and devotion. He read them all, but made no reply for more than a month, till he was convinced that Fatimah was animated by an invincible resolution. At last he accorded his sympathy to her also, and admitted her to the circle of the initiates. The Princess persevered ardently in these mystical studies, and received the instructions of her spiritual guide by correspondence. She attained to such perfection that she arrived at intuitive knowledge of God and union with Him. Although the Sheikh was full of affection for all his disciples, he had a particular regard for her, and was in the habit of saying that "she had attained to such an extraordinary degree of knowledge that she was fit to be his successor."

Mullah Shah was now old and infirm; he had passed several winters at Lahore, surrounded by the care and attention of his friends and pupils. In the year 1655 a.d., the Emperor wrote to him to invite him to pass the winter with him at Shahjahanabad, his ordinary residence, but the Sheikh was beginning to suffer from weakness of the eyes, and did not feel strong enough to undertake the journey. For some years he remained in Kashmir, and would often say, "The theosophist ought to profit by length of life. My life is approaching its end; let us then enjoy our stay in Kashmir, and not leave it."

In a.d. 1658 Aurangzeb, Dara-Shikoh's younger brother, seized on the person of his father the Emperor Shah-jehan, whom he kept in confinement for the rest of his life, and had Dara assassinated in prison. Aurangzeb was a bigoted Muhammadan, and his accession to the throne threatened to have serious consequences for Mullah Shah. As soon as he had assumed the reins of government, the clerical party began to represent to him that Mullah Shah taught doctrines contrary to revealed religion. There were not wanting witnesses on the other side, but the Emperor, on hearing the complaints against Mullah Shah, sent an order to the governor of Kashmir to send him to the capital. The governor pleaded for a delay on account of Mullah Shah's advanced age and weakness till he was strong enough to make the journey. A year thus passed by; some verses which Mullah Shah composed in honour of Aurangzeb made a favourable impression on the Emperor, and the Princess Fatimah having interceded on behalf of her old teacher, Aurangzeb revoked his first order, and merely enjoined him to take up his residence at Lahore as soon as possible.

It was not till 1660 a.d. that Mullah Shah could obey this order; he left Kashmir at the beginning of winter and came to Lahore, where he continued to live a retired life, only granting interviews to a few chosen disciples. But when from time to time he had an access of mystical emotion he would speak of union with God without any reserve, in a loud voice, and without noticing who was present. One of his friends said to him one day, "We live in a strange time, and people are disquieted by your discourses on this matter; it would be more prudent to expound your doctrines with a little more reserve." The Sheikh answered him, "Up to the present I have never been afraid for my life; books containing such doctrine are known to all, and everyone has read them. What precautions, then, at my time of life, ought I to observe? I cannot abandon or change my habits of thinking and speaking now."

Some of his other sayings reported at this time show that he had already a presentiment of his approaching death. Kabil Khan, one of his friends, said to him one day, "Formerly our sovereign Aurangzeb loved to listen to discourses on the subject of mysticism, and I have often had the honour of reading before him passages from the Masnavi of Jalaluddin Rumi. The Emperor was often so touched by them that he shed tears; certainly when he comes to Lahore he will wish to see you." "No," replied Mullah Shah; "we shall never see him:

'The night is great with child, see what it will bring forth.'"

In 1661 he had an attack of fever which lasted about fifteen days. That year fever became epidemic at Lahore, and on the 11th of the month of Safar Mullah Shah had another attack, which carried him off on the night of the 15th of the same month. He was buried in a plot of ground which he had already acquired for the purpose. The Princess Fatimah bought the surrounding land, and erected a shrine of red stone over his tomb. The foregoing sketch of Mullah Shah gives a general view of oriental spiritualism as it prevailed two and a half centuries ago over a great part of Asia. The first point worthy of notice in it is the immense popularity of mystical ideas at that time, and the wide influence which they exercised over all minds. Round Mullah Shah gathered persons of every condition; poor peasants as well as princes were seized with the same enthusiasm for his doctrines; the same ascetic training produced the same results in the most varying temperaments. The Master seems to have exercised a kind of magnetic influence over his neophytes. He fixes his gaze upon them for a longer or shorter time, till their inward senses open and render them capable of seeing the wonders of the spiritual world. All the accounts are unanimous in this respect, and they carry such a stamp of sincerity that their veracity is indisputable. We are then obliged to admit that at this period many minds shared a predisposition to religious ecstacy and enthusiasm.

Under the apparent stagnation of the East, there is continually going on a collision between two opposing forces—the official hierarchy of the Ulema, conservative to the core, and mysticism in its early phases, pietistic and enthusiastic, but gradually tending to scepticism, and finally to pantheism and the negation of all positive religion. The Mussalman hierarchy, which in its own interests desired to maintain the prestige of dogma and of the revealed law, combatted this tendency to mysticism, but, as we have seen, without success. The orthodox mullahs made fruitless efforts to obtain the condemnation of Mullah Shah, who had on his side the members of the imperial family of Delhi and the Emperor himself, all more or less imbued with mystical ideas.

The biography of Mullah Shah also throws a great deal of light on the fundamental ideas of oriental mysticism. They spring from a pantheistic philosophy in many respects, startlingly resembling those of modern times. Mullah Shah often insists that individual existence counts for nothing, and that nothing in reality exists outside of God, the Absolute Being; every particular life dissolves in this universal unity, life and death are mere changes in the form of existence. The individual is only in some way a part of the Infinite Being who fills the universe; a particle which has been momentarily detached therefrom, only to return thither. To know oneself is therefore the equivalent of knowing God. But in order to acquire this knowledge the pupil must submit to long and painful self-discipline; he must pass through all the tests of the severest asceticism; only after he has thus prepared himself will the spiritual master open his heart and render him capable of perceiving the mysteries of the spiritual world.

