Sufism as a counter to Islamic Terrorism

Last updated on Jun 28, 2009

Posted on Jun 28, 2009

In my analysis on Mumbai Attacks on November 30th, 2008 – while they were on-going – I had suggested 3 “Internal measures” that we, in India, need to take against Islamic terrorism.  They were:

  • Engage Muslims
  • Close madrasas and make secular schooling mandatory
  • Give State encouragement to Sufism and other Spiritual practices and put down Wahabism.

I know many people wouldn’t have thought much about these three suggestions at that time.  But it had taken a lot of thought and thinking to come up with these three things.  I have had the benefit of engaging with Muslims at the grassroots in UP during, what I believe was one of largest studies of its kind for Minorities Welfare Board, where we went to over 60 villages talking to youth, elders, Maulvis, teachers, intelligentsia in Masjids, Wakf boards, Madrasas etc.  We even visited Deoband and other major schools.  Our perspective was different and from a detached standpoint, and so had its own merit.

Today, I was amazed to read an article which suggests that Pakistan itself – in view of the Taliban’s offensive and regular blasts and suicide bombings as the country plunges into more and more darkness – has started to move on the 3rd suggestion I had made for India.  The move to Sufism!

On June 7, Pak Government announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC).  This is to pitch Spirituality within the Islamic realms against the Suicide Bombers within its fold.

Barelvis currently represent, to some extent, the “Sufi” ethos in Pakistan.  The other group is Deobandis – who follow the “Wahabi School of Thought/Religion”, which I argued against.  Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, a senior Barelvi leader from Lahore, had recently come up against the Taliban.  On June 12, after the annoucement of the council, Naeemi was killed in a suicide bomb blast when a teenager blew himself up in the madrassa in Lahore, where Naeemi had his office.

It is clear that this is a difficult undertaking.  Apart from the supposedly “good intent’, it would be interesting to see what Pakistani Government CONSIDERS “Sufism” and what it doesn’t.  Because if it places people from extremist organizations in guise of “Sufis” then its just a sham anyways!  Pakistan – or at least that region – has a very rich tradition of some great Sufi Saints – Sultan Bahu, Warris Shah, Bulleh Shah etc.  It would indeed be a tragedy if their name is used to create a sham such that Sufism itself became a joke.

There is however, one basic issue with Sufism from the standpoint of strict reading of Quran and following Mohammad’s edicts in the book and the Hadiths.  Which is that ANY deviation from what Mohammad said that God whispered in his ear or how he led his life is considered “Bid‘ah”.  The definition in Sharia for Bid‘ah is:

“An innuendo in the religion, in imitation of the Sharia (prescribed Law), by which nearness to God is sought, [but] not being supported by any authentic proof – neither in its foundations, nor in the manner in which it is performed”

As if to underscore this point, Mohammad stated:

“Whosoever originates an innuendo in this matter of ours [i.e., Islam] that is not a part of it, will have it rejected.”

The deviance from a strict edict and life case study of Mohammad (as articulated in Hadiths) is so severely frowned upon in Islam that `Abd Allah ibn `Umar said:

“Every innovation is misguidance, even if the people see it as something good

Abd Allah ibn `Umar was the son of the second Caliph Umar ibn Khattab. He was a prominent authority in hadith and law, and a contemporary of Mohammad.  In fact he was converted to Islam by Mohammad.

The accompanying videos on the right (audios actually) explain the Salafi viewpoint as regards Sufis.  (see the rest Part 2 . Part 3 . Part 4 . Part 5).

There are different strains of Sufism and one in the Indian subcontinent has been very intimately affected by the Vedantic traditions.  As S. R. Sharda, says in Sufi Thought:[4]

“After the fall of Muslim orthodoxy from power at the centre of India for about a century, due to the invasion of Timur, the Sufi became free from the control of the Muslim orthodoxy and consorted with Hindu saints, who influenced them to an amazing extent. The Sufi adopted Monism and wifely devotion from the Vaishnava Vedantic school and Bhakti and Yogic practices from the Vaishnava Vedantic school. By that time, the popularity of the Vedantic pantheism among the Sufis had reached its zenith.”

This is true of Sufis from Indian sub-continent.  In most Sufi schools there was a centrality of a “Guru” or “Murshid” (seeker is known as the “Mureed”).  In that sense, Sufism follows the tradition of “Guru-Shishya” in the relationship of Murshid-Mureed.  Bulleh Shah, for example, was tested by his Guru and to please whom he dressed like a dancing girl so he would be blessed again by his Guru and accepted back.  This emphasis on Guru obviously runs counter to the claim central to Islam that only Mohammad was worth following.  You can read the lyrics of Bulleh Shah’s poem “Bulla ki jana main kaun” (popularly sung by Rabbi Shergill) below the reference links in this post, along with its English Translation.

The recent interest in Sufism owes its debt to Hazrat Inayat Khan – a Sufi from India, who was the founder of Universal Sufism and Sufi Order International.  A word about him on Wikipedia.[5]

Inayat Khan was born into a noble Muslim Indian family (his mother was a descendant of the uncle of Tipu Sultan, the famous eighteenth century ruler of Mysore). He was initiated into the Suhrawardiyya, Qadiriyya and Naqshbandi orders of Sufism but his primary initiation was from Shaykh Muhammed Abu Hashim Madani into the Nizamiyya sub-branch of the Chishti Order. He was also indebted to the philosophical Vedanta/Shankara spirituality of Hinduism.

