–Agrah Pandit

The city of Bahraich contains majar of a semi-legendary Muslim figure who died fighting there in the name of Islam. The figure is of Saiyyad Salar Masud, the anti-hero in Amish Tripathi’s 2020 novel Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India. Islamic devotional literature eulogize him as Ghazi (martyr) who died fighting kafirs (infidels), and thus secured, as Muslims believe, a ticket to heaven and a rendezvous with 72 virgins. He is central to the legend of ‘Panchon Pir’ (five saints) venerated across religious divides in the North India.

The main source of information on this “Ghazi Miyan” is 17th century hagiography Mirat-i-Masudi, penned by Abdur Rahim Chishti. In this biography, Saiyyad Salar Masud is glorified as a nephew of the Ghaznavid invader Mahmud who accompanied him in his various expeditions of temple-breaking (including Somanth’s), mass conversion and rampant killings. Tutored by Mahmud Ghazni in fine arts of temple-breaking and book-burning, Masud went on to lead many such expeditions on his own as well, including destruction of temples and sacred suraj kund at Bahraich.

However, the legend of Masud pre-dates his 17th century biography. Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq, the hardcore Islamic zealot, considered himself to be Masud’s spiritual disciple. As testified by the historian Shams Siraj ‘Afif, Salar Masud appeared in the Sultan’s dream, told him to adopt a tougher policy with respect to the followers of other religions, to propagate Islam more persistently, as he will be held accountable on the day of the Judgement.

The Islamic legend goes that a local confederation of Hindu rajas led by Raja Suheldev finally defeated and “treacherously” killed this Turkic “warrior saint.”

In this article, I will examine the reason behind spinning of such a legend. I will further posit that this Masud may be no other than the hated Mahmud Ghazni himself or the like in his re-christened sufi avatar.

A Fanciful Legend?

First of all, as Shahid Amin in his Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan asserts, “hagiographical literature [Mirat-i-Masudi] maintains that he was the sister’s son of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, but that sultan who invaded India seventeen times during the early eleventh century had no such nephew: contemporary chronicles are clear on this score.” The sister of Mahmud, that is, the mother of Masud, is described by her fantastical name Sitr-i-Mualla (the ‘veiled one’). It is evident that the author in his hagiographical zeal has tried to link Masud to Mahmud Ghazni, the saber-rattler of the highest kind, in a clear attempt to put him on the pedestal of the most fanatic of warriors, and thus an inspiration to Muslims in the cause of Islam.

Secondly, this hagiography on Masud was written in early 17th century, that is, 600 years after the hypothesized killing of Masud. The author presents the book to have drawn from an eyewitness account of one Mulla Ghaznavi which itself is lost in history. As author Shahid Amin comments, “Mirat-i-Masudi is the only extant work on his life, and Mulla Muhammad’s Twarikh, on which it is purportedly based, is lost to history—if its very existence is not to be attributed to Abdur Rahman’s own, self-serving ‘historicist’ exertions alone!” The author Anna Suvorova, in her Muslim Saints of South Asia confirms the same that in early ţabaqat-i awliya there is absolutely no mention of Ghazi Miyan, whereas in later collections (for example, in Jawahir-i farıdı) he is called ‘patron of infidels’.

Thirdly, the author provides a variety of explanation to assert that the work, although penned by him more than 600 years after Masud’s killing and with no independent account, is still authentic. He claimed that his account of Masud was concurred by a Brahman who was well-versed in the works of Hindu historians. Abdur Rahman claims that it was none other than Saiyyad Salar Masud himself who appeared in a dream to him and exhorted him to write about him. This ‘pure spirit’ of the martyr hand-held him through the entire process of writing, narrating and clarifying the minute details of his life. Masud’s spirit even took him to Kaba and Mecca for confirmation! While returning from Mecca, he saw Masud as a direct descendant of Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. He also saw Masud emerging from the grave of the Prophet, then returning back to the site of his martyrdom in Bahraich. This imagination of being led/spoken by angels and holy spirit has been central to Islam’s story-telling since its very espousal. As this lends stamp of divinity to a narrative, it has been employed to serve a socio-political purpose.

Fourthly, writing in 17th century Abdur Rehman had clearly become part of national Muslim identity but such a sense must have evaded an early 11th century Muslim fanatic (if he at all existed) like Masud. Still, his biographer takes pains to paint him as an “Indian” hero. This “Indianised” warrior hero chews betel leaves, adores local mahua tree and savors wine produced from it, prefers ‘pure garments and fragrant essences’ like a cleanliness-conscious Brahmin, derives lineage—like a Brahmin of Indian society with most noble spiritual genealogical pedigree—directly from Ali, and ultimately pays with his own life to save “cows” from non-believer cattle rustlers. The virgin warrior-saint assumes Lord Ayappa like martial features and his bride-in-wait Zohra Bai acquires Radha-like character for a Krishna-like Ghazi as Ismat Chugtai’s Dil ki Duniya innocently suggested. He was no more a Turkic invader now but an Indian hero instead. The author even attributes following lines to Masud to prove his love for country:
Since we have come into India, not a day has passed at ease, or without trouble…Notwithstanding which I like the country and this country is agreeable and pleasant to me.

