By Sameer Arshad
08 march 2010
New Delhi: A sea of faithful in skullcaps gives Nizamuddin’s medieval lanes a uniquely uniform look. A look that blurs the opposing Islamic visions — one mystical, the other orthodox — they are drawn to and have existed cheek by jowl in Nizamuddin’s warren lanes for close to a century.
The 14th century mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine on one side of the locality represents Islam’s heterodox Sufi tradition rich in music, dance and poetry while the international headquarters of the revivalist, austere Tabligh Jamaat, on the other side represents the faith’s opposite strain that considers veneration of saints a cardinal sin.
Tablighis believe that worldly woes are a divine means to test their faith and endurance and a punishment for their sins and lack of adequate piety. They insist, rather than struggling for political power or even protesting against oppression by non-Muslims, faithful must first devote themselves to becoming good, practicing Muslims to win the God’s pleasure.
Unlike Sufis, who place music at the heart of devotion and have produced some of the most beautiful art, poetry and music, Tablighis consider hedonism as a distraction from otherworldly pursuits. Sufis say Tablighis are too ritualistic and don’t understand human weaknesses. The saint is believed to have said that rituals and fasting were for the pious, but love was everywhere and the surest route to the divine. The saint insisted that divinity could best be reached through heart and not the external ritual of the mosque or temple.
Tablighis, the largest Muslim missionary movement in the world, advocate a return to Islam’s basic fundamentals and believe Sufism encourages un-Islamic practices like idolatry, music and dancing. Tablighis believe Sufis worship tombs violating the basic Islamic fundamental that there’s no power but Allah.
Sufis remain undeterred by what their next-door co-religionists have to say about their way of life, as musicians and singers gather weekly to perform qawwali at the Nizamuddin dargah. Sufis see qawwali as a key to the journey to the divine and call it God’s continual remembrance. Across the Islamic world, Sufi music takes many forms and fuses with local traditions.
‘‘Qawwali goes straight inside. You may not be able to follow the words, but its magic touches your soul,’’ says Qurban Ali, a qawwal at the 13th century mystic Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine at Ajmer.
Author William Dalrymple writes that Sufi music and poetry were hugely important in bringing Islam’s message to a wider audience as a predominantly Hindu population from the 12th century onwards slowly adopted the new religion. ‘‘Sufis succeeded in bringing together Hindu and Muslim in a movement which spanned the apparently unbridgeable gulf separating the two religions,’’ he writes. ‘‘To this day, while Muslims usually predominate at Sufi shrines, you also see huge numbers of Hindus as well as the odd Sikh and Christian. Here, religion brings people together than the other way round. In modern India, he adds, ‘‘Sufism isn’t something other-worldly so much as a religious force that demonstrably acts as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds.’’
Qawwali’s creator Amir Khusrau is buried next to Nizamuddin and it’s a sign of the respect in which he is held that his tomb stands next to that of the saint.
But Sufism is more than music. Sufis also chant and meditate to clear the mind and open the heart to God. Sufism is expressed through the saint’s veneration. The veneration and love for music has put Sufis in the crosshairs of their revivalist co-religionists. Tablighis say the God can’t be reached through music and insist that the divine should be approached directly through prayers in the mosque. Sufis, however, feel more comfortable going through the intermediary of a saint.
Tablighis believe music is sinful, forbidden and musicians are wrongdoers. Tablighis are often accused of dissuading the faithful from going to Nizamuddin’s shrine. A Tabligh follower, Khaleel Sheikh rejects the accusation. ‘‘We hold Nizamuddin in high-esteem. He was a great servant of the faith,’’ he says. ‘‘We may disagree with some of Sufis ways but never stop people from visiting the shrine.’’ He claims Tablighis don’t impose their views. ‘‘We’ve our beliefs. If you agree, you’re welcome and if you don’t then you’re free to choose your path,’’ he adds.
Sajjada Nashin (caretaker) of Nizamuddin dargah Khwaja Afzal Nizami is pointblank. ‘‘I don’t want to talk about Tablighis. They’re like satans who stop people from good work. He says Sufis believe in the simple philosophy of love. ‘‘Sufi is love and love is Sufi. It’s this pull of love that draws people from all faiths. We’re the true followers of Prophet Muhammad and his message of love,’’ he says. ‘‘Nothing worries us because the Prophet’s message of love has always triumphed over hate. He says Sufism excludes none. ‘‘You can be a sinner but can come and pray at the shrine and be forgiven and embraced. But fringe elements are exclusionary,’’ he says. Nizami says Islam spread through Sufism’s message of love, harmony and devotion through music.
Ajmer-based Sufi scholar Najamul Hassan Chishti says revivalists like Tablighis may be on the rise, but a majority of 450 million Muslims in the subcontinent — nearly a third of the Islamic world — practices Sufism, something many believe is the bulwark against radicalism. Influential think-tank RAND Corporation in its 2007 report ‘Building Moderate Muslim Networks’ described Sufis as moderate traditionalists ‘‘open to change and potential allies against violence’’.
Pennsylvania State University’s Philip Jenkins is among the growing number of western intellectuals who believe Sufis ‘‘by all logic should be a critical ally against extremism’’. He says Sufis — the power that has made Islam the world’s secondlargest religion — are the muscle and sinew of the faith. ‘‘For the fundamentalists like the Taliban, Sufis are deadly enemies. Where Islamists rise to power, Sufis are persecuted or driven underground; but where Sufis remain in the ascendant, it’s the radicals who must fight to survive.’’ He notes that around the world, Sufis are struggling against violent fundamentalists. ‘‘While proudly Islamic, Sufi believers have always been in dialogue with other great religions,’’ he says.
Source: The Times of India, New Delhi.