History Optional Paper-1 Solution – 2000: Q.5 (d)

Q.5 (d) Write a short essay on: “The Sufi Movement and its role in promoting communal harmony.”


The medieval period witnessed the rise and development of a large number of Muslim religious movements, mystic organizations, religious cults and attitudes. The Islamic mysticism was known as Sufism. It emerged as a schism against the institutionalized or dogmatic creed.

Meaning of Sufi:

The term Sufi is most probably derived from the Arabic word suf meaning wool. The eastern ascetics used to wear the coarse garments prepared out of wool. This practice was also followed by the Sufis as a mark of poverty.

Other root of the word Sufism is traced to ṣafa which means “purity”.

Origin of Sufism:

Some of the early Sufis, such as the woman mystic of Basra named Rabia and Mansur-al-Hallaj laid great emphasis on love as the bond between God and the individual soul.

The early Sufis traced their ideas to some verses of the Quran and Traditions (Hadis) of the Prophet. But in course of time they were influenced by a number of ideas and practices from different sources such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Indian philosophical system of Vedanta and yoga.

Mysticism was looked upon with disfavour by the Muslim fundamentalists. As a result the Sufis were persecuted and some of them were even executed on change of heresy and blasphemy.

  1. The Sufis gave mystic interpretations of these scriptures. However, the orthodox Muslims believed in the literal interpretation of the scriptures.
  2. The orthodox Muslims depend upon external conduct while the Sufis seek inner purity.
  3. The orthodox believe in blind obedience to or observance of religious rituals while the Sufis consider love to be the only means of reaching God.
  4. The Sufis used singing and dancing, forbidden by the orthodox as means of inducing a state of ecstasy, which brought a Sufi nearer to his goal of union with God.

Advent of the Sufis to India:

The Sufis migrated to the far-off countries and lived in the midst of the non-Muslims and carried out their work of proselytization through peaceful means. The advent of the Sufis in India dates back to the Arab conquest of Sindh. After the establishment of the Muslim rule in northern India, Sufis from different Muslim countries began to migrate and settle down in different parts of India.

The Silsilahs:

Sufis came to be organised into a number of silsilahs or orders. Abul Fazal gives a list of fourteen orders of the Sufis, which came to India. However, only two of them, the Chisti and Suhravardi silsilahs took deep roots in the Indian soil. The Chisti silsilah centered on Ajmer and gradually spread to other parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Deccan. The Suhravardi silsilah was confined to Sindh, Multan and the Punjab.

i) The Chisti Silsilah:

Khwaja Abdul Chisti founded The Chisti order. Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti, a native of Persia, introduced it in India. He reached India and settled down at Ajmer in 13th century. His simple, pious and dedicated life had great impact on those who came in contact with him.

Two eminent disciples of Muinuddin Chisti were Shaikh Qutbuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki (d.1235) and Shaikh Hamiduddin (d. 1276). The former popularized the Chisti order in Delhi and the latter in Rajasthan. They lived simple life.

Shaikh Hamiduddin was a strict vegetarian and mixed freely with the Hindus.

Shaikh Qutbuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki settled down at Delhi during the reign of Iltutmish and refused to accept the royal patronage. The famous Qutub Minar was named after him.

Shaikh Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar (known as Baba Farid) was a disciple of Bhaktiyar Kaki. He popularized the Chisti order in Haryana and Punjab. He led a householder’s life. Some of his sayings are included in the Adi Granth of the Sikhs.

The most prominent of Baba Farid’s disciples was Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325). Though he witnessed the reign of seven sultans of Delhi, he never visited the courts of any one of them. He gave an Islamic touch to the socio-cultural atmosphere of the capital. He laid stress on the element of love as means of realization of God. Nizamuddin Auliya practiced celibacy unlike a number of other Chisti saints. He adopted yogic breathing exercises so much so that the yogis called him a siddha or perfect. His successor was Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Delhi.

Another great Chisti saint was Shaikh Salim Chisti who lived the life of an ordinary householder in his cave dwelling at Sikri. He was Akbar’s spiritual guide.

