Basera-e-Tabassum (Kashmir)

The love affair started tenderly: a warm hug, a lightless night, a dim lantern, the resonating trickle of streams and whispers of footfalls. I had reached Peth-Bugh tired, after two long and extremely hot journeys. The cool still air was a respite. As I stepped out of the car, a strange good feeling set in. Someone hugged me. My bags were taken. Four or five hands gently caught my wrist- some strongly holding me, responsibly; others, shyly, just touching. Some more hands slowly joined in. Someone ahead held the lantern, so I could see my feet and some more feet. There wasn’t any electricity and so there weren’t any faces. Soon I started getting comfortable in this strange lightless, faceless walk of sounds and touches. I too caught their hands, letting down my guard – trusting them to guide me through the damp mud and unsteady planks that served as footbridges over the trickling water.

As we reached Basera-the home, gaslights were put on, some more candles and lanterns were lit and the world became a place of faces again. The magic did not dissipate. In fact, the enchantment only grew. Twenty brilliant curious faces and forty gleaming eyes slowly appeared and disappeared behind veils, curtains, doors, leaving behind them images of giggles and faint sounds of smiles.

The days that followed, went by wondering, working, observing, discussing and doing a whole lot of things in the midst of smiles and hugs and kisses. The last time when work was rewarded like this, I cannot remember. Everything seemed more integrated. It was as though the self was binding with and diluting within the larger, more comprehensive whole of the place. The sense of individuality seemed comfortably less significant. Even the heart and mind seemed to suddenly get along well. The concerns of the place seemed real and worry-deserving.

In Kashmir, there seemed to be a sense of solace and purpose in everything, even in worrying…

(The above are some impressions I put down on returning from Kashmir. I had been there in June to visit Basera-e-Tabassum. In conventional terms one would describe it as an orphanage, but I felt like a city girl visiting a long lost family in a native. It is a place for girl orphans, whose parents have been victims of the terrorism in Kashmir. Despite the seeming bitterness of their lives, these children are perhaps the most affectionate ones I have ever come across. I’m grateful I went there, perhaps some of my share of love was destined to come from a hundred children in Kashmir)

Destiny’s Night

While the entire period of Ramzan is a time of fasting and praying, there is one night that is special for Muslims. For, it is believed that there is one night when Allah first revealed the first verses of the Quran to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. Muhammad was then 40 years old and unlettered.

This most blessed of all nights falls on a night that no one can pinpoint with any certainty. Yet the faithful who have prayed through the night say that the heart always knows when communion has been reached. Shab-e-Qadr or Lailat ul-Qadr, understood variously to mean the Night of Honour and Dignity, the Night of Destiny and Power, can fall on any of the odd nights in the last ten days of the month of Ramzan. This year it will correspond with the 12th, 14th, 15th, and 17th of September. Since no one knows which of these four is the night, one prays on all of these alternate nights.

Unlike other anniversaries, this is a solemn occasion — a time to reflect and pray, to celebrate the arrival of the message from Allah not through a feast for the senses but through abstinence and worship. Some go into retreat (i’tikaf), spending all their time in a mosque for the last ten days of Ramzan; others take as much time out as possible on these special nights for prayer and the study of the Quran.

As children we were told to tell the beads of the rosary, chanting whichever prayer we could remember; the very young could say something simple like ‘Allah ho Akbar’ (Allah is great!). As we got older and had memorised whole verses, such as the kalmia and the qul, we were told to recite that several times before going to bed.

Dinner is usually early all through Ramzan and during Shab-e-Qadr especially so as the elders want to be well prepared for a long night. The idea, then, is to have a light meal and stay up as late as one can. Some don’t sleep at all, preferring to offer late-night prayers, reciting verses from the Pansura, reading from the Quran and Hadith till it is time to eat sehri, offer the pre-dawn fajir prayers.

It is said that on this night one should ask for Allah’s bounties to one’s heart’s content, but above all one should ask for forgiveness. The Prophet’s wife, Aisha, is said to have asked him: “O Messenger of Allah! If I knew which night is Lailat ul-Qadr, what should I say during it?” The Prophet instructed her to say, Allahumma innaka Tuhibbul Afwa Fa’fu A’nne. (“O Allah! You are forgiving, and you love forgiveness. So forgive me.”)

Indo-Pak Dosti

karachifilmfestival1947 was not just about India’s Independence, it was an initiator of identities imposed from ‘above’. The new postcolonial states ventured to redefine their status through a mix of jingoism, the rewriting of history and the whipping up of the nation-state mantra – essentially Western in concept and practice. The journey of South Asian people therefore, has been fraught with wars, hysteria and state diktat articulating itself through prejudiced educational curricula and state-sponsored historical half-truths. Continue reading Indo-Pak Dosti

Review – Sufism: The Heart of Islam

By the early thirteenth century Delhi had emerged as the beating heart of the Sufi movement that had sprung in Central Asia and swept across much of north India. Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1210-35) had set himself up as the ruler of Hindustan and established his capital at Delhi. Central Asia and Iran had fallen to the Mongol hordes and a virtual exodus had begun — of scholars, holy men and wandering mendicants. While Ajmer and Nagaur remained important centers of the Chistiya silsila, Delhi was fast gaining popularity as the axis of the Islamic east. And it was to Delhi that they came – to set up hospices, to gather the faithful around them, and to spread the word about a new kind of Islam. In the years to come, the Islam of the Sufis spread faster than the Islam of the sword in India. Soon it became the popular religion of the masses as opposed to the orthodox, often puritanical Islam of the theologian. So much so that medieval scholars referred to Delhi as Qubbatul Islam (the Cupola of Islam).

