Sufism in India

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Before passing away, Jahangir chooses the Sufis over all others (Bichitr, c. 1660)
…Perhaps, it has become the foremost need for the world to know the true picture of Islam… I am confident that Sufi culture, which is associated with love, generosity will spread this message far and wide. It will benefit Islam as well as humankind. - Narendra Modi

Sufism has a history in India evolving for over 1,000 years.


  • Ironically, one of the few things that Indian and Pakistani textbooks seem to agree on is in fact a falsehood: namely, that Islam grew in precolonial India through the agency of Sufi saints. There is little contemporary evidence for such a thing. Generally speaking, Sufis were not interested in converting Hindus.
  • On the other hand, there is considerable evidence of colonial-era Muslim communities attributing to Sufi shaikhs – or in many cases, men who were retroactively given a Sufi identity -- the conversion of their ancestors. District gazetteers compiled in the 19th and 20th centuries are full of such narratives. However, such attributions are not supported by contemporary evidence.
  • Although we often hear the rather glib assertion that medieval Indian Sufis were primarily responsible for converting Hindus to Islam, the issue has not been at all closely examined. (...) In sum, the Warrior Sufi may be seen as one of the earliest products that arose from the contact between Arab Islamic and Indie civilizations. In their psychological appeal, philosophical underpinnings, and historical development, these two civilizations are diametrically opposed. Where the one is ardent, dogmatic, and austere, the other is reflective, syncretic, and sentimental. Where Arab Islam centers upon the submission to a single discipline and perceives society, the universe, and the divine principle in terms of unity, Indie Hinduism diffuses into an elusive aggregate of metaphysical systems, folk beliefs, customs, symbols, and traditions that collectively perceive society, the universe, and the divine principle in terms of plurality. By the early fourteenth century the Arab Islamic and Indie traditions had only just begun their long and tortuous process of fusing into what later was to become “Indian Islam.” Hence the Warrior Sufi did not represent a synthesis of the Islamic and Indie traditions, but only a transplant of the former into the world of the latter. (...) More than that, the phenomenon of Sufis using their prestige to lead, or as was more likely the case, to legitimize a jihad spelled the ultimate breakdown of relations between landed Sufis and non-Muslims. There is no record of any landed or orthodox Sufi in the kingdom at this time urging the policy of “peace with all” ( suhl-i kitll), a slogan that many writers have attributed to Indian Sufis generally. (...) Some of [the Sufis of Bijapur] wielded a sword, others a pen, others a royal land grant, and still others a begging bowl... Some were orthodox to the point of zealous puritanism, others unorthodox to the point of heresy. Indeed, this study demonstrates that the stereotyped conception of medieval Indian Sufis as pious and quietistic mystics patiently preaching Islam among Hindus is no longer valid. It is simply not possible to generalize about the Sufis of medieval Bijapur, much less of India as a whole, as any unitary group relating in any single or predictable way to the society in which they lived. They clearly played a variety of social roles.
    • Richard Eaton, Sufis of Bijapur
  • But in the second half of the twelfth century A.D., we find a new type of Muslim saint appearing on the scene and dominating it in subsequent centuries. That was the sufi joined to a silsila. This is not the place to discuss the character of some outstanding sufis (...) The common name which is used for these early sufis as well as for the teeming breed belonging to the latter-day silsilas, has caused no end of confusion. So far as India is concerned, it is difficult to find a sufi whose consciousness harboured even a trace of any spirituality. By and large, the sufis that functioned in this country were the most fanatic and fundamentalist activists of Islamic imperialism, the same as the latter-day Christian missionaries in the context of Spanish and Portuguese imperialism. [...] Small wonder that we find them flocking everywhere ahead or with or in the wake of Islamic armies. Sufis of the Chishtîyya silsila in particular excelled in going ahead of these armies and acting as eyes and ears of the Islamic establishment. The Hindus in places where these sufis settled, particularly in the South, failed to understand the true character of these saints till it was too late. The invasions of South India by the armies of Alãu’d-Dîn Khaljî and Muhammad bin Tughlaq can be placed in their proper perspective only when we survey the sufi network in the South. Many sufis were sent in all directions by Nizãmu’d-Dîn Awliyã, the Chistîyya luminary of Delhi; all of them actively participated in jihãds against the local population. Nizãmu’d-Dîn’s leading disciple, Nasîru’d-Dîn Chirãg-i-Dihlî, exhorted the sufis to serve the Islamic state. “The essence of sufism,” he versified, “is not an external garment. Gird up your loins to serve the Sultãn and be a sufi.” Nasîru’d-Dîn’s leading disciple, Syed Muhammad Husainî Banda Nawãz Gesûdarãz (1321-1422 A.D.), went to Gulbarga for helping the contemporary Bahmani sultan in consolidating Islamic power in the Deccan....
