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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

Sufism, Wahabism and Kashmiriyat

Friday 17 October 2008, by Kunal Ghosh


I enjoyed reading Badri Raina’ article, “J&K Heal and Renew” (Mainstream, New Delhi, August 30, 2008, pp. 11-13). He appears to write poetry in lucid prose, aimed straight for the heart, when he describes Kashmiri syncretism between the Muslim and Hindu faiths, its past and fraying present. I hope that his message touches the heart of the common Kashmiri man, but I am afraid it may not. Here are the reasons why I think the message may miss the mark. Raina says (ibid.):

“...some Sunni Muslim groups propagate... That Muslims are enjoined, as in Arab countries, to follow the pristine Salafi/Wahabi path which forbids notions of personal discovery of godhead, the ethic of eros, music, worship at Sufi dargahs, esctatic ritual, commingling with non-believers, and so on.”

He clearly implies that ‘personal discovery of godhead’ and the Sufi practices are a non-Arab phenomenon, and the Salafi/Wahabi path followed by the Arabs is the pure form of Islam. This is exactly what the Wahabis are saying and it is a monstrous lie. His statement would only help the separatist and Wahabi cause, because he portrays by implication the Sufi way as an impure way, not being among the fundamentals of original Islam. This type of ignorant chatter has become a constant factor in the Indian media, and it confuses the common Muslim man. He too has started thinking that Sufism is an impure importation into Islam. Why does Raina have to add force to the propagation of this untruth? If this was not his intention, he should have been more careful in his presentation.

Fristly, all Arab countries do not follow Wahabi Islam. Even the region which is now Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries had been steeped in Sufism before the advent of Wahabism in the 18th century. One just has to read the famous stories of Hatim Tai to get proof of this. Right now there are many well established Sufi orders in the North African Arab states, Syria and Iraq.

Secondly, Sufism is to be found among the fundamentals of Islam. Wahabism’s claim to be the pristine form of Islam is a false claim, I am going to show in the following paragraphs.

Sufis draw inspiration from the central Quranic doctrine of ‘Tauhid’ meaning unity of existence. “Direct seeing” or intuitive personal realisation is at the core of Sufism. Annmarie Scimmel in her Mystical Dimensions of Islam (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1975) has traced the roots of Sufism to the Quran and Sunnah, the tradition of the Prophet. J.S. Trimingham says in his Sufi Orders of Islam (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1971):

“Sufism was a natural development within Islam, owing little to non-Muslim sources, though receiving radiations from the ascetical mystical life and thought of Eastern Christianity.”

This is the most accurate assessment, judging by the fact that Jesus, the prophet of Christianity, is also one of the respected prophets of Islam and Syrian Christian mystics use a language with certain commonality with Islamic terms. This is natural since both religions in Syria use the Arabic language. Sufi orders abound in Syria and Iraq. In North Africa too from Morocco to Egypt and Sudan there are tens of flourishing Sufi orders, and I request Raina to refer to a graphic chart given by Trimingham (ibid.) that gives the lineage and names of all these orders. All schools (silsila) of Sufism trace their root to Hasan Basri (AD 728, belonging to Basra in Iraq) and through him to the companions of the Prophet of Islam. Among the companions were a group of people called Ahle Suffah or ‘people of the bench’. They had given up all worldly possessions and had no wife or child. One of the prominent Sufi orders of North Africa is the Shahdilliyya. Ibn Ata Allah of this order in the 14th century wrote a treatise on the ‘Jujiyya’ method describing all 84 poses of the Indian Yoga system. It should be noted that the famous 13th century scholar, Al Beruni, had translated Patanjali’s Yogasutra along with many Sanskrit scientific texts. Hindu influences did reach the Arab Sufis but not before Al Beruni. There had been Sufi orders in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries too. But they were destroyed by the Wahabi sect who rose in the 18th century. Kamal Ataturk of Turkey confiscated all the pro-perties of the Sufi Khanekas in his secularisation drive and the Sufi orders of Turkey went into a decline, but not for long. Since then there is strong revival of the Mevleviyya order started by the famous Maulana-cum-Sufi, Jalaluddin Rumi or Maulana Rum, well known for his mystical poetry written in Persian.

Buddhist influences did reach the Arab world prior to arrival of prophet Hazrat Mohammad. He seems to have given his seal of approval to the continuance of some of them. For instance, consider going round and round the shrine at Mecca seven times by the Haj pilgrim. Circumam-bulation or parikrama of a shrine, and that seven times, is not inherited from Chrstianity or Judaism. It was carried to Central and West Asia by the Buddhists. Again consider the dress code of the Haj pilgrim. He shaves his head and wraps an unstitched white cloth round his waist and over his left shoulder, exactly in the fashion of a Buddhist monk. Shaving the head or wearing an unstitched cloth is not a part of the Judaic-Christian tradition. So how and wherefrom did it arrive in Arabia? Once I saw a photograph of what appeared to be a Buddhist monk in The Gurardian, a noted news daily of the UK, only to read the caption, “Prince Abdullah of Jordan in Haj”. If these Buddhist influences are a taint then both the Wahabi and Sufi are tainted by it.


EVERYONE, including Raina, talks about Kashmiriyat but no one pays attention to the development of the Kashmiri language. Urdu as the medium of education (even in the primaries) and administration rules the roost in Kashmir. Yet in census after census the Kashmiri Muslim returns his mother-tongue as Kashmiri. Contrast this with the behaviour of Muslims in Andhra and Karnataka; the common Muslim man in the street speaks a fractured version of Urdu/Hindustani, in a southern accent, sprinkled with Telugu or Canara words and expressions. Yet he returns his mother-tongue as Urdu in every census. The syncretic Kashmiri traditions are contained in the folkores and poetry of Lal Ded (Lalla Yogeshwari) and Sufi Nuruddin Noorani (Nand Rishi). The modern generation is losing this tradition because they do not know Kashmiri, particularly so in the cities. It is the urban youth which is in the vanguard of all political parties as well as militancy.
To conclude, traditional Islam consists of the Sufi’s tariqa (spiritual path) and Ulema’s sharia (the law), in a delicate bi-polar balance. Wahabism is a maverick form of Islam, a new arrival, which negates Sufism and has tried in the past to wipe out Sufi orders by mayhem and persecution. Traditional Kashmiriyat consists of Sufism and Kashmiri folk literature. The separatists are systematically striking at these two roots, but syncretists are ill organised and often make statements which help the separatist case.

Dr Kunal Ghosh is a Professor, Aerospace Engineering, IIT, Kanpur.

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