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that a woman from Delhi, especially one who revels in her appropriation of the city in every conceivable way, should write a book on Sufism. For over 25 years Sadia Dehlvi (her family name means ‘one belonging to Delhi’) has been writing about different aspects of this city: its food, culture, language, manners and mores. Her latest offering, a book on Sufism: The Heart of Islam, traces the history of Sufism, the major Sufi silsilas or Master-Pupil chains, the early Sufis, the essence of the Sufi ‘experience’ and the foundation of Sufism in faith or deen. And the repository of deen, she repeats, is the Revealed Book. Scornful of those seeking spirituality without faith, she writes: ‘New Age spiritual gurus sell package deals offering Zen without Buddhism, Vedanta without Hinduism – and now we have Sufism without Islam.’ Citing historical reasons that have perpetuated the myth of Sufism being beyond the fold of Islam, she makes an impassioned plea to both Muslims and non-Muslims: to view Sufism through the prism of Islam to truly appreciate its many-splendoured hues.

Given the increasing interest in Sufism across the world, there has been the need for a book that provides a historiography of Sufism for the general reader. For far too long, the study of Sufism has been the study of the esoteric and the other-worldly with some writers making it pedantic and polemic, others reducing it to the exotic or (worse) quaint! For equally long, writers on Sufism have done one of two things: either talked down to readers from the high pedestal of academia, or reduced Sufism to coffee-table kitsch. There has been, to my mind, a long-felt need to detach the word ‘sufism’ from the binaries of the intellectual and the unlearned, the savant and the dilettante, and place it where it belongs – among the ordinary people.

Dehlvi’s book does all this and more. While claiming few pretensions to writing a scholarly book, Dehlvi speaks with passion and clarity. She leavens her narrative with personal observations, insights and experiences. The history of Sufism becomes intertwined with Dehlvi’s personal journey; the weft of history knots with the woof of the individual to make a wonderful tapestry that is bold and honest but also warm and inviting. The book, then, becomes a rite of passage of a convent-educated cosmopolitan woman’s arrival at a full-blooded consciousness of being a Sufi. In fact, this seamless inter-weaving of the personal and the pedagogic makes Sufism an absorbing book.

Dehlvi also takes great pains to prove the imaginary separation of Islam and Sufism to be wrong and, in a sense, alien to the spirit of Islam. While Islam is the current that runs through Sufism, love for the Prophet its bedrock. In the Preface entitled ‘Tryst with Sufism’ Dehlvi states her position, a position she clarifies, reiterates and builds upon all through the book:

“The most common response on hearing the title of my book has been: ‘But what has Sufism got to do with Islam?’ I realize that Islam is perceived as a faith with harsh laws, whereas Sufism represents wonderful poetry, dance, art and an appealing form of universal love. It is difficult for some Muslims and most non-Muslims to accept that Sufism is the spiritual current that flows through Islam. Sufi Masters are called ahl e dil, ‘people of the heart’. They teach that religion has no meaning unless warmed by emotions of love, and interpret Sufism as being the heart of Islam.”

The book’s sub-title – The Heart of Islam — runs as a sub-text all through, refuting the belief among some sections of Muslims that Sufism is bid’at or innovation, a sinful practice picked up from idol-worshipping cultures. The significance of such an assertion in an age of rising Wahabism with its call for a stern Unitarian Islam shorn of even the merest hint of ritualism is noteworthy. Dehlvi makes her strongest and most cogent case against the opponents of Sufism (the ‘literalists’ as they are called) in the chapter entitled ‘Disharmony within Islam’. She writes:

“In the rejection of classical scholarship and jurisprudence, radical modern ideologues have turned spiritual Islam into pragmatic political activism. Such stringent behaviour has created confrontational attitudes towards both non-Muslims and Muslim communities. Contrary to popular perception, the majority of Muslims worldwide practice a version of Islam which is moderate, deeply personal and spiritual. Sufi orders, veneration of Prophet Muhammad and seeking Sufi intercession are major themes from Muslim pockets ranging from China to Morocco, representing over 80 per cent of the Muslim population in the world.”

