No serious examination of the civilizations that flourished in the courts of the Islamic rulers is possible without an understanding of Sufi currents that played a vital – even decisive role in shaping the cultural output of the great Islamic empires. As any student of world history may note, civilization typically comes to a grinding halt wherever the writ of a revealed religion runs supreme. For any civilization to blossom, there has to be a certain intellectual and cultural space that is relatively free from dogma and hidebound traditions. In the earliest examples of the Islamic courts, particularly during the reign of the Abbasids in Baghdad, there was an informal separation of church and state and Arab civilization was able to make important gains , drawing inputs from a variety of eclectic sources – both indigenous and external (such as Indian and Mediterranean).
But once the paramountcy of the Quran, the Hadith and the Shariat laws began to be more strictly enforced – the Islamic courts needed some alternate current to prevent the newly established Islamic societies from slipping into the dark ages as had occurred in the Christian kingdoms of early medieval Europe. Sufism thus emerged as what seemed like a protestant and liberalizing current, that eventually became the primary vehicle for intellectual advance and the dissemination of culture in societies governed by Islamic sovereigns.
Sufi currents were essential in easing the transition from the earlier Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, Manichean, and Zoroastrian societies that had existed prior to the victory of the Islamic conquerors. Sufism provided a way to reconcile some of the religious doctrines of these earlier cultural and/or religious systems. Liberal Sufi scholars went to great lengths in establishing a sense of continuity and evolution amongst the various revealed faiths – such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In helping to reconcile formally differing beliefs amongst Christians, Manicheans, Jews, and Muslims, such Sufis were instrumental in limiting political tensions and in facilitating a modicum of social peace and stability.
This type of work was not inimical to the political interests of the Islamic conquerors and was generally tolerated, although often, Sufi scholars had to take great pains to reassure the orthodox Ulema that their scholarly treatises were not inconsistent with the worldview of Islam. Kalabadhi (10th C, Bukhara), author of the Taaruf, and Persian scholar Hujwiri (11th C), author of the Kashf, attempted to situate their work within the broad contours of Islamic tradition. Hujwiri suggested that there was a place for high culture and spiritual development apart from the following of religious rules. Although equally, he emphasized that he was not challenging or rejecting anything contained in the Quran.
But even as many Sufi scholars staunchly affirmed their loyalty to the Quran and Shari’at law, a few were able to use Sufism as a means of escaping the patriarchal weight and sectarian authority of Islam. Some of the earliest of the Sufi scholars were women such as Rabia (9th C) and Nuri (10th C) – who both emphasized worldly renunciation and suggested that spiritual salvation lay in discovering the ‘god’ within. In their rejection of orthodox rituals and the domination of the conservative clergy, they shared a certain commonality with some of their Hindu or Buddhist predecessors.
As Sufi literature and practice evolved, there was much that Indians would later find oddly reminiscent of what had been emphasized not only by some authors of the Upanishads, or practitioners of Buddhism, but also by Indian folk and devotional saints. Mughal prince Dara Shukoh in his “Confluence of the Two Seas” made special note of this.
In fact, many aspects of Sufi belief systems and practice had their parallels in Indian philosophical literature, but often, amongst the more conforming streams of Sufi discourse, these had to be circumscribed within the boundaries of what Islam could politically tolerate. Even though liberal Sufis (like many Hindu Vedantics) considered formal religion a shell – they didn’t reject formal religion – allowing that for the average practitioner, day-to-day rituals and traditional religious practices could play a useful role. Most were not outright rebels – but adapted to the pressures of mainstream religion. Nevertheless, liberal Sufis were much less likely to approve of rigid and literalist interpretations of the Quran. “Words cannot be used in referring to religious truth, except as analogy”. This sentiment of Hakim Sanai as expressed in his ‘The Walled Garden of Truth’ echoed what is most immediately evident in the Kena and Chandogya Upanishads.
