Photo by Clem Onojeghuo
The fallout of the Muslim Reformation of the 19th century left many of us Muslims (and Sunnis in particular) under the impression that the only “authentic” version of Islam is the Islam of 7th century Arabic. In an attempt to “return to first principles” (ruju‘ li-l-usul), the forefathers of modern day Salafism, including Rashid Rida and Muhammad ‘Abdu, insisted that everything a Muslim needs to live an exemplary life of social and moral rectitude can be found in the words of the Qur’an and the traditions attributed to Muhammad. All else was to be rejected as innovation (bid‘a), and would undoubtedly bring the Muslims trouble. Rashid Rida famously wrote, “We wore out our pens and our voices through writing and repeating that the misfortunes of Muslims cannot be blamed on their religion, but rather on the innovations that they have introduced into it.” For most Salafis, there is no room in Islam for anything but the strictest literalism and adherence to historical precedence. At the same time, this taqlidi (traditionalist) approach excludes long-standing pillars of dynamic culture syncretism in Muslim societes across the globe.
Because many Salafis cannot accept the problematization of the prophetic canon of hadiths and outright reject studies revealing the proliferation of forgeries in the hadith canon, they cannot engage in critical discussions of how Muslims could develop better gender practices, interfaith relationships or address many important issues that uniquely affects Muslims today. By rejecting the rich cultural diversity of Islamic traditions across the globe, Salafis reject the pluralistic character of Muslim communities that has existed since the mass migration of Muslims to Abyssinia and to Medina in Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. In fearing innovation to their conceptions of Islamic spirituality and expression, some Salafis continue to shun the religious and cultural syncretism characteristic of Islam up until the 19th century, despite the fact that this cultural syncretism, religious pluralism and diversity is what allowed the growth of the Islamic empire in the centuries leading up to the fall of the Ottoman dynasty.
For the above stated reasons—anti-syncretism, xenophobia and puritanical literalism—a text like the Hawd al-haya (The Pond of Life), a Sufi Yoga manual based on a Sankrit Hindu text, would unsurprisingly provoke a range of negative reactions from modern day Salafi Muslims, a) for its Hindu origins, and therefore polytheistic underpinnings, b) for retaining principles antithetical to modern Salafi Islamic theology and practice—including prayers for devi (Hindu goddess) intercession, the use of magic, and divining the future, and c) for introducing innovative practices into orthodox Muslim circles (Sufi in this case). Unsurprisingly, these very factors were largely unproblematic for the Muslims of the day. In fact, in areas of Northern India and Turkey, it is still commonplace to encounter such a syncretic text in the libraries of spiritual masters. The transmission history of the Hawd al-haya speaks for itself. It began as an Arabic translation and redaction of a no longer extant Sanskrit text by the name of the Amrtakunda (The Pond of Nectar) in 13th century India (also influenced by a Persian translation of a different text), and can now be found in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, and even Judeo-Arabic manuscripts from Turkey to Yemen.
The Content of the Text
The text of the Hawd al-Haya begins with the following introduction, “Now, there is in the land of the Indians a book well known amongst its wisest and its scholars. This book is called Hawd al-Haya (The Pond of Life).” The author goes on to detail how the book fell into Muslims hands by way of a Hindu scholar who sought a debate with Muslims and ended up becoming a Muslim himself. The author then says that the Hindu scholar brought the text to the Muslims, using it as a means by which to attain the spiritual ends that the author claims the Muslims had already achieved. The author extols the virtues of the book by attributing to it the power of converting others who are receptive to it to the way of God and demarcating the knowledge housed within as something that cannot be understood simply through the mind, but through the heart.
The etiology of the Amrtakunda and its conveyance into Sufism represents the outermost “layer” of the Hawd al-Haya. The second, middle layer of the text consists of an allegory representing the journey of the soul from its divine origin, into the world of forms and forgetfulness, to its eventual end in its self-recognition of God. The trope of the descent and re-ascent of the soul is very widespread amongst mystical teachings around the world, as in Farid al-Din ‘Attar’s Mantiq al-Tayr (Conference of the Birds). In this particular version, the story is about an individual who is exiled from her* homeland by its ruler, told to travel to find a vizier who will serve as a guide, and made to swear an oath to return.
Through her travels, the wayfarer encounters many hardships, forgets her origins, and through the guidance of the vizier comes face to face with a spiritual master who is nothing more than a reflection of herself. She is roused out of her forgetfulness and, having attained knowledge of her true self (as divine), she is presented with the Water of Life to dive into. Her immersion in the water represents her initiation and her attainment of a spiritual immortality. Having communed with God, she is sent back to her homeland (MS 34-39). The third, innermost layer of the Hawd al-Haya begins at the end of this tale—and due to the Sufi narrative frame, is given the distinct coloring of a practical guide through the journey outlined in the allegory.
Thus, the bulk of the Hawd al-Haya is a ten-chapter manual aimed at helping its user attain the “Water of Life” (i.e. everlasting divine felicity) by means of cosmological theory (Chapter 1), breathing techniques/pranayama (Chapter 2), knowledge of the heart and soul (Chapter 3 and 5), yogic postures or asanas (Chapter 4), fluid retention and embryology (Chapter 6), the use of mantras, yantras and the science of chakras (Chapter 7), understanding death (Chapter 8), invoking the devis (Chapter 9), and finally, a return to the end of the Sufi allegorical narrative incorporating aspects of all the previous chapters (Chapter 10).