But this great secret must not be divulged; it is only permissable to speak of it to the initiate, as Mullah Shah says, in the following verses:—

We must say that only One exists,
Though such a saying excite astonishment;
The universe is He, though we must not say so openly,
Such doctrines must be kept secret.

This Eastern Pantheism does not lack a certain grandeur, but it has also a dangerous side, and tends to atheism and materialism. Of this some instances occur in the life of Mullah Shah. The passage from pantheism to epicureanism is not a long one. If the human soul only possesses a transient individuality, and after death is merged like a drop in the ocean of divinity, why, many will argue, not have done with asceticism for good, and enjoy the pleasures of existence as long as possible during the little while our individuality endures? Thus Omar Khayyam says:—

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend,
Dust into dust, and under dust to lie,
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and—sans end.


It is precisely this dangerous side of oriental philosophy which has unhappily attained a much greater development and an incomparably more complete success than the elevated moral systems of the chief theosophists of Persia. A mocking cynicism has been, up to modern times, a common characteristic of the great majority of Sufis and dervishes. The dangerous consequences of theosophical ideas and of oriental spiritualism in general became at an early date so apparent that Ghazzali, although a fervent partisan of Sufism, did not hesitate to avow that if these doctrines were generally accepted society would necessarily fall into a state of anarchy.

In face of the wild aberrations caused by Sufism, we should not grudge all the greater credit to the few distinguished men who, although adherents of Sufism and dominated by its doctrines, kept their characters clear of stain. In spite of their conviction that there was no individual life after death, these men spent their lives in mortification of the senses and in abstinence, and often braved death with a truly Roman stoicism.

Such shining characters are not of frequent occurrence in oriental history; but certainly Mullah Shah is one and Prince Dara-Shikoh another. In a path strewn with pitfalls he kept a name without stain and without reproach, thanks to the austere moral principles instilled into him by his master. He faced death with calm resignation, and knew how to die as a prince and as a philosopher.

Note.—Prince Dara-Shikoh has left a curious fragment of spiritual autobiography in his preface to a Persian translation of the Upanishads or chapters from the Vedas which he had caused to be translated from Sanskrit. It is indeed strange to see this son of a Muhammadan Emperor ranking these selections from the Vedas above the Koran, the Pentateuch, Psalms and Gospels, all of which he says he had read. The Preface runs as follows:—

"When Dara-Shikoh, the resigned worshipper of God, visited Kashmir in the year of the Hegira 1050 (a.d. 1640), by the blessing of the Most High he met with Mullah Shah, the chief of the learned, the teacher of teachers, versed in the subtleties of "Tauhid" (Unity); may he be joined with God!

"As that prince already relished the pleasure of seeing the learning of each sect, had perused various treaties of the Sufi philosophers, and even composed some himself, the thirst of exploring the doctrine of the Unity (which is a boundless ocean) daily increased, and his mind attained a degree of acuteness and subtlety which would have been impossible without the immediate assistance and favour of the Divine will. Now the sacred Koran, being frequently obscure, and few at this day being found capable of explaining it, he determined to read all inspired works; that the word of God might furnish a commentary on itself, and what is concisely expressed in one book might be elucidated by a reference to others; the abridged being the more diffuse. With this view he perused the Pentateuch, the Gospels and the Psalms, but the unity of God was obscurely and enigmatically expressed in these works; nor did he derive more instruction from the simple translations of hired linguists.

"He next desired to ascertain how it happened that in Hindustan the Unity of God is the frequent theme of discourse, and that the ancient philosophers of India neither denied nor objected to the doctrine of the Divine Unity, but on the contrary held it as an axiom. Unlike the ignorant race of the present day who set up for philosophers, though they have fallen into the track of bloodshed and infidelity, denying the attributes and unity of God, and contradicting the proofs of that doctrine derived from the Koran and authentic traditions; these may be considered as banditti on the path of God.

"In the cause of this inquiry it was discovered that amongst the Hindus, four inspired books were held peculiarly sacred, viz.: the Rig Veda, the Jajur Veda, the Sam Veda and Atharva Veda, which had descended from the skies to the prophets of those times, of whom Adam (purified by God; may blessings attend him!) was the chief, containing rules and precepts; and this doctrine (viz.: the Unity of God) is clearly expressed in those books. As the object of this explorer of truth (Dara-Shikoh) was not the acquisition of languages, whether Arabic, Syriac or Sanskrit, but the proofs of the Unity of the Supreme Being, he determined that the Upanishads (which might be considered as a treasure of Unitarianism) should be translated into Persian without adding or expunging, and without bias or partiality, but correctly and literally that it might appear what mysteries are contained in those books which the Hindus so carefully conceal from Moslems.

"As the city of Benares, which is the seat of Hindu science, was a dependency of this explorer of truth (Dara-Shikoh), having assembled the Pundits and Sanyasis who are the expounders of the Vedas and Upanishads, he caused a translation to be made of the latter into Persian. This was completed in the year of the Hegira, 1067, a.d., 1656. Every difficulty was elucidated by this ancient compilation, which, without doubt, is the first of inspired works, the fountain of truth, the Sea of the Unity; not only consentaneous with the Koran, but a commentary on it."





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