Historically speaking sufism appeared in Islam towards the end of first century of Islamic calender. Some sufis of course maintain that the Prophet of Islam himself is the mainspring of sufism and they draw inspiration from him for their spiritual and devotional practices. Also, there is debate about the meaning of the word sufi. Some maintain that it is derived from the word suf, which means coarse wool as sufis used to wear coarse woolen overall. Some others maintain that it is derived from the Greek word meaning knowledge and wisdom. Whatever its meaning the word sufi has been widely used in Islamic history for a distinct set of doctrines and practices within Islamic frame-work. This school of thought had wide following among the Muslims.
The sufi Islam, it is interesting to note, is love-oriented while the theological Islam practised by the 'ulama, is manly law-oriented. The sufi God is God of love whereas the concept of God in theological Islam is punishing God for violation of Islamic law. It is for this reason that masses of Muslims have been greatly attracted by the sufi Islam than the theological Islam which has intellectual appeal and orientation. The sufi Islam, on the other hand, has spiritual and emotional appeal. While theological Islam is rigorous and rigid in approach the Sufi Islam is flexible and soothing to the soul. While theological Islam lays stress on practice of shari'a law, the sufi Islam lays stress on devotion to God.
It does not, however, mean that sufis are negligent of shari'a practices, at least not all. There are several schools within the sufi Islam. Some follow the shari'a provisions quite rigorously and there are some which are on other extreme who do not give much importance to shari'a practices. And there are some who are in between and give importance to both devotion and law. In India Chishti school has been very popular and all major sufi saints in India have been from this school. The sufis of this school follow the doctrine of what is called wahdat al-wujud postulated by the great sufi saint Muhi al-Din Ibn-i-Arabi.
Ibn Arabi has exercised great influence on sufis of India as his doctrine of wahdat al-wujud is quite accommodative and flexible in many ways. According to this doctrine the real existence wujud is that of Allah whereas all of us are its manifestations. In fact entire universe is His manifestation. Thus such a doctrine leads to demolition of barriers between people of one religion and the other. This doctrine brought Hindus and Muslims together in India and helped evolve a composite culture. The Chishti saints followed this doctrine and thus came very close to people of others faiths in various regions in India.
The basic teaching of this school of sufi thought is what has been called sulh-i-kul i.e. peace with all. Thus peace, friendship and love have been at the centre of this school of sufism. Maulana Rum whose masnavi (an epic poem running into several volumes) is considered by many as the Qur'an in Persian, puts great stress on love and peace in his masnavi, In one of his couplets he says you have come to effect union (between people) and not for separating them. He also says that dogs fight for the bones and the wise take the marrow meaning thereby that it is not dogmas which contain the truth of religion but it is essence of religion, its kernel which is important. Maulana Rum was one of the greatest sufi thinkers of Islam and he has inspired and continues to inspire generation after generation of Muslims and others. Maulana Rum's whole emphasis has been on love and union.
The Sufis also lay great deal of stress on meditation and reflection (muraqibah) which drew them closer to Indian traditions. But unlike Indian tradition they did not practice complete renunciation. They married and had children as per the practice (sunnah) of the Prophet but never went near the power centre. They kept their distance from power centres. The 'ulama, though not all, were generally drawn close to power centres and often did their bidding.
The sufis were closer to the people than to the rulers. In fact rulers were often tempted to be seen in their company to acquire some legitimacy. The noted sufi-cum-theologian Al-Ghazzali says that one should not look at the face of tyrant and unjust sultan and even if it becomes necessary one should turn ones face away while talking to such a ruler.
Nizamuddin Awliyah was one of the great sufi saints of India during the sultanate period and he saw the times of several sultans but did not pay court to anyone. When he consistently refused to go to the court Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji sought an interview with Nizamuddin Awliya, which was politely refused by him. The Sultan then thought of visiting the khanqah (hospice) without informing the Shaikh (i.e.Nizamuddin). "My house has two doors", remarked the Shaikh. "If the Sultan enters by one, I will make my exit by the other." (see Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi, 1991, pp-105).
