Does India need Sufism?

Does India need Sufism?


In the backdrop of the 9/11 attack and the war against terrorism that surfaced as an aftermath, several western scholars have exhibited a strong tendency towards promoting “Sufism” against the idea of “Islamism”. The policy has been nicely summed by Mamdani (2002) who admits that “we are now told to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims.”[i] An example of the official approach that adopts this doctrine could be discerned in Governor David Patterson’s take on the controversy surrounding the construction of the Park 51 Mosque in New York City. He considers the leader of the mosque, Imam Feisal Rauf a “good Muslim” owing to his affiliation with Sufism.[ii] The idea is not restricted to the American case alone. Rather it has travelled thousands of miles to reach India in recent times.

The renewed love for Sufism, expressed by a section of Indian intellectuals and policy-makers, seems to be guided by two popular notions about Sufism that our generation has swallowed and digested, thanks to the support provided by media, education and the entertainment industry. First among them is the belief that Sufism relates to a kind of philosophical musing that leads one to spirituality devoid of any religious dogma and orthodoxy. The second and more important concern and probably the reason why the Indian Prime Minister quite often speaks in favour of Sufism is the fact that encouraging Sufism is viewed as a handy tool in fighting radical Islam, as the official policy of many Maghribi countries suggests. Prime Minister Modi expressed his concern in no equivocal terms during his meeting with forty Barelvi Sufi scholars in 2015. He asked for their support so that Sufi thought could be used as an effective weapon to fight out “extremism” on Indian soil. He had similar things to say at the World Sufi Conference held at New Delhi in 2016. Since then, the prime Minister has every now and then made Sufism his trump card with which, he at once looks to silence his critics who blame him for being communal. At the same time, he also proves his resolve to fight against terrorism. Although his praise for Islam as a religion is a matter of his constitutional duty, his special engagement with Sufism is definitely a move towards fighting extremism with Sufism. The discussion that follows shall be an attempt to examine Sufism as a school of Islamic thought and its historical moorings in India in the light of these ruminations expressed by the Indian Prime Minister.

The Indian connection with Sufism could be discerned with the help of two remarks mentioned below:

“Sufism could take root in India, since in a sense it was already there, whereas the Semitic legalistic mentality remained alien to the Hindu ethos.”

  • Trimingham, Sufi Orders in Islam (1971:219).

Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century German philosopher, also considered Sufism to be an Indian invention. He wrote:

“In Islam, however, the most modern as well as the worst of all religions, this opposite tendency appeared as Sufism, that very fine phenomenon which is entirely Indian in spirit and origin, and has now continued to exist for over a thousand years.”[iii]

Therefore, at this juncture, a question must be asked: Did India need Sufism? The two views mentioned here stand up in support of the argument that India already had too much spiritual inclination to be bettered by anything like Sufism. But it’s a historical reality that Sufism did land in India and has survived to our times. What purpose did it serve? Did it change its character from what it was in Arab and North Africa? Trimingham (1971) answers this question in the affirmative. He along with others such as Carl Ernst (2005) is of the view that Sufism is largely influenced and shaped by local concerns. It also can’t be denied that localisation of Sufism has proved to be a suitable method for propagating Islamic thought and has maintained as well as enhanced the efficacy of Sufism as an instrument of spreading the teachings of Islam, especially those professed by the Hadith.

Is Sufi thought different from Islamic orthodoxy?

The much publicised enthusiasm about the spread of Sufi thought as part of governmental policy seems to be based on a popular understanding of Sufism. However, the term itself is hard to be fathomed by any means of ordinary reasoning. Carl Ernst (2005) who agrees that Sufism has been the major force behind conversion to Islam in Asia and Africa confesses: “There is no Sufism in general.”[iv] John Voll (2008) while trying to figure out the transformation in the core characteristics of the Sufi tradition takes refuge in the concept of “Neo-Sufism”.[v] Although there is some acceptance of the idea of “neo-Sufi consensus” among scholars working in the field of religious studies and comparative religion, it’s still difficult to demarcate neo-Sufi thought as a comparative idea vis-a-vis traditional Sufism. Talking in the sense of regional differences, one could cite the example of Indonesia where Sufism has drawn challenges from both Muslim modernists as well as Wahhabism with the consequence that there is a clear bifurcation between tareqat and tasawwuf (Howell, 2001). Thus, the term is hard to be assigned any label that corresponds to universality. Every investigation of Sufism as a mode of Islamic proselytism must limit itself to local history and culture as we shall see in what follows.

To begin with, let’s examine what Paul Heck has to say in regard to what is Sufism. According to Heck, “its goal is sanctity, embodiment of the godly holiness described by the Qur’an. It is thus a path to saintliness not as perfection of human virtue but as extension of the prophecy of Islam, standing in an integral relation to the ethical and theological outlook of Islam.”[vi] Furthermore, somewhat similar view has been taken by J. Spencer Trimingham (1971:220) who while referring to the Sufi tariqas of Egypt observes: “Holiness, not spirituality, was the criterion.” Daphna Ephrat (2008) in her independent inquiry relates Sufism with “Sunni revival of the 11th century”.[vii] Jamal J. Elias[viii] (1998) argues that in Asia and Africa, Sufism was a major force behind conversion to Islam. He also points toward the fact that Kalabadhi (d. between 990-995 AD) authored a book entitled, Kitab al-ta’arruf li-madhhab ahl al-tasawwuf that explains essential Sufi terminology with an aim to establish Sufism within Islamic orthodoxy, a view that has been supported by scholars such as Fazlur Rahman (1968).[ix]

While tracing the history of Sufism, scholars do distinguish between classical Sufism and neo-Sufism which is nothing but a remoulding of Sufi thought as a reaction to the international events that shaped the history of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hence, it is neo-Sufism which is closer to us in temporal terms and should be analyzed in detail in order to understand the real nature and essence of Sufism. Fazlur Rahman considered neo-Sufism to be in consonance with orthodox Islam. Referring to transformation in Islam propelled by neo-Sufi thought, Rahman (1968:254) opined: “Sufism reformed on orthodox lines and interpreted in an activist sense.”

Rahman looks at neo-Sufism as an attempt by Islamic orthodoxy to come to terms with other forms of popular religions spread across geographies of the world that were sought to be interpreted within the narrowly defined tenets of orthodox Islam.[x] This is what Rahman (1968:239) argued:

“… the moral motive of Sufism was emphasized and some of its technique of dhikr or muraqaba, “spiritual concentration,” adopted. But the object and content of this concentration were identified with orthodox doctrine and the goal redefined as the strengthening of faith in dogmatic tenets and the moral purity of the spirit.”

Various forms of Sufi life could confound one to believe that it represented a break from traditional orthodoxy in Islam. But that was not the case. Despite its many forms, it seldom distanced itself from orthodox Islam as explained in the passage below:

Sufis were of all kinds, differing considerably in type and direction; some lived lives of sobriety, others lived in a dream world, subject to states of ecstatic intoxication; some were ascetics, living in retreat, subjecting themselves to great austerities; others savoured to the full the power they exercised over the lives and souls of men. All this remained parallel to the orthodox institution.[xi]

Not just the variety in Sufi thought, rather the spiritual-philosophical exercise that it is generally attached with could be put to serious questioning. It could be argued that no matter how philosophically-oriented the exercise seems, Sufi thought should seldom be thought of as a departure from Islamic orthodoxy, a glimpse of which could be had in the statement below that refers to the famous Sufi saint, al- Sharani of Egypt:

His ethical Sufism and ability to hold the most incompatible views is typical of the men of the orders, for they drew upon the incomparable riches of centuries of Sufi exploration and insight, yet in regard to it they display the same mentality as fuqaha’, believing that exercise of the critical faculties is kufr or infidelity.[xii]

Thus, one could say with some conviction that Sufi thought ever since its inception right into the modern times does not adequately dissociate itself from orthodox Islam, especially Sunni Islam. Moreover, the Sufi saints did not keep from influencing the rulers of their days in almost every region where Sufism struck its roots. Therefore, the popularly held beliefs that border upon its apolitical and liberal-spiritual nature appear more mythical than real.

Was Indian Sufism different?

