Islam in Asia – “Walking along the path of the Sufis in South Asia”
In exploring the path of Sufism (Arabic: الصوفية al-ṣūfiyya; Persian: تصوف taṣawwuf ), we will inquire about the significance and impact that Sufism had in South Asia, through an exploration of a series of articles regarding Islam in Asia, focusing on Sufi Shrines in India. We will also explore the effect that Sufism had in the Muslim doctrine and its sometimes criticized coexistence with the Umma (the Muslim Society) living under the holy laws as imposed by the more normative understanding of Islam. Lastly we will compare the holy resting places of Christian Saints in Greece with the Sufi shrines.
Islam is defined as submission to God’s will, to the desires of Allah, specifically the Sharīʿah (literally, “the path leading to the watering place”, the law of Islam) as defined by the Prophet Mohamed, in the holy book of the Qur’an. Total and unqualified submission is the fundamental Allah’s command and it is the Umma’s duty to uphold the Sharīʿah and to convey the message of the prophet and of the Qur’an, for whom the law constitutes a divinely ordained path of conduct for the attainment of purity. The system of duties that are asked of the Umma constitutes the Sharīʿah, the Islamic law. Sunna is the normative way to attain purity following the way of the Prophet Mohamed, his words, his actions, his deeds as described in the Qur’an, following the fitra (pure human nature), and the Sunnis are the ones who follow those practices.
Sufism was “the inner power of Islam from the beginning” (Denny, pp. 219), some say that it was the way of the Prophet, and yet it appeared formally as a reform movement to the “mosque-centered worship and devotional life formalized and dominated by the Ulama. As Denny explains the origin of the term Sufi could be attributed to ṣafā (purity in Arabic) or to ṣūf (wool in Arabic) referring to the cloaks of the Muslim ascetics. The mutasawwif (novice) approaches the tasawwuf (Sufi master, adept of the mystical path of Islam, as the Muslims refer to Sufis), who use the Qur’an as the primary source of his teachings, not only through a Tafsīr exegesis (literal meaning), but mostly through a ta’wil (allegorical and symbolic interpretation) looking for the batin (hidden) as well as the zahir (obvious) meaning of the word of Allah. In fact the word dhikr (rememberance) is central to Sufi teachings in which the tasawwuf is asked to “remember God often”.
The point of divergence between the Umma and the Sufis, is that for the Sufis remembering Allah often is not only the zahir, through reciting the Qur’an often, through praise and through prayer, but the dhikr extends to a personal connection and interpretation. The Sufis adhere to constant worship, complete devotion to Allah, and additionally they shun away from the splendor of the world, looking for a position of retirement and solitude, avoiding worldly possessions, pleasures and property, endeavors that are consistent with the Sharīʿah. While all Muslims believe that their life consists of a pathway to God, for the normative Umma, this union will be after death, whereas the Sufis believe that they can embrace God in this life, restoring the primordial state of the fitra, which takes on a more spiritual meaning, and it connotes intuition and insight. In the state of purity nothing defies God as all is undertaken to restore the primordial state of pleasing Allah. Their single motivation is the Love of Allah.
Sufis believe that the Miraj, the journey the Prophet Mohamed made, both a physical and a spiritual journey, is not a one off experience reserved to him but rather can be attained through specific ecstatic practices, and it is not solely an attainment after death. It is the belief of the Sufis that union with God is a constant aim, and the method of union in dihkr is obtained through practices that the normative Ulla would consider bid’ah (technically meaning innovation or novelty and yet extends to heresy).
Practices like Qawwali and ecstatic forms, as in the case of the Mawlawis of Jalal al-Din Rumi, centered in the sacred dance performed by “whirling” dervishes would be examples of bid’ah. Manuel (2008) for examples explores the North Indian Sufi popular music that is alive today, in the context of traditional Qawwali music as well as in the context of the popular music genres and music industry. Whereas rejected by some as a possible fad or as a break from the tradition on Qawwali music the fact remains that it is a popular music style with millions of followers. The normative Sharīʿah looks upon this practice as Bid’ah.
The practices that induce ecstatic states according to the imams or the caliphs are not in the five pillars of Islam (shahadah, canonical prayer, Ramadan, zakat and hajj). So it is in the method of worship of Allah that the Sufis diverge greatly and thus give rise to severe criticism by their fellow members in the Umma, who believe that Islam was established precisely to eliminate pagan rituals involving singing and dancing.
Aniconism in Islam is proscription against creation of images of worship. The most absolute proscription is that of the creation of the image of Allah, yet it includes depictions of the Prophets, and any representations of human beings or animals is discouraged, with the hope of discouraging any idolatry. This has led over time to the Islamic art being dominated by Islamic geometric patterns, calligraphy, foliage patterns, and the arabesque.
The examples of Sufi Shrines across the South Asian are many. Gold (2005) investigates the shire of Mir Badshah, in the main bazaar of Gwalior Madhya Pradesh, a predominantly Hidnu medium sized city. Mir Braseh was a Muslim Saint and even though little is known about him his shrine is active today, and interestingly the vast majority of its visitors are Hindu. Hindus believe that guardian spirits get attracted to the place for example. This shrine is an example of the communication of the Hindus with the Muslims in the religious arena, and the shrine illustrates how patterns of intercommunal cooperation are effectuated. Gold is concerned with past and present dynamics of contrast and assimilation presented in the Hindu reverence for Sufi Shrines in a place where Hindus are unquestionably in charge. The shrine appeals to the more and to the less privileged parts of the population. The shrine of Gwalior City is an example of a shrine that allowed Islam to expand its grip to India through the interaction of the living presence of the Baraka (spiritual essence) of the Saint.
Green (2004) describes multiple examples of shrines of Aurangabad. Green explores the role that the “twin figures of the Saint and the king” have occupied in pre-modern South Asia. He explores the historical nature of this relationship through an exploration of the textual references, historical accounts and references, though medieval historiography and Persian literature in translation, as well as oral tradition. A point he notably makes is the “Sufis were to be regarded as men of power […] with the power to foretell and shape future events.” The memory they hold is the memory an age of Muslim grandeur and self-rule in India. He presents accounts of the selflessness of the Sufi Saints. It is the tales of these Sufi Saints that provided a means for the abagnan people to find interest in the message of Islam.
It is the Sufi Saints that attracted followers to Islam and allowed for the Islamization of the Malay Archipelago. Asher (2009) explores the unusual situation of a shrine for a Sufi Saint Shahul Hamid whose dahrab is where he is buried in Mangore and interestingly is replicated in two locations in South East Asia. She explores possible explanations for this replication: (1) the Muslim Tamils carrying Shamil Shahud’s memory across the sea with them, (2) celebrating the ability of the Saint to perform miracles, and (3) his ability to protect and dominate over water. The shrine of Shahul Hamid offers an example of a Sufi shrine replicated outside its initial function of being a tomb for the Sufi Saint. In the Sufi Shrines the Baraka is remembered and more importantly venerated. It is close to what the letter of the Sharīʿah would consider idolatry. Yet these are the bridges of interfaith communication that allowed Hindus for example to observe the living miracles of Islam.
In the tales mentioned above the Shrines are an important part of the interaction of Islam with other religions like Hinduism, has served as a bridge for conversions, and throughout its history served as a support to the Muslim rulers. It seems that the Sufis, the Sufi Saints, the Sufi Shrines are a vehicle for conversion into Islam, and maybe this is why they are tolerated, even if they are shunned by orthodox Muslims.
In a similar fashion we can explore the purpose of shrines and holy resting places in Orthodox Christianity as a basis for comparison. The roots of Christianity, as those of Islam lie in the Holy texts, revealed through the holy prophets, and in that aspect the basis for the religion is the same Judeo-Christian heritage that Islam also shares. The Christian mystics starting point would be the figure of Jesus as a focus of meditation, concentration, and consecration. (Soltes pp. 23-73) The bitter iconoclasm of the fifth and sixth century concluded in the acceptance of the iconography, reliquaries, Saintly cult, and temple shrines. In a similar fashion as Asher describes for Shamul Hamid and the Sufi shrines, temple shrines can be found in repeated locations and are consecrated through a piece of a bone of the Saint to whom they are dedicated. In Orthodox Christianity the concept of Saints is an integral part of the tradition. In fact it is expected in Christian Orthodoxy to have multiple shrines that are the object of pilgrimage and those shrines are a subtle yet important object of the worship.
The shrines in Christian Orthodoxy hold the essence of the Saint. The body of the Saint is fully conserved in certain instances, as is the case of Saint Dyonisios of Zakynthos, spontaneously mummified as such. In other instances it is exuding perfume or myrrh, as is the case for Saint Nicholas bishop of Myra. In yet other instances it is decomposed yet the remains hold the essence of the Saint, as is the case for Saint Nektarios whose body remained intact for 50 years and then spontaneously disintegrated in an allowance from the Saint, as believers heard, to take pieces of the body to other shrines.
A Saint is revered as such because he or she has performed miracles in the past or in most cases is still currently performing miracles. The miracles are expected and are an integral part of the faith, most often related to health, children, money, and the everyday workings of life. In my personal experience Saints have appeared to myself and other members of my family as well to announce a miracle that is about to be performed or to give guidance and direction. In Orthodox Christianity it seems to be understood, in a similar way as worshippers understand their relationship to Sufi Saints that Saints will mediate for the people who worship them and will perform the miracles that the people ask of them. The shrines are centered as well on the body of the Saint although every church that is dedicated in the name of that Saint is consecrated through a piece of their bones that is understood to hold their essence.
In conclusion Sufism seems to be at the core of the expansion of Islam in new territories and the Sufi Saints seems to be at the forefront of that expansion. Normative Islam seems to adopt a stricter version and a more doctrinally charged view of worship. In understanding the differences and similarities between the tasawwuf and the normative Umma it is interesting to observe that both are centered on the constant observance of the Qur’an’s teachings, even if the mystical aspects of the tasawwuf are not necessarily accepted or understood. Moreover, the Sufi practice is divergent in the ecstatic parts of the worship, like Qawwali and twirling that are certainly considered bid’ah. The concentration of the object of worship around the Sufi Saints is also reminiscent more of outlandish practices like those of Christianity. Yet there is a symbiosis of normative Islam and Sufism that allows them to still co-exist and to sometimes even flourish together.
Catherine Asher, “The Sufi Shrines of Sahul Hamid in India and Southeast Asia” (2009), pp. 247-258
Frederick Denny, An Introduction to Islam (2011), pp. 219-266
Michael Feener and Michael Laffan, “Sufi Scents Across the Indian Ocean: Yemen Hagiography and the Earliest History of Southeast Asian Islam” (2005), pp. 185-208
Nile Green, “Stories of Saints & Sultans/Remembering History at the Sufi Shrines of Aurangabad” (2004), pp. 419-446
Daniel Gold, “The Sufi Shrines of Gwalior City: Communal Sensibilities and the Sensible Exotic Under Hindu Rule” (2005), pp. 127-150
Victoria Kennick and Arvind Sharma. “Spiritual Masters of the World’s Religions” (2012) State University of New York, NY.
Peter Manuel, “North Indian Sufi Popular Music in the Age of Hindu and Muslim Fundamentalism,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 52, No. 3, Fall 2008, pp. 378-400
Ori Z. Soltes, “Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Searching for Oneness” (2008) Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, ML