he early centuries of Islam a group of religious-
minded people called sufis turned to asceticism and
mysticism in protest against the growing materialism
of the Caliphate as a religious and political institution.
They were critical of the dogmatic definitions and
scholastic methods of interpreting the Qur’an and sunna
(traditions of the Prophet) adopted by theologians.
Instead, they laid emphasis on seeking salvation
through intense devotion and love for God by following
His commands, and by following the example of the
Prophet Muhammad whom they regarded as a perfect
human being. The sufis thus sought an interpretation
of the Qur’an on the basis of their personal experience.
6.1 Khanqahs and silsilas
By the eleventh century Sufism evolved into a well-
developed movement with a body of literature on
Quranic studies and sufi practices. Institutionally,
the sufis began to organise communities around the
hospice or khanqah (Persian) controlled by a teaching
master known as shaikh (in Arabic), pir or murshid (in
Persian). He enrolled disciples (murids) and appointed
a successor (khalifa). He established rules for spiritual
conduct and interaction between inmates as well as
between laypersons and the master.
Sufi silsilas began to crystallise in different parts of
the Islamic world around the twelfth century. The word
silsila literally means a chain, signifying a continuous
link between master and disciple, stretching as an
unbroken spiritual genealogy to the Prophet Muhammad.
It was through this channel that spiritual power and
blessings were transmitted to devotees. Special rituals
of initiation were developed in which initiates took an
oath of allegiance, wore a patched garment, and shaved
When the shaikh died, his tomb-shrine (dargah, a
Persian term meaning court) became the centre of
devotion for his followers. This encouraged the practice
of pilgrimage or ziyarat to his grave, particularly on
his death anniversary or urs (or marriage, signifying
the union of his soul with God). This was because
people believed that in death saints were united with
God, and were thus closer to Him than when living.
People sought their blessings to attain material and
spiritual benefits. Thus evolved the cult of the shaikh
revered as wali 6.2 Outside the khanqah
Some mystics initiated movements based on a
radical interpretation of sufi ideals. Many scorned
the khanqah and took to mendicancy and observed
celibacy. They ignored rituals and observed extreme
forms of asceticism. They were known by different
names – Qalandars, Madaris, Malangs, Haidaris,
etc. Because of their deliberate defiance of the shari‘a
they were often referred to as be-shari‘a, in contrast
to the ba-shari‘a sufis who complied with it.