Millennium Post

Onus on India to save Sufism

Last week, well-known Qawaal Amjad Sabri was gunned down in Karachi. One wonders why a man spreading the message of goodwill would have enemies. Sabri was a symbol of Sufi school, the liberal face of Islam which believes in syncretism.

 This version of Islam is popular among the believers of Quran living in the shadow of Hindukush range, from Sindh, Punjab, Pakhtunkhwa, and Kashmir, since long before international boundaries made these geographical identities part of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The entire region is dotted with abodes of Sufi saints who spread the message of good will and believed in promotion of fusion of cultures through poetry, music, and dance forms. These practices are anathemas to the Wahabi School of Islam, which charges Sufi practitioners of promoting idolatry, something which Islam prohibits.

A very thought provoking article penned by historian William Darlymple published following the gunning down of Sabri mentions how Sufi shrines in these regions are slowly being throttled by Wahabi preachers, whose mushrooming madrasas in the region are sponsored by Saudi petrodollars.

“By assassinating one of the most celebrated Sufi singers in the country (Pakistan), the Taliban were attempting to impose their obscurantist reign of fear and their right to shut down voices they disagree with, as well as striking at Sindh, the Sufi 'capital' of Pakistan and a place which had until recently resisted them.

 The rise of Islamic radicalism is often presented in starkly political terms, but what happened in Karachi this week is a reminder that at the heart of the current conflict lie two very different understandings of Islam. Hardline Wahhabi/Salafi fundamentalism has advanced rapidly in Pakistan partly because the Saudis have financed the building of so many madrasas which have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of state education.

 These have taught an entire generation of Pakistanis to abhor the gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam, and the music that carries its message, and instead, embrace an imported form of Saudi Salafism,” wrote Darlymple.

Amid the discussion on how Sufism has come under the threat of conservative Islam, one wonders if New Delhi could have a role in saving this Islamic school, which for ages has represented the cultural soul of a larger part of South Asia, from complete decimation. It should not be forgotten that Delhi as the capital of the Sultanate and later of the Mughals had a great role in the rise and spread of the Sufi and Bhakti culture in the region.

Before we examine New Delhi's significance on this front, let’s examine how history empowers it for this kind of a responsibility. For centuries Delhi’s soul has rested in the music of the dargahs (qawwali) and gurudwaras (gurmat sangeet). 

The roots of qawwali can be traced in Delhi in the 13th century, when Amir Khusro of the Chisti Order decided to make the city his home as the disciple of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and called himself Amir Khusro Dehlevi, that is a resident of Dehli (as the national capital was called in medieval times). The area in and around Delhi is replete with the Sufi order, which believes in music to be a means to be one with the godhead.

Thus, in addition to the dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia, at least two other mausoleums of the sufi saints – Bande Nawaz Nasirduddin Chirag Dehlevi and Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki of Mehrauli –  are important centres of qawwali and sufiana kalam. There are in all 22 dargahs of medieval saints in Delhi alone.

Around Delhi, too, there are two major centres of sufiana kalam – Fatehpur Sikri which has the mausoleum of Hazrat Salim Chisti, and Ajmer where the dargah of Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti is located. The Garib Nawaz of Ajmer is known as the founder of Chisti order of the Sufi saints.

The depth of Delhi’s Sufi traditions found an exposition in Imtiaz Ali’s 2011 Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Rockstar. The film attributes the protagonist’s trance in music to the time he spends at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya.

Similarly several gurudwaras in the national Capital, of which 10 have been blessed with the personal presence of the Sikh Gurus, there are dedicated groups of Gurbani and kirtan singer trained in classical traditions. Gurbani is composed of two words: “Gur” meaning the Guru and their voice – “bani”. Gurbani singing is done through vocal performance of religious hymns –Shabads – in the kirtan form.

The musical tradition – Gurmat Sangeet – can be traced to its founder Guru Nanak Dev. Sikhs refer to a hymn or section of the Guru Granth Sahib as shabad. The first shabad in the Guru Granth Sahib is the Mool Mantar (the hymn which has the essence of the Sikh philosophy) -- Ek Onkar, Sat Nam, Karta Purkh, Nirbhao, Nirvair, Akaal Moort, Ajuni, Sai Bhang, Gur Prasad.  The hymns are arranged in chapters named after musical ragas.

At Gurdwara Rakabganj near the Central Secretariat is located the historical Gurmat Sangeet Vidyalay, where young disciples are formally trained in Gurbani singing and anointed a Ragi. Some of the more famous Indi-pop and Punjabi-pop singers like Daler Mehndi, Hans Raj Hans, and Rabbi Shergill have all had their training in Gurmat Sangeet.

Coming back to protecting syncretic culture in the sub-continent, the criticism of the support of Narendra Modi government lend to a conclave of Sufi leaders last March, calling it an attempt to divide Islam, needs a revisit. The NDA government is correct in pushing the line that Sufism, a tolerant version of Islam rooted in the subcontinent's syncretic culture, is an antidote to fundamentalism.

“At a time when the dark shadows of violence are becoming longer, you are the noor or the light of hope. When young laughter is silenced by guns on the streets, you are the voice that heals,” Prime Minister Modi had said addressing the Sufi leaders. Alas, these voices are under threat.

(The author is President Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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