Journal of Dharma Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 83–94 | Cite as

Vedānta in Muslim Dress: Revisited and Reimagined

  • Rachelle SyedEmail author
Original Article


In this paper, I revisit Dr. R. C. Zaehner’s claim, found in “Vedanta in Muslim Dress” in “Hindu and Muslim Mysticism,” that an early Sufi mystic, Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭamī (d. 874), was strongly influenced by a mysterious teacher called Abū ‘Alī al-Sindī, who Zaehner claimed was a practitioner of Advaita Vedanta and taught al-Bisṭamī “ultimate truths” that appear to be gleaned directly from the Upaniṣads. I revisit Zaehner’s original claims and examine his conclusions in light of history and theology with special attention to al-Bisṭamī’s shaṭḥiyāt, or ecstatic utterances, and his doctrine of fanā, or annihilation, alongside the teachings and writings of Adi Ṣankara. By demonstrating correlations in theology and situating them in the historical timeline, it becomes apparent that while it may be difficult to make absolute claims, the prospect of a transformative theological interchange is not only reasonably possible, but demonstratively likely, and has been ignored, glossed over, or denied by later biographers. By reclaiming this history, a door to further inquiry is opened, adding to the complexity and nuance of historical Muslim-Hindu encounters.


Islam Sufism Hinduism India Persia Mysticism Vedanta Advaita Vedanta Zaehner fanā’ Interfaith dialogue Interchange 


In the late 1960s, Dr. R. C. Zaehner, then of the University of London, presented a series of eight lectures at the School of Oriental and African Studies on his work in Islamic mysticism and Hinduism. Zaehner’s interest primarily focused on what he believed to be historical and theological intersections between the two which he later published as the book “Hindu and Muslim Mysticism.” In chapter 5 of this work, “Vedānta in Muslim Dress,” Zaehner claims to prove that the early Sufi mystic, Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭamī (d. 874), was influenced and instructed by Abū ‘Alī al-Sindī, whom Zaehner claims to have been a practitioner of Advaita Vedānta. Zaehner’s conclusion that early Sufi mysticism was therefore heavily influenced by and perhaps borrowed from Advaita Vedānta has been largely ignored or dismissed outright, but I believe the possibility of this exchange holds significant potential for establishing a lineage of interfaith dialog and theological exchange. In this paper, I will examine the likelihood of Zaehner’s claim and attempt to reflect on Bisṭamī’s words, in light of the teachings of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya (henceforth, Śaṅkarā), the early eighth century Hindu philosopher-theologian who systematized the doctrines of Advaita Vedānta, in order to situate this exchange in the history of Muslim-Hindu relations and dialog and its potential for present-day engagement. Importantly, this paper is not a comparative theological work. Rather, it is a deep dive into one of Bisṭamī’s most contested utterances and a look at some of the Vedāntin teachings I believe to have inspired it and is, therefore, an attempt to explore the possible reflection of Vedānta in Bisṭamī’s words, rather than a comparison of systematic theological tenets. Additionally, while this paper does not review all of Bisṭamī’s utterances, or all responses to those utterances, I have selected those that appear most relevant to the goal at hand.

R. C. Zaehner

R. C. Zaehner (1913–1974), born in England to Swiss parents, was well-known for his work on Asian religions (particularly his engagement with Hindu and Buddhist texts). Specializing in the evolution of religious and ethical systems, mysticism, and comparative religion, Zaehner was also a gifted linguist who studied several ancient Persian languages, in addition to Greek and Latin at Oxford, and later acquired familiarity with Sanskrit and Pali. In 1952, he became the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at the University of Oxford and translated the “Bhagavad Gītā.”

Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭamī

Also known as “Bayezid,” Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭamī was named as such as he came from the town of Bisṭam in northern Iran, where he was born and died in 874 CE. Little is known of Bisṭamī, but he had some education in Hanafi legal theory (Bistami n.d., Sarraj n.d.), and he is mostly known for a life of asceticism and devotions (Sells 1996, 212). Most of all, Bisṭamī is remembered for his ecstatic utterances, the shaṭḥiyāt, some of which shall be discussed below. These shaṭḥiyāt illustrate the doctrine of fanā’, or annihilation of the sense of self, sometimes described as the passing away of the passing away, and literally means the “cessation of being.” Abū ‘Alī al Juzjani (d. 964) used the language of fanā’ to describe a saint thusly: “The saint is the one who is annihilated in his state, while God is present in his witnessing of the Real; God takes responsibility for his governing and the light of authority come upon him continually. He has no information about himself, nor reliance on any other than God” (Ernst 2011, 60). However, a better interpretation is offered by Toshihiko Izutsu who explains fanā’ as “the total nullification of the ego-consciousness, when there remains only the absolute Unity of Reality in its purity as an absolute Awareness prior to its bifurcation into subject and object…”1 Annemarie Schimmel explains that in this state, Sufis “return to the moment when God was, and there was nothing else” (Schimmel 2011, 143). Julian Baldick, however, offers a very different argument that accepts Zaehner’s basic premise while rejecting his broader conclusion: “Zaehner, in addition to producing a magnificent and overpowering case for an Indian influence on Abu Yazid, committed the serious error of imagining that this had changed the entire course of Sufism’s development [outside South Asia]….My position in this controversy is an independent one: acceptance of the thesis of an Indian influence on Abu Yazid…” (Baldick 2012, 37)

Abū ‘Alī al-Sindī

An in-depth look at Abū ‘Alī al-Sindī, whom Zaehner alleges was Bisṭamī’s (perhaps formerly) Vedāntin teacher, is necessary for all of the following purposes. First, little is said or known about Sindī. If modern biographies of Bisṭamī list him, it is in passing and without further background. Zaehner, joining R. A. Nicholson and Max Horten (his contemporaries), believes Sindī to be named after the region of his origin, the area known as Sind (Sindh), the lower Indus river region of modern-day Pakistan (Zaehner 1994, 93). There is some disagreement on this, most notably by A. J. Arberry who argued that Sind referred to a village in Khurāsān (Arberry 2008, 90), which will be discussed further below. Most of what we know about Bisṭamī comes from the work of Abū Naṣr al-Sarrāj (d. 988), the 10th-century historian. Sarrāj writes: “Abū Yazīd said: ‘I used to keep company with Abū ‘Alī al-Sindī and I used to show him how to perform the obligatory duties of Islam (farḍ) and in exchange he would give me instruction in the Divine Unity (tawḥīd) and in the ultimate truths (ḥaqā'iq).” Zaehner argues that this statement demonstrates several important items: (1) that Sindī, as an adult male, did not know how to perform the basic ritual acts of a Muslim, such as prayer, and therefore wasn’t born and raised as a Muslim, (2) that despite apparently being new to Islam or in his encounter with Islam, Bisṭamī still regarded Sindī as having knowledge of “ultimate truths” and “Divine Unity,” and (3) that Sindī’s knowledge was apparently outside the scope of what Bisṭamī, a lifelong Muslim schooled in Hanafi thought, already knew. Zaehner therefore concludes: “Thus the evidence of Sarrāj which was conveniently forgotten by subsequent writers, shows that Abū Yazīd’s spiritual guide was a Hindu convert to Islam whose cardinal doctrine was tawḥīd, or ‘union’…” (Zaehner 1957, 292). Arberry’s claim that Sindī was from Khurāsān appears reasonable but seems incomplete in light of Bisṭamī’s explanation of their relationship. Perhaps Sindī was a man from the Sindh of Khurāsān and he may have been a convert to Islam, but this does not offer any insight into the “ultimate truths” that Bisṭamī was instructed in. Zaehner’s theory that Sindī was likely a man from the Indus valley seems more plausible, especially when we consider that the great teacher of Advaita Vedānta, Śaṅkara (d. 820), founded his first pīṭha in Dwarka, near the mouth of the Indus River. Because Śaṅkara died in approximately 820, and Bisṭamī in 874, we may entertain the possibility that Sindī was perhaps born near the end of Ṣankara’s life at a time when his impact on Indian religion and philosophy was fresh. This possibility seems especially strong when we consider the evidence of these “ultimate truths” which, even if Sind was a convert to Islam, he still not only believed in but taught to others, implying that he did not see these “truths” as contradictory to Islam in any way. This will be further discussed below. In the following sections, I will review two of Zaehner’s primary claims regarding a Vedāntin connection to Bisṭamī

