Sufism in the subcontinent

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The spiritual dimension of Islam

 

 

It may seem ironic to many that throughout Islamic history the voices against religious fundamentalism did not come as much from the outside as from within the Muslim society. Indeed, for those attuned to the biased historical version of Islamic history, the discovery of Sufism as a major contributor to the spread of Islam would be insatiable. But the fact is that the expansion of Islamic rule in Indo-Pak was led not as much by Muslim warriors as by the Sufi saints.

As early as the 12th century, many Sufi orders had emerged in the Muslim world. Five of these Sufi orders migrated to the subcontinent in the coming centuries, namely the Chishti, Suhrawardi, Qadri, Naqshbandi and the Firdousi schools. The Chishti order which became the most prominent in the subcontinent, originated in Afghanistan in the middle of the twelfth century. It was Moinuddin Chisti who introduced the Chishti order in Punjab, mainly in the cities of Lahore and Ajmer. The Suhrawardi order originated in Iraq in the late twelfth century and was popularized in the subcontinent by Baha-ud din Zakariya and Jalaluddin Surkhposh Bukhari who made Multan and Uch the center of their activities respectively. Contrary to widely-held beliefs, the Muslim authorities at that time actually supported these Sufis; Shamsuddin Iltutmish of the Delhi Sultanate even appointed Baha-ud din Zakariya as the ‘Sheikh-ul-Islam’. During the time of the Delhi Sultanate, Sufi poets and saints were patronized by the state for their role in the spread of Islam. The Sufis meshed with the different religious groups in the society together on the grounds of common spirituality. It was hence a time when culture and arts flourished.

During the time of the Delhi Sultanate, Sufi poets and saints were patronized by the state for their role in the spread of Islam. The Sufis meshed with the different religious groups in the society together on the grounds of common spirituality. It was hence a time when culture and arts flourished.

While most people know about the strict edicts of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb under the pretext of Islamic law, historiographers conveniently choose to omit the antics of his brother Dara Shikoh who played an equally important role in the subcontinent, if not more. While Aurangzeb’s Fatwa-e-Alamgiri showed little tolerance towards people of other faiths, Dara Shikoh’s doctrine of inclusivity was its direct antithesis much to the enmity of his brother. Almost all Islamic Studies and Pakistan Affairs textbooks glorify the conquerors and warriors who expanded Islamic rule in the subcontinent. But there is hardly any such praise for those who did not get to exercise political authority, but certainly did hold spiritual authority in the hearts of many. Dara Shikoh’s poetic accounts of the events clearly indicate his stand against traditionalism.

With deep devotion to the love of God as the basic tenet of their spirituality, Sufis connected the Muslims with the Hindus. The Sufi saints of the 12th and 13th centuries were not missionaries. Neither were they merchants of faith peddling their religion onto others. They were simply men drunk with the love of God, and aspired only to work for divine pleasure. They served humanity regardless of their faith, caste and nationality. The teachings of the Bhakthi movement in Hinduism closely synchronized with that of the Sufis. The Bhakti movement was a reform from within Sufism that sought to break away from the prevalent caste system whereby the Brahmins were declared as superior to all other castes and the Dalits or the untouchables were discriminated badly against. It sought to create a more inclusive society, and the only criterion of its membership was boundless love for other human beings.

Interestingly the four famous Sufi saints in India, Moinuddin, Fariduddin, Qutbuddin and Nizamuddin were all Afghans. They came with the Muslim invaders to India. Perhaps this is the reason why many people confuse the spread of Islam in the subcontinent with the invasions from Afghanistan and Central Asia. Both the soldiers and the Sufis came around the same time, and since conversion was a mostly peaceful process, the latter had to play a larger role in it. Nizamuddin Auliya spread Sufism in Delhi from where it diffused to the south of India accompanying the expansion by the Tughlaq Dynasty. Not surprisingly, the orthodox ulema did not like the prominence that the Sufis were gaining and called for a return back to the ‘pure’ version of Shari’a.

With deep devotion to the love of God as the basic tenet of their spirituality, Sufis connected the Muslims with the Hindus. The Sufi saints of the 12th and 13th centuries were not missionaries. Neither were they merchants of faith peddling their religion onto others. They were simply men drunk with the love of God, and aspired only to work for divine pleasure.

After the fall of the Abbasid Dynasty in 1258 when the Mongols clawed down Baghdad, the biggest intellectual and cultural centre of the time, many had lost hope about the future of Islam. Islam in India, on the other hand, not only survived the Mongol terror, but bypassed it quite effectively. And the credit goes not to the fuqaha who dominated the Abbasid era, but the Sufi saints who preserved and nurtured the spiritual dimension of Islam. The infamous Mughal Emperor Akbar granted the same status to Hindus as was given to the People of the Book, the Christians and the Jews. The Jizya, or the poll-tax, on the non-Muslims was abolished. He even defied tradition by marrying a Rajput, and then allowing her to practice her religion within the palace. Akbar was deeply devoted to Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and regularly visited his tomb in Ajmer on foot. Even the Mughal Emperors, Babar and Humayun were known for their admiration of the Sufi saints, and the later always visited the tombs of Islamic mystics whenever he went to Persia. But Akbar was to become a controversial figure in Islamic history, because of his alleged creation of a new religion called ‘Din-e-Ilahi’, which was only a collection of ethical standards based on the religious discourses he attended. It is true that he commissioned the building of Hindu temples, but he also built many mosques. And while most would consider him to be a heretic, he never denied the Islamic Shari’a. Many of the misconceptions crept in due to a lack of understanding of tasawwuf. He never thought of himself as a prophet trying to gain followers, but rather he understood himself as a Pir (Sufi saint) and his devotees as murids(disciples). If anyone is to be credited for the creation of a new religion, it is to be Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism by the 16th century to bridge the gap between Islam and Hinduism.

Perhaps there needs to be through revision of the criterions of historiography. The Muslims of the subcontinent are greatly indebted to the Sufi saints in history for they created an environment of co-existence in a society where the Muslims were always a minority. Many of the great kababs and savoury dishes that we like to enjoy today were actually first prepared in Sufi khanqahs. Much of the classical music in the subcontinent that delights our ears today arose out of Sufi meditational practices. Perhaps it is not ironic then that many Pakistanis and Indians still lament about the partition and wish it never had happened. How could these two communities who had shared so much common with each other, be divided all of a sudden? Surely this may not discredit the two-nation theory and but is certainly a food for thought why we should not see the people across the border as ‘aliens’.