Shiekh Ahmad Sirhindī (d. 1624) was one of the great Islamic religious figures of the 17

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Shiekh Ahmad Sirhindī (d. 1624) was one of the great Islamic religious figures of the 17th Century. A sufi – initially a follower of the Chishti tariqa – he later established his own branch of the rival Naqshbandiyya order, the Mujaddidiyya. He has been credited with initiating, or at least participating in a social turn toward a religious fundamentals and Shari’a-based legal purity both within his native Indian subcontinent and the greater dar al-islam. The popularity of his tariqa, and of the subsequent transmissions of his religious theories, has been associated with a resistance to the syncretistic and ecumenical religious policies of the Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great.

The characterization of Sirhindi and his tariqa as a manifestation of a rejection of Akbarian cosmopolitanism has been called into question by recent scholarship as rather simplistic and one-dimensional. The origins and foundation of Islamic revivification and the resistance to Akbar’s antinomianisms is a valid and necessary project, but the advent of Sirhindi is neither a summary explanation of it – crediting him, say, with singular influence on the populous, the nobility, the legal authorities and even the emperor himself, nor is it – the broader Islamic revivification – a singular explanation of Sirhindi’s status. Is it fair to suggest he set in motion events that culminated in the conservative rule of Aurangzeb? Was the resurgence of shari’a-based aspirations, later fortified by the more traditionally oriented Naqshbandiyya tariqa, to be construed as evidence Sirhindi’s impressive historical footprint was merely a fait accompli given the religious policies of Akbar? Even if the answer to both of these questions seems obviously no, not so long ago, it might have been otherwise.

Scholarship on the subject of Sirhindī has long been moving beyond a once too-simplistic historicizing of the Mujaddid, and reminds us that explaining the easy reception of religious phenomena into the social fabric of a period is almost prohibitively complex, and must be subjected to continual reworking. Accordingly, this paper will take a brief look at the evolution of the accepted wisdom about Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindī, his relationship to the resurgence of Islamic righteousness and his identity as a religious puritan emblematic of his age.

In his article about the Akbari dispensation1, Muzaffar Alam, has identified a number of works from 1960’s authored by the historians Aziz Ahmad, K. A. Nazami, S. A. A. Rizvi and a bit later, Yohanan Friedmann, as representative of a somewhat atomistic approach to the study of Mughal-Sufi relations around the time of Sirhindī. These authors treat their material with overwhelming precision, studying such Sirhindi works as the Maktūbāt. In each of their efforts, a fragment of a greater story comes into view, but increasingly isolated from a more fulfilling comprehensive treatment of Sirhindi and his role in the Early Modern revival of Islam. By focusing so much on, say, the Naqshbandiyya, the true character and dynamism of the opposition to Akbar and his religious pluralism is possibly missed or misunderstood. It would be like using a single snapshot to study an ever changing, irregular, multi-dimensional object, as opposed to multiple exposures from multiple angles, which might bring about a deeper understanding, or at least a truer impression.

Illustrative of this more comprehensive view, besides Alam who has questioned the identity of the Naqshbandiyya as the sole upholders of Shari’a aspirations, is that of Robert Damrel. In his reappraisal of the Naqshbandiyya, Damrel has gone so far as to call Sirhindi’s project a movement of “Chishti Reformation”.2 These two authors look more broadly at the Sufi landscape of India for a better understanding of how the Naqshbandiyya–Mujaddidiyya did meet with such success in a short period of time.

Alam contextualizes the period before Sirhindi with the political realities of late Timurid rule and the form that its dispensation took. The fragile relationships between the rulers and the carriers of their religious credentials, the Central Asian Naqshbandiyya are a primary focus of his study. Could not Sirhindi’s rise be more than the “reaction” to Akbar, and rather more, a movement against innovative practices of Sufis, and of the state sponsorship of these practices, and even the codification of “Sufi” theology and ecumenism involving Hindus?

Sirhindi’s opposition was an affront not just to Chishti, or wujudi theology, but also to older Naqshbandiyya practices, and to non-native naivety regarding communal realities. Though one may speculate that Akbar’s experimentation and inconsistency brought about the conditions for Sirhindi’s success, the reasons for Sirhindi’s protest and of its rapid absorption go beyond the policies of Akbar. ‘Reaction’ seems to be an insufficient term for the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya movement. It does appear at one level to have been the synthesis of indigenous Chishti Sufism with a more international stridency of the shari’a outlook. In another place, research could explore a fascinating question of the Mughal’s role in the international process of religious centralization which characterizes the Early Modern period.

The advent of Sirhindi in the expanding context of relations between ruler and religious authority can lead investigators beyond North India and can well precede the 16th century. After a brief review of the literature, which places Sirhindi in a broader Mughal-Sufi history, the opportunity will be taken to extend the focus of analysis to all of India by including the Deccan in the 15th century.

