Book House The Lead

How Sufism brought about religious syncretism in India: Read an excerpt from Ghazala Wahab’s book “Born a Muslim”

Ajmer Sharif Dargah
  • The book “Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India” by Ghazala Wahab goes beyond stereotypes and news headlines to present an extraordinarily compelling and illuminating portrait of one of the largest and most diverse communities in India. The book looks at how the world’s second largest religion is practised in the country.


  • Weaving together personal memoir, history, reportage, scholarship, and interviews with a wide variety of people, the author highlights how an apathetic and sometimes hostile government attitude and prejudice at all levels of society have contributed to Muslim vulnerability and insecurity.


  • In the book, the author takes a clear-eyed look at every aspect of Islam in India today. She examines the factors that have stalled the socio-economic and intellectual growth of Indian Muslims. She shows at length, and with great empathy and understanding, what it is like to live as a Muslim in India and offers suggestions on how their lot might be improved.


  • Read an excerpt from the book “Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India” below.


The East—Persia, Turkey, Central Asia, and South Asia—became fertile ground for the incubation of Sufi philosophies and orders. Almost all Sufi orders or silsilas, from the quietest and most conservative like the Naqshbandis to political influencers like the Suhrawardis to those that aligned Indian Vedic thinking with Islamic mysticism like the Rishis (of Kashmir), made their home in the Indian subcontinent despite having originated in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey, or Central Asia. Abul Fazl, Emperor Akbar’s chronicler, recorded fourteen Sufi silsilas in the Ain-e-Akbari.

However, the most famous, revered, and far-reaching Sufi order in India has been the Chishtiya silsila. It was founded by Moinuddin Chishti, who came to India from the Sistan province of Persia and settled down in Ajmer in 1197. Chishti, who earned the honorific ‘khwaja’ for his benedictory powers, based his outreach on the principles of ‘redressing the misery of those in distress, fulfilling the needs of the helpless and feeding the hungry’. This is the reason he is reverentially called Khwaja Gharib Nawaz or the one who takes care of the poor. All Chishtiya Sufis who inherited the mantle from him adhered to these values. They shunned personal wealth and royal patronage, focussing instead on creating community kitchens and hospices for the poor within their khanqahs, which evolved into more than mere seminaries, as the saints lived there as well.

Another well-known and well-regarded Sufi of the Chishtiya order was Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya who built his khanqah in Delhi. Lovingly called Mehboob-e-Ellahi (Beloved of the Almighty), Nizamuddin despaired of any association with the nobility. A fable associated with him mentions that he had a special door in the rear of his cottage. Whenever the sultan (perhaps a reference to Alauddin Khalji of the Delhi Sultanate) entered the front door, he left through the rear.

While nearly all of the Sufis composed devotional poetry in praise of Allah and his prophets, they encouraged the musical rendition of these in their khanqahs to create an atmosphere of sublimity or sama mehfils, thereby contributing to the evolution of a new genre of music called Sufi music. While the Sufis were deeply religious in their practice of Islam, their khanqahs (during their lifetime) and (after their deaths) their dargahs, were open to people of all faiths. The Sufis did not distinguish between people on the basis of religion or creed.

It was Sufis such as these who brought about the confluence between the Arabian religion and the native beliefs of India, causing greater conversion to Islam. This intermingling could not have occurred if conversions had taken place on pain of death.

It must be said here that the Sufi interpretation of the faith aside, the Quran itself discourages forcing one’s faith on another. For instance, the verse Al-Kafirun says:

I do not worship what you worship,

nor do you worship what I worship.

I will never worship what you worship,

nor will you ever worship what I worship.

You have your way, and I have my Way.

From the rulers’ point of view as well, forcing conversions made little sense since non-Muslim communities were required to pay additional tax. Writing about the rise of Islam in Europe, American Sufi writer Stephen Schwartz says in his book The Two Faces of Islam: ‘But numerous Islamic rulers, however intense their devotion to the faith, found it convenient to encourage Jews and Christians to remain outside Islam, as a financial resource. This historical fact contradicts common Christian legendry claiming that multitudes were forcibly converted to the faith of Mohammed.’

In India, this approach went further. According to Khalid Anis Ansari, ‘The Muslim ulema were reluctant to convert low-caste Hindus because who would have done the dirty work then?’

However it happened, the advent of Islam into the subcontinent, and the resultant conversions to the faith, led to all manner of changes in Indian society. Quoting Dinesh Chandra Sen’s history of the Bengali language, Tara Chand writes: ‘This elevation of Bengali to a literary status was brought about by several influences, of which the Mohammedan conquest was undoubtedly one of the foremost. If the Hindu kings had continued to enjoy independence Bengali would scarcely have got an opportunity to find its way to the courts of Kings.’

In the same chapter he writes that the rise of Brahminism had pushed native beliefs to the margins, fostering both class and caste divisions, which was resented by a large section of the people. ‘The representatives of the older faiths were highly gratified with the suppression of Brahminism and even with Muslim vandalism. The followers of the Dharma cult, a modified form of Mahayanism could hardly contain themselves with glee at the chastisement which their erstwhile oppressors suffered.’

 Then quoting a Dehara Bhanga (breaking of a temple) song titled ‘Dharma Puja Paddhati’ (the method of worshipping Dharma), he writes:

Some worship Alla, some Ali, and others Mamud Sai (Lord)

The mian kills no living things nor eats dead ones

He is cooking his food over slow fire

The caste distinction will slowly be broken—for, behold, there’s a

Mohammedan in a Hindu family

According to Tara Chand, this close interaction between Hindus and Muslims led to the emergence of several practices common to both communities. For instance, Hindus would not only offer sweets at Muslim shrines but also consult the Quran. Similarly, Muslims would participate in Hindu festivals.

This syncretism, referred to as the Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb in north India, created a socio-religious order which wove together the Hindu– Muslim faith in a patchwork quilt. The result of this was that a Muslim from Bengal had greater cultural affinity with a Hindu of Bengal, rather than a Muslim from Karnataka or even Uttar Pradesh. This was true of all Muslims in all parts of India. Even in matters of religion, each was representative more of her geographical location than the desert of Arabia.

Consequently, successive Muslim dynasties, starting with the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526), of which Iltutmish was the most successful king, did not look outside India for political or spiritual validation. For them, India was, to turn around the phrase used by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (the founder of the Hindu Mahasabha), both their punya bhoomi as well as pitru bhoomi—the holy land as well as the fatherland. About Iltutmish (r. 1211–36), Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louer write:

In 1228-29, he received a delegation from the Abbasid Caliphal Muntansir and was presented with the Caliphal robe (khilat) and investiture (manshur) signifying the Caliphate’s recognition of Iltutmish’s rule over India…but Delhi Sultanate remained an independent kingdom since the main sources of his legitimacy did not come from outside India. Indeed, when local orthodox ulama, echoing the Caliphate’s recommendations, requested him to give the Hindus the choice of ‘Islam or death’, he turned to the Sufis… to legitimate his pragmatic decision not to antagonise the Hindus, who were in a majority and may have dislodged Muslims from their position of power if offered such a choice.

The reason why Iltutmish and his successors, across dynasties, were able to ignore the caliphate was because of the Sufis, especially of the Chishtiya order: ‘None of the major historical Sufi saints, known as “Shaykhs”, ever made the hajj to Mecca and Medina. Their land was India and, as their disciples maintained their dargahs there, they made India sacred for Muslims.’

Excerpted with permission from Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India, Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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