Sufism, the mystical current of Islam, has strongly influenced the cultures and religions of South Asia. Sufis have introduced Islam to present-day India and Pakistan, advised Mughal emperors and influenced Hindu philosophy. Today, Sufism in India and Pakistan is a living, multifaceted – and beautiful – tradition. But what is Sufism? And what form does it take on the Indian Subcontinent? Find out here!
What is Sufism?
Sufism is usually defined as Islamic mysticism and spirituality, a path to God through love. Sufism originated during the lifetime of the Islamic prophet Mohammed, and flourished in the centuries that followed. But for many Sufis, Sufism is much older than Islam: Adam is said to have been the first Sufi, followed by numerous prophets and saints. Jesus is also worshipped by Sufis, and Western philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle are also considered early representatives of Sufism. However, Islam forms the framework for Sufism. In Pakistan, the Fakhirs (Sufi ascetics) say: “I have left Allah behind, but still have a long way to go.”
The word Sufi has many meanings. For one, it comes from the Arabic word for wool, which was worn by the early Sufis. But it can also mean “purity”. Some associate it with the Greek word for wisdom, Sophia, while others recognize Hebrew or Kabbalistic roots in the term.
But words and definitions are of little importance to Sufis. The path of Sufism is a path of love and asceticism: above all, a practical path. In the West, Sufism became known through Persian poets such as Rumi and Hafis. Rumi said about Sufism, “What you seek (God), is seeking you!”
The arrival of Sufism in India and Pakistan
Sufism was brought to India by the Islamic conquerors from Turkey, Persia and Central Asia, starting in the 11th century. Sufi masters such as Moinuddin Chishti and Nizamuddin Auliya preached in present-day northern India and Pakistan, and converted many people to Islam and Sufism. Especially the lower castes, who were disadvantaged and excluded in Hindu India, became enthusiastic about the tolerant teachings of Sufism. Later, the Grand Moguls were also strongly influenced by Sufism. The last of the Mughal Emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was a famous Sufi master and poet himself.
Simultaneously with Sufism, Bhakti Yoga spread in the India of the Middle Ages. The parallels between these two paths are obvious: both aim at union with God through the path of love. Sufism and Bhakti Yoga have influenced and shaped each other. Oftentimes, both use the same means, e.g. devotional chants and mystical love poetry.
Kabir, the Sufi saint and Bhakti yogi
This confluence of Bhakti Yoga and Sufism is symbolized by Kabir, a mystic from 15th century Varanasi. He attacked priests and scholars of Islam and Hinduism, mocking their meaningless rituals and empty teachings. Kabir advocated a personal path, which was to lead the seeker through the love of God to God. After his death, both Hindus and Muslims claimed his body for themselves – the Hindus to cremate it, the Muslims to bury it. Kabir’s poems and songs are still sung throughout the subcontinent. Kabir said, “There are many wells, but the water is always the same.” In other words: Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism and all the other religions and philosophies of this world are paths that all lead to the same goal, the same truth. “Do not confuse the river with the sea,” sings Kabir.
Today’s centers of Sufism in India and Pakistan
Sufism is alive and well both in India and in the neighboring state of Pakistan. Over the centuries, a number of important pilgrimage sites have developed. There, Sufism is particularly evident and vibrant. The centers of Sufism in India and Pakistan are:
In Rajasthan, not far from Delhi, lies Ajmer. The city is famous for the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, the grave of Muinuddin Chishti. He brought Islam and Sufism to the region 800 hundred years ago. Great moguls like Akbar made an annual pilgrimage on foot to Ajmer to pay tribute to the great Sufi master. Today his Dargah (shrine, tomb) is visited by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike. Up to 500,000 people from all over India come to the Urs (the saint’s death anniversary) every year.
ndia’s capital was one of the centers of Sufism in the Middle Ages. Nizamuddin Auliya and his desciple Amir Khusrao stayed there. Nizamuddin Dargah was built in their honor, which is located in the heart of today’s megacity. Every Thursday, music is played until all throughout the night, especially Qawwali: devotional Sufi songs. The shrine is managed by the descendants of Nizamuddin
Alongside Delhi and Ajmer, Lahore is the third capital of Sufism in the north of the Indian subcontinent. The Data Darbar is the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia. Every day, Langar is distributed here, free food for the needy of all religions. This tradition also exists in Sikhism, for example in the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
Like Delhi and Ajmer, Lahore also has a lively Qawwali scene. Furthermore, the city was home to many poets and philosophers in the last century, who were often influenced by Sufism.
700 years ago, Lal Shabaz Qalandar lived and taught here, in Sindh, Pakistan. Like all great Sufis of the subcontinent, he is revered by both Muslims and Hindus. The famous Sufi song “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” was written in his honour, and is still sung enthusiastically throughout South Asia. Lal Shabaz Qalandar’s shrine was the victim of a terrorist attack in 2017 in which 82 people lost their lives. The next day, however, the singing and dancing continued.
This is where Baba Farid is buried, a Sufi mystic who lived in the 13th century. He was instrumental in the spread of Sufism in this region. His poems were included in the holy book of the Sikhs, which is why Pakpattan is an important pilgrimage site for Sikhism as well. More than two million people come to the Urs Festival every year. Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, often visits the holy place to pray and gather strength.
The Sufi singers of Pakistan
Sufism and its music is especially alive in Pakistan. Numerous singers move from Dargah to Dargah to perform their songs. Many of the songs are several centuries old and an important part of Pakistan’s culture and tradition. Among the most famous Qawwals of Pakistan are
and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a true legend of Pakistani music. He died 20 years ago.
Sufism, with its love and tolerance, can be a reminder of the brotherhood between India and Pakistan, and indeed between all people worldwide, especially in today’s times of conflict and hatred.