At this juncture, a review exercise must also be undertaken with an emphasis upon the Sufi chapters that operated in and from India. J. Spencer Trimingham (1971) argued that similar to Egyptian Sufism of al-Sharani that displayed a conformist tendency, Indian Sufism too had its orthodox trend. One of the earliest influences of Sufism in India was the Naqshbandi order which was in complete conformity with Islamic orthodoxy. The Indian version of the order was led by Baqi Billah whose views on Sufism in general, and on the tariqa that he led specifically, have been summed up in the passage below:

“Our tariqa”, Baqi-Billah noted, “is based on three things: an unswerving faith (rusukh) in the truth of the beliefs of the Sunni community (ahl-i sunnat wa jama’at), knowledge, gnosis (agahi) and prayer (‘ibadat). Laxity in any one of these throws one out of our tariqa”. The principal duty of a seeker, according to him, was to follow the shari’a. “Correct beliefs”, he reiterated, “regard for shari’a and sincere attention to God are the greatest wealth. No mysticism (zauq, wijdan) is comparable with this”.[xiii]

Baqi Billah considered mysticism as the path to becoming a true musalman which is characterized in one of his letters according to Muzaffar Alam. Alam explains:

In one of his letters, he elaborates on the question saying that beauty (jamal) and perfection (kamal) in a seeker follows from submission (bandagi), which meant prayer, fasting, alms-giving, war with the infidels, regard for the rights of the parents and others, and justice.[xiv]

The idea of “war with infidels” should be paid special attention as it is more in accordance with this-worldly dimension of Islam and at variance with the popular understanding that ascribes a higher spiritual function to Sufism. It must also be noted that during Akbar’s reign, one of the oft-mentioned liberal reigns among all Mughal rulers, the Naqshbandi Sufi order was fundamentally against any infiltration of non-Muslim, in fact ‘non-Sunni’ element into the kind of society it aimed at establishing. Taking stock of the Sufi influence on Akbar and the views expressed by prominent Sufi shaykhs of the time, Muzaffar Alam confirms:

“A major task of the ruler with whom they had contact, as is illustrated from Khwaja Ahrar’s relations with the rulers of his time, was not simply to ensure the comfort (asa’ish) and welfare (rifahiyat, khair) of the Muslims, but also to discourage and abolish the customs of strangers (rusum – i – biganagan). In their view, Muslim society was to be totally free from the evil (sharr) of non-Muslim social practices.”[xv]

Other glimpses of Islamic orthodoxy in Naqshbandi order could be found in the teachings of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, the follower of Baqi Billah. He was clearly against Yogis and Brahmins[xvi] and opposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud or “unity of being” propounded and preached by Ibn al-Arabi, one of the pioneers of Sufi thought.[xvii] It is said about Sirhindi that he aimed at amalgamating Sufism within shari’a and strove toward orthodoxy within Islam. Rahman writes with reference to extant historical sources related to Shaykh Sirhindi :

There are, for example, his practical letters to various nobles, courtiers, and potentates aimed at influencing their policies toward reviving orthodox Islam in public life, as well as his criticisms directed at Hinduism and Hindus.[xviii] (Rahman, 2000:168).

In fact, Sirhindi held views similar to Ibn Taymiyya with “resurrecting and rehabilitating the Prophet and his Shari’a, and causing them to prevail over the morass of amorphous spiritualities and ideologies of Sufism” as his prime motive.[xix]

Another popular Sufi order that had a substantial influence in India was the Tariqa-i-Muhammadiya that gained much ground in the nineteenth century. Rahman (1968) considers it an outgrowth of the neo-Sufi splurge that popped up as a socio-religious phenomenon all over the world. Muhammadiya held wide similarities with its North African counterpart, the Sanusiya order in maintaining Islamic orthodoxy reports Fazlur Rahman (1968). Tariqa-i-Muhammadiya was established sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was founded by Khwaja Mir Dard (d.1785) who aimed to base it on the lines of Shari’a-based Sunni Islam. The order actually drew its inspiration from the teachings of Mir Dard’s father, Muhammad Nasir ‘Andalib who was himself a member of the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidiya order. His attempt was to establish a Sufi order that had as its foundation the lead from Imam Hussain who introduced him to the spiritual path of the Prophet. The name of the tariqa veritably reflects this notion of ‘Andalib. Thus, there are strong reasons for one to believe that Sufism in India hardly digressed from the thoughts and practices of the orthodox institutions of Islam.

