Indian Sufism

Kaagaa sab tan khaiyo, chun chun khaiyo maans,
Do nenan mat khaiyo, mohe piyaa milan ki aas

(O crow eat my body and every morsel of my flesh
But pray eat not my eyes for they wait for the sight of the Beloved)
– Hazrat Baba Farid

The above composition by Hazrat Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar fondly called Baba Farid, a sufi from Punjab and a disciple of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, captures in one couplet the soul of Sufism. It is said that once Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, asked Baba Farid, to go into 40-day seclusion while hanging upside down in a well. Baba Farid hung motionless in meditation, mistaking him for a corpse the crows began to gather around him, that was when he composed the above lines.

Sufism or tassawuf can be simply defined as the mystical dimension of Islam. It is one of the greatest schools of mysticism which has not only survived the test and tribulation of time but continues to flourish today in all its infinite shades. Sufism, like a flowing river, defies description. To know it, one must experience it: drink its waters, swim in it and drown in it to eventually merge with the Ocean.

Sufism has emerged out of the esoteric significance attached by an important section of Muslims to the words of the Quran. The elevated feeling of Divine apprehension of which the Prophet often spoke, the depth and passion of his ecstatic rapture which characterised his devotions constitute the foundations of Sufism. The Islamic doctrine of ’inward light’ inspired the early Muslim ascetics to lead a contemplative life, devoted to a higher yearning after the Infinite. Sufism is based on the idea among nobler Muslim minds that there is a deeper and more inward sense in the verses of the Quran. This belief did not arise from the wish to escape from the rigour of ‘texts and dogmas’ but from a deep conviction that the words of the Quran mean more, not less, than the popular expounders supposed them to convey. The word Sufism originally called Tasawuff in Arabic and Urdu, is derived from the word ‘suf’ which means ‘wool’ in Arabic, alluding to the coarse woollen garment worn by the first generation of Muslim ascetics .



Artist’s impression of Baba Farid [Photo: Sikhiwiki.org ]

Sufis believe that they live in this world but are not of it: they posses nothing and are possessed by nothing. However following the basic tenets of the Quran and the service of fellow humans are an integral part of Sufism .The Path to God, according to the Prophet, is threefold: the sharia (the words of the Prophet), the tariqa (his actions), and haqiqa (his interior states. According to the Sufis, the seeker of Truth by intensive inwardness and communion with God can rise by successive stages of adoration to a state of consciousness when she can actually have a vision of the divine essence. The various steps or stages along the path are known as maqam (pl. maqamat). The first step along the Path is for the adept to form the niyat (the resolve or intention); followed by tauba (repentance and renunciation). She is now on the firmly on the Path, this stage is called mujahadah (striving and struggle with the carnal self). After a prolonged mujahadah the ecstatic soul appears in the Presence still veiled, this stage is called muhazara. The next maqam is the lifting of the veil of ignorance (mukashafa) and finally when God becomes revealed to the devotee’s heart and she begets divine Vision this stage is called mushahada .

SUFI ORDERS (SILSILAS)

In the later years, brotherly love began to be emphasised in the social discourse of the Sufis reflecting the Prophetic tradition of ‘Al-mu’min mir’at al-mu’min’ (the faithful is the mirror of the faithful). When a Sufi notices a weakness in his neighbour he is supposed to correct this very weakness in himself. Brotherly love was to be extended not just to other Sufis but to whole of humanity. Since service of humanity also included aiding in their spiritual upliftment Sufis started expanding their groups and spreading their spiritual message to all levels of population and by early 12th century Sufi fraternities or orders (silsilas) began to emerge each with a distinct tariqa (set of practices and beliefs) that each founder had evolved to attain the Infinite. By the 14th century fourteen Sufi orders had crystallised. The Suhrawardiyya, the Qadariyya, the Kubrawiyya, the Shadhiliyya and the Badawiyya were some of them. Sufi masters (called sheikh, pir, or murshid) began to send their disciples (murids) to distant lands to spread their teachings. Many prominent Sufis travelled to India.