“Thou art That”

“Abū Yazīd is reported to have said…: ‘Once [God] raised me up and placed me before him, and said to me: “Oh Abū Yazīd, verily my creation longs to see thee.” And I said: “Adorn me with thy unity and clothe me in thine I-ness2 and raise me up unto thy oneness, so that when thy creatures see me, they may say: ‘We have seen thee (i.e. God) and thou art that.’ Yet I (Abū Yazīd) will not be there at all” (Zaehner 1994, 94). This would seem to directly contradict the Islamic tawhīd and perhaps threaten the position, and therefore legitimacy of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, many Muslim commentators have sought to dissect and explain or reject Bisṭamī’s words. Sarrāj, in his biography of Bisṭamī, supplements the writings of Junayd who says: “These are the words of one who has not been clothed with the realities of the experience of tafrīd (singularity) in the completeness of the true tawḥīd, a clothing that would have freed him of the need for what he requested. His request indicates that he was near to what was there, but one who is near to a place is not in it in capacity and in actually command. [sic] His saying… ‘take me up’ indicates the reality of what he experienced according to his ability and his place. He attained precedence only insofar as his perception allowed” (Sells 1996, 216). Further, “As for his saying, ‘He [God] said to me’…by that he alludes to the intimate conversations of the secret of the heart…” (Sells 1996, 217). And, “As for his saying ‘Adorn me with your unity, clothe me with your subjectivity, and take me up to your oneness, until when your creation sees me they say ‘we have seen you [God]’ and you will be that, and I will not be there’ – this and the like describe his passing away, his passing away from passing away, and the taking over of his self by the real in unity – with no creature before it and no created being” (Sells 1996, 218). Junayd goes on to explain that this idea, which describes fanā’, comes from the hadith in which the devotee becomes so deeply loved by God: “…When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks…” (al-Bukhari n.d.). To explain away the apparent nonduality of the utterance, Junayd finally says “Two lovers have not attained the reality of love until one says to the other: ‘I’.” Zaehner disagrees with Junayd and translates Bisṭamī from Sarrāj, who appears to be offering a verbatim record of what Abū Yazīd said. Zaehner notes that the Arabic word dhāka, “that,” is never used as a pronoun in the Islamic canon and appears to have been considered confusing by other biographers, such as Farīd al-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār, and later Nicholson, who translates, “…and Thou mayst be there, not I.” ‘Aṭṭār, Zaehner says, translated the final line in Persian thusly: “Adorn me with thy unity so that when thy creatures see me and look upon thy handiwork, they will have seen the Creator.” According to Carl Ernst, this was an attempt to “sanitize” Bisṭamī against the aforementioned blasphemous accusations regarding God and Prophet and seems to demonstrate the mental gymnastics performed by so many commentators3 trying to make sense of the shaṭḥiyāt (Ernst 2016, 88–89). To Zaehner, these different translations and interpretations demonstrate that the use of dhāka as a pronoun is odd and is therefore something Bisṭamī picked up not from any teacher or common idea in his own immediate context, but from Sindī, his mysterious teacher. Indeed, Zaehner believes that the only reasonable explanation for this shaṭḥiyāt comes from the Chāndogya Upanishad (Zaehner 1994, 95):

2.3 “Out of himself he brought forth the cosmosand entered into everything in itThere is nothing that does not come from him.Of everything is the inmost Self.He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.You are that, Shvetaketu; you are that.”(Easwaran and Nagler 2007, 133).

