Sufism and tolerance

"It is commonly believed that sufism could never have flourished without having accepted the philosophy of Wahdatal Wajood as its ideological foundation"

There are two types of sufism: one is based on the metaphysics of Wahdatul Wajood; while the other is derived from the philosophy of Wahdatul Shahood. These two types are diametrically opposed to each other so far as their socioand cultural implications are concerned.

The first type, which is usually referred to as wajoodi Sufism, teaches tolerance, moderation, peaceful coexistence and humanistic values. This is because its metaphysics implies that there is a unity and oneness in all that exists. The differences, disagreements and divisions among human beings, ideas and all that exists are illusory. They come into being only when we look at things and matters in a limited and biased perspective and fail to see their true reality.

If all differences are illusory, then it clearly means that mutual differences of human beings, creeds and cultures are also superficial,. They are absurd in the ultimate sense. We should sympathise with those who take these differences seriously and not detest them.

The metaphysics of Wahdatul Shahood, on the other hand, insists on differences and accords primacy to them. This metaphysics developed as a reaction to the sociopolitical, cultural and intellectual trends that flowered out as a consequence of mass popularity of Wahdatul Wajood in the 16th century India. Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, who first presented it as a thought system, was a contemporary of Emperor Jahangir.

The philosophy of Wahdatul Wajood is Indian in its essence and its origin can be traced to Vedanta. This philosophy was adopted in the early stages of Islamic mysticism. It is commonly believed that sufism could never have flourished without having accepted this philosophy as its ideological foundation.

History has preserved the name of a Sindhi scholar, Abu Ali Sindhi, who is considered to be the first one who introduced the sufi intellectuals of the central Muslim world to Wajoodi doctrine. Bayazid Bastami of the 9th century was the first great sufi who took lessons from him in it. Jami quotes him as saying in his Nafahatal, "I learnt the science of annihilation and unitarianism from Abu Ali of Sindh.

A majority of the Indian sufis adopted this philosophy during the Middle Ages. But we must keep in mind that sufis were attracted to this philosophy mostly because it was in line with their own ideas and attitudes.

The first eminent Indian sufi, Syed Ali Hajveri, for example, belonged to a period when the features of Wajoodi philosophy had not become popular and prominent. He settled in Lahore in the early years of the 11th century. His book Kashful Mahjoob still survives and is considered one of the most important books on sufism. The teachings carried therein are notably humanistic and tolerant.

Syed Ali Hajveri preferred a direct and personal relationship between man and God over religion’s ritualistic and abstract forms. This preference provided the metaphysical basis of accepting dissent and treating others with tolerance. Here, for example, we can quote Hajveri’s opinion about Hajj. In his famous book, Kashful Mhajoob, he supports the idea: "I am surprised at the one who looks for the house of God in the world, but does not experience and witness it in his own heart."

He also had a liking for music and poetry and did not agree with the religious scholars who believed that Islam had no patience for them. His point of view in this regard is very clear: "The one who says that he does not relish a beautiful voice or music and melody is either a liar or a hypocrite or does not have slightest aesthetic sense. Lack of taste makes such a person even worse than animals and cattle."

Syed Ali Hajveri laid the foundation of Muslim tolerance in the medieval India through his flexible system of thought. Sufis and saints promoted these values in the subsequent centuries. Some of the rulers also adopted this policy of tolerance and tried to create harmony among diverse religious communities in India. In this way, they managed to counter the oppression of what we now term as fundamentalism. They not only provided the people with an opportunity to live in a peaceful and congenial environment, but also contributed towards their genuine spiritual and moral grooming. This state of a affairs made Thomas Arnold to observe: "During the Muslim rule, on the whole, the level of tolerance exhibited towards nonMuslims was missing in Europe till modern times."

