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Contribution of Sufism in Religious Policy of Modern India by Gourishwar Choudhuri

Despite use of the term ‘Secular’ in the Constitution of India, in practice, essence of secularism is reduced (if not abused) to appease all religions including their minute denominations as well. Such official religious policy of the State in turn has encouraged fusion of religion and politics that prompts the countrymen of diverse religions bleed inter se and all these are accomplished in the name of divinity. Sufism is a cult that inspires a transcendental trajectory of secularism since long back.

It has been rightly observed that Sufism is “free from the shackles of religion”. Thus the universality of Sufism is accepted on all hands. The present paper makes an attempt to trace the origin of Sufism, its role as an unifying and syncretistic force in Medieval India and the current relevance of its teachings in fostering communal harmony and religious tolerance.

Before studying Sufism as a phenomenon it would be profitable to study the emergence of Islam as a religion. It was during the holy month of Ramadan in 610 A.D. that, an Arab businessman had an experience that changed the history of the world. Muhammad ibn Abdullah used to retire to a cave in the Mount Hira every year at this time to pray, fast and give alms to the poor. He was much concerned at what he perceived to be a crisis in the Arab society. There was growing spiritual restlessness in Mecca and throughout the Arabian peninsula as the Arabs knew that the Judaism and Christianity which was practised in the Persian and the Byzantine empires was more sophisticated than their own pagan traditions. It seemed to many of the thoughtful people in the Arabia that the Arabs were a lost race ignored by God himself.

All was to change on the night of 17 Ramadan when Muhammad felt himself overpowered by a devastating presence. A voice ordered him to recite and he recited in the name of Allah. In this way the Holy Quran was first revealed to Muhammad. At first he kept quiet as more revelations poured in and it was only in 612 A.D. that he felt empowered to preach and gradually gained converts- his wife Khadija, his cousin Ali, his friend Abu Bakr and the young merchant Usman. Its teachings were simple it advocated the worship of a single God called Allah who had created the world and who would judge humanity in the last days instead of polytheism and idol worship.

 The new sect was called Islam (surrender) and a man or woman who made this submission of their entire being to Allah was called a Muslim. Muhammad acquired a small following and eventually some seventy families converted to Islam. The powerful man of Mecca soon began opposing Muhammad as they believed he was preaching against the belief of their fore fathers. The continued hostility of the Quraysh compelled the Prophet Muhammad to look elsewhere for the propagation of his faith. He ordered his followers to migrate to Yathrib. He himself migrated to Yathrib which was later renamed Madinah and reached there on 2nd July 622 A.D. This is called Hijrat or Migration and the Muslim era Hijri dates from this event. Phillip K. Hitti observes, “The Hijrat proved a turning point in the life of Muhammad.”[i] The years of humiliation, of persecution were over and the years of success begun. From 622 to 632 A.D. Prophet Muhammad was in charge of the expanding community (Umma) at Medina and by the time of his death in 632 A.D. almost all the tribes of Arabia had joined the Ummah. During the rule of the Umayyad (661-750A.D.) and the Abbasid caliphs (750-1258) Islam spread over the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe.[ii]


However not long after the Prophet’s death Islam began to have its internal convulsions. The first great schism took over the question of the privileges of the descendants of the Prophet, especially through the line of his cousin and son-in-law Ali and it involved both theological and political issues. This division led to the emergence of the sect called Shias.

Emergence of Sufism

Another important development was the growth of Sufism or Islamic mysticism. Before tracing the origin of Sufism it is important to discuss the origin of the word Sufi. Most of the Sufis hold it is derived from the word Safa (purity) and that Sufi is one who has been purified from all worldly desires and passions. Others connect it with the word Saff (rank) since a Sufi in spirituality is in the first rank by virtue of his communion with the Supreme Being (Allah). There is another school of opinion, which holds that the derivation of the word is not on any philosophical grounds and that it is derived from the word Suf- the garment of coarse un-dyed wool- which has been the habit of the Sufi saints and all those who follow the ascetic way of life.