The role and influence of Sufism in India

  1. N. Madan (1988) found that in pre-Mughal period, Sufis became the agents of mass conversion in Kashmir and Bengal. He put it quite succinctly in the following sentence:

“In fact, anti-Hindu polemics were characteristic of Indian Sufism in the pre-Mughal period. Leaders of various Sufi orders were active in converting Hindus to Islam. Kashmir and Bengal, where mass conversions took place, were won over by Sufis no less than by kings.”[xx]

Furthermore, Richard Eaton (1974, 1993) tells us that it was the Sufi tradition that was responsible for conversion to Islam both along the Bengal frontier as well as down south in Bijapur. One must pay attention to the passage below, quoted from Eaton’s work:

The lamp of the Islamic religion and of true guidance

Which had [formerly] brightened every corner with its light,

Has been extinguished by the wind of unbelief blown by Raja Ganesh.

Splendor from envy of the victorious news,

The lamp of [the celebrated preacher, Abu‘l-Husain] Nuri, and the

candle of [the Shi’a martyr] Husain

Have all been extinguished by the might of swords and the power

of this thing in view.

What does one call the lamp and candle of men

Whose nature is devoid of virility [lit., has eaten camphor]?

When the abode of faith and Islam has fallen into such a fate,

Why are you sitting happily on your throne?

Arise, come and defend the religion,

For it is incumbent upon you,

O king, possessed of power and capacity.[xxi]

This is a sort of “SOS” call given by Nur Qutb-i ‘Alam, a Sufi saint of the Chishti order to Sultan Ibrahim Sharqi of Jaunpur. The Sufi saint implored that the Sultan invaded Bengal and freed it from the rule of “unbelief” under Raja Gansesh. He further wrote in anguish:

Infidelity has gained predominance and the kingdom of Islam has been spoiled.…Neither the devotion and the worship of the votaries of God proved helpful to them nor the unbelief of the infidels fettered their steps. Neither worship and devotion does any good to His Holy Divine Majesty, nor does infidelity do any harm to Him. Alas! Alas! O, how painful! With one gesture and freak of independence he caused the consumption of so many souls, the destruction of so many lives, and shedding of so much of bitter tears. Alas, woe to me, the sun of Islam has become obscured and the moon of religion has become eclipsed.[xxii]

The anguish expressed by the Sufi saint in these passages is an example of the intolerance towards the regime of the Hindu king, Raja Ganesh in Bengal. Another dictate from a Sufi saint to the king of Bengal could be glanced through in order to get a feel of what Sufism was like in medieval Bengal:

“Oh believers, don‘t make strangers, that is infidels, your confidential favourites and ministers of state.” They say that they don‘t allow any to approach or come near to them and become favourite courtiers; but it was done evidently and for expedience and worldly exigency of the Sultanate that they are entrusted with some affairs. To this the reply is that according to God it is neither expediency nor exigency but the reverse of it, that is an evil and pernicious thing.…Don‘t entrust a work into the hands of infidels by reason of which they would become a walī (Governor-ruler or superior) over the Musalmans, exercise their authority in their affairs, and impose their command over them. As God says in the Quran, “It is not proper for a believer to trust an infidel as his friend and walī, and those who do so have no place in the estimation of God.” Hear God and be devout and pious; very severe warnings have come in the Kitab (holy book) and traditions against the appointment of infidels as a ruler over the believers.[xxiii]

A parallel could be drawn with the views expressed by Sufis such as Khwaja Ahrar during the Mughal period as mentioned above. Thus, having been convinced that the torch of Islam in India ought to be kept uncontaminated by any native influence, the Sufis moved out to convert. There are clear signs that on many occasions the tactic employed for conversion by Sufi saints was not benign and innocuous. A sixteenth century biography of the thirteenth century Sufi saint, Jalal al-Din Tabrizi has this to say about his adventures in Bengal:

When he went to Bengal all the population there came to him and became his disciples. There he built a hospice and a public kitchen, and bought several gardens and lands as an endowment for the kitchen. These increased. There was also there a (river) port called Deva Mahal, where an infidel had built a temple at great cost. The shaikh destroyed that temple and in its place constructed a (Sufi) rest-house [takya]. There, he made many infidels into Muslims. Today [i.e., 1530–36], his holy tomb is located at the very site of that temple, and half the income of that port is dedicated to the upkeep of the public kitchen there.[xxiv]

