Mysticism or a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence is a component of perhaps all religions. In Hinduism, it is reflected in the sayings and observations of all those ancient sages relating to or resulting from their direct communion with God or ultimate reality and in the quintessential knowledge contained in the Upanishads.

It seems during the very lifetime of the Prophet Mohammad there were some men of virtue and of retiring nature who embraced Islam with pleasure but showed laxity in the observation of its dogmatic or ritualistic aspects. “

Such liberal-minded men of God drew their inspiration from the Quran and the life of the Prophet, but instead of parading about their religious orthodoxy, they laid greater stress on the purification of one’s inner self in order to attain lasting spiritual bliss” (Dr J.L. Mehta, History of Medieval India).

Another point of view on the rise of mystic movements in Islam says that the tenth century was the turning point when with the decline of the Abassid Khilafat the mutaz.ila or rationalist philoso­phy started losing its hold, the Quran and hadis-based orthodox schools were formed and the sufi mystic orders came into prominence.


Mutazalites apprently used their relationship with the khilafat to persecute their opponents while advocating systematisation of theology by reason (aqal).

“Mystics, who later came to be called Sufis, had risen in Islam at a very early stage. Most of them were persons of deep devotion who were disgusted by the vulgar display of wealth, and degeneration of morals following the establishment of the Islamic empire.

Some of the early Sufis such as Hasan Bari, and his follower, the woman mystic Rabia (d. eighth century) laid great emphasis on prayer, continual fasting and disinterested love of God. Rabia lived the life of a hermit and her reputation travelled far and wide. By this time the mystics had started wearing a patched garment of wool (suf) which, according to them, was a legacy of the prophets, and Christian apostles and ascetics” (Professor Satish Chandra, Medieval India).

Meanwhile, the mystic conception of union with God by meditation came under the attack of the orthodox elements. Zunnu Misry of Egypt (d. 9th century) was accused of heresy (later acquitted) when he said so; but Bayazit Bayat, son of a Zoroastrian, shook up the ulemas when in a state of trance he declared that he was god.


His follower Mansur, who is reported to have gone to Sindh to learn Vedanta, was also charged of heresy and unlike his predeces­sors was executed (10th century). Mansur’s refusal to relent before the ulemas made the followers of the sufi orders famous and they were regarded as men who were pure of heart, sincere and uncon­cerned with worldly gains. Gradually, this quietist movement based on love, devotion and meditation turned into a movement based on ecstatic love for god disregarding social norms, religious practices

By the twelfth century, Sufism had spread far and wide in the Islamic countries, its various schools or silsilahs had evolved philosophical ideas, beliefs and practices such as holding the breath, and doing penance and fastings.

Khanquas or hospices were established by many orders, in organizing which Buddhist and Christian monastic systems were followed. Peshawar-based wandering Nath Panthi yogis taught the Sufis hathayoga and Amrit Kund, the Sanskrit book on hathayoga was translated into Arabic and Persian.

Famous Persian poets like Sinai (died, circa 1131), Altar (d. 1230), Iraqi (d. 1289) and Rumi (d.1273) brought out in their poetry the sufi conception of mystic union with God through love, which found its way to India also. The Sufi belief is in a humane outlook and a spirit of tolerance to people of all faiths.


As peaceful emissaries, of Islam, the Sufis devoted themselves to the service of people while spreading the message of Islam. They often went to far-off countries and living among the non-Muslims carried on their humanitarian work. It is belief that they went to different parts of India during the three centuries’ interregnum between the Arab and the Turkish invasions. With the establishment of Muslim rule, a large number of Sufis came from Central Asia who converted to Muslim faith a considerable number of the conquered population.

They roamed about like Indian sadhus setting up their residences in the areas allotted to the low-castes. Persuading the people to accept alien rule, they explained to them the Islamic faith, asking them to convert to it only on merit. Although the Sultanate was located only in the North, the Sufis carried on their peaceful propagation of Islam throughout the country.

Around this time, A1 Ghazali (d.l 112) made an effort to reconcile mysticism with Islamic orthodoxy, in which he was successful in a large measure. He argued that positive knowledge of God and hisqualities could not be gained by reason, but by revelation and that the revealed book, the Quran,was as vital for a mystic as for other Muslims. The Sufis were by then organized into roughly 12 orders or silsilahs. Some of these orders became defunct, while some others were added.

The orders or silsilahs were usually under the leadership of a Sufi of some prominence whose name and fame gave the order a sort of stability, enabling it to counter the hostility of the orthodox ulema. The mystic leading a silsilah generally lived with his disciples in a hospice or khanqah.


The relationship between the mystic pir or shaikh and his disciples, the farids or murids, was very important; because, like the Hindu religious orders, the Sufis also believed that the guidance from a pir (guru) was necessary, at least in the initial stages, for the novice (farid/shisya) for attaining spiritual salvation. The Sufi orders used to depute emissaries or walis to work in specified areas, while the pir or shaikh generally nominated his successor.

Sufis were broadly divided into two groups: ba- shara or those following the Islamic law [shard] and be-shara or those not following it. Both these groups were in India. The be-shara group was known as qualandars or roving saints: they did not belong to any silsilah, and some of them were venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike due to their piety.

