In the 8th century, Baghdad was the seat of prosperity, science, scholarship and culture. With their allegiance to the Caliph of Baghdad, Arab army occupied the westernmost areas of Indian subcontinent; Makhram, Sind and Multan. By the 9th century the Muslim rulers of Sind and Multan became effectively independent from the Caliph, and they and their successors gave up any further ambitions of territorial expansion. This led to a period of relative calm and prosperity in these areas, with progressively peaceful coexistence of the invaded population and the invaders.

In the 10th century, aggressive Mongols from central Asia started invading the peaceful kingdom of Baghdad, Afghanistan and Punjab. In the 11th century, Mahmud Ghazni, a fearsome Turkish warrior launched a series of attacks and ravaged many parts of North India. In early 1100s, Farrukh Shāh Kābulī, the king of Kabul and Ghazna was killed by the Mongol hordes who had invaded Kabul. At that time, around 1125, Shaykh Shu’aib, his grandson left Afghanistan and settled in the Multan. Shaykh Shu’aib married his son, Jamāl-ud-dīn Suleimān to Maryam Bibi. Shiekh Farid was born to Su’aib and Maryam in 1175.

In Delhi, one of the generals of Mohammed Gauri, Qutubuddin Aibak, had consolidated his victories and laid the foundation of slave dynasty. These aggressive and violent invasions had led to an acrimony between the Islamic rulers and their subjects. It was against this backdrop that Sheikh Farid was born in Kothewal, a village 10 km west of Multan on Sant Budhla Road. In one of the mosques there lie the graves of his father and Uncle.

Finding a teacher

Baba Farid received his initial education in Multan. In those days, Multan was considered a seat of Islamic education, since early Islamic rulers here carried the lineage and culture of Baghdad, the center of culture and education. Many Maulvis and Sufis came and settled down here. It was here that he met Sheikh Qutubuddin Bakhtyar Kaki, the disciple of Sheikh Moinuddin Chisti, who after moving from Central Asia, had found his spiritual harbour in Ajmer.

Kaki was to be Farid’s murshid (teacher) for life. It is said that the young Farid so impressed by Kak that he asked to be taken under his custody. Kaki, however, refused. “Seek education (ilm) first, uneducated (beilm) darvesh is like a Satan’s clown,” he said.

Farid wandered around and sought education in Kandahar and Baghdad, to drink, as it were, straight from the fountains. On return, he came back to Qutubuddin Kaki, who had by that time anchored himself in Delhi. There he practiced intense discipline and austerity. After being ordained by Kaki, Farid moved away from Delhi, as he did not like the hustle and bustle of the big city. Wandering around, he spent some time in a place in present day Punjab, where the king was building a new town. That town, it is believed, is now known as Faridkot.

Farid moved westward, and settled down in a remote and uninhabited village called Ajodhan, surrounded with forests. His murshid Kaki had advised him to settle down in an isolated place. “The pains and sorrows of the jungle will be your friends and you will charm the lions as if they are deer,” he is said to have told Farid.

Ajodhan became a place of piousness and scholarship, and became famously known as Pakpattan (or the port of piousness). The village was on the shore of a river, from where people board a ship to cross the river. Metaphorically, this was the river of life; Baba Farid being the sailor. He was not only a Sufi saint, he was also a teacher of repute, and his anchorage, an ashram (Khankah). The disciples would stay and study here – complete surrender was an essential pre-requisite for such an education.

Poetry of poverty

The daily needs of the Khankah were met by donations. He would not save anything for the next day. Whatever was collected would be spent the same day, with the leftovers being distributed. Saving anything for the next day means that we do not have belief in god, he would argue. It was at Pak Pattan that Nizamuddin Auliya, the famed disciple of Baba Farid, received his education and was inducted in the order.

Though common people and seekers would come to his Khankah, sometimes, a ruler would also come down to seek his blessings. It is said that once Emperor Balban, who succeeded Qutubuddin Aibak, came and wanted to give gold and villages as a gift to Farid. He declined politely. “The king wants to do a favour to us by giving gifts. God gives us everything and never suggests he has done us a favour.”

Poverty was at the centre of Farid’s teachings, who wrote in Punjabi. He used to say “If you want to become a great man, never ever look towards the king:”

Farida says don’t fuss over palaces, mansions and terraces,
They are like un-weighed soil, not your friends but menaces!

Although he belonged to the ruling class, he did not subscribe to their elitism and a narrow divisive view of the religion. Dissociating himself from the elites and royalty, he established close relations with the underprivileged castes and poor people. He also lived as a poor man, in simplicity and poverty. His poverty was reflected not only in the way he lived, but also in his poetry:

Highly intelligent, yet is simple
Having power, still stays humble
Possesses little, abundantly shares
A true devout is he, unawares!

Farid does not quote the Quran to substantiate what he says. There is no mention of history of Islam in his writings. His god is his own creation, who is of the poor, not someone born from the scriptures. He has disdain for those who claim to be mediators of god:

On shoulder drapes prayer carpet,
Sufi-stole on neck, shears in hearts
Sweet-tongued and radiant faced,
Darkness envelopes their hearts

Almost 200-250 years after Baba Farid’s death, Guru Nanak went to his grave and met his descendant Sheikh Ibrahim, at least on two occasions. He secured the handwritten Punjabi manuscripts of Baba Farid’s writings and included them in his collection. Guru Nanak handed over these collections to his disciples, and they ultimately reached the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjun Dev, who included them in Guru Granth Sahib.

In a time when Islam was spreading through rulers from the Slave Dynasty, who practised an aggressive and often violent form of it, the Sufism of Moinuddin Chishti, Kaki and Baba Farid presented a more humane and gentler form of Islam to India. Though Baba Farid died, his teachings and lineage continued with his disciple, Nizamuddin Auliya, who also sang of love and harmony in his anchorage in Delhi.