Islam in India


Sufism has always been undeservedly extolled and glorified by naive Hindus, even Hindu intellectuals, who have not cared to critically analyse its real role in this country. Some scholars including our incumbent President have gone to the extent of claiming that Sankara’s (born 502 BC) advaita has been deeply influenced from his contacts with Sufis! The name ‘Sufi’ referred to Muslim ascetics who clothed themselves in coarse garments of wool (suf). There have been mystics in every region and religion and those in the Arab world in pre-Islamic days were in all probability influenced by Hindu mysticism, and Buddhism (it should be remembered that Central Asia was wholly Buddhist then). With the advent of Islam with its rigid exoteric and fanatic tenets, the movement must have initially functioned underground. Later on compromises with Islam would have been made and mysticism brought under the Islamic fold. But these compromises killed the essential spirit of mysticism. The orthodox ulema never reconciled with the free spirit of enquiry but at the same time could not control the mystic and spiritual yearning in individuals, whenever it happened to find intense public expression. Thus, there has always been an uneasy resignation of the mind and intellect with regard to the severe persecution of Sufis under fanatic rulers, particularly Shias. The Sufis adopted Islamic terms described later in their spirituality and it is a pity that this movement, originating from our spirituality, has been misused later to convert our own people to a fanatic creed.

The adjustment was done very subtly. Advantage was taken of the fact that it is very difficult to be convicted of heresy in Islam where judgment on a man’s interior motive is reserved to God and man’s judgment is based largely on a person’s action. An individual was condemned only when he introduced innovations in religious law or repudiated it. Consequently, the Sufi leaders stressed that their religious practice was fully in line with sharia and their writings are choked with hadiths justifying it! In order to make themselves more respectable, the authority of the Sufi masters was traced right back to one of the first four ‘rightly-guided’ caliphs to different aspects of the Sufi path! But due to these compromises, Sufism could never spontaneously flower and gain depth, and most Sufi organizations only helped their rulers in extending the scope of Islam. The true Sufis have mostly functioned in seclusion.

The Three Stages of Growth of Sufism in India

Trimingham has studied the social order of Sufis extensively and classified their evolution in three stages. The first is khanaqah (rest-house or dharmashala), or the initial stage. During the reign of the Abbasids in the eighth century, individuals tired of opulence of the rulers and the dogma of the ulema, dropped out of society and became wandering monks. This was truly the golden age of Sufism with emphasis more on love of God and spiritual affinity with God than on fear of God. There was a loose master-disciple bond, but no structured organisation as such. Two important schools arose, the Junaidi - named after Abul-Qasim al-Junaid (d. 910 AD) and Bistami - named after Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 874 AD). The Junaidi School was the more orthodox, largely conforming to the Islamic dogma, sober and moderate and thus more acceptable to the orthodox and he came to be regarded as ‘the Shaikh of the Way’. The Bistami School on the other hand was characterised by ecstasy, rapture and intoxication and hence discouraged.

From about the thirteenth century, the second phase, tariqa, meaning ‘the path’ or ‘method’, was started with the establishment of mystical schools that began to coalesce around one or another master. Mystical techniques gradually crystallized into structured schools of thought, in which the method, consisting of a structured set of spiritual exercises, had to be learnt and mastered. During this phase the principle of the transmission of the method from one Sufi to another became explicit, resulting in the formation of spiritual lineages or silsilas (chain) that corresponded to each school and which could be traced back to the founder of each school. A guru-sishya relationship was now formally formed with greater systematisation, differentiation and specialization among the various schools. Manuals of rituals were now produced as guides for the director and his students. The power of the Word of God in Koran was stressed and orthodox rituals were invested with esoteric significance. The founders, many of them professional jurists, clung to the externals of Islamic practice and based their invocations solidly on the Koran. This won them the seal of approval from the ulema and also enriched the devotional life of the ordinary Muslim.

The thirteenth century was also an age of extreme disturbance and change as the non-Muslim Mongol hordes swept across central Asian Muslim states. Hence wave after wave of Muslim refugees including Sufis fled to those parts of the Muslim world which were relatively remote from this danger. Among these were Anatolia in the north-west and Bharat in the south-west. Many Sufis found a new home within the jurisdiction of the Turkish sultanate of Delhi. Sufis in India, during this period were influenced by the vibrant Hindu ethos of the country and through them; Islam acquired the dimension of a holy-man religion.