Before the works from the 1960’s began to look at “the Naqshbandiyya reaction,” and before Freidmann’s work on Sirhindi historiography, Maulana Abu’l-Kalam Azad in his 1919 Tadhkira began a tradition during the 20th century of associating Sirhindi with a reaction against the religious syncretism of Akbar, and of identifying him as the personification of the innate urge towards Islamic revivification. The effect Maulana Azad had upon the historiography of the Mujaddid can be seen in the coverage of broad general surveys of Indian history, such as The History and Culture of the Indian People. There, it is reported that Akbar’s attitudes toward other religious practices invited opposition, “(Sirhindi) was a bitter critic of the indulgence shown in this respect by Akbar, although it would be difficult to maintain, as Maulana Azad has done, that he was responsible for uprooting the heresy.”3 But the survey continues, “Syed Ahmad started a reactionary religious movement undoing much of the work of communal reconciliation accomplished by the Chishtiya saints.”4 It seems clear from this important survey, prepared in the early 1950’s, that Azad’s characterization of Sirhindi, whether driven by communitarian or anti-British concerns, made a lasting impression on would-be biographers, and others who would seek to explain the resurgence of elements of Islamic shari’a in the 17th century.

Yohanan Freidmann gives Azad credit for this modern understanding of Sirhindi as a carrier of the puritan impulse, but believed he was driven by the 20th century communitarian struggle and the “rebellious mood of Indian Muslims”5, and thus ignored clues to the Mujaddid’s more complicated Sufi identity. This missing story would give Sirhindi and his time a less polarized picture, and might emphasize the complexity of Sufi ideals co-existing with classical scriptural interpretations. Alas, Azad, according to Friedmann, considered “contemplative tasawwuf as the cause of the torpor that had paralyzed the Muslim community.”6

Many of Maulana Azad’s instincts can be detected in Aziz Ahmad’s account of Sirhindi. Ahmad gives a succinct description of Sirhindi’s preoccupation with Ibn ‘Arabi’s “ontological monism” versus ‘Ala al-Dawla Simnani’s “phenomenological monism”. Through his intellectual achievement, Ahmad argues, Sirhindi is responsible for a grand unification of disparate Islamic elements. He “re-diverted its various streams, orthodox and esoteric, into a single channel.” As with Azad, there is somewhat of a leap from this intellectual achievement to the popular – or even aristocratic – undermining of Akbar’s religious mischief. After all, given the composition of his chapter on the Naqshbandi Reaction, and the prominent place given to Sirhindi’s efforts, it is not difficult to conclude the Mujaddid is the central figure of the reaction. Ahmad says, “there is no doubt his writings and his influence checked the process of Indian Islam’s disintegration into syncretic heresies,” and later, “In a way, he was the pioneer of what modern Islam is today.”

Before addressing the contribution Friedmann has made towards the understanding of Sirhindi and the Islamic revival, more must be said about the gradual undoing of Azad’s picture of Sirhindi as a conservative Naqshbandi Islamist, obsessed by the religious experimentation and bid ͨ at of Akbar. One such challenge to this view came from Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, who forcefully asserts that Sirhindi’s influence and prestige increased most not under Akbar, but rather during Jahangir’s reign.7 According to Nizami, his initial opposition was not driven by Akbar’s ecumenism or anti-communalism, but somewhat conversely, by Akbar’s active intervention in rather orthodox religious matters, which had also become upsetting to much of the nobility. It was further driven by Sirhindi’s perception that the ͨ ulema was engaged in innovative practices, not Akbar.

Subsequently, under Jahangir, the prestige of Sirhindi continued to grow, not so much due to any activist anti-royal opposition, stirred up by the emperor’s interference in religious affairs, but rather and apparently by conjecture, from Jahangir’s reluctance to oppose Sirhindi and pursue his father’s policies. This acquiescence or apathy on the part of the emperor towards the Naqshbandiyya perhaps aroused the jealousy of another court party under the influence of Nur Jahan. In fact, Nazami’s interpretation of the course of Mughal religious history after Akbar can be nearly graphed as a straight line of increasing Islamic orthodoxy, tied first to active Naqshbandiyya intervention in politics, but then their more quiescent intimidation. Nizami concludes that any Islamic revival was the product of ever-increasing Naqshbandiyya activity in the court-life of the Mughals, and was the work of court political ventures of various Naqshbandi sheikhs and nobles, not simply Sirhindi.8