I am producing two of his quotes on the role of a teacher from Sufi standpoint to show that indeed Sufism of the Indian subcontinent was greatly influenced by Vedanta.

The task of the Sufi teacher is not to force a belief on a mureed, but to train him so that he may become illuminated enough to receive revelations himself. (Mysticism, The Path of Initiation and Discipleship)

A real teacher is only an instrument of God. It is his presence, what he wishes for you that helps; not the words he speaks. When I asked my teacher what is the sign of a real guru he says, ‘It is not his form, it is not his appearance, it is not what he says; it is his atmosphere, it is what his presence conveys to you, it is what his atmosphere tells you.’ (The Vision of God and Man).

To underscore the centrality of his message, H. Inayat Khan said this about the conflict between Islam and Sufism:

“if the following of Islam is understood to mean the obligatory adherence to a certain rite; if being a Muslim means conforming to certain restrictions, how can the Sufi be placed in that category, seeing that the Sufi is beyond all limitations of this kind?

He gave the following as the 10 main principles of Universal Sufism:

  • There is One God, the Eternal, the Only Being; None exists save He.
  • There is One Master, the Guiding Spirit of all souls, Who constantly leads all followers toward the Light.
  • There is One Holy Book, the Sacred Manuscript of Nature, the only Scripture that can enlighten the reader.
  • There is One Religion, the unswerving progress in the right direction toward the Ideal, which fulfills the life’s purpose of every soul.
  • There is One Law, the Law of Reciprocity, which can be observed by a selfless conscience, together with a sense of awakened justice.
  • There is One Brotherhood, the human brotherhood which unites the children of earth indiscriminately in the fatherhood of God. … (later adapted by followers) There is one Family, the Human Family, which unites the Children of Earth indiscriminately in the Parenthood of God.
  • There is One Moral, the Love which springs forth from self-denial and blooms in deeds of beneficence. … (alternative, source unknown) There is one Moral Principle, the Love which springs forth from a willing heart, surrendered in service to God and Humanity, and which blooms in deeds of beneficence.
  • There is One Object of Praise, the Beauty which uplifts the heart of its worshipper through all aspects from the seen to the unseen.
  • There is One Truth, the true knowledge of our being, within and without, which is the essence of Wisdom.
  • There is One Path, the annihilation of the false ego in the real, which raises the mortal to immortality, in which resides all perfection. … (alternative, source unknown) There is One Path, the effacement of the limited self in the Unlimited, which raises the mortal to immortality, in which resides all Perfection.


If THIS is the Sufism – of H. Inayat Khan and Bulleh Shah – that is revived and thrives, then there is a hope that peace may exist in the sub-continent and indeed the world, even as it will be challenging to the central tenets of Islam.

Just as Vedanta of Shankara challenged the strait-jacketed Hinduism of his times, and thrived and still lives on.. and needs to be emphasized.  It is important that the One is emphasized and not mere following of rituals of a time past.

Reference Links:

1. Sufi advisory council set up
2. Government to set up Sufi Advisory Council
3. “Sufi card” very hard to play against Pakistani Taliban
4. Sufism
5. Inayat Khan

Bulla ki Jana main kaun?
(courtesy: Rabbism)

Na maen momin vich maseet aan
Na maen vich kufar diyan reet aan
Na maen paakaan vich paleet aan
Na maen moosa na pharaun.

Bulleh! ki jaana maen kaun

Na maen andar ved kitaab aan,
Na vich bhangaan na sharaab aan
Na vich rindaan masat kharaab aan
Na vich jaagan na vich saun.

Bulleh! ki jaana maen kaun.

Na vich shaadi na ghamnaaki
Na maen vich paleeti paaki
Na maen aabi na maen khaki
Na maen aatish na maen paun

Bulleh!, ki jaana maen kaun

Na maen arabi na lahori
Na maen hindi shehar nagauri
Na hindu na turak peshawri
Na maen rehnda vich nadaun

Bulla, ki jaana maen kaun

Na maen bheth mazhab da paaya
Ne maen aadam havva jaaya
Na maen apna naam dharaaya
Na vich baitthan na vich bhaun

Bulleh , ki jaana maen kaun

Avval aakhir aap nu jaana
Na koi dooja hor pehchaana
Maethon hor na koi siyaana
Bulla! ooh khadda hai kaun

Bulla, ki jaana maen kaun

English translation

Not a believer inside the mosque, am I
Nor a pagan disciple of false rites
Not the pure amongst the impure
Neither Moses, nor the Pharoh

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

Not in the holy Vedas, am I
Nor in opium, neither in wine
Not in the drunkard`s craze
Niether awake, nor in a sleeping daze

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

In happiness nor in sorrow, am I
Neither clean, nor a filthy mire
Not from water, nor from earth
Neither fire, nor from air, is my birth

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

Not an Arab, nor Lahori
Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri
Hindu, Turk (Muslim), nor Peshawari
Nor do I live in Nadaun

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

Secrets of religion, I have not known
From Adam and Eve, I am not born
I am not the name I assume
Not in stillness, nor on the move

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

I am the first, I am the last
None other, have I ever known
I am the wisest of them all
Bulleh! do I stand alone?

Bulleh! to me, I am not known

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