Scent in an Islamic Garden

‘Scent is the food of the soul, and the soul is the vehicle of the faculties of man.’ –Hadith attributed to the Prophet of Islam

One has heard of literary history, social history, to some extent even economic history culled from literary sources but seldom a horticultural study based on literary texts. Ali Akbar Husain, an architect and a teacher of architectural studies undertakes this novel venture. The result is a delightful pot pourrie of disciplines: history, architecture, landscaping, poetry, horticulture and, given the context, Islam. Scent in an Islamic Garden: A Study of Literary Sources in Persian and Urdu is a remarkable book for another reason, too. It focuses scholarly attention on a largely neglected part of Islamic India: the Deccan.

Scent in an Islamic Garden

William Dalrymple, writing the Introduction to the book, rightly notes:

‘By any standard, anywhere in the world, the Deccani civilisation that reached its most remarkable flowering in sixteenth century Hyderabad was rich and remarkable. Yet it remains astonishingly little studied. So dominant are the Mughals in the historical memory of India, that the different Deccani sultanates have been almost completely forgotten outside a small group of specialists and scholars. Almost all visitors to India visit the Taj Mahal and learn about Shah Jahan, but few visit Bijapur, Bidar, or even Golconda, and fewer still read of the no less remarkable doings of Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi sultans.’

In setting out to correct an old wrong, Ali Akbar Husain not merely brings to life the architecture, culture and contribution of the Deccani sultans but also places before us the significance of the garden in the current of Islamic thought. An earthly analogue for the life in paradise that awaits the Momin, the garden is a recurring image in the Holy Quran. The Paradisal Garden, the promised abode of the true believer, known by different names such as Iram, Firdaus, Jannah, is none other than the primordial garden that Man lost through sin but whose image is recoverable from the anima mundi. Descriptions of fair maidens, immortal youths, gushing fountains of cool waters, trees laden with fruit, gentle hills beneath which rivers flow – evoke not only images of plenitude and freedom from want but also of shade and rest and reward.

Over time, these images acquired near-mythic proportions and found reflection in different art forms in different parts of the Islamic world. The gated gardens of Cordova and Moorish Spain, the funerary gardens centred round a tomb or mausoleum of the Mughals, the classic formalism of the chaar bagh (the four waterways representing milk, honey, wine and water) and the intricately-worked pavilions and fountains of Andalusia – each has sought to replicate an imagined space, each has introduced local elements be it in the choice of plants or the demands of topography and landscaping.

In the crucible of the Deccan, we find a strange experiment taking place. An intermingling of Hindu elements with Islamic motifs, an admixture of Hindu art with Islamic architecture, an overlay of a Persian mizaj over an intrinsically Indian design sensibility combined to create an exuberant Indo-Islamic atelier. The forts, tombs, palaces and pavilions dotted across Hyderabad, Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar, etc. bear ample testimony to this synergistic flowering. And the gardens surrounding this built heritage were splendid examples of private and public spaces. Since most of these gardens have disappeared in the maw of urbanisation, what remains are references to them in Persian and Urdu literary sources. Husain’s perusal of Deccani masnawis to extract nuggets of information is, therefore, a singular contribution.

The choice of plants, trees, shrubs and herbiage – both indigenous and naturalised – as also the medicinal and aromatic properties of each are spelt out in detail. Flowering trees like kesu, amaltas, kadamb, nagkesar; fruit-bearing ones such as jamun, mango, amla, banana, kathal, shahtoot as well as pomegranate, citron, orange, lime, shaddock, fig, grape, phalsa; scented flowers such as rose, tuberose, chandni, mogra, chameli vie for space in these scented Islamic gardens of the Deccan with medicinal plants such as kafur, sandal, firanjmushk, etc. Two major seventeenth-century Deccani masnawis, Mulla Nasrati’s Gulshan-e-Ishq and Abdul Dehalvi’s Ibrahim Nama, further the analogy between the garden and the world. The fragrance from these scented gardens lingers in lines such as these:

Nazr ke rang dene kun har yek gul rang ka kasa
Muatr mann ke karne kun kali har huqqa parmal ka
(To brighten the eye, each (flower) was a cup colourful
To perfume the heart, each bud was a box of parmal fragrance)

Also read:
1. Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra, London: Thames and Hudson 2006.
2. D. F. Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007
3. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, London: Heinemann

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This review first appeared in The Herald, Karachi, July 2012. Jalil blogs at http://hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com

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.”)

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.