Section 6 of the “Chāndogya Upaniṣad” recounts the story of Śvetaketu who, upon returning from his studies, seems to have learned much but understood little. Each verse of this chapter is another example of “you are that” taught by Śvetaketu’s father, Uddalaka, who helps his son understand the nonduality of the Self, the core of Advaita Vedānta. Here, Zaehner sees the utterance of Bisṭamī to be an echo of Uddalaka’s lesson. While this correlation appears as sufficient proof for Zaehner, it draws criticism from others. T. Gelblum, a colleague of Zaehner’s at the University of London, was deeply critical of the above opinion. In his review of “Hindu and Muslim Mysticism,” Gelblum argued that Zaehner’s translation of Sarrāj’s text was erroneous and arbitrary, claiming that there was essentially no reason to translate dhāka as a pronoun. He further asserts that translations such as Nicholson’s are more appropriate and accuses Zaehner of whimsical scholarship (Gelblum 1962, 174). Annemarie Schimmel, the celebrated late scholar of Sufism, also disagrees with Zaehner. She argues that it seems, quite simply, too unlikely that a man from Sindh would find his way to Bisṭam, happen to be Vedāntin, and share his knowledge with Bisṭamī. Of their encounter she says, “…it seems more likely that the mystic of Bisṭam should have reached his goal by means of the Islamic experience of fanā’, annihilation, as he formulated it for the first time, rather than by an experience that, in the Vedāntic sense, would have led him to an extension of the ātman, ‘the innermost self,’ until it realizes its unity with the essence of everything as expressed in the words tat twam asi, ‘that is you’” (Schimmel 2011, 47–48). Gelblum argues that Zaehner is wrong based on translation; Schimmel argues he is wrong based on likelihood. In the case of the latter, I must first disagree with Schimmel. While geographic similarity alone does make an unlikely case, the fact remains that Sindh and Bisṭam could have been easily connected by the Abbasid caliphate and their intellectual agenda, which I will discuss later. Second, it is unreasonable to presume that the unlikeliness of a situation warrants its dismissal, as history is filled with such moments. Third, it not surprising that Bisṭamī’s quote or the idea of fanā’ does not precisely match the tenets of Advaita Vedānta. As I argue below, the issue at stake is one of exchange, not conversion, and therefore some variation is to be expected. In the case of Gelblum, it must be noticed that these alternate translations and interpretations of dhāka do not negate the overall meaning of Bisṭamī’s utterance. Clearly, years of attempts to understand this quote from an Islamic perspective, or an Orientalist one, have continued to yield debate and confusion. I suggest, therefore, that it is more helpful to attempt to reflect on Bisṭamī’s words from a Vedāntin perspective.

Adi Śaṅkara

Unlike Bisṭamī or Sindī, there are at least 14 biographies of Śaṅkara’s life (Sankaracarya 2006, 3–5). Śaṅkara was born in the eighth century in Kālādi on India’s western coast, into a Nāmbudri sect of brāhmins (Nikhilananda 2005, 3). At this time, by some counts, the Indian cultural and intellectual ethos was marked by philosophical discord and various conflicts (Mahadevan 1968, 1): “Conflict was rife among the schools of philosophy, and hostility among the different religious sects. Both the learned and the laity seemed to have forgotten the basic Vedic teaching that the Real is One” (Ibid). After learning the Vedās and becoming a saṃnyāsin, Śaṅkara wrote his commentaries on the prasthāna-trayī (the threefold canonical foundation of Vedanta), systematizing Advaita Vedānta. He also traveled throughout India expounding on the nonduality of Brahman through debates with philosophers from other schools. He is also believed to have established monasteries (maṭhas) for the propagation of Advaita in four key cities, Badrinath in the North, Puri in the East, Dwarka in the West, and Sringeri in the South, “and [placing] four of his gifted disciples, each well versed in one of the four Vedās, in charge of them” (Nikhilananda 2005, vii). The life and works of Śaṅkara are expansive and beyond the scope of this work. Śaṅkara, the great systematizer of Hindu philosophical theology, is reputed to have passed away circa 820 CE, when Bisṭamī and Sindī were, likely, very young children. It is not difficult to imagine that the influence of so great a figure might have inspired a traveler destined for ancient Iran, perhaps the caliphate.

