The clerics at the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya stand out from the crowd of pilgrims, thanks to their spotless white kurta-pajamas and caps. Even so, these traditional caretakers of the 14th century dargah in Delhi rarely raise interest — the attention is instead captured by the qawwals.
But the controversial disappearance of two clerics of the shrine, during their visit to Pakistan, has turned the spotlight on them and their community. Nizamuddin’s dargah has dozens of such clerics, all of them have Nizami as their last name and live in the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin Basti.
Syed Asif Ali Nizami, 82, and Syed Nazim Ali Nizami, 66, could have been described as the shrine’s priests, but the term might not be nuanced enough for those well-versed in the theology.
“The imam leads prayers in the mosque and may be called a priest but what you call the clerics of Nizamuddin’s dargah are actually sajjadanashins, successors to the sufis, or khadims, the people who do khidmat (service) in the dargah,” says Sadia Dehlvi, the Delhi-based author of Sufism: The Heart of Islam.
One of the primary responsibilities of khadims pertains to the money received from donations. Part of it is spent on the shrine’s upkeep, and a part is distributed among the khadims. Traditionally, this was the only source of earning for khadims, though now many of them have started to pursue other sources of employment.
Farid Ahmad Nizami is a lawyer, Sadiq Nizami recently opened a tuition centre in Bhogal and Altamash Nizami’s wife, Fozia, runs an ethnic wear store in Jangpura.
Indeed, every sufi shrine has its khadims. As per Altamash, the khadims of Nizamuddin’s dargah comprised four principal families, one of which tapered off due to lack of a male heir. “We khadims are also called peerzadas, sons of the peer,” he says.
Not all khadims have come down from Nizmaudidn’s bloodline; some of them are descendants of his disciples.
Giving instances of other Sufi shrines in the subcontinent, Dehlvi says there are no direct descendents of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti left at his shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan.
Another important shrine, the one of Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Pakistan, continues to have khadims who trace their lineage to the Sufi master, Dehlvi says.
Incidentally, one of the last Sufi shrines that the two clerics visited before their disappearance was of Baba Farid.