The Sufis and the gentle, seemingly mystical Islam acquired an aura of holiness around them which attracted gullible Hindus to them. There were two categories of Sufis in the country, those associated with khanaqahs and the wanderers. The former, were in a special sense, the focal points of Islam - centers of holiness, fervor, ascetic exercises and Sufi training. Contrary to the corresponding Arab institutions, the Indian khanaqahs grew up around a holy man and became associated with his tariqa or method of discipline and exercises. Two main tariqas were formed - that of Muinaddin Chishti (d. 1236 AD) and his follower, Qutb ad-din Bakhtiyar Kaki, of Ajmer and of Suhrawardi. They acquired such fame that they began to matter in the political and religious calculations of the ruling authorities and under them; khanaqahs sprang up everywhere, the majority without definite ascriptions. Wandering dervishes for whom they formed centers for training, meeting and hospitality were numerous and acted as cultural agents in spreading and stabilising Islam in India during this period.

Another significant development took place in the history of Sufism because of the Mongol invasion between the period AD 1219-95. Muslim Asia was subjected to the domination of non-Muslim rulers and Islam was displaced from its position as state religion. During this period the Sufis became, for the people, the representatives of the religion and were also responsible for the eventual conversion of Mongols to Islam. We should perhaps ask ourselves why the Hindu religion never attempted to accomplish the Hinduisation of successive Muslim and Christian invaders! Even after their death, the shrines in honour of the Sufi saints, and not the mosques, became the symbol of Islam for Iranians, Tartars and Turks. Thus Timur was nominally a Sunni but offered high respect and veneration for saints and their shrines, many of which he built or restored. His descendant, Babar, introduced the Naqshabandi order in India Thus, with this kind of State support and patronage Sufis gained a grudging respectability from the ulema in the world of Islam.

The third phase, taifa or cult-association, began from the fifteenth century. Direct communion with God was replaced by the veneration and even worship of a pir or Master who now occupied the position of a spiritual intermediary between the disciple and God. They also became hereditary, particularly in India, as blood replaced merit as the chief criterion of succession. Barakat, the intangible capacity of a saint to wield spiritual power and to attract devotees, was transmitted not only to a saint’s descendants (pir-Zadas), but also to his tomb. These tombs, in India called dargahs, generally replaced khanaqahs as the physical structure upon which the Sufi movements were based. Sufism now became more a devotional than a mystical movement and hence very popular among all sections of the people including impressionable Hindus, for attaining worldly desires. This phase witnessed the introduction of astrology, magic, belief in talismans and charms and other superstitions as means of preserving the flow of barakat from the saint. As Trimingham sums it up, if Sufis in the khanaqah phase surrendered to God, and in the tariqa phase to a method of discipline, in the taifa stage they surrendered to a person, the barakat possessing saint of whose cult they were members. But this development contributed to the decline of Sufism as a mystical path to god-realization. Spiritual insight atrophied and the Way became paved and marked. Except perhaps in Iran, Sufi writings ceased to show any real originality.

None of the orders in India could escape being influenced by their religious environment. Many branches became highly syncretistic, adopting various pantheistic thought and antinomian tendencies. Many practices were taken over from the Yogis- extreme ascetic disciplines, celibacy and vegetarianism. Wanderers of the qalandari type grew in numbers. Local customs were adopted; for example, in the thirteenth century the Chishtis paid respect to their leaders by prostrating themselves before them with their foreheads touching the ground. The Indian Qadiri shaikhs now extend very far the process of compromise with Hindu thought and custom.

The nineteenth century saw two major developments in the Sufi orders. The first was caused by the rise of the fundamentalist Wahabi movement which stressed a return to the simplicity of a mythical unadulterated Islam. They rejected any sort of intermediaries between man and God and as a result they destroyed the tombs of several Sufi saints in their regions of influence. Also extreme decadence had set in the Sufi orders and some of the reformers now stressed that the purpose of their spiritual practices was union with the spirit of the Prophet, rather than union with God. This change has been termed by some as Neo-Sufism and has affected the basis of their mystical life.

