Source: Ḥasan Afghān Investigates a Slave-Trading Imam
The short passage below reflects a much broader conversation about religion and the slave trade in premodern India. The text is from a hagiographical encyclopedia called News of the Saints Regarding the Secrets of the Righteous, compiled by ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq Dihlawī Ḥaqqī in 999/1591. Born in Delhi to a family of Turkish descent with roots in Bukhara, Dihawlī Ḥaqqī most likely put this work together while living in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, shortly before his return to Delhi. The News of the Saints is one of the earliest works dedicated specifically to the lives of Muslim saints, or “friends of God” (awliyāʾ Allāh), who lived in and around India. As can be seen here, such saints were often regarded as possessing miraculous powers.
The passage details an encounter between a local imam and a saint named Ḥasan Afghān. Ḥasan Afghān was remembered as a 7th/13th-century Sufi belonging to the Ghurghuxtī Afghan confederation and affiliated with the Suhrawardī Sufi Order. In this anecdote, he encounters an unnamed imam in the township of Kosi Khurd (present-day Uttar Pradesh Province, India). The imam here displays miraculous powers himself: while appearing to lead congregational prayers in a mosque, he is actually journeying across vast distances, engaged in the buying and selling of enslaved persons. Unbeknownst to the imam, Ḥasan Afghān has been dogging him the entire time, and he confronts the imam about this behavior after the prayer ends.
The story of Ḥasan Afghān shows us how rich stories of miracle-working saints can be for exploring premodern cultural landscapes. On one level, it portrays the entanglement between the local and the global mediated by the trafficking of enslaved persons. The imam, a figure of local significance, participates in a commercial network spanning locales in present-day India, Iran, and Pakistan. The ability to participate in the slave trade sets local religious elites apart from their peoples.
Simultaneously, that participation—or rather, the effects of that participation—is critiqued through the figure of a wandering Sufi dervish like Ḥasan Afghān. Here, Ḥasan Afghān is shown to be upset about the imam’s behavior, acting as a sort of religious investigator. The passage thus tells us about not only the itineraries of human trafficking in premodern India, but about concerns regarding the effects of that trafficking upon participants. It should be kept in mind that in some Muslim circles, the imam’s bodily and psychological state is held to affect those praying behind them. Thus, the story implicates both the imam as well as the entire congregation of Muslims behind him in the slave trade.
Khwāja Ḥasan Afghān (God have mercy on him)
He was a disciple of Shaykh Bahāʾ al-Dīn Zakariyyā and, according to Shaykh Niẓām al-Dīn, one of those saints who attained the heights of greatness. Once, while he was passing through the township of Kosi Khurd, he came to a mosque. The muezzin gave the call for prayer, the imam came to lead it, and people joined the congregation. Khwāja Ḥasan also went inside to pray behind the imam. When the prayer was over and people had gone away, [Ḥasan] went up to the imam and said: “Hey, Your Lordship, you started the prayer and I joined it with you. You went to Delhi and bought several slaves, and came back. Then you sold those slaves in Banian and went from there to Multan. I was following you the whole time. Now what the hell kind of prayer was that?”
May Exalted God have mercy on him.
 A common expression used when making reference to the pious dead.
- What is Ḥasan Afghān criticizing: the act of trafficking in enslaved persons, that the imam is participating in such commerce, that the imam is doing so while leading a group prayer, some combination of the above, or something else? Do you think it matters that the imam is trading in enslaved persons specifically?
- In the context of this story, Kosi Khurd (India) and Banian (Iran) are relatively small townships, whereas Delhi (India) and Multan (Pakistan) are major urban centers. What do you think is the significance of the imam’s itinerary? What are we being told about the reach of the slave trade in premodern India, and the relationships between large and small settlements? Why are enslaved persons purchased in one locale and then sold somewhere relatively far-off?
- How do you think the author, Dihlawī Ḥaqqī, wants us to understand the “miraculous” transactions in which the imam participates? Are we meant to understand that the imam was imagining or dreaming about trading in enslaved persons; that he engaged in the slave trade outside of his regular functions as a religious leader; that he had supernatural powers which let him actually do all of this while appearing to lead prayers; or something else? How are miracles and commerce shown to interact in this story? What sort of attitude do you think Dihawlī Ḥaqqī is asking us to take towards local religious leaders?
Related Primary Sources
- A Letter by a Ninth-Century Slave Trader
- Portugal and the Japanese Slave Trade
- Resisting Captivity in the Sulaiman Mountains
- Slave Sales from Crete and Cyprus
Related Secondary Sources
- Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.