By K. A. Nizami
Higher spiritual experience in all religions of the world aims at bridging the gulf between humans by imbuing them with high moral ideals. Bergson very rightly observes that ‘a great mystic feels the truth flow into him from its source like a force in action. His desire is with God’s help to complete the creation of the human species. The mystic’s direction is the very direction of the élan of life’.
The contribution of the Indian Sufis to society lies in their sincere and dedicated struggle to find a unity for the heterogeneous elements that make up its totality. They appreciated the multi-racial, multi-religious and multilingual pattern of Indian society and, to use Rabindranath Tagore’s words, ‘set at naught all differences of men, by the overflow of their consciousness of God’. For them God was not a logical abstraction of unity, but a living reality who can be approached through the service of mankind. Their efforts were, therefore, directed towards the creation of a healthy social order free from dissensions, discords and conflicts. It was a herculean task but they undertook it as a divine mission. In love, faith, toleration and sympathy they found the supreme talisman of human happiness. Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya often cited in his assemblies a remark of Shaikh Abu Sa’id Abul Khair (ob. 1049) that though there were myriads of routes and roads leading to God, none was quicker and more effective than bringing happiness to the hearts of men. Ibn Batuta found in Damascus a trust which existed for providing balm to afflicted hearts.
The Sufi Weltanschauung was based on three basic postulates which determined their attitude towards God, man and society.
1. All people are the children of God on earth The Sunnan-i-Abu Da’ud reports that the Prophet used to pray at night: ‘Oh God! I bear witness that all Thy creatures are brothers ’.
Sa’di said that the reason for human brotherhood was that all human beings were made of the self-same clay and were as interdependent on each other as the limbs in the human body.
Once Dara Shikoh asked Shah Muhibb-ullah of Allahabad, a distinguished saint of the Chishti order, if religion permitted making a distinction between a Hindu and a Muslim. The saint’s emphatic reply was ‘no’. To strengthen his point further he said the Prophet was sent as a ‘Blessing for all Mankind’ and therefore no distinction could be made between one individual and another on the basis of religion (Maktubat-i Shah Muhibb-ullah, MS). Shaikh Hamid-u’d-din Nagauri, a distinguished disciple of Khwaja Mu’in-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer, did not permit his disciples to use the categories of kafir and Momin as the basis of any social discrimination. Shaikh Abdul Quddus of Gangoh, a renowned Chishti saint of the sixteenth century, thus admonished his disciples in a letter:
Why this meaningless talk about the believer,
the kafir, the obedient, the sinner, the rightly guided, the misdirected, the Muslim, the pious, the infidel, the fire worshipper?
All are like beads in a rosary.
(Maktubat, p. 205)
It would be vain and whimsical to think that they did not believe in their religious identity. While firmly adhering to the basic principles of their faith, they did not carry this difference to social relationships. Their toleration was the toleration of a spiritually powerful man who, while jealous of the frontiers of his own faith, admires other forms of thought and behaviour. When Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya saw Hindus bathing in the Jumna and singing devotional songs, he said,
(Every people have their own path, their own religion and centre of worship).
A whole world of religious broad-mindedness and tolerance is epitomized in this hemistich which came to be frequently cited inside and outside the Khanqahs of medieval saints. Iqbal considered the following verse of Amir Khusrau as the best illustration of religious toleration:
(O you! who sneer at the idolatry of the Hindu,
Learn also from him how worship is done.)
The spirit of toleration, as Gibbon has remarked and Iqbal has approvingly quoted, springs from very different attitudes of the mind of man. There is the toleration of the philosopher, to whom all religions are equally true; of the historian, to whom all are equally false; and of the politician, to whom all are equally useful. There is the toleration of the man who tolerates other modes of thought and behaviour because he has himself grown absolutely indifferent to all modes of thought and behaviour. There is the toleration of the weak man who, on account of sheer weakness, pockets all kinds of insults heaped on things or persons whom he holds dear. It is obvious that these types of tolerances have no ethical value. On the other hand, they unmistakably reveal the spiritual impoverishment of the man who practises them. True toleration is begotten of intellectual breadth and spiritual expansion. (Islam and Ahmadism). The Sufis’ toleration was an expression of confidence in their faith. For them all people were the children of God on earth and any social discrimination was a negation of the true spirit of faith.