S. A. A. Rizvi devotes a study to the Naqshbandiyya and their history in India throughout the Mughal period. Rizvi is not so concerned specifically with the enforcement of Islamic values against other, more desultory impulses, but rather in detailing the influence that the Naqshbandiyya have had on Indian religious history for its own sake, and in so doing he manages to minimize the impact of Sirhindi. This is in contrast to his notation of the strong pro-shari’a activities of other Naqshbandiyya sheikhs, such as Khwaja Khwand Mahmud and his son, Khwaja Khwand Mu’in al-Din in Kashmir, and the impressive lineage of the Dehli-based disciples of Baqi Bi’llah. When Sirhindi is briefly mentioned, it is with a dismissive notion that his ideas are of a hagiographic nature, embellished by his adherents. Among the claims that Rizvi makes is that Sirhindi insisted it was he who taught Baqi Bi’llah the importance of wahdat al-shuhud , not the other way around. But he does make a clear distinction between the thought of Baqi Billah as found in his Maktubat-i Baqi Bi’llah and other writings, and the views of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi. The emphasis, if not primary focus of the essay is on Baqi Bi’llah and his influence. He notes Akbar is regarded as a “perfect man” in the sense intended by Ibn ‘Arabi, without mentioning its probable Chishti origins. Naqshbandi Sheikh Khwaja Khawand Mahmud in Kashmir had low regard for Sirhindi and was decended from the Central Asian Naqshbandi tradition of Khoja Ahrar. Rizvi cites the Dehli branch of the Naqshbandiyya as a separate locus of shari’a-mindedness, but one which included wadhat al-wujud, and still managing to press for strict enforcement of Hanafi theological revisions to the tariqa’s past acceptance of wadhat al-wujud.

In reading Rizvi’s account, it becomes apparent that he is most impressed by the religious rigor of Naqshbandiyya sheikhs other than Sirhindi. It is never explicitly stated, but one cannot help but conclude that Rizvi is convinced that the increasing communal hostility of the post-Akbarian era cannot possibly be attributed solely – or much at all – to Sirhindi’s Mujaddidiyya. To do so could only be construed as a conflation of other disparate elements of Naqshbandiyya mistakenly attributed to Sirhindi, probably as a result of later hagiographic traditions – like Azad, for example.

Before taking a look at Friedmann, it should be briefly mentioned that he and others have been concerned not only with 17th century receptions of Sirhindi, and their 20th century revisions, but also with the more opaque periods inbetween, during which an oversimplification of Sirhindi’s historical legacy benefitted parties of the growing communitarian contests. Such a misunderstanding occurs when reviewing the late 17th and early 18th century reception of Sirhindi. Reading Sirhindi and his interpreters in this period, as has Friedmann, could dangerously mix the more deeply toxic realities of the religious conditions of the 18th century with a superficial absorption of communal, ethnic and confessional rivalries of the earlier period, and thus lose the political complexities confronted by the minority government of the Mughals.

Yohann Friedmann in his comprehensive study of Sirhindi, attempted to untangle a few of the ironies and contradictions that predominate and continue to shroud the separation of the historical Sirhindi from his historiographical complex – Sirhindi is credited with opposing antinomianisms, and yet privately advocates them. By looking at some of the philosophical heritage of subcontinental Sufism and the associated battle between the two “unities,” Friedmann hoped to diminish the perception of such strong contradiction and relieve some the clutter that has accumulated over the last 90 years. This formed one of the definitive studies on the reception of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi.

Friedmann makes a textual analysis of writings of Sirhindi in the hope of eliminating so much conjecture on his beliefs. Central to his effort is a deeper exploration of Sirhindi’s notion of tajdid. This is a classical notion of renewal of the faith, or more specifically the revivification of “prophetic usage,” the Sunna. It figures prominently in the weltenschauung of Sirhindi, found throughout his Maktubat, and summarized quite extensively by Friedmann.

Tradition speaks of a deterioration of the faith after the prophet is gone, dedicating one’s self to the prophet’s ideals would be the best way to preserve them. Every one hundred years, to assist the faithful in their constant need for renewal, a mujaddid may appear. Accordingly, Ahmad Sirhindi has been given the title, The “Mujaddid of the Second Millennium”.

Friedmann has revealed Sirhindi’s approach to tajdid in considerable detail, and it is in these concepts that he manages to question earlier assertions about the Mujaddid’s 17th century persona. According to Friedmann, the most fundamental concept of mujaddid bears an eschatological aspect relating to the restoration of harmony in the end time or the “hour”, and is a path to God’s kingdom that is necessarily a bleak prospect. The evolution of the mujaddid concept then, might have been a response or a solution to the unpleasant association of renewal with end times and the imminence or near-term necessity of “the hour.”

In his theological philosophy, according to Friedmann, Sirhindi goes much further than tradition or any normative modification, and beyond even most mystical theories that would have been circulating. Sirhindi noted the coming of the new millennium as a portent of a new hierarchy of “realties”, which replaces the divine, Qur’anic and prophetic realities. In the new cosmic order, the prophetic reality draws nigh to or even combines with the divine, leaving the lower, Qur’anic reality open to the millennial arrival of ‘Isa, who thus restores the kingdom.

