Their songs have enamoured us for countless generations, their teachings have been received with wonder. Saints have been immortalised, with kings and emperors bowing in respect and entire cities built in their honour. Their practices have both been persecuted and immortalised, and their renown has continued to grow. Sufism, or Tasawwuf, which traces its roots to Islam, has slowly come to be seen as more than just a part of Islam.
Sufism, often described as a mystical aspect of Islam, has been around for well over a thousand years. A result of intermingling cultures in the major centres of learning like Baghdad around the time of Ali ibn Abi Talib (circa 650), it has been described as a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God. Closely associated with asceticism, Sufism places great importance on the practice of teaching and in trying to live life in accordance to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Under the teachings, the law is divided into two – one set to deal with the rules of society such as property, marriage, crime, business etc. and the other set, internal and more spiritual in nature, regarding repentance from sin, cleansing the character of contemptible qualities and adorning the self with virtues.
In India, Sufism was first introduced with the military expansion of the Muslim Empire in Multan and Sindh. Over the course of time, especially under the dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, Islam (and Sufism) saw its introduction in many parts of the subcontinent. With introduction into the predominantly caste segregated society, the message of love, harmony and humanity struck a note with many.
With time, many orders were set up by various saints, regarded as Mawla who would maintain a direct line of teachers back to Prophet Muhammad. A famous example of a Sufi order is the Chishti order, introduced in India with Saint Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Fatehpur Sikri, the city built by Akbar was built around the camp of another saint of the same order, Salim Chishti.
Over time, Sufism has come to be associated less with Islam and more with their love for God (Allah) as immortalised by their devotional music, Qawwali. In the modern age, this style of music has found resurgence in more than just religious context, with popular joints also declaring Sufi nights for the genre of songs planned.
In the present day, there are a few places where the practice is kept alive in its glory. Nizamuddin Dargah, the mausoleum of Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya is famous for the Qawwali performances. Zorba the Buddha, one of the largest open faith centres in Delhi also hosts regular Sufi fests with prominent practicing Sufis and noted Qawwali singers.
In this era of religion fuelled violence, Sufism carries an important message of faith and love. The devotional music has already achieved fame for the message of love and the sheer devotion which is felt in the power of the singing. We desperately need such practices to remind us of what is of more importance in this world.