religious matters

Sufism doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does

Dispelling four myths that South Asians have about Sufism.

In a variety of Islamic political contexts around the world today, we see Sufi ideas being invoked as a call to return to a deeper, more inward-directed (and more peaceful) mode of religious experience as compared to the one that results in outward-oriented political engagements that are often seen as negative and violent.

A hundred years ago, it would not have been uncommon to hear Western or West-influenced native voices condemn Islamic mysticism (often described problematically in English as “Sufism”) as one of the major sources of inertia and passivity within Muslim societies. Yet new political contingencies, especially after 9/11, have led to this same phenomenon being described as “the soft face of Islam”, with observers such as writer William Dalrymple referring to a vaguely defined group of people called “the Sufis” as “our” best friends vis-à-vis the danger posed by Taliban-like forces.

We seem to be in a situation where journalistic discourse and policy debates celebrate idealised notions of Islamic mysticism with its enthralling music, inspiring poetry and the transformative/liberating potential of the “message” of the great mystics. These mystics are clearly differentiated from more “closed-minded” and “orthodox” representatives of the faith such as preachers (mullahs), theologians (fuqaha) and other types of ulema.

On the other hand, when we trace the institutional legacy of these great mystics (walis/shaikhs) and spiritual guides (pirs) down to their present-day spiritual heirs, we find out that they are often all too well-entrenched in the social and political status quo. The degree of their sociopolitical influence has even become electorally quantifiable since the introduction of parliamentary institutions during colonial times. Pirs in Pakistan have been visible as powerful party leaders (Pir Pagara), ministers (Shah Mahmood Qureshi) and even prime ministers (Yousaf Raza Gillani). Even more traditional religious figures, such as Pir Hameeduddin Sialvi (who recently enjoyed media attention for threatening to withdraw support from the ruling party in Pakistan over a religious issue that unites many types of religious leaders), not only exercise considerable indirect influence over the vote but have also served as members of various legislative forums.

It is, therefore, unclear what policymakers mean when they call for investment in the concepts and traditions of “Sufi Islam”. Is it an appeal for the promotion of a particular kind of religious ethic through the public education system? Or is it a call for raising the public profile of little known faqirs and dervishes and for strengthening the position of existing sajjada-nishins (hereditary representatives of pirs and mystics and the custodians of their shrines), many of whom already enjoy a high level of social and political prominence and influence? Or are policymakers referring to some notion of Islamic mysticism that has remained very much at the level of poetic utterance or philosophical discourse – that is, at the level of the ideal rather than at the level of reality as lived and experienced by Muslims over centuries?

Idealised notions

The salience of idealised notions of Islamic mysticism in various policy circles today makes it interesting to examine the historical relations that mystic groups within Islamic societies have had with the ruling classes and the guardians of religious law. What has the typical relationship among kings, ulema and mystics been, for example, in regions such as Central Asia, Anatolia, Persia and Mughal India that fall in a shared Persianate cultural and intellectual zone? Has tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism) historically been a passive or apolitical force in society, or have prominent mystics engaged with politics and society in ways that are broadly comparable to the way other kinds of religious representatives have done so?

It is instructive to turn first to the life of an Islamic mystic who is perhaps more celebrated and widely recognised than any other: Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273). He lived in Konya in modern-day Turkey. The fame of his mystic verse has travelled far and wide, but what is less widely known is that he had received a thorough training in fiqh (Islamic law).

An Ottoman era manuscript depicting Rumi and Shams-e Tabrizi. Photo credit: Topkapi Palace Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
An Ottoman era manuscript depicting Rumi and Shams-e Tabrizi. Photo credit: Topkapi Palace Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Historical accounts show that he had studied the Quran and fiqh at a very high level in some of the most famous madrasas in Aleppo and Damascus. Later, he served as a teacher of fiqh at several madrasas. In this, he appears to have followed his father who was a religious scholar at a princely court in Anatolia and taught at an institution that blended the functions of a madrasa and those of a khanqah, demonstrating how fluid the relationship between an Islamic law college and a mystic lodge could be in Islamic societies. Even madrasas built exclusively for training ulema have often been paired with khanqahs since centuries.

Biographers have described how Rumi’s legal opinions were frequently sought on a variety of subjects. As a spiritual guide and preacher, he regularly delivered the Friday sermon (khutba), achieving popularity as an acclaimed speaker and attracting a considerable number of disciples from all parts of society. His followers included merchants and artisans as well as members of the ruling class. His lectures were attended by both women and men in Konya. For much of this while, he was also composing his renowned poetry and becoming identified with his own style of sama’a and dance, which sometimes drew criticism from other ulema, many of whom nevertheless continued to revere him.

