"First Greet, Then Eat, Then Talk!"
The Story of Nizamuddin Auliya
The 14th century Chishti Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya was legendary for his generosity, humanitarianism, wit, and personal frugality. At the langar of his residence, the dargah, excellent food was served each day to all visitors. His compassion was reflected in the khanqah's rules, which preserved the dignity of all who ate there.
Dervishes were advised, "First greet, then eat, then talk;" they were not allowed to ask whether a visitor was fasting or needed food; they were instructed to eat two meals, one right after the other, if needed for the sake of guests. Such rules made it impossible to discern who was hungry and in need, or who took food for its baraka, the blessing power of God; and ensured that those who needed food would be able to eat as soon as possible.
The Shaikh taught that one should remember God whenever one ate. He once cited the example of a dervish who at each meal, before taking a bite, would utter: "I take this in the name of God!" One disciple took this admonition so literally that he would say "Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim" before every mouthful.
The Shaikh often joined his dervishes at their evening meal, where both serious and casual subjects were discussed. All would first wash hands, dervishes assisting guests in this task. Surah Ma'ida, "The Table Spread," would be recited, then the meal would begin with a bite of salt. The memoirs of the Shaikh's students attest to his love of conversation. Once during the three days following the Feast of the Sacrifice, so many people came to the khanqah that meals were served constantly for hours at a time, one group of visitors giving way to the next at the end of each meal. This prompted the Shaikh to comment, "A dervish was asked what verse of the Qur'an he liked best? He replied: Eat always! (13:35)."
At the very least, bread and gravy was served for dinner. During Ramadan, the langar also served a suhur meal of khichri (rice and legumes). Depending on the gifts received at the khanqah, the food could be, and often was, elaborate.
This generosity and apparent extravagance raised the suspicions of Sultan Alauddin Khalji. He sent spies to the khanqah to investigate what was being served there. When the Shaikh learned of their presence, he teasingly ordered his dervishes to expand the menu with delicious dishes of tahiri (a rice dish), qurs (round cakes), halwa and sambusa.
Although large stores of food were needed to feed the stream of guests, the Shaikh wished to cultivate an atmosphere of tawakkul (trust in God) and acceptance of God's will. Therefore, food was distributed almost as soon as it arrived, and the stores were swept and cleared out every Friday morning.
All dervishes were assigned to kitchen duty. The trusted albeit authoritarian disciple Iqbal was an efficient manager, organized the futuh (gifts of food), maintained the pantry, and supervised staff. Maulana Burhanuddin Gharib supervised preparation and distribution of food. Mubashshir planned the menu in consultation with the Shaikh, and laid out the meal. Khwaja Abbu cooked, and Shaikh Kamaluddin washed dishes. One devised a unique way to be of service. When the Shaikh saw Amir Khusrau licking plates that had been returned to the kitchen, and asked what he was doing, Amir answered that he wanted to be known as 'kasa lais (licker of the plates) of the Khwaja.
Shaikh Nizamuddin often fasted, and always ate sparingly, usually no more than a small loaf or portion of bread at iftar, with bitter vegetables or rice. At meals he would offer morsels from his plate to everyone else at the table; he might take a bit of rice, but never touched the meat. When asked whether he was satisfied by what little food he ate, the Shaikh answered, "Well! I could eat one more bread, but I do not." Offered pomegranate seeds dipped in rosewater, or black sugar cane out of season, he accepted the gifts, but gave them away to all present. He vicariously enjoyed the delicious food and drinks relished by his disciples and guests. When he quoted a saint as saying, "People who eat food in front of me, I find their food in my own throat, that is, it is as if I am eating that food," he was, in fact, referring to his own state.
One day a visitor to the khanqah, seeing the quality of food served, asked to dine with the Shaikh himself certainly the menu of the pir would be extraordinary! So he insisted on eating only what the Shaikh ate. The Shaikh and his dervishes tried to discourage him, warning that he would surely regret his decision, but were unsuccessful. Though a generous spread was laid, the Shaikh did not partake of it. At last, after the dervishes and guests had eaten their fill, the Shaikh invited his guest to sit. A bowl of bitter greens was set before them. Nizamuddin picked out the toughest roots and stems for himself, and offered the tastier leaves to his guest. Stunned, the visitor asked if any other dishes were to follow. The shaikh replied that this was all that would be served; he had invited him only because he had insisted. The guest tried to eat but could not. In the end he left the dargah in great humility and respect.
The shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi is visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. It is said that the Shaikh continues to feed the people by means of the inspiration and blessings bestowed at the shrine, and the many gifts of money and food offered by its visitors, quickly transformed into satisfying meals served from the langar that bears his name.
from Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook