Sufism in South Asia

December 4, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

hadithSan Francisco–I am in the midst of the insanity of moving, but I am trying to keep up with my basic compilations early in the morning or late into the night.

I would like to discuss three presentations made last year (Summer of 2007) –in the Asian Art Museum — as part of the bi-annual meeting of the American Council of Southern Asian art in this City here on the Western shores of San Francisco Bay.  I found the talks to be slight in news content; thus, I have previously refrained from composing on them, but because of circumstances, they have become a practicable article, and make an acceptable historical feature on an ancient vital Islamic tradition.  An article on this form of piety stated that Sufism “…is a…mystical dimension of Islam” where meditation plays an integral part.

People talking about Islam usually mention Sunnis and Shi’a; among Sunnis are also Sufis – there is mutual tension between Sufis and Wahhabi/Salafis.  Salafis accuse the Sufis, saying “…[Sufism] has never played a part in normative Islam.” 

A position with which your author extremely disagrees!

First, your journalist acknowledges that his main sources for his background on the Sufis in an historical and contemporary context are an excellent unsigned, thorough yet concise article on the Internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia.  My second source is a review essay I wrote on a book that is considered the main Western source on Sufism. Unfortunately, I do not have the piece at my fingertips; therefore, I am paraphrasing it ex aqua.

Sufism has gained much of its doctrine through accretion from the mystic environ of religious clusters that Islam absorbed in its Eastward expansion.  Accordingly, to several Western scholars, Sufism arose initially in the Western Mahgreb in a region of present-day Morocco where Christianity had been repressed three hundred years before.  There was a yearning for the type of mysticism found in monasteries of the old religion, but in the Qur`an there is a strong injunction to marry and procreate!  The early “Order” solved this “problem” by creating brotherhoods of married men who followed Muslim law carefully.  As their Society traveled into new lands, they met new converts.  For instance, the Sufic poet, Rumi, who has had a considerable influence over contemporary thought here in the West’s, name derives from the word “Roman” (i.e., the Eastern Roman Empire ruled from Byzantine) in the local language of Anatolia at that time.  The Turks had held that province from which Rumi wrote for a comparatively short time.  Thus, his family must have been fairly recent converts.  Sufic thought gained much when it crossed into India.  The great poet Kabir, who some scholars claim was a Sufi was not fully Islamized, even though he did accomplished the hajj, for he referred to God both in the Hindu terminology as Ram and, also, as Allah interchangeably in his poetry! Traditionally, in the Sufi-dominated Districts of India, the Hindus revere the Islamic Saints as much as their own.

Yet the traditional Islamic scholarship on the Sufis view their development in quite a different manner.  The Sufic thinkers trace their origins through the Prophet (Blessed be his Name!) himself.  To quote an early Sufi, their teaching “…is a science through which one can know how to travel in the presence of the Divine…”
Their beliefs and persons have been persecuted by more fundamental (and, thereby, less mystically inclined) individuals.  Consequently, their writings and practices took on an esoteric, secretive tone.

In the early centuries, Iman Al Ghazali answered that Sufic doctrine was compatible with Islamic law conclusively.  In fact, “Sufism…is the central organizing principle of many…[other] Islamic groupings.”

With the rise of more strident forms of Islam, Sufism is currently under duress.  In many regions the repression made them illegal, and forced them underground.  For instance, the Turkish government compelled the whirling dervishes into a mere entertainment.  Yet there are areas in the Muslim world where they are still strong.  To understand the attitude for an inquirer, a Sufi master was quoted as saying, “…the seeker must not self-diagnose” the situation.

The Islanicists have no sympathy for the Sufi reverence for saints, and their pilgrimages to the holy tombs for religious merit.  In my following comments, these pilgrimages and the places of devotion and worship will be placed in context.

Persianate culture had a dominant position in the old Hindustan even before the rise of the Mughal Empire.  An Indo-Persian culture dominated from western Persia well into the Subcontinent after the Muslim Empires in India, and Sufism had dominated Persian thinking before it crossed from Southwest into South Asia.  Now, Sindh (presently in Pakistan) had been Islamic since the Ninth Century of the Common Era (i.e., A.D.). Sufism came forward with the Islamic conquest, but not from the top to the bottom.  It burst through at the “grassroots” level (i.e., bottom up), and was greatly embedded in the evolving Indo-Persian Islam.  The “Missionaries” were the humble, holy Pirs, a type of holy men with which the Medieval Indians could easily culturally identify.  Soon, converted Indians adapted Islam and the Persian Worldview of Islam – even though they may not have chosen Shi’a religious views.

An Afshan Bokari pointed out that female devotees upheld the high ideals of religiosity within the Timurid Empire, and were the mainstay of the Mosques during this period which not only included India, but Iran into Mesopotamia – even into Syria — and a good extent of Central Asia.  The Empire, founded by the Sunni military genius Emir Timur (Shakespeare’s Tamerlane) was comparatively short-lived.  Most of the acquisition of territory occurred during the late Fourteenth into the early Fifteenth Centuries (C.E.). This brief Imperial sway not only spread S.W. Asian ideas, but mystical Islam. as well.  This can be termed a Timurid “ideology.”  Mystical Islam centered on feminine participation, also.  This is markedly at odds with the modern Islamicists’ dogma.  A site was shaped into the sacred by an association with a saint or a sacred act, etc.  This confine almost became a “…second Mecca!”

The major contemporary art historian, Catherine Asher, from Minnesota spoke on the “Sufic Shrines of Shahul Hamid in India and Southeast Asia.”  The basic style of the Sufic shrines spread into Peninsular and Insular S.E. Asia forming a consistent Southern Asian approach to sacred space.  On the emigration of the righteous Pirs, it is hard to determine fact from legend.  The Enlightened man often died in his travels.  South Indian Islam, from which Southeast Asian cultural religiousness derived, assumed many traits of traditional Hinduism – in this case the veneration of exceptionally piously devout men, and this practice advanced ever eastward.  Males were encouraged to go to the tombs, besides, for a sort of “darshan,” or, in the Islamic cognizance, a type of religious merit.  Basically, the Sufis’ influence flowed over three different faiths because the Pirs exhibited extraordinary powers to do miracles in their lifetime, and to bequest assistance from the tomb to his devoted believers – whatever the saint’s follower’s religiosity!

Kishwar Rizvi talked about a shrine in the present Pakistani Punjab that was built around circa 1300 (C.E.).   Most of the devoted came from the minority Shia community there.  Further, there are many Sufic elements in the shrine, for it revolves around the casket of a Saint endowing the building as sared space.  Women still retain a great responsibility in sustaining the shrine’s sacredness.  On the other hand, sexual degenerates are attracted to the location because of the laissez faire attitudes of the worshippers which may detract from the great postiveness of the greater Movement to more mainstream Muslims.

In this essay, your scribe has tried to describe a living tradition in Islam in historical and conteporary terms that has been repressed by the main thrust of the religion today, but is still strong among the common people in particular localities all over the World, and, furthermore, has brought many Westerners to the Qur`an, for its mystical saving methodologies.

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