The second foundational principle of the Sufi approach and ideology was their firm faith in(adopt the ways of God). It meant that the aim of human life is to reflect in one’s own thought and activity the attributes of God. Perfection in human life could be reached only by expressing in one’s life more and more divine qualities. God’s way is that He extends his bounties to all — the pious and the sinner, the believer and the non-believer, the high and the low. When the sun rises, it gives light and warmth to all living beings; when it rains, all benefit from the showers; the earth keeps its bosom open for all. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad calls it the mark of Rububiyat and thus explains its spirit: ‘The strangest thing about this scheme of Providence, though the most patent, is the uniformity and harmony underlying it. The method and manner of providing means of sustenance for every object of existence are the same everywhere. A single principle is at work in all things. The stone may appear different from the fragrant flower, but the two receive sustenance in the same way, and are granted growth in the same style. . . .’ (Tarjuman ul Quran, Eng. tr. Vol. I, p. 24)
Khwaja Mu’in-u’d-din Chishti, the founder of the Chishti Silsilah in India, advised his followers to develop river-like generosity, sun-like affection and earth-like hospitality (Siyar-ul-Auliya). As these phenomena of nature make no distinction between any creature of God, likewise man should not discriminate between one human being and another. Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya told his audience that once Prophet Abraham was reluctant to ask a non-believer to partake of food with him. Prompt came the admonition from God: ‘Oh Abraham! We can give life to this man but you cannot give food to him.’ The Sufi Khanqahs supplied food and shelter to all sorts of people, no matter to what religion they belonged. Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya used to fast regularly. When food was brought to him at the time of sahri, morsels would stick in his throat as his mind went back to persons who had gone to bed without food.
A necessary concomitant of this approach was that man promptly responded to human misery and strained his every nerve to save people from hunger and misery. Sahih Muslim contains the following Hadis-i Qudsi:
On the Day of Judgement God will address a particular individual: ‘O Son of Adam! I fell ill but you did not attend on me.’ Bewildered, this individual will say: ‘How is that possible? Thou art the Creator and Sustainer of all the worlds.’ God will reply: ‘Doesn’t thou know that such and such a creature of mine living near thee fell ill, but you did not turn to him in sympathy? If you had but gone near him you would have found Me by his side.’ In like manner, God would address another individual: ‘O Son of Adam! I had asked of you a piece of bread but you did not give it to me!’ The individual would submit: ‘How could this happen? Thou doesn’t stand in need of anything’. And God will reply: ‘Do not you remember that so and so among the hungry creatures of Mine had asked you for food and did you not refuse to give it to him? If you had fed him, you would have found Me by his side.’
The Sufis identified service of God with the service of man. Shaikh Junaid Baghdadi was quoted in the mystic circles of Delhi as saying that he found God among the poor people in the streets of Medina.
Bibi Fatima Sam, a very respected mystic woman of medieval India whose hut in Delhi attracted people from far and near, used to say that the divine reward for giving a piece of bread and a glass of water to the hungry was greater than offering thousands of genuflexions of prayer and keeping thousands of fasts (Ma’arij-ul-Walayat, MS).
Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya classified devotion to God into two categories: Ta’at-i Lazmi and Ta’at-i Muta’addi. Ta’at-i Lazmi consisted of prayers and penitences that an individual performed; the Ta’at-i Muta’addi consisted in helping the needy and the poor and feeding the hungry. He told his disciples that the reward of Ta’at-i-Muta’ addi was greater than that of obligatory prayers. Sa’di, the famous Persian poet, echoed the same sentiments when he said:
(Higher spiritual life is nothing but service of humanity,
It is not (chanting) the rosary, (remaining on the) prayer carpet or (wearing) coarse garments.)
The third foundational principle of Sufi ideology was their faith in the Unity of Divine revelation, which paved the way for contact with people of diverse faiths and denominations. Commenting on this concept in the light of the Koran, Maulana Azad remarks:
The Koran points out that the tragedy of man has laid in his effort to make distinction between prophets or in his accepting some and rejecting others. Its attitude is summed up in the following verse:
Say: We make no difference between them (prophets of God) and we are
Muslims resigned to God (3:78).