Among the be-shara group, there were three cheif orders of Sufis in India. These were the Chistis, who included the poet Amir Khusrau and the historian Barani among its followers; the Suhrawardis; and the Firdausis. The Chistis were popular in Delhi and its surrounding areas and the Doab; the Suhrawardis had their followers mostly in Sindh; while the members of the Firdausi order were concentrated mostly in Bihar. In addition, a different order Kubrawiya had its followers in Kashmir.

Generally, the Sufis in India detached them­selves from the orthodox religion as a protest against what they termed mis-interpretation of the Quran by the ulema, who (according to them) acting in consort with the Sultanate were disregarding the democratic and egalitarian principles of the Quran. The ulemas charged the Sufis as harbouring thoughts of rebellion because of their liberal ideas.


Commenting on the Sufis in India, Dr. Romila Thapar says:

“It is unfortunate that the Sufis, who were in the early crucial years were the most effective original thinkers in the spheres of both politics and religion, should have detached themselves from social framework. Had they contributed from within society, their impact would have been more direct and they could have mobilized support of a less purely religious nature.

This might in turn have been of considerable help to the leaders of the new socio- religious development within the Bhakti movement. Although this was a continuation of the earlier devotional cult, sufi ideas influenced its doctrines, as did also certain typically Muslim concepts, particu­larly those about social justice.”

The Chistis During the Sultanate period, the Chistis were active in Delhi and its surrounding areas; in Rajsthan, parts of Punjab and modern Uttar Pradesh Subsenquently, it spread, along with the other main order, the Suhrawardis, to Bengal, Bihar, Malwa, Gujarat, etc. and, later, to the Deccan.


Although the order was originally established in Chist, Afghanistan, it did not last there long. Muinuddin Chishti, who established the order in India, did not leave a book or a collection of his sayings and preachings and hence not much is known about his life and activities.

It has been established by modern research that Muinuddin Chishti came to India after the Ghurid invasion and that he came to Ajmer only in 1206 when not only Turkish rule was well-established, but there was a sizeable Muslim population of Turks along with prisoners of war who were forcibly converted. Ajmer was chosen by the Khwaja because, like Chist in Afghanistan, it was also a small town, away from all political activities to be expected in a capital city.

Likewise, his disciple, Hamiduddin also settled down in a small town of Rajasthan, Nagaur with a fair proportion of Muslims. Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti was married and lived a life dedicated entirely to God and piety. He was mostly concerned with the spiritual upliftment of Muslims and did not care much about conversions. He believed that faith was a matter of individual choice, conversions would not necessarily add to the number of faithfuls.

Muinuddin became a legend after his death (1235), when his fame as a man of God spread far and wide. His grave was visited by Muhammad Tughlaq, and Mahmud Khalji of Malwa constructed a dome on his grave along with a mosque later in the 15th century. It was during Akbar’s reign, Muinuddin Chisti’s fame reached its peak, as the emperor was a great devotee of his.

Ajmer was politically impor­tant to Akbar and in the volatile situation prevailing there at that time, Akbar felt that the respect the Khwaja commanded from all, irrespective of their religious learnings, would be of great help to him. The most famous disciple of Khwaja Muinuddin was Shaikh Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, who hailed from Ferghana, soon to be famous as the birthplace of Babar.

Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki moving to Delhi from his place of birth in Transoxiana in 1221 was the person who placed the Chisti silsilah on a firm foundation there. Sultan Iltutmish accorded him a warm welcome.

Qutb Minar is believed to be named after him. His grave is in a mausoleum nearby.

Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar from Hansi in modern Haryana was a disciple of Kaki and the mantle of Kaki fell on him as his worthy successor.

The Baba shifted to Ajodhan on the Sutlej River, on the main route from Multan to Lahore. Baba Farid preached that to attain spiritual salvation it was necessary to be poor, to renounce all worldly goods and attachments, to exercise control over mind and body by fasting and penances and to be humble and of service to others.

According to legend, he earned the name Ganj- i-Shakar when by his miraculous powers he turned a bag of sugar to salt and then to sugar again.

The Chisti order in Delhi attained its height of glory under the chief disciple and successor of Baba Farid, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, who died in 1325.

Following the Chisti rule of keeping aloof from sultans and political power, maintaining a distance from the amirs and nobles, he went on with his humanitarian work among the poor and the needy. In spite of this, he was regarded as the pir or religious leader by most of the ruling class and also some members of the ruling family and was called mahbub- i-ilahi by his numerous followers known as murids. Unlike other Chisti saints, he never married.

The last of the great Chisti saints of Delhi was Nasiruddin Chiragh, who died in 1356. He was in Sindh with Muhammad Tughlaq’s army and upon Muhammad Tughlaq’s death helped Firuz Shah in succeeding to the throne. He was held in great esteem by Firuz, who called on him many times at his Delhi hermitage. However, he reverted to the Chisti philosophy of keeping aloof from the emperor and the royal court.

