Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was a great saint and a truly universal being (insan-i-kamil). Over time, his importance and his contribution to Sufic thought and action is being more and more recognized throughout the world.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was born in 1859 A.D. in Balgadhi (a village in India in the state of Bengal). His father was an expert in both theology and spiritual sciences, and was a master of alchemy, that is the ability to transform materials from one substance to another. When Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was only six years old, his father passed away, and his mother had to shoulder the full responsibility of raising the child. In accordance with the will of her husband, she moved from Balgadhi to Hoogli, near Calcutta. She spun thread to earn a livelihood. Her life was a model of patience and gratitude. Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was so considerate that despite his early age, he tried to contribute to the family’s income by doing minor work to help his mother. After some time, at the request of a relative, the family moved from Hoogli to Naldanga.
Once, when Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was a child, some boys came to him and asked to accompany them in stealing coconuts. Initially he refused to go, but when they insisted, he agreed to join them. They reached the trees, and the other boys started picking coconuts. They asked Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) to stand watch nearby, ready to inform them if anyone approached. It happened that the coconut trees were near a graveyard. Suddenly, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) saw a dead person coming towards him. This person said: ”Good boy, you were not born for this purpose.” Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) left his comrades there and returned home.
Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) received no formal education. He was admitted to a school, but he did not like this type of education, and so he left school and engaged himself in various jobs. At last he got a position with a good salary at the railway. He could now have a better life, and also be in the company of friends.
One night, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) saw his father in a dream. He told him that he didn’t approve of the job at the railway because of corruption in the workplace. In his heart, Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had remained detached from that employment, and when he got up in the morning, he decided to resign. His Arabic teacher and some of his friends tried to prevent him from resigning, warning him that it would be very difficult to get this kind of work again. He didn’t accept their advice, and left the railway.
Shortly thereafter, he suffered from dysentery, so acute that people thought he might not survive. Again he saw his father in a dream. He gave him something to eat, and he ate his fill. When he awoke, he felt better, and within a few days he was completely cured. By now, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was quite a changed person, devoting most of his time to spiritual pursuits. He was also searching for a Shaykh who could guide him in this path.
He was first initiated by a great Chishti Shaykh, Hazrat Karim Bakhsh (r.a.), the father of Hazrat Hamid Hasan Alawi (r.a.), who happened to pass through Balgadhi. When Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) started observing pas-an-fas (awareness of breath) according to the instructions of his Shaykh, his heart was opened. He was very happy with the experience and began to take even more interest and to devote himself enthusiastically to this pursuit. But he was sorry that he could not see the Shaykh again.
One day when he was engaged in dhikr, the founder of the Chishti Tariqa, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti (r.a.) appeared before him and said that although there was nothing wrong with the line of the Order, in the future, he himself would instruct Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). From that time onward, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti came and gave transmission to Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) said to our Grand Shaykh Hazrat Hamid Hasan Alawi, “Do not think that it was a matter of vision. He used to sit with me as you are sitting now in front of me.” Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti assisted him through the stations of the path. Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah narrated:
“Whenever I encountered difficult barriers and I felt I lacked the strength within me to reach higher and cross the barrier, Moinuddun Chishti (r.a.) used to lift me with the help of his special being. I would ask, “Hazrat, is this the goal of the journey?” He always replied, “No. The goal is still far away.” Until finally, one day he said, “Now you have reached the destination.”
Once when the month of Ramadan coincided with the rainy season, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) reached a point there he had only one penny left. With this penny he bought some grain, which enabled him and his wife to carry on for two more days. Finally, his financial position was so bad that there was not a single penny left in the house. Looking back upon this period, Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) later observed, “I was not afraid of my being tested, but I was worried about my wife. I was concerned that she might not be able to bear the strain and that she might become impatient.” But in the company of great souls, other souls also show greatness. His wife used to put plain water in a pot on the fire, so that the neighbors would not suspect that they were starving.
Two days passed in this condition. They could break fast only with sips of water. At such moments, even great persons lose patience and become distracted from the Path. Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) however, devoted himself fully to his practices. He thought that death might be near, and that therefore it would be best to do as much as he could in his spiritual pursuit. It was raining and the roof of his house was so old, that water ran down from all sides. Still, he didn’t keep himself from being busy in doing his dhikr. He put a pot or some utensils on his head to keep the water off. When it stopped raining, he emptied the pot and again continued his meditation.
