He was the son of Saiyid Shihabu'd-Din, the governor of Hamadan. Popularly known in Kashmir as Shah-i Hamadan, Saiyid 'Ali was born at Hamdan on 12 Rajab, 714/ 22 October 1314. His genealogy is traceable to the family of the fourth Caliph , Hazrat 'Ali. He received early education from his maternal uncle, 'Ala'u'd-Dawla, a pious Sufi, who is sometimes confused with the distinguished erudite Sufi scholar, 'Ala'u'd-Dawla Simnani. Initiated into the Kubrawiyya order by Shaikh Sharafu'd-Din Mahmud Nizamu'd-Din Muzdaqani, he received further spiritual guidance from Shaikh 'Ala'u'd-Dawla Simnani's disciples __ Shaikh Najmu'd-Din Muhammad Adkani Isfra'ni, Akhi Muhammad Dahistani and Abu'l-Barkat Taqiu'd-Din 'Ali Dusti __ at the suggestion of his murshid. Prior to the death of 'Ala'u'd-Dawla Simnani in 1336, Saiyid 'Ali reached the khanqah of 'Ala'u'd-Dawla Simnani and completed his spiritual education under him.
Saiyid 'Ali seems to have met Saiyid Ashraf Jahangir at the khanqah of 'Ala'u'd-Dawla Simnani. Both travelled together for some time before reaching India. Ashraf Jahangir was first to reach India while 'Ali Hamadani before his arrival deputed his cousins, Saiyid Husain Simnani and Saiyid Taju'd-Din, to Kashmir. Finding the situation in the Valley congenial for his spiritual mission, Saiyid 'Ali reached Srinagar during the reign of Sultan Qutbu'd-Din (1373-89).
It is difficult to determine the exact dates of Saiyid 'Ali's arrival in Kashmir in view of the conflicting evidence furnished by an earlier available source. Thus while the author of Tarikh-i Kashmir gives 786/1384-85 as the date of his arrival, simultaneously he refers to a chronogram (maqdam sharif baju) of Saiyid Muhammad Khawari which gives the date of the Sufi's arrival as 785/1383-84. It would be seen that in either case Saiyid 'Ali Hamadani stayed in the Valley for less than a year.
Accorded a warm welcome by the reigning Sultan and his officials on his arrival in Srinagar, Saiyid 'Ali took up his residence at an inn in the newly founded part of the city called 'Ala'u'd-Din Pura. A raised platform was constructed there for the purpose of prayers which were also joined by the Sultan.
Seven hundred Saiyids are said to have accompanied Saiyid 'Ali to Kashmir. The same number which has been used for the companions of other Sufis, including Makhdum-i Jahaniyan, though mythical, nonetheless, points to the seminal role played by Saiyid 'Ali and his disciples in the dissemination of Islamic teachings in Kashmir.
Far from bringing about the radical Islamisation of the Sultanate of Kashmir and society, Saiyid Ali's success lay in creating an ambience for the orderly evolution of Shari'ah consciousness or what may termed Shari'ah-oriented culture. His main concern was to ensure the viability of the Shari'ah by making it intelligible through reforming the behaviour of the sultan and the ruling elite. In this respect, Sultan Qutbu'd-Din's reconversion to Islam provides the best example of the seminal role played by Saiyid Ali in generating Shari'ah consciousness first among the elite rather than Kashmiri masses who were separated from him by barriers of linguistic communication. What is, however, of significance to emphasise is that during several centuries of Islamic acculturation Kashmiris established their own channels of communication with the khanqah of Saiyid Ali in intrinsically distinctive local forms.
Although Saiyid Ali was deep-rooted in the Shari'ah and Sunnah, his chief mission in the Valley was not to enforce the religious law through the state machinery. Had he urged Sultan Qutbu'd-Din to use force for radical Islamisation of the society and the state, the caste-conscious Brahman chroniclers would have expressed their anger, both against the king and his spiritual master. The very fact that they maintained an intriguing silence about Saiyid Ali and his historical role points to a certain degree of solemnity and sensitivity characterising his mission. The Saiyid's primary objective was to sensitise the ruler and a tiny minority of his Muslim subjects in respect of following the Shari'ah in personal matters. This does not, however, mean that the state had nothing to do with the Shari'ah. As a matter of fact, he paid great attention to its function in ordering society through the exemplary behaviour of the ruler and the 'ulama. In his emphasis on following the Shari'ah, the focus was both on the role of the individual and society, the eternal and the historical, and, above all, the state of man's heart and behaviour rather than on the state. He thought the Shari'ah important as a private discipline concerned with one's soul or self (nafs) and actions guiding the person towards both transcendent and societal fulfilment. Shari'ah, as such, was not an abstract idea but an idea in operative practice.
The advent of Saiyid Ali Hamadani in Kashmir along with his disciples was part of the well-thought-out mission of the Sufis of Kubrawiyya order to bring about the Islamic orientation of various independent sultanates that existed in Central Asia and Persia. A careful study of Saiyid Ali's magnum opus, Zakhirat al-Muluk, and a bunch of his letters (maktubat) addressed to Muslim rulers brings out the importance of his historical mission more as a Sufi scholar, teacher and missionary rather than as a radical reformer or revolutionary of Islam. What is of significance to emphasise is that Saiyid Ali had the intuitive ability to grasp the ethos of various cultures that he encountered during his extensive travels. While he did not want the rulers to impose the Shari'ah from above, it was his life-long mission to guide the rulers within the broader framework of the Shari'ah. This explains the fact that the concept of Shari'ah in his thought emerges as a never-ceasing concern of the ruler for the welfare of his subjects irrespective of religious differences. Although he uses the phraseology of believers and unbelievers in the context of Islam, he brings home the eternal fact that the Creator makes no distinction in showering His bounties on all creatures. Thus, the Muslim ruler is repeatedly advised to render justice (adl) and beneficence (ihsan) to his subjects on the basis of divine wisdom. According to Saiyid Ali, only such a ruler deserves to be called the deputy or the shadow of God on earth or the successor of the Merciful as constantly endeavours to enforce the Shari'ah within the unbounded limits of its adl and ihsan. He is severely critical of a ruler who, guided by baser instincts or whims, violates the principles of tolerance and equity enshrined in the Shari'ah. He denounces such a ruler as the deputy of the enemy of God (naib-i dajjal). The sine qua non of Saiyid Ali's exhortations to Muslim rulers is a constant struggle, through personal piety, for establishing a welfare state on the social ethics of the Shari'ah. His aims is not to make Islam subservient to the political interests of the state; rather it is to make the state serve the universalist aims of din, namely, moral and social uplift of mankind through spiritual guidance and philanthropy. This is the reason that the sultans not only accorded warm welcome to the Kubrawiyya Sufis but also encouraged them to settle in the Valley as forces of social stability.
Although the Kubrawiyya Sufis__ Taju'd-Din, and particularly, Husain Simnani__seem to have exercised appreciable social influence at the grass root level, same is not true of their illustrious cousin, Saiyid Ali Hamadani. Being essentially a supreme leader of a great mission, Saiyid Ali was always on the move travelling from one place to another. During the course of his extensive travels he met Sufis, kings, nobles and dignitaries. Notwithstanding the exemplary concern shown by Saiyid Ali for the welfare of commoners in Zakhirat al-Muluk and Maktubat, he does not seem to have enough time to establish contact with the masses for three reasons. First, his discourses were intended for the rulers on the one hand and for seekers in the Sufi Path (tariqa) on the other. Such discourses together with the spiritual tenor of his works were beyond the comprehension of commoners. Second, most of his time was spent in writing books, guiding rulers and the nobles through personal discourses and disciples. Saiyid Ali himself seems to have been conscious of the challenges to which his mission was exposed. Not only does he refer to the dearth of 'ulama capable of consecrating themselves for the good of mankind but he even hints at the unholy alliance between rulers and ulama for serving their selfish mundane interests. Added to his is his explicit statement that it was beyond the comprehension of his contemporaries to understand the depths of his thought or mission, and that such a task would be accomplished only a century after his death.
