He was born in the village of Saghistan, Bustanlik district, in the Shash district, known today as Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He was born in 1404 AD, one year before the death of Timur (Tamerlane), who was succeeded by his son, Sultan Shahrukh. Khwaja Ubayd Allah spiritually dominated Central Asia for the greater part of the fifteenth century, and all historians agree that his influence was paramount. He met many Shaykhs and sages during his lifetime, including the renowned Naqshbandi Shaykh, Abdul Rahman Jami, who subsequently wrote very favourably about the Khwaja.
Khwaja Ubayd Allah’s geneology goes back to the Caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab. His father, Muhammad Shahsi, was a Sufi. His grandfather, Mawlana Shihabuddin Shashi, was a Sufi Shaykh, who is said to have been a wise and learned Shaykh, endowed with spiritual states and charismatic powers. When Shaykh Shihabuddin was near to death, the infant Khwaja was brought to him, wrapped in a cloak. The Shaykh became excited and said, “This is the child I wanted. May this child soon bring honour to this world, currency to the sacred law and lustre to the Sufi path.”
Other prominent Shaykhs that all form part of the Khwaja Ubayd Allah’s pedigree include the celebrated Shaykh Muhammad of Baghdad, Shaykh Umar Baghistani, who descended from the Caliph Umar al-Khattab, Shaykh Khavand Tahur, Mawlana Tajuddin, Shaykh Ibrahim Shashi and Shaykh Imad al-Mulk.
When he reached the age of twenty two, his maternal uncle Shaykh Ibrahim Shashi took the young Khwaja Ubayd Allah from Tashkent to be educated in Samarqand where he spent, due to his passionate interest in inner wisdom and mysticism, all his time attending the meetings of the Sufis of Samarqand, including those of Mawlana Said al-Din Kashghari. After spending two years in Samarqand, at the age of twenty four he travelled to Herat, by way of Bukhara and Merv, to study there for five years. During this time in Herat, he was continually with Sufi Shaykhs, including travelling to the principle centres of Turkestan.
As a boy and during his youth, Khwaja Ubayd Allah was very poor. He says that at the time of Sultan Shahrukh, he was living in Herat and did not have a change of clothes. He added, “In my search for God, the whole of the time, I never had a basin of warm water for my ablutions. I often wondered if I would have the means to melt the ice to do my ablutions but this never happened.” During his five years that he stayed in Herat, in spite of his poverty, he never accepted charity from anyone.
While in Herat, the Khwaja said that he went to visit Mawlana Qasim Tabrizi, who gave him a bowl of food, half of which was eaten, saying, “Hey Prince of Turkestan, as these hardships have been our screen, may worldly wealth become your screen before too long.” The Khwaja then said, “When the venerable Khwaja spoke these words, I was extremely poor, with not a worldly thing to call my own. I acknowledge that I owe my present wealth and affluence to this blessing breathed by the venerable Mawlana Qasim Tabrizi.”
As a young man on the spiritual path, the Khwaja was devoted to the service of ordinary people. In the very early hours of the morning, he would work without pay as a cleaner in the public baths of Herat. He would say, “It was not in books that I discovered Sufism but through the service of ordinary folk. Everyone has a road to follow and mine has been the road of service. That is why service is what I love and value most of all. If I have high hopes for someone, I always recommend the way of service to them.”
According to his own account, “Until I was twenty nine years of age, I was a pilgrim. Five years before the plague year, I returned to Tashkent.” It was then that he became interested in agriculture. Following an inner vision that was given to him, he took a small piece of land and a pair of oxen provided by his family, and planted seed according to the indications he had received in his vision. From the start, his crops were amazing and he discovered the secret of finding the right crop for every type of land. The result of this was that many people developed their own land under his direction. Within a few years, he became one of the biggest farmers in Turkestan. He was responsible for introducing the system of cropping that made Turkestan the granary of Asia, for centuries. In regard to this, the Khwaja said, “God Almighty gave me such an extraordinary insight into the needs of plants and animals, that I can produce three, five, or even ten times more from the land than other farmers do.
The Khwaja owned more than 1,030 Hamlets that extended the whole way from Tashkent to Samarkand. His assets included agricultural land, orchards, houses, shops and mills, to which he later added mosques and religious schools. On one occasion, the Khwaja paid 250,000 dinars to Umar Shaykh Mirza to relieve the Muslims of Tashkent of a large part of their tax burden. Despite his astronomical wealth, the Khwaja’s lifestyle was like that of the humblest dervish in his lodge. All the revenue from his extensive holdings was put into religious endowment.
