By M. M. Abraham
02 July, 2014
Islamic mysticism, known as Sufism, goes back to the early period of Islam. The word ‘Sufi’ originates from ‘Suf’, which means wool. The early ascetics of Islam used to wear woolen garments, as did some Christian monks. Synonymous with Sufi is the word ‘Faqir’ (which means ‘poor’), and the Persian word ‘dervish’ (meaning ‘beggar’). The words Sufi, faqir and dervish are commonly used interchangeably by many Muslims.
The goal of Sufism is to progress beyond mere intellectual knowledge to a mystical experience that leads people towards the infinity of God. Sufism had an important part to play in the formation of Muslim societies as it educated the masses and met their felt needs, giving spiritual meaning to their lives and channelling their emotions. Sufis not only demonstrated the theme of equality among Muslims but also welcomed people of all religions and castes, not extending any special treatment to the Sultans when they visited them.
Pluralistic Approach of Indian Sufis Mystics
The Sufi Mohiuddin Ibn Arabi’s doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud (‘Unity of Existence’) was quite a revolutionary doctrine as far as harmony between the followers of different religions is concerned. The doctrine implies that the whole of humankind is one and it reflects the glory of God. It means that essential Being is one and we all are manifestations of this Being. The doctrine inculcates a sense of unity among human beings and deep respect for every particle of the cosmos, as everything is the reflection of God’s glory. The doctrine implies that God’s existence pervades through the whole universe. Many Indian Sufis followed, preached and practiced the doctrine of Wahdat al- Wujud. They did not hesitate to assimilate spiritual insights from other faiths. In practice, they adopted the Quranic verse (2:148) “And every one has a direction to which he should turn, therefore hasten to (do) good works; wherever you are, Allah will bring you all together”.
India has been blessed as the home of many Sufis. One of the best known Sufis of India was Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1243-1325 AD). His life was an endless struggle to fulfill what he considered the divine purpose of creation: to show people the way of God and to make them realize the value of purposeful living devoted to the service of fellow human beings. He gave a revolutionary dimension to religious activity by identifying it with the service of humanity. He taught his disciples that looking after the needy and the destitute was of greater value than formal performance of religious practices.
Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya followed the advice of his master Shaikh Moinuddin Chishti (1141-1230), who insisted that his disciples “develop river-like generosity, sun like affection, earth like hospitality.” He demonstrated the significance of this advice by adopting it in his own life. In this light, a Sufi was expected to transcend all barriers of culture, race, language and geography in dealing with human beings, all fellow creatures of the one God.
A firm believer in pacifism and non-violence, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya stressed that violence created more problems than it solved. In forgiveness and tolerance lay the supreme talisman of human happiness. He contended that if a man places a thorn in your way and you place another thorn in his way, it will be thorns everywhere. He advised his disciples to be good to their enemies and very often recited the following verses of Shaikh Abu Said Abul Khair:
“He who is not my friend, May God be his friend, and he who bears ill will against me, may his joys (in life) increase. He who puts thorns in my way on account of enmity, may every flower that blossoms in the garden of his life be without thorns.”
The following is another anecdote narrated by the Shaikh before his audience: An Arab of the desert used to pray to God in this way: “O Creator! Be merciful on me and on Muhammad, don’t include others in this mercy”. When the Prophet heard about this, he advised the Arab not to limit God’s mercy like this. God’s mercy is for all.
There are no cases of conversion by the Shaikh reported in any of his Malfuzat or ‘utterances’. The Shaikh believed in living a pious and dedicated life, which attracted people to piety and good conduct, rather than striving for immediate formal change of faith. “What the Ulema seek to achieve through speech,” he used to say, “we achieve by our behaviour.” The Shaikh appreciated Maulana Alauddin Usuli’s approach, which emphasized on winning a heart rather than winning a convert. He was more concerned with bringing happiness to human heart than making conversions.
Once, Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia went for a morning walk along the river Yamuna, where he saw some Hindu women worshipping the rising sun. On seeing these women in the act of worship, he said to his poet-disciple Amir Khusrau: “For every people there is religion and direction to which they turn to pray.” These words were the literal translation of a Quranic verse and reflected Nizamuddin Auliya’s approach towards other religions.
Another Indian Sufi with a fine breadth of vision was the Qadri Dara Shikoh (1615-1659 AD), who applied himself to the study of Hindu and Muslim mystical practices. One great dream of Dara’s life was the promotion of the oneness of all humankind. Although his writings do not suggest that he moved very far from the positions taken by other Sufis, who remained within the bounds of ‘orthodoxy’, he was accused of heresy for his acceptance of ideas drawn from Hindu mysticism and was executed in 1659 A.D. His execution had, undoubtedly, political underpinnings as well.
Dara Shikoh completed translating fifty-two Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian in the year 1657. Through a French translation of Dara’s work, the Upanishads became known for the first time in the West. Dara’s Majma ul-Bahrayn is a monumental work in the field of comparative religion. It tries to explain that there is no fundamental difference between Hinduism and Islam.
The Qadri Sufi Bulleh Shah of Punjab (1680-1757) held that no religion was better than any other to attain God. He refused to be imprisoned by the mythological boundaries of a sectarian religion and he took free flights in the open sky of thought. He was influenced by the Sant or Bhakti tradition. He freely appreciated and adopted some ‘Hindu’ ideas, seeing God in Krishna, who grazed cows in Brindaban, and in Rama, who invaded Lanka. He had studied and had knowledge of the Upanishads. He accepted the Vaishnava idea of the Grace of God—which is that one cannot achieve anything through one’s own efforts but only by the Grace of God.
Bulleh Shah broke communal barriers that ‘orthodox’ Hindus and Muslims were so concerned to fortify, crossed the sectarian boundaries created by defenders of the shariat, and saw no difference between Hindus and Muslims. He saw the same God in the mullah and the pandit.
The fundamental ideology of the Sufis is God, man and the relation between them, which is love. The Sufis helped in developing a more humanitarian approach in religious life, with their stress on service to mankind and their belief that love of God was not possible without the love of humankind. They believed in the equality and fraternity of humankind. In this article, I have mentioned only a few of the great Sufis who have blessed our country with their presence. There were, of course, many, many more, who played a leading role in guiding people to the one God and in promoting love and fraternity across communal and caste barriers.
M M Abraham, a priest of the Mar Thoma Church, is Associate Director of the Hyderabad-based Henry Martyn Institute, a centre that seeks to promote dialogue between people of different faiths