Sufism initially began as a spiritual revolt against the worldliness and materialism within first couple of centuries of the emergence of Islam. The early figures included Bustami & Rabiya Basari who led simple ascetic life and sought to achieve union with god through meditation. The early mystics eventually organized and the movement became institutionalized in silsilas which overtime branched into few strands such as the Chishtis, the Naqshbandis, the Qadiris, and the Suhrawardis. The sufi movement not only grew into an established system of faith and worship in Islam, the silsilas were also noted for their adaptation with the dominant social and religious milieu led to their popular appeal especially among the masses.
What distinguished Sufism from other forms of Islam was the belief that a human soul could achieve union with God, later formulated as the doctrine of ‘Wahdat-ul-wujud’ (unity of existence). This doctrine often brought Sufis in conflict with Islamic orthodoxy of Sunni ulema who asserted that God is unique and such a unity is not thinkable. Ulema also targeted them for their occasional indifference to formal religious practices (namaz/salat) and for their focus on meditation including the use of music and listening to music during sama or qawwalli.
However, the doctrine of Wahdat-ul-wujud brought Sufism very close to non-muslim religious traditions existing in Indian subcontinent for example the belief that 'atma' (human soul) and 'parmatma' (god) were one in Advaita Hinduism. Sufis also found much to learn from Yoga. The impact however, was mutual. The teachings of Kabir & Guru Nanak show clear imprints of Sufi Islam. The Sufis also played a crucial role in growth and development of vernacular literature. The Sufis contribution to the spread of poetry and music is equally notable and has contributed significantly to the development of both Indian folk and classical culture. Infact, sections of Guru Granth Saheb consist entirely of Sufi poetry. Sufism’s greatest contribution to Indian culture is the fact that it established the path for religious and cultural co-existence where each prospered while learning from each other and established a strong base for secular politics.
Khanqahs (hospice) & Dargahs (shrine) became confluence centers where muslims and non-muslims gathered for worship, meditation and sought blessings from Sufi masters. The process of conversion started with devotion to a particular Sufi, which led to syncretic sects, symbolizing only partial conversion. Eventually there emerged communities of Muslims who professed Islam formally but continued with their local custom, traditions and practices and thus the reformist concept of Wahdat-us-shuhud (unity of witness). Sufism this way had an important role in Islamization of the Subcontinent though many of them were not working this agenda.
Sufi literature includes (i) malfuzat (discourses of a Sufi compiled by his disciple, murid); (ii) maktubat (letters written by a Sufi to his disciple; (iii) mystical treaties on Sufism prepared by Sufi sheikhs; (iv) compilation of Sufi poetry; (v) tazkiras (hagiographies of Sufis).
Nizam-ud-din-Auliya succeeding from Farid-ud-Din turned Delhi into a major Chisti center. Rulers in Delhi however were angry with him for his indifference towards the court (darbar) & its rituals. For the saint, to visit the court would have amounted to accepting the superiority of the ruler. Ghiyas-ud-Din, while returning from a campaign in the East, had sent a farman asking Nizam-uf-Din to leave Delhi. The saint responded “hunuz dilli dur ast” (for the ruler). The ruler never returned to Delhi having died in an ‘accident’. For Chishtis, Nizam-ud-Din had already cursed Ghiyas-ud-Din. In fact, Delhi was a major center of Chishti Sufis as three of their five greats – Bakhtiyar Kaki, Nizam-ud-Din Auliya & Nasir-ud-Din Chiragh-i-Delhi settled in Delhi.
Four major themes emerge from Chishti narratives: (a) miracle or karamat as a source of authority – Mizaum-ud-Din Auliya himself believed in miracles as an integral part of Sufi discipline. He believed that there are 4 categories of miracles- muajiza(miracles of prophet), karamat(marvels of saints), maunat(paranormal feat of saints) and istidraj(occasional tricks of magicians). He also believed in eveil eye( nazr) and black magic(jadu/sehr) (b) relations with rulers and nobles- mostly maintained a distance though Sufi sheikhs were not ascetics. For them, tark-i-duniya(renunciation of the world) didn’t mean living in isolation rather it meant educating muslims. Chishtis refused to accept money from rulers believing that politics led to materialism and worldliness. However, the Suhrawardis had no qualms about associating with the Sultan’s Courts. Likewise, the Naqshbandis and the Qadiris were also known for their political involvements during mughal period; (c) using music and other cultural appropriations -and (d) attitudes towards non-muslims- mention must be made of Amir Khusrau whose court chronicles are full of hostile references to Hindus, condemning them as Kafirs (infidels).
The forms of poetry used by sufis are
HAMD - poem written in praise of Allah.
NA’AT - a poem written in praise of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)
MANQABAT - a poem written in praise of other religious figures.
SALAAM -a poem written as a form of salutation to Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his family members, addressing their presence and high spiritual status. It is read while standing as a sign of respect.
GHAZAL is the most popular form of poetry which has also been extensively used by the Sufis as a medium of their poetic expression. It is a collection of several couplets with the same meter.
NAZM has a central theme with a title. It has been traditionally written in rhymed verses.
RUBA’I is quatrain i.e. it has four line of equal length. All lines are in the same meter, but first two and the fourth one rhyme. The first three lines develop an idea and the fourth concludes it.
QAT’A means stanza, piece or fragment of poetry. Qata-band is more than one couplet read together to form a complete sentence.
MASNAVI consists of indefinite number of rhyming couplets on an epic scale. Mevlana Rumi has immortalized this form of poetry in his Masnavi Ma’anvi.
KAFI: A traditional style of Punjabi poetry used by the Punjabi Sufis where a phrase, verse, or group of verses repeated at intervals throughout the poem, especially at the end of each stanza. Baba Bulleh Shah and Khwaja Ghulam Farid are very well known for this form of poetry.
GEET is written with an intention to sing, hence it has a certain mood to it. It is of a feminine nature with a soft display. Geets are pre-dominantly written in Hindi language.
DOHA is a two line Hindi poem in simple words that coveys a vast message. Kabir Das is considered the final authority in Doha writing.
MUSTAZAAD is written as couplets with a short piece attached to each. Each added piece usually rhymes with its parent line and adds to the beauty of Qawwali.
MANAJAAT is a prayer written in a lyrical style.
BASANT refers to the arrival of spring. Hazrat Amir Khusro directed this feeling of festivity into the poetic expression of a flowering consciousness.HOLI is an Indian festival of colours celebrated in spring. Sufis of India have written a large number of poems in reference to Holi for reflecting unity within the diversity.
Some of the Sufi couplets are:
Sun faryaad Peeran diya Peera Mein aakh sunaavaan kinnoon, Hu!
(Listen to my plea O Saint of Saints (radhi Allah anhu), to whom else can I complain, Hu! )
Teray jihaa meinoon aur na koyee meray jihaa lakh teinoon, Hu!
(There’s no one else like you for me, there are many like me for you, Hu! )
Shah-e-Jilani, Mahboob-e-Subhani Meri khabar levau chhaT karkay Hu!
O Shah Jilani (quds sirruhu), Beloved of the Glorious Lord, Come to my assistance quickly, Hu! Ilm sikhiya par adab nahin sikhiya Kee lena ilm noo paRh kay Hu?!
(To learn knowledge but not learn ‘adab, what’s the point of such knowledge, Hu?!)
My interest in Sufi music dates back to my childhood when my father used to listen to Sabri brothers regularly. Some of these singers such as Sabri brothers, Abida Parveen,Qari Syed Chishti, Aziz Miyan Quawwal, Hans Raj Hans, Kailash Kher, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rabbi Shergill, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Wadali Brothers are the jewel of Sufi genre. These singers have given the world a new path to spirituality and mysticism.
I wish to acknowledge that my understanding of Sufism mainly comes from a book titled ‘In the name of Allah- understanding Islam and Indian History’ by Raziuddin Aquil and I am deeply indebted to him for making me understand the finer nuances of Sufism.