Sufis wrote poetry, sang songs and danced to express their love for God
This timely book by Raziuddin Aquil on the spiritual movement within Islam points out how Sufis blended with local culture and sang and preached in Punjabi in Punjab and in Bengali in Bengal
Sufism is a vibrant spiritual movement within Islam. It has several strands which have developed across centuries and in different parts of the world. Originating in 8th-century Iraq with precedents even earlier in the times of Prophet Muhammad himself, Sufi traditions grew as part of a powerful mystical movement and spread to all corners of the known world.
Central to this is the complete, even obsessive, love and devotion for God and to achieve a blissful mystical union with Him. This they called ishq-i haqiqi, true love for God, compared to ishq-i majazi, desire for this-worldly objects of love. They aspired to achieve this through a systematic cultivation of the soul, purifying the lower-self, and dedicating themselves in the service of all the creations of God. Service to humanity was considered the best form of worship.
This was done through charitable endeavours, blessings and benediction for which large numbers of people throng to Sufi shrines, mazars and dargahs even today. Many of the visitors and devotees to these places are not Muslims, but they have faith in the spiritual powers of Sufi saints.
It is believed by the visitors that the Sufis have achieved nearness to God. This belief prevails even in times when Islam is stigmatized because of terror and violence in its name. This means that the followers understand the distinction between the humanism of Sufi spirituality and brutalities involved in violent political abuses of Islam.
Sufis also adopted spiritual practices which were beyond the juridically recommended Islamic obligations. This would often run them into trouble with the custodians of Islam. Sufis defended themselves as true followers of the path of the Prophet in their complete and unconditional submission to the will of God. They expressed these through their voluminous writings, discourses and powerful poetry. The latter included a systematically developed art form - often blending song, music and dance, which also appealed to popular taste and catered to the need for some music in one's life. Sufis recognized that only a heartless being will have no sense of music.
Wherever Sufis went they got themselves embedded in local culture and spoke of their love for God in the language the people understood. In the subcontinent, from as early as the 11th century onwards, they sang and preached in Punjabi in Punjab, Dakani in Deccan, Bengali in Bengal. In the cow-belt of Hindustan, they spoke in Hindi and from the 15th century onwards avoided eating beef in deference to the sentiments of sections of people.
They also composed their poetry of love in a genre called premakhyan, the best example of which is Padmavat of Malik Muhammad Jaisi. This latter text was in the news in recent times, as a Hindi film based on it could not handle the intricate entanglements of literature, spirituality and politics in history and the present leading to a caricature of the original poetry. In the charged political atmosphere, looking at Sufi premakhyan texts, cynics may wonder how is it that Sufis wrote such exquisite poetry of love despite being Muslims, especially as the latter are increasingly and erroneously being identified as terrorists or their sympathizers.
The stories of miracles and other anecdotes in Sufi texts frequently relate to a Sufi shaikh flying on a camel-back to Mecca for Hajj, the holy Ka'ba coming over to India for circumambulation around the blessed personality of a Sufi shaikh and his spiritually soaked hospice, walls floating in the air at the command of a Sufi, rivers getting dried up to let the Sufi shaikh cross, a river of molten silver flowing underneath the prayer carpet of the saint, soil, stone, firewood transformed into gold, revival of the dead, many cases of spiritual healing for which the people would crowd hospices and shrines, ability to see distant places and to foresee the good and the evil in future, and the details of the effects of jalal, or the curse on the opponents and jamal, grace and favour, on those who had faith in him.
These anecdotes, with all their spectacular and paranormal contents, can be identified as pertaining to the domain of prediction and divination, encounters with opponents and the competitive nature of popular spirituality, conversion of the opponent and others as disciples with or without direct and immediate acceptance of Islam, and Sufi miracles as benevolence through help in distress and healing practices.
Many of the miraculous stories are recurring, repetitive and common to diverse traditions, and therefore their historicity and truthfulness as historical facts will be difficult to establish. Yet, it is easy to see, from the texts in which they have been included, the relevance, popularity, and contexts in which such stories emerged and spread through the subcontinent. Many of the stories were narrated by none other than Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in his own lifetime, and many others were recounted by his disciple and successor in the Chishti silsila, Khwaja Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehli.
These stories, therefore, cannot be dismissed as unimportant for understanding the relevance of Sufism and its popular appeal. Supernatural feats are indeed the Sufi saints’ sources of authority in the public domain. It is only for those miraculous interventions that a large majority of visitors continue to throng Sufi dargahs and mazars even in modern times when there is great difficulty in community relations involving Muslims and others. The majority of visitors to shrines are still non-Muslims, for they understand the distinction between the spiritual language of love of Sufis for God and the violent nature of politics in our times, and perhaps also in the past. So, while many people visit Nizamuddin Dargah every day, few would be interested in knowing where the Tughlaq Sultan was buried.
Popularity of a Sufi saint depended upon how successfully he demonstrated his miraculous power. The people appropriated a miracle-working Sufi shaikh, expected him to stay in their neighbourhood and perform miracles for them. This is a role the Sufis continue to perform even after they pass away, because it is believed that saints never die. Lying in their graves, they continue to look after their disciples and followers.
Visitors to their mazars and dargahs are thus blessed with the surrounding spirituality and charisma. This has made Sufi shrines relevant for all times, in the past and the present. Spiritually soaked Thursday evenings at the dargah and the occasion of annual Urs (death anniversary of Sufis) are considered to be especially rewarding. The shrines are open to everyone: man-woman, high-low, rich-poor, Hindu-Muslim, Sikh-Christian. None are discriminated against, for all are creations of God, and Sufis considered themselves as friends and lovers of God.
The stories recounted in this book bring out this and several other significant dimensions which together make Sufism a vibrant spiritual movement within Islam, with a history going back twelve centuries and counting. It was part of the great traditions of Islam at their zenith and it is also witness to the contemporary history of Islam at its lowest ebb.
In either case, its relevance is a matter of hope and solace for those who seek to live in a world promising peace and harmonious coexistence of all the beautiful creations of God. For, it creates a spiritually imbued brotherhood of unity in diversity.
(Excerpted from ‘Days in the Life of a Sufi: 101 Enchanting Stories of Wisdom’ by Raziuddin Aquil, published by Pan Macmillan India)