Socio-Religious Movement: What was Sufism and how it started in mediaeval India

After the decline of mutazilla school of thought under abbasid caliphate in the 10th century few significant events took place in Islamic world. Among them Growth of Sufism or Islamic mysticism was an important event which significantly aided in the growth of islam in India.

What was Sufi movement where and how it was originated?

In islamic world mysticism however was not a new thing since from the 8th century Islamic mystics in Arabia and Iraq used to live a secluded life full of simplicity which was totally opposite to the pompous display of wealth and power by the caliphs. These early mystics emphasized on Namaz (prayer), Fasting, Continuous recital of god's name i.e Zikr continual remembrance of god i.e Fiqr .

But after the emergence of Turks the orthodox elements of Islam started gaining prominence which resulted in growing assaults on such mystics whose practices didn't adhered to the sharia law so these mystics started living in groups and were identified by their white long loose dress made of coarse wool (Suf).

What is the meaning of word Sufi ?

According to some historians due to the use of Suf (coarse wool) as their choice of clothing, these people were called as Sufis. Some historians believed as these mystics believed in purifying their hearts in spritual term they got their name from arabic term Safa which means to purify.

There is another theory which claims that these people were the early followers of prophet and accompanied him during his journey from mecca to madina and instead of sleeping on bed they adopted a life full of simplicity and austerity , they used to sleep on long benches called Suffa in arabic hence the name given to them Sufi .

How and when Sufism came to India ?

Though the sufi mystics established themselves in the middle east and western asia in 10th century itself their contact with Indian land only started in 11th century AD. The sufis like chishtis arrived and established themselves in india even before the political victory of turks over Delhi. (The 2nd Battle of Tarain).

What was the ideology of Sufis ?

The Sufis were like any other Muslim but the difference was in the ideology, practices and lifestyle. A sufi was a devotee of Allah, the one who had an irresistible urge inside his heart to get united with the supreme being or Allah.

A Farsi Couplet by great sufi mystic of sultanate period Amir Khusro sums it up

"Mun tu shudam , Tu man shudi

Man tan shudam,Tu jan shudi,

Taakas na guyu baad azee,

mun deegram tu deegari"


" I have become thou,

and thou became I,

I became the body,

Thou became the soul,

after this no one can say that you are

someone else and I am someone else."

How Sufi mystics helped in development of a composite culture in India ?

Sufis in India came with a different message which was different from what Islamic rulers came with. This was belief in Wahadat Al-Wujud which meant unity of existence or oneness of being i.e God and his creation are one. So while the Muslim rulers took pride in claiming titles like Ghazi (Leader of Muslims in a fight against non Muslims) sufis on the other hand spread love and talked about oneness of god and his creation i.e all are same whether Muslims or non Muslims all are creation of god .

This later was promoted by rulers like Iltutmish who thoroughly understood that to rule over a heterogenic country like India where majority population was non Muslim a liberal and mildly secular approach was required to conduct state affairs and further for empire building. This promotion to Sufi ideology was later followed by many popular monarchs.

What were the prominent Sufi orders in mediaeval India ?

Initially the sufi mystics were like spiritual loners later they organized themselves into groups . This was done in order to..

Stand against the continuous assaults of orthodox ulemas.

To maintain a continuity in their order in future.

These groups were thus called Silsilah and the place from where they operated was called Khanqah.

There were 4 prominent Silsilahs that existed in medieval India.
These were-:

The Chishtis

Initiated by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti who introduced this order in Ajmer in Rajputana and Lahore in Punjab. The chishtis kept themselves away from the political centers like Delhi and never craved for political patronage.

They believed only in helping individuals in the name of god which included serving the poor and downtrodden masses who come to their Khanqahs also free food was served free clothing was provided and those suffering from diseases were taken care of in khanqahs.

They performed Sama ceremony where they recited name of god again and again also they made chorus singing Qawwali popular. Many Chishti saints didn't look for royal patronage and were sometimes not in good terms with the monarchs. Feud between Nizamuddin auliya and Giasuddin tughlaq is an example. Alienation towards authority or rulers separates them from other existing silsilahs. 

Bana fariduddin ganz i shakar
Baba Fariduddin Ganz i shakkar at his Khanqah

Sheikha Nizamuddin auliya, Baba Fariduddin Ganz i shakkar, Amir Khusro, Qitub uddin Bakhtiyar Kaki were some prominent Sufis of this order.

