A Brief History of the Sufi Movement in India

Part - I

Sufism Thumbnail

The word Sufism or tasawwuf means various mystical movements in Islam. It tends to establish direct communion between man and God through worldly experiences. It accepts Shariat but did not focused on the formal regular religious practices but stressed religious cultivation through personal experiences.

Early Origin of Sufism

In the 10th century, a new phase of Islamic history started. The rise of Turks on the ruins of the Abbasid caliphate changed the spheres of ideas and beliefs. It marked the end of the domination of rationalist philosophy or Mutazila. The rationalists were favoured by the Abbasid Caliphs. Since they emphasised on man and god relationship, nature of God, creation, and the nature of the soul, etc, they disagreed with the orthodox views and were criticised strongly.

The orthodox elements accused them of spreading false notions and atheism. They emphasized monism, where God and its created world are one, and disagreed with the difference between the creator and created. In intense opposition and persecution, the Mutuzaites got disintegrated.

This strengthened the orthodox elements and gave rise to four schools of Islamic law. Among them, Hanafi school was the most liberal which was embraced by the eastern Turks who later came to India. The collapse of Muzalites also strengthened the hands of the Sufis.

Mostly they comprised of persons of deep devotion, with no display of wealth, and spread moral Islamic codes in the empire. Few Sufis who got much recognition were Hasan Basri and his followers, women mystic Rabia (8th century) was also well known for her continual fasting and prayer. Zunnu Misri of Egypt, a well-known mystic who also spread the concept of mystic union with God. Mansur bin Hallaj of Bagdad, the successor of Bayazid Bayat also traveled to Sindh, where he met Hindu Vedantists. Where he learned the more or less, all religions often led to the same direction. His doctrine Anal-Haq (I am Truth/ God) was a proclamation of Sufi belief that the highest point of enlightenment is unification with God.

This is how, the mystic wisdom of love, devotion, and contemplation transformed in movement based on social norms and beliefs. It widely got spread in the 10th century, where ideas, practices such as penance, fasting, and abstinence, with the rise of schools or Silsilahs and organisation of Khanqahs or hospices was encouraged by the society. The Buddhist and Christian monastic systems played a pivotal role in the organisation of Khanqahs to eventually work in society. Sufi mysticism had a great taste of poetic expression spreading love far and wide. Sanai (1131 AD ), Iraqi (1289), and Rumi (1273) are among the famous poets of that time. Their work was accepted as the ultimate stage of fervour and love and eventually made its way to all parts of India. They were tolerant of all faith.

Some of the mystics also supported musical gathering (sama) in which ecstatic ambiance was created. Yet they were disapproved by many orthodox ulemas.

Al-Ghazali (1112 AD), an orthodox but also acknowledged Sufism, tried to conciliate mysticism and Islamic orthodoxy. His argument gave a huge blow to the orthodoxy by attaining that the knowledge of God and the qualities of a human being cannot be gained by reason but by revelation. Hence the Quran is a vital book for revelation.

Meaning of Sufism

In the 19th century, ‘Sufism’ (English word) was originated. In Islamic texts ‘Tasawwuf’ is used for the word ‘Sufism’. In several ways, historians have explained the meaning of the term ‘Sufism’. According to some scholars, the term Sufi has been derived from the Arabic word suf which means wool. Eastern Ascetics used to wear coarse garments prepared out of wool. Subsequently, this practice was a mark of poverty by the Sufis. According to some other scholars, the term ‘Sufism’ is derived from the word safa which means purity. According to other scholars, the term ‘Sufism’ also is derived from suffa, which means the platform outside the Prophet’s mosque(where a group of close followers assembled to learn about the faith).

Some of the essential characteristics of Sufism are Fana, Spiritual merger of the devotee with Allah; Insan-e-kamil, Perfect human with all good virtues; Zikr-tauba, Remembrance of God all the time(zikr); Wahadat – ul – Wujud / Tauhid – i – wujudi, unity between God and being; Sama, Spiritual dance and music to promote their concepts, though music is un-Islamic.