(Tarjuman, Eng. Tr. I, p.78)
This basic approach opened the doors of deeper ideological contact and communication with people of different faiths, and put an end to ‘all notions of exclusiveness which had hitherto prevailed among mankind assigning divine blessings and favours to one’s own community’ (Tarjuman, I, p. 8). Amir Khusrau, who had delved deep into the Hindu religious literature, said:
(Though Hindus do not believe in the religion in which we do,
In many matters they and we believe in the same thing.)
(Nuh Sipihr, p.163).
Mirza Mazhar Jan-i-Janan believed in the divine character of the Vedas. Works like Bahr-ul-Hayat, Jawahir-i Khamsa and Marj-us-Bahrain could never have come into existence without being inspired by this basic ideological position. The Upanishads, which contain the earliest exposition of pantheistic philosophy, inspired Muslim mystic thought in many ways.
Toynbee has very correctly observed that the missions of the higher religions are not competitive but complementary. If the unity of Divine Revelation is accepted, it would automatically lead to this attitude of mind and soul. The Sufis not only preached it but practised it and helped in pulling down the barriers between various religious groups. Shah Niaz Ahmad of Bareilly thus declared the essential unity of all religions:
(All these religions and faiths are branches of the same tree,
They have sprouted from one and the same root.)
The difference in the religious accents of different faiths was thus explained by him:
(When the bird-nightingale starts its melodious songs, it raises hundreds of notes,
It splashes a new tune every moment but it comes from the same throat, the same beak.)
The songs of the Bhakti saints reverberate with such ideas. A south Indian folk song thus echoes feelings of universal peace and brotherhood:
Into the bosom of the one great sea
Flow streams that come from hills on every side.
Their names are various as their springs,
And thus in every land do men bow down
To one great God, though known by many names.
(Gover, The Folksongs of Southern India, p.165).
Chaitanya, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Namadev, Pipa, Sen and others familiarized themselves with the cosmopolitan ideas of the Sufi cult and broadcast them in their respective regions.
All religions have three essential elements — metaphysical, institutional and social, i.e. a conception of a Supreme Being, rituals and a code of ethics. The code of ethics assumes two forms: personal morality and social ideal. Richard Gregory in his Religion in Science and Society and Salter in his Ethical Religion have considered these as the central themes of any religious enquiry. After having surveyed the march of humanity in space and time, Toynbee has come to the conclusion that the practical test of a religion, always and everywhere, is its success or failure in helping human souls to respond to the challenges of suffering and sin.
The Sufis in India have played the same role. They lived in the midst of the lower strata of society and identified themselves with the problems and perplexities of the people. Shaikh Hamid-u’d-din Sufi lived in Suwal, a small village of Nagaur, like Rajasthani peasants, mixed with people of all castes and creeds and adopted vegetarian habits. Shah Waliullah, in a very illuminating chapter on urban life and organization in his Hujjat Allah al-Baligha, advocates the peaceful integration of all the components of society and their harmonious functioning to achieve human well-being. In fact, peace and goodwill between human beings was the end all and be all of Sufi endeavours. A visitor presented a pair of scissors to Shaikh Farid Ganj-i Shakar but he refused to accept them, saying: ‘Give me a needle: I sew, I do not cut.’
The Sufi saints were anxious to create in society the harmony of a perfect orchestra. Their principle was to return hatred with love, violence with affection. Shaikh Nizam-u’d-din Auliya used to recite the following verse of Shaikh Abu Sa’id Abul Khair as his motto in life:
(Whoever causes grief to us,
May his life get more and more happiness.)
A non-violent approach, sympathy with the weak and the downtrodden and consciousness of a divine mission to bring happiness to the hearts of men characterized the efforts of the Sufi saints of India. They did not indulge in criticism of other customs or practices. They disliked linguistic chauvinism and regarded all languages as different vehicles for the communication of feelings. They helped in the development of regional languages — Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, and so on. They were instrumental in the rise of a common lingua franca. The earliest sentences of Hindi were spoken in the Khanqahs. In the matter of language, their approach was:
(When you are talking about faith what does it matters it whether the words you utter in prayer are Hebrew or Syriac?)
Their approach towards human relationships is neatly expressed in the imagery of eyes:
(Learn from the eyes the way to develop unity and oneness.
The two eyes appear different but their vision is one.)
© 1999 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi