Sheikh Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi & his impact on some Indian Sufi Mystics



Andalusia's Ibn al-Arabi, or Ibn Arabi—commonly known as Shaikh-e-Akbar (the greatest Sufi master)—was one of the brightest Muslim mystics who rescued the soul of Islam from the clutches of literalist extremists. His religious thoughts and mystical theories propounded an inclusivist and pluralistic theology in the spirit of Sufism. He professed and practiced Islam as the religion of unconditional love (muhabbat-e-a'am) and as a spiritual path to eternal salvation through the prism of Wahdat-ul-Wajud (the unity of existence). Both his deen (faith) and shariat (law) were translated into inclusive love and a wide embrace for one and all. Therefore, the extremist forces within Islam frowned upon his teachings, his intellectual moorings, and the scholarly Sufi tradition he left behind, as they challenge the exclusivist and divisive sects and schools of thought even today.

Indian Sufi mystics espoused one of the foundational principles enshrined in our constitution today: the freedom of religion. They maintained that coercion in matters of religion goes against the spirit of every religion. But the puritanical Wahabi ulema, motivated by vested political interests and worldly temptations, denounced them and their egalitarian ideas, declaring them heretics and misguided. Nevertheless, the Akbarite Sufis vigorously carried on with their lofty humane pursuits and fruitful social work, particularly for the poor and other downtrodden sections of society. Thus, they became more influential in religious and spiritual matters than the orthodox ulema among Indian Muslims.

In India, the greatest Chishti saint who had the most important role in preaching Islam and Sufism was Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti Gharib Nawaz R.A., who left his abode in Herat, Afghanistan, in search of higher spiritual ideals. Traveling across Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia, Khwaja Sahib settled only in India. Inspired by the early Sufi masters, including those who believed in Wahdat-ul-Wajud, like his Murshid (spiritual master) Khwaja Usman Hairooni, he also focused on Wahdat (the Essential Unity) and loving all creations of God for the sake of God. Therefore, his lineage and tradition fostered an amicable understanding between Indian Muslims and non-Muslims. At a time when India was struggling to rise above the differentiators of caste and creed, the Akbarite Sufis in India stressed the essential message of ''Wahdat''. This was clearly one of the most glorious impacts of Ibn Arabi's thoughts on Indian-Muslim society, which was integrated into a melting pot of various faith traditions deeply influenced by mystics. I would like to reproduce a few glimpses of how Indian Muslim mystics were inspired by Ibn Arabi, as follows:

Ibn Arabi and Jhulelal

Sindh's most popular mystic, Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, more popularly known as "Jhulelal," was the 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet who built the Sufi tradition of Sindh. He was an ardent follower of Ibn Arabi's path of unconditional love. Wahdatul Wujood is the bedrock of the entire spiritual legacy of Qalandar in the region.

Ibn Arabi and Bulleh Shah

Another Muslim mystic of the subcontinent who draws great inspiration from Ibn Arabi's ontology is the 18th-century Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, who suffered similar torment all his life from the fanatic clerics. His poetry and the direct and lucid style underpinned by Wahdatul Wajud have had a very strong appeal across organized religions and religious and national boundaries. Punjab was fractured amid the partition of India, resulting in widespread communal violence in 1947. And yet the Sufi lyrics of Bulleh Shah—whether through the performances by well-known Sikh or Muslim singers or through the popular selections continually issued by Indian and Pakistani publishers in either Hindi or Urdu scripts—continue to evoke a magical vision from the past of timeless Unity of the Being (Wahdat), which transcends the modern divisions of mankind, writes Christopher Shackle. 

Regrettably enough, he was persecuted even when he took his last breath. The fanatic clergy did not allow burying the dead body of Bulleh Shah in the Muslim graveyard. Three days passed after his death, but his remains were not buried. Finally, they had to be taken outside city limits for burial. The reason why Bulleh Shah had to go through this painful suffering is crystal clear. He defied the religious narrative of fanaticism and hatred towards other faiths and, in the process, ran into trouble with the extremist clergy of his time. Furthermore, this Punjabi Sufi professed and offered the namaz-e-ishq (prayer for love), which is also castigated as deviance in the puritan Islam. In fact, the musically inclined experiences of Islam went beyond the head of the literalist Islamist clergy, who sentenced Sufis to death with the charges (fatwas), declaring their writings and utterances as antithetical to Islamic shariah. On account of their non-conformist views, like the notion of Wahdatul Wajud (the unity of existence), these Sufis were declared apostates (murtad). They were punished and persecuted for being falsely accused of "deviation" (inhiraf) from the Sharia (Islamic laws).

Ibn Arabi and Shah Waliullah Dehlavi

Dr. Yusuf Husain, the author of ''Glimes Of Medieval Indian Culture' says that : "Sheikh Mujaddid's theory of "Modified Monoism" silenced all discussion on Theoretical Mysticism in India for nearly a century, but it was Shah Waliullah Muhaddis Dehlavi who re-opened the controversy afresh. Shah Waliullah Muhaddis Dehlavi, in his illuminating treatise Faisalah Wahdatul Wujud Wash Shuhud (Judgement On The Doctrine Of The 'Unity Of Being' And Apartentism) sought to reconcile and synthesize the two diametrically opposite interpretations of the Wajud.

Shah Saheb describes that he saw a large number of 'Awliya' (godly men) who were divided into two groups. One group looked fresh with their faces shining, and the other consisted of people with dark and drawn faces. The first group belonged to those who constantly engaged in Zikr (remembrance of Allah), while the latter were those who professed the doctrine of the "Wahdatul Wajud" and those who devoted themselves to penetrating the mystery of Existence. In his "Tafhimaat-e-Ilahiyah", Shah Waliullah asserts that in the mystic path, the Stage of the "Apartentism" Is Higher than that of the "Unity of Bing".

Shaikh ul Akbar's doctrine of mystical philosophy, which flung an imposing challenge against orthodox Mullaism in his days, continues even today to have an enormous influence on the Mystical Muslim Thoughts. 

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The author is a Delhi-based research scholar on Sufism. His works have been published by different reputed journals on Islam and its mysticism. He is affiliated with Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India.