The genesis of Sufistic tendency in Islam is obscure as it is a complex phenomenon. It seems to have gained currency in the second century of the Hijri (Islamic era). It developed as an obvious reaction to the growing theological prescriptions of earning merit (sawab) with God for reward in afterlife.[iii] However ancient Sufism had strong ascetic tendencies while the mystical element in it was insignificant.[iv]

Doctrines of Sufism

The Sufis admire God in everything and it can very well be asserted that the basis of Sufism is essentially universal. It is not a sectarian religion outside the pale of Islam but it differs from orthodox Islam in its attitude towards God and the problems of life. The Sufis seek to explore the spiritual world not through the cold formalism of the Law (Shariat) but through the warm mystic path of way (Tariqah) of yearning after and coming into union (wasl) and fellowship with God.  In fact we can say that if mysticism deals with inner and emotional life of man than Sufism seeks to give a mystic interpretation to Islam. According to the Islamic theory Sufism was born in the bosom of Islam. Louis Massignon, the French orientalist and R.A. Nicholson and Arberry the two British scholars are of the opinion that Sufism is essentially Islamic, the Quran and the Hadith supplying its basic framework. But it would be historically incorrect to claim that Sufism was not influenced by foreign ideology or element. Mysticism was prevalent among different peoples before the advent of Islam- the Chinese, the Jews, the Persians, the Greeks and the Indians. So with the expansion of Islam in the different parts of the globe Sufism or Islamic mysticism came to adopt various forms.[v] Dr. Tarachand aptly remarks, “Sufism is a complex phenomenon. It is like a stream which gathers volume by the joining of tributaries from lands. Its original source is the Quran and the life of Muhammad. Christianity and neo-Platonism swelled it by a large contribution. Hinduism and Buddhism supplied a number of ideas and the religion of ancient Persian Zoroastrianism brought to it its share.”[vi] On other hand some scholars believe that although some concepts such as nirvana or bhakti may have been transmitted to the Arab world from Sind but the positive evidence for it still remains tenuous.[vii]

Sufism has produced some of the most loveable men and women of God. One of the earliest Sufi mystic was a woman Rabia of Basra (717-801A.D.) who has inspired a number of later Sufis. She laid emphasis on love of God (ishq) as the only valid reason of obeying Him. The logical corollary of this absorption in love towards God was the rejection of Paradise as the goal of ethical endeavour and its replacement by an aspiration for annihilation (fana), the elimination of self through the attainment of an absolute union with God. In fact when Mansur bin Hallaj proclaimed Anal-Haq (I am Truth) he was merely expressing the Sufi belief that unification with God was the highest stage of enlightenment. But he was arrested on the charge of heresy and on his refusal to recant was executed (10th century).

The philosophical ideas and the doctrines of Sufism were formulated between the 10 and the 12th century, the rise of various schools or silsilahs was completeand the organization of the Khanqahs or hospices had been established. Some of the Sufis also supported musical gatherings (sama) in which a state of ecstasy was created but this was again frowned upon by the orthodox ulema. Al- Ghazali (d. 1112) helped in many ways to reconcile mysticism with Islamic orthodoxy.

Sufism in India and its syncretistic role

There are three distinct phases in which the Muslim incursion took place in the Indian sub- continent. The first phase is the conquest of Sind and Multan in 712 A.D. by Muhammad bin Qasim a lieutenant of Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the viceroy of the eastern province of the Umayyad Caliphate. This conquest did not produce any long term impact. In the second phase the Yamini Sultans, Amir Sabuktagin and his son Sultan Mahmud repeatedly invaded the Indian sub continent in the 11th century and the latter in particular penetrated deep into the sub-continent invading as far as Kanauj in the East and Somnath in Gujarat in the South. The third phase started with the Battle of Tarain (1191) and led to the establishment of Turkish rule in India with Delhi as the capital. It was in the third phase that a number of Sufi saints arrived and settled in India.

