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Miyan Mir: Lahore’s Other Saint

A biography of Zebunissa, the daughter of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, sheds light on the life and teaching of Miyan Mir

by Khaled Ahmed

In her classic study, Captive Princess: Zebunissa Daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb (OUP 2005), Annie Krieger Krynicki has highlighted the life of a great saint of Lahore, Hazrat Mir Mohammad Qadri (1550-1635), popularly known as Miyan Mir.

Lahore’s presiding saint, Data Sahib Ali ibn Usman (1009–1072), better known as al-Hujwiri, was an 11th-century Persian Islamic scholar, who composed the Kashf al-Mahjub, the earliest formal treatise on Sufism in Persian. Mir, by contrast, belonged to the Qadri order of Sufism, and was a spiritual instructor of Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.

Miyan Mir was a true ascetic who shunned the world and kept greedy aristocrats and ambitious nawabs away from him. To stop such people from coming to see him, he had posted his disciples at the gate of his house. After his death in 1635 A.D., his funeral oration was read by Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, who was a highly devoted disciple of the Sufi saint, and he was buried in Dharampura at a site that continues to attract a large number of devotees daily; he is also revered by many Sikhs. (Dara Shikoh intended the shrine of Miyan Mir to be more impressive and had collected material for it. After Shikoh’s death, however, Aurangzeb used that material in the construction of Lahore’s grand Badshahi Mosque.) There remains a hospital named after Mir in his hometown, Lahore, called Miyan Mir Hospital.

 Miyan Mir for Sikhs

A Sikh website devoted to Miyan Mir has the following interesting entry: “Mir Mohammed Moinul Islam, (1550-1635) popularly known as Sain Miyan Mir was a famous Muslim Sufi saint who resided in Lahore specifically in the town of Baghbanpura (in present-day Pakistan). He belonged to the Qadiri order of Sufism. He was born at Sevastan (Sindh) Aug. 11, 1550. He spent most of his life in and around Lahore. A close friend of The Fifth Padshah Guru Arjun Dev Ji, he was invited to lay the foundation stone of the Harmandir Sahib, (now known worldwide as the Golden Temple) on 1st Magh, Samvat 1647 (Jan. 13, 1588 AD). Miyan Mir raised slogans to mourn the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev. He never accepted any gift sent by Emperor Jehangir, Emperor Shah Jahan, their ministers or nobles. He died on 17th Rabiulawwal 1045 Hijri and according to his will was buried beside Mian Natha Ji who was one of his bosom friends in the village of Hashimpur.

“His most famous disciple was Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who had a grand tomb built over Miyan Mir’s grave, which still is gracefully standing today. The construction of the tomb was in progress when Aurangzeb occupied the throne. He had the red stones that had been purchased by Dara Shikoh for Miyan Mir’s tomb removed, using them in the Badshahi Mosque of Lahore which now faces the Lahore fort … Thus Miyan Mir’s Mazar (tomb) was not built according to the wishes of Dara Shikoh. At the command of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the tomb was repaired and renovated with Rs. 500 being granted from the royal exchequer. The Maharaja attended the fair yearly, making large contributions. The fair is still held every year and it is now with the Auqaf Department. Mian Mir ji is still highly respected by the Sikhs. He had no prejudice against any religion and had a very deep love of Guru Nanak’s institution. He traveled often to Amritsar to meet with Guru Arjan Dev. In turn, whenever the Guru visited Lahore, he would always meet with Saint Miyan Mir. Saint Miyan Mir knew a large number of the Gurus’ verses by heart. His shrine in Lahore still attracts hundreds of devotees each day.”

Dara Shikoh, Jahanara and Zebunissa

Mir’s most prominent disciple was Dara Shikoh, the eldest son and heir-apparent of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. In the war of succession that ensued after Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657, Dara Shikoh was defeated by his younger brother, Aurangzeb, who was more orthodox in his faith but could not keep his gifted daughter Zebunnisa away from mysticism and poetry and her uncle Dara Shikoh—and consequently from Hazrat Miyan Mir. Miyan Mir and his disciple, Mullah Shah, gained great support and reverence in Lahore. Even though Mir was originally from Sindh, his name came from the place where he lived. Born into a family of theologians, he was initiated into the Qadiria belief. He practiced asceticism, often withdrawing into the jungle, where he dressed in rags and ate berries to survive, built a makeshift hermitage, and made everything with his own hands, without the help of his disciples.

According to Dara, who wrote about his life, Mir turned to meditation and contemplation. He so dedicated himself to reading the fundamental texts and always declared himself strictly bound to the Shariah. He studied under the direction of Shaikh Hasnavi, who was also a mentor of Dara’s future tutor, Mulla Mirak. Admirers and followers were always intruding on his spiritual practices and meditation, so he took to a life of wandering, traveling from Lahore to Sirhind, where he lived as a recluse, refusing all gifts, practicing the disciplines of the breath and practically going without sleep, according to information gathered by Dara Shikoh who wrote his biography. Dara much regretted not being able to take part in this last homage to the saint, but he claims that in a dream he did participate in the funeral. He was succeeded by his disciple Mullah Shah who is unknown today.

Dara Shikoh and his sister Jahanara became disciples of Mullah Shah. The first time the prince visited him, he went in disguise. Mullah Shah was meditating on a platform that he had placed on the branches of a tree. After asking Dara about what sort of teaching he had received so far and whom he had sought guidance from before this, the holy man accepted him as a murid, a disciple-cum-student. But when the prince revealed his identity, Mullah Shah became very angry and chased him away. Dara did not return and felt so humiliated that he wept for days afterwards. The dervish remained inflexible and refused to see him. Jahanara was most concerned at her brother’s distress. She wrote to the dervish, and he replied to her letters. In one of his letters he gave her an explanation of the Unity of God. Eventually, because of her pleas, the holy man decided to accept Dara as a murid again.