    • S.R. Goel in Shourie, Arun; Goel, S.R. Hindu Temples – What Happened to Them, Volume I (1990)
  • There is plenty of primary literature available in Arabic and Persian regarding the rise, development, and doings of numerous sufi silsilas in India. Some of this literature has been translated into Urdu and English as well. A study of this literature leaves little doubt that sufis were the most fanatic and fundamentalist elements in the Islamic establishment in medieval times. Hindus should go to this literature rather than fall for latter-day Islamic propaganda. The ruin of Hindus and Hinduism in Kashmir in particular, can be safely credited to sufis who functioned there from the early thirteenth century onwards.
    • Sita Ram Goel, The Calcutta Quran Petition (1986)
  • It cannot be maintained that Islam did not provide an ample opportunity to Hindu saints, philosophers and princes to understand its true character and role. Before the armies of Islam invaded India, the sufis had settled down in many parts of India, built mosque and khanqahs and started their work of conversion. They were the sappers and miners of Islamic invasions which followed in due course. Muinuddin Chishti was not the first 'saint' of Islam to send out an invitation to an Islamic invader to come and kill the kafirs, desecrate their shrines, and plunder their wealth.
    • S.R. Goel. The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India (1994)
  • [Most of the mystic records and Diwans are forgeries] “but regard for public opinion has prevented them (Indian scholars) from making a public declaration that these are forgeries.”
    • The Shrine and Cult of Muin al-din Chishti of Ajmer (Oxford University Press, 1989; re-issued 1993 and 2006). P.M. Currie, p 24 citing Mohammad Habib. Quoted also in Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 5
  • The Musalmans have no missionary labours to record… We find no trace of any missionary movement for converting non-Muslims. Medieval Islam was a converting creed, but it failed to develop any missionary activity… So far as our country is concerned we have to confess frankly that no trace of a missionary movement for the conversion of non-Muslims has yet been discovered. ... Some cheap mystic books now current attribute conversions to Muslim mystics on the basis of miracles they performed. So in order to believe in the conversions one has to believe in the miracles also. But all such books will be found on examination to be latter-day fabrications.
    • Mohammad Habib, quoted from Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they.
  • Sufi s played a key role in the Islamization of what is now Pakistan, northern and central India, and Bangladesh, where they served as warriors, proselytizers, preachers, and spiritual advisors. It is therefore likely that Indo-Persian Sufi hagiographies portray Sufi s as taking part in Sultan Mahmud’s initial Indian campaign so as to connect them with the advent of Islam in India. In this, Sufi hagiographers resemble many premodern historians in that they would often rework a narrative regarding a given Sufi ’s role in an important historical event to express a meaningful ver- sion of that event, as they believed it ought to have happened. For the premodern historian, the meaning of an event was more important than mere facts. In other words, the story was “true” if it conveyed something essential regarding how a given culture viewed itself and made sense of its past in relation to its present. The fact that Sufi hagiographies frequently portray the early Muslim ascetic warriors as Sufi s and depict Sufi involvement in military campaigns such as Sultan Mahmud’s forays into India, shows this historiographical tendency on the part of premodern writers to interpret events and narrate stories in a way that enshrined the fundamental beliefs and practices of their societies.
    • Harry S. Neale (2017). Jihad in Premodern Sufi Writings.
  • It is said that saint-worship among Muslims is a practice unique to India. Dargahs of Sufis, real or figurative, are found all over the country and Muslims flock to them in. large numbers. It is a legacy of medieval times. One reason for this can be that most Indian Muslims are converted Hindus, who, when their places of worship were converted into (khanqahs and later) dargahs, did not give up visiting them. For instance, at the most holy dargah of Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti, the Sandal Khana mosque is believed to have been built on the site of a Dev temple.
    • Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 5, citing P.M. Currie.
  • The sufis belonged to a number of orders. Four of those orders Chishti, Suhrawardi, Qadiri and Naqshabandi - became prominent in India. The first two became popular, for the latter two were extremely orthodox and fanatical. Very few sufis shunned material wealth; most of them received land and wealth from rulers and nobles and some lived in a lavish style. They did not withdraw from the world to confine themselves to spiritual life, but often instigated their patrons to wage wars against non-Muslims, and themselves participated in battles. Even Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti's "picture of tolerance is replaced by a portrait of him as a warrior of Islam." There is a whole array of sufi warriors from the days of Muinuddin to those of Shah Waliullah. They took active part in religion, politics and war. Shah Waliullah, a renowned sufi scholar, greatly venerated among Muslims, wrote to the Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali to invade India to help Muslim brethren against the infidels.
    • Lal, K. S. (1999). Theory and practice of Muslim state in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 6, quoting P.M. Currie.
