Indian History Part 61 Section II: Sufism in India During the Sultanate

Canberra, 15 December 2017


It may not be incorrect to state that a large number of Muslims, perhaps even the majority, have very limited understanding of the theological underpinnings of their faith. This reality was as true in medieval times as it is now, not only in the Indian sub-continent but also across all the followers of the Islamic faith, spread around the world. They function in an environment that is purely bounded by the Sharia Law that prescribes how life should be lived, in an endless process of pilgrimage, fasting, alms-giving and daily ritualistic prayers. In all religions, only traditional scholars, who are very small in number, study their inner functioning. In the case of the adherents of the Islamic faith, in medieval times there came up a group of people outside of the scholastic circle, who found this situation disatisfactory. This was particularly true of the non-Arab converts to Islam who had so far been used to different traditions in the practice of their faith.

‘They craved for a more emotional, indeed emotive religion, one in which God appeared as a loving, succoring [sic] Friend rather than as an abstract definition of undifferentiated unity incomprehensible in His Essence, inscrutable and arbitrary in His decrees.’

Peter Hardy,

In Wm Theodore de Bary, (ed), Sources of Indian Tradition, p. 411.

There was another more visible factor that troubled the more inquisitive common person. The growth of Islamic political power was accompanied by a visible non-adherence to the strict and rigid codes of the religion by the ruling class. The pious common man was very clearly made aware of the compromises that were made, or had to be made, to overcome the strict decrees of an inflexible system in order to create and sustain political power. As a result, many withdrew into seclusion, in order to avoid the wrath of God that was sure to come on Judgement Day. Many other staunch Muslims subsumed their piety in mysticism instead of theology.

Sufism – A Brief Explanation

The history of the development of Islam in the Indian sub-continent from the 12th century forward, is intimately connected and intertwined with the parallel development of the Sufi mystic movement. It is also the story of a counter-movement, of the struggle of the ulema to contain the spread of Sufism and keep it within the accepted Islamic fold. Sufism, in a simplistic explanation, could be considered a fusion of asceticism and devotion, practised within the bounds of traditional Islam. The devotional aspects were ascendant over the initial years, while the mystical elements of love and adoration—which springs from the manifestation of extreme devotion—managed to overcome the fear of Judgement Day.

By around 9th century, just two centuries into the life of the Islamic religion, practitioners of this brand of Islam—the Sufis—had already worked out the methodology to attain ‘ma’rifat’, meaning the mystic knowledge of God. This knowledge was to be attained either through an ecstatic union with God Himself or through an equally blissful unification with one of His attributes; to be achieved either by bringing God into the man or by man’s ascend into God. In effect, one who cast off the self and lost himself in God was the true mystic. This was an exalted state to be achieved and rising to it was a journey that passed through many stages or phases.

The journey to become a true mystic, a Sufi ‘teacher’, starts at the phase of repentance and goes through abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, and trust in God before finally reaching or attaining satisfaction. When a Sufi reaches the stage of satisfaction, he has eagerly accepted the Divine decree, made possible by the gift of God Himself. The two supreme states are described as annihilation followed by subsistence. Annihilation is the transformation of the soul through the complete extinction of all passions and desires and the cessation of all conscious thought. Subsistence follows the annihilation of the soul and is the last phase of abiding union with God. This fusion could mean one of three things—union with one activity symbolised by the name of God; union with one of the attributes of God; or union with the Divine Essence itself. When a Sufi has truly attained annihilation and subsistence, all the veils that hide the truth from human beings are removed, Truth is beheld, and man is eternally united with God.

Since the doctrine of Sufism essentially emphasised a one-on-one relationship with God, it was only a matter of time before they fell afoul of the ulema—scholars of the Sharia and enforcers of the faith. The Sufis claimed to judge men, and also themselves, with an inner light while also claiming to enjoy a ‘personal’ relation with God. This was anathema to the ulema who regulated the outward conduct of all Muslims. Further, in their intense personal experience, many Sufis denied or at least questioned the value and the mandate of the Sharia Law. To make matters worse, a number of Sufis made statements they claimed were derived from supreme insight and personal experience that clearly emphasised monist beliefs. These statements and beliefs placed Islam at par with all other religions and faiths. Such a doctrine could not be tolerated by a religion that was steadfast in its adherence to the Quranic Law and considered itself to be the only ‘true’ faith, above and superior to any other religious belief. As a result, the Sufis were persecuted and some famous adherents executed on the order of the Caliph.

Sufism was not popular within the hierarchy of the Abbasid Caliphate’s political authority, but became popular amongst the artisans and the minor trading class in Iraq and Persia. It is obvious that it was never a political movement since its call for personal correctness of behaviour and spiritual revival contrasted completely with the worldliness of the political ruling class.

