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Lajwanti Rama Karishna
May 18th, 2008
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No account of Punjabi Sufism, its poets and poetry, will be complete without a short sketch of the origin and development of Sufism outside India. Punjabi Sufism, evidently, is a branch of the great Sufi movement which originated in Arabia, during the second century A.H. (A.D. 800).1 It differs a good deal, however, in details, from the original, being subjected to many modifications under the influence of Hindu religious and philosophic thought. Before following up the evolution and the final trend of Sufi thought in the Punjab, it is necessary to review briefly the outstanding features of this Islamic sect as it developed outside India.

 Sufism was born soon after the death of the Prophet and ‘proceeded on orthodox lines’.2 It’s adepts had ascetic tendencies, led hard lives, practicing the tenets of the Qur’an to the very letter. But this asceticism soon passed into mysticism, and before the end of the second century A.H. (A.D. 815), these ascetics began to be known to the people as Sufis3. The name was given to them because they wore woolen garments. The term, labisa’l-suf, which formerly meant ‘he clad himself in wool’, and was applied to a person who renounced the world and became an ascetic4, henceforward signified that he became a Sufi5.

The early mysticism was essentially a product of Islam6, and originated as a consequence of the Islamic conception of God which failed to satisfy many persons possessing spiritual tendencies. The two striking factors in the early mysticism, as Goldziher has stated7, were an exaggerated consciousness of sin and an overwhelming dread of divine retribution. They feared God more than they loved Him and submitted unreservedly to His Will8. But in the beginning of the second century A.H (A.D 815) the Sufi thought began to develop under the influence of Greek philosophy of Ashrakian9 and Dionysius.10 Christianity, itself enveloped by Neo-Platonist speculations, exercised a great influence in monastic organizations and discipline.11 Hebrew philology12, to a certain extent, helped the progress of the technical vocabulary. But the Greek influence seems to have been the most powerful, because, besides philosophical ideas, the Sufis borrowed from the Greeks the medical science which they named yunani or the Greek system.13 Neo-Platonism developed intellectual tendencies. The civil wars and dry dogmas of the ‘ulama soon drove the intellectual Sufis to skepticism14.They searched elsewhere for truth and knowledge. The search was not in vain; and soon a new school was established, different from the one already existing. It was greatly influenced by Persian religion and Indian thought, both Buddhist and Hindu.15

The adherents of the new school were almost all of non-Semitic origin, their national characters were formed by the climatic and geographical position of their countries,16 and so, in spite of Semitic masters, the psychology of their own race affected their new faith. To them the doctrines of Islam seemed unphilosophic and non-gnostic, and so they felt compelled to interpret them in the light of their old faiths with which they had been in touch and which appealed to them deeply. Thus later Sufism was also a psychological reaction of different peoples, especially the Persians, against the dogmas of Islam.

The latest school of Sufiism which felt Persian and Indian influences and incorporated different glosses of Buddhism with its creed came in the forefront under Bayazid of Bistam, who was not attached to any old Sufi school.17 Bistami’s system was based on fana or absolute annihilation in the Divine.18 Bayazid was so captivated by the Vedantic conception of God that he used to say: ‘Glory to me, how my glory is great.’19

This school developed still further under Mansur al-Hallaj, who invented the formula Ana’1-Haqq.20 This Sufiism transformed the Buddhist legends and panegyrics and introduced them into Islam, In Central Asia, where Buddhist legends were congealed around the saints, Sufiism evolved a cult of saints. Pilgrimage, another Buddhist practice, was also introduced. Besides this, Sufism borrowed the Tariqa or Tariqat from the same source. Before being fana, the Sufi seeker must tread by slow stages the Tariqat or the path to reach Haqiqa or Haqiqat, Reality, or the goal of Union. The path comprised seven stages:
repentance, abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust in God, and satisfaction.21

The Sufis of the Bayazid School were tolerant towards all and attached little importance to Islamic dogmas. They were, therefore, considered heretics and were often hanged or exiled.22 This alarmed the adherents of the new Sufi thought and induced them to retrace their steps and reenter the fold of the old Sufi school The Sufis in general were not popular with the powerful orthodox. To avoid the fury of the orthodox and to save their lives, all the Sufis thenceforward recognized Muhammad as their ideal and tried to deduce their thought from the allegorical sayings of the Qur’an.23

1. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. XII, p. 10.

2. Nicholson in J.R.A.S., Vol. XXXVIII, 1906.

3. J.R.A.S., Vol XXXVIII, 1906, p. 305.

4. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. XII, p. 10. E.B Havell, however is of opinion that the word urna, which in Buddhist images was the symbol of ‘eye divine’, literally meant ‘wool’. His symbolic explanation may underline the symbol of Sufiism, suf meaning wool. See Ideas of Indian Art, pp. 50-1.

5. ibid

6. Its roots according to Macdonald run far back to heathen Arabia. See Muslim Theology, pp. 124,125.

7. As quoted by Nicholson in his article (J. R. S. A., Vol. XXXVIII, 1906). The original can be seen in Vienna Oriental Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 1, p. 35

8. As ordained in the Qur’an.

9. Munshi Fani , Dabistan, Vol. III, p. 281. Shea and Troyler translated it as ‘Platonists’.

10.  Nicholson in J. R. S. A., Vol. XXXVIII, 1906, p. 318.

11. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Vol. XII, p. 11.

12. Massignon, Lexique Technique de la Mystique Musulmane, pp. 51, 52, 53, 54.

13. Rama Krishna, Les Sikhs, ch. I ,p. 18.

14. These scri pts were mostly of non-Arabic origin, the majority being Persians and kurds.

15. Professor Massignon is vehemently hostile to any Hindu influence and ignores traces of Buddhism. The admirable way in which the learned professor attempts to interpret Sufiism, i.e. only on a philological basis, is one-sided. His knowledge of Hinduism is not very deep and so his mind is prejudiced against Hindu thought. For Buddhist influence, see Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. XII, and Nicholson’s works.

16. Climate and geographical position, according to Nöldeke, the German scholar, are two very important factors in the formation of national character. See Sketches from Eastern History, p. 2.

17. Lexique Technique, p. 243.

18. He learnt Fana  bi’l tawhid from his teacher Abu Ali Sindi (or of Sind) to whom, in exchange, he taught the Hanefite canonical law (see Lexique  Technique, pp. 263.4), Nicholson also mentions this fact (see  The mystics of Islam, p. 17).

19. Lexique Technique, p. 246.

20. This is the equivalent of Aham Brahm.

21. Nicholson, the Mystics of Islam. p. 29. The Sufi teachers do not agree as to the number of the stages. Most of them enumerate more than seven.

22. Bistami was exiled many times from his native town (see Lexique Technique, p. 247) and Manur al-Hallaj was crucified (Massignon. La Passion, I, pp. 9-10).

23. Bayazid openly declared himself the equal of the Prophet and ridiculed the Day of Resurrection, the Judgment, and the Qur’anic paradise. See Lexique Technique, pp. 252-3.


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