  • In brief, while it would not be safe to declare that hardly any conversions through peaceful methods were effected by the Sufi Mashaikh in India, it has also to be admitted that not many reliable references to their proselytizing activity are available in genuine hagiological works. They may have helped those who showed an inclination to become Muslim. Occasionally they restored to force also to convert people. But the Mashaikh were probably responsible only for stray and individual conversions and their contribution to the growth of Muslim population may not have been much.
    • Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they.
  • But the role of the Sufi tradition in bridging the gulf between Islam and Hinduism or laying the foundations of a composite culture has been greatly exaggerated. The Sufis belonging to the Chistyyah, Suhrawardiyyah, and Naqshbaniyyah orders and monasteries are found to have fanned or favoured the fanaticism of the Muslim rulers in medieval India. The Qadiriyyah Sufis from Gulbarga, Bidar, and Golconda were the most fanatic murderers of Hindus and destroyers of temples... (21-22)
  • Again, when Allaudin Khalji sacked Deogiri, hundreds of Sufis betook themselves to the South and established monasteries, to finance which fat sums were extracted from the local chiefs. Hajji Sayyid alias Sarwar Makhdum, Husam ad-Din, and several other Sufis took part in offensive wars openly, on account of which they were entitled Qattal (the great slayers) and Kuffar-bhanjan (destroyers of the Kafirs). Shaykh Jalal ad-Din Tabrizi demolished a large temple and constructed a Takiyah (khanqah) at Devatalla (Deva Mahal) in Bengal.... Mir Sayyid ‘Ali Hamadani (1314-1385) began to get Hindu temples demolished and the Hindus converted by reckless use of force throughout his sojourn in Kashmir... Thanks to the influence of Hamadani’s Sufi son Mir Muhammad (b. 1372), who stepped into his father’s shoes after the latter had left Kashmir after failing to pull on well with Qutb ad-Din, Sikandar (1389-1413), a liberal Sultan of Kashmir, turned into a ferocious Sultan for the Hindus and began to be known as Sikandar Butshikan (iconoclast), and his powerful Brahmana noble Suhabhatta embraced Islam under the name Sayf ad-Din and became a terror for the Brahmanas. Guided by the teachings of Mir Muhammad, Sikandar played havoc with the Hindus through Sayf ad-Din, destroyed their temples, undertook forcible conversions, and imposed Jizyah on them for the first time in Kashmir. Indeed, he out-Aurangzebed Aurangzeb in his Hindu-persecution-mania.
    • Harsh Narain, Myths of Composite Culture and Equality of Religions (1990)
  • The fourteenth century was a period of expansion of Muslim authority in Bengal and the adjoining territories. A significant part was played in this process by the warrior saints who were eager to take up the cause of any persecuted community. This often resulted (in clash) with the native authority, followed, almost invariably, by annexation…” This also shows how elastic were the methods adopted by the Sufis. They acted mostly as peaceful missionaries, but if they saw that the espousal of some just cause required military action, they were not averse to fighting. The [Bengal] Sufis...did not adopt the Ismaili technique of gradual conversion...They established their khanqahs and shrines at places which had already had a reputation for sanctity before Islam. Thus some of the traditional gatherings were transformed into new festivals. As a result of these efforts, Bengal in course of time became a Muslim land...
    • Dr. Qureishi I.H. (1962) The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610–1947), Monton & Co., S-Gravenhage, 1962, pp.70-71, 74-75. quoted from Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they. also quoted in Khan, M. A. (2011). Islamic Jihad: A legacy of forced conversion, imperialism and slavery. ch 4, quoted in K.S. Lal , Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India (1973) 175 ff.
  • The two greatest Chishti Mashaikh of the medieval period were Muin-ud-din Chishti and Nizam-ud-din Auliya. Rizvi rightly says that Shaikh Muin-ud-din Chishti “was neither a missionary nor a miracle monger. He did not work among the masses…” In the Fawaid-ul-Fuad, a biographical memoir on Shaikh Nizam-ud-din Auliya, there is mention of conversion of only two Hindu curd-sellers. Similarly during the reign of Iltutmish, Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Qazi Hamid-ud-din Nagori were two prominent saints in Delhi but no proselytizing activity is attributed to them.
    • S.A.A. Rizvi, quoted from Lal, K. S. (1990). Indian muslims: Who are they.
  • The early mystic records (mulfuzat and maktubat), contain no mention of conversion of the people to Islam by these saints.