Nice attempt, not convincing though.

Fifthly, not even one contemporary writer has talked about this super-charismatic Masud. His biographer describes him as “a second Joseph,” “like Jacob,” “having the majestic awe of Prophet Mohammad,” “a youthful holy figure with a Jesus-like countenance, destined to ‘take possession of a country which has not fallen into the hands of any Musalman.’” Certainly, such a magnanimous persona could not have gone un-noticed. Yet, it goes un-noticed in the writing of any contemporary historian. Probably, this is how Islamic warrior-saints are manufactured.

Let’s examine two other major traditions of the “sainthood” of Masud: Urdu version and balladeer’s version.

Urdu Version of the Story

However, the definitive modern History of Masud came into Urdu by a certain Inayat Husain “yielding a picture of innate Muslim valour and timeless Hindu cowardice.” It was an account of ‘Hindu defeat’ at the hands of the forces of Islam in India, and the eventual martyrdom of Islamic heroes. Masud here is depicted unapologetically as an Islamic warrior, thus foregoing his sufi cover of the original biography. No labored effort to portray him as an harbourer of justice or a lover of cows. Sample this from the Urdu book which depicts condition of “coward” Hindus in a battle scene:

Haarne ke shagun par har-har karte aaye,
lashkar-i-Islam ko dekh kar kaleja tharraaye.
Kisi ke dil mein khauf sama gaya, kisi ko ghush aa gaya
Koi chillaya hamein bin khaaye raat bhar dast aaye,
dhoti kharaab hai, jaari peshaab hai,
yahaan hum kya banaate hain,
jhaare-jangal hokar bistar par jaate hain

( Hindus came in zeal while their destined defeat was pre-written.
But, they started shivering at the very sight of army of Islam.
They all started giving many excuses like they were suffering from loose motion, etc. and they started showing their backs to the believers)

Yet, he is a saint. Yet, he is venerated across religious divides. Yet, he is a martyr. Yet, this is our written and taught history!

Balladeer’s version

Local Muslim folklore, performed as ballads, accompanied by musical instrument dafali is the last major tradition of legend of “Gazi Miyan”. One such folklore says that a childless Yashoda (or Jaswa) who was married to Nand was infertile. But with the grace of Allah,—mediated through Masud’s intercession— she was blessed with a child named Kanhaiya. Quite original! Thus, a Hindu lord (Kanhaiya=Krishna) was made subservient to a Mohammadan fanatic gazi (the meaning of “gazi”, Islamic martyr, itself is abusive for non-Muslims).

Similarly, one Zohra Bai (raised in Teli caste) who was blind since her childhood re-gained her eyesight upon visit to the majar. One otherwise infertile Mamula is blessed with a child upon visit to Masud’s majar. Masud himself was born to a barren mother. The way his mother overcome that defect, Masud’s intercession was sought for the same. Many such people who benefitted from Ghazi’s miracles came under the fold of Islam. Sample one more couplet from balladeers (dafali-wallas):

Khule bhaagy Bahraich kay, jab basey Gaji Peer
bhaage yahaan se dev-daanav,
kaanpe sakal jameen / ki murat kalma sab parhin
(The fate smiles on Bahraich because Ghazi got martyred here. The traces of deity and demons [Hinduism] fade, the earth trembles as the non-believers’ idols themselves recite the Islamic credo.)

Such a noble soul of Masud ultimately is killed treacherously by a Hindu raja:
Hum to lubhaavan byaah mein, aapne lagaaya ghaat!
(“When I was busy in preparation of my marriage, they deceived and ambushed me”)

In a ludicrous narrative that must be familiar to people reading Islamic texts, the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) pays visits to Masud and brings forth and conveys Allah’s message to him, as per one ballad.

To seal the version of balladeers’, secularist Akbar Illahabadi advocated,
Saiyed ki sarguzasht ko Hāli se pūchiye,
Ghazi Miyan ka haal Dafali se puchhiye

(As Hali, his biographer, can tell about Sir Syed, authenticity of Gazi’s story lie in balladeer’s tradition).

The import of such glorification of martyrdom of Ghazi should be now self-evident.

Real Masud

It is not to say some Masud did not exist. Masud or a fanatic iconoclast, of whatever real name subsequently addressed as Masud (“fortunate one”), must have existed. He might have formed part of contingent of Mahmud Ghazni in his temple-breaking missions and ultimately would have been killed by a local confederation led by a local Raja. One more possibility I tentatively posit that he may be a “sufi” version of the dreaded Mahmud Ghazni himself or the like. This sufi version was more appealing and useful to sufi saints when Turkiyana (Sword of Islam) and Sufiyana (Islam’s softer side) were vying for political space.