Sufism in India

The 10th Century marked the beginning of the era of the rise of Sufi mystic orders, which came into prominence with their mystical doctrine of union with God achieved through love of God. The period of 1206 A.D.- 1526 A.D. is labeled as the Delhi sultanate. This time frame consists of a conglomeration of 5 separate dynasties, namely the Mameluks, Khaljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyids, and Lodhi who ruled over different parts of India. It was during this time that the Mongols became supremely powerful. The Mongols even destroyed Bagdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. At this time, the fleeing refugees choose India as a safe destination. This proved to be catalytic for the spread of the Sufi movement throughout India. For soon the Delhi’s court had an immense influx of diverse culture, literature, etc. from Persia and central Asia whose main ingredient was Sufism. Soon Delhi became the leading center of Islam (Qubbat-ul-Islam).

Info 1Some historians pointed out three stages in the history of Sufism i.e. firstly, Khanqah (10th century), known as the age of Golden Mysticism secondly, Tariqa (11-14th century), when Sufism started to institutionalize, and also traditions and symbols started to attach to it and thirdly, Tarifa (15th century onwards) when Sufism became a popular movement.

The Sufis in India dissociated themselves from the established center of orthodoxy, often as a protest against what they believed as the misinterpretation of the Quran by the ulemas. According to Sufis, the ulemas have deviated from the original democratic and egalitarian principles of the Quran by combining religion with political policy and cooperating with the sultan mainly. The ulemas again denounced the Sufis for their liberal ideas. However, the Sufis never rebelled against all this. For both in theory and practice, they isolated themselves from those conditions which they opposed.

The Silsilahs or Orders

The Sufis were originally organized in 12 Silsilahs or orders. But these numbers kept varying. For in course of time, new orders or Silsilahs emerged and the old ones became extinct. The Silsilahs were generally led by a prominent mystic who lived in a Kharqah or hospice with his disciples. The silsilahs gave stability to the Sufis to resist the hostility of the orthodox ulema and to spread spiritual knowledge. The relation between the pir or teacher and his disciple was a vital part of the Sufi system and before the death of pir or teacher, every pir or teacher nominated one of his disciples as his successor or Khalifa, who would continue his work and spread his thought. Also, walis or deputies were appointed by them for spiritual work in regions. The Sufi order was divided into two types, such as, firstly, ba-shara which followed the Islamic law(shara), and secondly, be-shara, which were not bound by Islamic law. This type was followed more by saints who wandered around. They didn’t form any order or Silsilah but some of them became popular figures of worship among both the Hindus and Muslims. Also, most Sufi lineages were named after a founding figure.

Mainly two chief orders of the Sufis were popular in India the Chistis, Shurawardi.

The Chishti Silsilahs

The Chishtis were mainly active in Delhi and areas around it like Rajasthan, parts of Punjab, and modern U.P. Growth of this order in India took place in two phases.

In the first phase, the Chisti Silsilah was established in India by Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti (Native of Persia). According to historians, it’s difficult to find much information about the early life and activities of Muinuddin Chishti. Info 2He stepped his foot in India in 1190 during the Ghori conquest and settled in Ajmer about 1206. He didn’t leave behind any book of his saying or preaching. The records we have now were composed hundred and fifty years after his passing. According to him, faith is an individual’s concern. So, he did not actively involve in any conversions. He was married and his simple and devoted life had a great impact on people. He was very much tolerant towards non-muslims. After the death of Muinuddin Chisti, as a saint, he gradually became more popular. Muhammad Tughlaq was among others who came to visit his grave. During the 15th century, Mahmud Khalji of Malwa built a dome on his tomb and also build a mosque. His tomb in Ajmer is a famous place centre of pilgrimage. Also, Akhbar was one of his great devotees.

