India's Sufi connection to Central Asia unravels spiritual and cultural synergy

Story by  Dr. Hafeezur Rahman | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 20-04-2023
Hindus and Muslims celebrating Basant Panchami at  dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi (Image Ravi Batra)
Hindus and Muslims celebrating Basant Panchami at dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi (Image Ravi Batra)


Maheep & Hafeezur Rahman

India and Central Asia share a deep-rooted spiritual and cultural bond that spans over a millennium, with Sufism as the lynchpin of this relationship. This mystical branch of Islam has left an indelible mark on the religious, artistic, and intellectual landscapes of both India and Central Asia, creating a shared heritage that persists to the day.

Sufism is a mystical and spiritual dimension of Islam that emphasizes the seeker's relationship with the Almighty through inner contemplation, meditation, purification of the heart, devotion, dedication, and submission from the core of the soul.

Modern-day Central Asia, comprising Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, has been a significant hub of Sufi thoughts and practices and India has played a vital role in the development and dissemination of Sufism in the region. Sufism arrived in the region with the spread of Islam, and numerous Sufi orders emerged over time, each with its distinct rituals and practices. Despite the challenges posed by modernity and globalisation, secularism, and religious extremism, Sufism survived and adapted in contemporary India and Central Asia. In recent years both the regions are experiencing a revival of Sufi traditions.

Roots of India's Sufi culture

The emergence of Sufism in Central Asia and its subsequent spread to India in the early Islamic period laid the foundation for a lasting spiritual connection between the two regions. Sufi missionaries and scholars travelled between India and Central Asia, engaging in religious, intellectual, and artistic exchanges that enriched both regions.  Some of the most influential Sufi orders in Central Asia include the Naqshbandiyya, Yasawiyya, and Qadiriyya. And they established khanqahs (Sufi lodges) and zawiyas (spiritual retreats) that served as centers of learning, spiritual practice, and social service.

Iftaar at Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's dargah in Delhi

These institutions facilitated the transmission of Sufi knowledge and teachings, helping to spread Sufism throughout the region and beyond. India has played a significant role in the development and spread of Sufism in Central Asia through various ways and means. Indian Sufi saints and scholars travelled to Central Asia, sharing their teachings and knowledge, while Central Asian Sufi masters visited India to learn from local Sufi traditions and transmit their knowledge back to their homeland.

The establishment of various Sufi orders (tariqas) in India, such as the Chishtiyya, Suhrawardiyya, and Qadiriyya, further cemented this connection. These orders, which traced their spiritual lineage to Central Asia, played a pivotal role in disseminating Sufi teachings and practices throughout the Indian subcontinent where it was adopted by the people, assimilated into the local culture, and enriched through blending. In turn, Indian Sufi orders and their distinct practices also influenced the development of Sufism in Central Asia

The Mughal Connection

The Mughal Empire (1526-1858), founded by the Timurid prince Babur, had strong connections to Central Asia, and played a significant role in consolidating the Sufi connect between India and Central Asia. Mughal rulers were known for their patronage of Sufi orders, scholars, and artists, which facilitated the exchange of ideas and fostered vibrant Sufi ideas and culture between India and Central Asia.

At the same time, Mughal architecture represents a synthesis of Indian and Central Asian influences, reflecting the enduring Sufi connection between the two regions as well. Sufi shrines, mosques, and mausoleums built during the Mughal era are a testament to this shared architectural heritage.

India's influence on Central Asian Sufism is also evident in the shared Sufi literature, music, culture, and artistic heritage. The Persian language, which was widely used in both regions, served as a vital link between India and Central Asia, facilitating the exchange of Sufi literature, poetry, music, thoughts, and ideas. Most of the prominent Sufi poets from both regions composed their works in Persian, contributing to a shared literary heritage that transcended geographical boundaries. Renowned Indian Sufi poets like Amir Khusrow, Kabir, Dara Shikoh, Bedil, and Rabindra Nath Tagore influenced Central Asian Sufi thought and practice, while Central Asian poets like Rumi, Saadi, Hafez, and Umar Khayyam  impacted Indian Sufi poetry.

The exchange of Sufi musical and artistic traditions further enriched the cultural connection between India and Central Asia. Indian musical genres, such as qawwali, were influenced by Central Asian Sufi practices, while Central Asian art and architecture drew inspiration from Indian aesthetics. The cultural exchange between India and Central Asia extended to various domains, including architecture, with the construction of mosques, mausoleums, and other religious monuments showcasing Indian architectural and artistic elements in Central Asia.

Ajmer Sharif Dargah

The following are interesting facts about Sufism

  • The modern world, with its rapid pace of life and materialistic focus, has left many individuals searching for deeper meaning and spiritual fulfillment. This quest has led to a resurgence of interest in Sufi traditions, which emphasize personal connections with the divine and inner contemplation as paths to spiritual enlightenment.
  • Adaptation to Contemporary Contexts: Sufi traditions have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances and contexts, allowing them to maintain their relevance in the modern era. This adaptability is evident in the incorporation of new technologies, such as social media, to disseminate Sufi teachings and facilitate global connections among Sufi communities.
  • Resistance to Religious Extremism: In the face of growing religious extremism and intolerance in some parts of the world, Sufi traditions offer a more inclusive and tolerant vision of Islam, emphasizing universal love, compassion, and the quest for spiritual unity. This message of peace and tolerance has attracted individuals disenchanted with more dogmatic interpretations of religion.
  • Sufism's focus on the essential unity of all religions and its respect for diverse spiritual paths make it an ideal catalyst for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. By fostering understanding and mutual respect among people of different faiths, Sufi traditions can contribute to social harmony and peaceful coexistence in multicultural societies.
  • The emphasis on personal spiritual development and introspection in Sufi traditions can help individuals navigate the complexities of modern life, fostering inner peace, resilience, and well-being. By offering tools for self-exploration and spiritual growth, Sufism can enrich the lives of people in contemporary society, irrespective of their religious backgrounds.
  • Sufi traditions have long been associated with social welfare and community engagement, as demonstrated by the role of Sufi shrines and orders in providing support to the needy and marginalized. This can inspire modern societies to address social inequalities and work towards a more just and equitable world.
  • In an increasingly interconnected and diverse world, the timeless wisdom and inclusive vision of Sufism offer valuable insights and guidance for building a more compassionate, just, and spiritually fulfilling future in both India and central Asia.
  • The spiritual connection between India and Central Asia continues to thrive, as evidenced by the ongoing exchange of Sufi ideas and practices between the two regions. The presence of Indian Sufi orders in Central Asia and the continuing influence of Central Asian Sufi figures in India accentuate the enduring nature of this spiritual bond.
  • The shared Sufi heritage of India and Central Asia can help to foster cultural understanding and appreciation between the two regions, promoting peaceful coexistence and mutual respect in an increasingly interconnected world.

In conclusion, the relationship between Sufism in Central Asia and the role of India is multifaceted and fascinating one. The two regions have shared a rich history of cultural exchange, with India playing a significant role in the development and dissemination of Sufi ideas and practices in throughout Central Asia. This relationship has resulted in a unique and dynamic Sufi tradition that continues to thrive in both regions today. The enduring appeal of Sufism in both India and Central Asia reflects the resilience of this mystical tradition in the face of modern challenges, such as jingoism, religious extremism, disparity, discrimination and rapid globalization.

Dr Maheep, is an expert of the Arab world and Islam; Dr Hafeezur Rahman is President of Sufi Peace Foundation, New Delhi.