Sufism in India – A bloodied History

Radha, 27th June, 2017, 12:10 pm

The advent of Islam in India has generally been regarded as a peaceful and mostly non violent process. A variety of Sufi saints arrived in India from different parts of West Asia, and settled down here. Their interaction with the local people, who were at various times willing and at others reluctant disciples, relays the story of a mixed approach by these Sufis and other influencers who helped in the spread of Islam here. There is a concept of homogeneous empty time, as suggested by Benedict Anderson, who says that this empty time is available to be filled with information and the color given to this time period is dependent on the predominant cultural aspects, leaning of the historiographers as well as those of the scholars of the time. Anderson mentions in his works that when the printing business became big in Europe in the 1500s, one of the prime objectives of the publishers was to make money. So they published books in Latin language as the moneyed class was well versed in this language. Therefore the readership remained limited to those who could read Latin. In a similar fashion, one of the largest works of history of the subcontinent was called ‘Chachnama’, a compilation of historical happenings, and which provides details on Islam’s arrival in India. The book was written in Arabic during the 8th century, was translated into Persian in 1226 by Ali Kufi, and then Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg (1853-1929) in 1900.

The advent of Arabs in India started to take place before the beginning of Islam in Arabia, which emerged as the first Islamic State at the beginning of the 7th century. The Muslim polities made their presence known in Sindh in the 8th century. But before that there were many Arab families who were settled in Aden, Muscat, Diu, and Thana. However there are no major accounts available of Hindus and other religions converting to Islam in the early days of the religion. It can be said that at time the religion was still in its infancy and did not have the machinery through which its message could be spread. Various Muslim scholars, travelers and merchants, who visited India during the early centuries of Islam, were not able to find it within themselves to influence the locals with their faith.

The legacy of King Chach carried forward by his son Raja Dahir in Sindh, Multan and Uch, was challenged by Hajjaj Bin Yousuf who sent his young lieutenant Muhammad Bin Qasim to spread Islam’s conquests into India. In 712 Islamic rule came to India for the first time, when Qasim defeated Raja Dahir and imprisoned his daughters. After Qasim was arrested on the orders of Hajjaj Bin Yousuf and later, when he died in prison, the Muslims quickly started to lose territory.

An important aspect of why non Muslims turned towards Islam in many areas is said to be the impact of paying Jizya, and the toll this took on the economic affairs of these people. During Muhammad Bin Qasim’s tenure, there are different opinions on whether he had imposed Jizya on non Muslims or not, and what was the total impact of it. However it was not until much later in the 13th century that strong evidence and repercussion of pay Jizya, and even more crushing custom of paying kharaj. The purpose of Jizya was to humiliate the non Muslims and to remind them of their place in the society as Dhimmis, but according to M A Khan, it was still lighter on the pocket. However, he narrates,

“the peasants had literally become bonded slaves of the government, since up to 50–75 percent of the produce was taken away in taxes, mainly as kharaj.”

The condition was so bad that the Hindus were running away from populated areas and hiding in forests to escape from the tax collecting army of the King. During this time, it was easier for the non Muslims to convert to Islam and be saved from the economic burden. This tactic worked in the spread of Islam to a large extent, as is shared by Feroze Shah Tughlaq who ruled in the mid 15th century. He writes in his memoir Fatuhat-i-Firoz Shahi:

“I encouraged my infidel subjects to embrace the religion of the prophet, and I proclaimed that everyone who repeated the creed and became a Musalman should be exempted from the jizyah, or poll-tax. Information of this came to the ears of the people at large, and great numbers of Hindus presented themselves and were admitted to the honor of Islam. Thus they came forward day by day from every quarter, and, adopting the faith, were exonerated from the jizyah, and were favored with presents and honor.”

Aurangzeb inflicted a lot of regressive tactics upon non Muslims and was actively responsible for the forced conversions in his era. Many of his tactics were economically depriving. He ordered that all Hindus working at the royal court be expelled, hence leaving them with only one choice, which was to convert to Islam in order to save their livelihood. He also offered money to non Muslims to convert to Islam, which was Rs. 4 for males and Rs. 2 for females. This was equivalent to a month’s salary at that time.

After the demise of Muhammad Bin Qasim, for many centuries there were no significant conversions to Islam. During the 10th and 11th century, Turkic emperor Subuktageen and then his son Mehmood of Ghazna are known for ruling parts of India. Mehmood famously attacked the temple of Somnath and his army conducted much plundering and looting during this period. It is said that every time he attacked the area, he destroyed temples and converted scores of people to Islam. Much later in the 13th century is when the evidence of larger conversions to Islam came about.

Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, Rajhastan is considered a prolific Sufi Saint who came to India (Lahore, Delhi, Ajmer) in or around 1192. Ajmer was ruled at the time by Prithviraj Chauhan. This is the same time period when Shahabuddin Ghori attacked the kingdom of Prithviraj for the second time. Ghori also followed the same route as Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. He first arrived in Lahore and sent message to Prithviraj to accept Islam. When he refused, a battle was fought and this time Ajmer was conquered by Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori. It is said that Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti entered Ajmer with the conquering troops of Ghori, who then proceeded to destroy many temples and built Khanqahs and mosques in their place. Hasan Nizami, one of the chroniclers who has discussed the rule of Muslim kings in India, writes in his book called Taj ul Maasir about the conquest of Ajmer:

‘The victorious army on the right and on the left departed towards Ajmer. ‘When the crow-faced Hindus began to sound their white shells on the backs of the elephants, you would have said that a river of pitch was flowing impetuously down the face of a mountain of blue’ The army of Islam was completely victorious, and a hundred thousand groveling Hindus swiftly departed to the fire of hell’ He destroyed (at Ajmer) the pillars and foundations of the idol temples, and built in their stead mosques and colleges, and the precepts of Islam, and the customs of the law were divulged and established.’