The Effect of Sufism on Hindus And Hinduism

Vedaprakash has analysed the role played for Islam by the Sufis. As stated above, the Sufis in India found great acceptability among the Hindus and they were respected for their deportment, dress, and use of Hindu terminology and for the manner in which they generally conducted themselves. They even adapted and adopted Hindu methods to make their cult attractive. It was propagated that the Atharva Veda was faithfully practiced by them. Their ‘Rishi Movement’ was an integral component of the process of Islamisation that started in the Kashmir valley in the wake of the introduction of the Sufi orders from Central Asia and Iran in the fourteenth century. In general they used their spiritual clout for converting Hindus without immediately changing their culture, i.e. externally they would be Hindus, but internally they were Muslims (crypto-Muslims) following all Hindu practices. This can be illustrated by the Bengali Muslims’ love for their language and culture, the Benaras Sunni community’s belief in various Hindu practices, Hindu laws of inheritance applicable to Khojas, and Puthi literature. The latter in fact contained many allegorical puranas and terminology. In one such book, Muhammad is considered as one of the Avataras, and Ali is worshipped as the tenth avatar in the Dasaavatara of Vishnu and the Imams are held to be his incarnation in turn. Even the conversion ceremonies were accompanied by Hindu practices and symbols like distribution of vibhuti and flowers and substitution of Ganga water for the Meccan Zam Zam water. The following terms common to Sufis all over the world and most probably borrowed by Sufis originally from Hindus, were used stressing their similarity to Hindu concepts.

Fikr Dhyan
Zikr Smarana or Japa
Voral Zikr Bhajan
Wird Manana
Shuhud Final stage of dhyana
Tasbih Mala or rosary

The following Sufi terms were used for their equivalents for the various Hindu stages of spiritual progress

Talab Yearning for God
Ishq Love for this attainment
Marfat Enlightenment after realisation
Fana Surrender
Tauhid Experiencing Allah permeating all
Hairat Ecstasy attained at the sight of Divinity
Fukr Wa Fana Moksha or Nirvana

According to ‘Vedaprakash’ only about 20% of the Indian Sufis were truly secular and spiritual in their outlook and had true respect for the Hindu religion and spiritualism. The rest, with the connivance of the Muslim rulers, only swindled the gullible Hindus. They have been the most fundamentalist, fanatic and extremist in their attitudes, behaviour and encounter with Hindus. Many Sufis served in the government, received free lands and donations apart from every assistance that government office could provide for their roles as ambassadors and spies.

The Chistiyya were the patron saints of Muslim rulers and Shaikh Abdur-Rahman Chisti advocated that the Chishtiyyas were the sole protectors of the King and Islam. Many in their order have been glorified for leading the Muhammadan armies and for acting as spies. The Shattariyya, Shaikh Abdullah marched with his disciples dressed as soldiers from Central Asia to Bengal to convert Bengali kafirs, that is, the Hindus. Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624) had written many letters to the rulers to wage jihad against the kafirs. The Sufi Nizamuddin Awaliya actively participated in jihads against the local people. Shaikh Nasirid-Din-Muhammad (d. 1356) advocating government service for Sufis and jihad has quoted

“The essence of Sufism is not an external garment
Gird up your loins to serve the Sultan and be a Sufi”

Many famous Hindu temples were taken over and converted into khanaqas and popular Hindu festivals were transformed into Muslim ones. The Sufis first occupied places near the temples, and then slowly began entering these temples to ultimately convert them into their places of worship. And soon, under some pretext the temple would be partly or fully demolished and the idols destroyed. Muslim rulers of the time connived with the Sufi saints in the whole process, often using force against the Hindus.

Frawley categorizes the Sufis into ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. We have seen the conservative category above. The liberal, mostly recent converts from Hinduism were tolerant and non-political, and although they had only recently cut off their umbilical cords from Hinduism, they too had been tainted by the stain of intolerance. Thus although Chistis are considered liberal, they considered themselves to be patron saints of the intolerant Muslim rulers of India and actively promoted conversions. The famous Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya had blessed and prayed for victories of the most ruthless of invaders, Allauddin Khilji. The Naqshabandi and Suhrawardi orders too were extremely intolerant. They criticised Akbar and helped Aurangzeb to murder his older brother Dara, a fine scholar, deeply influenced by the Vedantic thought. Both Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah, reputedly two of the most intolerant among the Sufis, belonged to the Naqshabandi School. In fact the latter conspired with Ahmad Shah Abdali of Afghanistan to invade India since they were worried about the rising Maratha power. Muhammad Iqbal, the twentieth century Muslim poet in undivided India who provided the poetic and philosophic inspiration for the creation of Pakistan, was a great admirer of both.

Eaton, studied the role of Sufis from the 14th to the 18th century in the kingdom of Bijapur in the Deccan plateau. He concludes that the stereotyped conception of medieval Indian Sufis as pious and peace-loving mystics lovingly preaching Islam among Hindus was grossly inaccurate and declares that the sufis actually played very active social and political roles. The hagiographic literature studied by Eaton describes the period when the first group of Sufis entered this region in the beginning of fourteenth century as being the ‘chalk of dawn’ of Islamic civilization in the Deccan. In the same literature they are also pictured as militant champions of Islam waging jihad in a Dar-ul-Harb, slaying countless Hindu infidels against overwhelming odds and, more often than not, being themselves slain in the process. The first ‘Warrior’ Sufis to arrive in Bijapur were around 1318 AD when Malik Kafur raided the South although traditions say that some had penetrated even earlier. They generally accompanied the invading armies and themselves were often professional soldiers. There being no established tradition of urban Islamic culture at that time, this category of Sufis could not relate to any court or ulema. Indeed, in one sense, they functioned as the ulema. Being the sole representatives of Islam, accompanying the armies, they declared and thereby legitimized the jihad against non-Muslims.