Shaikh Qutbuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki (disciples of Muinuddin Chisti) settled down in Delhi from his birthplace Transoxiana during the reign of sultan ltutmish. He was able to establish the Chistis as a principal Sufi order at Delhi. However, clerical elements wanted to throw him out from Delhi. So they imposed a charge of heresy against Bhaktiyar kaki for his resort to a musical gathering (sama). But Ilutmish freed him from these charges because he needed to use the influence of Sufi to resist the ulema. Qutubuddin Aibak started to construct Qutub Minar and it was completed by Iltutmish. The famous Qutub Minar was named after Shaikh Qutbuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki. He refused to accept royal patronage. He was very much enthusiastic about spiritual music. He invited singers and musicians at his Khanqahs to entertain the people, who came to visit him irrespective of Hindus and Muslims, by the recitation of spiritual songs and hymns. The death of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki was under the spell of music that took in a state of ecstasy.

Another disciple of Muinuddin Chisti was Shaikh Hamiduddin (d.1276 ) who was settled at Nagpur in Rajasthan. He was married and lived a simple life. He was a vegetarian and carried on the propagation of Islam among the Rajputs. He mixed with the Hindus willingly. Shaikh Hamiduddin refused to accept royal patronage.

Shaikh Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar ( also known as Baba Farid) was a famous disciple and successor of Shaikh Qutbuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki. In the beginning, he lived at Hansi in modern Haryana. Then he settled at Ajodhan which was on the Sutlej on the main route from Multan to Lahore. He became very popular in Punjab as an orator with a poetic expression. After 300 years, some of his axioms were included in the Adi Granth of the Sikhs which was compiled by the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev. He led a householder’s life. He kept himself far away from political personalities and avoided contact with rich and powerful people. He refused to accept royal patronage. He mixed with the Hindu masses freely. He emphasized poverty and advocated the renunciation of worldly goods and attachments. He also talked about the way to control senses by fasting and other austerities. He was also advised to adopt an attitude of humbleness and selfless service to others.

Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1236-1325) was the most eminent successor of Baba Farid. He made Delhi the most famous center of the Chishti order. He lived in Delhi during the end period of the Balban dynasty and the rise of Sultan Alauddin Khalji. Then he also saw the death of Khalji and the rise of Tughlaqs. Though he witnessed the reign of seven sultans of Delhi, he never visited the courts of any one of them. Info 3He kept himself away from the company of kings and nobles. The orthodox Ulema denounced him for his delight in music and his liberal outlook. He gave an Islamic touch to the socio-cultural atmosphere of Delhi. He laid stress on the element of love as means of realization of God. He inspired men with the love of God and helped them to get rid of their attachment to worldly affairs. The main features of his teachings stressed the motive of love which leads to the realization of God. He preached that without the love of humanity, the love of God will be incomplete. He was the only Chisti saint who practiced celibacy. Social justice and benevolence are parts of Islam, was one of his sayings. Nathpanth yogis visited his Khanqah. He adopted yogic breathing exercises. Though the yogis called him Sidh (perfect). Langar of his Khanqahs was open to both Muslims and Hindus. Also, he was known as Mahbub I Ilahi by his followers (followers were known as murids). Fawaid-ul Fuwad written by Amir Hasan Sijz is a book about his teachings and conversations. He got immense respect even after his death. His message of love was spread by his disciple throughout the country. Like, Shaikh Sirajuddin Usmani took the message to Bengal and was succeeded by Shaikh-Alaudin Ala-ul Haq who continued the work of Shaikh Sirajuddin Usmani in the eastern parts of India. Then Shaikh Burhanuddin took the message to Daultabad and settled down there. He was succeeded by Shaikh Zainuddin who continued the work of Shaikh Zainuddin there. Also, in Gujarat Shaikh Syed Hussain, Shaikh Husamuddin, and Shah Brakatullah spread the message of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya and settled down there.

Shaikh Nasiruddin Mahmud came to be known as Chiragh-i-Delhi. He was a successor of was Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. He suspended some of those practices of early Chishtis which could clash with Islamic orthodoxy. In order to this, ulemas showed soften attitude towards the Chisti practice of musical gathering (sama).