INDIAN SUFISM

Several hundred years before any Muslim invader set foot on the Indian subcontinent, Muslim traders had been coming to the western ports of India extending from Gujarat to Kerala. The first Muslim army to reach India was led by an Arab conqueror – Muhammad bin Qasim in 711 who occupied the regions from Sind to Multan. The first Sufi to come to India was Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (d.222). He travelled in the lands conquered by the Arabs and discussed theology with the saints of this region. The second wave of Muslim conquest was in the year 1000 and was led by the Gaznawids, and it was Mahmud Ghazni’s conquest of Punjab that is believed to have led a number of prominent Sufis to settle in this region. Lahore became the first centre of Persian-inspired Muslim culture and it was in this city that Abu’l-Hasan’Ali bin ‘Usman al-Hujwiri(d.ca.1071), known as Data Ganj Bakhsh (~Distributor of Unlimited Treasure) composed his famous Kashfu’l-mahjub, in Persian. This treatise gives the biographies, thought and practices of Sufis from the time of the Prophet to his own time. However Sufism’s full impact began to be felt in the late 12th and early 13th century after the formation of main Sufi orders in the Muslim countries and the most outstanding contributor to this movement was Hazrat Mu’inuddin Chishti (d.1236). Islam in most parts of India spread not at the point of sword of the Muslim invaders but by the power of the Sufi saints like Mu’inuddin Chishti and his disciples whose simple preaching and practise of love of God and one’s neighbour impressed many Hindus, especially those belonging to the so called ‘lower castes’.

While the Sufis of Middle East and North African countries flourished in lands that had already been Islamised, the Sufis in the Indian subcontinent were faced with the challenge of spreading their message among people belonging to an ‘alien’ faith. This was their biggest challenge and this was their biggest triumph and in this respect they stand above their brethren who served in other parts of the world.

Indian Sufism owes it uniqueness to its great power of selective assimilation of local culture, folk tales and symbology. While it protected itself from any considerable or overwhelming external influence, it included whatever struck and impressed it and in the act of inclusion transformed it in harmony with its own Essence. In this process Sufism in the Indian subcontinent has developed its own flavours and shades. Apart from contributing to the spiritual upliftment of rulers and ruled alike, two of the greatest contributions of the Indian Sufism have been: the creation of syncretic traditions in the Indian subcontinent thereby creating communal harmony among followers of diverse faith; and the creation of exquisite and divine music, prose and poetry that further enriched the astonishingly diverse culture of this subcontinent.

Music of Nagore

Nagore is famous for Sufi saint Syed Abdul Qadir popularly known as Qadir Vali. Syed Abdul Qadir born in Manikpur in present day UP in the year 1504 (910 hijri). Around the age of 18 he left home seeking a spiritual teacher. He found a spiritual mentor in Mohammad Ghouse in Gwalior. After doing Hajj he landed in Ponnani in Malabar and traveled to Maldives, Sri Lanka and finally made Nagore in Tamil Nadu his home where he died in 1570 (978 hijri). His beautiful dargah was built years later with its unique white minarets.


Periya Minara at Nagore Dargah built by the Tanjore King.

Dargah’s influence over Tamil Muslims was so much that when a number of them migrated to Singapore they built a replica of the dargah for their spiritual needs.

Nagore Dargah in Singapore. [Photo by dozafar]

Lately, music of the Nagore Dargah is getting international recognition thanks to the Laya Project which has produced a CD with seven songs that can be purchased here:

Videos of the two of the songs are here:

Ya Allah:

Saint:

Urdu song, that is not part of the CD:


Qadir Wali Urdu Song by nagoredargha

Sufis of the Indus region – I

He is Abu Hanifa and He is Hanuman,
He is the Koran and H e is the Vedas,
He is this and He is that,
He is Moses, and He is Pharaoh
– Sachal Sarmast


Tombs at Makli Hill, Thatta, Sind(Pakistan)

The regions of Sind and Punjab, nurtured by the waters of Indus, have produced one of the the greatest sufi saints of this subcontinent. Some time in 905 the great mystic like Halaj, probably sat on the very banks of this river to discuss theological problems with the sages of Sind. The people of this region were travellers and traders, farmers and shepherds. Apart from Sindhi, many Sindhi sufi poets used Siraiki, a northern dialect of Sindhi which transits into Punjabi. Sindhi and Punjabi are both strong expressive languages, ideal for expressing mystical feelings. Like Kabir the sufi poets of the Indus regions used the symbol of weaving cotton, the threads are our thoughts, words and deeds with which we weave a net around ourselves….. The Sindhi and Punjabi sufis wove motifs from everyday life of these simple folk to portray the various shades and subtleties of passion of a lover separated from her beloved – the individual soul yearning for annihilation and unity with the Eternal: blending cultural traditions with Islamic mysticism.

