How Did Sufis Spread Islam in India?
By Andy Wright
Sufi Shrine of Hazrat Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, India. (Flickr)
“There are two domains of knowledge: those deeply embedded in the humanities, and those that straddle the social sciences,” said University of Arizona History professor Richard Eaton. “I’m more interested on focusing on the latter: why did the past turn out the way it did?”
Eaton’s Athenaeum talk on Thursday November 29 soon took a turn in this vein. An acclaimed author in the fields of India, Persia and Islamic Cultures, Eaton’s latest research asked a very important question.
Why did Islam become so dominant in some parts of South Asia?
“Why did Islam become so dominant in some parts of South Asia?” Despite a strong Hindu tradition, there is and has been an even more potent Islamic faction in India, particularly in the western Punjab and eastern Bengal regions. Eaton’s sociological approach led him to question the standard reasoning for this disparity.
“The usual explanation for this pattern in the past has been that Sufis converted Hindus to Islam,” said Eaton. However, he had at least one major counter-point to show why this probably wasn’t true: “There’s no direct evidence.” The Sufi sheikhs focused little to none of their power on converting Hindus. Yet, when asked who had converted them, many citizens of Punjab replied that “the sheikhs” had, even though they had been dead for, in most cases, hundreds and hundreds of years.
The best explanation Eaton could come up with for Punjab was based upon two factors. “Firstly, the lives of the sheikhs were written up in great detail [in Persian texts that most people knew].”
While these stories did get the message of Islam out to the people, an arguably more important aspect was the physical manifestation of the Sufis.
It was a common practice for certain people in power to build shrines to dead Sufi “saints,” in order to honor them and garner some of the public respect the “saints” possessed. These shrines are so intricately designed and kept in such high regard that going to them elicits a spiritual response from many people. This, Eaton believes, is how conversion by a long-dead sheikh is possible.
In Bengal, the conversion was not nearly as formal. “The Sufis were not associated with orders, nor writings, nor shrines,” said Eaton. “Instead, they reside in popular ballads and folk stories.” Certain Sufi leaders have reputations as great heroes for introducing rice agriculture and claiming the jungle for society. This reputation in turn was imparted to the religion of Islam, leading once again to mass conversion.
In a manner very typical of an academic, Eaton summed up his lecture with a grand overview of how “Sufis were indirectly instrumental in Islamization.” His next statement went above and beyond traditional academic obligations.
“We all inhabit different departments,” Eaton said in reference to the closed-minded scholars who were his predecessors in researching either India or Islam. “By tearing down [the walls