Another major area that came under Sufi influence in the medieval era was Kashmir. The Sufi leader, sayyid Ali-Hamadani al- Amir al-Kabir reached Kashmir in 1371 with his 700 followers and encouraged ‘Islamic studies’ which was nothing but an exercise in proselytizing, argues Schimmel (1973).[xxv] However, that’s not all. There is further evidence of Islamization of older sacred places of Buddhist and Hindu faith when Hamadani reached Kashmir. “The great mosque and the khanqah – i – Mu’alla of Ali al-Hamadani in Srinagar are on former Buddhist and Hindu temple sites” says Trimingham (1971:230). Another comment by W. R. Lawrence confirms it. Lawrence writes: “when one sees the Musalman shrine with its shady chenars and lofty poplars and elms, a little search will discover some old Hindu Asthan.[xxvi] Thus, it now stands as an indisputable fact that Indian Sufism served as an instrument for religious conversion, not sparing any means – violent or non-violent to convert as many new recruits as it could in the medieval era.

Use of Sufi literature in spreading the ideas of Islam in India

Literature, especially Sufi literature in regional languages in medieval India did have a telling effect upon the prospects of Islam gaining success in inducting new members within its fold. In Bijapur, it was through the use of poetry and other forms of popular literature that Sufism expedited its mission of religious conversion.[xxvii] The effort was not to teach complex mystical ideas; rather it was an attempt to propagate Islamic precepts. Extensive research by Nehemia Levtzion has emphasized upon the significance of Sufi literature in spreading the faith of Islam. Levtzion notes:

Looking for common features of Sufi movements across the Muslim world I have observed that written Islamic literatures in the vernacular languages appeared simultaneously all over the Muslim world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that the predominant literary genre in all the vernacular literatures was the mystical verse (2002, 115).[xxviii]

However, what seems more worthy of mention is the fact that this process of communicating through literature in the vernacular resulted in the adoption of the activist mode by the followers of the Sufi shaykhs that eventually led to radicalization of Islam. Levtzion observes:

“A new Muslim leadership emerged that articulated the grievances of the masses, criticized the rulers, and contributed to the radicalization of Islam” (2002:117).

Looking at the Indian scenario, one must confess that there is a plethora of literature produced as a result of Sufi influence. The only question to be asked is: To what extent was it an attempt to syncretise other Indian faiths with Islam over and above spreading Islam in the subcontinent?

An effort at finding probable answers leads one to Man Kunto maula, a manqabat qawwali composed by Amir Khusrau in the praise of Ali. It is based on the hadith where the prophet says:

Whoever I am master to, Ali is his master too.”[xxix]

There are many more poems and manqabats composed in praise of Allah, the prophet, Ali, the Imams or other Sufi saints. It does not surprise one to note that there is nothing on Hindu gods and deities in all of this. The idea is clearly stated by Annemarie Schimmel who extensively researched on Islamic Literatures in India. Schimmel (1973:3) claims:

“From the 13th to the 15th centuries, the torchbearers of hadith studies – and of Islamic thought in general – were mainly the mystics who attempted to follow closely the example of the Prophet…”

It’s not just about the theological side; even the political side of Amir Khusrau can hardly be overlooked. Khusrau, a member of the Chishti order and a close friend of the famous Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya, wrote a work of prose under the title, haza’in al-futuh which is a compilation and celebration of the achievements and victories of Alauddin Khilji. He further continued his penchant for Alauddin Khilji by dedicating another work, matnawi Duwal Rani khizr Khan which carries an account of Khilji’s wars in Gujarat and Malwa. Stretching his royal love further, Khusrau also wrote Tughlaqnama in the honour of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq. Thus, Amir Khusrau and his works, often related with mysticism and considered beyond political rhetoric of the time, should be revisited from a new perspective.