THE SUFIS OF SIND, PAKISTAN:

THE SUFI WHO ROAMED WITH THE YOGIS

Among the wilderness heights,
where not a bird can perch
burns the dhuni of yogis……..
– Shah Latif

In the 18th century the mighty Indus river chartered a different course; it carried more water and its banks and valleys were a lot greener than they are today. In the region of Sindh or Mehwar, as it was called then, the river was, and still is, flanked by the hills of Gorakh, Ganjo, and Kinjher, and by Hinglaj in Baluchistan. Among the pristine slopes of these hills roamed one of the greatest sufis of Sindh: Shah Abdul Latif.

Through, valleys, hills and along rivers he wandered… seeking the company of Nath Yogis, following their dhunis (ritual fires) which they would set alight among the highest and remote peaks of these hills.

Though born into a family of sufis, it was in the company of these yogis that Shah Latif grasped the mysteries of life and reality. He would also live among farmers and shepherds, weaving great mystical truths into their folklore and ballads. Shah Latif was an uwaisi mystic i.e. he had no predecessor or master and therefore did not belong to any of the formal sufi orders or tariquaas.

‘Hal qurban, mal qurban’

According to Shah Latif, on the Path, both bliss of the mystical states and worldly possessions have to be sacrificed. The Path is difficult and the mountains too steep to weigh down your mind with any burdens or attachments.

Shah Abdul Latif was born in 1689 in Hala, near present day Hyderabad (Sind, Pakistan). He is believed to have roamed in the company of yogis for three years and travelled as far as Baluchistan, Rajasthan, Kutch and Kathiawar. The collection of his mystical poems titled, ‘Shah jo Risalo’ (The book of Shah). It comprises of more than 1200 pages and contains 30 surs based on different ragas. Some of these ragas are from Indian classical music and some were originally composed by Shah Latif himself. The Risalo begins with Sur Kalyan: it describes the One God and its various manifestations and the suffering that the Seeker has to endure on the path of devotion. This is followed by Sur Yaman Kalyan and Sur Khanbhat….Sur Sarirag and Sur Samundi, the latter describes the trials and tribulations of a seafarer on his final Journey. In some of his surs, Shah Latif has dealt exclusively with the traits/signs of the true men of God: Sufis and Yogis. Above all, Shah Latif emphasises the importance of Ikhlas:sincerity and adab: right behaviour or conduct for the tavellers of the Path.The Risalo uses a combinations of metaphors, symbols and folk tales to reveal the secrets of the Path. Among the most popular of his poems, which were composed in the form of Kafis or Ways and Bayts, are those based on the folktales of legendary lovers like Sohni-Mehanwal, Sassai-Punhun and Nuri-Tamachi.

‘Surrender all actions to the Glorious whom you seek’

Without grief or thought and His grace will bring to you
what you need…..’

Shah advises the estranged lovers to forsake greed and become humble, tauba or repentance is essential on the path to the Beloved, taming of the nafs (the lower soul or the ego)symbolised by the camel and constant wakefulness, tawakkul:trust in God and complete surrender to the will of God, sabr: patience and rida: contentment advised for the lovers, travellers and seafarers.

‘Nothing that comes from the beloved is bitter
all is sweet if you taste it with faith’

Sassui, a washer man’s daughter, separated from her lover Prince-Tamachi, wandering alone in the desert, lonely and hopeless – symbolic of the various stages of the separated soul before it can be one with God: hope, longing, fear and annihilation…She finally realizes that Tamachi is no longer apart from her, but within her own heart and the outward journey is transformed into a journey within…… and finally the destination, the state fana: annihilation in God is realised. But this Path , according to Shah Latiff, is treacherous:

‘the company of the Yogis is not for the weak….only those who are predestined to wear the cap of the Sufis can walk this Path…..’

In his later years, Shah Latif settled at Bhit, not far from Hala, and spent the rest of his life in the company of his disciples. His beautiful shrine at Bhit Shah is as exquisite as his poetry.

The land of Sind also harboured other sufi saints like Lal Shahbaz Kalandar who lived on the west bank of lower Indus besides a Shiva lingam. This lingam still stands besides his tomb today at Sehwan.