Nashiruddin Chirag was the last great Chisti saint. He was with Muhammad Tughlaq’s army in Sindh during the time of his death. Also, he helped Firoz Shah Tughlaq to get the throne. So, Firoz Shah Tughlaq called on him so many times and he had great respect for him. But Nashiruddin Chirag again started to keep himself away from the politics. Finding no such promising disciple, he did not nominate any successors (khalifa) and ordered his relics to be buried with him.

This ultimately led to the dissemination of the Chisti order and the Chisti saints dispersed to different parts of the countries. According to some scholars, the decline of Delhi as a center of the Chishti order was caused by the attitudes and policies of Sultan Muhammad Tughluq. But it isn’t the seemly reason behind it. In fact, after the death of Mohammad Tughlaq, during the reign of Feroz Shah Tughluq, the activities of the Chistis in many Khanqahs were restored. According to some other scholars, the decline of Delhi as a center of the Chishti order was due to the death of Shaikh Nasiruddin without appointing a successor. His chief disciples, Gesu Daraz left Delhi during the time of Timur’s invasion (A.D.1398) and settled in the Deccan. As the Delhi Sultanate began to decline and disintegrate, the Sufis spread to the more stable places under the provincial kingdom and established their Khanqahs there. This spread of the Chisti order in different parts of the country brought new changes in their practices and attitudes.

In the second phase, Shaikh Burhanuddin Gharib introduced the Chishti order in the Deccan during the reign of Muhammad Tughluq. Chishti Sufis who migrated to Gulbarga (capital of the Bahmani), developed close relations with the court and accepted state patronage. Among these Chishtis most prominent was Muhammad Banda Nawaz Gesudaraz (c. 1321-1422). He was an eminent orthodox Sufi and declared the supremacy of Islamic law (Shariat) overall Sufi stages. He also received a land grant from Sultan Feroz Shah Bahmani. He stopped following many practices of early Chishtis which was opposed by the ulema. Later his dargah in Gulbarga developed into a place of pilgrimage in the Deccan. According to some historians, the reason behind the decline of Chishti tradition in Gulbarga was Muhammad Banda Nawaz Gesudaraz’s disciple transformed into a landed elite and they were not following Chisti teachings and practices.

Again, the Chishti tradition began to flourish in the Deccan from the end of the 15th century. Chishti tradition of Shahpur Hillock (outside the city of Bijapur) was different from most of the later Chishti traditions (Gulbargh) and maintained a distance from politics and the ulema. It drew its motivation from local influences. It had many similarities with the early Chishti Sufis of Delhi.

Again, the Chishti tradition began to flourish in North India during the later 15th and early 16th centuries. We can trace three different branches of the Chishti order i.e. Nagauriya (after the name of Shaikh Hamiduddin Nagauri), Sabiriya (after the name of Shaikh Alauddin Kaliyari), and Nizamiya (after the name of Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya). Shaikh Abdul Quddus Gangohi (d.1537) was a mystic of the Sabiria order at Gangoh in the Saharanpur district of Utter Pradesh. He was a practitioner of the doctrine of the “Unity of Being” (Wahadat-ul Wajood means One god for the entire universe). He wrote books on Sufi thought and practices. Nizamiya was founded by Makhdum Alauddin Ali Sabri who isolated himself from the world and lived the life of an ascetic. Other important Chishti centers in Northern India were Jaunpur (the capital of the Sharqi Sultans), Rudauli near Lucknow, Bahraich (in modem Uttar Pradesh).

Shaikh Salim Chisti (1478-1572) during Akbar’s period the Chishti order again became so popular. Akhbar had great respect for him. He lived like an ordinary householder in his cave-dwelling at Fatehpur Sikri for a long time when Akhbar didn’t decide to build his capital there. Akhbar named his first son Salim (born at the hermitage of Shaikh) (later emperor Jahangir) in honor of Shaikh Salim Chisti. Akhbar was also called Jahangir, Sheikhu baba when he was an infant. During the lifetime of Akhbar, Salim Chisti died. He has buried him in the courtyard o Jama Masjid of Fatehpur Sikri. Akhbar ordered to construct a mausoleum over his grave. This mausoleum became famous as a pilgrimage site for Hindus as well as Muslims and also attracts millions of visitors from all over the world.

