The city of Bahraich contains majar of Saiyyad Salar Masud, a semi-legendary figure who died fighting there in the name of Islam. He is the anti-hero in Amish Tripathi’s 2020 novel Legend of Suheldev: The King Who Saved India. Islamic devotional literature eulogize Masud 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 part of the legend of ‘Panchon Pir’ (five saints) venerated across religious divides in the North India.
The main source of information on Masud is his later 17th century hagiography Mirat-i-Masudi, penned by one Abdur Rahim Chishti. In this biography, Saiyyad Salar Masud is glorified as a nephew of the 11th century Ghaznavid invader Mahmud. Tutored by Mahmud Ghazni in the art of temple-breaking, book-burning, mass conversion and rampant killings, Masud went on to lead many such expeditions on his own as well, including destruction of temple and sacred suraj kund at Bahraich.
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 and to propagate Islam more persistently, as he will be held accountable on the day of the Judgement.
The legend goes that a local confederation of Hindu rajas led by Raja Suheldev finally defeated and killed this Turkic invader.
Masud as Described in his Urdu Biography
The definitive modern account of Masud in Urdu language has been sketched by a certain Inayat Husain “yielding a picture of innate Muslim valour and timeless Hindu cowardice.” It presents Masud’s exploits as a tale of ‘Hindu defeat’ at the hands of the forces of Islam in India, and the eventual martyrdom of this Islamic hero. Sample these lines from Masud’s Urdu biography 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 brave Muslims).
Yet, for generations, Masud was made out as a saint. Yet, he is venerated across religious divides. Yet, he is a martyr. Yet, this is our written and taught history!
Local Muslim folklore, performed as ballads, accompanied by musical instrument dafali further concocts the legend of “Ghazi Miyan”. It 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. Thus, a Hindu lord (Kanhaiya=Krishna) was made subservient to a Mohammadan fanatic ghazi (the meaning of “gazi”, Islamic martyr, itself is abusive for non-Muslims).
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”)
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 Sir Syed can be described by his biographer Hali, similarly the authenticity of Gazi’s story can be asserted by balladeer’s tradition).
This is how the Islamic invaders were secularized and their majars became loci of inter-faith congregation.
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 unleashed 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”!
For generations, an oppressor like Masud was eulogised as a saint by the progeny of the very ancestors who were once terrorised by him. This strange phenomenon bemused 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 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.