Achal Sarmast who is known as the ‘Attar of Sind’ and many more. At Makli Hill near Thatta are buried 125,000 saints of Sind. Even the Hindus of Sind came under the influence of these great sufis. Hindu writers used Mulim imagery in thier mystical poems and in the Ta’ziya during the Muharram mourning of the Shia community of Sind.

Is Music Prohibited In Islam ?

The other day I read an article in Friday edition of an Urdu paper which quoted few ahadith (Prophet’s sayings) that music is strictly prohibited in Islam and that those Muslims who burn musical instruments Allah will send them to paradise. Many non-Muslims also ask this questions frequently why Islam is opposed to music? Aurangzeb is also said to have strictly prohibited music.

Is music really prohibited? My studies show it is not prohibited per se. The Qur’an denounces what it calls lahw wa la’b (i.e. fun and play and there was background to it. They Arabs in pre-Islamic times had no serious religious faith and used to indulge in drinking and singing and dancing as we often witness in our societies also. Islam, wanted to engage people in serious activities of reforming social evils and make them obedient to Allah thereby becoming good, just and compassionate human beings undertaking fight against all prevailing social evils. For such way of life naturally lahw wa la’b was serious obstacle and hence the Qur’an warned people against that.

However, many Muslims could not distinguish between the two and declared music prohibited whatever its form or context. While Ulama denounced music the Sufi saints generally approved of it and distinguishing between lahw wa la’band sheer fun they allowed music as a tool to God-realization as music could induce a sort of ecstasy which in turn helped God-realization. Thus sama’ which literally means listening of music was practiced by sufi saints.

It was for sama’ that qawwali was invented, as far as my knowledge goes, by Khusro, the celebrated disciple of Nizamuddin Awliya who used to have sama’ mehfil (i.e. congregation for devotional music). The Ulama who were jealous of Nizamuddin Awliya’s popularity, issued a fatwa (religious edict) against him for attending sama’ mehfil and the Sultan asked him to come to his court and defend himself. He went to the Sultan’s court (otherwise he never paid court to any sultan) and defended himself by reciting certain ahadith and came away. Maulana Rum had gone a step further and even resorted to dancing to induce such divine ecstacy and his followers regularly resort to dancing and are known as whirling dervishes.

It was because of such controversies created by the Ulama that an eminent sufi and scholar like Ghazzali wrote an epistle on Status of Music in Islam – Discipline and Rules of Music and Ecstacy. It is worth reading for all those who want to understand whether Islam prohibits music or not or if prohibits, what kind of music it prohibits.

Al-Ghazzali begins his Risala on music with these words, “Know this my dear about the fact and situation of man that there is a secret of God which is hidden in the human heart, which is similar to the one that is between iron and stone. Just as fire emits when iron strikes stone and sets forest on fire, a movement occurs in the human heart when it hears good and rhythmical sounds. And unconsciously a new situation comes into existence in the heart.”

He further says “The upper world of beauty and grace and the fundamental of beauty and grace is due proportion. And, whatever is proportionate is the manifestation of the beauty of that upper world. The beauty and proportion that we see in this world is the product of the beauty and grace of the upper world. Therefore, good, rhythmical and proportionate sound has a similarity with some of the wonders of the upper world. And it provides new informations in the heart in the form of a movement and eagerness.”

And further on Ghazzali says, “Whoever’s heart is filled with the fire of the eagerness of God, music becomes necessary for him, so that the fire may be brighter. The same music becomes haram (prohibited) and poisonous for a man, whose heart is full of the love of wrongful matters.”

What is this wrongful matter, Ghazzali refers to? It is lust, fun and music meant for worldly pleasure like the ones youngsters indulge in after drinking in clubs and such other institutions. Of course the Indian Classical music does not fall in this category and it is great art and discipline. Even qawwali and ghazal singing is based on Indian classical music or for that matter western classical symphonies are well cultivated art representing best in human beauty and grace.

Of course Ghazzali does not base his epistle only on such arguments but also on ahadith which tell us how the Prophet (PBUH) himself used to listen to music along with A’isha, his beloved wife. However, for want of space we cannot dwell on this. We will discuss that in other article insha Allah.

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.

Sufism: The Heart of Islam (New Book by Sadia Dehlvi)

Getting a visa to India is a nightmare for ordinary mortals. My application was not very politely returned last month with technical objections. It was only when a letter from Harper Collins arrived that the High Commission rather efficaciously allowed me to enter enemy territory, that too with special instructions that cantonments were out of bounds. I guess the South Asian officialdoms have yet to discover that Google Earth has permanently altered the shape of boundaries and secrecy.