Freidmann explains Sirhindi reasoned that through the centuries, the human aspect of the prophet has gradually dimmed in relation to his purely spiritual aspect as if inversely correlated. Thus his impact upon humanity has diminished and the human condition has suffered accordingly. His spiritual aspect has strengthened, bringing him closer to God, and making the end times more imminent. Here, Sirhindi is able to return to a more classical notion of the mujaddid, even forestalling the end times through a “super-mujaddid,” in whom holding mankind to account for the damage done by this sort of “overspirtualization” of the prophet can be forestalled. This formulation by Sirhindi that the prophet had only recently in the 1000th year achieved a truly divine nature was controversial.

The innovative formulation of the “common believer” completes this millennial story. This emanates from the Sufi concept of friendship (khalil). A hadith tells the prophet to follow the creed of Ibrahim, in a pursuit of the beloved. This accounts for his historical progress towards spiritualization. The millennial expectation then, has given rise to the need of a common believer to serve the prophet by allowing him to continue his repose with God in the “wilayāt of Muhammad,” and to serve him by preserving the community, which the prophet forged but then abandoned!

It is left open by Friedmann, whether Sirhindi considered himself the mujaddid of the millennium or his so-called common believer. He wrote of his own spiritual development in his Maktubat, and Friedmann has looked there for clues of Sirhindi’s own self-image and it is deeply imbedded in the theosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi, which Freidmann shows us next. It is critically important to note that these formulations of Sirhindi are broad historical conjecture about the state of the religion. They seem fairly remote from immediate concerns over Akbar’s attempts at establishing a new relationship between religious authority and the Mughal state. Friedmann successfully calls these older generalization into question.

Sirhindi discusses his views on wahdat al-wujud, the Unity of Being, a name often used to describe the theological mysticism of Ibn al-‘Arabi, which stresses the unity of the creator/creation polarity in a register beyond the world of sensory perception, and only assessable to an elect group of gnostics. At the very least, Ibn ‘Arabi’s cosmological topography, as articulated by a chain of late-13th and 14th century interpreters, had become, in many Sufi circles, the primary intellectual locus of debate about the relationship between man, God and the world. This then would be essential to Sirhindi in order to elaborate his innovative views of the prophet and God, and their post-millenial position towards man. In her review of Friedmann’s book, Anne Marie Schimmel notes that mystics could not possibly hope to write poetry or prose without the benefit of the imagery of Ibn ‘Arabi. Yet the picture of Sirhindi as the Naqshbandi preserver of shari’a in the face of Wujudi worldliness presupposes hostility to Chishti wujudism, which had found favor with Akbar. Schimmel does not agree with Freidmann’s assertion that Sirhindi never adopted Wujudism, but regardless of this, one comes away from this with a more ambiguous view of Sirhindi with respect to Ibn ‘Arabi. A little more discussion of this is warranted.

Around the time of Sirhindi, Sufi pirs and the scholarly ‘ulema naturally viewed these images and relationships very differently. Frequently, Ibn ‘Arabi’s texts including the fusus al-hikam and the futuhat al-makkiyya along with later commentaries and super-commentaries would provide the fuel for debate. Prior to the Mughal invasion of India, in Herat, Jami, the renowned poet and Naqshbandi espoused a favorable view of Ibn ‘Arabi, and by the time of Akbar, the Chishti line, which for a time had become more intimate with the royal house, saw their own doctrinal rhetoric, including advocacy of wahdat al-wujud, acquire a correspondingly more muscular expression, being “elaborated in a much more forceful tone,”9 but even with the Chishti line, this was not always the case. A khalifa of the preeminent Chishti shaykh, Nasiruddin Mahmud (d. 1356), Sayyid Muhammad Gesu Daraz (d. 1422) was a powerful Chishti sheikh and was intimate with both the courts of the Tughlug and Bahmani empires. He was a vocal critic of wahdat al-wujud, and though according to S.S. Khusro Husayni, probably was not a devotee of Ala’ al-Dawla al-Simnani, the Iranian Kubrawi shaykh who largely formulated the alternative cosmology of wahdat al-shuhud, he followed very similar beliefs. Gesu Daraz could not accept the “static” abstraction in a notion of absolute being as a meaningful manifestation of God for the benefit of Man’s understanding. Rather, he, as Simnani before him, preferred the creation of man and his actions (af‘al), which inform the principals of God’s self-knowledge. This self-knowledge governs the external relationship between Man and God, again according to Gesu Daraz and Simnani. Hussaini is very careful to note that there is no evidence that Simnani was well-known to Gesu Daraz, but one is left to wonder how these two nearly contemporary Sufis developed such similar arguments. The Wujudi credentials of the Chishti line are thus not clear-cut.

