As the sun sets beyond the thick bamboo grove at her village in Assam and the muezzin’s call for prayers wafts in through the haze of burning paddy husk, my grandmother would leave all work and make her way towards the prayer hall.
All of 80 years and a devout Hindu, she has a peculiar timekeeper for her daily connect with god. “Aah, the azaan has already started. It’s time for my evening prayers,” she would mutter to no one in particular.
She also knows the name of the evening call: Maghrib azaan.
But she was not the only one for whom the ‘azaan’ served as a clock. Many people of her time woke up to the call to prayer, in many places over the loudspeaker; in small hamlets just a loud voice did the job.
For many Hindus, it did not matter if it was a purely Islamic tradition. Many woke up to the azaan and never complained. It made sense as the time was just perfect to get ready a for day on their farmland.
However, what my grandmother was not aware of, like many others in Assam, is the story of how the very concept of azaan is relatively new to the state, introduced by a Sufi preacher who arrived in around 1630 from Baghdad in present-day Iraq and settled at a place called Xoraguri in Sivasagar district.
He married a woman of the Ahom community, then the ruling class of Assam, learnt the local language and soon became an Assamese himself, even as he keenly studied the concept of the Vaishnavite movement started by saint-reformer Sankardev.
The preacher became a student himself. He was also to become a bridge between Islam and Hinduism.
Azaan Fakir arrived in Assam nearly a century after the death of Sankardev, considered the most influential Assamese who shaped the state’s society and culture.
It was a time when the state was passing through a cultural and social renaissance sparked by Sankardev’s Bhakti movement – and his contributions in the form of religious plays and devotional hymns and songs now form a separate genre of music.
Azaan Fakir, born Shah Miran, did not bring orthodox Islam but the gentle, Sufi version which many credit with giving the indigenous Assamese Muslims a larger worldview where Ram and Rahim often merged.
The Sufi preacher composed devotional songs in Assamese – by then he had mastered the language – which are now known as ‘jikir’ and ‘jaari’. Jikir, incidentally, derives its name from ‘zikr’, the Sufi tradition of rhythmic repetition of the name of god. He wrote countless of these songs, most of them hailing Allah but many of them also in praise of the Hindu god.
In one such ‘jikir’, Azaan Fakir wrote:
There is no feeling of ‘difference’ In my mind o’ God
Indeed, there is no difference
Hindu and Musalman are the creation
Of the same God
Takes the name of the same God at the end of life
Hindus would be cremated,Muslims buried and
Dust would merge with dust...
Azaan Fakir died around 1690 but not before his eyes were gouged out by a fellow-Muslim, a noble in the court of the Ahom king Gadadhar Singha, who accused the seer of spying for the Mughals. Historical records show that the king later realised his mistake and sought the preacher’s forgiveness.
Later, the king also gave a plot of land to Azaan Fakir on the banks of the Dikhow river in Sivasagar. It was here where Azaan Fakir was buried and his dargah today is a pilgrimage for people of all faith. Azaan Fakir’s call to harmony still echoes in Assam.
The views expressed are personal. The writer tweets as @asomputra