With Agha Ashraf Ali one of the greatest joys was having tea with a sensational conversation. Apart from the aromatic daffodils and unique variety of roses which compelled him to utter, “how lovely” , there would always be a book by his side, or an article that would entice him. Sharing it with friends or students would thrill him, and when a discourse started on the same it would delight him beyond words. His expressions did all the talking. To me he was not like any other cousin of my father. Even though I called him Ashraf Chacha, in him I found a great friend, mentor, philosopher-guide and a mystic in his own world.
He was someone who introduced me to Socrates, Marx and Ali Shariati when I was still in school. He was someone who made me fall in love with reading. He compelled me to question, to doubt, and to think, when I was still an idiot-figuratively speaking. He groomed me and nurtured me and would always try to bring out the best in me. Even my smallest of triumphs reflected the joy of being victorious on his beautiful face which had always a glow of that noble mien. Perhaps, that is how a real teacher feels on his pupil’s success.
To quote Al Ghazali in his own words,
“A person who does not doubt, cannot think,
A person who cannot think cannot see,
A person who cannot see will always remain blind” !
Agha Ashraf Ali had the right guidance for different kinds of people who visited him. His instructions would fit perfectly, and as he said, “You go home as a worse man or a better man”. Perhaps his grace, unrivalled hospitality and his Joie de vivre was so contagious that it made people his fans who made it sure that their first visit to his place was never their last one. He had an amazing sense of humour; which also reflected the wisdom of a sage. He loved to talk about the silly jokes of the family just as he never shied away from talking about the tragedies in the family without any hesitation showing how fearless he was throughout his life. On one occasion when I, as a young boy, asked him to tell me about the glorious days of our ancestors in Kashmir, he held me in contempt, so strong that I looked him in the eye with contrition as he kept narrating the sad tale of how his paternal grandparents deprived their orphan nephew (my paternal grandfather) of all his ancestral estates and properties, treating him inconsiderately. He would then quote Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)
“Among the greater sins is to usurp the property of an orphan who has not attained maturity” and then he continued quoting Al Ghazali , “this all family name is something that should never bother us, names are just to find you if you are lost, your own name is something that you make yourself, that is how people should know you”. I was devastated and thrilled at the same time !
Don’t be a usurper he would tell me, and then he would quote Jesus (PBUH) whose captivating painting hung on his drawing room wall,
“Sell all that you have, and give it to the poor and follow me”
He wouldn’t stop there, he could quote on every pedagogy from different scriptures, now he quotes from the Upanishads,
“Renounce and enjoy, do not covet the wealth of other”
He would make me write and record all of it.
On another occasion he recalled how his paternal grandfather Agha Sher Ali, a proud aristocrat obsessed with the English way of life tried to put his index finger in the keyhole of the main door of our ancestral house at Shaheed Gunj to stop the water from entering the house during the floods of 1929. The water which made its way in the ground floor remained there for 10 days, so did the stubborn Agha Sher Ali, a retired Thanadar, who moved to the first floor along-with the servant while the rest of the members had already moved to the old house at Nawa-Kadal. Agha Ashraf Ali was deeply influenced by his maternal grandfather , Khan Bahadur Aga Syed Hussain who had later adopted him. To him Aga Syed Hussain was the only upright, humble and pious in the family during the times he grew up. The rest were “idiots” !
Agha Ashraf Ali lived and invigorated the actual idea of humility in others. He had the perfect definition of Humility from a chapter of which he had made a thousand copies, “Moral Principles of action”, from Science of Culture Series,
“Humility is surely only a concealed form of love, a willingness to give to the “others” the benefit of the doubt, to be prepared to learn from them, and in short a refusal to say that, ‘we are the people’ and that ‘wisdom was born with us’.
As a teacher he always believed in simple living and high thinking. The biggest event of his life was that he became a teacher, and that the greatest achievement of his life was that “he remained as a teacher”. How could I not fall in love with this man?
Before the floods of 2014, his modest stone and mud cottage with a vintage colonial set up was like a Socratic gymnasium where young and old minds would indulge in discourses and come out illuminated. Like me, many others would sometimes battle to comprehend and contemplate as to what was being delivered, however, he never stopped repeating. He was never weary of discussing anything or everything-he was never drunk, however much he drank-perhaps his favourite couplets of Asghar Gondvi would perfectly explain that exquisite characteristic of him,
“Husn ban kar khudko aalam aashkara kijiyay, Phir mujhay pardah bana kar mujhsay pardah kijiyay”
Ek hi sagar mei Asghar khul ghayi dil ki girah, Raaz e hasti bhi khula jata hai dekha kiijiyay”
Agha Ashraf Ali was indeed an artist of the Plato’s Republic. Someone with the keenest eye for observation and the best memory which could wisely conjecture with all the possibilities.
Just like his social life which was mesmerizing, his spiritual life was unique in its own way. He was a Gnostic of a unique kind, a mystic of his own world. I realized that when he was asked to define Imam Ali (AS). With a silence that lasted for a few seconds he produced a spine chilling definition that sent jitters and the ripples were felt from the clergy to bureaucratic offices, the definition was published first by the journal, “Hakim ul Ummat” by Dr Akbar Hyder; I quote him,
“After a long and careful study of History as I have understood it, I can safely conclude that only Hazrat Ali (AS) was the Socrates of Islam”
Agha Ashraf Ali followed the spirit of Islam in his thoughts and actions if not practically in the prescribed disciplined fashion, which defined his unique relationship with God of which the Lord Himself is the judge.
Quoting Imam Ali, he would say,
“Do the right by the hand,
Or else speak the truth by the tongue,
Or else think righteously”
As he quoted from Nahj-ul-Balagha, and explained the four pillars of faith as defined by Imam Ali – patience, certainty, justice and struggle – I could relate that his very own life was an example of these virtues. His words were always felt like pearl wisdom.
On the dining table hosting people, he would talk of every delicacy and how it was beneficial. Even the allopathic doctors visiting him would follow his advise strictly. He would prescribe all those pickles, teas and spices like a Unani Hakim, a quality that he probably inherited from our physician ancestors in Kashmir.
Unlike our Turkcoman ancestors , “Qizilbash” who were instrumental in bringing “Tatbir or Qamazani” (Self Flagellation with swords) in Shia Islam which remains a continued practice till date despite being prohibited, Agha Ashraf Ali approved of a more practical version given by Dr Ali Shariati in his “Red Shiaism vs Black Shiaism”, thus making Ali Shariati another of my heroes.
To me Agha Ashraf Ali lived the ideal definition of a Muslim given by Bayazid Bastami, which he has mentioned in his book and would often quote in his lectures,
“A Muslim is enjoined to cultivate a generosity like the generosity of the river, a benevolence like the benevolence of the sun, and a hospitality like the hospitality of the earth”
That Agha Ashraf Ali was a beautiful institution in himself does not need to be emphasized. His affection towards everyone was an established fact. I was myself a fortunate victim of his immense love and unrivalled affection which made me a pupil of his magnanimous wisdom. His passing away has left a void which can never be filled.
At the graveyard, when this Sufi was buried besides his beloved wife I was reminded of Ghalib’s couplet,
“ Shama Bhujhti hai to ous mein se dhuan uthtaa hai,
Shola e Ishq Siyah Posh hua Meray Baad”
“From a candle extinguished dark smoke is seen to rise,
the flame of love was dressed in black after my demise”
But then I realized that a man like Agha Ashraf Ali cannot and should not be mourned but needs to be celebrated. He is very much alive in us in the ways he has influenced us. To me his life is an example and a doctrine which I without hesitation would call the “Ashraftic doctrines” which are nothing but doctrines of supreme beauty in the knowledge and contemplation of which they repose. Such a life, like his which was fearless and spent in the contemplation of the beautiful is the life for men to live. He loved to read and minutes before passing away he was reading a book by Ali Shariati.
Gardening was one of his passions and his picturesque garden was his third love. (first being his books, second his wife Sufia). Among his favourite roses was the unique rose, “Papa Meilland”, a vigorous variety with a spectacular scent to entice, once immune from diseases yet mortal, just like Agha Ashraf Ali. I intend to plant Papa Meilland on his grave as my tribute. Rest in peace my Pir-o-Murshid !
Agha Faisal Ali is a Srinagar based lawyer and writer. He is writing a book on his family history and has translated the autobiography of Begum Zaffar Ali which will be published soon.