Sufism:The Heart of Islam
by Sadia Dehlvi
Price: Rs. 695.00 (Hardback)
pp 400
Harper Collins India Original

I had to plan this rushed sojourn to attend the launch ceremony of Sadia Dehlvi’s book that has now hit the Indian bookshops with a bang and will soon be found in Pakistan. Sufism – the Heart of Islam is the culmination of Sadia’s journey of self discovery, and to use Bulleh Shah’s metaphor, entree into the inner temples of the heart. This was no ordinary launch, as I have been a literary companion in this path that Sadia has taken – right from the conception of the book, its shifting hues and drafts, the magnificent illustrations and poetry translations, and of course its final shape.

I had almost given up the idea of being present at the launch in the face of visa hurdles. I think the gods intervened, or as I told Sadia our beloved saints – Khwaja Gharib Nawaz of Ajmer and Nizamuddin Auliya of Dilli – allowed it to happen. The launch brought together a host of other friends who have been involved in giving various stirs to this book-brew.

The launch took place at Hotel Le Meridian and was a major Delhi hungama, as the hall was packed with more guests than it could accommodate. The nonagenarian Khushwant Singh made it despite his formal goodbyes to social occasions, and so did many others who have been friends with Sadia.

The inimitable thumree singer Vidya Rao launched the ceremony with an ensemble of what is these days known as Sufi music. She presented a Na’at in poorabi ang that was a delightful piece, establishing intimacy with the last Prophet (pbuh) urging him for blessings. The folk idiom made it even more striking than the usual renditions of this genre one is used to in Pakistan. A Hindu woman offering salutations to Hazrat Mohammad (pbuh) was a rare sight by itself. My favourite hierarchy of Sufi love, sung so beautifully by Vidya, was:

Khwaja milay tau Ali milay
Ali milay tau Nabi milay
Nabi milay tau Khuda mila

Khushwant Singh had to leave early, so he made a speech that was full of his classic witticisms. Declaring that he was free of God in his mental landscape, he had started to believe in miracles and the biggest miracle was Sadia writing her book! Mushir ul Hasan, the keynote speaker praised the book and its central message that Sufism was embedded in Islamic thought. He was a little critical of the Naqshbandi school of Sufism that was orthodox in his opinion, and had a sectarian bias in its worldview.

Karthika V. K., Chief Editor, Harper Collins India was most pleased with the book and she was also quick to note Sadia’s devotion to this project and spoke of how absorbed in the book writing and production she had been for the last one year.

Sadia was beaming with things coming together. Even on this occasion she could not stop herself from cracking jokes about the writing process, and she also spoke of how scared she was of her mother’s wrath if anything went wrong. The author’s mother, Zeenat Dehlvi, has been the proverbial lighthouse in introducing her to the Sufi tariqa or the path. Using several translations of mystic verses Sadia projected a lively, intimate and personal understanding of Sufi principles and vision. Oroon Das, an eminently talented theatre actor ended the evening with renditions of a wide range of Sufi verse from the book – from Hafez and Rumi to Bulleh Shah, as well as more contemporary Sufi poets.

Sadia Dehlvi for some time was known in Delhi as a page three persona – attending parties and events, and pictured as a secular, brainy Muslim diva holding forth on various issues – until her journalistic career took a turn over the last few years as the ‘principal’ spokesperson for Indian Muslims. Her writings and television appearances have harped on some bold themes such as the need for Muslims to look into their own backyard, use a bit of rationality and above all reject the orthodox Wahabi streams that seem to have engulfed the Muslim imagination in the era of militant Islamism.

In this process of getting to know herself and her cultural heritage, her focus shifted to an exploration of Sufism and its various historical movements. In the subcontinent, the Muslim identity cannot be separated from Sufi moorings, given the monumental role that the travelling saints, dervishes and fakirs played in converting the native inhabitants of India. The Muslim ruling classes were interested in India’s wealth and the capture of its political power since the eleventh century. Therefore, the rulers, most of whom were men of Central Asian or Persian descent were unlikely candidates to be spreaders of Islam’s egalitarian message.