Historically, however, Saiyid Ali did not leave Kashmir without making a considerable social impact. During his brief stay in the Valley, lasting less than a year, Saiyid Ali interacted with Sultan Qutbu'd-Din, nobles, the Brahman ascetic, his Muslim followers and sundry Brahmans. Unfortunately, his contemporary biographer, Nuru'd-Din Badakshi, does not refer to his missionary activities in the Valley. Nevertheless, Saiyid Ali's letters on the eve of his departure from Kashmir do give us an idea of his role in the Valley. His two letters, addressed to Sultan Qutbu'd-Din, from Pakhli may be described as a testament to the skill and dedication of his historical role in the Valley. In the first letter, written in all humility, Saiyid Ali presents a sad picture of contemporary adherents of Islam in contrast to Muslims of the first century hijra (suhaba and taabin). While he implicitly points to the ulamas' failure in captivating the hearts of non-Muslims by the nobility of their actions, simultaneously, his humility exalts the true Brahman and his idol to such an extent that he versifies his sentiments thus:
If the Brahman peeps into my (inner)
he will turn me out of his sight;
In that he would not allow a wicked man
like me to present myself before the idol.
Saiyid Ali's praise for the Brahman and the idol can be understood only in the context of the sultans' respect for the religious beliefs of their Brahman subjects. The letter was written in the wake of his departure from the Valley; so it is more than an advice to the ruler whom he had enrolled as his disciple. Since neo-Muslims were bound to follow in the footsteps of their ruler, it was therefore necessary to revitalise the sultan's consciousness in tawhid, Shari'ah and haqiqa. What further necessitated the renewal of such consciousness was the challenge to which the somewhat nascent faith of the sultan and his Muslim subjects was exposed to in the polytheistic environment of the Brahmans and sorcers masquerading as spiritual leaders. Signifianctly, Saiyid Ali does not dub the Brahman but his self as kafir. In a true manner of the Sufi, the Saiyid is critical of the Brahman's baser self (nafs-i kafir) rather than of his belief in God. It is the Brahman's outward faith in the idol as a seeker after the truth that elicits the Saiyid's praise. But then without ridiculing the Brahman, he expounds his argument in the light of the general tendency of the self (nafs) to follow such people as have been led astray by their own ignorance. What is therefore necessary is to dispel the mist of ignorance through the recognition of ones own self. Saiyid Ali further advises the sultan to feel repentant over his past sins and invoke the help of the Creator (rather than the created) so that Allah's mercy envelopes him despite his failings.
While the thrust of the first letter is on self-discovery through repentance, God recognition through self-realisation and self-regeneration through observation, in another letter, the sultan is advised to fulfil his duties towards his subjects on the basis of equity and justice. Not only is the government expected to play a reformatory role within the encompassing limits of the Shari'ah to maintain balance in social life between the privileged (khas) and commoners ( 'am), but it is also obligatory on it to protect the weak against the strong. Saiyid Ali's concern for the Shari'ah in the context of Kashmiris' medley of religious beliefs is particularly evident in his instruction to the sultan to prevent transgression of its limits in a state of ignorance or darkness (zulmat) and innovation (bidat). It is against this background that the importance of the mission of the prophets and ulama is brought home to the sultan. Significantly, the Saiyid does not teach blind adherence to the Shari'ah, but regards the judicious use of reason (aql) as the guiding principle for creating the Shari'ah consciousness in order to distinguish humans from animals for the greater good of mankind.
A careful examination of Saiyid Ali's letters brings home to us their purport in both spiritual and social sense. He did not stand for the radical Islamisation of Kashmiri society but for the diffusion of tawhidic and Shari'ah consciousness among the commoners through the example of his disciples, including both the kings and nobles. That Islam in Kashmir owed a great deal to his concern for human welfare can hardly be denied.
Saiyid Ali's historical role in Kashmir rests on three essential factors, viz; his encounter with the Brahman ascetic; relations with the sultan, and above all, his intuitive ability to seek the assimilation of commoners in Islam through the Awrad-i Fathiyya. What is of crucial importance to stress is that the mode of recitation of the prayer, now popular in every nook and corner of the Valley, was adapted to the forms of local religious culture without distorting the essential spirit of the Shari'ah. But it must be emphasized that the Saiyid's encounter with the Brahman ascetic was a public rather than a mysterious affair. The sight of Muslims visiting temple must have caused a great deal of concern to him. However, far from getting the temple demolished he got a platform (suffa) raised near it. It was here that the Saiyid performed religious duties along with his disciples. Not only was he able to attract Sultan Qutbu'd-Din to offer prayers in congregation, but he even enrolled him as his disciple. The sultan, himself a poet, acknowledged his gratitude to his spiritual mentor in some Persian verses composed by him.