And when the Sultan planned a surprise visit to the Shaikh. Amir Khusrau, his celebrated disciple reported this to Nizamuddin Awliya and Nizamuddin left for visiting the tomb of his spiritual mentor Baba Farid at Ajodhyan to avoid meeting the Sultan. (ibid). thus it is obvious how sufis of the eminence of Nizamuddin Awliya maintained their distance from power centres. And it was for this reason that they were so dear to the common people. Though there are always exceptions to the rule most of the sufis maintained distance from rulers. They did not want religion to be misused by rulers. Religion, for these sufis, was not a means for acquiring power and influence, but it was meant for their spiritual needs.
These sufi saints were greatly respected by the common people as they assimilated local culture and even local customs. In other words they believed in acculturation. Baba Farid was among the great Chishti sufis of North India. He was great scholar of Persian and Arabic but he wrote his poetry in Punjabi language. In fact he is considered as the first Punjabi poet and his verses have been quoted by Guru Nanak in his Adi Granth. He is held in great respect by Sikhs and there is Baba Farid Chair in Punjab University, Chandigarh.
Thus Khaliq Ahmad Nizami writes about Baba Farid, "Sheikh Farid's ideal of life flowed from his concept of religion which was revolutionary in its contents and dynamic in its potentialities. His God was neither a theological myth not a logical abstract of Unity, but an all embracing personality present in his ethical, intellectual and aesthetic experience and furnishing the inspiration for creating an ideal realm of values in a distressed and struggling world?.It made him citizen of that Universal society in which God is the supreme Intelligence and all human beings His manifestations. He sought to reach the creator through His creation and identified religion with service of humanity. Again and again he emphasised the fact that faith in God means 'love of His creatures'.(see K.A.Nizami "Shaikh Farid-ud-din Ganj-I-Shakar" in Gurbachan Singh Talib ed. Perspectives on Sheikh Farid, Patiala, 1975,PP-30).
All sufis believed in non-violence and Baba Farid particularly so. He believed in non-violence as the only way to solve the differences in social life. Through his behaviour he demonstrated, maintains Nizami, that pacifism and non-violence is the cult of strong and not the defence of the weak. Nizami quotes a verse of Baba Farid included in the Guru Granth Sahib as under:
'Farid return thou good for evil, bear no revenge in thy heart: Thus will thy body be free of maladies,
And thy life blest.'
The Guru Granth contains 112 Shlokas of Baba Farid which he wrote in Punjabi. The burden of these Shlokas is divine love, need for purification of inner life, value of penitence in spiritual progress, ephemeral character of human existence and other similar subjects. "Striking metaphors", says K.A.Nizami, "mostly borrowed from the atmosphere around, add to the effects of these Shlokas. They seems to be the gushes of a heart overflowing with divine love and constitute a valuable treasure of the Indian historical heritage." (ibid, pp-33-34).
Nizamuddin Awliya was his celebrated disciple and lived simple life and around whom thousands of people flocked. Nizamuddin Awliya respected local customs and traditions and never held other religions to be inferior to his own. One day when he was going along bank of river Jamuna he saw some Hindu women bathing in the holy river and worshipping sun. His celebrated disciple Khusraw was with him and he said addressing Khusraw: do not hold these women in contempt; they are also worshipping Allah though in their own way. And he recited a verse from the Holy Qur'an, in support of his view: "For everyone has a direction in which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good works." (2:148)
Thus Hazrat Nizamuddin stressed here that it is not the method of worship, according to the Qur'an, but the good deeds which matter most. Thus the sufis respected the local rituals to promote love and friendship between the people. They did not pass the judgements of right and wrong. For them love and service were more important than the method of worship. The Holy Prophet is also reported to have said that it is more meritorious to feed a hungry widow than to pray whole night.
