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Published in the 16-28 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

Sufi themes

By Yoginder Sikand

The Milli Gazette Online

Name of the Book: Sufis and Sufism: Some Reflections
Editor: Neeru Misra
Publisher: Manohar, New Delhi
Year: 2004. Pages: 160. Price: Rs. 400
ISBN: 81-7304-564-X

Interest in Sufism is experiencing something of a major revival today, as witnessed in a sudden spurt of publications on the subject, the staging of plays on Sufi themes and a new range of Sufi music tapes hitting the market. This, in part, reflects a distaste for and a search for an alternative to an exclusivist, narrowly defined understanding of Islam that rightly repels many people. In contrast to the latter, Sufism is presented as generously ecumenical, and as reaching out and embracing people of every caste or creed. In short, Sufism is presented as the ‘gentle’ side of Islam, as the sort of Islam that needs to replace the obscurantist and hate-spewing version of the faith championed by a range of radical Islamists who see all non-Muslims as, by definition, ‘enemies of God’.

While there is a considerable degree of truth in this contrast that is often drawn between Sufism and the narrow, obscurantist vision of Islamic radicals, champions of Sufism run the risk of romanticising the Sufi tradition as a whole, overlooking aspects that might weaken their own case. This is precisely the case with this collection of essays that purport to provide a broad survey of the Sufi tradition in medieval India.

Neeru Misra’s introduction sets the tone for the book, where she argues that the principal importance of the Sufis lay in their message of universal love, peace, and communal harmony. Misra rehearses the various theories that scholars have offered for the origin and evolution of the Sufi orders, but, however, provides no new insights or opinions of her own. She refers to the spread of various Sufi orders in India and their role in the expansion of Islam. She sees the Sufis as the principle vehicle for Islamisation, but in developing this argument makes several erroneous claims. For instance, she argues that ‘Sufism served as a complement of orthodox tauhid’, thus seeming to suggest that Sufis did not subscribe to the ‘orthodox’ version of Islamic monotheism. In a convoluted sentence that, is also completely unfounded, she claims that ‘many early Sufis and later the schools recognised associates and companions of the Prophet as their forebearers [sic] and thus, without aligning to the Hadith and Shariah, provided the Qur’anic sanction to the path’ (p.11). She refers to the Chishti ‘sect’ (p.10), although the term is completely inappropriate (p.10). She also speaks of the Sufis as distinct from, if not opposed to, the ‘ulama, ignoring the fact that numerous Sufis were ‘ulama in their own right. She presents the Sufis as a monolith, seeming to suggest that all of them were passionate advocates of the ‘unity of being’ thesis, communal harmony and cultural synthesis, although this was certainly not the case.

The same apologetic tone is starkly evident in the remaining chapters of the book, although some of them do make some interesting points. Mansura Haider’s chapter discusses the figure of ‘Ali in Central Asian and Indian Sufism, highlighting the fact of the centrality of ‘Ali both in Shi‘ism and the Sufi tradition. A very general survey of the links between Indian and Iranian Sufism is provided in a rather dense article by Abdol Rahim Gavahi. Gavahi highlights the impact of the Iranian Sufi tradition on the Indian Sufis and also reflects on parallels between the two and the Hindu mystical tradition. However, he does not provide any substantially new information on what is an already thoroughly researched area. Liaqat Moini’s piece is far more interesting, focussing on the role of the ‘special servant’ or principal disciple in Indian Sufism. The article discusses the elaborate hierarchy in medieval Indian Sufi hospices, where roles for different grades of disciples of the Sufis were often elaborately defined. Another interesting piece is that by Maksud Ahmad Khan, which discusses the important role of some Sufi shrines in promoting urbanisation by attracting pilgrims as well as traders from afar. 

The other articles in the book are written in a very general mode, most of them are replete with grammatical mistakes and glaring typographical errors. They purport to discuss a range of issues, including the impact of Ibn Arabi and his theory of ‘unity of existence’ on Indian Sufis (Iqbal Sabir), parallels between Kabir, Ramakrishna and some Sufis (Ninel Ghaffurova), the personality and teachings of a fourteenth century Sufi from Sindh, Shaikh Akhi Jamshed (Maksud Ahmad Khan) and the life and philosophy of the fourteenth century Kubrawi Sufi, Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (Manura Haider).

This book reads more like a hagiographical account of a range of Indian Sufis rather than as a serious scholarly work on Sufism. Errors of fact, as well as of spelling and grammar, abound. For the specialist this book is bound to be disappointing, although the novice searching for an introduction to Indian Sufism might find some material of value. «

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