Tat Tvam Asi

Returning to the quote in question, let us consider what “thou art That” meant to Śaṅkara. Śaṅkara’s interpretive style, which was inherited from his teacher, Gauḍapāda, distinguished between Vedic texts according to two major groups through the principle of attribution (adhyāropana) and denial (apavad), respectively. This separated the texts concerned with knowledge of the Absolute from lesser goals, “…and then representing all positive statements made about the Absolute in such texts as so many false ascriptions deliberately made to ease the path of the student, whose ultimate task was to realize that the Absolute was nothing other than that undifferentiated consciousness that remained over once all difference was known to be illusion” (Sankaracarya 2006, ii).4 Such is the ultimate goal of Śaṅkara who encourages the devotee to meditate on the essence of “That”: “That which is beyond caste and creed, family and lineage, which is devoid of name and form, merit and demerit; That which transcends space, time, and sense-objects – that Brahman art thou.” And further: “That which is free from duality; which is infinite and indestructible; which is supreme, eternal and undying; which is taintless – that Brahman art though” (Nikhilananda 2005, 92–93).

There are four great Upaniṣadic statements (mahāvākyāni) that encapsulate the concept of nonduality; tat tvam asi, “that thou art,” is, arguably, the best-known (Nikhilananda 2005, 88). In this statement, the word “that” has two meanings: a direct and implied meaning. Using the image of a red-hot iron ball, iron is the direct agent of burning, while fire is unassociated with the iron and is the implied, or real, agent. Like the iron, the direct meaning of “that” is the Personal God, the Creator, Destroyer, in the form of sāguna Brahman. Pure Consciousness, unassociated with any limiting concept and in the form of nīrguna, is the implied meaning of Brahman (Nikhilananda 2005, 89). “Thou” also has two meanings: direct and implied. In its direct form, “thou” refers to the jīva, the individual, its most obvious interpretation, who has little power and little knowledge and is, therefore, subject to change. In this way, “thou” characterizes the living being that is the individual as it is subject to “birth and death, hunger and thirst, pain and pleasure” (Ibid). Pure Consciousness, unassociated with māyā, the temporal, limited, ephemeral phenomena which, in relation to the eternal, is illusory, and is the substratum of the jīva, is the implied meaning of “thou” (Nikhilananda 2005, 90). Therefore, “that art thou” refers both to two things that appear to be different but are the same, and two things that were the same all along as, “The purpose of the word ‘art’ is to show that ‘that’ and ‘thou’ refer to one and the same entity…Taken together, they exclude from one another respectively the ideas of ‘the sufferer’ and ‘not being the inmost Self’… Thus the two terms ‘that’ and ‘thou’ taken together (as united by the word ‘art’) express the same meaning as the phrase ‘not this, not this’ ” (Sankaracarya 2006, 108–9). To a Vedāntin, it may not be surprising that the nonduality apparently behind Bisṭamī’s statement went unnoticed or misunderstood. To those whose ignorance, doubt, or misconception impedes their vision, “thou art that” cannot possibly be grasped. Understanding does, however, arise in the mind of those who can grasp these terms in both their direct and implied meanings. “It is impossible to know that one who has realized his identity with Brahman remains a suffering soul just as before. For that suffering is incompatible with the knowledge of one’s identity with Brahman, which is the outcome of Vedic teaching” (Saraswati 1967, 67). In the “Upadeśasāhasri,” Śaṅkara’s most authentic non-commentarial work, he describes the cessation of suffering upon understanding the true meaning of tat tvam asi: “Just as all the pain pertaining to a dream ceases on waking, so the notion that one’s Self is the sufferer ceases [forever] through the knowledge that one is the inmost Self” (Sankaracarya 2006, 107). In the “Taittirīya Upaniṣad,” the state of one who realizes their true Self is further elaborated on, specifically here in Śaṅkara’s commentary: “From this [the knowledge of the Self] we see that there is complete cessation of worldly existence from the acquisition of the knowledge of Brahman, the A’tman of all” (Sitarama Sastri and Trans 1923, 5:106).5 This “cessation” may serve to remind us of Bistami’s fanā’. While merely a footnote in the corpus of Śaṅkara’s works, these teachings on nonduality illustrate core “truths” (such as those taught by Sindī) that are easy to imagine Bisṭamī connecting with. “Devoid of name and form” may have reminded Bisṭamī of the debates around the attributes and essence of Allah and “eternal and undying” may have easily reminded him of al-Hayy, The Ever-Living, one of the names of Allah. Importantly, this is not to compare texts or teachings, but to imagine what Vedāntin teachings may have looked like in the mind of Bisṭamī.

