Sufi impact on evolution of Muslim politics and culture

THE Sufi tradition in Islam goes back to the mystical, ascetic movements that existed in the desert monasteries of Byzantine Syria and Coptic Egypt centuries before the Arab conquest. Derived from the Greek word for knowledge (sophos) and the Arabic word tassawuf — a metaphor for worldly renunciation — Sufi ideals have had a seminal impact on Islamic ideals of poetry, compassion, politics, social justice and relations with other faiths everywhere from the Maghreb to Central Asia.

By Matein Khalid

Published: Wed 10 Aug 2005, 10:28 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:49 PM

The Sufis helped spread Islam in medieval India and the Malay archipelago, mirrored the Florentine Renaissance’s quest for individual self-fulfilment in the Middle East, defined the culture of religious tolerance that anchored the policies of the Ottoman Sultanate, helped confront Tsarist as well as Soviet Russian imperialism in the ancient Turkic khanates of Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand. Above all, the Sufis enriched Islamic culture with the most exquisite and humanistic poetry ever written in the Middle East.

Even now, seven centuries later, I cannot believe that Maulana Rumi, Saadi, Al Ghazali, Hafiz and Amir Khusro created such immortal beauty while the rest of the Muslim world was devastated by the existential terror of the Mongol holocaust. The Sufi message of tolerance is desperately needed in international relations — in history’s latest clash of civilizations. Omar Khayyam, not Mullah Omar, has bequeathed the ideas that can help us heal the wounds of the Islamic world in our troubled times.

The Sufi sages changed Indian history forever. The mystical, ethereal Sufi orders, not the Turk-Afghan warrior dynasties of the Delhi sultanate and definitely not the state financed Mughal ulama and qazis, inspired the mass conversions to Islam in India for a millennium. Ibn Batuta, the legendary Arab traveller, was stunned by the power of the Sufi holy men in the court of the Tughlak sultans when he visited Delhi in the 1340’s. Even now, the tombs of Amir Khusro (the founder of qawwali or Sufi devotional music), Nizamuddin Auliya, Moinuddin Chishti and Baba Farid evoke the fervour and passions of the Middle Ages.

No wonder Sufism left such an indelible imprint on Indian Islam and Muslim nationalism. The Mughal emperors extended royal patronage to the Nakshbandis, whose founder was the ancestral pir of the House of Taimur. Akbar, who tried his best to synthesise Islam and Hinduism to consolidate the power of the empire, was opposed by the ulama and the Sufi sheikhs of Agra. Yet not even the great Mughals dared challenge the power of the Sufi brotherhood. It is ironic that Sufi ideas not only inspired mass conversions to Islam but also accelerated the idea of Muslim separation in India after the Mughal empire was vanquished by the Jats, Marathas and John Company.

Both Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Allama Iqbal adapted Sufi mysticism to geopolitical concepts of a Muslim renaissance in Indian power politics. After all, the failure after the 1857 Mutiny destroyed the Muslim landowning elite in India, reinforced Muslim alienation from the ideals of Macaulay and Lord Canning, started the ideological process that was to culminate in the creation of Pakistan. It is undeniable that Sufi mystics spread Islam at a popular level, reduced the psychological comfort zone between the religions of the ruling class and the Hindu masses to a degree impossible for the orthodox ulama of the Mughal empire.

After all, the hospices of the Sufi orders fed and lodged millions of poor Hindus too, offered a template of compassion that was often irresistible to people who never knew any concept of human brotherhood in the grim prison of caste hierarchies. Had the Sufi Prince Dara Shikoh won the war of imperial succession, the history of the world would have been so radically different.

Lenin wrote that religion was the opium of the masses but the comrade was dead wrong in this, as in so much else. Sufi brotherhoods turbo-charged Turkmen ethic nationalism against Stalinist terror in Central Asia, as they had countless uprisings against the imperialist aggression of the Romanov Tsars. The KGB executed thousands of Uzbek Sufis, destroyed 25,000 mosques in Uzbekistan alone and infiltrated the Sufi dervishism but could never end the moonlit secret pilgrimages to the tomb of the saints, could never end the link between Muslim identity and opposition to Bolshevik totalitarian terror.

The Sufi message holds the DNA of a tolerant, cosmopolitan Islam that once defined Arab culture from Baghdad and Yemen to Fez and Seville. A thousand years ago, Abdul Qadir Jilani warned Muslims never to use violence, never to accuse each other of kufr (disbelief), to never forget that Allah is above all else compassionate and merciful. I do not find it coincidental that the Sufis, whose saints include Bibi Rabia Basri and Fatima Nishapuri emphasis equality between men and women.

The Chistis did things five hundred years ago to create rapprochement between the Muslims and Hindus that would outrage the Sangh Parivar. These days whenever I see images of suicide bombers and hate spewing politicians, I wonder if the exquisite poetry of Hafiz and Rumi still has relevance in a world gone mad and remember that sublime souls like Abdul Qadir Jilani once walked the streets of the same Baghdad that is occupied and terrified today.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker

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