Today Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti is revered in the sub continent as Gharib Nawaz and Nabi-ul-Hind. He has said to have converted thousands of non Muslims to Islam through his charitable ways. He led his life in abject poverty with barely enough clothes to cover his body. However, lands were bestowed upon him, which he accepted in the names of his sons who possessed these lands through generations. After the killing of Prithviraj Chauhan, Ajmer was give to his son Prithviraj III to rule as a diplomatic ploy. It is narrated that Khwaja Moinuddin also dabbled in politics, so much so that at one point Prithviraj III asked Ramdeva to expel him from Ajmer. Also, it is interesting to note that the three contemporary chroniclers of the time, Hasan Nizami, Fakhr-i-Mudabbir and Minhaj have not referred to him in their books.

“Early mystic records, the Favaid-ul-Fuad and Khair-ul-Majalis do not give any information about [Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti]. Barani makes no reference to him. Isami tells us only this much that Muhammad bin Tughlaq had once visited his grave”

During a personal visit to the Dargah of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti I had a conversation about the historical background of the dargah with one of his family members. I also noticed the 2 massive Deghs which serve a pure vegetarian langar to scores of people, and was told that one of the Deghs was given by Emperor Akbar. Upon looking at the text it is also noted that Khwaja Chishti was greatly revered by Emperor Akbar who paid special attention to his dargah, and it was in his era that the Sufi saint started to get a mention in narratives and books.

Other famous disciples of the Chishti order include Sheikh Bakhtiar Kaki, Baba Farid Ganj e Shakar, and Nizamuddin Aulia. Nizamuddin had his khanqah in Delhi and was witness to 7 different emperors coming to power in his lifetime. However it is said that he never went to any of their darbars. He also lived in abject poverty and was able to influence and convert scores of non Muslims. Khwaja Nizamuddin is also said to have been interested in politics and used to hold his own court at his dargah. His disciples include Amir Khusru who had a very close affiliation with his Peer o Murshid. Khusru was a renowned poet and writer, who also wrote a compilation called Tughlaqnama on the life and times of Ghyasuddin Tughlaq. Nuh Sipehr is the title of one of his writings in which he writes:

‘They (Hindus) have four books in that language (Sanskrit), which they are constantly in the habit of repeating. Their name is Bed (Vedas). They contain stories of their gods, but little advantage can be derived from their perusal.’

This kind of thinking has been in prevalence constantly in the minds of all Muslims, even the Sufi saints, who with the best of intent consider that by convincing the non Muslims to join Islam they are bringing them to the era of enlightenment.

The Islamisation of Kashmir was done through a mix of sword and forceful conversion by the Sufis. Among the wielders of the sword, the most famous one for the area was Alexander, or Sikandar-But-Shikan who came to Kashmir in 1394. He and his Brahmin convert prime minister issued an order “proscribing the residence of any other than Mohommedans in Kashmir”, after which they threw out all idols from the temples.

The Sufis were welcomed into Kashmir from Hamdan, by Emperor Sultan Shahabuddin of the Shah Mir dynasty, during mid 14th century. One Sufi Saint, Syed Ali Hamdani, and 700 of his disciples came and started building khanqahs and converting people to Islam, as well as convincing the ruler to destroy temples and make khanqahs. After Hamdani’s death the task was taken over by Nuruddin, who conned the locals by dressing up as a Rishi, “the highest appellation of Hindu Seers in Kashmir”. Nuruddin took advantage of the Hindu psyche and started focusing on conversions of Brahmin Priests, as he knew they were natural teachers for the Kashmiri Hindus.

According to Nehemia Levtzion’s assertion, ‘Sufis were particularly important in achieving the almost total conversion in eastern Bengal.’ The Sufi influence and conversion of Buddhists as well as some Hindus into Islam was done at a very high pace by Sheikh Shah Jalal and his disciples during the 13th century. According to some sources, he took part in a holy war with 700 of his disciples against King Gaur Govinda and was sent to do so by his Pir Nizamuddin Aulia. Sheikh took part in the 3rd attack on Gaur Govinda in which the king stood defeated. Fter the war was over tens of thousands of prisoners were taken and they were all converted to Islam under the patronage of Sheikh Jalal. It is therefore quiet apparent that at least these prisoners did not convert according to their own free will or after getting enamored by the teachings and lifestyle of Sheikh Jalal. According to the account of Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb on Ibn-e-Batuta, he mentioned that “(Jalaluddin’s) effort was instrumental in converting the infidels who embraced Islam there”, but he does not specify what these measures were. Another well known Sufi saint of Bengal was Nur Qutb-i-Alam, who influenced Hindu Prince Ganesha, recently fallen ruler of Bengal, to hand over his twelve-year-old son Jadu was converted to Islam, and made the ruler of Bengal under the name of Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad. Jalaluddin turned out to be a particularly ferocious king and offered the option of Islam or death to his subjects Additionally, it is said that the conversion methods applied in Bangladesh were quiet orthodox, as “(the Sufis) established their khanaqahs on the sites of Buddhist shrines, and (it) fitted well into the religious situation in Bengal.”

There are a lot of different opinions as we look at scholarly work from different quarters which may lead to different conclusions to answer the question we started out to explore. However, the overbearing scholarly perceptions suggesting that the Sufis resorted to only peaceful and humble mannerism in order to promote Islam in India needs to be challenged. It is true that many Sufi Saints could be humane and kind hearted individuals. However the overarching belief that in order to lead a happy, content and pious life, one must come into the fold of their own ideology, has remained a constant standpoint in all Sufi Saints across South Asia.

About the Author: Radha is a lifelong student of political strategy on a quest for truth and self discovery.

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