Sloughing off the Snake Skin

There are many utterances for which Bisṭamī is remembered, many of which demonstrate his understanding and implementation of fanā’. The above discussion reviews “thou art that,” tat tvam asi, but this is not the only instance of similarity. Here, I will focus on a more specific example recorded not by Sarrāj, but by al-Bīrūnī (d. 1052) the Persian scholar, sometimes called an anthropologist, whose work is collected in al-Beruni’s[sic] India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws, and Astrology of India About A.D. 1030. Here, al-Bīrūnī records another of Bisṭamī’s explanations of fanā’: “Abū-Yazīd albistāmī [sic] once being asked how he had attained his stage in Sufism, answered: ‘I cast off my own self as a serpent casts off its skin. Then I considered my own self and found that I was He.’ i.e. God” (Bīrūnī 2007, 70). Once again, Zaehner claims, “…the resemblance is too close to be fortuitous…” (Zaehner 1957, 299). He is referring, of course, to a similar passage in the “Bṛihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad”:

“As the skin of a snake is sloughed onto an anthill, sodoes the mortal body fall; but the Self, freed from the body,merges in Brahman, infinite life, eternal light.”

(Easwaran and Nagler 2007, 115)

Zaehner’s argument relies on two things: the similarities between Bisṭamī’s quote and the above Upaniṣadic passage, and two slightly different versions of Bisṭamī’s quote. Above, Bisṭamī is quoted by Bīrūnī as saying, “I considered my own self,” while in al-Nūr min Kalimāt Abi Tayfur, the Book of Light from the Sayings of Abū Yazīd Tayfur,6 he is quoted as not referring to “my self” (nafsī) meaning self/ego but “my essence” (dhātī) which also refers to a personal ego or self. Yet, Zaehner believes the interchangeability of these terms aligns with the two meanings of ātman as both personal self (jīvātman) and the ultimate Self that is Pure Consciousness (paramātmaṇ), connecting all. While both uses of “ātman” have the same core meaning, their differing usage begs curiosity. However, translations aside, the overall meaning seems to make a possible connection quite clear. Of his statement “I was He,” we may once again reflect on Śaṅkara’s commentary of the “Taittirīya Upaniṣad”: “He who knows that supreme Brahman becomes Brahman himself…” (Sastri 1923, 5:106).7 Once again, I believe that Vedāntic teachings offer greater insight than can be accessed by merely deconstructing individual words. The snake here clearly refers to an impermanent physical element that must be removed or overcome in order to perceive inward truth. The kośas, or sheaths of being, often obscure the reality of nonduality. The annamayakośa, or physical body, is the flesh and blood sheath which depends on food (anna) for its existence and is changeable by nature. Because it is changeable, it cannot be the everlasting, unchanging, undying Self: “The ignorant identify themselves with the body; the book-learned, with the combination of the body, the mind, and the Self; while the calm man of discrimination regards the Self as distinct from the body, mind, and ego” (Nikhilananda 2005, 82). As long as one identifies the Self as the body, even in part, the truth will not be attainable. The pranamayakośa, the sheath of vital force (prana), impels one to action. It enters the body at conception, leaves it after death, and is responsible for hunger and thirst. Its limitations also prevent it from being Self. Likewise, the manomayakośa, the sheath of the mind, houses the ego-self, the “seed-bed of desires” which creates bondage and keeps one in a state of constant suffering. Vijñānamayokśa, the sheath of intelligence/discernment (vijñāna), reflects Pure Intelligence but as a reflection, and a product of prakritī or matter, it is subject to the law of karma and is associated with the jīva. Finally, the anandamayakośa, the sheath of “bliss,” that is nearest to the ultimate nature of the Self, is still distinct from the Supreme Bliss in Brahman, as its chief features are pleasure and rest, which are also subject to change and various states and qualities. Once again, as something that is changing and limited, it cannot be Brahman (Nikhilananda 2005, 82–85). These five sheaths are manifestations of prakritī (matter), and as they can often cause one to misidentify themselves with matter rather than Pure Consciousness, we may liken them to a snake who sheds its skin. One must shed their sheath several times and perhaps in different ways in order to reach the Truth. In both instances, the inner truth is the ultimate goal. Fanā’ has been described by Bisṭamī to be the ultimate goal, and here he appears to be using the imagery of a snake to elucidate that point. Likewise, Śaṅkara says, “The knower of Brahman reaches the highest point” (Sastri 1923, 5:116).8 That Bisṭamī can be seen to be echoing the meaning of the above-mentioned verse seems reasonable.

