Sufism in South and South East Asia

Most commonly associated with the Middle East, Sufism gradually spread through the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

May 8, 2024By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

sufism south east asia


With the spread of Islam to the East, Sufism became a leading folk religion among Muslims. In the Indian subcontinent and Indochina, Sufism often mingled and merged with Hindu and Buddhist ideas, adding a distinctive Dharmic element to Islamic orthodoxy.


How Islam Spread Through India

The Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, by Bichitr, c. 1660, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Islam came into contact with the Indian subcontinent very early. The first contact between Muslims and Indians was made through the northwestern Indian province of Punjab. A considerable number of Sufi sheiks and their followers also moved to the Punjab and established tekkes and Sufi orders in the Indian subcontinent.


Islam came to India during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslim traders came and spread Islam through trade. The first mosque in India was built in 629 and Islam spread to coastal cities through immigration and conversion. In the 11th century, Islam firmly took root on the soil of India; its bearers were the Turkmen dynasties.


The Turkmen conquest of Northern India began with Mahmud of Ghazni, who conquered the Punjab. His conquests were continued by Muhammad of Ghor, who conquered Hindustan and Bengal (1192–1202). In 1206, his general Qutbuddin Ajbak founded the Delhi Sultanate.

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During the reign of Muhammad bin Tughluq (1325–51), the sultanate almost encompassed all of present-day India by 1335, except for the southern part of the Deccan, where the only major Hindu state, Vijayanagar (1336–1646), emerged. In the second half of the 14th century, the sultanate gradually disintegrated into a number of smaller states, and its last remnants were conquered by Timur Lenk in 1398.


Next, the first phase of Mongol rule in northern India was short, but the second phase of Mongol rule (the Moguls) began with Babur, the great-grandson of Timur Lenk. He founded the Muslim Mughal state in 1526 with the “Great Mughal” at its head in the capital of Delhi. His descendants extended Mughal rule to almost all of India. Babur’s grandson Akbar (1556 – 1605) conquered all of northern Hindustan, Kashmir, and the Indus region in protracted battles.


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Discourse between Muslim Sages, Mughal miniature, c. 1630, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Art and science experienced a considerable uplift at this time, and antagonism between Muslims and Hindus was almost completely removed. A hundred years later however, Aurangzeb (1658 – 1707) conquered the Deccan, Kandahar, and Kabul, but he also contributed to the disintegration of the state, because as a fanatical follower of Islam, he cruelly persecuted Hindus.


Expanding to the south, he clashed with the Marathas, whose ruler Śivaji founded an independent kingdom in 1674. Although they were conquered by Aurangzeb in 1689, after his death and during the first half of the 18th century, the Marathas established their own state; until the end of the 18th century, the Great Mughal became a protégé of the Maratha rulers. The further expansion of the Maratha state was prevented by Ahmad Shah Durani, who defeated them in the battle near Panipat in 1761 and thus ended their political supremacy in India.


India has a long colonial history but gained independence in 1947. Pakistan and India have been in conflict since 1947, especially over the disputed country of Kashmir, where many Muslims live. India still holds this region under its control except for a region called Azad-Kashmir which is an autonomous province under the control of Pakistan.


Muslims in India today make up the second-largest group of Muslims in the world. At the same time, extreme nationalist groups have wrought discord among Muslim and Hindu communities in modern India.


Characteristics of Sufism in South Asia 

nadir divanbegi khanqah
Dervish residence, Nadir Divanbegi Sufi Khanqah, photo by Ymblanter, 2015, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Within an Islamic structure, Sufism emerged as a formidable force in India, quite a contrast to the very orthodox Muslim ulama. Sufi orders were welcomed especially by local populations, as they established and managed khanqahs (lodges), community centers, hospices, and shelters. Many such khanqahs were under the financial care of local noblemen or they were communal enterprises.


Khanqahs had a dual role. On the one hand, they were quite similar to Sufi tekkes in the Ottoman Empire, places where Sufi sheiks would gather their students and teach them about the mystical way of Islam. However, they were established in a country with a large Hindu population, known for their caste system. Therefore, khanqahs also took on the role of community shelters, where many could find refuge and refreshment beyond any caste system.


Many Sufis in the Indian subcontinent exercised a syncretistic understanding of religion. Their rituals include shaving the head of a new person entering a khanqah, using a special bowl (“zanbyl” or “kushkul“) to collect food for alms, treating visitors with “sherbet” (sweet water with incense), and forty-day-long “chilla-i-macus” rituals.


