Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity by Yohanan Friedmann

(First published 1971)

Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) is accorded special place in the historiography of Islam in India. Born in a small Punjabi town of Sirhind, he was trained to be an Islamic theologian and was later initiated into the Sufi Naqshbandiyah order at the hands of his master. He remained a faithful Naqshbandi all his life. A combination of charisma, original ideas, and a fresh orientation toward Sufism were to make him stand prominent in the long line of Indian Sufis.

Sirhindi is considered a champion of Islamic orthodoxy whose influence later led to the orthodox reforms of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. (It is important to remember that the time of Aurangzeb was marked by increased Sunni religiosity on state level and a suppression of Hindu religious freedom, silencing of non-Sunni sects like the Shias, and massacres of Sikhs and their gurus). The author disputes the commonly held position and argues that the image of Sirhindi as the main intellectual and theoretical force behind the rise in orthodoxy in Indian Muslim rulers emerged only in the 20th century as a result of contemporary developments in India and Pakistan.

Sirhindi’s most original contribution to the Sufi thought was the concept of Millennial Renewal of Religion, for which he appointed himself Mujaddid Alf Thani (The Renewer of the Second Millennium). The concept of renewal of religion is found in Sunni hadith but those reports talk about centennial renewal instead of a millennial one. The hadith says – and here I am paraphrasing – that God sends a holy man at the end of every century when the faith and practice of the believers is weakened and innovations abound in the religion. Sirhindi used this hadith to derive his theory of Millennial Renewal. He lived at the turn of the Hijri Millennium.

He believed that after having passed one thousand years, the outward or worldly Shariah of Muhammad has reached the lowest point; that real Islam is lost to Muslims, and that the inward or spiritual side of the Prophetic mission has reached perfection. He, to the alarm of orthodoxy, saw the ‘perfection’ of the Prophet’s spiritual heritage as being reflected in his personality. In other words, he sold his own self-proclaimed spiritual greatness to the masses and the need for them to follow his guidance.

He developed an elaborate Sufi system and laid out a path through which one could attain perfection and union with God. As is the case with other Sufis before him, he made a sharp distinction between the auliya (saints) of God and the laypeople. What he termed the “Path of the Prophethood” (tariqah-i nubuwwat) was for the specially gifted people like himself, who would attain the “perfections of the Prophet” and “share the gifts of Prophethood” if they remained faithful in divine love. At this stage, the person is in no need of intercession; he is in direct communion with God. The other path, “the Path of the Sainthood” (tariqah-i auliya), is also of great importance such as that famous Sufis like Bistami, Hallaj and Ibn `Arabi followed this path but it is of lesser spritirual value to that of the “Path of the Prophthood”.

Influential scholars in India and from Hijaz bitterly opposed Sirhindi for his certain Sufi views which they saw as bordering on blasphemy. His opponents saw in this his attempt to raise his status to that of the Prophet. Some accused him declaring himself a prophet in all but name. Others pointed his self-lauding achievements as a sufi and objected to his apparent belief that Sufi masters like Hallaj and Ibn `Arabi were inferior to him.

Other controversies included his claiming that his “sainthood” (wilayah) comes from the joint wilayah of Ibrahim and Musa. On another occasion he claimed that his wilayah is compounded from the wilayah of Ibrahim and Prophet Muhammad. He also said that he (Sirhindi) was created from the remnants of the clay used in the creation of Prophet Muhammad with enraged theologians and Sufis alike. He was, among other things, also accused on one occasion of disrespecting Abu Bakr.

As can be gathered from his views about some revered Sufi figures, he rejected the doctrine of the “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujud) as the pinnacle of a Sufi’s spiritual achievement. He didn’t categorically reject the said doctrine but believed it to be only an intermediate stage toward Complete Perfection. He believed that the famous Sufi pronouncements like “Glory be to Me” or ‘Subhani’, ascribed to Bistami and “I am the Truth” or ‘Ana al-Haq’, of Hallaj, can be explained away. These were uttered during the heightened state of spiritual ecstasy; the Sufis actually didn’t mean what they seem to mean, so one must not read them literally. He opposed those who think of these utterances as blasphemous.

Sirhindi believed that a more sophisticated lover of God must move on from the “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-Wujud) to the “Unity of Appearances” (Wahdat al-Shuhud), which he considered to be the greatest stage and the culmination of the spiritual journey of the saalik on the “path of the prophethood”, the stage that Sirhindi believed no one had reached save him.

There is, also, a definite sectarian side to his personality. He is also responsible for writing a treatise titled “Risalah dar Radd-i Rawafiz” (An Epistle on the Refutation of the Rawafid) in Farsi. However this epistle along with a work on the Prophethood advancing conventional arguments were written before his initiation into Naqshbandiyah order. We don’t know for sure if he changed his views after his initiation as a Sufi but he doesn’t indulge in intra-Muslim sectarian polemics during his Sufi period.

Shah Waliullah, in the 18th century, later used the above-mentioned treatise as starting point for his own sectarian attacks against the Shia, and Waliullah’s son, Shah Abdul Aziz, taking inspiration from the afore-mentioned works, penned “Tohfa Itha Ashariayah” (A Gift to the Twelvers) which is a famous anti-Shia polemical work, used to this day by the sectarianists writing against the Shia in India and Pakistan).

The books concludes that Sirhindi was primarily a Sufi, interested in issues of mysticism and not a thinker concerned with the question of religion and state. The part of his work which deals with Islamic Shariah or Law and his diatribes against the Hindus, expressed in a series of letters to some Mughal officials, are peripheral and play an insignificant role in his image in the eyes of his contemporaries, followers and rulers. His support among the masses and disciples wasn’t due to his imagined religious leadership but due to his Sufi teachings. It was later that some Muslim authors projected back the view of Sirhindi as the upholder of Islamic orthodoxy. The modern Western scholar, says the author, by and large accepted this view without critical assessment.

One weakness of this book is that the author doesn’t use sufficient direct (translated) quotations from the works of Sirhindi but rather relies on paraphrasing and interpreting the source material. It is perhaps inevitable as the book is supposed to be only an ‘outline of his thought’. I would have liked it if this work was more detailed, including extensive quotations and interpretation of Sirhindi’s opponents, both in India and abroad, who wrote many treatises refuting his grandiose claims. It goes without saying that he also received edicts of apostasy (fatawa of kufr) by the Sunnis and even some Sufis.

The value of this work lies in the fact that it successfully challenges, and corrects, the widely held belief of Sirhindi as the precursor of Muslim orthodoxy in India, and a major force behind the orthodoxising efforts of Emperor Aurangzeb. I give it 4.5 out of 5. Find it on AMAZON.

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