Other Sufi mystics also seemed to be more serious about spreading their faith than in any thought of assimilation with other faiths in India. Ali al-Muttaqi (1481-1568) was an Islamic mystic who produced a compilation of hadith under the title, kanz al-ummal. He was preceded by Alauddin al-Maha’imi (1431), a Sufi mystic who wrote tabsir ar-rahman, a commentary on Quran. It is noteworthy that the first Persian work on Sufism, kashf al-mahjub was composed in Lahore sometime in the middle of the eleventh century by Ali Hujwiri. Lahore had then flourished as a centre for Islamic learning and this work in Persian added a new chapter to the ongoing process. Thus, Sufism was not a gaga tale of mellifluous syncretism which it is often related with. On the contrary, it could be argued that the tailoring that Sufi thought experienced in India was merely a garb to infiltrate those quarters of the Indian psyche that was otherwise impermeable.

As already noted, Sufism was nothing but a novel method of spreading the teaching of hadith. Besides, it was not as benign as it seems. Even in one of the relatively unorthodox reign of Akbar, the disdain for Hinduism was expressed by Islamic scholars, an example of which could be viewed in the following passage by Mullah Abdul Qadir Badauni who also had a fair share of mystic influence:

I seek God’s protection from the cursed writing which is as wretched as the parchment of my life. The reproduction of infidelity does not mean infidelity. I utter word in refutation of infidelity, for I fear lest this book written at the order of the Emperor entirely might bear the print of hatred.[xxx]

Of course the Emperor referred to was Akbar and the book that Badauni had just finished translating was Valmiki’s Ramayana. His other major work, Muntakhab ut Tawarikh expresses open hatred and contempt toward Hinduism according to Schimmel (1973). It is important to mark at this point that the so-called syncretism has been attributed to the role of the Mughals, especially Akbar that strikes one as a contrasting view in light of the evidence discovered here.

Questioning the apolitical nature of Indian Sufism: A historical appraisal

Although a predilection of the kind of politics that looks to support and promote Sufism in India is based on the foundational understanding that Sufism is mostly about tasawwuf and has little to do with politics and worldly affairs, a review of the historical evidence we possess leads us to think otherwise. Although the Chishti order that won considerable royal patronage during the reign of Akbar seemed to have imbibed Ibn al-Arabi’s concept of wahdat al-wujud that attributes a sense of unity to the entire universe and thus does not bother to differentiate kufr from iman, it had its own experiment with orthodoxy. In a hagiographical account, Siyar al-aqtab authored by Ilah-diya Chisti completed in 1647, the biography of the founder of the Chishti order, Mu’in al-Din Chishti does reveal strong political overtones that marked his character. The author asserts that it was a divine design that sent Mu’in al-Din Chishti from Mecca to India. Describing his arrival and the accompanying adventures, Carl Ernst writes:

He consequently arrived in Ajmer, with orders to unleash holy war on the infidel king, and he immediately threatened to destroy the idol temples there. He conspicuously slaughtered and ate a cow, arousing the wrath of the local populace, but they were unable to harm him.[xxxi]

Ernst (2005) further describes the biographical account that continues to show how Mu’in al-Din Chishti vanquished yogi Ajaypal and became instrumental in dethroning the Raja of Ajmer, eventually establishing the Delhi Sultanate. The ambivalence between religion and politics has been elucidated by Ernst as follows:

The story contains several elements missing in earlier Sufi biographies of Mu’in al-Din, particularly the emphasis on conversion to Islam and strident imperialism, so that it crosses the line between hagiography and royal historiography. The story’s triumphalism thus has a strong political dimension as well as a theological one.[xxxii]

Another story about a levitation contest between a Sufi and a Yogi ends with the yogi submitting to the Sufi in order to embrace Islam. What is interesting to note is the fact  that the story teller was Nizamuddin Auliya himself who takes pride in letting us know that the Sufi could fly to Mecca and was back to leave the yogi awe-stricken. The journey to and from Mecca was definitely inserted to introduce a religious element to the story. Although not worthy of belief the story served as a model for the conflictual nature of the relationship that Sufism had with other Indian traditions depicting a spiritual inclination. Thus, for the Chishti saints, the universal unity represented by wahdat al-wujud was more in theory than practice.

Besides, Sufism in the sixteenth century was not at all an apolitical, philosophical project as is widely portrayed. The primacy that the Naqshbandi order gained during the waning period of Akbar’s reign and after him is a clear indication of the fact that Sufism was more of an instrument engaged in promoting Islamic orthodoxy, the basis of which was sought in the teachings of Baqi Billah. Hence, it is not surprising that it is the Naqshandi order that held the strongest sway over Indian followers of Sufi thought led by saints such as Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Wali Ullah. Schimmel (1973) argues that Shah Wali Ullah’s ideas formed the guiding principle of the fundamentalist Islamic movements in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Shah Wali Ullah who could barely keep himself away from politics, is also known for his anti-Shia bias, of course not of the order of the dislike he had for other infidels of India such as the Sikhs and the Maratthas against whom he invited the Afghan leader, Ahmad Shah Durrani. It was a decision he took in order to save the faithful from the attacks of the infidels.[xxxiii]

Concluding Remarks

Thus, the logical argument often supplied as a ready answer by those promoting Sufism in India that it is the soft, innocuous and benign face of Islam and needs to be promoted as most Sufis are apolitical must be revised in the light of these historical facts. Considering examples from contemporary experiments, Fait Muedini (2012) shows how such policy has been pursued by governments of Algeria and Morocco based on the assumption of the apolitical nature of Sufism, but has largely proved to be a mistaken move.[xxxiv] The Indian story could be more complicated given the fact that the major Sufi orders in India have been Naqshbandiya and Muhammadiya that have depicted a strong bias in favour of promoting shari’a-based Sunni Islam. 


[i] See Mamdani, M. (2002). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism . American Anthropologist, 104(3), p. 767.

[ii] The discussion could be found at

[iii] See The World as Will and Representation (1969) by Arthur Schopenhauer, Vol. II, p. 605.

[iv] See “Situating Sufism and Yoga”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, 15 (1), 15-43.

[v] A detailed study of the concept has been presented in “Neo-Sufism: Reconsidered Again”, (2008), Canadian Journal of African Studies, 42 (2/3), 314-330.

[vi] Mentioned in the abstract to the article, “Sufism – What is it Exactly” by Paul Heck (2007), Religion Compass, 1 (1), 148-164.

[vii] Cited in Le Gall, D. (2010). Recent Thinking on Sufis and Saints in the Lives of Muslim Societies, Past and Present. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42(4), 673-687. See p. 677.

[viii] The view is expressed in his article entitled, Sufism (1998).

[ix] Rahman’s 1968 book, Islam acts as a compendium of his thoughts on Sufism.

[x] See John Voll (2008), “Neo-Sufism: Reconsidered Again”.

[xi] See Sufi Orders in Islam by J. S. Trimingham (1971), pp. 229-230.

[xii] Ibid. See p. 224.

[xiii] Quoted from Alam, M. (2009). The Mughals, the Sufi Shaikhs and the Formation of the Akbari Dispensation. Modern Asian Studies, 43(1), 135-174. See p. 171.

[xiv] Ibid. See p. 171.

[xv] Ibid. See p. 158.

[xvi] See Ernst, Carl W. (2005). Situating Sufism and Yoga. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 15(1), 15-43. See p. 25.

[xvii] For detailed discussion, see Rahman, F. (2000). Revival and Reform in Islam: A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, pp. 89-90.

[xviii] Ibid., p. 168.

[xix] Ibid., p. 168.

[xx] See Madan, T. N. (1989). Religion in India. Daedalus, 118(4), p. 132.

[xxi] Excerpted from Eaton, R. M. (1993).  The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Berkeley: University of California Press. See p. 54.

[xxii] Ibid. See p. 54.

[xxiii] Ibid. See p. 53.

[xxiv] Ibid. See p. 46.

[xxv] For details, see Schimmel, A. (1973). Islamic Literatures in India. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, p. 4.

[xxvi] See The Valley of Kashmir, London, 1895, p. 286

[xxvii] For a detailed discussion, see Eaton, R. M. (1974). Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam. History of Religions, 14(2), 117-127.

[xxviii] See Levtzion, N (ed.). (2002). The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies, p. 115.

[xxix] A discussion could be found at–shahe-mardaan.

[xxx] See Schimmel (1973:27).

[xxxi] Excerpted from Ernst, Carl W. (2005). Situating Sufism and Yoga. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 15(1), 15-43. See p. 34.

[xxxii] Ibid. See p. 35.

[xxxiii] See Schimmel (1973:49).

[xxxiv] For a detailed discussion, see Muedini, F. (2012). The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco. Islamic Africa, 3(2), 201-226.


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Akhilesh Pathak

The author is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.