Their practice of controlled breathing (“khabs-i-dam“), which transforms the physical body, is believed to have been taken from the Hindu or Buddhist system of yoga, and the Hindu concept of Bhakti (devotion) is also part of South Asian Sufism. There are several notable Sufi orders (tariqas) stemming from the Indian Subcontinent.


Madariya: Sufism in Northern India

states of india
States of India, by Cacahuate, Ravikiran Rao, and Nichalp, 2009, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Madariya tariqa comes from northern India, found in Uttar Pradesh, the Mewat region, Bihar, Gujarat, and West Bengal, as well as Nepal and Bangladesh. It is known for its break from conventional traditions, its relaxation of external religious practices, and its emphasis on self-reflection.


This Sufi order was founded by the famous Sufi saint Syed Badiuddin Zinda Shah Madar (died 1433) and it is centered around his shrine at Makanpur in Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. He arrived in India in the thirteenth century with Ashraf Jahangir Semnani. The Madariya Tariqa gained particular glory during the Mughal period between the 15th and 17th centuries, through the disciples of Shah Madar. It spread to various regions including the northern parts of India.


There are many legends surrounding Shah Madar. He was vehemently against some very orthodox Islamic teachings, and his life was notable for some strange occurrences. Some historical sources say that he used to live in the sea and that he did not eat for twelve years. He did not take his clothes off to wash and he often used to cover his face with a cloth. It is still unclear if Shah Madar was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad.


Chishti: Sufism During the Mughal Empire

chishti gathering singing sufism
Chishti Sufis engage in Qawwali singing, photo by Kumarvimal, 2016, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Chistian order is known for its emphasis on love, tolerance, and openness. It operated primarily in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent. It was one of the first four major dervish orders (which include the Qadiri, Suhrawardi, and Naqshbandi orders) that were established in the area. Moinuddin Chishti introduced the Chishti tariqa and spread it to the territory of India in the middle of the 12th century. The name derives from a small town of Chisht near Herat, in modern western Afghanistan. It was the first Sufi order in the Indian subcontinent and still exists in several branches.


Chishti disciples were expected to follow their sheiks and never take on worldly power. They distanced themselves from any ruler. Still, they are seen as an orthodox Islamic Sufi order for not denouncing any Islamic rule. Despite this orientation, many sheiks were close to the rulers of the Delhi, Bengali, and Bahmani Sultanates. The Mughals, especially the ruler Aurangzeb were Chishti devotees and sponsored many of their places of worship.


The Chishti Order is famous for its use of music and poetry, known as Qawwali. Through music and singing, they evoke the presence of God and surrender to his love. Some scholars challenge the idea of the permissibility of music in the early Chishti tariqa, which was always clear on the rule that the singer must be an adult male, while the listener should only listen with Allah on their mind. Furthermore, musical instruments were forbidden. Today, however, many Chishti ceremonies are accompanied by musical instruments such as the tabla drum.


shakh salim chisti with sitar sufism
Shaikh Salím Chishtí of the Chishtiyya Order, 19th century, Source: The British Museum


Some Chishti ceremonies include reciting the names of Allah while sitting in a particular position, reciting the names of Allah silently, regulating one’s breath, the practice of mystical contemplation, and exercising forty days of solitude and meditation annually.


The tariqa has two major branches. One is the Chishti Nizami branch, following the work of Nizamuddin Auliya. His disciples succeeded in spreading the Chishti Sufi Order throughout contemporary India and Bangladesh. The other major branch is Chishti Sabiri, and they follow the traditions of Alauddin Sabir Kaliyari. In the course of their history, both branches merged with other orders present in South Asia, including various faqiri Sufi groups, consisting of wandering dervishes and solitary sheiks.


Suhrawardiyya: Sufism of the Persian Cultural Elite

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Shah Jahangir Chooses a Sufi over others, by Bichitr, 1620, Source: Wikimedia Commons


A very prominent Sufi order in India followed the work of Persian Sufi master Abu al-Najib Suhrawardi. Many Iranian notables were disciples of this tariqa, among them the Persian poet Saadi Shirazi. It was a very developed Sufi order in Persia before the invasion of Mongols. After that historical event and the coming of the Mongol dynasties of the Persian Empire, many Suhrawardis escaped to India, bringing with them their teachings.


There was a need for solid Sufi teachings based on science and theology. Shaykh-ul-Islam Bahauddin Zakaria Multani left India in search of a perfect mentor and while traveling around the Islamic world, he reached the Suhrawardi disciples in Baghdad. Upon his return, Sheik Bahauddin Zakaria Multani had great success in the promotion of the Suhrawardi chain in India. He established famous monasteries of the Suhrawardiyya tariqa at Multan, Uch, and other places.