The Naqshabandis

Popularised by Bahauddin naqshband bukhari. Established mostly near Delhi and other important cities.They seek political patronage to carry out their philanthropic works and to grow their order. Their leader Sheikh ahmed sirhindi Was against secular works of Akbar and opposed the marriages with non Muslims . They believed in performing Zikr by heart.

The Qadris

Staunch belief in Sharia law. They are orthodox, believed in political patronage and their Zikr of allah is performed by their tongue not by heart like Naqshbandis. Established themselves in Punjab and north west India.

The Sohravardis

Strictly sunni order. Propagated by Bahauddin Zakariya. Initial Centre of activity was Multan . The sohravardis were also politically involved in making peace negotiations during conflicts between mongols and Delhi's army . Their leaders strongly object to the hindu influence over sufi practices. This order later spread to Gujarat,Bengal,Delhi and even Kashmir.

So clearly all the sufi orders followed different ideologies however the main differences were over State patronage, Use of music in Sama, Physical labor (as propagated by chishtis , agriculture and manual labor was promoted to earn and spend on philanthropic works). They were popular even among non Muslims Baba fariduddin ganz i shakkar's couplets were mentioned by Guru nanak and are present in Guru granth sahib of Sikhs.

One more difference arose after some time among sufis based on their adherence and non adherence to Islamic sharia law. Those who strictly adhered to Islamic sharia law were called Ba-Sharia and those sufi mystics who didn't conform to sharia were called Be-Sharia.

Khanqas or the Sufi lodges were administered like buddhist monasteries. Most of them were situated in secluded places like Ajmer,Hasi, away from political disturbances totally dedicated to the spiritual practices in quite environment.

What were the impacts of Sufism on Indian society

Acceptance of Islam in Indian society , the philanthropic works and the ideology of oneness of god and its creation, unity of human beings, no caste barriers, feeling of brotherhood in khanqahs attracted people from non Muslim masses like Buddhists and Hindus towards Islam. It presented a more humane face of Islam and thus increased its acceptability.

This was a massive change in the mindset of Indian people who two centuries ago as described by courtier of Mehmud of gazni and great Muslim intellectual, scientist, historian and author of Kitab ul Hind Al-biruni considered Muslims as Invaders and Violent people.

The khanqahs established in remote and secluded places attracted devotees from all parts of the country thus leading to urbanization of these places.

The important development was in field of culture The language which we speak today is a more mature version of Hindawi Which was developed by great Sufi poet Amir Khusro who in an effort to popularize the sufi music combined Persian and turkic words with indigenous languages to create a language which would help in establishing a common platform among elites and the common masses. Similar developments were seen in local level languages like Punjabi,Gujarati and Bengali.

Development of music- Again The legendary mystic Amir Khusrow developed various forms of Hindustani music like Khyal, Tarana and musical instruments like Tabla. Which further got refined in the times of Mughals. Thus Sufis contributed to a great extent in developing the indigenous music.

The Chishtis promoted physical labor among its followers to earn rather than being dependent on state's patronage. This thing brought them closer to farming community, labors artisan class and their popularity and acceptance grew to a many times among common masses.

The Pir-Murid legacy which was started by Sufi mystics were later adopted by many Bhakti saints like Ramananda, Kabir ,Guru nanak and later Sikh gurus and helped in propagation of sanely thoughts from one generation to another.

Strengthening of Composite culture of India- The sufi mystics believed in oneness of god and his creations they provided free food and clothing to needy and many of them were even revered among non Muslims for their mystic powers worldly knowledge and liberal views.
This massively helped in creating the foundation for a future India where Muslims and Hindus and other non Muslims like Jains Buddhists could live happily with each other for many centuries.

What is the relevance of Sufism in today's world ?

The Sufism or Tasawwuf is mystic Islam which represents a soft face of Islam where non-Muslims and Muslims can be accepted together as a society without any difference as they are considered creation of same supreme being.

It's relevance however today has increased as the world is facing danger of radicalism and radical groups like ISIS Al Qaeda were successful in attracting and brainwashing young educated Muslim youth for destroying the peace of world. In this tough scenario a softer Sufism can give hope build trust and can re-establish a society based on love and human values like it successfully did during medieval times. 

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