Sufism – UPSC Notes – Art and Culture


Sufism was a mystical religious concept within Islam, evolving into a distinct movement by the 11th century.

  • Central to Sufism is the emphasis on following the path of the Sufi pir to establish a direct connection with the divine.
  • The core of Sufism revolves around the trinity of God, humanity, and their interconnected relationship, characterized by the essence of Love.
  • Sufis are admired for maintaining purity of heart, and the murid (disciple) undergoes a journey through various stages (maqamat) to achieve direct communication with the divine.
  • The Khanqah, or hospice, serves as the central hub for activities within different Sufi orders, led by a shaikh, pir, or murshid (teacher), who resides with their disciples (murids).
  • By the 12th century, Sufis organized into silsilahs (orders), symbolizing an unbreakable chain between the pir and the murid.
  • Upon the pir’s death, their tomb or shrine, known as the dargah, transforms into a center for disciples and followers.
  • In the 10th century, Sufism gained prominence in key regions of the Islamic empire, including Iran, Khurasan, Transoxiana, Egypt, Syria, and Baghdad, which emerged as significant Sufi centers.

Characteristics of the Sufism in India

  • The Sufi movement in India began in the 11th century A.D. and exhibited distinct features.
  • Sufis were organized into various silsilahs (orders), each led by a prominent Sufi saint or pir, named after them and followed by disciples.
  • The Sufis emphasized the need for a spiritual guide or Pir for union with God.
  • Sufi pirs lived in communal spaces called Khanqahs, where they resided with their disciples.
  • Khanqahs served as central hubs for Sufi activities and emerged as important centers of learning, distinct from theological centers like madrasas.
  • Sufi gatherings in Khanqahs often included musical congregations or sama, leading to the development of the musical form known as qawwali.
  • Ziyarat, pilgrimage to the tombs of Sufi saints, became a significant form of ritual pilgrimage.
  • Many Sufis were believed to perform miracles, and almost all pirs were associated with miraculous acts.
  • Different Sufi orders held diverse perspectives on matters of polity and the state.

Sufism Orders in India

Chishti Silsilah

Founder: Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti

First Phase:

The Chishti order, broadly categorized into Ba-shara (adhering to Islamic Law) and Be-shara (not bound by it), has left an indelible mark in India.

Establishment of the Chishti Silsilah

The Chishti silsilah traces its roots to a village near Herat named Khwaja Chishti. In India, Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, born in 1142 AD, founded the Chishti order around 1192, post the invasion of Muhammad Ghori. He designated Ajmer as the primary hub for disseminating his teachings.

Posthumous Influence and Patronage

The fame of Khwaja Muinuddin soared after his death in 1235, drawing visits from figures like Muhammad Tughlaq. In the fifteenth century, Mahmud Khalji of Malwa erected a mosque and dome, solidifying the patronage of this dargah during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar.

Key Tenets of the Chishti Order

The Chishti order embraced fundamental principles such as:

  1. Love as the bond between God and the individual soul,
  2. Tolerance among people of different faiths,
  3. Acceptance of disciples, irrespective of their religious beliefs,
  4. Benevolence to all,
  5. Association with Hindu and Jain yogis, and
  6. Use of simple language.

Notable Disciples

Sheikh Hamiduddin of Nagaur and Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki were prominent disciples of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki established the Chishti presence in Delhi, with Sultan Iltutmish dedicating the Qutub Minar to this saint.

Teachings and Lifestyle

Chishti pirs emphasized a life marked by simplicity, poverty, humility, and selfless devotion to God. They advocated the renunciation of worldly possessions for spiritual growth.

Expansion and Influence

Sheikh Fariduddin (Baba Farid) of Ajodhan popularized the Chishti silsilah in modern Haryana and Punjab. His verses in Punjabi are quoted in the Adi Granth. Baba Farid’s disciple, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325), played a pivotal role in making Delhi a significant center of the Chishti silsilah.

Legacy of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya

Arriving in Delhi in 1259, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya witnessed the reign of seven sultans over sixty years. Preferring to avoid the company of rulers and nobles, his acts of renunciation focused on the distribution of food and clothes to the poor. A notable follower was the renowned writer Amir Khusrau.

Second Phase: Chishti Order Expansion in the Deccan

In the 13th century, the Chishti Order witnessed further expansion as it took root in the Deccan under the leadership of Shaikh Burhanuddin Gharib. A significant shift occurred during the 14th to 16th centuries, marked by the migration of numerous Chishti Sufis to Gulbarga.

Grant Acceptance and Patronage

This period also witnessed a notable transformation, with some Chishti followers beginning to accept grants and patronage from the ruling establishment. This shift in dynamics contributed to the evolving landscape of the Chishti Order.

Muhammad Banda Nawaz: A Renowned Pir

Muhammad Banda Nawaz stands out as one of the renowned pirs in the region, making substantial contributions to the Chishti Sufi tradition.

Bijapur: An Emerging Center for Sufi Activity

The Deccan city of Bijapur gained prominence as a crucial center for Sufi activity during this phase. It became a hub where the teachings and practices of the Chishti Order flourished, leaving a lasting impact on the spiritual landscape of the region.

The Suhrawardi Silsilah

Founder: Shihabuddin Suhrawardi

Founded by Shihabuddin Suhrawardi in Baghdad, the Suhrawardi Silsilah found its roots in India under the guidance of Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya.

Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya’s Contributions

Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya played a pivotal role in establishing the Suhrawardi Silsilah in India. He founded a prominent khanqah in Multan, which gained recognition and patronage from rulers, high-ranking government officials, and wealthy merchants.

Political Involvement and Recognition

Unlike the Chishti saints, Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya and the Suhrawardis actively engaged with the state. Sheikh Bahauddin openly sided with Iltutmish in his struggle against Qabacha and was honored with the title of Shaikhul Islam (Leader of Islam) for his allegiance.

Distinctive Beliefs and Practices

The Suhrawardis diverged from certain practices embraced by the Chishtis. They believed that a Sufi should possess three attributes: property, knowledge, and hal or mystical enlightenment. Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya emphasized the observance of external forms of religious belief, advocating a fusion of ilm (scholarship) and mysticism.

Rejection of Chishti Practices

Distinctly differing from the Chishti tradition, the Suhrawardis rejected practices like bowing before the sheikh, presenting water to visitors, and tonsuring the head at the initiation into the Order.

Engagement with the State

In contrast to the Chishtis’ detachment from political affairs, the Suhrawardis were open to accepting gifts, jagirs, and even government posts in the ecclesiastical department.

Establishment in Punjab and Sind

The Suhrawardi silsilah gained firm footing in the regions of Punjab and Sind, leaving a lasting impact on the spiritual and socio-political landscape.

The Naqshbandi Silsilah

Founder: Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi

Established in India by Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi, the Naqshbandi Silsilah emerged as a distinct Sufi order emphasizing a strict adherence to the Shariat.

Founding Principles

From its inception, the mystics of the Naqshbandi Order prioritized the observance of the Shariat, denouncing any form of innovation or biddat.

Leadership Succession

Sheikh Baqi Billah, the successor to Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshbandi, took residence near Delhi. His successor, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, played a crucial role in shaping the order’s ideology.

Reformative Stance

Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi undertook a reformative stance, striving to purify Islam from what he perceived as liberal and ‘un-Islamic’ practices. He staunchly opposed activities like the listening of sama (religious music) and the pilgrimage to the tombs of saints.

Opposition to Interactions

He went further to oppose interactions with Hindus and Shias. Criticizing changes implemented by Akbar, such as granting new status to non-Muslims, withdrawal of the Jizyah, and the ban on cow slaughter, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi asserted his conservative views.

Self-Perceived Role

Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi believed himself to be the mujaddid (renewer) of the first millennium of Islam. His mission aimed at revitalizing and purifying the practice of Islam.

Unique Understanding of Faith

In contrast to other Sufi traditions, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi emphasized that the relationship between man and God was akin to that of a slave and master, not a lover and beloved. He highlighted the individual’s unique relationship of faith and responsibility to God as the creator.

Harmonization of Mysticism and Orthodox Islam

Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi’s notable contribution was the attempt to harmonize the doctrines of mysticism with the teachings of orthodox Islam. His efforts aimed at bridging the gap between spiritual experiences and traditional religious practices.

The Qadri Silsilah

Founder: Sheikh Abdul Qadir

The Quadiriyya silsilah, founded by Sheikh Abdul Qadir, gained popularity primarily in Punjab.

Support for the Mughals

Sheikh Abdul Qadir and his sons aligned themselves as staunch supporters of the Mughals during the reign of Akbar.

Wahdat al Wajud

The pirs of the Qadri Silsilah were proponents of the concept of Wahdat al Wajud, emphasizing the unity of existence.

Influential Sufis

Among the renowned Sufis of this order was Miyan Mir, who enrolled the Mughal princess Jahanara and her brother Dara as disciples. The teachings of Sheikh Abdul Qadir influenced the works of Prince Dara.

Shah Badakhshani’s Unorthodox Views

Another influential pir of this silsilah, Shah Badakhshani, took an unconventional stance. While dismissing orthodox elements, he proclaimed that an infidel who perceived reality and recognized it was a believer. Conversely, a believer who did not recognize reality was deemed an infidel.

The Qadri Silsilah thus played a distinctive role in the spiritual landscape of Punjab, advocating for unity of existence and nurturing influential disciples with unorthodox perspectives.