Thus the great mingling of mystical Islam and India’s local, folk traditions found a synthesis in the South Asian brand of Sufism. But this was an endeavour that remained within the intellectual and spiritual depth of core Islamic beliefs. The current erroneous observations of Sufism as a separate belief-system from ‘Islam’, therefore, is an uninformed view and betrays the lack of understanding of this drummed-up danger religion.

For instance the book mentions the Prophet Muhammad declaring in a Hadith Qudsi: ‘Heaven and earth cannot contain Me but the heart of my faithful servant contains Me.’ The mystic poet Fariduddin Attar illustrates the state of the lovers in this couplet translated by Annmarie Schimmel:

When you seek God, seek him in your hear
He is not in Jerusalem, nor in Mecca nor in Hajj

Sufism takes the reader in an engaging way, through the layers of Islamic beliefs, and explains how a three-fold structure comprising “sharia, the outer law; tareeqa the inward path; and haeeqa, the arrival at the reality of Allah” are the different facets of a universal worldview of the religion. The various stages of the Sufi path such as hal (intoxicated state) and maqaam (station) are also elaborated well for lay readers.

The most illuminating part of the book is the evolution of Sufi schools of thought and their key beliefs and approaches. While browsing through the text one marvels at centuries of synthesis in the Indian subcontinent, which explains why the dergahs remain such a focus of public attention and imagination.

What I especially like about this volume is its immediate connection with readers. For example Sadia writes in a chapter entitled Tariqa – the Way of the Sufi:

“Growing up in an Irish convent boarding school, I regularly went to church, sang Christmas carols, baked Easter eggs and imbibed Christian values. During annual holidays a maulana, a religious teacher, came home to teach the Quran to all the children. He instilled the fear of God into us, with the result that fear remained the only emotion that the heart felt for the Creator. Somehow, this overwhelming fear kept me connected to Allah, despite often wanting to break away completely. Traversing the Sufi path changed my attitude, for it teaches that prayer rituals are worth little if not accompanied by love and sincerity.”

Whilst exploring the core of Sufi thought, the book traces the extraordinary lives of the early Sufis including the companions of the Prophet (pbuh), their sayings, and their emphasis on the purification of the heart. For modern readers, the larger narrative covers the period of early Islam to its current nemesis in the shape of militant ideologies. The book’s key argument is also contemporary: how Islamism is the undoing of a faith founded on the principles of love, peace and tolerance. The engaging style in which the book insightfully examines the complex relationship of Sufism with both Muslim and non-Muslim societies, should be instructive for readers outside South Asia as well.

Sadia’s book is a timely addition to the debates on Islam, Sufism and its accessibility and reader-friendliness. This is bound to attract a large number of readers.

Extract from 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. However, I do understand that Sufism has come to mean something quite different in the language of the New Age. Disillusioned with religion and the problems associated with it in secular democratic societies, people tend to mix and match elements from various religious traditions that personally appeal to them…The Quran informs us that Islam is not something that began with the Prophet Muhammad some 1400 years ago, but with the creation of the universe in which Adam was the first Prophet. Sufism is the timeless art of awakening the higher consciousness through submission to the Divine Will. The Sufi doctrine goes far beyond history and is rooted in the primordial covenant all unborn souls made with their Creator. Many friends view my visits to dargahs, Sufi tombs, as senseless medieval superstition. Some orthodox Muslims even insist that Sufism is an innovation in Islam-a sinful practice that our ancestors picked up from Hindu idol-worshipping traditions. They reason that since most of our ancestors were Hindus, some of us are still using pagan methods like singing, to please the gods… I would also like to share the miracle of my son’s birth. The best of infertility specialists had categorically told me that due to various complications it appeared virtually impossible for me to have a child. I was 32 years old, with the biological clock ticking away. I wanted a child desperately, but the doctors were not hopeful. My mother reprimanded me for giving up hope and despairing of God’s grace. She advised me to go to the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, popularly called Gharib Nawaz, Patron of the Poor. I travelled to Ajmer and pleaded for his blessings, vowing to come back for thanksgiving if my prayer was granted. In Delhi, I regularly visited the dargah of Hazrat Shah Farhad and lit candles for the granting of a child… My prayers were answered and a few months later there was an embryo kicking away in my womb, causing boundless joy. My son Arman Ali was born in Karachi through a Caesarean section, and while being wheeled away after the operation I faintly heard the doctor comment on the miracle birth. According to the Islamic calendar, Arman was born on the sixth of Rajab, a date that marks the annual Urs, death anniversary, of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz. The sixteen-year-old lad is a musically talented child, and this is a gift that I believe is from the Sufi Master… While researching the biographies and discourses of the Sufi Masters, I slowly began to understand traumatic experiences as both nourishing and necessary for those who truly seek to purify and liberate the mind, body and soul… I discovered that spiritual endeavours leading to states of ecstasy were usually rooted in grief. God, by His own admission to Moses, revealed that He lived in broken hearts. All Sufis believe that both affliction and bounties are the blessings of God. Something stirred my soul and I began to see myself as blessed rather than cursed by God. It changed my relationship with Him from one of animosity to one of friendship and love. I made a conscious, sustained effort to apply some basic principles of Sufism to my shattered life. I vowed to develop rida, resignation to the will of Allah; tawakkul, trust in Him; sabr, patience; and mohabba, love. I found that it soon provided me with the strength of a lioness and the flight of a falcon. I no more fear life or death, for I see life as an endurance of God’s will, and death as something that unifies us with the Creator.  (Extract from Sufism: The Heart of Islam – by Sadia Dehlvi. Published HarperCollins India.)