Al Ghazali – The Mystic Theologian

Al Ghazali was one of the most renowned and acknowledged among the mystics. Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, shortened to Al Ghazali in Arabic and known as Algazelus in the contemporary Western world, was born in 1058 and died in 1111 in Persia. Some historians consider him the most influential person in shaping the Islamic faith after Prophet Muhammad. His greatest achievement was making Islamic mysticism acceptable and reconciled with the mainstream orthodoxy in Islam. By doing so he ensured that the schism that was developing between the ulema and the Sufis did not become irreparably wide. The effect of this healing touch on Islam is best seen in the progress of the religion in the Indian sub-continent during the three-century-rule of the Delhi Sultanate—there was hardly any tension between the Sufis and the ulema.

Al Ghazali is credited with having written more than 70 books, mainly in Arabic and a few in Persian. His 11th century book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers is an important turning point in Islamic epistemology. His personal experiments and analysis of scepticism led Al Ghazali to embrace what has been termed as theological occasionalism—the belief that all casual events and interactions could not be the product of material conjunctions but was the immediate and present Will of God. The book was also an important milestone in the development of Islamic philosophy, since it vehemently refuted and rejected the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, who had for long influenced Islamic thinkers. The rejection of the Greek philosophies was achieved by rebutting the work of the ‘Falasifa’, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers of the 8th through 11th centuries, among whom Avicenna and Al-Farabi were the most prominent and who drew intellectual stimulation from the ancient Greeks.

Al Ghazali was responsible for making personal and emotional relationship between an individual and God the core principle of popular Islam. Since Sufism also propagated a similar doctrine, gradually it also became an acceptable part of Muslim orthodoxy. About a century after his death, Al Ghazali’s theories were accepted by consensus into Islamic theology. This embracing of his rather radical theories can be considered one of the most important events in the developmental history of the Muslim religion. Sufism became the most vital spiritual force in Islam, encompassing royalty, nobility and commoner alike.

‘He was called the Proof of Islam and undoubtedly was worthy of the name, absolutely trustworthy (in respect of the Faith). How many an epitome (he has given) us setting forth the basic principles or religion: how much that was repetitive has he summarised, and epitomised what was lengthy. How many simple explanation has he given us of what was hard to fathom, with brief elucidation and clear solution of knotty problems. He used moderation, being quiet but decisive in silencing an adversary, though his words were like a sharp sword-thrust in refuting a slanderer and protecting the high-road of guidance.’

Margaret Smith,

Al Ghazali the Mystic, p. 47.

There is no doubt that Al Ghazali’s synthesis of religious thought altered the course of Islamic civilisations. In India, his concepts made it possible for adherents of the faith to practice Islam in innovative ways. It made the worship of saints acceptable, even though such a practice was completely against the injunctions in the Quran and the traditional Muslim theological orthodoxy. The Sufis did not care whether their religious practices were in harmony with Islamic practices or not.

The Sufi Orders

Al Ghazali’s concepts and philosophies found expression in what came to be referred to as the doctrine of the ‘Light of Muhammad’. The doctrine states, in brief—that things emanate from divine prescience as ideas. The idea of Muhammad the Prophet is the creative and rational principle of the Universe, since the Prophet is the perfect man and unifies all phenomenon into manifesting as real. The fundamental aim of a Sufi is to unite with, and in, the Perfect Man, who is the copy of God. In later days, popular Islam in India would attach this idea to famous Sufi personalities who were considered saints. This in turn led to the formation of a hierarchy where the Prophet stood alone at the head, followed by the saints who were elected from amongst the mystics. Popular belief and sentiment attributed miracles to these saints. The Sufi sheikhs or leaders came to be ‘worshiped’ even during their lifetime and after death, their tombs became places of pilgrimage. This practice is prevalent in the Indian sub-continent to this day.

These ideas became institutionalised in the great Sufi orders. It became necessary for a Sufi novice to become the disciple of a spiritual director or mentor so that adequate guidance was provided for his development. The novice was accepted into the fraternity through a ceremony of initiation. The head of such fraternities were either called Sheikh or Pir, both meaning elder, who claimed spiritual succession from the founder of the order; and through him to the Prophet or Ali. The group normally lived in a community, a sort of retreat, supported by sponsors who often included the Sultan himself, and gave themselves up to meditation and spiritual exercises. In medieval times there were many such groups or retreats across the Islamic world. The major Sufi orders were able to establish a sort of network, with a senior disciple going out of the retreat and establishing a satellite group, and so on. All these ‘sub-retreats’ were linked to the parent body through reverence to the senior sheikh and commonality of rituals.