The earliest name of the Sufi saint that we come across in India is Ali Hujwiri (d. 1071). In fact the Sufis by this time were divided into a number of schools or silsilahs. Abul fazl in his Ain-i-Akbari lists fourteen silsilahs. Some of which are Habibe, Zaidi, Baghdadi, Chishti, Tusi, Firdausi, Suhrawardi and Shattari. However the two most influential orders were the Chishti and the shurawardi centered at Delhi and Multan respectively. The Chishti order was founded by Khwaja Abdal Chishti in Herat and brought to India by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1141-1236) who came to India in 1192 and settled around Ajmer. The most famous Chishti Sufis included Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi and Nasiruddin Chirag Delhi. On the other hand the Suhrawardi order was founded by Shaikh Shihabuddin Suhrawardi but the real founder of the order in India was Shaikh Bahauddin Zakariya.

These Sufi saints played an important role in bringing about a rapprochement between the Hindus and the Muslims. In fact the Sufi saint adopted many Hindu practices and were messengers of religious syncreticism. Historians observe that there are many apparent similarities between Hindu thought and Sufism in Islam especially in its developed form. Al- Beruni (c.973-1048) remarked that the Sufi theories of soul were similar to those in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. He also identifies the Sufi doctrine of divine love as self-annihilation with parallel passages from the Bhagavad Gita.[viii]

By the thirteenth century the Indian Sufis were confronted with the Kanpatha (split-eared) yogis or the Nath followers of Gorakhnath. The Yogic Natha cult was compound of Patanjalis Yoga doctrines, Buddhist and Hindu Tantricism, Saiva agama doctrines and the principles of the Hindu science of alchemy (rasayana). Siva (Adi Natha) was considered as its legendary founder and Matsayendranatha as its first human preceptor. However it was Gorakhnath[ix], the successor of Matsayendra who built a dynamic organization and philosophy through treatises and poems.

Renowned Sufis of the Chishti, Firdausi and the shattari orders freely associated with the Natha Yogis. Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh Delhi observed that controlled breathing is the essence of Sufism. He urged practising articulated breathing like the Yogis and gradually yogic postures and controlled breathing became an integral part of Chishtiyya Sufi practise. Some Sufis also adopted the practise of growing their hair long like the Yogis.[x] The Nath doctrines had great influence on the Chishti Sufi Shaikh Abdul Quddus Gangohi. His Hindi nom de plume was Alakh (Imperceptible). He described Gorakhnath not as a person but an Absolute Being, a Perfect Man (one who realised oneness with God).[xi]

The Nath ideas found great popularity in fifteenth century Bengal. The Amritakunda, a text on Hatha Yoga, was first translated into Arabic in Bengal in the early thirteenth century. A converted Tantric Brahman, Bhojar Brahman or Bajra Brahma helped Qazi Rukunuddin Samarqandi, Imam and chief Qazi of Lakhnauti to translate it into Arabic and Persian (Hauz ul Hayat).[xii] Sayyid Sultan of Chittagong also composed a number of Bengali works on Muslim themes of absorption into God with Yogic and Hindu overtones. The Natha Siddhas ‘Conception of Ultimate Reality’ resembled the Sufi concept of Unity of Being (Wahadat ul Wajud) explained by Persian Sufi poets like Attar (c. 1142-1220), Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-73), Shabistari (d. 1320) and Jami (1414-92). Sufis like the Vedantists strongly believe in the philosophy that all is one and one is all. In fact the theses of the higher Vedanta and that of Rumi’s doctrine of the Unity of Being is essentially one and the same thing.

The Hindu mystic tradition typified by Vaishanavism influenced Sufism especially with regard to the relation between God and Man. Ibn ul Arabi’s symbolism of love hardly differed from the poems on Radha- Krishna love. A sixteenth century Sufi saint Shaikh Abdul Sahid Wahid Bilgrami (1510-1608) compiled a Persian dictionary Haqa’iq-i- Hindi which was intended to crush orthodox opposition to the use of Vaishnavite themes  in the Hindi poetry recited by the Chishtiyya Sufis to arouse ecstasy. The dictionary also showed the relevance of the Symbolic poetry of Vaishnava mysticism to Islam[xiii].

