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a blog for writings and translations concerning South Asian Islamic discourse

A critique of Zaytuna College’s recent piece on Hinduism — part 1: falsely citing Sayyid Mir ‘Abd al-Wahid Bilgrami

Sayyid Mir ‘Abd al-Wahid Bilgrami (d. 1017/1608) was a normative Sunni Hanafi Chishti Sufi of the Mughal period. The Hanafi scholars of South Asia, such as the ulama of Marehra, honour the Sayyid as a staunch and orthodox ‘alim of the religion.

In a recent piece on Hinduism by Dr. Ankur Barua (published in Renovatio on the Zaytuna College website), one reads:  “Around this time, in his Haqā’iq-i Hindī, Mīr Abdul Wāhid Bilgrāmī (d. 1569) suggested allegorical readings of Kṛṣṇa as the reality of a human being, the cowherd women (gopīs) as angels, the Yamuna and the Ganges as the sea of unity (wahdat) and the ocean of gnosis (ma’rifat), and the flute of Kṛṣṇa as the appearance of being out of nonbeing.” Apart from getting the date of his passing wrong, Barua cites no source for his claim at all, which is appalling. Furthermore, he does not mention that the only extant Persian manuscript of the work (preserved in Aligarh) dates to around 150 years after the passing of the shaykh. Thus, despite what some academics claim (e.g., Pauwels in EI3), the work cannot be reliably attributed to Sayyid Mir ‘Abd al-Wahid Bilgrami.  

The Aligarh manuscript of the Hada’iq is dated to 1756, and is neither edited nor published. It was translated into Hindi by Syed Athar Abbas Rizvi, but of course a translation is not reliable, and especially not one by a man like Syed Athar Abbas Rizvi, whose syncretic presuppositions about Hindu and Muslim religiosity are well known.  As even Pauwels remarks, “How much is the result of his Hineininterpretierung, and how much is original? This is particularly problematic as the translator, A. A. Rizvi, is a staunch defender of the idea that Muslim and Hindu mysticism are essentially the same” (“A Sufi listening to Hindi religious poetry”). She adds in EI3, “Ḥaqāʾiq-i hindī … is often mis-characterized as an example of ‘syncretism.’ This misconception is for a large part due to the translation and interpretation of the influential scholar of Sufism, A. A. Rizvi.”

In reality, it is baseless to attribute the work to Sayyid Mir ‘Abd al-Wahid Bilgrami. Furthermore, Rizvi’s translation is unreliable.

It is also important to note the following: if, at any point in his life, Sayyid Bilgrami was fond of using Hindi poetry, this (a) does not mean he had any Perennialist inclinations (he would have just been using them as stock images drawn from local folklore, as opposed to making any dogmatic assertion about soteriological pluralism) and, (b) he clearly left all this in his later life. As ‘Abd al-Qadir Badayuni remarks in his Muntakhab, “He used to formerly … sing ecstatic songs in Hindi … but he is now past all this” (3:106). Furthermore, ‘Abd al-Qadir Badayuni doesn’t even make mention of the Hada’iq in his history, nor does Abu al-Fazl, who instead says that Sayyid Mir ‘Abd al-Wahid Bilgrami could not “pass beyond the … sphere of naql”—in other words, he was one who strongly held to the Qur’an and Sunna! While Abu al-Fazl critiques him for this, this is in reality a great compliment to the shaykh, and evidence of his firmness upon orthodoxy.

Finally, it is worth noting that even the extant Hada’iq—which, as noted, cannot be attributed to the Sayyid—says: “O Allāh … let me die as a Muslim.” It is strange that Barua did not refer to this emphatic assertion in his essay. He describes the Hada’iq as an example of “seeking symbolic equivalences between the Qur’an and Hindu scriptural visions.” What he should have added is that even the author of this work (which is not Sayyid Mir) hopes to die a Muslim, a clear assertion of his belief in the abrogation of other religions.

Thus, far from giving the full picture about the great and orthodox shaykh, Barua sloppily gives an un-cited reference and makes no mention of the ‘alim’s views at the end of his life. Taken together, his essay may lead some to wrongly presume the Sayyid was a Perennialist when, of course, he was not one.


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