Mahdawi mystics of Thatta

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro writes about some fascinating aspects of the Mahdawi heritage in Sindh

Mahdawi mystics of Thatta
The landscape of Thatta is dotted with the tombs and shrines of rulers, Ulema (religious scholars), mystics, Sufis and Mahdawai saints. Both on Makli Hill and in Thatta Town, there are shrines of Mahdawi saints who were the disciples of Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri (1443-1505).

Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri was born in Jaunpur in Gujarat, India. He received early education from the eminent Ulema including Shaikh Daniyal. Gifted with a prodigious memory and other innate qualities, according to Mahdawi sources, he memorised the entire Holy Quran at an early age of seven years. Moreover, the Mahdawi sources tell that on account of his critical faculties and sharp understanding he was able to master the traditional learning within a very short period and at the age of twelve he was awarded the title of “Asad-ul-Ulema” (Lion amongst the Ulema). According to Mahdawi traditions, Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri left Jaunpur in 1482 at the age of forty. At Danapur, his wife, a son and follower Shaikh Dilwar Shah wanted to declare him as Mahdi (the guided one, directed one, who is fit to guide others) but he asked them to wait for proper time to be declared. Later he declared himself as Mahdi in Makkah in 1496 but did not get any attention from the Ulema of Makkah. He came back to Gujarat from Makkah and at Ahmedabad he proclaimed himself Mahdi to restore Islam to its pristine purity as claimed by Mahdawi traditions. Some people welcomed him but others opposed him. After spending some time preaching his ideology in many towns of Gujarat, he came to Sindh. After visiting many towns (Nasarpur) and villages (Miranpur) in Sindh, he came to Thatta where he stayed for 18 months. Here, at first, he faced opposition by Ulema and Sufis of Thatta but later some of them were impressed by his Islamic knowledge and became his disciples. Some of the eminent Ulema and nobles who enrolled as his disciples were Qazi Qazan (also called Qazi Qadan), Shaikh Sadruddin, Darya Khan, Pir Asat, Qazi Shaikh Muhammad Uchavi and Mian Abu Bakr. Shaikh. Jahando Patni was another disciple who helped and rescued him when a boatman intentionally had his boat stuck in mire and left. The man was sent by Ulema of Thatta who opposed and showed disrespect to him. He was later denounced as an ‘infidel’ by some Ulema but it was Qazi Qazan (d.1531, some scholars believed he died in 1551) who defended him. After staying eighteen months despite severe criticism and opposition by Ulema of Sindh, he succeeded in converting many to his perspective and eventually left Thatta for Afghanistan where he died at Farah in (1505).
Although Syed Mir Muhammad Shah was a Mahdawi saint and Shah Abdul Karim did not belong to the Mahdawi movement, he respected him – which again shows how Sufis loved and respected each other in 16th- and 17th-century Sindh

Today many of the shrines of Mahdawi saints in Thatta are a centre of attraction for both Mahdawis and non-Mahdawis of Sindh. Amongst these Mahdawis, the name of Mir Muhammad Yousaf Shah Rizvi, son of Jado Rizvi, is quite prominent.

Mir Muhammad Shah Yousaf was an eminent Mahdawi saint of Thatta in the 16yh century, who became a disciple of Shaikh Mubarak Shah Mahdawi. He got married to a daughter of the Qazi Abbasi family of Thatta. Syed Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi was a very spiritual and pious person. He was a man of integrity and reverence who led a life of simplicity. He lived in the same house where Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri stayed at Makli and spent most of his time preaching the thought and ideology of his mentor. Many people responded to his teachings and a number of notables of Thatta and its environs became his disciples and thereby gained spiritual power from Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi. Shah Abdul Karim of Bulri (1536-1623), a Sufi poet, also remained very close to him and acquired spiritual power from him and mentioned his name with profound respect in the book Bayan-al-Arifin written by his disciple Mian Muhammad Raza ibn Abul Wasi alias Mir Darya Thattawi. According to him, a saintly person named Syed Ibrahim Shah Bokhari came to stay in the village mosque of Bulri. Shah Abdul Karim Bulri used to pay him respects every day. One day, Syed Ibrahim Shah inquired about every living saint and religious scholar of Thatta and Shah Abdul Karim shared the list of the saints and scholars. After listening to him, Syed Ibrahim commented that Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi seemed to be a more spiritual person. When Shah Abdul Karim visited Syed Ibrahim Shah the next morning, he could not find him in the mosque. He thought that he might have gone to meet Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi and, as he also was interested in meeting Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi, he at once left for Thatta to meet him. When he reached Syed Mir Muhammad Shah’s lodge, he saw Ibrahim Shah sitting on the floor cross-legged and with his head bowed down in sheer respect for Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi. As a gift, Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Shah Mahdawi gave Ibrahim Shah a pair of shoes which he then gave to Syed Abdul Karim and asked him to make a cap for him out of the pair of shoes. The author of Bayan-al-Arifin stated that Syed Abdul Karim went to Thatta City to make the cap for Syed Ibrahim Shah out of the pair of shoes that had been given to him by Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi. After making the cap, he went back to the astan of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi and gave the cap to Ibrahim Shah. He was very happy to receive that cap, after which he set out to visit other eminent Sufis of Sindh. This story shows how spiritual power of saints was deeply entrenched in the medieval society and culture of Sindh. Although Syed Mir Muhammad Shah was a Mahdawi saint and Shah Abdul Karim did not belong to the Mahdawi movement, he respected him – which again shows how Sufis loved and respected each other in 16th- and 17th-century Sindh.

Graves of Mahdawi saints inside the wall enlosure of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf

The grave of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf can be found inside a wall enclosure which is located southeast of the Eidgah at Makli Hill. There are more than one hundred graves inside the wall enclosure, mostly belonging to Mahdawi saints. Not a single grave bears an inscription. However, the grave of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi has been identified as being situated near the mihrab of the wall enclosure. The caretaker of the shrine is also familiar with the graves of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf and his family members. Nearby is the grave of his son-in-law and nephew Syed Ishaque Rizvi, alias Pir Pardehi (means non-local). The grave of Zaman Rizvi (1890-1928), a poet of the Sindhi language, is also situated inside the wall enclosure. There also exist countless graves of Rizvi Syeds outside the wall enclosure of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Shah Mahdawi. Located south of the wall enclosure of Syed Muhammad Yousaf is a thalo (platform) of Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri, which is still considered to be a sacred space for the Mahdavis of Sindh. Near this thalo is the grave of Mian Asudo who was a chief disciple of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Shah Mahdawi.

The shrine of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi is equally venerated by both the Mahdawis of Karachi and the non-Mahdawis of Thatta Town, who frequently visit it. The local women also throng the shrine of Syed Mir Muhammad Yousaf Mahdawi. There is no ‘Sajjada Nashin’ of this shrine; only the caretaker manages it and the shrine’s annual repair is carried out by the Mahdavi Jamat of Karachi. But unfortunately, the tomb of Pir Asat another Mahdawi saint which lies near the shrine of Abdullah Asabi at Makli Hill (another Mahadwi saint) lies in a pathetic condition. The Mahdawis now live in both Sindh and Balochistan. In Balochistan, the Zikris are an offshoot of the Mahdawi movement which was propagated by Mir Abu Saeed Buledi and later by other Mahdawis.

The author is an anthropologist and has authored four books: ‘Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh’, ‘Perspectives on the art and architecture of Sindh’, ‘Memorial Stones: Tharparkar’ and ‘Archaeology, Religion and Art in Sindh’. He may be contacted at:

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar