Islam emerged in India as the spiritual legacy of the Muslim mystics and Sufis. Islamic mystics or Sufi saints of India stood for the unity of existence (Wahdatul Wujud), universal brotherhood (Ukhuwat-e-Insani) and a deeper personal relationship with the Creator (Wisal-e-Ilahi). All these inclusive and tolerant Sufi teachings hold vital relevance for contemporary debates on religious toleration, composite culture, coexistence and pluralism….
Sufi saints disseminated their pluralistic messages in the Indian subcontinent at a time when the idea of religious tolerance was not even debated in a large part of Western Europe. They laid greater emphasis on the broader Qur’anic notion of wasatiyyah (moderation in life) maintaining a moderate narrative of Islam. It exhorts man not to transgress the limits determined by God. Since the Sufi saints practiced this spiritual Islamic principle in its entirety, they shunned all forms of extremism (tatarruf), harshness (tanattu), violence (tashaddud) and exaggeration (ghuloow) not only in matters of faith, but in all walks of life. They believed that spirituality is a luminous and universal body of truths that wins the hearts. However, they strongly disagreed with the practices of subjecting spirituality to any narrow interpretation of religion. They rather advocated the universal values of religion that reach the minds and the hearts of people beyond man-made distinctions’. Thus, they found the solution to human problems both of material and spiritual nature, in their spiritual reading of Islam.
Indian Sufi saints inspired a huge following by their theory of sulh-e-kul (peace for all), a Sufi term that essentially means: love for all and hatred for none. This greatly impacted their attitude towards other faith traditions. Indian Sufis were keen to share commonalities with adherents of other faith traditions they encountered in the subcontinent, notably the yogis and the mystics of the Vaishnav tradition, both influential in this land of age-old Vedic tradition. Their liberalism was beautifully reflected in their halqas (sessions) of harmonious Sufi music or the sima, against the vehement opposition from the orthodox ulema. Since the Sufis were practitioners of the spiritual doctrine of Wahdatul Wujud (the unity of existence), they strongly believed that the light of God is present in all creations and, thus, taught their followers to respect people of all faith traditions.
As a result, they were loved and admired by all and sundry. People of all caste and creed, faith and tradition were equally inspired by the immense sincerity and simplicity in the lives of these mystically-inclined saints. Imbued with the lofty mystical experiences, Indian Sufis lived by the Prophet’s ideals of simple living. They renounced the extravagant and wasteful aspects of life and followed the higher humane ideals in an effort to serve humanity at large. They also exhorted their followers to live by the same ideals, leaving behind glorious examples for others to emulate. The very spiritual epithet “Sufi” is literally driven form the Arabic word “Suf” meaning wool, the preferred clothing of Sufis. They used to shun attractive clothes made of silk and other fineries. But this line of thinking was not an outcome of any ascetic approach of life. They were, rather, inspired by the Qur’anic exhortation that unveiled the deception rooted in the life of the glamorous world.
What actually appealed to all Indian peoples, regardless of caste and creed, was the Sufis’ spiritual legacy of humanism and social activism. The Sufi saints of India combined their mystical search with a spirit of social service. It was upheld by their shrines and khanqas running across the country as seminaries (madrasas) of mystical learning, experience and enlightenment. The curriculums of those madrasas were so broad and inclusive in their worldview that students and disciples from all backgrounds were cordially welcomed. Devotional songs were composed there in different vernacular languages and Sufi music (sima’) was considered a manifestation of complete submission to God.
The great Sufi saint who had a fair share in preaching Sufism in India was Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, who left his abode, Herat in Afghanistan, in search of higher spiritual learning and experience. Having visited the central Islamic seminaries his time, travelling all across Central Asia to the Middle East, Khwaja sahib attained solace in India. He gave a definite turn to the Sufi narrative of Islam by introducing the element of ecstasy and the mystic doctrine of the immanence of God. Inspired by the early Sufi masters, notably Khwaja Usman Haruni, he focused on the loving devotion to God, discipline of the individual soul and brotherhood of mankind. Consequently, his mystical mission fostered amicable understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. At a time when India was struggling to rise above the differentiators of cast and creed, the Sufia-e-Kiram stressed on the essential Qur’anic message of equality and prophetic saying that “All mankind is one family of a God”.
Thus, one of the most glorious impacts of Sufi saints on Indian society was the widespread phenomenon of social integration between common Muslims and non-Muslims. Even many non-Muslim brethren, particularly Hindus and Sikhs, chose to become Murid (disciples) of Sufi saints. It was the mystical impact of Sufism on composite Indian culture and society that inspired the Bhakti movement in southern India first and then in northern India. Even Sikhism preached by Guru Nanak was highly inspired by Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf) due to its emphasis on monotheism and rejection of caste system and idol worship. However, among all the mystical movements and spiritual interpretations of different faith traditions, the common cause was the stiff opposition to the priestly domination and obsession with false rituals and dogmas.
Sufis espoused one of the foundational principles enshrined in Islam: freedom of religion. They maintained and encouraged the view that coercion in matters of religion goes against the spirit of every religion. They believed that the true believer is truly free. That is to say, freedom is increased to the degree belief is strengthened. The notion of freedom was so endeared by the Sufi saints that a Turkish Sufi, Saeed Nursi described it as the most important principle in life. He proclaimed: “My freedom, which I am most in need of, is the most important principle in my life. I can live without bread, but I can’t live without freedom.” It is also gratifying to note that the Indian Sufi saints encouraged the rationalist and non-conformist elements in society. For instance, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia followed an inquiry on the laws of movement, which displayed a remarkable degree of empirical thought.
But the puritanical ulema, motivated by vested interests and temporal temptations, denounced these Sufi saints for their liberal ideas, declaring them zindiqs (heretics), badmazhab and gumrah (misguided). Nevertheless, Sufis had nothing to worry about any such retrogressive pronouncements or fatwas of the maulvis. Rather, they vigorously carried on with their lofty humane pursuits and fruitful social work, particularly for the poor and other downtrodden sections of society. Thus, the Sufi saints were more influential religious and spiritual leaders than the orthodox ulama for the Indian Muslims.
In contemporary Indian subcontinent, the impact of Sufi saints can still be seen through the prism of arts and culture. The multi-faceted Indian Sufi tradition reflects an essentially peaceful and pluralistic culture that connects contemporary Indian Muslims to their old-age Indo-Islamic heritage. The redeeming features of Sufism’s appeal in India continue to be its inbuilt qualities of openness, wide embrace and social accommodation. Therefore, it can be maintained that a completely peaceful, non-conformist, inclusive and pluralistic Islamic trend is still alive in Indian Sufism.
However, the spirit of Sufism is constantly in decline in India today. Scores of false claimants of the peaceful Sufi legacy are emerging with conformist religious attitudes and thoughts inimical to the very spiritual foundations of Sufism. As a matter of fact, there is no dearth of pseudo-Sufis in India today who are, consciously or unconsciously, influenced by the radical Wahhabi thoughts or motivated by other hardcore sectarian denominations. Sufism, which was known for its core values of inclusiveness, tolerance, moderation and social integration, is now in the clutches of fraudulent mullahs and pirs preaching retrogression, exclusivism, totalitarianism and weird forms of religious extremism. These pseudo-Sufis are exerting feverish, crazy and fruitless efforts to ‘purge’ Sufism of its core universal values, declaring them out of the realm of Islam, something that is akin to the Wahhabis’ puritanical attempts to ‘purify’ Islam. Clearly, it is a very disturbing development that the spiritually-inclined moderate Muslims must get concerned with.
Regrettably, today’s ‘Sufis’ (I would rather call them pseudo-Sufis) are not all that mystically-inclined, inclusive, tolerant, moderate and progressive as the true harbingers of Sufism had been. Mostly, the ‘modern’ Sufis have become overly ritualistic ‘pirs’ (priests), dynastic ‘gaddi nasheens’ (custodians of the shrines) and self-serving and rapacious mujawirins (shrine keepers). Thus, the widespread phenomenon of Sufism is drastically turning into merely dargahiyat and khanqahiyat, being rigidly confined to the ritualistic and retrogressive customs of the shrines. One can only howl in pain at the shocking and painful state of affairs at the Sufi mazaars today. Instead of God-loving and man-serving Sufi saints who used to run their khanqahs at one time by way of service to the Indian society and in an effort to please God, the petty property dealers and rapacious businessmen are ruling the roost today. This is, very ironically, true of most of the dargahs today, although a few exceptions do exist.
Today’s Sufism in India is being reduced, to a great extent, to only occasional Shrine visitation, spiritual consultation or observance of Sufi-oriented rituals and festivals. Modern Indian pirs and ‘Sufi’ priests have become almost oblivious to the universal spiritual messages of Sufi saints who instilled the culture of pluralism, tolerance and moderation in the Muslim community for centuries. They are busy with their lucrative occupations in the khanqahs and mazars (Sufi shrines), enjoying piri-muridi (disciplehood) and earning enormous material profits. Now their business is reduced to merely providing spiritual consultation to the shrine visitors and devotees, who look up to them as their peer-o-murshid (spiritual guru) seeking blessings and prayers.
More surprisingly, the Sufi-oriented madrasas have removed the portion of Sufi literature that was taught in Indian madrasas, as an integral part of Dars-e-Nizami, for long. As a matter of fact, Sufi literature helped the madrasa graduates to embrace universal values and essential messages of Islam such as brotherhood of mankind, pluralism, tolerance, religious harmony, moral excellence and service to humanity regardless of faith and creed. The Sufi texts such as Masnawi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi served as the main stimulus for exhorting great moral and spiritual ideals. But, since they have been removed from the current Madrasa curriculum, Dars-e-Nizami, their students’ social attitude, moral behaviour and worldview have started deteriorating. As a result, even the students of Sufi-oriented madrasas have developed an attitude of intolerance and disharmony in character and views. However, this unfavourable development is severely criticised by the Sufi practitioners among the then Indian Muslims.
As a result, today’s Sufis in India have almost lost an impacting ideology that continued to preach peace and moderation for centuries. As the moderate Sufi messages are no longer the influential guidelines for the common Muslims in India, radical thought is easily taking roots in major parts of the country. The radical clergy are playing their part, in a more spirited and concerted way, to reshape and radicalise the common religious mindset of Indian Muslim community, adversely impacting the harmonious culture in the country. However, it is gratifying to note that somewhere in the country, a group of spiritually-inclined moderate and progressive Muslims, although very few and with meagre resources, are waking up to this reality with an aim to revive the harmonious Sufi tradition of peace, pluralism and tolerance in the country. They are the only rays of hope for the spiritually-inclined Muslims today.
Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur’anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his Ph.D from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.