According to Freidmann, Sirhindi admitted accepting Ibn al-‘Arabi initially but later rejected his principals in lieu of God’s inability to be united with anything. Sirhindi thus favors an interpretation more compatible with al-sunna wa’l-jama’a. Modern scholars have accepted this self-characterization as fact. Freidmann feels there is very little evidence that Sirhindi ever fully accepted Ibn al-‘Arabi and in fact was on record early on, as favoring al-Simnani.

James Morris points out that Simnani had faced a situation in the early 14th century, which threatened the purity of traditional Islamic practices under the ambiguous religious impulses of the Il-Khans, as they struggled to replace the foundations of religious authority destroyed by them in 1258. There is thus an interesting implication that Sirhindi may have seen his own situation in similar terms, and anticipated the danger of the accommodative theology of the Chishti-Sabiri Sufi order, from which his own family had come.

The personal investigation into Ibn ‘Arabi, by Sirhindi through his Chishti training, was contemporaneous to a number of extraordinary developments in the religious dimensions of India. The context of Sirhindi’s religious education during which the religious policies of the second half of the reign of Akbar turned the religious scholar’s world upside down is of the utmost importance. The vicissitudes of the sultan’s attention to Islam and between religious communities, must have engendered strong polarities of opinion, especially in elite religious circles. Certainly, an ecumenical theology could have been seen as one that contributed to the deterioration of the Islamic ideal, but so too could interference from a well-meaning potentate.

Just what content Sirhindi might have obtained from Simnani is not immediately apparent, other than to say he accepted the wahdat al-shuhudi formula as 1) bringing the notions of Ibn ‘Arabi in line with Shari’a, and the traditions 2) providing the philosophical foundation for his innovative Mujaddidi ideology 3) aligning his following with forces against leniency and indifference to religious heterogeneity and 4) remaining largely within the normative principles of Naqshbandiyya sufism. I was not able to discover any connections between the Shuhudi Chishti, Gesu Daraz and Sirhindi, other than their Chishti Sufism.

According to Friedmann, it is likely that Sirhindi described the sequence of events along his spiritual development as a traditional sufi pathway of supreme understanding. A sufi, for example, may achieve a very high level of mystical insight, and then later “return” to the sensory world of man with a new sense of reality, only without the hidden-ness of the divine. Likewise, Sirhindi dove into the study of wahdat al-wujud, exploring its interpretation of divine and temporal reality, only to return to the world, thus conforming closely to the doctrine of wahdat al-shuhud, the unity of what is perceived, or what God allow us to see, if you will. He argues he needed to understand Ibn al-‘Arabi, in order to reject it as innovation beyond original intent. In this process, Buehler argues, Sirhindi manages to place in rank the superiority of prophethood or nubuwwa to that of wilayat, sainthood, or more exactly, closeness to God. In returning to the lower regions of the cosmos, the enlightened, close-to-God Sufi perfects himself in returning to Shari’a in this world. The flipping over of prophethood and closeness to God is an innovative solution to the relationship between Shari’a and Sufism. S.S. Khusro Hussaini suggests a possible source of Sirhindi’s shuhudi notions was indeed from Sirhindi’s previous Sufi affiliations in the Chishti order. Gesu Diraz was an important expositor of the refutation of purely wujudi ideas of the primacy of absolute being in favor of primacy of action.

Unquestionably, Friedmann rejects the characterization of Sirhindi as completely hostile to Ibn al-‘Arabi. In private correspondences, Sirhindi believes his hierarchy of “realities” is a better way of looking at things, but might be misunderstood by bigots, traditionalists and undoubtedly, mystics. Thus his views on the prophet and tradition are not without a certain ambiguity. Further, the author notes Sirhindi’s spelling analogue of Muhammad and Ahmad, and the removal of the mim when Muhammad is united with his beloved as a possible clue to a divine self-image reminiscent of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s khatam al-awliya’, or seal of the saints, a self-image promoted as relating to the classical notion of seal of the prophet.

Finally the author concludes that Sirhindi had ecstatic, innovative inspiration throughout his life, though publicly this was restrained. He also had a increasingly strong belief in his own mission as it related to reviving Islam, and notwithstanding his assertions of divine guidance, was under a certain amount of influence of the Sufi teachings of Simnani and their mutual circumspection of especially Ibn al-‘Arabi’s spiritual topography.

Finally Friedmann adds several smaller considerations to the traditionalist view of Sirhindi. For example, Sirhindi’s relationship with the court was ostensibly governed by certain tenants of the Naqshabandiyya order. One of their principals – in contrast to most Sufi tariqa orders – is to engage with earthly concerns and the ruling class. But interestingly, at many times, he is stridently advising against participating in the worldly affairs of state, and the Mughal court. He argues that this practice has a corrupting effect on religious persons.

