Hinduism Islamic Traditions and Yoga
Patrick D'Silva
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0293


The subject of Muslim engagement with yoga is challenging and enlightening for several key reasons. First, the primary and secondary sources listed below document the extended and multifaceted history of Muslim engagement with yoga. For historical reasons the majority of the sources below focus on the history of Muslims and yogis (sometimes written as jogis) in South Asia, almost all of which took place long before Partition. This complicates modern perceptions that members of one religious community automatically and casually eschew or actively reject anything associated with other religious groups. Second, this field of study holds great—and as of yet largely unrealized—potential for scholars looking to reconstruct mysticism as a bodily practice in which the bodies involved are understood as commensurate with one another. This means that the people who authored, translated, and interpreted the primary sources under examination did not see “Muslim” and “Hindu” bodies as quintessentially different from one another. With appropriate training, anyone can use these techniques to access whatever powers may be promised, whether they are of use on a daily level or in the more ultimate sense of yoking the mind and body together to experience some type of liberation of the soul from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation. In so doing, one understands yoga as yet another technology of the (esoteric) self. Importantly, Muslim engagement with yoga involves confronting moments of incommensurability, such as translating terms like samsara, for example, linguistically (from Sanskrit into Persian, but also conceptually from Hinduism to Islam). Third, the available sources—whether from the premodern or modern periods—actively challenge the claim made by present-day Hindu nationalists that yoga is uniquely Hindu, or even Indian. Yoga is undeniably part Hinduism, but these techniques come to be deployed by other religious traditions (such as Buddhism and Jainism). The sources below demonstrate the extent to which these philosophies and techniques were considered important enough to integrate within the growing field of Islamicate sciences, especially as evidenced by Persian encyclopedias compiled from the fourteenth century CE onward. It is important to understand yoga in this sense as a multifaceted phenomenon that goes beyond modern postural practice and includes philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence. How do the techniques expressed by yogis compare with those by Sufis (Muslim mystics)? What types of translation strategies were developed? How does the texture of these inquiries change from South Asia to Persia, and (relevant for the modern period) when the Euro-American academy becomes involved? This subject holds great value for general observers and scholars engaged in the academic study of religion by shedding light on the porosity of boundaries that we moderns impose on the past to fit modern agendas.

Useful Background Readings

The subject of Muslim engagement with yoga is located at the intersection of many different fields. While subsequent sections of this bibliography direct readers to the many excellent scholarly monographs and articles focusing on particular individuals (such as Muhammad Ghaus) or texts (such as the translations of the Amrtakunda), it is very difficult to understand these in-depth studies without appropriate background. Scholarship on Sufism in the medieval period typically constructed Sufism as some sort of Indian/Yogic influence on Muslims, thereby neglecting the evidence that Sufism developed much earlier and in ways that were quite independent from yoga. This next section is designed with an eye toward conducting an intellectual excavation, sifting through the layers of interpretation so as to identify the biases held by previous interpreters. For example, European scholars (who often served in colonial administration in some manner) typically saw Sufism in South Asia as a corruption of a constructed “pure” set of beliefs and practices found in the Middle East. In addition to entries by scholars from the colonial time period, this section also includes much more recent scholarship analyzing the patterns of knowledge production during the colonial period. In that sense, this is a combination of primary and secondary sources. For example, readers who are new to the field will find that works such as Hughes 1973, Sharif 1972, and Von Kremer 1976 will make more sense if read through the lens of Khan 2004 and Yelle 2013. At the same time, more recent work such as Burchett 2019 and Truschke 2016 highlights the many ways in which Muslims and Hindus, Sufis and yogis, dervishes and bhaktins interacted with one another before the occurrence of the European colonial epistemic disruption. Gaborieau 2002 critiques the approach by European sociologists of religion when it comes to comparing Hinduism and Islam. Moin 2014, Flatt 2011, and Gaborieau 1992 analyze attitudes surrounding occultism in the early modern and modern periods, respectively. Ernst 2016 is a classic piece providing readers with information on the key texts and individuals available for the study of Sufism and yoga in particular.

  • Burchett, Patton E. A Genealogy of Devotion: Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga, and Sufism in North India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7312/burc19032

    A historical overview of how these four different devotional practices developed following the establishment of the Mughal empire in early modern North India. Of particular importance for this bibliography is Burchett’s argument that Sufism played a key role in bhakti sensibilities. For a related study examining this type of exchange in a specific literary genre, see Behl and Doniger 2012, cited under Vernacular Sources).

  • Ernst, Carl. Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga. New Delhi: SAGE, 2016.

    This edited volume contains numerous pearls of wisdom in the form of articles Ernst has published over the past two decades. One of them is cited separately in the present bibliography—see Ernst 2003, cited under Muslim Translations of the Amrtakunda (“Pool of Nectar”)—but put together this collection as a whole contains a variety of detailed analysis and macro-level view of this subject.

  • Flatt, E. “The Authorship and Significance of the Nujūm al-ʿulūm: A Sixteenth-Century Astrological Encyclopedia from Bijapur.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.2 (April-June 2011): 223–244.