It is evident from Rumi’s letters that he also had extremely close relations with several Seljuk rulers, even referring to one of them as “son”. It was not rare for him to advise these rulers on various points of statesmanship and make recommendations (for instance, on relations with infidel powers) in light of religious strictures and political expediencies. He is also known to have written letters to introduce his disciples and relatives to men of position and influence who could help them professionally or socially. Unlike his religious sermons and ecstatic poetry, these letters follow the conventions typically associated with correspondence addressed to nobles and state officials.

Rumi, showing his love for his young disciple, Hussam al-Din Chelebi. Photo credit: Morgan Library & Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Rumi, showing his love for his young disciple, Hussam al-Din Chelebi. Photo credit: Morgan Library & Museum/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

All this contradicts the idea that mystics (mashaikh) are always firmly resistant to interacting with rulers. The stereotypical image of mystics is one where they are far too caught up in contemplation of the divine to have anything to do with the mundane political affairs of the world. Yet, in sharp contrast to this image, many prominent mystics in Islamic history have played eminent roles in society and politics.

This holds true not only for the descendants of prominent mystics who continue to wield considerable sociopolitical influence in Muslim countries such as today’s Egypt and Pakistan but also for the mashaikh in whose names various mystical orders were originally founded. These mashaikh evidently lived very much in the world, not unlike nobles and kings and many classes of the ulema.

Political involvement

Rumi’s life also offers evidence that the two worlds of khanqah and madrasa, often considered vastly different from each other, all too often overlap in terms of their functions. Regardless of the impressions created by mystic poetry’s derogatory allusions to the zahid (zealous ascetic), wa‘iz (preacher) or shaikh (learned religious scholar), there is little practical reason to see mystics on the whole as being fundamentally opposed to other leaders and representatives of religion. In fact, right through until modern times, we have seen ulema and mashaikh work in tandem with each other in the pursuit of shared religio-political objectives, the Khilafat movement in British India being just one such example among many of their collaborations.

Rumi’s activities are indicative of a nearly ubiquitous pattern of political involvement by prominent mystics in various Islamic societies. In Central Asia, support from the mashaikh of the Naqshbandi mystical order (tariqa) seems to have become almost indispensable by the end of the 15th century for anyone aspiring to rule since the order had acquired deep roots within the population at large. The attachment of Timurid and Mughal rulers to the Naqshbandi order is well known. The Shaybanid rulers of Uzbek origin also had deep ties with the order and Naqshbandi mashaikh tended to play a prominent role in mediating between Mughal and Uzbek rulers.

Naqshbandis are somewhat unusual among Sufi orders in their historical inclination towards involving themselves in political affairs, and for favouring fellowship (suhbat) over seclusion (khalwat), yet political interventions are not rare even among other orders.

Closer home, Shaikh Bahauddin Zakariya (d. 1262), a Suhrawardi mystic, is reported to have negotiated the peaceful surrender of Multan to the Mongols, giving 10,000 dinars in cash to the invading army’s commander in return for securing the lives and properties of the citizens. Suhrawardis, indeed, have long believed in making attempts to influence rulers to take religiously correct decisions. Bahauddin Zakariya was very close to Sultan Iltutmish of the Slave Dynasty of Delhi and was given the official post of Shaikhul Islam. He openly sided with the sultan when Nasiruddin Qabacha, the governor of Multan, conspired to overthrow him.

The tomb of Bahauddin Zakariya. Photo credit: Junaidahmadj/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The tomb of Bahauddin Zakariya. Photo credit: Junaidahmadj/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

It is widely known that the Mughal king Jahangir was named after Shaikh Salim Chishti (d. 1572) but what is less well known is that his great-grandfather Babar’s name Zahiruddin Muhammad was chosen by Naqshbandi shaikh Khwaja Ubaidullah Ahrar (d. 1490), who wielded tremendous political power in Central Asia. The shaikh’s son later asked Babar to defend Samarkand against the Uzbeks. When Babar fell ill in India many years later, he versified one of Khwaja Ahrar’s works in order to earn the shaikh’s blessings for his recovery.

Even after Babar lost control of his Central Asian homeland and India became his new dominion, he and his descendants maintained strong ties with Central Asian Naqshbandi orders such as Ahrars, Juybaris and Dahbidis. This affiliation was not limited to the spiritual level. It also translated into important military and administrative posts at the Mughal court being awarded to generations of descendants of Naqshbandi shaikhs.

The offspring of these shaikhs also often became favoured marriage partners for royal princesses, thus becoming merged with the nobility itself. One of Babar’s daughters as well as one of Humayun’s was given in marriage to the descendants of Naqshbandi shaikhs. The two emperors also married into the family of the shaikhs of Jam in Khurasan. Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu (Maryam Makani), was descended from the renowned shaikh Ahmad-e-Jam (d. 1141).

Royal connections

In India, Mughal princes and kings also established important relationships with several other mystical orders such as the Chishtis and Qadris. In particular, the Shattari order (which originated in Persia) grew to have significant influence over certain Mughal kings. It seems to have been a common tendency among members of the Mughal household to pen hagiographical tributes to their spiritual guides. Dara Shikoh, for example, wrote tazkirahs (biographies) of his spiritual guide Mian Mir (d. 1635) and other Qadri shaikhs. His sister Jahanara wrote about the Chishti shaikhs of Delhi.

So great was the royal reverence for mystics that several Mughal emperors, like their counterparts outside India, wanted to be buried beside the graves of prominent shaikhs. Aurangzeb, for example, was buried beside a Chishti shaikh, Zainuddin Shirazi (d. 1369). Muhammad Shah’s grave in Delhi is near that of another Chishti shaikh, Nizamuddin Auliya (d. 1325).

Like several other Mughal and Islamic rulers, Aurangzeb’s life demonstrates a devotion to a number of different mystical orders (Chishtis, Shattaris and Naqshbandis) at various points in his life. The emperor is reported to have sought the blessings of Naqshbandis during his war of succession with his brother Dara Shikoh. Naqshbandi representatives not only committed themselves to stay by his side in the battle but they also vowed to visit Baghdad to pray at the tomb of Ghaus-e-Azam Abdul Qadir Jilani (d. 1166) for his victory. They similarly promised to mobilise the blessings of the ulema and mashaikh living in the holy city of Makkah in his favour.

The combined spiritual and temporal power of influential mashaikh across various Islamic societies meant that rulers were eager to seek their political support and spiritual blessings for the stability and longevity of their rule. Benefits accrued to both sides. The mashaikh’s approval and support bolstered the rulers’ political position, and financial patronage by rulers and wealthy nobles, in turn, served to strengthen the social and economic position of mashaikh who often grew to be powerful landowners. The estates and dynasties left behind by these shaikhs frequently outlasted those of their royal patrons.

This is not to say that every prominent mystic had equally intimate ties with rulers. Some mashaikh (particularly among Chishtis) are famous for refusing to meet kings and insisting on remaining aloof from the temptations of worldly power. Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya’s response to Alauddin Khilji’s repeated requests for an audience is well known: “My house has two doors. If the Sultan enters by one, I will make my exit by the other.” In effect, however, even these avowedly aloof mashaikh often benefited from access to the corridors of royal power via their disciples among the royal household and high state officials.

Nizamuddin Auliya with three attendants. Photo credit: Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Nizamuddin Auliya with three attendants. Photo credit: Smithsonian Unrestricted Trust Funds/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

The relationship between sultans and mashaikh was also by no means always smooth. From time to time, there was a real breakdown in their ties. Shaikhs faced the prospect of being exiled, imprisoned or even executed if their words or actions threatened public order or if they appeared to be in a position to take over the throne. The example of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (d. 1624) is famous. He was imprisoned by Jahangir for a brief period reportedly because his disquietingly elevated claims about his own spiritual rank threatened to disrupt public order. Several centuries earlier, Sidi Maula was executed by Jalaluddin Khilji, who suspected the shaikh of conspiring to seize his throne.

It is not only through influence over kings and statesmen that Islamic mystical orders have historically played a political role. Some of them are known to have launched direct military campaigns. Contrary to a general notion in contemporary popular discourse that ‘Sufism’ somehow automatically means ‘peace’, some Islamic mystical orders have had considerable military recruiting potential.

The Safaviyya mystical order of Ardabil in modern-day Iranian Azerbaijan offers a prominent example of this. Over the space of almost two centuries, this originally Sunni mystical order transformed itself into a fighting force. With the help of his army of Qizilbash disciples, the first Safavid ruler Shah Ismail I established an enduring Shia empire in 16th century Iran.

In modern times, Pir Pagara’s Hurs in Sindh during the British period offer another example of a pir’s devotees becoming a trained fighting force. It is not difficult to find other examples in Islamic history of mashaikh who urged sultans to wage wars, accompanied sultans on military expeditions and inspired their disciples to fight in the armies of favoured rulers. Some are believed to have personally participated in armed warfare.

To speak of a persistent difference between the positions of ulema and mystics on the issue of war or jihad would be, thus, a clear mistake. ‘Sufism’ on the whole is hardly outside the mainstream of normative Islam on this issue, as on others.

Foreign influences

Another popular misconception is to speak of Sufism as something peculiar to the South Asian experience of Islam or deem it to be some indigenously developed, soft variant of Islam that is different from the harder forms of the religion prevalent elsewhere. Rituals associated with piri-muridi (master-disciple) relationships and visits to dargahs can, indeed, display the influence of local culture and differ significantly from mystical rituals in other countries and regions.

However, the main trends and features defining Islamic mysticism in South Asia remain pointedly similar to those characterising Islamic mysticism in the Middle East and Central Asia. As British scholar Nile Green points out:

“What is often seen as being in some way a typically South Asian characteristic of Islam – the emphasis on a cult of Sufi shrines – was in fact one of the key practices and institutions of a wider Islamic cultural system to be introduced to South Asia at an early period... It is difficult to understand the history of Sufism in South Asia without reference to the several lengthy and distinct patterns of immigration into South Asia of holy men from different regions of the wider Muslim world, chiefly from Arabia, the fertile crescent, Iran and Central Asia.”

It is a fact that all the major mystical orders in South Asia have their origins outside this region. Even the Chishti order, which has come to be associated more closely with South Asia than with any other region, originated in Chisht near Herat in modern-day Afghanistan. These inter-regional connections have consistently been noted and celebrated by masters and disciples connected with mystic orders over time. Shaikh Ali al-Hujweri (d. circa 1072-77), who migrated from Ghazna in Afghanistan to settle in Lahore, is known and revered as Data Ganj Bakhsh. Yet this does not mean that the status of high ranking shaikhs who lived far away from the Subcontinent is lower than his in any way. Even today, the cult of Ghaus-e-Azam of Baghdad continues to be popular in South Asia.

For anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with Muslim history outside the Subcontinent, it would be difficult to defend the assertion – one that we hear astoundingly often in both lay and academic settings in South Asia – that Sufi Islam is somehow particular to Sindh or Punjab in specific or to the Indian subcontinent more broadly. It is simply not possible to understand the various strands of Islamic mysticism in our region without reference to their continual interactions with the broader Islamic world.

Policy discussions

What is mystical experience, after all? The renowned Iranian scholar Abdolhossein Zarrinkoub defines it as an “attempt to attain direct and personal communication with the godhead” and argues that mysticism is as old as humanity itself and cannot be confined to any race or religion.

It would, therefore, be quite puzzling if Islamic mysticism had flowered only in the Indian subcontinent and in no other Muslim region, as some of our intellectuals seem to assert. Islamic mysticism in South Asia owes as much to influences from Persia, Central Asia and the Arab lands as do most other aspects of Islam in our region. These influences are impossible to ignore when we study the lives and works of the mystics themselves.

As Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi (Mujaddid-e-Alf-e-Sani) wrote in the 16th-17th century:

“We...Muslims of India...are so much indebted to the ulema and Sufis (mashaikh) of Transoxiana (Mawara un-Nahr) that it cannot be conveyed in words. It was the ulema of the region who strove to correct the beliefs [of Muslims] to make them consistent with the sound beliefs and opinions of the followers of the Prophet’s tradition and the community (Ahl-e-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a). It was they who reformed the religious practices [of the Muslims] according to Hanafi law. The travels of the great Sufis (may their graves be hallowed) on the path of this sublime Sufi order have been introduced to India by this blessed region.”

These influences were not entirely one-way. We see that the Mujaddidi order (developed in India by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi as an offshoot of the Naqshbandi order) went on to exert a considerable influence in Central Asia and Anatolia. This demonstrates once again how interconnected these regions had been at the intellectual, literary and commercial levels before the advent of colonialism.

This essay has been an attempt to dispel four myths about Islamic mysticism. The first myth is that there is a wide gap between the activities of the mystic khanqah and those of the scholarly madrasa (and that there is, thus, a vast difference between Sufi Islam and normative/mainstream Sunni Islam). The second myth is that mystics are passive, apolitical and withdrawn from the political affairs of their time. The third myth is that mystics across the board are intrinsically peaceful and opposed to armed jihad or warfare. The last myth is that Islamic mysticism is a phenomenon particular to, or intrinsically more suited to, the South Asian environment as compared to other Islamic lands.

All these four points are worth taking into consideration in any meaningful policy discussion of the limits and possibilities of harnessing Islamic mysticism for political interventions in Muslim societies such as today’s Pakistan. It is important to be conscious of the fact that when we make an argument for promoting mystical Islam in this region, we are in effect making an argument for the promotion of mainstream Sunni (mostly Hanafi) Islam in its historically normative form.

This article first appeared on Herald.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.