Dara’s sister, the better devotee

Jahanara owed her initiation to the Qadiria school to her brother Dara Shikoh for, as she writes, “In form and in spirit, we are in fact one soul in two bodies and one spirit in two physical forms.” The princess had already written a biography of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Munis al Arwah, and in 1640 she dedicated a new room at his mausoleum in Ajmer to the holy man whose disciple she was. It was thanks to him that she once had a revelation, which she describes in the following manner: “I am 27 years old and it is necessary for me to become a disciple of a perfect guide of any one of the orders, without further loss of time.”

Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunissa must have been impressed by Dara’s talent and depth of knowledge, but she might have observed that, however sublime these thoughts and ideals were, in real life his actions were quite the opposite. One of her father Aurangzeb’s cardinal principles was to set a personal example. Her uncle, Dara Shikoh, on the other hand would praise frugality but then adorn himself with jewels and display a most ostentatious lifestyle; he would speak of humility but his haughtiness was proverbial; he preached non-violence and spoke of the purity of love, but he prized his suit of armor inscribed with atavistic verses, and even his sword had a bragging epithet engraved on it. It was said that he loved his wife dearly, and he dedicated his book Muraqqa to her, mentioning her as “favorite” and “beloved.” However, there was a scandal at court when he had an affair with one of Shah Jehan’s favorite dancing-girls, Gul Safeh. He made no secret of his feelings, and at first Shah Jehan opposed the idea of his marrying her, but Dara managed to take advantage of a moment of weakness on his father’s part and obtained permission to marry her officially. Because she was only a dancing-girl, several members of the family tried to oppose her entry into the zenana. He nicknamed her ‘Rana Dil,’ and later, when Aurangzeb became emperor, she certainly remained faithful and proved worthy of her name.

Zebunissa, the rebel princess

What probably impressed Aurangzeb’s daughter Princess Zebunissa more than anything else, though, was that the king opened Akbar’s library to her. Of all the Timurids down the centuries, Aurangzeb was the one who was most keen on reading books and learning. It is known that he conducted a lot of research in this vast library. This collection of books impressed the adolescent girl immensely, and later she tried to build her own library to rival it. It was rich in Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Persian manuscripts which were indexed and filed in recesses, preserved in trunks, or placed in wooden or metal cylinders.

But the most controversial religious measure was the imposition of jazia in 1679. The history of this tax dates to before the conquest of Sindh by the Arabs. It was imposed only on non-Muslims, and its purpose was not so much financial as discriminatory. Akbar had abolished it. Even Shah Jehan did not restore it, although he implemented several other measures discriminatory to Hindus in respect of different dress and the use of alcoholic drinks.

Aurangzeb and his infamous ‘jazia’

Early in his reign, Aurangzeb had decreased the tax on goods for his Muslim subjects, partly to alleviate the burden on his co-religionists but also to encourage conversion. The Hindu population was already adversely affected: they had to pay 5 percent duty against only 2.5 percent for Muslims, and 20 percent on farm and orchard produce against 16 percent for Muslims. However, cunning merchants of the two communities subverted the law by using the difference to make extra profit, so Aurangzeb had to rescind this benefit for Muslims. Therefore he imposed jazia. Traveling historian Manucci explains that the purpose was, first, to pay for the cost of his military campaigns, and secondly, as for the previous concession, to encourage conversion. As jazia, rich Hindu merchants had to pay Rs. 30, the middle class Rs. 6, and the poor Rs. 3 each year; women and male children up to 14 years of age were exempt. There was a general outcry among the Hindus when it was imposed. Protesters even rioted in the capital and prevented Aurangzeb’s elephant from taking him to mosque for Friday prayers.

The emperor resisted all the appeals and pressures to rescind this tax, which was a heavy burden on the Hindu population. He defended his position by pointing out that he was not like his ancestor Jehangir, who passed his time amusing himself with poetry, games, and music, spending the empire’s money on himself. Aurangzeb claimed he took into consideration the personal difficulties of the taxpayers. The tax yielded big returns: in Gujarat, it represented 4.4 percent of the revenue of the province.

Jahanara opposes

Jahanara felt that this imposition was detrimental to the national interests of the empire and fervently appealed to her brother to revoke it. She drew an analogy for her brother Dara Shikoh, saying that Hindustan was like a vast ocean on which he and the royal family navigated a precarious course, and there was a danger that this measure would unleash waves that could drown them. “Sire, abandon this purpose,” she pleaded, “lest there be a rebellion in the kingdom.” The emperor, however, considered it his religious duty take this action against idol-worshippers. He remained adamant and turned his back on his sister, probably stifling a feeling of annoyance at her lack of regard for his religious sensibilities. Yet Jahanara had offered this advice sincerely, feeling genuinely apprehension of the outcome. Years of watching her father Shah Jahan rule, and even advising him, made her realize that the emperor would alienate the Hindus and lose the allegiance of the Rajputs. But she had done her best. No doubt she was thinking how different this brother of hers was from her father or brother Dara.

There was nothing more that she could do. Emperor Aurangzeb was already showing imperialistic designs on Jodhpur despite the alliance with the Rajputs. Hitherto, ever since Emperor Akbar had defeated them, the Mughals had always respected the rights of the Rajas over their respective states, but Aurangzeb had decided to repudiate this policy. Subsequently the princess’s fears were realized. The Rajputs abandoned Aurangzeb and tried to replace him with his son, Akbar.

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