Aniket De, Muhammad Mustafa Monowar, Sara Mehnaz, Ishrat Jahan Prioti, From Medina to Malacca: The Spread of Sufism


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The image of the whirling dervish in a white long cloak is a popular icon of world tourism today. From the grand palaces of Istanbul to the streets of Delhi, or the tea gardens of Sylhet thousands of tourists, pilgrims, or devotees flock to Sufi shrines. Since the 13th century, Sufism transformed into a global movement by acquiring regional meetings in new contexts, yet retaining connections throughout the Islamic world.
So one Point that defenders of Sufism in the modern world like to start out with is to point out that Sufism emerged about the same time as the other disciplines of what in the Islamic tradition are referred to as the religious sciences. So in about the eighth or ninth century when Islamic law, and theology, or Kalam, were first emerging, this is about this time that Sufism emerged as well. And Sufism is more a practical discipline than a theoretical discipline.
Although originating from Persia, Sufi saint spread rapidly across the globe after the fall of Baghdad in 1258. Sufi leaders and saints set up institutions on the Bay of Bengal rim. It is a shift in the global axis of power that triggered the massive spread of Sufism. Sufis set up shrines and lodges all over the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal rim.
To achieve this kind of spiritual perfection, one become a friend of God, and it was later accepted that they could intervene in this world, they could call upon God for intervention and then God could grant them the ability to perform miracles. And it was later understood that this ability persisted even after death. And so that the Saints after they died, their tombs would become shrines, and a site of veneration. Different Sufi orders might come there on the Saints festival, This could be a commemoration of the Saints birthday, it could also be a commemoration of the Urs, the wedding of the saint, that they have their experiencing union with God. And these became major public festivals, not only did Sufis go but also the common population would turn out these festivals, which should be celebrated in some case throughout the town,
And people especially after that night of the Saints festival would try to go to tomb, Maybe touch the sarcophagus of the Saint, in order to get some sort of blessing from the Saint.
In spite of spreading out over all over the Islamic world, Sufis strive to former brotherhood that was globally interconnected in scope. They corresponded with other Sufis in faraway lands creating a Sufi axis from Africa to Indonesia. The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta came to Sylhet to meet Shah Jalal and wrote about how Jalal’s words came true as far as China. Sufis identified themselves as members of a common brotherhood across large distances.
There was Sufis who went beyond the borders of the Muslim world and spread Islam, and proselytized, and converted other peoples to the religion.
So it wasn’t jurists by and large or theologians and talking to Turks on the frontier, or going into South Asia and converting people into Islam, But it was Sufis. And some people describe the practices that emerged from this kind of proselytization as ”syncretic”. So, old practices could continue to persist even once the population had converted to Islam, So that old sacred sites could continue to be revered now as the very old place of the saint for example. Also older practices might be incorporated into the practices of the Sufis.
Remarkable similarities in dress, devotional practices, and representations also connected Sufis across such large distances. Such cultural similarities made them feel as parts of the same larger brotherhood. All of them emphasized on a personal relationship and emotional bonding with God. Praying is not a ritual but an act of devotion to God. Many such Sufi practices like Zikr, chanting god’s name, Rabita, learner- mentor connection, or Muraqaba, or meditation, remained continuous across the Sufi world.
Supererogatory prayers, so praying not only the five times a day better prescribed for all Muslims, but in many cases five additional times a day. Fasting, above and beyond the fasting during the month of Ramadan. Periods of seclusion. Dhikr, remembrance of the names of God. According to Muslim tradition God has 99 names that he’s referred to by in the Koran. So they recite particular names to try to cultivate the attribute that’s referred to in the name.
Such a global Sufism was achieved only through including and appropriating regional meetings in various parts of the world. In South Asia Sufis became important in the articulation of political authority. From Bengal sultans, to Mughal emperors, like Jahangir and Shah Jahan, all patronized and respected Sufis.
Sufi ideals of devotion and practice got new life by appropriating local trends of worship. In medieval Bengal, The Bhakti court devotion movement was led by the Vaisnava saint, Chaitanya. Folk forms like the Baul were also Close to such devotion. Sufi systems of dance and devotion to God were remarkably similar, And Sufis Took no time to infuse a particularly regional flavor to their ideals. With the advent of print and photography in the 19th century, there was a new medium to express such similarities, as well as to reinforce long-term connections to the middle east or southeast Asia.
Countless books and pamphlets of this time helped spread Sufi ideals in vernacular languages. With colonialism came the lack of political power and authority for the Sufis. Connected by airlines and the Internet, Sufi is more global than ever. Sufism remains a global movement with regional meanings. Sufi music and dance festivals held in India bring performers from Egypt, Syria, and Morroco. Sufi dance gets represented in Bollywood songs, which are seen and consumed all over the world.
One can identify countless ways of commodifying Sufism too. I have to be stumbled Sufi whirling dervishes perform regularly for tourists through which Sufi tourism has become popular. Sufism is and has always been global since 1258. It is the careful blend of regional practices as well as the retention of a broader ideological framework that explains the story of Sufism. From Medina to Malacca, Sufis continue to build worlds united and ideals yet distinguished by local practices and philosophies.