A History of Interchange

Earlier, we saw that Annemarie Schimmel believed it unlikely that a Vedāntin from Sindh would find his way to Bisṭam and teach “ultimate truths.” It should be acknowledged that Schimmel’s position may be rooted in the defense of an indigenous Muslim mysticism, but to acknowledge the possibility that early Muslim mysticism was influenced by those people and spiritualities with which it came into contact does not take away from the evolution of an indigenous Muslim mysticism. Similarly, I also reject Zaehern’s claim that Islamic mysticism owes its entire existence and theology to this interchange. Like Baldick, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Zaehner’s commentary, and those he quotes, focuses on linguistics and some theology, such as that expressed by Junayd, but strangely, none of these authors seem to consider the relationship the Abbasid caliphate had with India. The Abbasid caliphate, the center of the Islamic world’s power at the time, existed from 750 to 1258 CE. During this time, learning was made a premier goal of the empire and a project later called “the translation movement” in the twentieth century began, in which the works of Greek, Persian, and Indian philosophers were translated into Arabic. Yucesoy (2009, 523–24) notes that “Although the Abbasid learned elite knew that ancient sciences had come out of different cultural traditions and been practiced in different languages, they gradually embraced the idea that sciences originated from a single and ultimately divine source.” Further, the first foothold of Muslims in India was in Sindh in the eighth century.9 “…whilst Sindh remained under Abbasid control, it did act as a channel for the transmission of Indian learning into the caliphate…” (Encyclopedia Iranica2012). To those that may claim the Abbasid’s “translation movement” was about math and science and not theology, it is important to remember that in the Hindu context there was no separation of the sciences, philosophy, and theology, as observed by al-Bīrūnī (Bīrūnī 2007). It is feasible that while this exchange may not have personally impacted Bisṭamī, it could be the reason someone like Sindī was on a road that could have easily brought him into contact with Bisṭamī. Given the frequency and duration of the Abbasid encounter with the Hindu epistemological ethos, the historical case for an interchange of theology and spirituality between Sindī and Bisṭamī could hardly be difficult to make. While Schimmel believed it unlikely, I find it more unlikely that those figures representing an evolving Muslim mysticism would be uninterested in opportunities for exploration beyond their immediate context, which seems to speak more greatly to an indigenous mysticism than an argument of exclusivity. Indeed, if the attitude of the caliphate was to encourage transmission of learning, and they believed all learning to emanate from a single divine source, this may help us understand why Bisṭamī did not seem to think it important to offer more information about the religious background of Sindī. Unfortunately, this appears to have evolved into an outright denial of Sindī’s existence, and with it, an instance of theological interchange nearly lost.


