January , 2021
Sufism: The doctrine of non-violence and peaceful coexistence
10:07 am

Aritra Mitra


At present, it seems that mankind is shrouded by chaos and violence. Caste, creed, faith, race, colour, language and religion are constantly playing a detrimental role in dividing mankind. At a time when intolerance has become the ‘new normal’, intellectuals are filled with doubts and disappointments. The entire situation has created a sense of hopelessness and distrust among the masses. Sometimes people seek to take refuge from this chaos in religion but where will they take shelter if religion itself is not free from intolerance, discrimination and radicalism. However, as Rabindranath Tagore has said in his last testament, ‘Crisis in Civilisation’, “It is a grievous sin to lose faith in Man.” A large number of people believe that ‘Sufism’ and Sufi trends emphasise on ideas which are key to reach peace, love and humanity.

Sufism leading to a tolerant society

In an article titled, ‘Sufism as a global highway to peace’ by Zahrah Nasir, published in The Nation, it was stated, “The basic Sufi concept of peaceful coexistence hinges on an all-embracing love of, and respect for, ‘everything’: the human race in its entirety, all other life forms and of planet earth itself. This love and respect are intended to bring about an all-enveloping harmony in which every single ‘body’ - animate and inanimate - is able to live and interact together for the long-term benefit of all.”

There are innumerable historical instances where Sufism led to a tolerant society. For example, in the Kashmir Valley, Sufism emerged because of the Brahmanical social domination coupled with unsteady economic order. It appeared as a reaction to the differences by preaching the doctrine of love, compassion, humanity and by propagating an ideology where caste hierarchy, individual’s financial standing did not matter. A paper titled, ‘Kashmir’s Composite Culture: Sufism & Communal Harmony – Kashmiriyat’ published by European Foundation for South Asian Studies states that one of the earliest Sufis in Kashmir, Sayyed Sharfuddin Abdur Rahman, is said to have come in the 13th century from Suharwadi order. The paper informs, “He is said to have made transformations in the strictly caste-ridden Brahmin dominated society of Kashmir and is believed to have arrived during the reign of King Suhadeva (1301-20) and was the first Saint who sowed the seeds of Islam in Kashmir.”

The substance of Sufism is selfless experiencing and actualisation of the truth. There are some Sufis promote a sense of passivity leading to the renouncement of the world while the others emphasis on the worldly order. The paper further informs, “In Kashmir, the major orders are the Naqshbandi, the Qadris, the Suhrawardi, the Kubrawi and the Rishis. All except for the Rishis, are said to have their origins in Iran and Central Asia. The people of Kashmir refer to their land as ‘Pir Vaer’ or ‘Rishi Vaer’, meaning, The Valley of Saints.”

The doctrine of non-violence

In Sufism there is no place for inequality or greed and certainly no place for war. Morteza Nouraei and Bahman Zeinali, University of Isfahan, Iran in the paper titled, ‘Tolerance heritage: The route of Sufism from Khorasan to the Balkans’ published on politicsandreligionjournal.com focused on the importance of the complex phenomenon of Sufism. The paper stated, “It has taken root in the lower layers of society and even religious and intellectual education, and on the other hand, it is so complex then vague that it cannot be easily claimed that its various aspects have been surrounded; to the extent that there is still no consensus among scholars about the authenticity or non-authenticity of this approach (Sufism) in Islamic society.” However, it is the sharing and caring qualities of Sufism, which if properly promoted and practiced, can create a peaceful world order.

Kabir asserted the basic unity of all human beings not on the basis of some spiritual hypothesis of God's immanence in every heart, but on a very rational and scientific basis. To him, when the man-made distinctions are cut down, all human beings are the same. Saral Jhingran in the article, ‘Kabir and Gandhi as Apostles of Human Unity Transcending Religion and Caste-based Distinctions’ published on mkgandhi.org tried to point out the similarities in approaches between Kabir and Mahatma Gandhi. He wrote, “Like Kabir, Gandhi also believed in the presence of God in every soul; and both called their God Ram, meaning a formless Absolute (Nirguna Brahman). The second common source of inspiration for both the saints was their natural humaneness. The third similarity between the two was their rational approach to these social and moral issues.” Thus, in their own ways, Kabir is engaged in making men realise the futility of eternal religion and the meaning of true religion where God resides in the heart and among the people around and Gandhi is bringing harmony between two communities through his message of non-violence, love and compassion.

Sufism can lead to peace

Nasir in her article refers to the context of Pakistan where different Muslim sects fight among themselves. She mentions that this destruction of the lives of innocent people is totally against Islamic tenants and demands and needs to be stopped at the earliest. She feels that in this scenario, if, on the other hand, the basic tenets of Sufism are given prominence and are practiced, then all of the above can be both negated and avoided. According to the ‘World Report 2019: Pakistan’ by Human Rights Watch published on hrw.org, “At least 17 people remain on death row in Pakistan after being convicted under the draconian blasphemy law, and hundreds await trial. Most of those facing blasphemy allegations are members of religious minorities.”

Ayesha Siddiqa in her article titled ‘The Changing Face of Sufism in South Asia’ published on The Wire speaks about the evolution of Sufism in South Asia and the factors behind the change. She writes, “Sufism might have drifted further away from the primary intellectual imagination had 9/11 not taken place and the world not started its search for ‘alternative’ Muslim institutions that could bring peace to the world.” She further added that it was after 9/11 that foreign think tanks and policy centres began talking about Sufism and the local elite remembered shrines to be places where music, unconventional traits and ecstasy were found. The ‘dhammal’ at Sehwan and other places began to look important without people even thinking about what it truly demonstrated. Eventually, ‘peace’ was the new context of Sufism.

Impact of Sufism in Indian culture

There are various instances that reflect upon the impact of Sufism on Indian culture. In the 1980s, when there was the call from Afghanistan to Muslims for joining the ‘global jihad’, around 100,000 people responded but none was from India. As a matter of fact, the Indian Muslims also kept aloof from the transnational jihad led by Al Qaeda in the 1990s and later, after 9/11, through local affiliates in West and South Asia. A report on The Wire by Talmiz Ahmad titled ‘Why Indian Muslims Reject Extremist Doctrines’ refers to Romila Thapar who believes that Sufi teachers played a central role in the interaction with Bhakti sects and gave Indians a unique belief-system. She further noted, “This consisted of teachers who, brought up either as Hindus or Muslims, gave up the formal tenets and rituals of their faith and propounded devotion to a personal god, while emphasising social ethics, social equality and tolerance. This was the faith of most Indians, Hindus and Muslims, for 500 years.”

The miniscule portion of the Sufi discourse presented in the above discussion focus on the Sufi ideals of tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Several Islamic scholars are of the opinion that practical Sufism is the way out of this violence, chaos and intolerance - the perils that have infected mankind. Sufism transcends race and creed and it can be presented as an operational formula step by step - first local, then national, then international and ultimately global peace and prosperity. In this way, it can help in paving the way to harmonious existence for all on an equitably sustainable basis.

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