Sufi or Sufism is related to Islam. The Sufis originally drew their ideas from certain verses of the Quran and Hadith i.e. traditions of the prophet. Their difference with orthodox Muslims lay in the fact that while the latter interpreted the Quran and Hadith in a literal way, the Sufis gave a mystic interpretation to them.
Sufism flourished in Persia where from the Sufi saints had fled to Kabul due of Safavi persecution. It may be recalled that Akbar’s mother, who was the daughter of a Persian scholar and was influenced by Sufism, sowed the seeds of toleration in the mind of her son, Akbar. His early life in Kabul also brought him in contact with Sufism.
Sufism believed in communion between man and God through loving devotion. It is somewhat akin to Bhakti cult. Sufism had its own practices and did not always conform to the rituals of orthodox Islam. For instance singing, dancing etc. not permitted by the Muslim ulamas were considered by the Sufis as methods of reaching an ecstatic stage which would bring them nearer to God. Although the Sufis accepted Muhammad as prophet and the authority of the Quran in course of time they drew diverse religious practices from different religions. Sufism had been likened to a stream that gathered volume by joining of tributaries from many lands.
Sufism found its way into India during the eleventh and twelfth centuries when many Sufi saints came to India particularly in Multan and Lahore of the Punjab. The most celebrated of these Sufi saints was Khwaja Muinuddin Chisti who came to Lahore from Ghazni in 1161 and settled in Ajmer under Prithviraj. Muinuddin Chisti is the greatest Sufi and holds the highest position of honor in the history of Sufism. He died in either 1235 or 1236 at Ajmer where his tomb is still today a place of pilgrimage for many.
Muinuddin Chisti founded the Chisti order of the Sufis in India. Shaikh Farid Shakarganj (1175-1265) belonged to the Chisti order of the Sufis, Shaikh Farid was one of the earliest contributors to Punjabi language and his writings are regarded as the earliest specimens of Punjabi. Some of his contributions were incorporated in the Adi Granth by Guru Arjan and Shaikh Farid is known in Sikh tradition as Baba Farid. Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325) settled near Delhi where his tomb is also a shrine and centre of devotion and proselytism.
Apart from the Chisti order another Sufi order that dominated the Muslim thought during the thirteenth and early years of the fourteenth centuries was Suhrawardy order founded by Sheikh Bahauddin Zakariya.
Besides the Chisti and Suhrawardy orders two more Sufi orders were founded by Sayyid Ghaus Wala Pir and Shaikh Abdul Shattari in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century Khwaja Baqi Billah founded the Naqshbandi order.
During the sixteenth and earlier part of the eighteenth the Sufi poets made great contribution to Punjabi literature. Sufi poetry appealed to the heart of the common people and became very popular among all classes of people of the Punjab. Spiritual urges are expressed in terms of simple objects familiar to common folk, such as the spinning wheel, the Persian wheel, the dancing dervishes, characters drawn from popular mythology Hindu as well as Muslim.
Among the Sufis of this period the names of Sultan Bahu, Hafiz Barkhurdar Wajid, Ali Haidar, Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah deserve mention. Sultan Bahu was a mystic dervish. He expressed himself in passionate poetry of devotion and renunciation. Shah Hussain was a fakir given to free way of life, loved by the people for his sincerity of passion and devotion, but reproved by the orthodox Muslims. The song-lyrics practiced by Hussain and other Sufi poets is known as Kafi. Bulheh Shah was, however, the prince of the Sufi poets.
Some sects were founded in the seventeenth century which emphasized the unity of religions between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Under Shah Jahan, the renowned Sufi and author Shaikh Muhibbullah Allahabadi wrote a commentary on Quarn from sufistic view point.
Lastly, it may be pointed out that Sufism helped the spread of Islam in India by emphasizing social equality of all men. Many of the Sufis were men of great learning; they were guides to good life. They are “thought of as forming a bridge of understanding with the Hindu Bhakti movement, with their emphasis on the inner life and the unity of all believers in one God”.