SIRHINDĪ, AḤMAD (ah 971–1034/1564–1624 ce), an eminent Indian Muslim Ṣūfī, known also as mujad-did-i alf-i thānī "renewer of the second millennium [of the Islamic era]"). He was a prolific writer on Islamic mysticism and theology. His celebrated collection of letters, addressed to his fellow Ṣūfīs as well as to a few officials of the state, was repeatedly hailed as a landmark in the development of Muslim religious thought in India.
Sirhindī 's religious activities were conducted within the Naqshbandī order of the Ṣūfīs, which was introduced into the subcontinent by Sirhindī's spiritual mentor, Muḥammad al-Bāqī Billah. Sirhindī became a prominent personality in the order, brought about an expansion of its influence in India and elsewhere, and attracted numerous disciples, whom he instructed in the Naqshbandī mystical doctrine. He devoted a great deal of attention to the spiritual progress of the believer toward perfection. His works reflect an unrelenting effort to integrate the basic concepts of Islam into a comprehensive Ṣūfī outlook. True to the classical Ṣūfī tradition, he endeavored to analyze Islamic concepts in a two-fold fashion in order to discover in each of them the inner and secret (bātin ) aspect in addition to the outward (ẓāhir ) one. In other words, all things have form (ṣūrah ) and essence (ḥaqīqah ), and the highest achievement lies in understanding the inner, essential aspect of commandments and articles of faith.
The most original contribution of Sirhindī to mystical thought seems to be his description of the spiritual transformation that occurred at the end of the first millennium of the Islamic era, following intricate changes in the structure of the mystical "realities" (ḥaqāʾiq ), the spiritual condition of the Muslim community improved in a substantial manner. Prophetic perfections, which had been fading away since the death of Muḥammad, regained their splendor. The person in possession of these perfections was the mujaddid, the renewer or revivifier of the second millennium. It is likely that Sirhindī considered himself to be fulfilling this religiously crucial role; his disciples certainly saw him in this light.
Most scholars of medieval Muslim India maintain that Sirhindī performed a crucial role in the history of Indian Islam. Indian Muslims have always faced a dilemma concerning the attitude that they should adopt toward Hindu civilization, and two streams of thought developed among them: some held that Indian Muslims should take into account the sensibilities of the Hindus and seek a common ground for the two civilizations, while others maintained that the Muslim minority, in constant danger of assimilation into the polytheistic Hindu environment, must preserve the pristine purity of Islam and reject any local influence. Sirhindī appeared on the Indian scene during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556–1605), who systematically attempted to make Islam and the ruling dynasty more acceptable to the non-Muslim Indians. The most conspicuous step in this direction was his abolition of the jizyah, a tax that Islamic law imposes on the non-Muslim inhabitants of a Muslim state. Sirhindī strongly opposed Akbar's conciliatory policy toward the Hindus. He made devastating attacks on Hinduism and maintained that the honor of Islam required the humiliation of the infidels and the resolute imposition of Islamic law upon them. Because Sirhindī expressed these views in letters to officials of the Mughal court, numerous scholars have credited him with reversing the heretical trends of Akbar's era and with restoring pristine purity to Indian Islam.
Recent research has shown, however, that this interpretation is far from certain. It is true that Sirhindī wrote to state officials and suggested changes in the imperial policy, but there is no evidence that the Mughal empire changed its attitude toward the Hindus as a result of his activities. Sirhindī was first and foremost a seeker after religious truth. The overwhelming majority of his epistles deal with typically Ṣūfī issues. The concepts of prophecy (nubūwah ) and sainthood (wilāyah ), the relationship between religious law (sharīʿah ) and the mystical path (tarīqah ), the theories of unity of being (waḥdat al-wujūd) and unity of appearance (waḥdat al-shuhūd )—these command Sirhindī's attention in most of his works. In dealing with these matters, Sirhindī belongs to the stream of mystical thought established by Ibn al-ʿArabī, though they differ in certain aspects. Questions of the relationship between the Islamic state and its Hindu population, which have acquired tremendous importance in the modern period and have therefore been central in numerous modern interpretations of Sirhindī's thought, do not seem to have been in the forefront of his interests.
Sirhindi's magnum opus is the collection of his Persian letters, Maktūbāt-i imām-i rabbānī (1899; reprint, Istanbul, 1973). See also Selected Letters of Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (Karachi, 1968), translated and edited by Fazlur Rahman. A more recent work is J. G. J. ter Harr's Follower and Heir of the Prophet: Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī (1564–1624) as Mystic (Leiden, 1992). Sirhindī's theology is the main topic in Burhan Ahmad Faruqi's The Mujaddid's Conception of Tawḥīd (1943; reprint, Lahore, 1970). My own study, Shaykh Aḥmad Sirhindī: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity (London, 1971), deals with the central concepts of Sirhindī's thought, reviews the development of his image in later literature, and includes an extensive bibliography.
Yohanan Friedmann (1987 and 2005)