The membership of these orders were normally of two types. One was the novice initiates who were totally immersed in devotional exercises and continual meditations, striving on the path to satisfaction and annihilation.  The second were a number of ‘lay persons’ who attended meetings at prescribed times and intervals to participate in rituals and ceremonies meant for ‘remembering God’. At other times they led a normal life. The Islamic conquest of North India coincided with the establishment of these orders and it was a natural progression that some of them were introduced into the sub-continent. The Sufis dominated Muslim thought and social life during the Sultanate period in India, often reaching out to Hinduism.

Sufism in India during the Sultanate Period

Despite the Islamic conquest of most of North and Western India, and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate, even at the height of its power, the Muslims remained a minority within their empire. This was also the case for the great Mughal Empire, when it came to pass a few centuries later. The Hindu chiefs and princes continued to rule their principalities or kingdoms, albeit under the suzerainty of a Muslim sultan or emperor. Further, in the central and provincial capitals, Hindu clerks staffed almost the entire administrative machinery with the Muslims only manning the executive or directorial positions. No doubt, military and political power rested only with the Muslims. However, like the application of political power throughout history, its exercise was dependent on the ruler observing certain laid down conditions.

The Muslim rulers in India had two such conditions to meet in order to fulfil their part of the bargain. The first was to refrain from exceeding the traditional limits of their political power, which was restricted to the collection of revenue and recruiting for the army. There was to be no interference in the traditional beliefs, customs and laws that the people held dear. The second caveat was meant to safeguard the status of the Muslim population. The ruler was to preserve the cultural and religious identity of the ruling Muslim class and to ensure the effective defence of their privileged political position. As long as the Sultan ensured these two conditions he was free to rule as he liked. Of course the rule had to be in line with the Quranic Law and other caveats that has been explained in the earlier chapter on governance of the Delhi Sultanate.

Islam entered India at a stage in its development when the theological schism in the religion had almost healed. The learned men who came with the invasion, the ulema, were almost all traditionalists and canon lawyers and not theologians. Therefore the focus was on establishing and elaborating the daily practice of the religion in order to ensure the solidarity of the community, which was a minority in a foreign land full of animosity against the invaders. The Turks who conquered North India in the 12th century were purely military adventurers. The ulema sided with them to enhance their own influence and the Turks were glad to have the unfettered support of the keepers of the faith. The coming together of religion and politics was mutually beneficial for the rulers and the orthodox religious teachers.

The Confluence of Politics and Religion

The initial crop of Sultans in Delhi nominally recognised the legal sovereignty of the Baghdad Caliph. However, in practice they acted as Caliphs in their own right for their dominions, appointing their own judges—both religious (qadis) and canon jurists (muftis) in most towns to enforce their rule. These judges, together with the ulema who taught in the schools, advocated obedience not only to the one true God, but particularly to the Sultan as His representative on Earth. The power and prestige of the State and the Sultan backed the ulema at all times, reinforcing the veracity of their teaching.

The Sultans disregarded the Sharia Law when it conflicted with their personal interests and also for political expediency. The Sultan, representing the State may not have imposed orthodoxy of the religion directly, but definitely sanctioned others to do so. Even so, when required he also sanctioned the suppression of orthodoxy. The ulema of the Delhi Sultanate were uniformly of the orthodox Sunni persuasion and fanatical in the propagation of their faith.

The Shi’a Sects

Sindh, with Multan as the capital, was the first province of the sub-continent to be conquered by the Islamic invasion. Along with this invasion, extreme Shi’a sects—the Ismaili and Qarmatian—also came into the province. From Sindh they gradually spread to the rest of the Sultanate. However, these sects were continually attacked and scattered by the orthodox Sunnis but managed to survive underground in a clandestine manner. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Delhi Sultans; Iltutmish, Raziya, Ala ud-Din Khilji, and Firuz Tughluq; slaughtered and imprisoned the followers of both these sects. The Ismaili and Qarmatian sects denied the legitimacy of the Sultanate and by association, of the Sultan himself. Their doctrine was egalitarian and they rejected the concept of the Caliphate itself. Delhi Sultans were alarmed at the concepts that were being propagated by these groups and sought the assistance of the Sunni ulema to dispel the heretical doctrine from peoples’ minds.

Challenge to the Integrity of Islam

Even though the Shi’a doctrine was being ruthlessly suppressed, it was not the primary ideological challenge to the integrity of the Islamic faith in India. The challenge emanated from the Sufis, practising lives of demonstrably pure devotion and gentleness. The real religious tension within the Islamic fold in India came from the opposing views between the orthodox Sunni ulema and the philosophy of the Sufis. Both derived their concepts from Al Ghazali’s doctrine.