Also, the Chisti tradition began to grow in Malwa and Bengal. In the second phase, most of the Chisti saints had followers from all sections of the society but they received state patronage.

Causes of Chishti Silsilah’s Popularity

There are many reasons behind the popularity of Chishti Silsilah in India. The Chishti saints strongly emphasized leading a simple life, poverty, humility, renunciation from the world, humanity, and selfless devotion to god. However later on they carried their principle of poverty to an extreme level. For they started living in mud houses instead of pucca houses and starved themselves for many days. The Chishti saints believed that control over the senses was necessary to lead a spiritual life. So, they adopted ascetic practices like fasting, holding of breath, etc. The Chistis advocated renunciation of the world which implied renouncing wealth, government service, and association with women. However, this did not imply complete withdrawal from society. In fact, Muinuddin Chisti believed that the highest form of devotion to god was to redress the miseries of those in distress, full-field needs of the helpless, and to feed the men. Nizamuddin Auliya gave importance more to altruistic service rather than obligatory prayer. The Chishtis did not completely disapprove of marriage as long as it did not become a barrier in the way of spiritual life. In fact, other than Nizamuddin Auliya, all the leading Chisti Saints were married. The Chishtis divided people into four types as, firstly, the mystics who preached to others, secondly, their disciple, thirdly, the rulers and scholars, and fourthly, the common people who The Chistis assorted the earning of livelihood through an honest profession, and agriculture and business were accepted. But they were not in a support of the accumulation of money beyond their daily needs. They supported fair dealing in business and also supported the concept of family as long as it did not become a barrier in the way of spiritual life. They emphasized the value of forbearance, not causing hurts to others, avoiding anger and violence, tolerance, a policy of love. Unlike their orthodox counterparts i.e. the ulemas, the Chishtis never discriminated among people based on wealth, family, caste, creed, religion, and status. Auliya’s Jamat Khana welcomed everybody irrespective of their religion and financial status for sympathy, support, and advice. Most of the Chishti saints belonged to the liberal school of thought. They were able to acquire popularity in India was due to their understanding of the Indian conditions and the religious point of view and the Indian people. They adopted many Hindu customs and ceremonies. As an example of this, Hamiduddin Nagauri ( Muinuddin Chisti’s disciple) was concerned about the Hindu sentiments, so, he became a vegetarian and also suggested his disciple leave meat-eating. However, the Chishtis freely associated with the Hindu and Jain yogis and were very impressed by their yogic exercises. Also, they discussed various matters. Chishti Khanqahs attracted people from lower sections of Indian society because of the presence of an egalitarian atmosphere. They didn’t believe in caste distinctions like the Brahmanical order. They had sympathy towards the deprived sections of society. Also, the Miracle stories about the early Chishtis which were preached by Sufi saints played an important role in increasing the popularity of the Chishti dargah and the posthumous popularity of the Sufis themselves. This tolerant attitude made the Chistis popular in the non-muslim Gangetic Valley.


  1. Chandra Satish, Medieval India From Sultanat to the Mughals Delhi Sultanat (1206-1526) part one .New Delhi:Har-Anand Publications PVT LTD.,2012
  2. Mehta JL, Advanced Study In The Hstory Of Medieval India Volumne 3: Medieval Indian Society And Culture.New Delhi: Sterling Publishers (P) LTD.,2021
  3. Chandra Satish, History Of Medieval India (800-700). Telangana: Orient Blackswan Private Limited,2019
  4. M.Muthumari, Thiru V. Zafar Ahmed, History. Chennai: Tamilnadu Text Book Corporation,2007
  5. Themes In Indian History PART 3, New Delhi, National Council Of Eductional Research And Training


Click the below link to download (Or  login to see the link)Download PDF


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.