    Flatt analyzes the Nujūm al-ʿulūm, “Stars of the Sciences,” a manuscript commissioned in 978 AH/1570–1571 CE by Bijapur sultan ʿ Ali ʿ Adil Shah (r. 1557–1579 CE). The manuscript contains an array of detailed illustrations that have attracted more scholarly attention than the text itself. Flatt corrects that imbalance by placing the Nujūm within the broader context of Muslim rulers and their courts engaging deeply with Indian astrological traditions.

  • Gaborieau, Marc. “L’Ésotérisme Musalman dans le Sous-Continent Indo-Pakistanais: Un Point de Vue Ethnologique.” Bulletin d’études orientales 44 (1992): 191–209.

    Cites Muhammad Ghaus and astrology as a key example of the ways in which Hindus and Muslims do not hesitate to make use of esoteric techniques found in each other’s religious traditions. A given practice’s efficacy is more important than whether it is found in Sanskrit (and Hinduism) or Arabic/Persian/Urdu (and Islam). Situates debates over the licitness of astrology within broader debates between Wahabbism and Islamic reformist movements. Uses ethnographic work as an alternative frame of reference to elite emphasis on textualism.

  • Gaborieau, M. “Incomparables ou vrais jumeaux? Les renonçants dans l’hindouisme et dans l’islam.” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 1 (January–February 2002): 71–92.

    DOI: 10.3406/ahess.2002.280029

    Gaborieau compares traditions of renunciation within both Hinduism and Islam. He provides an historical overview not only of titles of various renunciants (i.e., sadhu, faqir, etc.), then proceeds to critique how Western scholars—especially sociologists of religion such as Dumont and Weber—have used the similarities between these figures as a starting point for formulating different theses on how to use Sufism specifically as a way of understanding the relationship between Hinduism and Islam in South Asia.

  • Hughes, Thomas Patrick. A Dictionary of Islam, Being a Cyclopedia of the Doctrines, Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs, Together with the Technical and Theological Terms, of the Muhammadan Religion. Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1973.

    An important source for distilling late-19th-centuryBritish scholarly views on Islam, particularly in South Asia. Hughes’s view of religious boundaries was so rigid, the popularity of Ghaus’s work among Indian Muslims mattered less than the similarity to Hindu customs. His entry on daʿwah (invoking divine names) states the Javahir-i Khamsa is classified as Hindu and not Islamic on the basis of its contents, no matter that its use by Muslims was well documented. Originally published 1885.

  • Khan, D. -S. Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

    Offers a tidy critique of many of the key categories at play in this biography, especially Islam, Sunnism, Sufism, and Hinduism. By juxtaposing stories highlighting the ease with which some figures crossed between religious identities smoothly with colonial officers’ awkward attempts to conduct surveys of religious communities, Khan demonstrates that monolithic models of religious identity in South Asia do not pass muster.

  • Moin, A. The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231160377.001.0001

    Describes the many ways in which Mughal rulers relied on various occult practices to legitimate their rule. This was consistent with practices found in Ottoman and Safavid courts at the time. A key issue for the study of Islam and yoga is understanding that the more occult aspects of yoga (such as found in the “Fifty Kamaru Verses”) were seen as potentially helpful tools for maintaining one’s power.

  • Sharif, Jaʿfar. Islam in India; or The Qanun-i Islam; the Customs of the Musalmans of India, Comprising a Full Account of Their Various Rites and Ceremonies from the Moment of Birth to the Hour of Death. Translated by G. A. Herklots. Edited by W. Crooke. London: Curzon Press, 1972.

    Originally published in 1832, Herklots directed a Deccan madrassa teacher, Jaʿfar Sharif, to compose the Qanun-i Islam. This work benefitted British officers in India, by offering guidance on Indian Muslim customs that Herklots felt was lacking at the time. Separate chapters on magic (including extensive references to Muhammad Ghaus) and Sufism indicate that Sharif (and Herklots) saw these as distinct categories.

  • Truschke, A. Culture of Encounter: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.7312/trus17362

    A key work for understanding the broader Mughal engagement with Sanskrit learning. Documents and analyzes the many ways in which Mughal rulers and courtiers directly engaged with Sanskrit texts, from epic literature such as the Ramayana to the Mahabharata. This engagement includes the active participation at court by Jain and Brahmin scholars.

  • Von Kremer, A. Contributions to the History of Islamic Civilization. Translated by S. Khuda Bakhsh. Leipzig: Accurate Printers, 1976.

    An Austrian diplomat-scholar, Von Kremer’s work is significant here for the way he approaches Sufism, arguing that it is derived from the Vedantic philosophy. He also published a version of Amuli’s text on the science of the breath, citing it as an example of Hindu influence on Sufism. European audiences were thus introduced to the Kamaru Panchashika through this Orientalist prism that insisted that Sufism in South Asia was distinct from Sufism in the Middle East, thereby substantiating the broader Orientalist argument that Sufism was not authentically Islamic. Originally published 1904.

  • Yelle, Robert. The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Important work for understanding the lens through which Protestant missionaries and colonial officials interpreted Hindu practices in India. Reformation-era biases against Catholic ritual magic were applied to Brahmin practices (such as the use of mantras), which led colonial officials to adopt derogatory views of Hinduism, feeding into the idea that Muslims engaging in similar practices (such as incantations pertaining to God’s ninety-nine names) could not be authentically Islamic, they must be the result of Hindu influence (and corruption).

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