Over time, a variety of Sufi currents flourished. The more advanced of the Sufi scholars worried less about Quranic compatibility, and emphasized that there was a spiritual truth that exceeded what could be gleaned from the standard religious texts. There was an emphasis on spiritual discovery and cultural evolution – through practical experience, through the development of intuition and a sharpened world perspective as opposed to the mere repetition of dogma. As the Sufis synthesized older ideas and philosophical traditions that attracted them – they also transcended them in some ways, adding their own unique and perspicacious insights as they went along.
Amongst the most interesting of these were the Spanish Sufis of the ‘Illuminist’ school – many of whom were great admirers of Indian civilization – and had access to translations of Indian philosophical and scientific texts. The Spanish Sufis took a great interest in preserving and enhancing philosophical and scientific knowledge, and had a tremendous influence on Franciscan Monks such as Roger Bacon (1268) who thus summarized their world view: “There are two modes of knowledge, through argument and experience. Argument brings conclusions and compels us to concede them, but it does not cause certainty nor remove doubts in order that the mind may remain at rest in truth, unless this is provided by experience.”
Mulla Nasruddin immortalized by The Subtleties of the Incomparable Nasruddin communicated through witty parables in the manner of Birbal, and became an illustrious example of the Sufi satirist. Later Sufi poets like Kabir in India often brought a wry sense of humor, or a touch of folk wisdom to their poetry, and like their counterparts amongst the Indian Bhakti saints or Burmese (or Japanese) Buddhist Monks, used fables and parables to comment on life and the human situation – subtly conveying their wisdom – and shedding light on moral and ethical dilemmas. Although much of the primary focus was on discovering spiritual “truths” there were secular aspects in their writings that had a broader appeal. In this sense, such Sufi stories shared a kinship with folk literature found throughout the world’s cultures and could even be thought of as continuing in the tradition of the Panchatantra or Aesop’s Fables.
Some of the finest of the Sufi literary and poetic output dealt with the psychology of romantic love, perhaps as a consequence of how life in a sexually conservative, puritanical society led to romantic and erotic feelings having to be sublimated. Often, the outpourings of emotion that may have otherwise been considered immoral or illicit (as in the love of someone of the same gender) were situated in a devotional or mystical spiritual framework to escape social and political censure. Fariduddin Attar (Nishapur, Iran, early 13th C) and Jalaluddin Rumi (Balkh, Afghanistan, 13th C) were amongst those whose writings dealt with the theme of romantic love.
Both spoke of various stages of human evolution in terms of spiritual progress and Attar noted: “To abandon something because others have misused it may be the height of folly; the Sufic truth cannot be encompassed in rules and regulations, in formulas and rituals – but yet it is partially present in all these things.”
Rumi appeared to endorse a theory of social evolution that resembled earlier Indian spiritual theories: “I died as inert matter – and became a plant; And as a plant I died and became an animal; And as an animal I died and became a man; So why should I fear losing my human character? I shall die as a man, to rise in angelic form” – in Mathnavi, Story 17
Like many other Sufis who were skeptical of religious and philosophical charlatans (as was Kabir, who came later) Rumi wrote: “He who is fortunately enlightened knows that sophistry is from the Devil and love from Adam” – in Mathnavi. Similiar sentiments were also expressed by Nuruddin Jami (Khurasan, 15th C): “The dry cloud, waterless, can have no rain-giving quality” while referring to the routine and mechanical practice of rituals and outdated religious practices.
Rumi is known for several other pithy sayings: A man never having seen water is thrown blindfolded into it, and feels it. When the bandage is removed, he knows what it is. Until then he only knows it by it’s effect. – in Fihi Ma Fihi. Speaking about imitation, he said: “The canal may not itself drink, but it performs the function of conveying water to the thirsty “. Highlighting how truth could be conveyed in more than one way, he wrote: “A tale, fictitious or otherwise, illuminates truth”.