The sufi saints never dismissed other religions out of hand. Nor did they ask anyone to convert to Islam though thousands converted to Islam at their hands. They were seen as role model by the people. It was their character and devotion which attracted people to the religion they practised not any intellectual argument or even persuasion. Preaching Islam to others was not their mission. They showed equal respect to all high and low in the society. Many people from low castes who were treated with contempt by upper class and upper caste people flocked around sufis as they found respect for human dignity. This was one reason why large number of dalits converted to Islam without even being asked to do so.
It is a great myth to say that Hindus converted to Islam on the point of sword. No ruler was interested in converting Hindus through coercion, as it would invite the wrath of Hindus. Let alone converting Hindus to Islam these rulers were not even prepared to ban their religious processions as it would anger the Hindus. It is for this reason that very few upper caste Hindus converted to Islam and only dalits did.
Many orthodox 'ulama differed from sufi ways and opposed their liberal attitude. It is well known that Abul Fazl and Faizee, both sufi brothers were persecuted by orthodox 'ulama because of their liberalism. It is later that they went to Akbar's court and Akbar was greatly influenced by them and became liberal under their influence.
The sufis never tried to even dissuade converted Muslims from giving up their pre-Islamic customs and traditions. It is for this reason that most of the Indian Muslims, particularly in rural areas and small towns even today practise with great enthusiasm all their local pre-Islamic customs and traditions. We will throw some light on this aspect little later. The orthodox 'ulama on the other hand engaged themselves in purifying Indian Islam of pre-Islamic influences.
Some 'ulama like Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi better known as Mujaddid Alf-i-thani (the renewer of second millennium) vehemently opposed the sufi doctrine of wahdat al-wujud which maintained, as pointed out earlier, that real Being is Allah and we are all His manifestations. This approach resulted in bringing about greater unity among peoples of different religion, race and tribe. Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi preached the doctrine of what he called wahdat al-shuhud i.e. unity of witnessing. Thus he maintained that we are not manifestation of One Being but it is only an appearance, not reality.
Sheikh Sirhindi attacked many practices among the Muslims, which he condemned as un-Islamic. Thus in one of his letters written to a lady Sufi (letter from volume III, number 41) deals mainly with the pledge of women (bay' at al-nisa') at the time of Muhammad. Sirhindi expresses his conviction that women are more prone to blameworthy actions common among men and then proceeds to describe the innovations common among Indian Muslims, chiefly women, in his time. Because of their utter stupidity women pray to stones and idols and ask for their help. This practice is common, especially when small pox strikes, and there is hardly a woman who is not involved in this polytheistic practice. Women participate in the holidays of Hindus and Jews.they celebrate Diwali and send their sisters and daughters presents similar to those exchanged by the infidels."
The implications of the doctrine of wahdat al-shuhud were quite grave as it emphasises superiority of people of one religion on the other and for that reason that religion should be kept 'pure' and divested of all other influences. Thus the Sheikh spent his energies in purifying Indian Islam. However, his influence never spread among the masses. He had greater influence among a section of the Muslim ruling classes, nobles and courtesans. It is interesting to note that the Chishti saints had the greatest amount of influence in India. The other sufi schools remain confined to limited circles. The Chishti saints were popular because they were more liberal and accommodative in spirit. They accommodated others rather than rejecting.
The Chishti saints, on the other hand, not only accommodated but even adopted the customs and traditions of others. Take Meo Muslims, for example. The Meo Muslims, along with nikah also go for circumambulations around fire. They celebrate not only Eid but also Diwali with same enthusiasm and follow all customs and traditions prevalent in their area. They converted to Islam but never gave up their pre-Islamic roots. It is regrettable that Even V.S.Naipaul never understood this. He condemns Islam in his books, particularly in Aomng the Believers that Islam while converting people robs them of their pre-Islamic culture. Unfortunately Naipaul never bothered to study any Muslim society from sociological and anthropological angle. He would not have otherwise made such sweeping statements.
