Sharafuddin, the Pilgrim

Sharafuddin was born about the year 1290 to a pious couple in a village called Sharafuddin near the modern town of Patna. He began his education when he was four years, four months and four days’ old.  Later, he went to Sonargaon in Bengal for his further Studies in the Sacred Scripture of Muslims: the Quran. Sharafuddin returned to his hometown in 1323. He did not stay home for long. The yearning of his heart was too great for him to settle down quietly in Maner. He felt the need for guidance along the Path to God. He set out for Delhi with his elder brother, Khaliluddin. There, he met Nizamuddin Auliya, the famous Sufi of his times. Sharafuddin was impressed by the holiness of Nizamuddin. However, he did not feel called to become his disciple.  Then, he called upon Bu Ali Qalandar of Panipat and found this Sufi (Muslim saint) was lost in ecstasy most of the times. Sharafuddin was not keen on taking him as his guide. He was disappointed and almost decided to return home. His brother, however, encouraged him and took him to Sheikh Najibuddin Firdausi. Out of consideration for his brother, he agreed to visit him as a last attempt to find a spiritual guide for himself in Delhi. He was quite unexpectedly overcome emotionally at this meeting and was deeply affected by it.  Without the slightest hesitation, he asked to become his disciple. Sharafuddin stayed in Delhi about eight years.  He remained with Sheikh Najibuddin Firdausi till the latter’s death.


Shortly after the death of his guide, Sharafuddin left Delhi. Way back home, instead of entering his home town, he veered off into the jungle of Bihia.  He wanted to give himself wholly to the pursuit of union with God. After living a brief period of complete isolation, he moved to a cave in Rajgir, in Bihar, besides a spring. This spring is known even to this day as ‘Makhdam Kund’. He began to go to nearby Bihar for Friday congregational prayers that enabled people to meet him easily. At times, he felt it irksome to receive many visitors requesting his intercession with the local administrator. A visiting shaikh, however, advised him not to hesitate to take up the ‘burden of people’.  Sharafuddin eventually moved to Bihar town and helped people by writing recommendation letters on their behalf to administrators and guided many seekers in the ways of God.

Sharafuddin dictated a number of letters on various spiritual topics on the request of Qazi Shamsuddin, the Governor of Chausa in western Bihar throughout the year 1346-1347 CE. These letters were copied and compiled by Zain Badr Arabi. The Hundred Letters gained fame within Sufi circles of Bihar and elsewhere.  The royals, too, paid attention to the teachings of this spiritual genius. Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq (d. 1351) asked for further advice on some points that were raised in The Hundred Letters. The Indo-Persian Mughal elite read The Hundred Letters that had been copied for their reading and thus were undoubtedly influenced by The Hundred Letters.

‘Seekers of God’ as Pilgrims

Sharafuddin portrays ‘seekers of God’ as pilgrims. Pilgrims are on the path that leads towards God.  A pilgrim is not a tourist. A tourist stops and often gets lost in the beauty of what he sees on the way. A pilgrim, however, is focussed on the destination. The end is of prime importance for him. Pilgrims have to traverse the spiritual wilderness towards their destination all by themselves. Sharafuddin warns seekers to be aware of many obstacles on the way. He compares obstacles to a band of robbers who lie in wait to plunder travellers. He cautions them to keep a sharp eye on the pitfalls. He instructs them not to be lost on what they saw on the way. He advocates the need of a spiritual guide for pilgrims.

Faith that inspires one to become a pilgrim

Why should a pilgrim burn boats behind and take a journey to uncertainty? A pilgrim sets out since he thirsts for more in life. What gives him the assurance to enable him to take such risk, the risk of taking a journey to uncertainty? ‘Faith’, answers Sharafuddin poignantly. Sharafuddin teaches that it is faith that inspires one to become a pilgrim. Faith shows the way to God. The grace of God stirs the heart of persons to don the pilgrim’s grab. God alone calls person for this journey. The initiative lies with God.  Only those who yearn for more can respond to the invitation and set out for the pilgrim journey.  Once on the pilgrim journey, one never knows for sure when the grace of God will come and sweep the person towards Himself. Anyone who sets upon this journey on his own succumbs to temptations of austerities which may result in pride or even loss of faith. God’s invitation never comes to an ignorant person. Sharafuddin tell that all baseness could be traced back to ignorance!

Pilgrim should trust God absolutely

Sharafuddin teaches that the pilgrim should trust God absolutely. He gives the following graphic illustration to drive home his point. Imagine a person who is fully aware of his sinfulness and hears a heavenly voice that proclaims that only one person would enter heaven. The sinful person believes that he is that only person!  That is ‘trust in God’. It is relying upon God fully without any reserve. Sharafuddin explains the more a pilgrim relies on God and not on his efforts, the more he recognises that he is united with God and shares already, to some degree, in the absoluteness of God’s power. In other words, God provides for those whom he called for this pilgrimage. God cares for the pilgrim like a mother cares for her children.  God makes the way easy for the pilgrim. Finally, God leads the pilgrim towards total union with Himself. This union is not God sharing his divine life with man. This union is simply an experience of being overwhelmed by God. The gap between the Creator and created person remain unbridgeable in Muslim theology.

An experience of God is the gift from God

Sharafuddin teaches that any form of the mystical knowledge of God or an experience of God is a gift from God.  Pilgrims should recognise that their experience of God is not the fruit of their searching. It is not a payment for labour undertaken on behalf of God. It is simply God’s gift. Sharafuddin, further, teaches his listeners that a person ‘sees’ God not because he sought God relentlessly, but because God chose to show Himself to the pilgrim. Thus, Sharafuddin urges pilgrims to focus on God, not on oneself. Sharafuddin also reminds his disciples of the human dimension in response to God’s call. He relates that the courage of the pilgrim in the face of challenges keeps him/her in good stead in his/her resolve to reach goal. Sharafuddin advises the pilgrims not to worry too much about what particular state they are in. Certainly it is nourishing to read, reflect upon and pray with the letters of Sharafuddin. It is undoubtedly a pressing task to read, respect and appreciate the spiritual wealth of this great saint of the Muslim tradition.