Sirhindi, in his letters shows that he had acted as a community notable, exercising influence on behalf of those who sought his assistance in dealing with the state. He exchanged letters with important officials of the state, though with undetermined effect. More recent interpretations of Sirhindi’s role seem to have been taken from the hagiographical literature in which his role is highly esteemed. This is curious given Sirhindi was imprisoned by Jahangir for promoting religious mischief and impertinence.

After his release, Sirhindi enjoyed an accommodative rapport with the court, and correspondences with his sons about his relations with Jahangir claim to have made some progress in enforcing pietistic principals. But the author claims that in the end, there is not much proof of any real influence or any corresponding policy shifts by Jahangir. There is no resumption of the jizya for example, or removal of hindu influence from the royal household or court, two very important issues for Sirhindi.

In conclusion and as a result of the arguments made in his book, Freidmann regards the image of Sirhindi as a major force for change within the Mughal state, as one developed only after his death and probably much later. Letters written to Sirhindi by respected theologians that have survived, show a different reception of Sirhindi’s views than the one which ultimately emerged.

One such letter criticizes Sirhindi for his reckless remarks about the prophet and his own place vis a vis the prophet and Ibrahim. Another chastises him for his lack of regard for the spiritual union that Sufi’s are able to pursue to the satisfaction of a number of pirs of the time.

Besides the hagiographic literature, which supplies several accounts of great influence being exercised by Sirhindi, Qusuri produced the Ma’arij al-Wilayah, in which the decree of Aurangzeb states that followers of Sirhindi’s controversial ideas should be punished according to shari’a law. There were other strong condemnations issued from the ‘ulema of the Hejaz, though it is apparent that this was not unanimous. The criticism of Sirhindi was directed very precisely towards his self-image as mujaddid of the millennium, and his placement of the “reality of Muhammad” below the “reality of the Kaba”.

A major supporter of Sirhindi’s views was Muhammad Beg al-Uzbaki who suggested that the proscribed views were distortions of his actual principals surrounding the prophet’s spiritualization and 1000 year process of perfection. The question remains though, despite the apparent absence of influence exerted by Sirhindi on Aurangzeb, did in fact his earnest attempts to recapture the purity of ahl al-sunna wa’l-jama’ah turn the tide against rationalist views like Akbar and the less antinomian, but somewhat indifferent actions of Jahangir? Aurangzeb proscribed Sirhindi’s views, but he seems to have ultimately been “his kind of Sultan.”

His relationship with Jahangir and his posthumous influence on Aurangzeb is never unambiguous, and can probably be seen in a variety of ways, but he author would like to stress, I believe, that through it all, it is important to note Sirhindi’s measured regard for Ibn al-‘Arabi, his essential Sufi outlook and his fairly controversial views on the prophet, the millennium and his own place in the pantheon of mujaddids. This therefore is an essential assertion that Sirhindi’s “movement” was created well after his death, and his writings, whether orthodox and anitnomian, must be interpreted as being received initially by a fairly limited audience, and later picked up as an inspiration for Islamic idealism.

Irfan Habib offers an even stronger rebuke toward the so-called “Islamic” school of historiography. As we have noted above, this school feels Sirhindi is largely responsible for the undoing of Akbar’s campaign of religious syncretism. They argue that through his communication with important ministers Sirhindi was able to force Jahangir to abandon his father’s policies.

In his article, The Political Role of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah, Habib argues that it is very open to debate whether or not Jahangir ever abandoned policies of his father. He claims there is no evidence of it, and on the contrary, Jahangir lavishes considerable praise upon the policies of his father. He adds Sirhindi was imprisoned, not for condemning the Sultan’s corruption of Islam, but for stiring up trouble and writing highly controversial Sufi-based exaggerations about his own religious experiences and theology.

The Islamic school, according to Habib, also contends that Sirhindi was influential over the eventual Shahjahan, which the author finds odd, given his support for the Jahangir’s attempts to suppress the prince’s activities.

Finally, the author takes exception to the contention that Sirhindi’s thought played an important role in the strident pro-Islamic policies of Aurangzeb. The letters of the late seventeenth century sultan are available in the Adab-i Alamriri, and it contains not one single reference to Ahmed Sirhindi. The implication is that if there had been any influence, it was not great.

In the end, the author is as much concerned about the uncritical acceptance of these posthumous formulations of Sirhindi’s historical persona by modern secular historians, as he is the Islamic school itself. He cites for example the historians Nizami and Tripathi in this vein.

In The Naqshbandi Reaction Reconsidered, David Damrel analyzes the 17th century rise of the Naqshbandiyya to prominence in India, and questions whether this was a reaction to the ambiguity and syncretism of Akbar’s religious policies. His syncretism was intellectually supported by the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud of Ibn al-‘Arabi, as it had developed in India, and was nurtured by the Chishti Sufi order. Further, the author notes a variety of modern scholars recognize in the documentary evidence an appreciation for the receptivity of Vedantism, and toward the alleged pantheism of “the unity of being” arguments.