The cross-fertilization of Sufi beliefs with those expressed by the Kashmiri Saivite woman Yogi Lalla is reflected in the Rishi movement of Shaikh Nuruddin (d. 1439) of Kashmir.  The Shaikh’s teachings are embodied in his Kashmiri verses some of which are almost identical with those composed by Lalla. Shaikh Nuruddin and his disciples preferred to call themselves Rishis, using the well-known term for the Hindu sages, not Sufis. The Sufis in India also absorbed the idea of pacifism and non-violence peculiar to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Shaikh Nuruddin believed that, although eating meat was permitted by the Shari’a, it entailed cruelty to animals, and became a vegetarian.[xiv]

In the Sufistic system an important concept is that of pir-i-muridi which is very similar and closely analogous to the Hindu Guru-chela relationship. Orthodox Islam does not allows for any intermediary between the creator and the created but to the Sufi the importance of the Pir in the life of a disciple in his quest for the Ultimate Reality is as great as that of the Guru or Acharya in the Hindu social and religious system. In fact by the sixteenth or and the seventeenth it was very common for the majority of the practising- Muslims in India to have a Pir, often linked with some Sufi order or the other, like the Hindus seeking the guidance of the Guru for spiritual salvation.[xv]

Arnold Nicholson was convinced that the idea of Fana (self-annihilation passing away into the universal Being) is certainly of Indian origin, probably derived from the Buddhist concept of Nirvana.[xvi] The German scholar Richard Hartmann opined that Sufism is inwardly permeated with Indian theosophy. R.C. Zaehner, Spalding Professor at Oxford University, after examining this aspect critically came to the conclusion that Sufism is Vedanta in Muslim Dress.[xvii] He believes that some fundamental tenets of Sufism about the Absolute or the God and the relation of individual Souls to it were possibly derived from the ideas of Vedanta of Sankara.

The Hindu mystic tradition typified by Vaishnavism also greatly influenced Sufism. In Islam the relation between Man and God is like that of Master and Slave but in Vaishnavism it is considered to be between the Lover and the Beloved. In Sufism the relation between Man and God is considered to be that between Ashik and Mashuk which is more influenced by Hinduism rather than Islam.[xviii] So we can safely say that Sufism has undergone sea-changes. Hence Sufism is Indianism in Indian context.

A Sufi order which emerged in and around Delhi and preached the doctrine of Wahadat-ul- Wajud was the Qadriyya order. A renowned Sufi of the order was Mulla Shah who settled down in India in 1614-15. His most controversial work is a commentary on Quran which he composed in 1647-8. Defining the infidel he wrote:

Oh believer! The infidel who has perceived the Reality and recognized it is a believer. Conversely the believer who has not perceived the Reality and has not recognized it is an infidel.

In 1639-40 both Prince Dara Shukoh and his sister Jahan Ara became the disciples of Mulla Shah. Dara Shukoh also wrote a number of Sufi treatises. His most significant work was the Majma-ul- Bahrayn (The Mingling of Two Oceans) in which by comparing the Islamic Sufi concepts and terminology he proved that they were identical. Dara’s most important contribution was the Persian translation of the Upanishads which he believed contained subtle hints relating to the Wahadat-ul- Wajud doctrines.[xix]

Thus, the Sufis by their simplicity, tolerance and strength of character helped in bringing about a rapprochement between the Hindus and Muslims. They opened the doors of their Khanqah to all irrespective of their religious beliefs, their attitude of benevolence to all and their association with the Hindu Yogis and using Hindavi in their conversation created an atmosphere of greater interaction between the two major communities. The Sufis helped in creating an atmosphere in which the social and religious life of the Muslims came to be profoundly influenced by Hinduism and marked by interpenetration of many local manners and customs of the Hindus and the incorporation of certain beliefs and ceremonies which were inconsistent with orthodox Islam. So great was the assimilation that the Hidayat-ul- Mominin, a Sayyid Ahamadi treatise of the early nineteenth century observes that in India more than in any country Islam and Kufr had been mixed up like khichri. In fact the Islam that was practised in India and more particularly in Bengal was so very different from orthodox Islam that Jagadish Narayan Sarkar has called it ‘Popular Islam’[xx]

