Harking Back: Tracing the origins of the oldest mosque of Lahore

Majid Sheikh

It has often occurred to me to try to, using logic if that is applicable, find the oldest mosque constructed in Lahore. Prayer places one can understand, but a proper mosque with a minaret is what interests me.

When Ali Hasan Hajweri was ordered by Sheikh Abu’l Fazl Al-Kuttali to immediately proceed to Lahore and spend the rest of his life here, he protested and said: “How can I go there when you have already appointed Khawaja Hasan Zanjani as the city’s ‘qutb’?

His ‘murshid’ sternly responded: “Ask questions not, just immediately proceed”. So it was that Ali Hajweri reached the devastated city of Lahore. The exact spot was outside Lohari Gate (Bhati Gate did not exist then) and as he stood there looking at the carnage, he saw a funeral procession emerging. It was that of Hasan Zanjani. This reminds me of the funeral of the great Persian poet Firdowsi who had shunned the silver coins of Mahmud who had promised him a gold coin for every verse of his ‘Shahnameh’.

Once the 60,000 verse epic was complete, Mahmud’s courtier changed them from gold to silver. When the promised treasure reached Firdowsi he was at the local ‘hammam’ having a bath. On seeing the silver he distributed the treasure among the ‘hammam owner’, a man serving him his ‘refreshments’ and the slave who brought the silver. Mahmud was furious and so Firdowsi fled Khorasan and when Mahmud realised what had happened he executed the courtier and sent a caravan of gold coins. When the caravan reached his house in Tus, Firdowsi’s funeral was emerging from the main gate.

A year after Firdowsi died, Mahmud was to ravage Lahore, a prediction Firdowsi had made in a verse mocking the Afghan, which goes: “You may flatten Multan or you may ravage Lahore; but the hearts of their inhabitants will never be yours.” So it was that when Ali Hasan of Hajweri, popularly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh, reached Lahore the funeral procession of Hasan Zanjani was emerging. He was to lead the funeral prayers and bury him outside the city. Zanjani’s grave exists just behind the Lady Aitchison Hospital off Bansanwala Bazaar opposite Mayo Hospital.

We seem to have limited knowledge of the sages of those days. The very first sage appointed to Lahore was Sheikh Ismail of Bokhara, and as then Lahore was a purely Hindu city ruled by the Hindushahi ruler Jayapala, he was advised to set up his hut on a mound (‘mumti’ in Punjabi) outside the city. The grave of this pious Sufi exists on Hall Road, where a staircase between the Cathedral School back gate and a bank door leads to his grave on the mound. He was, in all probability, the very first known Muslim seer of Lahore. Hasan Zanjani followed him and reached Lahore on his death, just as Ali Hasan Hajweri was to follow him.

But then Ali Hasan did not come alone. With him came Hazrat Abu Saeed Hajweri, a trader and friend of Ali Hasan, as well as Hazrat Ahmad Hammadi Sarkhasi. About Ahmad Sarkhasi he was to write: “He had the eye of an eagle and we shared some amazing experiences. He was a true man of the Sharia.” The book ‘Kashful Mahjoob’ was penned on the specific request of Abu Saeed who believed it would embed the faith in the heart of the people.

Probably the very first mosque of Lahore was the one built by Ali Hasan of Hajweri, though a few followers of Zanjani claim the bricked prayer space next to his grave was built earlier. But then so it is with the prayer space next to Sheikh Ismail’s grave. There is one last possibility, remote as that is, and that being that of the prayer space at Bibi Pak Daman, where, it is believed, the sister of Hazrat Imam Hussain lies buried. We know that Ali Hasan Hajweri went there every Thursday to offer ‘fateha’ and the place where he stood is even today marked. As no source mentions this revered lady’s burial place, I will leave this possibility out of our search.

But we do know that the mosque next to Ali Hajweri’s grave, in all probability, is Lahore’s oldest. Once a very modest one room with an open space outside, his ‘new’ Muslim followers started quarrelling among themselves over the mosque’s direction. Ali Hasan asked them to wait for the coming Friday prayers, where he led the small congregation. After the prayer was over he asked everyone to close their eyes and tell him what they all saw. Everyone, allegedly, said they had clearly seen the Holy Kabah. The issue was settled once and for all times. Of recent the direction was officially, and scientifically, measured and the results were amazing. It was correct to the last degree. Faith and science for once merged to clear lingering doubts.

Among the many quotations of Ali Hasan, two are worth mentioning in this piece, for they reflect our times well. He observed then that: “blind conformity has taken the place of spiritual inquiry”. The second quotation is: “the inner glow, not a religious dress, makes a Sufi.” These and many other things Ali Hasan dwelt on seem relevant to the extremist times in which we live.

But let us stick to the real world. Was the mosque of Ali Hasan of Hajweri in Ghazni province in Afghanistan the very first constructed in Lahore? We know that the Ghaznavi ruler Sultan Ibrahim rebuilt this mosque with a minaret in the late 11th century. So this mosque is a good over 900 years old, though the initial one-room praying area would today be about 987 years old. Since then almost every ruler has tried to outdo the earlier by expanding the mosque. The last effort was by the current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who changed the very face of the place. A terrorist attack in July 2010 forced an elaborate security network around the shrine and mosque, which forever changed the open and inviting tradition it was known for.

But we would not like to take away from the small one-room mosques of Zanjani and Shah Ismail the probability that they were certainly there before the formal one built by Sultan Ibrahim. It is sad that the ancient one-room area of Ali Hasan of Hajweri, and the first minaret mosque built by Sultan Ibrahim had to be knocked down. After all even religious sites have conservation and heritage value.

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2016

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