The sultan's participation in the religious assemblies is attested to not only in the Persian chronicles, but even in a valuable document bearing the seal of Saiyid Ali Hamadani, and preserved in the Khanqah -i Mu'alla. His Muslim subjects, concentrated in the city, must have also joined the religious congregations held near the temple. One significant feature of these assemblies was the recitation of Awrad-i Fathiyya aloud in chorus. Significantly, the awrad was compiled in such a manner as to embody the spiritual as well as the mundane aspirations of the people at the crossroads. Instead of taking a narrow view of the religious susceptibilities of the Kashmiris, the Saiyid showed acute mental discernment and keen practical sense in grasping the essential elements of popular culture and ethos and gave a creative expression to these in enjoining his followers to recite the awrad aloud in chorus.
The purpose of the Saiyid in permitting the sultan and his Muslim subjects to publicly glorify Allah's Majesty and invoke His help must have been two-fold. First, it was to subdue the Brahman ascetic by weaning his followers from him and his temple; and, it must have been also to attract non-Muslims towards Islam through prayers, which resulted into developing the highest emotional aptitude. That the Saiyid succeeded in his first aim during his sojourn in Srinagar is testified to by documentary evidence; and that the regular practice of reciting awrad aloud in chorus in early hours of morning and in evening played a significant role in moulding mentalities, sensibilities, perceptions, dispositions and beliefs over subsequent periods of Kashmir history can hardly be denied. Not only did the recitation of awrad gain favour in various Sufi but even Pandit Srivara, as already stated, seems to have been fascinated by the loud prayers of the faithful in the Jam'a mosque of Srinagar.
Satisfied with the initial success of his mission, Saiyid 'Ali seems to have left Kashmir before the onset of winter season in 1384. On reaching Kunar in the neighbourhood of Pakhli, situated in the north-west of Kashmir, he remained the guest of its ruler at the latter's request for some days. Following illness that struck him in Kunar, Saiyid 'Ali died on 6 Zu'l-Hijja 786/19 January 1385 at the age of 73. His body had to be carried to Khattalan, now in Tajkistan, where the burial took place on 25 Jumadu'l-Awwal 787/14 July 1385.
Notwithstanding an overexaggeration that Saiyid 'Ali wrote 170 books, he was a prolific writer and probably authored not less than 50 works. Most of these are short instructional booklets (isharat) or essays expounding Sufi technical terms (istilahat) or collections of awrad. He wrote commentaries on the'Awarif al-Ma'rif and Adab al-Muridin. He translated the Fusus al-Hikam of Ibn al-'Arabi into Persian. His Zakhiratu'l-Muluk is an important work. Its essential purpose is to guide Muslim rulers in the discharge of their duties towards their subjects in the light of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The essence of the Saiyid's admonitions to rulers __ inadequately brought home in the modern assessment of his work __ is his concern for rendering equitable justice, irrespective of religious differences. While nine chapters of the book mainly focus on religious, social and ethical issues, only one chapter is devoted to the government and its obligations towards subjects.
His other works include Risala-i Futuwwa, Risala-i Dah Qa'ida, Maktubat, Mir'atu'l- Tai'bin, Risala-i Khawatirya, Minhaju'l-'Arifin, Mashariqu'l-Anwar, Sharh-i Asma'i-Husna, Sairu'l-Talibin, Risal-i Zikriya, Chihil-Maqamat-i Sufiya etc. The poetical compositions of Saiyid 'Ali are entitled the Chihl-Asrar.
( Formerly Professor and Head, Department of History and Dean Academics of Kashmir, an internationally recognized scholar on Sufi Traditions of Kashmir and History of Kashmir. Author of over a dozen of books )