Problems in Hindu-Muslim Syncretism
Because the Hindu chakra system is so inherently translatable into Sufi terms given the commonalities between Hindu and Sufi understandings of a macrocosmic beings reflected in a microcosmic being and vice versa, it seems that kundalini yogic practices can easily find expression in Sufism. However, not everything is so easy to convey to a Sufi audience. For instance, how do you translate polytheistic beliefs and practices into an unforgiving monotheistic tradition? How can you suggest a manual of magical incantations and spells, animal possession and divination to a group who believe magic to be a source of corruption for humankind and divination to be a science that God has unquestionably forbidden?Despite current Muslim creeds, Ernst argues that these beliefs and concepts were not really alien to the Muslims at the time. He writes, “[These practices are] hardly distinguishable from the standard occult and mystical practices found in Islamicate society.”
Despite my initial shock at the inclusion of such foreign elements into a Sufi text, particularly after such an extensive period of “Islamization” according to Ernst’s manuscript analysis, I am inclined to agree that everything that survives into our manuscript of the Hawd al-Haya uses Islamic and Islamicate sciences and traditions, albeit sometimes occult traditions that a minority of Muslims engaged in. Nevertheless, the language and discourse existed in some form or another prior to the composition of the Hawd al-Haya.
We can see this clearly when we consider the epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa) as a source for the Hawd al-haya. In my analysis, I have found seven key terms used in conjunction here (magic/sihr, incantantions/’aza’im, intuition/imaginal vision/wahm, spells/ruqa, talismans/talismat, modalities/particulars/kayfiya, spiritual beings/ruhaniyyat) most of which, to my knowledge, are not used in other Sufi texts, but are used extensively in the same manner in the Hawd al-Haya. Most of these terms give language to the Hindu concepts I initially found strangely foreign to Islamic and Sufi theology. The most significant for our purposes is the use of the term ruhaniyyat, or spiritual beings, as a way to sanitize the Hindu goddesses into angelic forms and reject their divine attributes. The spiritual beings (ruhaniyyat) are angelic forms Islamic cosmological traditions hold exist in the planetary spheres and stars. They tend to be female, if they are gendered at all, and so this gives the author of the Hawd al-Haya a very easy way to rework the incantations to summon the devis as incantations to call for the help and intercession of various angelic beings in the cosmos.
Similarly, the Brethren provide Islamic parallels to yantras, using incense and particular rituals to summon other worldly beings, the use of magic to reanimate the dead, ward off evil or to predict death, and there is even one instance where the Brethren describe a mysterious Sabaean ritual where an initiate has to performed very yoga-like poses. All these things may be foreign and unusual for us today, but it seems there are Islamic antecedents for the translation of these ideas into our Sufi Yoga text.
Thus, we have to entertain the notion that what is jarring for us may not have been jarring in the least to the Muslims of the day. For such a Sufi Yoga text to find such wide circulation, there must have been enough parallels between Hindu and Sufi ideas to warrant the inclusion of such seemingly controversial beliefs and practices. This points to a greater syncretic character in the Islam of the day, but perhaps too it can point to a shared intellectual milieu between Hindus and Muslims at the time—and thus the development of an Islam that is particular to that geographical and historical context.
In studying the text of the Hawd al-haya, I have found strong indications of a natural attitude of syncretism and hybridity in Islamicate culture that is absent from mainstream Sunni orthodox versions of Islam today. I have also found some indications of reluctance or discomfort with the inherent Hindu-ness of the text. While this may point to a conservative syncretistic attitude, Carl Ernst has argued that the only conservatism we can truly discern is in the limitation arising out of ideas that had no equivalent in Arabic. Ernst writes, “In approaching his task, the Arabic translator seems only to have felt the limitations imposed by the audience’s unfamiliarity with technical terminology; he was not limited by social and religious constraints.” This of course does not explain the author’s insistence on framing the source of the text as a Hindu convert to Islam, or the regular insistence that Sufis are the better inheritors of this wisdom than the Hindus. However, it gives us a window into how other Muslim communities framed their interactions with other religions, cultures and traditions prevalent at the time and how different our attitudes today might be.
The Hawd al-Haya went on to influence the practice of multiple Sufi orders, including Indian Sufi orders such as the Chishtis and the Naqshbandis, as well as Turkish, Persian and North African orders such as the Mevlevis (Rumi’s order), the Qadaris, the Shattaris and the Sanusis. The influence of the cultural hybridity of a few has prominent effects on Islam(s) as expressions of travelling cultures. In the preservation of fascinating cross-cultural manuscripts such as the Hawd al-haya, there is a model for religious communities that felt minimally threatened by foreign influences and could even find a place in their own theory and praxis for the wisdom they discerned in the traditions of another group.
*The protagonist of the journey narrative is ungendered in the original Arabic. Given the lack of neuter pronouns in English, I have chosen feminine pronouns here as a contrast to androcentric convention and in line with Arabic grammar, where the noun for “self/soul” (nafs) is considered feminine.
For more information regarding the Hawd al-haya, see Dr. Carl Ernst’s work and particularly, “The Islamization of Yoga in the “Amrtakunda” Translations.” This article provides a thorough and highly technical study of the fascinating history of the Hawd al-haya and its various manuscript versions, including the process of redaction the editors undertook to further harmonize the contents of the Amrtakunda with Islamic beliefs and practices.