Amongst Rumi’s most interesting observations was a notion that Europeans might be more likely to associate with Hegel: “Opposite things work together, even though nominally opposed” – in Fihi Ma Fihi
Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz (13th C), a contemporary of Rumi, and author of the Gulistan (Rose Garden) and Bustan (Orchard) is also renowned for his thoughtful insights into human nature. Educated in Baghdad, he was widely-traveled, and had also visited India. Like Rumi, Saadi left a deep imprint on Sufi orders in India, and across the Middle East (from Damascus to Kabul). Notable in his writings are critiques of authoritarian and unjust rule, and miserliness amongst the rich (a theme also developed by Kabir).
Although, liberal Sufi orders (in India and the Middle East) were primarily concerned with “spiritual” nourishment, and came to be mainly associated with an attitude of skepticism towards secular life (or renunciation of it), admirers of the Sufi path (such as 20th C Indian commentator, Sheikh Idries Shah) assert that the ideal Sufi alternated detachment and identification with life : But unlike the absolute retreatism from the real world advocated by certain Vedantic and Buddhist trends, Sufis do not encourage a complete withdrawal from the real world. Instead they are encouraged to participate in the real world, even as they are supposed to inculcate the ability to be detached from it – the ideal Sufi is supposed to find a balance between detachment and participation – between logic and mysticism – (in The Sufis, Doubleday)
Idries Shah also argues that in the Sufi worldview, mankind is infinitely perfectible – that perfection comes through attunement with the rest of the world, and it calls for a balance between the physical and spiritual world. He also refers to the tendency amongst Sufis to seek universals – to harmonize, and to see their role as awakening a higher consciousness amongst those that followed standard religion.
In the 17th C, Sirajudin Abbasi, (b. 1649, Kashmir) wrote of Sufis: “If you revere them as saints, you will benefit from their sainthood; but if you work with them as associates, you will benefit from their company.” Enjoining his followers to spread Sufi doctrines, he wrote in his Safarnama: “Among roses, be a rose, among thorns, be a thorn”
Abbasi was not alone in his appreciation of the Sufis. By and large, the record of the Sufis has been assessed with a considerable degree of sympathy in India, particularly by scholars who are generally speaking admirers of Islamic civilization, or attribute to the Sufis a special place in developing India’s syncretic culture. Sufis are particularly credited for their expressive poetry and literature, as well as for their contributions to the arts.
However, such enthusiastic assessments need to be evaluated with a measure of caution. Once the Islamic conquests had defeated and emasculated earlier Hindu and Jain civilizations, Sufic Islam might easily appear to be more fecund and profound in comparison to Islamic orthodoxy. There is always a danger in over-romanticizing. For instance, although in some Sufi strains, Sufis were encouraged to make contributions in all aspects of human culture including painting, architectural design and decoration, the industrial arts, dance and music, and also astronomy and mathematics, not all Sufi practitioners took this advice to heart, and most Sufis (like their Bhakti counterparts) passed their days volunteering at charities or offering spiritual discourses. In India, many Sufi shrines became popular Muslim equivalents of wish-fulfilling temples where devotees came to seek the blessings of a revered saint in the hope of gaining good fortune, or perhaps the lifting of injurious circumstances.
But the most serious indictments against Sufis come from scholars who point to how Sufi scholars also worked as spies, wrote sharply critical and misleading essays about Hindu civilization, and often paid glowing tributes to the invaders and conquerors of India in their writings. There is considerable substance to this criticism since the destruction of “idolatory” was not opposed by the Sufis who accompanied the invaders. Like El-Ghazali (Mashad, Iran) who saw the essence of his work as reconciling Islam with intellectualism – and saw Sufis as complementing, even strengthening Islamic orthodoxy, most Sufis tried to provide a human face to Islam, but did not necessarily argue against, or strive to prevent the barbarity of the military conquerors who waged their bloody campaigns in the name of Islam. Even as Sufi orders loyal to Islam promoted the notion of love and brotherhood – such noble sentiments were never extended to include “idol-worshippers”. And there were even orders that had a distinctly elitist ring to their world outlook. The subordinate position of women was also rarely challenged (although some Sufi schools such as the ‘Illuminists’ had women as leading scholars and teachers) Furthermore, it should be emphasized that several Sufi orders were extremely militant and unabashedly endorsed violent hatred of non-Muslims. In ther support of a violent Islamic Jehad against non-Muslims, they shared little with popular notions of Sufis as peaceful bridge-builders. Sirhindi is just one notable example of the Sufi who endorsed hatred and violence against the non-Muslim.
It is therefore very important to distinguish between the different Sufi strains. On the positive side, one may observe how Sufis invariably provided a touch of color and beauty to what might have otherwise been rather cold and stark reigns. Sufis played an important role in Afghanistan, particularly in Herat – which emerged as a renowned centre for miniature painting. In Western Punjab, fine examples of Punjab’s medieval architecture are to be found in the shrines commemorating Sufi Saints – such as in Multan, Uchh, Dera Ghazi Khan, Dera Adil, Dera Din Panah and Dera Ismail Khan. In these monuments, it almost seems as though the spirit of Taxila was reborn. Sufis also played a role in the regional Sultanates such as in Jaunpur, Sindh, Gujarat, Bengal and the Deccan, where aspects from the older Indian traditions were incorporated with great effect in the new architecture.
Also unlike the many Sufi streams that were politically allied to orthodoxy, some Sufi mystic cults adopted a more ambiguous position, using secret codes and mysticism as an instrument of dissent. Mysticism afforded some protection from the religious police of the orthodoxy – because often the mystic would claim madness, or to have been in a mystic trance when charged with espousing heretical ideas. Sufis would claim that their irreverent statements were not made in full control of their normal faculties, or in full consciousness, or with any willful intention to blaspheme.
In this manner, Sufi streams that were decidedly subaltern in character were able to survive (albeit precariously), and thus became means of expressing social criticism. In Turkey and in Persia – these subaltern streams attracted a large number of followers – particularly in the arts and crafts guilds. This led to a certain measure of political protection for artisans and limited the extent to which they could be exploited by the royal establishment.
But the growing influence of the radical Sufis also led to a conservative backlash, and in Iran, some of the most radical orders (such as the Ni’matullah) were forced to flee and take refuge in India. Nevertheless, the more pliant orders were allowed to remain and were able to exercise an important degree of cultural influence on Safavid Iran, particularly in the realm of art and architecture. Sufis were often instrumental in the design and execution of the grand and imposing monuments that graced cities like Isfahan and Tabriz, or contributed to the artistry of Shiraz.
Sufi mystic cults also attracted followers from the artisan communities in India, especially weavers, but because the conversion to Islam was only partial in India, there were several alternatives to Sufism in the variety of Bhakti and Tantric cults that provided a similar outlet. Sikhism emerged as one of the most powerful of the subaltern movements that owed part of it’s original inspiration to Sufi mysticism, and the influence of Sufi thought on the Sikh Gurus continues to be acknowledged with a measure of respect and reverence. However, once a section of the Sikh polity ascended into the ruling class, Sikhism’s radical character was gradually eroded, (and this also happened with other Sufi orders when they became close to the ruling aristocracy).
Nevertheless, while it is undeniable that it was the Sufis who played a decisive role in the creation of art and architecture in the Islamic kingdoms, one should not allow this realization to detract from the more sinister role played by many Sufi orders who used Sufi mysticism and Sufi love of culture as mere baits to soften opposition to Islamic orthodoxy and simply leveraged the liberal Sufis to expand the political power of Islam. This is a very crucial point that naive fans of Sufism tend to ignore. More and more recent research is exposing how shrewd supporters of Islamic supremacy merely manipulated the Sufi orders to facilitate violent mass conversions of non-Muslims to Islam. As historian K.S. Lal points out, even Sufis identified with a supposedly liberal Sufi order like the Chistia Silsila endorsed the Sharia and jiziya on Hindus. It is thus important to separate popular myths about Sufis from the actual record that might reveal many so-called Sufi saints to be be deadly enemies of Hindus and other non Muslims.