This article defines the concept of Sufism and discusses the role of Sufi saints and religious reformers in the spread of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
What is Sufism?
The term ‘Sufism’ refers to Islamic mysticism, called Tasawuf in Arabic. It can be defined as the belief and practice, introduced in Islam in the later years, in which the adherents seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through the direct personal experience of God. In other words, Sufis believe in the acquisition of knowledge of the creator, spiritual truth, and the ultimate reality through intuition and insight.
Why the word Tasawuf (Sufism) is used for Islamic mysticism?
Tasawuf is an Arabic word that literally means “to dress in the wool”. The Muslim mystics used wool (suf) as part of their clothing and simple living. They lived the life of poor men called faqir in Arabic and Darvish in Persian. The word ‘Sufi’ started to come into use for the Muslim mystics from the 8th century in the Middle East. It was because they denounce luxuries and lived a simple, poor, and mystic life. The term Sufism came into common use in Western languages for tasawwuf from the early 19th century.
What is the origin of Sufism?
As discussed in the above lines, Sufism has its roots in the initial Islamic asceticism. According to different accounts, it Initially developed as a counterbalance to the increasing inclination within the expanding Muslim community towards worldliness. Gradually, Sufism also accommodated foreign elements that were compatible with mystical theology and practice.
Who are some of the most prominent Sufi saints of the Indian subcontinent?
Some of the prominent Sufi saints who played a pivotal role in the spread of Islam in the Indian subcontinent are as follows:
5. Rahman Baba
6. Shah Wali-ul-lah
What was the role of Sufis in the spread of Islam in India?
Sufism as an Islamic mystical approach has played the most important role in the spread of Islam in India. Scholars trace the arrival of Sufism to the period as early as the Fatimid Caliphate. However, their arrival and preaching in India intensified following the establishment of the Arab rule by Muhammad Bin Qasim in 712.
The role of the Sufi saints became more visible at the time of the Delhi Sultanate during which Islam spread to other parts of India. The sultans of Delhi and later on the Mughal kings encouraged the Sufi saints to carry out missionary activities in the Indian subcontinent.
A number of Muslim kings showed high reverence and took advice from the Sufi in important matters. For instance, the Mughal king Akbar revered the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chisti so much that he built an imperial palace complex next to the saint’s khanqah in Fatehpur Sikri.
One of the important factors that have helped spread Islam in the Indian subcontinent was the flexible approach of the Sufi saints. They presented Islam as the most convenient and easy faith to be adopted and practiced. They did not hesitate to align Islamic teachings in accordance with the local values and practices. Thus, Sufi thought, literature, education, entertainment, and syncretic values have created an enduring impact on the presence of Islam in India today.
The credit of the spread of Islam also goes to the Arab merchants and missionaries who settled in coastal areas of Gujarat, Sindh, etc.
The Sufi saints introduced the local populace to Islam in an organized way. The socially ignored and low caste locals got solace from the way Sufi saints treated them. Similarly, they received inspiration to convert to Islam in villages from the mystical stories they heard.
The Sufi saints aligned their teaching with the local psyche and life. As a result, the locals felt as if the Sufi teachings of humanity, love, and divine spirituality resonated with them. As a matter of fact, it still does resonate with locals even today.
The above discussion depicts a myriad of influences that helped spread Sufism and a mystical understanding of Islam, making India a hub of Sufi culture today. Thus, the credit of the spread of Islam in the Indian subcontinent primarily goes to the Sufi saints. They came and settled in India at different times.