The Suhrawardiyya order consists of asceticism, worship, observance of religious duties, and reliance on prayer and remembrance of God’s deeds. It is a highly intellectual and artistic form of Sufism.


Other South Asian Orders of Sufism

A group of Sufi saints, date unknown, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Many other Sufi orders established their presence in the Indian subcontinent. Among the most prominent ones are Qadiriyyah (still very much popular in India), the Shadhilliyya (whose many branches are the primary form of Sufism in South India, particularly in Madurai and Tamil Nadu), the Kubrawiyyah (a Sufi tariqa from Central Asia, with recognizable mystical literature and favored in Kashmir), and the Naqshbandiyyah (the most orthodox of all Sufi orders, favored by the early rulers of the Mughal Dynasty and the Delhi Sultanate).


Islam Spreads to South East Asia 

great mosque in palembang
Great Mosque in Palembang, Indonesia, photo by fitri agung, 2009, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Islam in Southeast Asia initially spread from Indonesia, especially in the Perlak area, Aceh from the 7th century CE. After developing, Islam spread to other Southeast Asian regions, especially to the Malay Peninsula. Islam in Southeast Asia is present in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Kingdom of Pattani in Southern Thailand, and Brunei Darussalam. Before the emergence of Islam in Southeast Asia, people in the region mostly adhered to animism or believed in Hinduism, or Buddhism.


The Islamization of Southeast Asia was supported by the presence of traders and scholars from the Arabian Peninsula, Greater Persia, and Gujarat in the Malaysian region in the 9th century CE. The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia by traders and clerics took place peacefully without any acts of coercion, violence, intimidation, or war.


Sufism evolved from an elite movement to become a major mode of religiosity. It had a strong appeal because it cultivated devotional piety and mystical experiences, traditions and customs often criticized by mainstream Islamic scholars. Although Indonesia and other areas were strict in following Islamic rule, Muslims still practiced veneration of holy men and pilgrimages to their graves.


Champions of Sufism in South East Asia 

master nuruddin ar raniry sufism
Sufi master Nur al-Din Raniri, from Hamzah Fansuri dan Nuruddin ar-Raniry, by Dr. Edwar Djamaris and Drs. Saksono Prijanto, 1995-6, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Among the most widely spread orders was the Rifa’iyya Sufi tariqa, brought to South East Asia by a Malay scholar originally from Gujarat, Nur al-Din Raniri, in the 17th century. Apart from him, the most renowned Muslim Sufi scholars of that time were Abd al-Rauf Singkel and Yusuf Makassar. All three contributed to the chain of transmission (Silsila), while merging Rifa’iyya and Qadiriyya teachings, especially in Aceh.


By spreading knowledge among the local intelligentsia, these Sufi leaders also brought the Silsila for the Naqshbandiyya, Shattariyya, Alawiyya, and Khalwatiyya tariqas. All these Sufi orders created physical institutions, Sufi lodges (khanaqa), associated with their founders (mostly these were princes, governors, rich merchants, or individual sheiks). In the beginning, they were places for every order, but with lines of affiliation emerging, gradually khanaqas were associated with a specific order.


Chains of affiliation were essential for founding distinctive spiritual traditions. The concept of Silsila is central to Sufism in South East Asia, because it constitutes a legitimation of the Sufi master and his teachings, connecting him to saintly predecessors and reinforcing particular ceremonial customs, such as recitation of the divine names of God (dhikr), litanies (ratib), prayers, and various forms of meditation. Based on this, a sheik could ask for loyalty and give licence to spread his teachings to other Sufis.


In general, South East Asian Muslims had very educated leaders, whose erudition was based on solid links with Mecca, Baghdad, and other centers of Islamic education. In the region itself, orthodox teachings held firm among the higher classes and in the cities, but Sufi orders nonetheless started to emerge in a unique local ways.


Sammaniyya Sufism 

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Palembang, Indonesia, under Dutch rule, by Johannes Ykema (Uitgever), before 1950, Source: Wikimedia Commons


A Sufi Tariqa of South East Asian origin is the Sammaniyya order is based on the teachings of Muhammad bin Abd al-Karim al-Samman from Medina. It spread to Palembang and South Borneo, and later to the whole area. At the same time, this tariqa had fluid membership but coherent khalifa rule, which would later be essential for their anti-Dutch resistance.


It is known for its collective dhikr and ratib which include many popular folk performances, including martial arts, the cutting of iron, and the use of fire. Its teachings were a synthesis of many other Sufi orders, but it also has some syncretistic elements such as certain Buddhist ideas.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.