Volume - 8 : Issue - 1

Published : Jan. - Mar. 2009

Group : Spirituality

Back to the List


By Murad Ali Baig

Few people realize the huge impact the Sufi saints had in the shaping of philosophies in India and of how it defined many devotional Bhakti faiths. Its earliest inspiration may have been from the early doctrines of Buddha, especially the Abhidhamma Pitaka, and may have also later inspired the Bhagavat Gita that was much later interpolated into the constantly evolving versions of the great legend of the Mahabharata. Even later they influenced Islamic thought and were the main contributors in bringing many people willingly into the fold of Islam.

Although Sufis are now widely considered to be a Muslim sect, their history goes back to long before the advent of Islam. When Alexander conquered Persia in 330 BC the Macedonians called Persia the `Land of the Great Sophy' after their scholars met these strange mystics. The word Sufi had originally simply meant a single length of rough unstitched woolen cloth that was to be a Man's only personal possession. It was to be the only material thing between their mortal bodies and the great cosmic spirit. They believed that the individual could, by his own efforts and devotion, attain spiritual union with God. They believed that… "the human soul was an emanation of this cosmic essence and like a lighted taper is waiting passionately for its disengagement from earthly trammels to return to its only beloved."

The Sufis despised all priests, rituals and places of worship believing that a spark of the divine resided in every human heart and could directly reach up to the cosmic spirit in an ecstatic reunion. It sought to lose the self in the quest for cosmic love. It was a purely spiritual faith that did not much concern itself with social or moral issues.

The English words sophist and sophistication were derived from this detached attitude to life. Though many Sufis later gave a deep spiritual depth to Islamic thought they were actually philosophers and not the followers of religious practices or rituals. Not surprisingly, many Sufi shrines are to this day places of worship for people of many faiths.

Later the Gnostic Christians at the time of Jesus were also sometimes called sophists. According to many documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus may have belonged to the clan of Essenes who followed many Buddhist ideas even though the doctrines of the Buddha were not called Buddhism at this time but Dhamma. Although Jesus stated that he ad come "but unto the lost sheep of Israel", there is little Jewish about his sermon on the mount that is suffused with the compassionate ideas of Buddhism. Jesus' Aramaic name was Issa and it became Jesus in Christianity and Issa, pronounced Eesa, in Islam. He had belonged to the Essene order of the Nazarenes and had been called Issa the Nazarene. The later appellation of Jesus of Nazareth is not correct because there was no town called Nazareth in his time.

The Sufi's like Christian Gnostics and the Hindu Bhakti mystics, all believed in a simple direct worship of god or a cosmic spirit without the intermediaries of temples or priests and developed in protest against the widespread tyranny of the priesthood's of most religions. They all lived very simple lives and sang joyous hymns to a great cosmic spirit greater than all the gods of religion. They despised the offerings, sacrifices and penances demanded by priests and were predictably mocked and hounded by them as blasphemers, heretics and traitors to their revealed and sacred gods, rituals and traditions. Like Buddha they believed in no miracle delivering God nor in the efficacy of worship to any deity or representations of any deity.

The Sufis did not pay much attention to rituals and customs and sought a direct mystical merging with the divine cosmic spirit in a spirit of loving adoration. They believed the Vedantic or Bhakti idea… "God is everywhere and the whole world is a manifestation of the emanation of God."

Sufis respected the spiritual core of Islamic beliefs but had little time for orthodox rituals and customs and ritual that they believed were the creation of the Mullahs. Their fakirs believed in the mystical significance of the sound `M' and of singing the names or attributes of God in a manner similar to the reverence for the sound `Om' and the recitation of the attributes of Hindu deities by Hindu sadhus.

Music and dance rejoicing in the joyous spirit of creation was also to become a part of Sufi practice and their whirling dervishes (derived from the word dar or door through which they sought a union with god) were not so different to the tandava image of the of the whirling Shiva who was to become an important Hindu deity during the post Christian era period of the Puranas. Orthodox Muslims condemned these liberated souls with their music and dance as did the orthodox Brahmins.

Many Sufis were killed for their heresies. Like Christ who was crucifed for daring to proclaim that he was a messiah of god, one Hallaj was crucified in 922 AD for the blasphemy of saying that he was part of the emanation of God. At the stake he said:

"I am the truth and these, thy servants who are gathered to slay me
in zeal for their religion and in desire to win Thy favour,
forgive them, Oh Lord, and have mercy on them;
for verily if Thou hads't revealed to them
that which you have revealed to me,
they would not have done what they have done.
Glory unto Thee in whatsoever Thou does't,
and glory to Thee in whatsoever Thou willes't."

He also wrote:

I do not cease swimming in the sea of love,
Rising and descending with the wave.
Now the wave sustains it and then sinks beneath it,
Love, bear me away where there is no longer any shore.