The development of wahdat al-shuhud was asserted as an answer to this pantheistic heresy which threatened to ultimately absorb Islam into a syncretistic Hinduism. Ahmed Sirhindi, and his Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi order then was the champion of the exclusivist reaction to the corruption facilitated by Akbar, but probably brought on earlier by the Chishti sheikhs, including Abd’ al-Quddus Gangohi (d. 1537.) The author finds these dialectics of Chishti-Naqshbandi and al-Quddus-Sirhindi potentially simplistic and pursues an analytical line that anticipates a much more complicated picture.

Al-Quddus was a Chishti sheikh and was politically aligned somewhat to the Afghani-Lodi armies at the end of the Delhi Sultanates. He wrote a number of commentaries of Ibn ‘Arabi’s material including the Fusus al-Hikam and the Lama’at of Fakhr al-Din ‘Iraqi. He also wrote the Rushd-nama, a guidebook for his disciples, which contains some Yogic practices, and the Maktubat-i Quddusi.

Oddly enough one of the more prominent disciples of al-Quddus, and particularly of his son, was the father of Sirhindi. Thus Sirhindi spend his early life in pursuit of the Chishti spiritual path, wherein he acknowledges becoming thoroughly involved in the philosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi. In 1599 en route to the Hajj, he met a Naqshbandi sheikh in Delhi, Khwaja Baqi Billah Birangi. At this point Sirhindi became a sheikh of this order residing in Sirhind.

Rather than the differences between the two sheikhs, the author wishes to focus on the similarities of al-Quddus and Sirhindi, even though separated by some two or three generations, in the hope of isolating the Chishti roots of Sirhindi.

Al-Quddus addressed a number of letters to major Indian political figures. Despite the usual presumption of aversion to worldly concerns these letters often entail the maintenance of stipends for the religious elite. He communicated with Sikandar Lodi and Babur, the later despite the traditional association of Timurids with Naqshbandi pirs. In this correspondence, he suggested to Babur that he honor the shari’a and continue to levy the jizya. He also wrote to Humayun, and in other correspondences is alleged to have lamented the indifference of the sultan to strengthening the Islamic character of his rule.

Sirhindi wrote in very similar vein to Jahangir, as we have noted above, rarely prevailing upon his largess, but certainly expressing caution on non-Muslim service. The contradictions previously noted with Sirhindi about his private notions of prophecy and renewal in the context of a transcendental reality that utilizes Ibn ‘Arabi’s spiritual topography, versus his public advocacy of shari’a and anti-Hindu practices conforms stunningly to the same inconsistency exhibited by al-Quddus. The author carefully notes his “intimacy with Hindu religious thought” while objecting to Hindus in government service.

There is little evidence of Naqshbandi opposition or hostility to non-Muslims in general or Hindus in particular. In fact the order has been recognized for its strong missionary activity in Central Asia, implying at least some comfort with non-Muslim populations. Ironically they managed almost no conversions in pre-Sirhindi times, and remained in the Mughal court an order of the elite, and hardly a popular pro-shari’a movement. So then where does Sirhindi’s attitudes toward non-Muslim come from? The author believes this clearly comes from his experience with Indian Sufism rather than the Central Asian transplant Naqshbandiyya.

It is true that the two sheikhs having divergent views with respect to dhikr and sama’, and while they both share a strong admiration of Ibn al-‘Arabi, only al-Quddus is consistent in his support for the great sheikh. Besides these differences though, it is stressed by the author that the prejudices that Sirhindi expresses, preceed his coming to Dehli in 1599. In addition it is suggested that the dual dimensions of the prophet, the body and spirit as represented by the two mims in Muhammad have a precedent in the science of numbers and letters that was common coin in pre-modern times. This is specifically evident as early as Shabistari’s Gulshan-i Ruz, and especially in the theology of the Chishti-Shabiri Sufis and in al-Quddus. This leads to several conclusions:

  1. Sirhindi’s spiritual constitution does not stem from Naqshbandi tradition but from Chishti-Shabiri and pirs like al-Quddus. They share attitudes toward non-Muslims, qualified support for the Mughal court, a common interest in Ibn al-‘Arabi, and tendency toward mystical letter symbolism.

  1. His opinion on dhikr and sama’ are the only few instances of a Naqshbandiyya attitude, and he was on record possessing those predispositions prior to 1599.

  1. The new Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidi order was successful in recruiting Chishtis due to the integration of Chishti views along the lines discussed above, and did not conform to the Central Asian version of the Naqshbandi order also operating in India.

  1. The view of the Naqshbandi of Sirhindi leading the revival of shari’a against the syncretism pursued by the ecumenical Akbar, and then forcing the hand of the Mughal courts of Jahangir and Aurangzeb does not survive careful scrutiny.

