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Islamic Personalities ( 9 Apr 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, an ‘Islamic Reformist’ and a ‘Sufi’: Debating His Religious Thoughts and Reform Works




By Ghualm Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

Today radical Islamists and clerics of South Asia especially in Pakistan refer to Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi’s religious thoughts in an attempt to justify their intolerant ideology. Even in this day and age, Shaikh Sirhindi’s opposition to Akbar's policies which he declared inconsistent with Islam is used as a stimulus for radical and extremist movements of the sub-continent. Therefore, it would be quite interesting to objectively discuss the religious thoughts and reformation works of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi who is viewed as an ‘Islamic reformist’ as well as a ‘Sufi’ among Muslims in Indo-Pak.

Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1563/4-1624) was a contemporary of the two emperors Akbar and Jahangir. In that period, he carried out notable reformation works as an Islamic revivalist or what is called “Mujaddid” in Islamic terminology. That is why he was given by his disciples the honorific title of the “Mujaddid-e- Alf-e-Sani” (revivalist of the second millennium). Since he was the son of a Sufi priest, he followed the spiritual tradition of his father and later joined the Naqshbandi Sufi order. However, Islamic scholars split his life into two periods, Sufi and non-Sufi. While known as the leading figure of the Naqshbandi Sufi order to some, Shaikh Sirhindi emerged as an orthodox Sufi Islamic scholar in India in later history, in the 16th century.

As Islamic reformist, Shaikh Sirhindi’s ideas left an unrelenting and perpetual impact on religious and political mindset of Indian Muslims that continued from the Mughal period to the subsequent 19th and 20th centuries until today. However, his Sufism has been controversial among Sufi practitioners and scholars due to the hardcore elements in his views, which stand antithetical to the pluralistic and harmonious legacy of the mainstream Islamic mystics and particularly early Indian Sufis. 

He came to be known as a reformist Sufi master for those who put together mysticism and orthodoxy keeping a balance between them. The most salient aspect of Shaikh Sirhindi’s Sufism was his struggle of developing and reviving a mystical orthodoxy in place of prevailing Sufism. Therefore, he denounced particular Sufi doctrines and tendencies that he thought to be inconsistent with the Islamic Shariah. While he authored a collection of letters known as Maktubat-e Imam-e Rabbani dealing with Sufis’ spiritual doctrines and matters, he expressed his strong disagreement with many well-established spiritual Sufi doctrines, most notably the famous Sufi Ibn al-Arabi’s philosophy of wahdat-al-wujud (Unity of Existence). Shaikh Sirhindi declared it deeply flawed and equated it to “Hindu monism”. He vehemently criticised spiritual orientations of Ibn Arabi. However, he never declared Ibn Arabi or his adherents outside the pale of Islam. In fact, he took it merely as a matter of theological disagreement, rather than an issue of faith or heresy, and therefore he still flaunted great respect to Ibn Arabi. He himself elaborates in this regard:

 “I wonder that Shaik Muhiyuddin appears in vision to be one of those with whom God is pleased, while most of his ideas which differ from the doctrines of the People of truth appear to be wrong and mistaken. It seems that since they are due to error in kashf, he has been forgiven... I consider him as one of those with whom God is well-pleased; on the other hand, I believe that all his ideas in which he opposes (the people of truth) are wrong and harmful.” (Sufism and Shari'ah: A study of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi's effort to reform Sufism, Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari, The Islamic Foundation, 1997, p.247)

Shaikh Sirhindi is believed to have refined and purified the Islamic mysticism or Tasawwuf in India.  He opined that the Shari`ah is of fundamental importance to the Sufi path. Therefore, he sought to eliminate many prevalent practices of Sufism that he considered erroneous and deviant from the right path.  He extensively expounded his ideas and reflections in this regard in his books. Dr. Razi Ahmad Kamal, Professor of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia quotes Shaikh Sirhindi in his book in Urdu titled “Hindustani Ahd-e-Wusta Men Muslim Saqafati Asarat” (Influences of Muslim Culture on Indian Medieval Period):      

“Spirituality (Sufism) needs not to be attained through Chilla Kashi (Sufi custom of retreat that lasts for 40 days), Zikr bil Jahr (chanting aloud), sima or Qawwali (Sufi music), lightening the graves, crowds of women over there, sajda-e-tazeemi (prostrating in respect of a person), kneeling down, kissing the graves, chanting Anal Haq, women’s unveiling their faces to their sheikhs etc.”.