Other Sufi Orders in India

The Firdausi Order

The Firdausi order, a branch of the Suhrawardi, took root at Raigir in Bihar during the late 14th century. Shaikh Badruddin Samarqandi was the visionary founder of this order. In India, the most notable Sufi associated with the Firdausi silsilah was Shaikh Sharfuddin Yahya Maneri.

The Rishi Order

The Rishi order of Sufism thrived in Kashmir throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Before its emergence, the religious preacher Mir Saiyyid Ali Hamadani from Hamadan entered Kashmir with followers to propagate Islam. However, their efforts had minimal impact on the local population.

In contrast, the Rishi order was an indigenous movement founded by Shaikh Nuruddin Wali. Flourishing in the rural landscapes of Kashmir, this order significantly influenced the religious life of the people during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Unique Roots and Influences

The Rishi order drew inspiration from the Shaivite bhakti tradition of Kashmir, grounding itself in the socio-cultural milieu of the region. Unlike the missionary zeal of earlier efforts, the Rishi order’s local roots allowed it to establish a profound connection with the people, shaping the spiritual landscape of Kashmir during this period.

The Importance of the Sufi Movement in India

The Sufi movement played a pivotal role in shaping Indian society, contributing significantly to various aspects of culture, religion, and social reform.

1. Promoting Liberalism within Islam:

  • Similar to the Bhakti saints who broke down barriers within Hinduism, Sufis infused a new liberal outlook within Islam.
  • The concept of Wahdat-ul-Wajud (Unity of Being), advocated by figures like Ibn-i-Arabi (1165-1240), emphasized the oneness of all beings and the identical nature of different religions.

2. Cultural Exchange and Mutual Influence:

  • The Sufis engaged in a vibrant exchange of ideas with Indian yogis, fostering a cultural and intellectual interchange.
  • Notable instances include the translation of the hatha-yoga treatise Amrita Kunda into Arabic and Persian.

3. Service to Society:

  • A significant contribution of the Sufis was their service to the poorer and downtrodden sections of society.
  • Nizamuddin Auliya, for instance, was renowned for distributing gifts among the needy irrespective of their religion or caste.

4. Emphasis on Equality and Brotherhood:

  • The Sufi movement promoted values of equality and brotherhood, treating Hindus and Muslims alike.
  • Amir Khusrau highlighted the shared beliefs between Hindus and Muslims, emphasizing a commonality of faith.

5. Social Reforms:

  • Sufi saints actively worked towards bringing about social reforms, challenging orthodox views and encouraging a more inclusive and compassionate society.

6. Contribution to Regional Literature:

  • Similar to Bhakti saints, Sufi saints significantly contributed to the growth of rich regional literature.
  • Many Sufi saints were poets who chose to write in local languages, with works in Punjabi, Hindawi, Bengali, and Deccani Hindi.

7. Amir Khusrau’s Literary Legacy:

  • Amir Khusrau (1252-1325), a follower of Nizamuddin Auliya, was a notable writer who took pride in being Indian.
  • He created a new style called sabaq-i-hindi, writing verses in Hindi (Hindawi) while employing the Persian meter, showcasing a unique blend of cultural influences.

The Sufi movement, with its emphasis on love, service, and cultural exchange, left an indelible mark on the diverse fabric of Indian society.

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FAQs on Sufism

Q: What is the meaning of Sufism order?

A: Sufi orders, also known as ṭuruq, are congregations formed around a grand master wali within the Sufi tradition. These orders trace their teaching through a chain of successive teachers back to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The formation of Sufi orders did not immediately produce lineages of master and disciple.

Q: Who was the founder of the Sufism order in India?

A: Moinuddin Chishti established and propagated the “Sufi tradition” in the Indian subcontinent. His tomb is located in the city of Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Q: Who is the head of Sufism order?

A: The head of each Sufi order, generally holding a hereditary position known as the shaykh or pir, represents a spiritual genealogy tracing back to the prophet Muhammad. The theological orientation of Sufism tends to focus inward on spirituality, leading its followers to shy away from more political forms of Islam.

Q: What are the Sufism orders in India?

A: The four most popular Sufi orders (Silsilas) in India were the Chistis, Suhrawardis, Qadiriyyas, and Naqshbandis.

Q: What were the two main Sufism orders in India?

A: The Sufi orders are broadly divided into two categories: Ba-shara, those who followed the Islamic Law, and Be-shara, those who were not bound by the Islamic Law.

Q: Who is the father of Sufism?

A: Hazrat Ali (A.S.) is acclaimed as the “Father of Sufism.” Almost all Sufi orders claim their descent from Hazrat Ali, and his rank is considered very high in the line-up of Sufism, according to Hazrat Ali Hajveri (Data Ganj Baksh) Radi Allahu anhu.

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