Sufism and Yoga

“Sufism and Yoga according to Muhammad Ghawth”

Carl W. Ernst

What has been the relationship between Sufism and yoga?

The question of yogic “influence” on Sufism has been raised from the first Orientalist studies of Islamic mysticism, because of the well-known millenial presence of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.  Partly because of ingrained Orientalist assumptions that Islam was legalistic and intolerant, it was assumed that the mystical tendencies in the Islamic tradition must have come from elsewhere.  Thus began the quest for the “origins” of Sufism, which were variously—and fruitlessly—sought in the doctrines of Christian monasticism, Buddhism, shamanism, or yoga.  The consensus of scholarship now, I think, accepts Sufism as a religious phenomenon oriented by the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad.  Yet one commonly finds the assertion that Sufi practices of breathing control and meditation somehow derive from Hindu or Buddhist yogic exercises; little proof is ever offered for this thesis.  I have spent a considerable amount of time researching the Sufi texts that make passing reference to yoga, and it is undeniable that certain Sufis in India were aware of yogic practices.  On a textual level, however, extended discussions of yoga are rare.  Only one work on yoga, described below, had a wide circulation in the Muslim world, in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu translation.  Even in this most obvious example of Muslim interest in yogic practice, however, it seems clear that yoga was integrated into the spectrum of existing Sufi practice, rather than somehow acting as a “source” for the entire Sufi tradition.


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