Early Islam was defined and sustained by the fear of Hell. Since death as a result of fighting a jihad was the surest passport to Paradise, it probably came about that in the early days, the Muslim faithful including their religious leaders, undertook religious warfare or jihad, particularly on the frontiers as their primary religious duty. It should be noted that this was a phenomenon noticed on all frontiers of Islamic territories and the Arabic word ‘ribat’ (equivalent to khanaqah in Persian), which originally signified forts or fortified lines, came to mean for the Sufis, hospices for religious life.

Sufis in Bijapur

Once Muslim power was firmly established through the Bahamani kingdom in 1347 AD, this class gradually disappeared. Now the more established and sophisticated orders like the Chisti and Shattari made inroads into the plateau. Initially they were established in the power centers of Gulbarga and Bidar, but after the dissolution of the Bahamani Empire, they gradually migrated to Bijapur whose power was firmly established around the middle of the sixteenth century.

The evolution of Sufis in Bijapur has been summarised by Eaton in the following table which compares the characteristics of the different categories of Sufis and their pattern of behavior from the Bijapur records, as the fortunes of this kingdom first waxed and then waned.

Attributes Warrior
Period 1275-1350 1575-1650 1500-1700 1650-1700 1650-1700 1650-1725
Relation to Court n.r. Integrated Indifferent Indifferent Integrated Hostile
Relation to Ulema n.r. Integrated Indifferent Indifferent Integrated Hostile
Relation to Islam n.r. Integrated Orthodox Orthodox Integrated Hostile
Relation to non-Muslims Hostile Indifferent Accommodating Accommodating Hostile Accommodating
Affiliation by Order None Qadiri, Shattari Chisti Chisti Qadiri, Shattari None
Affiliation by Class Foreigner Foreigner Deccani Deccani Deccani Deccani
Residence n.r. Urban Rural Rural Urban Rural
Literary Language Persian, Dakhni Dakhni

n.r. : Not relevant

The first powerful Sultan, Ali I, was a Shia and hence Sunni Sufis were discouraged from establishing themselves. But during the reign of the Sunni ruler, Ibrahim II (1580-1627), reputed to be more liberal by disposition, a great many Sufi orders came into being. The Sultan, a contemporary of Akbar, attempted to blend the best of Islam and Hinduism. This drew flak from the Sufis who still retained close ties with the Arab Mid-East and who sought to redirect the Sultan from what they considered his aberrant ways. Although these reformist Sufis could not influence him, they certainly were partly responsible for the nature of his successors, who were rigidly orthodox and fanatic about their faith. The genuinely mystic among the Sufis confined themselves to their khanaqas, indifferent to the politics of the court, and composed mystical literature both in Persian and the local Deccani Muslim dialect. The compositions were mainly in Deccani and it was around this time that saw the beginning of the decline of the kingdom. This phase began around 1650 AD and ended in 1686 when Aurangzeb annexed the kingdom which ultimately resulted in the total eclipse of this state. By this time the khanaqas were converted into tombs or dargahs of pirs, the master Sufis, and attracted a great many devotees. In this taifa stage, in order to win the loyalty of the hereditary pirzadas or descendants of the pirs, who commanded a significant following, large tracts of land were donated by the royalty creating the landed Sufi class which lived by the glory of their ancestors. This category of Sufis became increasingly more intolerant and there were many Hindu-Muslim riots as a result of this ‘army of prayer’.

As a reaction to these developments, there now arose in large numbers another significant class, the Dervish Sufis or majzub who were nonconformists, much like the hippies or the ‘flower children’ of the West in the 1960s. These were addicted to wine and bhang which lifted them to heights of ecstasy. This amounted to withdrawal from society and Eaton terms this phenomenon as ‘a return full circle to the point from which that evolution first sprang’ in Iraq and Khurasan. They were more tolerant of the Hindu society around them and in fact, adopted many of its practices.

The above discussions based on standard sources shows that the Sufi movement is quite complex. Hindu scholars will have to study it in depth in order to assess its actual impact on our society.

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