Khwaja Ubayd Allah said, “After four years in Herat, I set out for Khuluftu, with the intention of seeking instruction from Khwaja Yaqub Charki.” Once he met Khwaja Yaqub, he recounted, “Khwaja Yaqub held out his hand and said. ‘The venerable Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshband took my hand in his and said, ‘Your hand is my hand – whoever holds your hand, has held my hand.’ This hand is the hand of Khwaja Bahauddin, so take hold of it.’ I immediately took his blessed hand in mine and he instructed me in the method of negation and affirmation through numerical awareness.
After three months in his company, Khwaja Yaqub gave me permission to leave. On the day of parting, he gave me a complete explanation of the Way of the Masters. He described the method of bonding heart to heart and said, ‘Go gently in the teaching in this path. You may guide capable seekers to their destination.”
Mawlana Qasim Tabrizi, whom Khwaja Ubayd Allah studied under in Herat said to him, “It is right that you attain the Reality of your name.” This is explained in the record of the Khwaja’s life as, ‘the true significance of being a servant of God, ‘Ubayd Allah’, is revealed only to those who have become worthy of knowing the reality of God’s will. In every age one single man reaches that level of perfection. He is called the ‘Qutb al-Aqtab’ – ‘Axis of the World’. When the Shaykh said that Khwaja Ubayd Allah was to ‘realise his name’, he signified that he was destined to become the Great Axis and the Highest Caliph on earth in his time.
In 1451 AD, the Timurid Prince, Sultan Abu Said sought the Khwaja’s assistance and blessing before marching against Samarkand. This was given on the condition that the Sultan would strengthen adherence to the Sharia and promote the welfare of his subjects. The Khwaja accompanied the Sultan on this campaign, in which he was victorious, allowing him to rule over Samarqand. Khwaja Ubayd Allah also mediated between the Sultan and Babur. The Khwaja was a tower of strength to Sultan Abu Said, allowing him to influence the Sultan to introduce reforms beneficial to the peasants and merchants throughout Transoxiana.
Khwaja Ubayd Allah’s remarkably powerful spiritual presence attracted large numbers of influential disciples who spread out over India, Turkey, Iran and Arabia. From his close associates and from those who served him, we know that Khwaja Ubayd Allah was the embodiment of refined behavior, both inwardly and outwardly, in public and in private. He was always very friendly and attentive to those around him, taking pains to ensure their ease and comfort. His method of solving confrontation was peacefully, by way of meetings and compromise, rather than by fighting. He supported and developed the handcraft traditions of the region and was renowned for possessing special powers of insight.
He wrote many books, including ‘Anas as-Salikin fit-Tasawwuf’, ‘Al-Urwatul Wuthqa li Arbabal Itiqad’, ‘Fikrotul – Orifin’, ‘Risolai Khovraiya’ and ‘Risolai Volidiya’.
He died in 1490 AD in the village of Kemangiran, which is now a suburb in the south east of Samarkand, where he established a large School and Mosque, which are still in use today. He left two sons, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abdullah and Shaykh Muhammad Yahya, both of whom continued the teachings of their father. Khwaja Ubayd Allah passed the secret of the Naqshbandi Golden Chain to Khwaja Muhammad az-Zahid.
The Khwaja was survived by a large number of disciples from a variety of professional and social backgrounds. They ensured that the Naqshbandis continued their close relationships with the ruling dynasties, which included, Sultan Umar Shaykh Mirza who was the Khwaja’s close disciple and his son, Babur, who was also a life-long devotee of the Khwaja’s. The conquest of India by Babur in 1526 gave considerable impetus to the development of the Naqshbandiyya Order.
May God be well pleased with him.
Sources:- ‘The Naqshbandi Way – History and Guidebook of the Saints of the Golden Chain’ by Mawlana Shaykh Hisham.
‘Rashahat Ain al-Hayat – Beads of Dew from the Source of Life. Histories of the Khwajagan The Masters of Wisdom’ by Mawlana Ali ibn Husain Safi.
‘Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia’ by Hasan Shushud.
‘The Masters of Wisdom’ by John G. Bennett.
‘A History of Sufism in India’ by Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi.