Sufism-Culture and Politics

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

Dr.Raziuddin Aquil has recently published a book entitled Sufism-Culture and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval India. The first part of the book deals more with Sultanate period, especially Lodhis and Sher Shah Suri. The author feels that historians of medieval period and specially those of JNU and Aligarh school have concentrated on Mughal India and have generally neglected Sultanate period and have not done justice to rule of Shershah Suri. So he mainly deals with this period. He calls this as ‘Mughal centrism’.

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Raziuddin Aquil also feels that “..a rather narrow framework of economic history, caught in the dichotomy of economic decline and prosperity, continues to dominate eighteen century studies. Those looking for a discussion on religion, culture, literature, architecture, and paintings, among other topics, in secondary works will be disappointed.”

He further observes, “The period is significant for the history of Islam in India. Sufis and scholars not only tried to stem the tide of Mughal decline, but also contributed to the consolidation of Muslim power in the regions through their writings and active involvement in political matters.”

It is true if the author has some professional historians of this or that school in mind but it should be pointed out that enough has been written by several Muslim scholars on history of Sufism and various theologians and several volumes on these subjects in Urdu, Persian and even Arabic are available. May be Dr. Raziuddin Aquil has some medieval historians from JNU & AMU are concerned.

It must be said that the book under review is highly scholarly and every statement has been supported by original or secondary sources. The first chapter of the book is non emergence of Sher Shah Sur, 2nd chapter to Mughal-Afghan interface. This constitutes the first part of the Book

Second part of the Book includes two chapters “Norms of Governance and Aspects of Administration and the Afghans and the Rajputs: the conflicts and accommodation. Finally the third part of the book deals with Religion, Politics and Society and consist of two chapters the Political and the Sufi Wilayat and the second chapter is Suri Traditions and Hindu-Muslim Interactions.

Thus the first and second part of the book deals more with politics and administration than with Sufism and culture and is left wondering why Sufism in the title of the book. But in last two chapters one finds justification of the title. It is true the first two parts of the book try to correct the imbalance by dealing extensively with Shershah Suri and his administration.

It is true the Chishtiyah Sufis were supposed to keep their distance from seats of power. It is well known that Nizamuddin Awliyah saw times of several sultans but never paid court to them. However when the last sultan of his time sent a message to come to his durbar, he refused and then the Sultan himself expressed his desire to visit the saint, he sent a message that “this Darwesh (a pious mendicant or saint) has two doors to my hospice and if sultan enters from none, I would leave by another”.

However, all Sufis did not keep their distance from seats of power. Raziuddin has given instances wherein some Sufis were not only close to rulers but also supported one or the other in power struggle or prayed in favor of a particular ruler. Thus Raziuddin writes, “In such a situation (of chaos and turmoil) even the Sufis, otherwise devoted to spiritual and otherworldly pursuits, began to aspire for political power. Indeed, it is reported, many of them behaved like kings.

He also points out that some Sufis supported a king as long as he (the king) was accountable to God only and ensured peace and order he received Saint’s blessings but “if he failed to ensure peace and order in realm, and oppressed the subject, he could lose his ‘job’ on account of the prayer of a saintly person, for example, a Sufi Shaykh. The sources mention several anecdotes in which a reigning king was removed from the throne by the Sufi saint, and the kingship was bestowed upon some one who was portrayed as a more deserving person.

While some sectarian ‘ulama pressured the ruling king to enforce Shari’ah law but Raziuddin points out that “On the other hand, the Afghan rulers understood that a strict adherence to the shari’at was impracticable for ruling the vast majority of non-Muslim population. The Moghul rulers too, followed this enlightened policy. He also points out from the “sources actually illustrate how at times Sikandar Lodi could be indifferent to the dictates of the shari’at and mock at the power and prestige enjoyed by the religious leaders.

He points out other instances of conflict between Sufis or Ulama and the rulers. For example a Sufi Shaykh, Saiyid Sultan Bahraichi had married a Hindu woman and converted her to Islam and when her relatives sought the help of the Mughal Governor Mirza Muhammad Zaman refused to hand over the woman under his protection and Muhammad Zaman asked the Shaykh to had over the woman, the Shaykh refused and even drawn out his sword to have a fight with the Governor.

The author then observes “The above episode not only points to the Sufis’ interest in conversion, but also the occasional tension in their relationship with the rulers. Significantly, the religious divines at times took rigid shar’I position and wanted things to be different from what the rulers were comfortable with. Indeed on several issues the kings are found to be taking a liberal position despite pressure from the ‘orthodox party’.”

Raziuddin, giving several examples concludes, “that there was hardly any serious and systematic attempt on the part of the rulers to implement the shari’at as the law of the land, destroy places of worship of non-Muslims, convert them to Islam, or even collect jizya on a regular basis. Yet the ulama and the Sufis portrayed them as the ideal Muslim rulers, and ignored or legitimized many of their acts of omission and commission.”

Thus it can be seen that many Sufi saints and ulama also knew the constraints within which a Muslim ruler had to rule. They may pressurize the king but also then realize the reality and support the king and his rule. If some ulama persisted there were reasons other than religious. They may do so to either create their own power centre or yet for some acts of omission or commission earning displeasure of the king. Human behavior, one should remember, is much more complex and has hidden motives.

Raziuddin also points out that relationship between Sufis and rulers were based on mutual interests – “a relationship which recognized the equal status of the Sufis and the rulers if not the superiority of the former though claims to the effect were often made-served as legitimizers of the political authorities. They prayed for the continuation of the ‘just’ rule of the sovereign.” The Sufis praised for rulers, with whom they had cordial relationship, in their assembly for their piety, justice etc.

Further on the author also points out from the sources that there were even instances of kings or rulers purchasing badshahat (kinghood) from Sufis. He quotes the episode of in which the founder of the Lodi kingdom purchased badshahat of Delhi from a Sufi of Samana. According to Rizqullah Mushtaqi, “once three men came to Hindustan in connection with their trade. On their way back, they halted in the town of Samana. All the three men Ballu (Bahlul), Firuz Khan and Qutb Khan paid a visit to Saiyid Abban, who was absorbed in the thought of God, and possessed spiritual power and was known for his saintliness. As they sat down, the saint said: ‘I sell the throne of Delhi for two thousand tankas, is anybody willing to purchase it.” The Ballu had only one thousand and six hundred and the Sahykh accepted it. The Shaykh then said you can go, the badshahat of Delhi has been bestowed on you.

His other colleagues criticized him for giving away the entire sum he possessed. But Behlul somehow had his own conviction. But other historians point out Bahlul himself was not a trader, his ancestors were and they visited Hindustan for trade. Whatever, Bahlul had conviction that the Shaykh’s blessings would earn him badshahat of Hindustan.

Fiazuddin has also recorded instances of cordial relations between the Sufis and Hindu saints. He writes, “Abdul Quddus and other Sufis of the Chishti silsila were not exceptional in their willingness to learn from the Indian spiritual traditions. Saiyid Muhammad Ghaus Gwaliari, a leading shaykh of the Shattari order, popularized Hindu mystical practices through his translation of the Amritkund and drew attention to the similarities in the mystical terminology of Muslims and Hindus. In fact, according to the author, several versions of the Amritkund in Persian and Arabic known as Hauz-ul-Hayat or Bahrul Hayati were already in circulation in the Sufi circle of the period.

Thus it will be seen that the book by Raziuddin will be found to be a significant contribution to the understanding of role of Sufis and their influence not only on rulers but also on Hindu-Muslim relations. Apart from scholars of medieval Sultanate period the book will be useful for general readers as well. The Book is a result of original painstaking research.