It is said that he did not nominate a successor as no one could measure upto his expectations. He expressed the wish that upon his death all his meagre possessions, like prayer- carpet wooden-bowl, rosary, wooden-sandals, etc., be buried with him. A consequence of his refusal to nominate a successor was that the Chisti saints went out to different parts of the country thereby spread­ing the Chisti philosophy even more widely.

A life of simplicity, poverty, humility and self­less devotion to God was the essence of the Chisti philosophy. In order to fulfil their conception of poverty, the Chisti saints never lived in brick-bailt houses but mud-plastered thatched huts and put on tattered clothes.

It was quite normal for them and their families to go without food for days. They regarded as essential the control of body and mind for attaining spirituality. This they sought to achieve by fasting, by holding the breath, by penances, by self-mortification and such other practices also fol­lowed by Hindu ascetics.

According to the Chistis, people generally belonged to four groups, the highest among which was consisted of the mystics and the preachers. The disciples formed the next group, while rulers, scholars and men of learning comprised the third.

The last group was composed of people who had neither the learning nor the will to attain spiritual upliftment. There was nothing in their creed against Chisti disciples holding and earning their livelihood from a profession. They were allowed to take up agriculture or to do business provided they did not accumulate money beyond their daily needs.

The Chistis never differentiated between people on account of their birth, wealth or religious persuasion. The prime concern of the Chisti order, admittedly, was providing humanitarian and spiritual help to the Muslims, but the Hindus were not excluded from their concerns.

It is said that Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, while taking a walk along with his friend the poet Amir Khushru one day, saw some Hindu devotees engaged in worship. Greatly impressed by their devotion, the Shaikh observed: “Every community has its own path and faith, and its own way of worship.”

This broad, tolerant attitude towards people belonging to other faiths was the main reason why the Chisti saints were so popular in the Gangetic valley, otherwise a pre-dominantly non-Muslim region.

The Suhrawardis although of the Sufi persuasion and believers in mysticism, the Suhrawardis differed from the Chistis in a number of important aspects. The founder of Suhrawardi order in India.

It Bahauddin Zakaria, for example, did not advocate fasting, penance and self-mortification, but followed the normal customs in dress and food. Poverty was not regarded by him as essential for attaining a spiritual state. The Chistis never accepted villages as grants or iqtas nor did they seek money for their maintenance.

They accepted only futuh or unsolicited gifts and uncultivated lands [ilya], where the Chisti saints could work to earn their living and maintain themselves. As opposed to this, the Suhrawardis had no objection in accepting royal grants; in fact, Bahauddin was quite rich and lived like any other wealthy person. With regard to the orthodox ulema, he supported them to an extent by emphasising the religious rituals and ceremonies prescribed by them, such as, roza, namaz, etc.

He was not against audition parties or Sama and took part in it once in a while. Customs and practices which were conspicuously Hindu, such as, shaving the head of a new entrant to the order, bowing down before the Shaikh or pir as a measure of respect, offering water to visitors, etc., adopted by the Chistis, were not followed by them. Moreover, in a sharp contrast to the Chistis, they were very much interested in conversions.

For example, the suhrawardi saint, Shaikh Jamaluddin, after he had settled in Bengal, not only made numerous forcible conversions, but also razed to the ground a Hindu temple at Devatalla near Pandua to build his khanqah on the site.

More importantly, the Suhrawardis differed from the Chistis in their attitude towards the ruler and the government in a big way. The Sufis of the Suhrawardi order did not reject government service. The founder of the order, Shihabuddin Suhrawardi, was himself in government service, preached in Baghdad under state patronage and maintained close contact with the Khilafat.

This practice was followed in India by the founder of the order, Bahauddin Zakaria. He defended the saints’ visits to the royal court by saying that through these visits the saints help poor people to get their grievances redressed by the sultan.

Also, he felt, there was no reason why the sultan and his courtiers should be denied the spiritual counselling of the saints. The Suhrawardis took part in active politics. For instance, Quabacha, the ruler of Sindh patronised Bahauddin Zakaria giving him full support. However, when Iltutunish wanted to annex Sindh to his dominions by ousting Quabacha, Bahauddin openly sided with Iltutmish and invited him.

Sadruddin Arif succeeded him as the chief of the suhrawardi order, while one of his disciples, Jalaluddin Bukhari established a Khanqa at Uchch. As staled before, the suhrawardi order had mostly the upper strata of the Muslim society as disciples and followers.

Impact on Society There is no doubt that the Sufi mystic movement had some influence over the medieval Indian society in general and considerable influence over its Muslim segment. It is quite likely that the Sufis, particularly the chistis, with their rapport with the Hindu lower castes, helped conver­sions, thereby increasing the Muslim population.

However, voluntary conversions on a large scale were practically unknown. As regard the Muslims, the Sufis’ liberal, tolerant and humble ways of life provided something worthwhile to emulate.

The Sufis were scholars no doubt, but despite their vast bookish knowledge, they surprisingly opposed philosophy which they regarded as latio- nalism. Natural science which developed due to philosophical enquiries and empirical observations was also suspect in their eyes. According to Shaikh Nizamuddin Aulia’s biographer, the Shaikh was an exception.