Most of the Chisti saints belonged to the liberal school of thought. Their popularity in India was due to their understanding of the Indian conditions and the religious attitudes and aspirations of the Indian people. They adopted many Hindu customs and ceremonies. They laid much emphasis on the service to mankind. The Chisti mystics were believers in pantheistic monism, which had its earliest exposition in the Upanishad of the Hindus. As a result many Hindus felt closer to the Chisti silsilah.

ii) The Suhravardi Silsilah:

The other mystic order, which had reached India almost at the same time as the Chisti silsilah, was the Suhravardi order. It was founded by Shihabuddin Suhravardi (d. 1234) of Baghdad. It was introduced in India by his disciples Jalaluddin Tabrizi and Bahauddin Zakariya. Tabrizi settled down in Bengal where he converted a large number of Hindus. Zakariya was chiefly responsible for organizing the Suhravardi silsilah in India. He carried on his missionary work at Multan.

Unlike the Chistis, the Suhravardis did not believe in leading a life of poverty and excessive austerity and self-mortification. They lived comfortable family lives. They felt no scruples in accepting costly presents and patronage from the Muslim aristocracy. They did not shun the ruling elite. They actively associated with the government and accepted the posts.

The Suhravardi silsilah was confined mostly to the upper strata of the Muslim society. Some of the saints of the Suhravardi silsilah adopted a rigid and uncompromising attitude on many matters of religious and social significance. Contemporary historian Ziauddin Barani records that, the Suhravardi saint Syed Nuruddin Mubarak Ghaznavi advised Iltutmish to follow a policy of discrimination and persecution against the Hindus.

However, some of the Suhravardi saints were very liberal and broadminded and were held in deep respect by the Hindus. The devotion of the Hindus of Bengal to Shaikh Jalauddin Tabrizi may be estimated from Sekha Subhodaya, a Sanskrit treatise, which includes all the legends about the saint prevalent among the Hindus.

iii) Other Silsilahs:

Many other Sufi mystic orders also were introduced in India. However, unlike the Chisti and Suhravardi silsilahs, these did not make much impact on the people of India. Some of them were limited to certain regions only. Among these the following silsilahs may be listed:

  1. The Qadiri silsilah was founded by Shaikh Abdul Qadir Gilani and was introduced in India by Sayyid Muhammad Gilani (d. 1517).
  2. Shaikh Badruddin of Samarqand established the Firdausi silsilah at Delhi.
  3. The Shattari silsilah was founded in India by Shaikh Abdullah Shattari (d. 1485).
  4. The Naqshbandi silsilah was founded in India by the followers of Khawaja Pir Muhammad. Khwaja Baqi Billah introduced it in India.

In the fourteenth century the influence of the Sufis declined. This was due to the doctrinal differences between different Sufi orders and assertion of Islamic orthodoxy.

Role of Sufi Movement in promoting communal harmony:

  1. Like the bhakti movement, Sufism also contributed to a great extent in molding the character of the medieval Indian society. The Sufis stressed the essential unity between different religions and showed an attitude of toleration towards other religions and tried to bring about reconciliation between the Hindus and the Muslims.
  2. The ideas of the brotherhood of Islam and equality among its adherents appealed to the low castes among the Hindus. It led to large-scale conversions.
  3. The Sufis emphasized the unity of God and superiority of the path of devotion over rituals, ceremonies, pilgrimages and fasts.
  4. The liberal and tolerant attitude adopted by Akbar and his successors made the Sufi literature and thought popular among the Hindu intellectuals. The Sufi doctrine of Universal Brotherhood (sulh-i-kul) was adopted by Akbar in his attempt to establish a national state in India.
  5. The Sufi movements promoted a feeling of religious toleration between the Hindus and Muslims and became instrumental in maintaining the social equilibrium of the medieval society. The healthy religious atmosphere created by the Sufi movements enabled Akbar to adopt a broader outlook in religious matters culminating in the foundation of a syncretic religion Din-i-Ilahi.

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