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.


Shaykh Mufid by Tamima Bayhom-Daou

(First published 2005)

The book under review belongs to a series labelled “Makers of the Muslim World” conceived by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. It is a highly readable biography of Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Nu’man al-‘Ukbari al-Baghdadi, popularly known as Shaykh al-Mufid (949-1022), who was one of the most influential Shia Muslim scholars of the classical period. It also summarises the findings of modern academia on Mufid’s works, his place in Shia scholarly tradition and his influence on the subsequent generations of Shia scholars.

Contrary to my expectations this book turned out to be a non-specialised account written for basic readers who do not have prior acquaintance with Shia theology and jurisprudence. The author says in the preface that this book is mainly written from secondary sources, that is, recent modern work done on Shaykh Mufid’s thought which is highly specialised and therefore inaccessible to general readers. However, he makes use of primary source material including, but not limited to, Shaykh Mufid’s “Kitab al-Irshad”, which he translates as “The Book of Guidance”.

Shaykh Mufid was born only eight years after the Greater Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (began AD 941) and lived and taught mostly in Baghdad. Around the time of his birth, the Abbasid caliphate came under the control of Perisan Buyids who became the de facto rulers in Baghdad as well as in Western Persia where they had already established their empire. These Buyid rulers were of Zaidi Shia persuasion, most not all, but they allowed a remarkable degree of independence to all Islamic sects to practice their religion and engage in debates, discussions and polemics on theological issues. It was during this time that the Shia Itha `Asharis (Twelvers) were allowed to hold their religious events publicly. The Shia Ithna `Ashari scholars took full advantage of the safe environment and disseminated their teachings and engaged openly in debates with their opponents. Shaykh Mufid, during these circumstances, led the Shia Ithna `Asharis from the front.

Shaykh Mufid is credited with introducing an increased role of reason in Shia theology and jurisprudence. During the time of the Minor Occultation (AD 874–941) and earlier, traditional Shia scholarship was concentrated solely on transmitting hadith reports from the Imams. Shia scholars at that time made minimal use of interpretative reasoning to explain away certain laws and beliefs as reached them from the hadith. The most important and historically immediate theologian of that approach was al-Kulayni who had already composed his collection of hadith reports under the title of al-Kafi (The Sufficient).

Ibn Babuya al-Qummi, a teacher of Shaykh Mufid, in his theological works relied almost exclusively on traditional sources, preferring to quote Quran and hadith reports and ascribing them sole authoritorial and explanatory power over his own interpretative words. In Qummi’s view kalam as a theological discipline was superfluous; he believed that all the necessary rational arguments had been formulated by the Imams themselves and might already be found in hadith reports. Shaykh Mufid criticised his teacher’s viewpoint and argued in favour of a role of reason and defended the use of kalam.

Shaykh Mufid is said to be influenced by the rational theology of Mu`tazili school of thought. Despite, he did not make reason as one of the sources of religious knowledge as Mu`tazila had done. Rather, he regarded reason essentially as a means of constructing arguments in the defense of doctrines which have already been established by revelation and hadith. Recent research, argued the book, has rather incorrectly concluded that Shaykh Mufid single-handedly shifted Shia scholarship from one that relied on traditionalist approach to one which was reason-oriented, much in the imitation of the Mu`tazila. The author disputes these findings and suggests that it was a gradual shift which had started in the latter part of the 9th century, the time when Minor Occultation began, and continued till the end of 10th century. Mufid was an instrumental link in the two approaches in that he employed the methods of interpretive reasoning more rigorously than any one had done before him. Later, his students took it further and dominated Shia scholarship for the next century or so. Shaykh Mufid’s famous students included Shaykh Tusi and the brothers Murtada and Radi. This concludes the central argument of the book.

Further, the book is divided into chapters detailing Shaykh Mufid’s positions on various historical, theological and jurisprudential issues as well as his disagreements with other Ithna `Ashari scholars before him and with non-Ithna `Ashari Shia like the Zaydiya. Two chapters outline his views on the Imamate as proved from historical accounts (like the event of Ghadeer Khum) and from theological arguments (like the necessity of having an Imam at all times). The other two chapters provide a brief summary of Mufid’s theology and jurisprudence.

The scholars of Minor Occultation and later period were particularly hard pressed by the objections of the non-Shia who ridiculed the concept of Imamate and denied the existence of the Twelfth Imam as a fantasy. It was a period of transition for the Shia scholarship; from near-complete reliance on the words of a living Imam to complete independence in the wake of Greater Occultation. Before that, physically present Imams directed them in religious and other matters; now they were left to their own devices with the job of satisfying perplexed believers without any direct guidance from an infallible Imam.

Some Shia scholars of the day rejected ijtihad (interpretive reasoning); they believed that every problem a believer might possibly face could already be found in hadith reports from the Imams, and that no “new cases” could ever come up for which ijtihad (interpretive reasoning) or qiyas (analogical reasoning) might be required. Shaykh Mufid appeared to have accepted this view but later changed it in favour of ijtihad as being a necessary tool to deal with “new cases”, for he realised the inevitability of new cases for which there was no precedence in the Islamic scriptural canon, and therefore a qualified scholar had to indulge in ijtihad (as opposed to qiyas) to find a hukm (ruling) in line with the Shariah.

Thus, in conclusion, Shaykh Mufid stands as vital link in the Shia Ithna `Ashari scholarship which, in times of confusion and perplexity caused by the absence of an infallible guide, found it hard to answer its opponents and satisfy its believers. The methods of interpretive reasoning introduced by Mufid in Shia scholarship were to reach new heights in the times of his students, who in their turn were some of the biggest names in Shia scholarship.

My rating 4/5. The book is on AMAZON.

Tazkira Shaykh Bahauddin Zakariya Multani by Faqir Muhammad Javed Qadri

تذکرہ شیخ بہاؤ الدین زکریا ملتانی -از فقیر محمّد جاوید قادری

(First published 2009; Language: Urdu)

This is a hagiography, written in the old tradition of tazkira literature, of Shaykh Bahaud-dn Zakariya Multani (c. 1170 – 1267), who was the most prominent Sufi of the newly established Suhrawardi order in the regions of the then Northwestern India.

Given the nature of the book, I did not expect a comprehensive analysis of the belief system of this sufi, but, in addition to excessive praise, I at least expected to get a general view of his thought. In this respect this book has been an utter disappointment. So much so that I embarrassed myself by reading it from cover to cover.

The author sets out with the greatness and piety of the Shaykh, his steadfastness in faith, tireless quest for knowledge, travels to far off lands in search of the Truth (whatever it means), his numerous miracles and wonders which are identical to the miracles ascribed to the prophets, his clairvoyance, knowledge of the unseen and much more.

This book, however, contains some factual information about the life of Shaykh Zakariya and recounts a few prominent achievements for which he is known.

He left Multan (his birthplace, now in Pakistan) in early youth and set out on a long and perilous journey of Muslim mainlands for higher education in Islamic disciplines. He is reported to have travelled from city to city for almost three decades: Tus, Neshapur, Bukhara, Samarqand, Damascus, Aleppo, Mecca, Madina and finally Baghdad, spending time with the prominent teachers, before he returned to Multan in the latter part of his life.

He was primarily a jurist who, during his stay in Baghdad, got attracted to the teachings of Abu Hafs Umar al-Suhrawardi (who was the nephew of the eponym of the order Abu al-Najib al-Suhrawardi). who then initiated him into the Suhrawardi tariqah and ordered Zakariya to return to his homeland to spread the message of Suhrawardiyah.

Shaykh Zakariya’s life and activities back in his native city gets some detailed attention in the book. He belonged to a family of religious judges (qadis), a very wealthy family which enjoyed influence with Muslim overlords. In time he became heir to the family fortune which, according to the book, he spent in the cause of religion. He constructed a huge madrassa in Multan which housed students, travellers, shelterless and teachers imported from Muslim mainlands. His fame and piety won a lot of converts to Islam, which, in turn, he sent over to far off lands for tabligh. Shaykh Zakariya is reported to have sent teams of students to Far East countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and other areas to spread Islam. His disciple-preachers reported to have won multitudes of converts.

The book also tells about the schism between him and the governor of Multan Nasir al-Din Qabacha. The latter ruled the province under the authority of the Sultan of Mamluk Dynasty (Slave Dynasty of Delhi), Sultan Shams al-Din Iltutmish. The governor of Multan is reported to have been jealous of the Shaykh and tried to sully his name in the eyes of the people. He used many means to achieve this end but, according to the book, failed. But we don’t know the nature of the dispute between the Shaykh and the governor, whether it was theological or just political or a mix of both, because the author tends to ascribe all opposition to the Shaykh a result of jealousy and ill-will; a likely explanation a hagiography can offer.

My book rating: 1/5