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The Muslim Saints of Maharashtra

Mention should be made of the Muslim saints of Maharashtra. Little is known of this aspect of the Maharashtrian religious tradition. However it is clear that some Muslim Marathas also achieved their union with the Divine, and were accepted as such by contemporary saints. The Muslims entered the Deccan (much of which later became Maharashtra) with the defeat of the Yadavas of Devagiri in 1296. The Muslim rulers dominated that area continuously until the end of the seventeenth century. Over the centuries of co-existence, the two communities (now known as Muslims and Hindus) learnt to co-exist, and that included respect for the holy men in each community, resulting in many yogis and Sufis being known by two names, one from each community. (Wagle 1989; Duncan and Van Skyhawk 1997; Deak 2010, 2013, 2016)

 Chand Bodhle was a sixteenth century Muslim mystic who seems to have been the teacher of Jnanardan Swami (the guru of Eknath) and of Sheikh Mahammad. Also known as Sayed Candasaheb Kadiri. It is likely that Eknath chose to amend his spiritual lineage through Jnanardana to the Hindu God, Dattatreya, to avoid the displeasure of the Hindu orthodoxy. (Van Skyhawk 1992; Deak 2005, 2010, 2016).  

It should be noted also that there is a tradition in Marathi texts of representing Dattatreya as a fakir, or Muslim holy man, which suggests a “sophisticated Sankritisation of Islamic holy men” by some religious groups. Other groups may have adopted this form for the “Islamization of the followers of holy men.” (Deak 2010). Several of the Nath yogis in Maharashtra have Muslim names and are identified as Muslim holy men. An example would be Gahini Nath who is also known as Gaibi Pir. (Duncan and Van Skyhawk 1997:409-410).

  Latif Shah  was a sixteenth century Muslim who become a follower of the great Eknath and a devout Vaishnava. Biographical detail is sparse. There are mentions of Latif Shah in the writings of two of the 18th century pandits. Moropant, in his Sanmani Male, notes that Latif was admired by Tukaram. Mahipati, in his Bhaktivijaya, records a miracle involving Latif and a Muslim king. (Kulkarnee 1989:226-227). Of Latif’s own compositions, only three Hindi poems and one Marathi poem have been identified. In one of the Hindi poems Latif mentions previous devotees of Lord Rama, and records his worship of Rama and Krishna. His surviving Marathi poem is a castigation of hypocrisy, ritualistic religion and objects of worship. (Kulkarnee 1989:227).  
 Sheikh Mahammad (1560-1650), a contemporary of Tukaram and Ramdas, is the best known of the Muslim Marathi saints, and is regarded as the Marathi reincarnation of Kabir due to a similarity of views regarding unnecessary rituals and blind faith amongst ordinary men. (Kulkarnee 1989:218; Pathan 1983:296). He was born into the family of Syed Raja Mahammad, the qiladar (governor) of Dharur, a fort that changed hands several times in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, finally falling to the Muslim general Azam Khan in 1631. Raja Mahammad was a member of the Qadiriya order of Sufis. He entrusted the education of his son to his disciple, Chand Bodhle. (Kulkarnee 1989:218; disputed by Deak 2013).

 Shekh Mahammad was associated for most of life with the city of Shrigonda, part of the Ahmadnagar district of Maharashtra, where he was given land by one of the local Maratha chieftains. His descendents still live in this city and are custodians of his tomb. (Deak 2013). Sheikh Mahammad’s major work is the Yogasangrama, written towards the end of his life in 1645. In this text he describes the soul as the warrior in a war of yoga or yog-sangram who has to fight against the ego and other vices. If successful in this war, the soul reaches the summit, the brahman sikhar, and this is the end of the yog-sangram. In the Yogasangrama‘s eighteen chapters Sheikh Mahammad accepts the Hindu Gods Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha. He criticizes both the ritualism of Hindu Brahmanism and the bizarre practices involved in the worshipping of the local folk-gods and goddesses. (Pathan 1983:295; Wagle 1989:57-58).

 In the collection of his padas and abhangas, known as the Kavitasangraha, Sheikh Mahammad says of himself:

 Through the grace of (god) Gopala, I have transgressed all notions of purity and impurity.
The jack-fruit has a thorny skin, but inside it are lumps of sugar.
The bee-hive with all its humming bees contains the very nectar inside.
(So also) Sheikh Mahammed may be an avindha,
But in his heart he has the very Govinda. (CML 378)

 Sheikh Mahammad taught that spiritual knowledge and enlightenment was beyond caste, creed or religion, and he castigated ritualistic religion and cruel social practices. He was respected by both Hindus and Muslims, and had Hindu disciples from various classes, including Dayaldas Devang, a weaver in Kannada, and Raghunath Yogi, who have written about him. His son Davalji and his grandson Hakimji composed verses in his praise. Samartha Ramdas composed a verse about him. (Kulkarnee 1989:219) Sheikh Mahammad wrote mainly in Marathi. His compositions in Hindu, Urdu and Persian have also survived.

  Shah Muni (c.1756-1807) was a Muslim bhakti poet who emerged in the third quarter of the century. He was of the fourth generation in his family to follow Hindu traditions in addition to their Muslim faith. He had a deep knowledge of the Vedas, the Puranas and other Sanskrit texts which enabled him to make insightful comments on Hindu popular and brahmanic religion. He also had a knowledge of Mahanubhava doctrines. Shah Muni had a guru, Munindra Swami, a sannyasi of the Datta Sampradaya, who blessed him in Varanasi in about 1779. He is best known for his monumental work, the Siddhanta Bodha, which contains 50 chapters with 9858 verses, and was probably completed in 1794. It contains a mixture of Mahanubhava teachings, advaita philosophy, and Puranic stories. There are also Varkari bhakti influences, and evidence that Shah Muni held Kabir in high esteem. He was against the caste system and its hierarchy. (Wagle 1989; Kulkarnee 1989:223-224; Pathan 1983:298)

(extract from John Noyce,  The Saints of Maharashtra)

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