As Professor Habib proclaims ‘such limited success as Islam achieved in India’ as a proselytising force ‘was not due to its kings and politicians but to its saints.’ And if not there one already, such noble and multi-cultural saints had to be ‘creatively’ spun.

Hindus and Muslims fighting a common British army too found such syncretic, however imaginary, saints useful as did post-Independence Nehruvian India. Although wanton fanatic “Ghazis” like Mahmud Ghazni can form part of a shared history in Islamic countries like Pakistan,—which even has a missile named Ghaznavi— such a figure could never have appealed to wider audience of Hindus and Muslims alike. Therefore, a “noble” Mahmud or Gouri or Aurangzeb in a new package of Masud or the like, having a condescending connection with Lord Krishna, and who dies protecting cows, is promoted.

This strange phenomena of revering the very people who oppressed Hindus most also had puzzled the 1891 Census Commissioner, who was bemused no end at the Hindus venerating the very tormentors like Masud Gazi as beneficient divinities who once subjugated them.

Officer D. C. Bailee commented on Gazi Miyan’s cult that the cult ‘probably spread through its early adoption by low caste converts [to Islam] who … found their gods … [whom] they had abandoned … in the dead heroes, whom genuine Muhammadans reverenced as martyrs who had fallen on behalf of their faith’.

This strange phenomenon further bewildered the British Resident in Awadh, William Sleeman, who commented, “strange to say, Hindoos as well as Mahommedans make offerings to this shrine, and implore the favours of this military ruffian, whose only recorded merit consists of having sent a great many Hindoos to hell, in a wanton and unprovoked invasion of their territory”

The cult of Warrior-Saints

Muzaffar Alam in The Languages of Political Islam argues that glorification of such saints was often fabricated. Such a fabricated account was a political necessity to over-compensate for a founding head’s politically incorrect dealings with kings, or to launch him as an Indian prophet (Nabi-yi-Hind). Since, the post of prophet-ship was closed with Muhammad’s declaration of himself as the final prophet, therefore, these warrior-saints aspired at least as Indian prophet.

The cult of ghazi or warrior-saints, observes Anna Suvorova, was particularly developed in medieval Bengal. Jalaluddin Tabrizi’s proselytizing efforts amongst the Bengalis invariably involved sword of Islam. His proselytizing mission was continued by “Saint” Shah Jalal in East Bengal, who uleashed a major armed Jihad against the local populace. “In Bengal the saint’s army indulged in pillage to such an extent that the riches looted in the course of this expedition were enough to sustain Shah Jalal’s comfortable life for many years,” she observes further. Today Shah Jalal’s majar in Sylhet (Bangladesh) is a place of “pilgrimage”.

The historical presence of warrior Sufis is traceable to the military campaigns from the late thirteenth century by armies of the Sultanate of Delhi, argues Richard Eaton in his The Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700.

However, such a synchronization of Sufiyana and Turkiyana, or the ‘hermetically cloistered figures of rosary-fondling Sufis (saints)’ and fanatic ghazis (warriors), even when invoked to the cause a shared socio-politico hisotry, still produces bad history, argues author Shahid Amin.

Distorted History

Hindi poet Bharatendu Harishchandra got it right when he said “Jin jāvanān tuv dharam nari dhan tinhon līnhon” (You Muslim invaders! You have robbed us of our dharma, women and wealth.) But he forgot to mention memory—the traumatic collective memory which we either were equally robbed of or we ourselves barred as defensive mechanism.

The legend of warrior-saint Masud belongs to Stockholm Syndromish narrative. A slaughterer of cows who had amassed cows for feasting on his marriage eve was depicted as a cow protector. Recourse to well-trenched folklore over the longue durée and 17th century text has been employed to re-inforce his image of a tolerant, cow-protecting and a secular hero by Muslim-Marxist historians.

Feeling Déjà vu? Yeah, this is a familiar narrative wherein Kathak’s golden era was during the Mughals, almost all the Indian musical instruments and music is primarily attributable to Muslims, the custom of Rakhi was started by the Muslims, the custom of kite-flying was given to us by Muslims, temples and native women (rakhi bhai) were protected by Muslims, the art of fine dine was brought to us by Arabs, etc., In fact anything civilized and noble in India is traceable to Muslims and later to Europeans. The above-mentioned examples of attribution of anything noble to invaders is not something done in the past; it is being done in the present, in our generation.

If the history is being changed blatantly right here, right now, right before our eyes, in our own very generation then think of a time of yoke when Indic traditions and religions were actively suppressed and the history belonged solely to the victor. This victor’s History (history with a capital H) replaced the history as it was. Gradually, the history of a subjugated and oppressed past was forgotten or the psychology devised a defensive mechanism against the historical trauma. As a result, the likes of Masuds, the perpetrators, were owned up both by local Hindus and Muslims as their own.

The alternative history of Raja

Suheldev’s bravery was revived by Arya Samaj and the veneration of Gazi was sought to be put into historical context. It could not meet a total success though. With Amish Tripathi’s 2020 novel Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India, the long-suppressed subaltern’s point of view is there to find audience.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.