Many Sufi saints themselves adopted prevailing cultural practices without much hesitation. Sheikh Muhammad of Maharashtra, for example. He not only wrote on sufism in Marathi but translated sufi terminology into Marathi language. He was greatly respected in Maharashtra and was even compared with Gnaneshwar for his liberal compositions on sufi Islam in Marathi.
There is also the case of Hamiduddin Nagauri who was a sufi saint from Nagaur, Rajasthan. He became strict vegetarian and also always kept a cow with him. He in fact lived like a Hindu peasant does. He was disciple of the renowned Sufi saint Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. Hamiduddin Nagauri wrote a code of conduct for sufis with the approval of his master. Some of the salient points of the code are as under: 1)one should not earn money; 2) one should not borrow money from others; 3) one should not reveal to anyone nor seek help from anyone if one has eaten nothing for seven days; 4) if one gains plenty of food, money, grain or clothing, one should not keep anything until the following day and 5) having fulfilled these conditions one should regularly fast during the day and pray during the night.
One sees that this is very close to practices of Hindu seers, Buddhist bhikus and munis. They did not condemn practices of others as the orthodox 'ulama did describing them as practices of infidels. Khwaja Hasan Nizami in his valuable book Fatimi Da'awat-e-Islam has given numerous examples of Sufis adopting the local customs, rituals and traditions. He quotes various instances of certain sects of Islam like the Niazaris and others even adopting the symbol of Om as when written in Sanskrit with slight variation it resembles 'Ali, as written in Arabic. The Imamshahi sect even projected Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law as the 10th incarnation of Vishnu. (See Khwaja Hasan Nizami, Fatimi Da'wat-e-Islam, Delhi, 1338 A.H.).
Khwaja Hasan Nizami describes various rituals around the grave of sufi saints which were borrowed by the sufis from the local Hindu rituals of temples. He says that the circumambulation around the grave of a sufi shaikh was nothing but circumambulation (parikrama) around the idol in the temple. The ritual of offering sandal and flowers to the grave, he maintains, has been borrowed from similar practices among Hindus. The idol has been replaced by the grave of a sufi. Saint. Hasan Nizami describes all these rituals adopted from Hindus in details in his above book.
Hasan Nizami also describes in some details a Hindu sect called Pranami Panth which is half Hindu, half Muslim. He even met their Mahant Maharaj Rangi Lal in Saurashtra (which was then known as Kathiawad). Their holy book is called Qulzum Sarup Generally it is referred to by common people as Kullum sharif (Kalam Sharif). The Khwaja says that this Book contains shlokas from Geeta as well as verses from the Qur'an and also some hadiths. There are also some extracts from other holy scriptures.
The Pranam Panthis are spread over several parts of India. Apart from Gujrat they are found in Bihar, Bundelkhand in U.P., in various cities of Punjab etc. According to this Panth Krishna Maharaj and Prophet Muhammad are one and the same. First Krishna Maharaj appeared and then he appeared in the Arab world. It is Pran Nath Maharaj who was disciple of Deepchand Maharaj wrote Qulzum Sarup. Pranamis believe it is a revealed scripture. The Pranam Panthis are great devotees of Muhammad (PBUH) and call themselves as real believers and think Muslims are heretics. They also believe that the Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. It is interesting that Pranamis apply tilak on their forehead and also wear geneo (sacred thread).
We do not want to go into details of this interesting sect here. What it shows that there are several such sects, which adopted beliefs and practices from Islam and Hinduism in India also selectively from other religions. The reality is very complex. The sufi approach to Islam was very flexible and accommodative. Thousands in India became Muslims because of such approach. The 'ulama who adopted rigid ideological approach never succeeded in converting people to Islam.
Thanks to these sufi saints that our culture at popular level is a composite culture. There is no doubt that the ruling classes also collaborated with each other and created composite culture but at people's level it is sufis who created composite culture and even composite religious rituals as examples of Meos and Pranam Panthis show. There never was communal polarisation as we have today.