Since the time of Junayd, the focus on Bisṭamī’s utterances has centered largely around the reaction of established Muslim theology to what appears to be a blasphemous statement, argument against such accusation, and the reaction and response of historians and linguists, like Zaehner and Schimmel, since then. This paper explores some of those claims, assumptions, and some of the evidence regarding this issue, but has not the space or time to examine every utterance of Bisṭamī, as there are many, or each teaching of Ṣankara whose corpus includes many other examples that would draw compelling parallels. I believe, therefore, that Junayd was incorrect in his interpretation of Bisṭamī, most of all because he does not explore the identity or motivations of Sindī and seems to be shielding Bisṭamī from criticism. I disagree with scholars such as Schimmel whose respective opinions seem to leave out vital information and perspectives, and while I believe that Zaehner’s thesis is correct, I do not agree with all of his conclusions. For example, Zaehner believes Sindī to be a convert to Islam, while I hold that learning another faith does not automatically imply conversion. I believe that what has been demonstrated is not necessarily conversion but interchange, especially since both traditions emphasize transcendence beyond bodily form, making conversion an odd proposition. It is therefore more appropriate to situate Bisṭamī among the lives and works of other Muslims who have been changed by their experiences with Hinduism. As his ideas evolved, Bisṭamī apparently began to occupy a gray space between Islam and Hinduism, and we might say that unlike poets like Kabir, the fifteenth-century Muslim mystic, who frequently wrote of the loving Personal God, Bisṭamī sought something akin to the Pure Consciousness described by Ṣankara, the nīrguna Brahman. Perhaps most exciting is that individuals who occupy the-space-between become bridges for those of us on either side. There is an opportunity here to examine Bisṭamī and other Muslim-Hindu encounters as examples of Arvind Sharma’s mutual illumination or Gadamer’s fusion of horizons.

The historical evidence of Hindu interactions with Islamic mystics is well documented.10 What has received less examination are the practices that slipped into the Sufi experience from the Hindu yogic and theological world. “The Sufis also incorporated some of the meditation techniques from the Hindu mystics like the breathing techniques to facilitate their Sufi practices. In the 11th century, Saifuddin Kaziruni from Iran was the first Sufi to settle in the Indian subcontinent” (Haque Nizamie et al. 2013). A relationship of interchange, rather than denial of indigenous evolution or outright exclusivity, is clear.

Of course, these encounters may not fit perfectly into any category, as no human experience can be expected to, but examined in terms of “encounter” Bisṭamī’s story and others like them create for us a lineage of connection that can guide and inspire present-day Muslim and Hindu theologians and communities and function as an example of how theology leaves academe and impacts the lives and futures of human beings. This example certainly lives on in modern interfaith dialog. As we have often learned, there can be no movement toward the future when we deny our past, and the first step is to acknowledge and honor a moment in history where connection birthed illumination.


  1. 1.

    Toshihiko Izutsu, “The Basic Structure of Metaphysical Thinking in Islam,” in Collected Papers on Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism, ed. Mehdi Mohagheh and Hermann Landolt (Tehran 1971), p. 39f, as quoted in (Schimmel 2011, 143)

  2. 2.


  3. 3.

    It is interesting that rather than consistently denounce Bisṭamī as heretical, Muslim commentators struggled to either explain him or deny certain parts of his statements. This seems to suggest that Bisṭamī’s words resonated with others who perhaps continued to give them life.

  4. 4.

    Emphasis mine

  5. 5.

    Emphasis mine

  6. 6.

    This is an alternate way of referring to Bisṭamī.

  7. 7.

    Emphasis mine

  8. 8.

    Emphasis mine

  9. 9.

    In no way do I claim that this interaction was utopiannor do I seek to gloss over its finer nuances. However, a discussion on the complexities of the encounter is beyond the scope of this article.

  10. 10.

    See for example, Rizvi (1997) and Batuta (2009)



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate Theological UnionBerkeleyUSA

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