Dehlvi’s own understanding of Islam, Islamic history and events that have shaped the Islamic world is deeply influenced by the traditional Sufi interpretation of the world, that is, by wahdat ul wujood, the oneness of all existence. In a world torn by sectarian strife, the voice that speaks of harmony deserves to some attention and the pen that writes of moderation must not be ignored.

sadiaBy the early thirteenth century Delhi had emerged as the beating heart of the Sufi movement that had sprung in Central Asia and swept across much of north India. Sultan Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1210-35) had set himself up as the ruler of Hindustan and established his capital at Delhi. Central Asia and Iran had fallen to the Mongol hordes and a virtual exodus had begun – of scholars, holy men and wandering mendicants. While Ajmer and Nagaur remained important centers of the Chistiya silsila, Delhi was fast gaining popularity as the axis of the Islamic east. And it was to Delhi that they came – to set up hospices, to gather the faithful around them, and to spread the word about a new kind of Islam. In the years to come, the Islam of the Sufis spread faster than the Islam of the sword in India. Soon it became the popular religion of the masses as opposed to the orthodox, often puritanical Islam of the theologian. So much so that medieval scholars referred to Delhi as Qubbatul Islam (the Cupola of Islam).

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that a woman from Delhi, especially one who revels in her appropriation of the city in every conceivable way, should write a book on Sufism. For over 25 years Sadia Dehlvi (her family name means ‘one belonging to Delhi’) has been writing about different aspects of this city: its food, culture, language, manners and mores. Her latest offering, a book on Sufism: The Heart of Islam, traces the history of Sufism, the major Sufi silsilas or Master-Pupil chains, the early Sufis, the essence of the Sufi ‘experience’ and the foundation of Sufism in faith or deen. And the repository of deen, she repeats, is the Revealed Book. Scornful of those seeking spirituality without faith, she writes: ‘New Age spiritual gurus sell package deals offering Zen without Buddhism, Vedanta without Hinduism – and now we have Sufism without Islam.’ Citing historical reasons that have perpetuated the myth of Sufism being beyond the fold of Islam, she makes an impassioned plea to both Muslims and non-Muslims: to view Sufism through the prism of Islam to truly appreciate its many-splendoured hues.

Given the increasing interest in Sufism across the world, there has been the need for a book that provides a historiography of Sufism for the general reader. For far too long, the study of Sufism has been the study of the esoteric and the other-worldly with some writers making it pedantic and polemic, others reducing it to the exotic or (worse) quaint! For equally long, writers on Sufism have done one of two things: either talked down to readers from the high pedestal of academia, or reduced Sufism to coffee-table kitsch. There has been, to my mind, a long-felt need to detach the word ‘sufism’ from the binaries of the intellectual and the unlearned, the savant and the dilettante, and place it where it belongs – among the ordinary people.

Dehlvi’s book does all this and more. While claiming few pretensions to writing a scholarly book, Dehlvi speaks with passion and clarity. She leavens her narrative with personal observations, insights and experiences. The history of Sufism becomes intertwined with Dehlvi’s personal journey; the weft of history knots with the woof of the individual to make a wonderful tapestry that is bold and honest but also warm and inviting. The book, then, becomes a rite of passage of a convent-educated cosmopolitan woman’s arrival at a full-blooded consciousness of being a Sufi. In fact, this seamless inter-weaving of the personal and the pedagogic makes Sufism an absorbing book.

Dehlvi also takes great pains to prove the imaginary separation of Islam and Sufism to be wrong and, in a sense, alien to the spirit of Islam. While Islam is the current that runs through Sufism, love for the Prophet its bedrock. In the Preface entitled ‘Tryst with Sufism’ Dehlvi states her position, a position she clarifies, reiterates and builds upon all through the book:

“The most common response on hearing the title of my book has been: ‘But what has Sufism got to do with Islam?’ I realize that Islam is perceived as a faith with harsh laws, whereas Sufism represents wonderful poetry, dance, art and an appealing form of universal love. It is difficult for some Muslims and most non-Muslims to accept that Sufism is the spiritual current that flows through Islam. Sufi Masters are called ahl e dil, ‘people of the heart’. They teach that religion has no meaning unless warmed by emotions of love, and interpret Sufism as being the heart of Islam.”

The book’s sub-title – The Heart of Islam — runs as a sub-text all through, refuting the belief among some sections of Muslims that Sufism is bid’at or innovation, a sinful practice picked up from idol-worshipping cultures. The significance of such an assertion in an age of rising Wahabism with its call for a stern Unitarian Islam shorn of even the merest hint of ritualism is noteworthy. Dehlvi makes her strongest and most cogent case against the opponents of Sufism (the ‘literalists’ as they are called) in the chapter entitled ‘Disharmony within Islam’. She writes:

“In the rejection of classical scholarship and jurisprudence, radical modern ideologues have turned spiritual Islam into pragmatic political activism. Such stringent behaviour has created confrontational attitudes towards both non-Muslims and Muslim communities. Contrary to popular perception, the majority of Muslims worldwide practice a version of Islam which is moderate, deeply personal and spiritual. Sufi orders, veneration of Prophet Muhammad and seeking Sufi intercession are major themes from Muslim pockets ranging from China to Morocco, representing over 80 per cent of the Muslim population in the world.”

Dehlvi’s own understanding of Islam, Islamic history and events that have shaped the Islamic world is deeply influenced by the traditional Sufi interpretation of the world, that is, by wahdat ul wujood, the oneness of all existence. In a world torn by sectarian strife, the voice that speaks of harmony deserves to some attention and the pen that writes of moderation must not be ignored.