Happy Holi Everyone!

Mughal Emperor Jahangir Celebrating Holi

Wishing a happy Holi to all the readers. Above a painting circa 1635 AD of Mughal Emperor Jahangir celebrating the festival of Holi.

Also read a post by Yusuf Saeed on Holi’s Muslim History from last year. And enjoy it with a beautiful poem that places the Prophet in a very distinct Indian cultural mileu. It has been amazingly well rendered by Abida Parveen in the album Raqs-e-Bismil compiled by Muzaffar Ali.

horii hoye rahii hai Ahmad jiyaa ke dvaar
horii hoye rahii hai Ahmad jiyaa ke dvaar
Hajrat Ali kaa rang banaa hai Hasan Hussain khilaaR
horii hoye rahii hai Ahmad jiyaa ke dvaar

(horii : holi; Ahmad : another name of Prophet Muhammad; Ali : Cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad; Hasan : elder son of Hazrat Ali; Hussain : younger son of Hazrat Ali and the martyr of the battle of Karbala)

aiso horii kii dhuum machii hai
aiso horii ki dhuum machii hai
chahuuN or paRii hai pukaar
aiso anokho chatur khilaaRii
aiso anokho chatur khilaaRii
rang diiNyo sansaar

(chahuuN or : in every direction; anokho : unique; chatur : smart)

“Niaz” piyaraa bhar bhar chhiRke
“Niaz” piyaraa bhar bhar chhiRke
ek kii rang sahas pichkaar

(piyaraa : bowl; sahas : thousand)

horii hoye rahii hai Ahmad jiyaa ke dvaar
horii hoye rahii hai Ahmad jiyaa ke dvaar

Lyrics: Hazrat Shah Niaz
Singer: Abida Parveen
Album: Raqs-e-Bismil

Finally a poll:

[poll id=”3″]

Photo: Holi Painting

The Joy And Pain Of Being An Indian Muslim

Muslim Pot Maker, GujaratFor all Indians the resurgence of India in recent years is an occasion of pride and joy. And so it is for the 140 million minority Muslims in India. It makes Indian Muslims proud to see their country become one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. Also, a few Muslims have achieved positions of prestige in India and there are some success stories. Continue reading The Joy And Pain Of Being An Indian Muslim

Dr. Zakir Naik – Defame And Destroy

Dr. Zakir NaikOne comes across several interesting comments from the people who have been defending Mr. Zakir Naik on Indian Muslims Blog. Most of my brothers and sisters are impressed by his “immense knowledge” without knowing that his kind of knowledge (database or retention) has nothing to do with religion at all. In other words the knowledge he and his fans boast of is irreligious in its very essence, for any true religion is an ever-flowing fountain of “wisdom” not “knowledge”. Continue reading Dr. Zakir Naik – Defame And Destroy

Ghalib: Ode to Benaras

Banaras GhatsThe cancer of communalism and bigotry in South Asia continues to haunt us. These days, the Muslims are once again a subject of intense, though not always fair, scrutiny in India: their loyalties are being questioned and many are potential terrorists if not already abettors of violence. The post 9/11 world has contributed to the demonising of the Muslim identity and history to surreal heights. Continue reading Ghalib: Ode to Benaras