Shaik Sirhindi completely endorsed and favoured the institution of the Shari`ah as fundamental to the Tariqah (Sufi path). He strongly made this point in his letters titled Maktubat-e-Imam Rabbani. Expanding his notion of the inseparable association between the Shari`ah and the Tariqah, he writes:

The tariqah (way) and the haqiqah (reality) for which Sufis are known, are subservient to the Shari`ah, as they help to realise its third part, namely, ikhlas (sincerity). Hence they are sought in order to fulfil the Shari`ah, not to achieve something beyond the Shari`ah. The raptures and ecstasies which the Sufis experience, and the ideas and truths which come to them in the course of their journey, are not the goal of Sufism. They are rather myths and fancies on which the children of Sufism are fed. One has to pass over them all and reach the stage of satisfaction (rida) which is the ultimate goal of suluk ("travelling", i.e. the Sufi path) and jazbah (overwhelming love). The purpose of traversing the stages of tariqah and haqiqah is nothing other than the realisation of ikhlas which involves the attainment of rida. Only one out of a thousand Sufis is graced with the three illuminations (tajalliyat sih ganah) and Gnostic visions, given ikhlas and elevated to the stage of rida. (Quoted from "Sufism and Shari`ah: A study of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi's Effort to Reform Sufism," by Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari, pp. 221-2. Originally from Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi's letters, Vol. I:36.)

Contrary to the popular Sufi tradition of Sulh-e-Kul (peace with all), Shaikh Sirhindi has also been known for his hardcore views against certain non-Muslims of his time as well as Muslim sects that he considered misguided. Before Shaikh Sirhindi, there was no Sufi in India who adopted stern attitude towards any other faith community. But his approach to deal with people of other faith traditions, particularly Hindus of his region, was diametrically different. It seems, as his letters and treatises show, that his views were vehemently opposed to non-Muslims living in his locality. The reason behind it, as the historians point out, was that Muslims’ religious sentiments were offended by Hindus and particularly Brahmans of his time. A group of them are reported to have built a Hindu temple in place of a mosque. And when they were challenged by Muslims, they went to the extent of abusing Islam and reviling the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Historians maintain that this turbulent situation created intolerant impressions in Shaikh Sirhindi’s mind about his non-Muslim countrymen. However, this has not been, and cannot be the approach of a Sufi.

Commenting on, and giving the context to Shaikh Sirhindi’s attitude towards adherents of other faith traditions that is not in synergy with the mainstream Sufis’ legacy, Mohammad Waqas Sajjad writes in his book “Sobering Sufism in South Asia”:

“For modern-day Sufi claimants of Sirhindi, however, his figure as the ‘good’ Sufi becomes complicated when one considers his attitude towards the Shia and Hindus, which is best understood within the political nature of his mission, even if it is not accepted as normative. This, though is where the problem lies – those who claim Sirhindi as their master, have been unable to acknowledge that in even his own situation, his views may have been flawed, and that it is not unfair to critique them. The context for his attitudes to non-Sunnis and non-Muslims is provided by the religious culture of the subcontinent, replete with “florid forms of Sufism” and the policies of rulers that synthesized Islamic and Hindu practices”.

From all this, it is not difficult to infer that Shaikh Sirhindi was an Islamic reformist and an orthodox legalistic Sufi at the same time. Therefore, Sirhindi movement of Islamic reformation and renewal was also an endeavour to foster an orthodox spiritual revival. To accomplish this purpose, Shaikh Sirhindi exerted all his efforts to restore traditional Islamic Sharia as well as a mystical path based on Islamic orthodoxy. He strongly believed that Islamic law (shariah) and Sufi path (tariqah) were essentially inseparable and that there can be no discrepancy or inconsistency between them.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and has done his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.