However the nineteenth century saw the growth of Islamic revivalism which sought to restore Islam to its pristine form by purging it of many deviations which had crept in. It first began in Arabia under the leadership of Abdul Wahab and later spread to India under the leadership of Shah Walliullah. It aimed to reject all innovations (bidat) which had crept since the time of Prophet Muhammad. Groups such as Tariqah-i –Muhammadia and Ahl-e-Hadis considered the relationship between the pir and murid which is the essence of Islam as sinful and against the tenets of orthodox Islam.

Relevance of Sufism in modern India

 Whatever might have been the origin of Sufism outside India it was profoundly transformed in India by various influences that were operative in various spheres of life such as religious, philosophical, intellectual, ideological and even aesthetics. So it can be safely asserted that liberal Islam as represented by Sufism detached from the more orthodox Islam raised a new voice in Medieval India. Islamic mysticism moulded by the Sufis became all inclusive and herein lays its present-day relevance. In an age that perceives growth of extremist fundamentalism in Hindu and Muslim communities, the teachings of these Sufis are of utmost importance to maintain the liberal, multi-cultural and secular nature of religious policy and polity to maintain unity and integrity of India. After all, the Constitution of India is the policy choice on the part of us- the people of India- and WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, include all of us Hindus, Muslims, etc. Sufism resembles secular mysticism of the medieval Bengal renaissance propounded by Sri Chaitanya who was perhaps the first ever preacher of secularism much before adherence of the Occident toward secularism during the Western renaissance. An emergent need of this turbulent hour, therefore, is introspection and action toward positing such indigenous essence of secularism as replacement of foreign secularism in modern India. The official religious policy in so called ‘Secular’ India requires review vis-a-vis essence of the term.


[i] P.K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, London 1961.  P.60.

[ii] P.K. Hitti, Ibid. P.90.

[iii] Irfan Habib, Ed, Religion in Indian History, New Delhi, 2007, p.XXV.  

[iv] P.N. Ojha, Aspects of Medieval Indian Society and Culture, New Delhi, 1978, p.40.

[v] Jagadish Narayan Sarkar, A study of Sufism and its Syncretistic Significance in Medieval India, Indo-Iranica, Vol.38, Nos 1&2, pp. 1-2.

[vi] Tarachand, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, Allahabad, 1976, pp. 63-64.

[vii]  Irfan Habib, op. Cit., p. XXVI.

[viii] Al-Beruni, tr. Edward Sachau, Al-Beruni’s India, I, [London 1887; Delhi, 1964 (reprint)] p.55.

[ix] Gorakhnath’s philosophy is neither advaita (monism) nor dvaita (dualism). It is Dvaita-advaita vilakshana –     vada. He accepts the Upanishadic and Vedantic view of the individual atman (self) with Absolute spirit but does not consider the cosmic order illusory.

[x] S.A.A. Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India, vol. I, (Delhi, 1978) p.143.

[xi] Ibid, I, pp. 339-40.

[xii]  The importance of the book is illustrated by the fact that the famous Shattari saint Shaikh Md. Ghaus retranslated it.

[xiii] The dictionary was translated into Hindi by S.A.A. Rizvi, Nagri Pracharini Sabha, 1957, pp. 29-42.

[xiv] S.A.A. Rizvi, op. Cit., pp. 350-1.

[xv] M.W. Mirza in R.C. Majumdar (ed.) Mughal Empire.

[xvi] R.A. Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, (Cambridge, 1967).

[xvii] R.C. Zaehner, Hindu and Muslim Mysticism, (London, 1960).

[xviii] Jagadish Narayan Sarkar, Thoughts on Trends of Cultural Contacts in Medieval India, (Calcutta, 1984)  pp.116-163.

[xix] S.A.A. Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India, Vol. II, (Delhi, 1982) pp.413-24.

[xx]Jagadish Narayan Sarkar, Islam in Bengal, (Calcutta, 1972).


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