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Sufi Orders in 18th–19th-Century South Asia  

Moin Ahmad Nizami

For Muslims of South Asia the 18th–19th century was a period of consequential developments. With increasing colonial interventions and economic disruptions, it was also marked by movements of tajdīd (revival) in the socio-religious sphere that has influenced modernist understandings of Islam. These attempts to revive and restore a new vigor in Muslim communities were at once local and global—something that religious leaders in South Asia shared with their counterparts in other parts of the Muslim world. Among the overarching religious trends of this period may be included multiple affiliations within different Sufi orders, and a Sufi-ʿālim (Sufi-scholar) rapprochement. This enabled the coalescing of different Sufi orders and provided a religious leadership that could cater to both the educational and spiritual needs of the Muslim communities. Among the different Sufi orders of the period, the Naqshbandīs remained at the forefront of such revival efforts, with the lead provided in north India by Shāh Walīullāh (d. 1762). His attempts at an unprecedented tatbīq (reconciliation) provided the ideological underpinning for many later developments. The Naqshbandīs in Delhi produced some of the key religious thinkers and poets during the two centuries—Mīr Dard (d. 1785), Mirzā Maẓhar (d. 1781), Shāh Ghulām ʿAlī (d. 1825), and Shāh Abū Saʿīd Mujaddidī (d. 1835), among others. Their teachings and influence were not restricted to Delhi but spread quickly and made an impact in the Hijaz and elsewhere. Simultaneously, there was a revival of the two major branches of the Chishtī order—the Chishtī-Niẓāmī and the Chishtī-Ṣābrī—in different parts of the subcontinent. Over the 18th century, the revived Chishti order, with its distinctive approach toward tajdīd, spread across South Asia and contributed to the establishment of Islamic seminaries. The Chishtī-Niẓāmī branch moved from Delhi to Punjab and Deccan, while the Chishtī-Ṣābrī networks spread in the Gangetic basin and the Awadh region. Other Sufi lineages that remained popular, albeit to a lesser degree, were the Qādirī and the Shaṭṭārī, which were particularly active in the Deccan, Gujarat, and Sindh. With the Ṭarīqa-i Muḥammadia of Saiyid Aḥmad Rāe-Barelwī (d. 1830), developments in South Asia also mirrored the larger international picture of emerging activist Sufi movements of anticolonial nature (sometimes termed as “neo-Sufi”).