One day, when Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was engaged in his practices in this miserable condition, Hazrat Ali (R.A.) and Hazrat Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.) appeared, dressed in beautiful shining garments and holding unsheathed swords in their hands. They had visited him several times before, but today’s visit was a special one. While one caught hold of his right arm, the other caught hold of his left arm, and together they made his stand on a high platform. They said, “O Abdul Bari, you should be a wali from this day onward!” [note: wali literally means friend of God, or a saint]
After Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had come out of this state, but while he was still in meditation, a man came into his room and said, “O Hazrat Sayyid, the roof of this hut has become useless. Please allow me to repair it.” Another man came and gave him two rupees and a sign of reverence. In brief, the unfavourable times ended. Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) used to say that after this time, he didn’t have to face starvation again, even though he might sometimes go hungry for three or four days in a month. When the teaching had been completed, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti made Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) his khalifa (deputy) and gave him ijazat (permission) to teach others in the Chishti Order.
After some time, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) happened to meet the great Mujaddidi Shaykh of that time, Hazrat Maulana Gulam Salmani (r.a.). After completing lataif’i-ashra (ten subtle centers of consciousness) Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) asked Shaykh Salmani (r.a.) to make him his murid. But the Shaykh refused his request. He was terribly disappointed. When he sat in meditation, Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.) appeared and asked the reason for his grief. After hearing the story, Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi (r.a.) said, “Now go to Shaykh Salmani. This time, he will accept you as a murid.” Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) visited the Shaykh again and described his conversation with Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.). After hearing of the incident, Shaykh Salmani (r.a.) initiated Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) in the Mujaddidi Order.
Although outwardly, Hazrat Maulana Salmani (r.a.) was the Shaykh of Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.), inwardly, Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.) continued to give him transmission. Through the method of uwaysi, other founders of the great Orders, including Hazrat Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, Shaykh Abdul Hasan Shadhili, and Hazrat Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband, also made him their deputies and gave him permission to teach in the Orders. In the same Uwaysi way, Hazrat Uways Qarani also gave him permission to teach according to his Order and made him his deputy.
In short, Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) received permission to initiate and teach students in the Chishti, Qadiri, Mujaddidi, Naqshbandi, Shadhili, and Qarni Orders. At the same time, by the grace of Allah, he achieved different spiritual ranks and received higher stations and status in the spiritual worlds.
There was an elderly woman in Calcutta, who was one of the forty Abdals. Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) sometimes used to meet with her. When she died, through his kashf (vision), he was asked to carry on her duties as an Abdal.
Also at that time, Shaykh Abul Hasan (r.a.) was acting as Qutub’i-Madar (Pole of the Universe), and was living in Mecca. He directed his attention towards Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) and established a spiritual connection with him. The Shaykh used to meet with Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) daily to give him transmission. Sometimes he would come to Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) and sometimes Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) would go to Mecca for their meetings. When Our Grand Shaykh Hazrat Hamid Hasan Alawi heard this, he was surprised, for there was a long distance between these two places. But Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) said, that in spiritual journeying, space and time do not count.
When Shaykh Abul Hasan left the body, there was a gathering in the vicinity of the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca. Many great saints presented themselves as candidates for the post of Qutub’i-Madar. He was also present, but thinking himself the lowest of all and not fit for that position, he stood in the last place. The Angel Gabriel (a.s.) stepped into the gathering with a crown of jewels and pearls in his hand, and called the name of Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). The latter rushed to stand before Gabriel (a.s.). Then Hazrat Gabriel (a.s.) put the crown on the head of Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). Motioning towards the Holy Ka’aba, he said, “You are the caretaker of this House from this day onward.” After that, Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) fulfilled the duties of Qutub’i-Madar.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) made important contribution to the Orders in which he was authorized and to Tasawwuf in general. One of his masters, Hazrat Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.), had previously completed the Naqshbandi Order, using the technique of indiraj al-nihayat fi’l-bidayat. Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) introduced the method of indiraj al-nihayat fi’l-bidayat to the rest of the major Orders with the consent of their founders.
Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) also made some changes in the system of premiership (making disciples). He was not happy with the prevalent system, which required that an individual becomes a murid or murida before starting to do the Sufic practices. He put an end to this tradition by permitting aspirants to embark on the spiritual journey without becoming murid or murida. However, after the completion of ten lataif (centers of consciousness) it was discovered that it was difficult for students to proceed further on the path unless they become murids. Today, the most significant feature of our Order is that it is not necessary to become a murid before undertaking the practices. Only after finishing lataif’i-ashra (the ten subtle centers of consciousness) is a student obliged to make this commitment. In many other Orders, becoming a murid is the first condition for starting the practices.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) also wielded the title of Muhafiz-i-ulum, the one whose duty is to safeguard both the Sharia and Tariqa. Therefore, we hope that all sorts of misunderstanding between Sharia and Tariqa will be removed and a better harmony will prevail in this matter.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was not only the Qutub’i-Madar (Pole of the Universe) of his times, but also got the status of Qutub’i-Irshad (pole for Spiritual Guidance). Among the earlier saints, only few select persons had the privilege to occupy both of these posts. The world never remains without a Qutub’i-Madar. When one leaves the body, another takes his place or her place immediately. But it is not necessary for Qutub’i-Irshad to be present all the time. His or her spirit may carry on the work, even after leaving the body.
As Hazrat Ali (R.A.) and other Imams (Poles) belonging to the family of the Prophet (saw) occupied the position of Qutub’i-Irshad to award the sainthood to a salik, so too, Shaykh Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had this privilege. From Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani to Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah no Shaykh possessed this position. It was concerned with the spirit of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, which carried on the work even after leaving the body. Even Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (r.a.) regarded himself as the deputy of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.) when he fulfilled this duty. He wrote that this responsibility was concerned with the spirit of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.), and that he had been given this responsibility as his khalifa. In contrast, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had personal authority in this regard. There we see that although Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) passed away more than hundred years ago, his spirit is still imparting spiritual guidance.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) used to tell his students, “There is no need for you to go anywhere. Do not think that I am speaking from my ego. I am selfless, and whatever I am saying is for your betterment.” He used to compare himself with the earlier saint, Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.). He would show his fingers side by side and say, “He and I are like these two fingers. Where he is present, he also asks me to join there.”
Once by chance Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) happened to visit a grave. He stood there for a while, apparently out of reverence for the deceased. People began to ask whether the person in the grave was a wali (saint). Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) said that he had not been a wali previously, but now he was.
Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was frank with his students and did not like any special distinction to be accorded to him. Whenever he happened to stay at our Grand Shaykh’s house, he said that if anyone asked about him, that person should simply be told that a guest was staying there. He seldom uttered harsh words or scolded his students. If he thought it necessary to rebuke them, he would say, “You lack adab.” He was so merciful that immediately after uttering this, he would add, “I am responsible for your wrong behaviour.”
He devoted most of his time to meditation, continuing each sitting for about three hours. He often spent the whole night in meditation, yet felt fresh and cheerful in the morning. He loved his students as his own sons and daughters. They also loved him very much, and were not tempted to pay attention to other Shaykhs, no matter how great they might be. For example, the water carrier of Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) once went to the river to fetch some water. He saw a person like Khidr (peace be upon him) in the distance, calling to him. The water carrier replied, “Why should I come to you? Why shouldn’t I go to my own teacher, through whose nearness you are calling me?”
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was not able to receive a formal education, but with the help of ‘ilm’i-ladunni (the knowledge which is not learned, but is reflected into the tranquil mind of a Sufi from another plane of being), he could answer questions, quoting books and even citing specific pages and line numbers. It seemed that the details of all kinds of knowledge and sciences remained open before him.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) left his body and took abode in the heavens at the age of only forty. He had no children. He lived very simply in an ordinary hut.
One day Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was making ablution in a corner of his house. As he did so, the thought entered his mind: “I am a poor man living in solitude, and it seems that this Order will remain limited to me alone.” This feeling saddened him, but then an indication from God made him happy. He came to know, that God would spread this Order from East to West, and from land to sea. By the grace of God, we can now apprehend the signs of the fulfilment of this promise.