“The Sufis’ love and concern for the poor and downtrodden attracted many Hindus to accept Islam. Many of these were from the ‘low’ castes, who were crushed under the tyranny of the so-called ‘high’ caste Hindus. In order to make their message more easily understandable to the masses among whom they worked and preached, they adopted many local practices, motifs and idioms, and even spoke and wrote in the local languages, in contrast to both the court ulema, who wrote and spoke in Arabic and Persian, and to the Hindu Brahmins, who disdained the local dialects in favor of Sanskrit. Some Sufis were among the pioneers of literature in various local Indian languages. Their shrines attracted, as they continue to do today, large numbers of non-Muslims, too, who considered them as attained souls and close to God.” (Ernst, 2005)
The conversion of lower caste Hindus to Islam was such a major political event as well. Even to this day, most Muslims in India are classified under the backward classes’ category drawing upon their lower-caste Hindu heritage (Eaton, 1974). Sufism in India holds the distinction of being the first school of thought that confronted Islamic orthodoxy directly. As a result the history of Sufism in India is borne with these scars. From the days of Abu Yazid (who integrated principles of Hindu concept of Monism. As a result of such a complex growth of the sect, its image is distorted to a great extent. At the same time, the shifting of Islamic cultural centers from the Persian gulf to the North Indian heartland was a natural one. For example, Akbar, the greatest of Mogul rulers was a devoted patron to the Sufi school of thought in spite of the orthodoxy that prevailed in Islam at the time (Ernst, 2005).
The Bhakti movement provided the necessary conditions for the spread of Sufism. But some of the Sufi scholars, who came to India in the guise of mystics, misused the religious message to persuade and coerce their subjects and to convert the Hindus. Amir Khusrau, who was one such scholar as well as an accomplished musician “inspired many Hindu saints and poets like Kabir and Mira, Mir and Ghalib”. Other native Indian scholars who contributed to Sufi scriptures include Baba Farid, Nanak and Kusrau. This also explains why the predominantly Hindu India is the biggest centre of Sufism this day. All the major Sufi places of worship are also situated here. But the sad fact is, the followers of the faith are dwindling with each generation (Eaton, 1974).
Unfortunately today, the image of Sufism is tainted by the growth in Islamic terrorism. Given the volatile political systems in place in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (together home to more than half of the total Muslim population), such misconceptions are not surprising. Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that the “Wahhabism” that thrives in the Indian subcontinent shows that “the political response of any religious movement does not flow only from its theology but, equally, if not more, importantly, reflects the particular social and political context in which it finds itself”. This could not be truer in describing the state of Sufism in India today. Despite the negative representations that Indian Muslims are subject to, they have tried to distance themselves from violence, which shows an understanding on their part of the delicate political balance that exists in this part of the world between Hindus and Muslims. Even the few exceptions to this rule that exist in the Indian subcontinent are not always Muslim (which is another common mistake made by western observers) and a Sufi adherent even less so (Yoginder).
“In India, where Muslims are a minority, the challenge from Hindu extremism is much more threatening. Indeed, a review of native literature reveals that its diatribes are almost exclusively focused on other Muslim groups, seeking to rebut them as ‘un-Islamic’, while generally ignoring the Hindus or other communities living in India. Intra-Muslim, rather than Hindu-Muslim, differences and conflicts are of more concern to the religious establishment. However, even this should not be exaggerated, as these conflicts, although fanned by Ulema, have had only a limited impact on relations between ‘lay’ Muslims belonging to different Muslim groups, and has rarely taken the form of actual physical violence.” (Yoginder)
While the Bareilis and Deobandis comprise the majority of Sufis in India, even within this grouping some factionalism is seen. For example, the Sufis of India are divided into four major categories or Tareeqahs – Chistiya, Qadriyah, Nagshbandiya and Soharwardiyah. Even today some of the rivalry that existed between the different Tareeqahs can be seen (Eaton, 1974).