It were the sufis of the Chishtia Silsila, or school of thought, who appeared on the Indian scene after Syed Ali Hajveri. This silsila was introduced in our region by Khawaja Moeenud Din who came here from his native town of Seistan during the reign of Prithvi Raj. The sufis of this silsila further promoted religious liberalism, tolerance, interaction and humanistic values that were upheld by Syed Ali Hajveri. Khawaja Moeenud Din used to say: "God has created the humans and the universe for the sake of love, and loving God implies loving human beings regardless of their religion, class, colour or race. The ultimate goal of religion is selfless love for human beings and their service. The observance of religious law and rituals is not essential as the service of fellow humans."

Khawaja Moeenud Din died in 1235 in Ajmer. It was the time when the town of Nagore was emerging as an important centre of sufi humanism and the culture nourished by the Chishtia intellectuals. This transformation took place because of Hameedud Din Nagori who was a pupil of Khawaja Moeenud Din. He was a poet and a spiritual leader. He made the invaluable contribution of combining the finest elements of Hindu and Muslim civilisations to introduce a harmonised culture based on humanism.

The process of adoption was carried on by Baba Faridud Din Ganj Shakar who became the chief of the Chishtia Silsila after the death of Qutbud Din Bahaktiar Kaki in the fourth decade of the 13th century. He was bitterly criticised by conservative religious scholars for adopting nonMuslim practices. We can take him as the finest personification of tolerant culture created by the sufis who was to greatly influence the great founder of Sikh religion, Baba Nanak. He presented his teaching in the form of mellow and captivating Punjabilanguage poetry the major portion of which has been preserved forever by Baba Nanak in Aad Granth.

The ideas, values and culture promoted by the sufis of the prehal period greatly contributed to the development of the Bhakti movement despite the narrowand harsh polices of many Muslim rulers and aristocracy. The origin, nature and aims of the Bhakti movement have been made very controversial. Anyway, in my humble opinion, we can accept the view that Shankar Achariya and Ramanj of the 10th and 11th centuries revived the ancient Bhakti sensibility in South India. It was a pure Hindu affair. But the need to revive Bhakti and its general popularity in North India of the 14th and 15th centuries was a direct result of the cultural and intellectual influence of sufis. Political influence of Islam also played a role.

In northern parts of India, the Bhakti movement produced a number of such Bhagats who had not only unconsciously but consciously absorbed the Muslim influence. Their concept of Bhakti envisaged uniform love for all humans without discrimination on the basis of colour, caste or creed.

Ramananda was the man who initiated the form of Bhakti we are interested in and which strived for the Hindum unity. The liberal elements of his system of thought later embodied themselves in the form of Bhagat Kabir who was born in 1440. Tulsi Das, Bhagat Kabir and Baba Nanak are by many accounts the most refined personalities created by the Indian civilisation of the Middle Ages. They all are representatives of the Bhakti movement.

It may sound strange but it is a fact of history that the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Zaheerud Din Babar, too had absorbed many teachings of the sufis and bhagats that were in the air at the time when he laid the foundation of the Mughal rule in 1526. He did not get a chance to rule for a long time, but during his rule he rejected the narrowand intolerance of the Lodhis and adopted the policy of religious harmony.The kind of moderate enlightenment emphasized by Babar became the basis of his grandson Akbar’s policies. If now we remember him as Akbar the Great, it is mostly because of his policy of religious tolerance and his respect for all religions. I have no intention here to go into details of his policies or his Din. However, I would only say that his policies and Din would never have come into being without the teachings of sufis and bhagats. In fact, it were their teachings that created a new culture and circumstances that were reflected in the policies and ideas of the great Mughal. The polices of Akbar were unacceptable not only to the orthodox religious scholars but also many other sections of Muslim society. They were offensive to them from the religious point of view. They also feared that the distinction of Muslim and nonMuslim would disappear as a result of these policies, and the Muslim dominance in India would be endangered. The lords and upper class particularly opposed Akbar. They rightly feared that his policies will ultimately deprive them of their supremacy in society. A large number of those lords and other members of the privileged classes had come from the central Asian region. Their vital interests were at variance with those of the Indian people. So winds of change started to blow.

The most vociferous reaction came from Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi who belonged to the then newly introduced sufi school of Naqshbandia. Sheikh Sirhindi can be labelled the ideologue who laid the foundation of Muslim fundamentalism in the subcontinent. Allama Muhammad Iqbal believed him to be `the greatest reformist of Islamic mysticism’. It is interesting to note that many of the orthodox clerics of his day did not like many of his ideas and came down heavily on him.

The basic claim of Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi was that the highest spiritual experience is that of Wahdatul Shahood and not that of Wahdatul Wajood. One experiences Wahdatul Shahood al the level of consciousness and its highest form is revelation. Therefore, the mystical experience and its proclamation must be within the limits of religious law. This principle enabled the sheikh to defeat the forces of harmony, tolerance and liberalism on three fronts: first the philosophy of Wahdatul Wajood, on which the foundation of Muslim tolerance and enlightenment in India rested, was declared imperfect; second, no room was left for the fraternal Sufism; and third, Ijtehad, which was defined by Allama Iqbal as the principle of movement in Islam, was rendered impracticable. In this way, the future course of the socio-cultural and political life of the Muslims of this region was determined. It ultimately led to the events that took place in our corner of the globe in 1947.

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One Response to Sufism and tolerance

  1. Migrant says:

     Dear Tariq sb, Assalam o Alaikum
    I beg to differ with a part of what you write above. But before I dilate on that, a disclaimer is in order.
    The debate between Wahdat ul Wajood and Wahdat us Shahood has been contested by saints, some of which you have named in the blog. The topic itself is, therefore, way beyond the domain and reach of people like myself. I dare not comment on which one of the two concepts is correct and which one is not. I take no position regarding this.
    Having said that, I know din-e-ilahee of  akbar and jehangir well enough to take strong exception for the way you have mixed the concept of Wahdat ul Wajood with his din. There is absolutely no common ground between the Wahdat ul Wajood and his Din-e-Ilahee. If there is, please educate me about it.  Especially, i would like to know how exactly the practices of Akbar\’s din match with those of hazrat gharib nawaz, hazrat ali hajveri, hazrat sultan bahu, and more recently, hazrat mehr ali shah of golra sharif- all active proponents of Wahdat ul Wajood?
    Wahdat ul Wajood does not have the provision for a God King. Wahdat ul Wajood does not allow for suspension or moodification of religious rituals. Wahdat ul Wajood does not allow for reverting to the practices of idolators. Wahdat ul Wajood has nothing in common with Din-e-Ilahee. A hugely divergent interpretation of the concept that can be credited to the bhakti movement, was used as a convenient excuse to sanctify a king\’s whims for personal immortalization and glorification.
    You have to qualify your statements when you make arbitrary assertions such as: \’Sheikh Sirhindi can be labelled the ideologue who laid the foundation of Muslim fundamentalism in the subcontinent\’; or \’Ijtehad, which was defined by Allama Iqbal as the principle of movement in Islam, was rendered impracticable.\’; or \’This principle enabled the sheikh to defeat the forces of harmony, tolerance and liberalism on three fronts: first the philosophy of Wahdatul Wajood, on which the foundation of Muslim tolerance and enlightenment in India rested, was declared imperfect\’. At various places you have implied as if Sheikh Sirhindi opposed din-ilahee by of offereing resistance to social and cultural integration with the locals rather than true Islamic principles. While your statement about Ijtehad being suspended by Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi\’s movement, is evidently incorrect ( it was suspended by the Ottomon Turks much later through a religious decree), your other statements and implications can spawn a huge debate on their own. The proponents of Wahdat ul Wajood have always outnumbered the proponents of Wahdat us Shahood, most recent among them was Pir Mehr Ali Shah of Golra Shareef. I invite you to name just one of those Wahdat ul Wajoodis who may have expressed similar opinion about the services for Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi as you have.
    Mohsin Reza Naqvi

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