By the 12th century, the great Islamic mystic orders had already been founded outside India. Even before the Ghurid conquest of the Punjab was complete in 1195, Kwaja Muin ud-Din Chishti of Sistan had settled in Ajmer and introduced the Chishti order to India. Within the next two centuries after that the Sufi orders had spread their network of retreats across the entire North India, becoming a powerful force even outside the Muslim community. Even though the concepts of Sufism appealed to all classes of Muslims, it was found to be more attractive to the less- and un-educated masses. The Sufis exhibited a way of life and thought that also made them alluring to the Hindus. The appeal for the Hindus was because of the devotion, piety, asceticism and tolerance that the Sufis displayed, and which rhymed with the fundamental concepts of Hinduism. Further, during the Sultanate period Sufism remained independent of the state, which was a further attraction for the Hindus. Sufis were the true missionaries of Islam in India.

The Sufis were under constant surveillance by the ulema, who were suspicious of their activities. The ulema wanted to ensure that the Sufis were not propagating ‘un-Islamic’ ideas and also feared that the Sufi retreats would replace the mosque as the centre of life for Muslims, if they were allowed to proliferate. They also feared the increasing Hindu influence on the Sufi movement, although practices such as the worship of saints existed in Islam much before the religion spread into India. The ulema were very concerned about the impact of Sufism on ‘New Muslims’—converts from other religions in the sub-continent, predominantly from Hinduism.

At the ideological level, the ulema and the Sufis were not enemies, but rivals for the attention of the lay people. In fact, they were reluctant partners in spreading the concept of Islam in the sub-continent, following two different paths to the same goal of travelling towards God. The ulema chose the orthodox path through the Sharia, while the Sufis adopted the mystic path, called ‘tariqa’ that could be loosely translated to ‘the method’. Bolstered by instinct, there was mutual tolerance between orthodoxy and mysticism to ensure the development of Muslim communal unison. There may not have been complete unity, but in the face of the predominant population of unbelievers, the commonality of purpose became a great binding factor. The need to face a common threat made it possible for the ulema and Sufis to avoid visible schisms in their individualistic religious practice.

The Great Sufi Orders

Sufism entered India in an already mature and well-developed form. Therefore, it did not change its ideas but only adapted its practices to align the movement with the new environment. Between the end of 12th century and mid-15th century, in other words the Delhi Sultanate period, three great Sufi orders migrated to India from Iraq and Persia—the Chishti, Suhrawardi and Firdausi.

Of these, by far the most popular and the one with the largest following was the Chishti order. It spread across the region now covered by Uttar Pradesh and surrounding states. Its great saints, Nizam ud-Din Auliya (1238-1325) and Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Chirag (died 1356) roamed the central Indian plains and taught the concepts of their order. Followers of these saints and other teachers of the Chishti order included some of the greatest luminaries of Indo-Muslim culture during the Sultanate period, such as Amir Khusrau the poet, and Zia ud-Din Barani the historian. The tombs of these mystic saints have become pilgrimage sites and are still worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims alike. The Suhrawardi order came into Sindh with the Muslim conquest but remained confined to that region. The Firdausi order moved inland, but could not compete with the popularity of the Chishti order and gradually moved east and became entrenched in the region around Bihar.

The Text Books

In the 11th and 12th centuries, few ‘text books’ were written in an attempt to clearly express the ideas and philosophies of Sufism. A notable one is Kashf ul-Mahjub, or ‘The Uncovering of the Veil’ written by Shaikh Ali Hujwiri in Lahore after the city was annexed by Mahmud of Ghazni. There is another kind of literature that was produced. In order to popularise the Sufi teachers, their disciples recorded the masters’ sayings, discourses and injunctions and made them available to the public. They also wrote the biographies of the saints. The book Fawaid ul-Fuwad, ‘The Morals of the Heart’ written by poet Amir Hasan Sijzi is the record of the conversations of Shaikh Nizam ud-Din Auliya in his retreat at Ghiyaspur, between 1307 and 1322. Another is a collection of letters, Maktubat, addressed to a disciple by Shailah Sharaf ud-Din Yahya of Manir, who was a mystic of the Firdausi order living in Bihar at the end of 14th century.

When taken together, the written literature illustrate the central concepts of Sufism. They emphasise the love for God as the fundamental concept for human existence; the urge towards union with God; explain the different stages of the mystic path in the journey towards the final union; the acceptance of the Sharia as an essential component in the journey by all the great saints; and the role of the saints themselves in leading their disciples towards the ultimate aim of union with God.


Although tensions did exist between the orthodox ulema and the practitioners of Sufism, it will be incorrect to assume that the two were inimical, or that they worked at cross purposes. The Sufi orders that established themselves in India accepted the Islam of the Sharia as an essential precondition of the one true religion. The Sufis actually complimented the ulema in teaching the simple observance of the faith, especially in remote areas where the ‘New Muslims’ did not have access to the centralising influence of mosques or religious schools. In effect, the ulema and the Sufi were two sides of the same coin in the propagation of Islam as the one and only true religion.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2017]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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