Monday, April 9, 2007

The Sufi Way

Islam In India – The Sufi Way

Some of the materials that I am studying in my class, Islam in India have shed truth on the egregious distortions that many scholars have perpetuated about Hindu and Muslim culture in India. These distortions have resulted in a split between Hindu, Muslim and Indian culture as if they are actually separate and distinct. Furthermore, the religious turmoil that is so prevalent appears to add credence to the belief that Hindus and Muslims are separate faith traditions. Some of these scholars go so far as to contend that Indian Muslim culture is not “Indian.” An examination of Amir Khusrau Dehlav, one of the first recorded Indians, reflects a multicultural or pluralistic identity. Introduction to Khusrau reveals a genre he popularized called ghazal. Khusrau’s ghazal became popular and achieved great popularity in Delhi or South Asia and spread to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkemanaristan. Khusrau’s paheli’s or riddles which were actually short pieces of verse with usually two or four lines in rhyme using an array of similies, analogues and other symbols in a clever tongue in cheek play of words that concealed their meaning or answers were widely disseminated in India. Parents would even use them as bedtime stories according to one source. Khusrau invented qawwali, a type of music that is popular in India to this day. Khusrau blended Persian, the language of the court with Bojpuri, the language of the people and wrote his poetry, songs, riddles in Hind, the precursor to modern Hindi and Urdu. Khusrau’s music became very popular among Muslims and Hindus. His disciples and their descendants sang his music in the court of every Delhi ruler.

Additionally, religious celebrations also reflected a similar sharing of culture between Muslims and Hindus. The Celebration of Basant was observed by as many Muslims as Hindus, was started by Chihti Sufis and has lasted over 800 hundred years. The false dichotomy between Islam and Hinduism is refuted by such celebrations as Basant and Eid with Muslims celebrating Basant, primarily a Hindu holy day and Hindus taking part in Eid, primarily a Muslim holy day. At least this was once the way according to one source. Now what apparently exists is “communities are being forced to be polarized into their puritanical identities.”

However, it was the Sufi readings on peace that most depicted the beliefs of religious tolerance and harmony that stands in contradiction to the alleged split between Hindu and Muslim, thus depicting it as an artificial divide. In the essay, The Contribution of Indian Sufis to Peace and Amity by K. A. Nizami, the author states that Sufis appreciated the multi-racial, multi religious and multilingual patterns of Indian society. Racial and ecumenical approach is evident in the Sufi belief that there are multiple ways to God. However, it is believed that the quickest and most effective way is bringing happiness to the hearts of others. Sufi’s believe that all people are the children of God. Furthermore, they believe that God extends bounties to all – the pious and the sinner, the believer and the non-believer, the high and the low. Thus, Sufis identify service of God with service to humanity. Khwaja M’in-u’d-di Chrishti, the founder of the Chrishti silsiah in India, advised his followers to develop, “river-like generosity, sun-like affection and earth like hospitality.” For Sufis, toleration was an expression of confidence in their faith and any social discrimination was a negation of the true spirit of faith. Sa’di the famous Persian poet said: “Higher spiritual life is nothing but service of humanity. It is not (chanting) the rosary, (remaining on the) prayer carpet or (wearing) coarse garments.”

The Sufis lived in the midst of the poor and identified themselves with the problems and perplexities of the people. Peace and goodwill between human beings was the essence of Sufi endeavors. One example is Shaikh Hamid-ud-din who lived in Suwal, a small village of Nagaur. Like the Rajasthani peasants that he lived among, he mixed with people of all castes and creeds and adopted their vegetarian habits. Another example of the Sufi way is Shah Waliullah who advocated the peaceful integration of al the components of society and their harmonious functioning to achieve the well-being of all. The Sufi Way is to return hatred with love, violence with affection, sympathy with the weak and downtrodden and consciousness of a divine mission to bring happiness to the hearts of all humanity. Sufis do not indulge in criticism of other customs and practices. They helped in the development of regional languages such as Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, etc. Their approach towards human relationships is expressed in the imagery of the eyes: Learn from the eyes the way to develop unity and oneness. The two eyes appear different but their vision is one.

Perhaps it is helpful to think of Indian culture as one scholar from the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in New Delhi perceives it. He purports that, “India makes a blend of both giving up and not giving up the identity.. .Giving up so that one becomes an empty vessel to absorb new things. Not giving up, in retaining the essential you.” Thus, just as those on the path of life seek to discern that which portrays Indian Muslim cultures and what Indian culture really is, Indians themselves are also undertaking a diasporic quest for identity. This search for ancestral lineage in the Indian Diaspora has parallels similar to the African diaspora which was the result of Africans forced and voluntary migration around the world. Similarly, Indians were taken by their colonial masters to countries ranging from Sri Lanka in South Asia to Suriname in South America where many struggle to retain their Indian cultural values and identity. The Ancestral Search Programme at the Indira Gandhi Natural Centre for the Arts has secured documents such as ship registers, immigration records and estate registers that will help Indians locate their place of origins for many Indian ancestors that were taken by colonial rulers to distant lands to work as indentured labourers.

One final contemporary example of collaboration between India and the Jewish community around issues of religious tolerance is an exhibit from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre Museum of Tolerance located at the Palais Palfty in Vienna which opened in 1988. The exhibit is titled, The Courage to Remember. It was inaugurated by Shri Shri Ravi Shankar in the presence of Israeli Ambassador in India, David Danieli. On November 7, 2004, Dr. L. M. Singhvi, President of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi presided over the event as it was convened. The exhibition centers on the period between 1933 and 1945 when Nazi Germany embarked on a campaign to annihilate the Jewish community in Europe. The atrocities against Jews as the world now knows were in the form of hate campaigns, legislation, and mass killings. The exhibition was publicized as a reminder about the ills of intolerance and a wake up call to people not to forget that tolerance, mutual understanding and love are critical to the worlds continued existence. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Dean of the Simon Wisenthal Centre Museum of Tolerance in his address at the opening of the exhibition in India made these poignant remarks, “In remembrance is the roots of redemption. In forgetting is the reinitiating.”

Let us all strive for respect for all religions. May we live to see the day when we truly are one family of human kind. May it be so!