Bullhe Shah (1680 - 1752) a Punjabi Sufi wrote:

"Neither Hindu or Mussalman,
Let us sit and spin, abandoning the pride of religion
Neither Sunni nor Shia, I have taken the path of peace and unity
Bullhe! In all hearts I feel the Lord
So I have abandoned both Hindu and Muslim."

As another Sufi mystic was to state...
"Whoever worships God for anything (the rewards of paradise or the punishments of fire), is worshiping for himself and not for God".

This simple but profound observation applies to devout of all religions who devotedly make sacrifices, offerings, pilgrimages or petitions at the many places of worship mistaking religiosity for spiritual attainment.

Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 73) wrote:

We are as the flute, and the music in us is from thee; we are as the mountain and the echo in us is from thee.
Who are we, O Thou soul of our souls that we should remain in being beside thee?
We and our existences are really non-existence; thou art the absolute Being which manifests the perishable.
We all are lions, but lions on a banner:
because of the wind they are rushing onward from moment to moment.
Their onward rush is visible, and the wind is unseen: may that which is unseen not fail from us!
Our wind whereby we are moved and our being are of thy gift; our whole existence is from thy bringing into being.

Waris Shah (1730 -1790) another Punjabi mystic wrote:

"I am tired of reading Vedas and Qurans;
My forehead is worn by constant prostrations in the mosque.
But the Lord is neither at Hindu shrines nor at Mecca,
Whoever found him, found him in the light of his own beauty."

There were hundreds of Sufi saints including Salim Chisti, Nizamuddin, Haji Ali, Khwaja Moinuddin and others who preached such and warm and loving spirituality that it attracted many non Muslim followers and caused many non Muslims to willingly embrace Islam as preached by them.

As the Sikh religion developed in the 15th Century AD, many divines that inspired the evolving faith like Kabir and Farid were avowed Sufis while even guru Nanak (1469 – 1539) was arguably a Sufi as well as it is not clear whether he subscribed to Muslim of Hindu faiths as is evident from the legend of the magical disappearance of his body after his death instead having of a Muslim burial or a Hindu immolation as many Muslim and Hindu followers had wanted.

Dara Shikoh (1615 – 1659), Aurangzeb's elder brother and a Sanskrit scholar was an enlightened believer in common essence in all religions like his great grand-father Akbar. He found and ordered the first translation of the fifty-two Upanishads into Persian in 1657. These had earlier been in the secret hoards of a few Brahmin priests from where it was reluctantly extracted. It was after his execution much later translated into French and still later translated into English before becoming known to the world.

He wrote:

"Happy is he, who, having abandoned the prejudices of vile selfishness, sincerely, and with the grace of God, renouncing all partiality, shall study and comprehend the translation...shall become imperishable, fearless, unsolicitous and eternally liberated."

Some of his poetry reads:

"Here is the secret of unity, O friend, understand it.
Nowhere exists anything but God.
All that you see or know other than Him,
Verily is separate in name, but in essence one with God.

"Paradise is where no Mullah exists - where the noise of his discussions and debate is not heard."

After his defeat, following a long and valiant chase over many months closely pursued by Aurangzeb's soldiers, Dara was humiliated, tried and later conveniently executed for the crime of heresy in 1659. His crime was the commissioning of a book called `The Mingling of the Oceans' that sought to find the commonality between the Quran and the Brahma Shasta's.

Islam especially appealed to the lower castes oppressed by Brahminical tyranny. But Sufism was far more compatible to the indigenous psyche than the austere precepts of Islam as interpreted by the narrow minded Mullahs who now commanded the faith. The preceding centuries under the sword of Islam did not achieve nearly as many conversions as the gentle persuasion of the Sufi saints and fakirs.

Although strong communal colour has been given to the torture and execution of Guru Arjan Singh, few know that his chief tormentor actually was a Hindu banker whose daughter Arjan had refused to marry to his son. Paradoxically his chief defender was a Muslim divine... Mian Mir who had also laid the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib or golden temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar.

Guru Arjan Singh was also no bigot as is clear from his composition echoing the precepts of both Vedanta and Sufism:

"I do not keep the Hindu fast or the Muslim Ramzan
I serve him alone who is my refuge
I serve one master, who is also Allah."

The conflict between the Mughals and the rebellious Sikhs was to escalate into a severe persecution. It is sad to relate that while Sikhism might have become a great bridge of harmony between Hindus and Muslims, the persecutions of the Sikhs by the Mughals especially after Aurangzeb was to take the faith away from its gentle Sufi origins and make Sikhism as militant as the prevailing Islam.  

Although many devotees flocked to Sufi shrines seeking boons the Sufi way was a path of pure spirituality seeking the spread of love to all through the medium of love without any of the religiosity of priests, pilgrimages, idols, places of worship or the miraculous boons that all religions promised to their followers. It preached a philosophy of ecstatic love for the great cosmic spirit and love for all his creatures abhorring all the hatred and violence that has so unfortunately been the hallmarks of most priest ridden organized religions.