    • About religious conversion by Sufi saints. S.A.A. Rizvi quoted in Lal, K. S. (2002). Return to roots: Emancipation of Indian Muslims. New Delhi: Radha.(9)
  • The Sufism that survived and even prospered was tame and promised to subserve prophetism. Some great Sufi poets like Rumi and Attar convey a wrong impression of Islamic Sufism in general; they have been its show-pieces, not its representative figures. Mainstream Sufism has been represented by its silsilas like the Naqshbandiyya, Qadiriyya, Chishtiyya, Dervish, Marabout, Ribat, etc. They had no independent ideology of their own and they only served the spiritual-intellectual categories (manisha) of prophetic Islam; in fact, they became its most willing spokesmen. They never questioned its dogmas, not even its barbaric ideas about the kafirs, the jihad, the zimmis, the dar al-harb. There is nothing to show that they ever spoke against Islamic wars and oppression. On the other hand, as their history shows they were part and parcel of Islamic Imperialism, its enthusiastic sappers and miners and also its beneficiaries. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Dervish and Sufis have fought against the unbelievers in time of war. The devotees have accompanied the Shaikh or Murshid or Pir to the threatened frontiers. ... In India, the sufis have been an important limb of Islamic Imperialism and expansion.
  • The story of Islam is no different. Prophetic Islam is inimical to mystic ideas. In the beginning, some Sufis courted martyrdom, but eventually they bought peace and safety by surrendering to Prophetic Islam. There have been some outstanding Sufis, but by arid large the Sufi movement has been part of a larger aggressive apparatus, just like Christian Missions of Imperialism. Though Islam persecuted "infidels", destroyed their temples, enslaved and looted them, we find no Sufis protesting. In fact. they were often beneficiaries of this vandalism. "In many cases there is no doubt that the shrine of a ·Muslim saint marks the site of some local cult which was practised on the spot long before the introduction of Islam," says Thomas Arnold making it look quite normal and harmless. Mu'in aI-Din Chishtl's dargah at Ajmer is one such shrine built on the ruins of an old Hindu temple. The saint had also got the present of a Hindu princess, part of thebooty captured by a Muslim General, Malik Khitab, when he attacked the neighbouring pagan land.
    • Ram Swarup, Hindu View of Christianity and Islam (1992)
  • That men imbued with Sufi doctrines early came to India there cannot be the slightest doubt ; but who these earliest comers were, or when they arrived, cannot be definitely ascertained. Sind, the first province of India to be invaded by Muslim armies, was also the first to be occupied by Muslim mystics, so that to-day it rightly claims the distinction of being the home of Indian Sufism. Nevertheless, no matter where one goes in India or Pakistan one finds Sufi influences powerful and active, fostered, no doubt, by the similar pantheistic doctrines that abound in Indian religious thought, which provide a very congenial atmosphere for their growth. In fact, because of the very widespread dissemination and influence of Sufi doctrines, attempts have been made by some Muslim theologians to find a way of reconciling them to orthodox Islam.
    • Titus, Murray, Islam in India and Pakistan
  • Sufis were especially important in the development of Indian Islam... Sufism arrived in northern India during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and Sufis played a significant part in the Islamization of the Indian subcontinent.48 Wherever Islam gained a foothold, Sufis often served as teachers, proselytizers, and reformers, and their status as such continued throughout the premodern period. In addition to these social roles, Sufis also took part in the military jihad to expand the Abode of Islam in India.49 The tradition of ghazi friends of God has remained an important component of popular Sufi shrine worship in the subcontinent and gives some credence to the military role of Sufis in the history of Muslim India.
    • Harry S. Neale - Sufi Warrior Saints_ Stories of Sufi Jihad from Muslim Hagiography-I.B. Tauris (2022),9
  • It appears likely that Sufism first arrived in India around 1200 with the invading Turkic Muslim armies, and—at least according to traditional sources—many of the first Sufis came to India as warriors.8 The tombs of these early Sufi warriors are found throughout the subcontinent and remain the loci of a continuing tradition of religious and devotional activity for many Muslims.
    • Harry S. Neale - Sufi Warrior Saints_ Stories of Sufi Jihad from Muslim Hagiography-I.B. Tauris (2022),93ff
  • With regard to hagiographical depictions of Sufis as warriors in the subcontinent, it is likely that some are more or less accurate, or at least accurately portray a certain ethos of Sufi jihad. Others, however, are more complicated and ought not to be taken at face value. In particular, we would do well to remember the symbolic function of hagiographical portrayals of Sufi friends of God as warriors. As an example of the former (i.e., the quasi-historical depictions of Sufi warriors), we may cautiously accept the anecdotes regarding Baba Palang Pūsh as reflecting the historical reality of Sufi shaykhs accompanying Muslim armies as spiritual guides and urging them on in their battles against unbelievers. As an example of the latter (i.e., the symbolic Sufi warrior anecdotes), we must understand the narrative of the conquest of Sylhet, in Bengal, by Shah Jalal as symbolizing the break between the region’s “Hindu past and its Muslim future.”
    • Harry S. Neale - Sufi Warrior Saints_ Stories of Sufi Jihad from Muslim Hagiography-I.B. Tauris (2022),93ff

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