Our last text to address these issues is, The Mughals, The Sufi Sheikhs and the Akbari Dispensation of Muzaffar Alam. Alam is not concerned specifically with the theology of Sirhindi, where Friedmann had discovered a text that could not provide a foundation for religious purification. Rather, in his article, Alam looks at the political stage into which Sirhindi enters. It is one which finds the Mughal emperor indifferent to his Timurid Sufi past, and inclined to develop an organic dispensation at different times, Islamic and at least accommodative to the diversity of the Indian subcontinent. To the extent Mughal attention was shifted towards the Chishti or the Sheikh, Thanisari, Baqi Billah and Sirhindi felt the formidable court resources drifting further away, and towards endangering righteous Islamic institutions. Alam’s evidence supports those who feel the Sirhindi could not possibly have been motivated in such a way as to advocate the purification of Islam against syncretism and Hindu and Wujudi influences. The hostility was much more directed towards a Chishti-Mughal power center that could upset the status quo of Muslim institutional dominance. Alam writes,

From the mid-1570s, we see the unmistakable signs of Akbar moving

away from the pattern of Islamic rulership of the erstwhile Timurids,

shared on occasion and in a measure with members of the nobility

and the Naqshbandi Sufi lineage. Instead, Akbar favoured a kind of

universal kingship, emphasizing an undisputed and all-encompassing10

Transoxianian Naqshbandiyya were imbued with the tasawwuf of Khuja Ahrar and his considerable political and socioeconomic shadow was slow to recede from the consciousness of the Mughal elite. Religious legitimacy in the late Timurid period of Central Asian and Khurasanian rule derived mostly from these Naqshbandiyya sheikhs, specifically the Khoja’s desciples.

Later, Sirhindi was exposed to the path of the Naqshbandiyya order, which has been notable for its encouragement of association with political power. The order believed these practices were the best means of keeping their actions in accordance Islamic traditions if not in complete conformation with Shari’a. Yet, Sirhindi recorded a number a formulations, if discretely revealed, which exposed dramatically innovative views of religious authority, which were sure to have excited consternation among traditionalists.

Further, while Sirhindi is identified as a proponent of tradition and hostile to syncretistic tendencies or accommodative confessional posturing, the Naqshbandiyya order had nonetheless been closely associated with the Timurid origins of Mughal state, whose most famous sultan, Akbar, had essentially invented a new relationship between religious authority and the state. The Central Asian Naqshbandiyya had been ill at ease in the court of the emperors, and in the years prior to Sirhindi’s emergence as one of their leaders, had become estranged from their fellow Turanis. \ALAM, MUZAFFAR. “The Mughals, the Sufi Shaikhs and the Formation of the Akbari Dispensation.” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 01 (2009): 135-174.

Algar, Hamid. “The Naqshbandī Order: A Preliminary Survey of Its History and Significance.” Studia Islamica, no. 44 (1976): 123-152.
Farooqi, Naimur Rahman. Medieval India: Essays on Sufism, Diplomacy, and History. 1st ed. Allahabad: Laburnum Press, 2006.

Friedmann, Yohanan. Shaykh Amad Sirhindī: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity. Montreal: McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, 1971.

Husain, Tasadduq. “The Spiritual Journey of Dara Shukoh.” Social Scientist 30, no. 7/8 (August 2002): 54-66.
Iqtidar Alam Khan. “The nobility under Akbar and the development of his religious policy, 1560-80” (1968): 29-36.
James Winston Morris. “Ibn ʿArabi and His Interpreters Part II (Conclusion): Influences and Interpretations.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 107, no. 1 (March 1987): 101-119.
Khan, Iqtidar Alam. “Akbar's Personality Traits and World Outlook: A Critical Reappraisal.” Social Scientist 20, no. 9/10 (October 1992): 16-30.


 Muzaffar Alam, “The Mughals, the Sufi Shaikhs and the Formation of the Akbari Dispensation,” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 01 (2009): 135-174.

2  David Damrel, “The ‘Naqshbandi Reaction’ Reconsidered,” in Beyond Turk and Hindu : Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, David Gilmartin and Bruce Lawrence, eds., (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida,)

3 M.W. Mirza, “Islam,” The History and Culture of the Indian People, Vol. 5, ed. Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1951) 672

4 M.W. Mirza.

5 Yohanan Friedmann, Shaykh Amad Sirhindī: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity (Montreal: McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies, 1971) 106-7

6 Friedmann

7K.A. Nazami, “Naqshbandi Influence on Mughal Rulers and Politics,” Islamic Culture 39 (1965): 41-52.


9 Muzaffar Alam

10 Muzaffar Alam, “The Mughals, the Sufi Shaikhs and the Formation of the Akbari Dispensation, ”Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 01 (2009): 135-174.

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