Inclusive Sufi ethic is taking a battering worldwide, but it has displayed a robust will to survive

By Sonia Sarkar
“False claimants of the peaceful Sufi ideology are emerging. They have become overtly ritualistic pirs (priests), dynastic gaddi nasheens (custodians of the shrines) and self-serving and rapacious mujawirins (shrine keepers),” says Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, classical Islamic Scholar and researcher in Media & Communication Studies at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia.
Clearly, some sections of Sufis have forgotten these words of Rumi. “If you want money more than anything, you will be bought and sold.”
“Tu barai wasl kardan aamadi, na barai fasl kardan aamadi.”
(You have come to this world to unite, not to divide)
 
– Mevlana Rumi
It was a warm spring afternoon at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan’s Sehwan, a five-hour-drive northwards from Karachi. In the courtyard hundreds had gathered for ” dhamaal”, a ritual Sufi dance. Dressed in a red lehenga and a flaming orange kurta with scarves to match, dancer Sheema Kermani started whirling, eyes half-shut, hands outstretched, herself in semi-trance.
Only three days before that – on February 16, 2017 – 88 people had been killed here when a suicide bomber affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, blew herself up.
“These shrines are symbols of resistance, non-conformity and anti-establishment sensibility. They are under attack because they symbolise defiance to established orthodox religion,” says Kermani who runs the Karachi-based cultural organisation, Tehrik-e-Niswan. Her performance at the blast site was an act of defiance. “We wanted to tell the terrorists that we will not succumb to their terror.”
Historically, Sufi mystics have been attacked for their “deviation” from puritan Islamic beliefs. The assault on them is repeating itself with ever increasing frequency. Not only in Pakistan, Sufism is under attack in the Kashmir Valley and several Muslim dominated countries – Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq.
Practitioners have a twin task at hand – to combat growing Islamist radicalism and also dispel the notion that Islam is coterminous with terrorism.
In any socio-religious conflict, the physical structures associated with the religion become the target of attackers. In this case, they – shrines of Sufi saints – have also become the site for launching the counter-attack.
In India, various historical societies have been organising heritage walks to major Sufi shrines such as the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi and the dargah of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer.
Sufi scholar Syed Farid Ahmed Nizami is one of the ” khadims” or keepers of Nizamuddin Dargah. He talks about how qawwals (singers)propagate the message of harmony through their music. “At our dargah, we celebrate both Id and Basant Panchami with the same fervour. It’s not a religious space but a liberal space for everyone.”
In 2014, before the Valley turned into this bubbling cauldron of disquiet, a Sufi conference was held in Srinagar. In 2016, Delhi hosted a World Sufi Forum. And this year too, like the last 10 years, filmmaker Muzaffar Ali’s three-day musical Sufi festival, Jahan-e-Khusrau, was held to commemorate the death anniversary of the Sufi musician, poet and scholar Amir Khusro. “Sufi music brings inner peace. It’s about soul connection and that’s the answer to all evils,” says Ali.
In the Arab world, Sufis are displaying resilience and unity to fight the rising Salafism – a reference to the “back to the past” kind of Islamist reform movement. A group of young men is promoting Sufism in war-torn Iraq. Sufi bands such as Helem, meaning dream in Arabic, and Sufiyat perform at various art galleries in Baghdad.
In Turkey, native to the 13th century Sufi poet, Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi, Sufi teachings in public places, performances of whirling dervishes, promotion of Rumi’s tomb in Konya are being popularised as never before. Bookshops are full of translations of works of Sufi poet and philosopher Ibn-i Arabi. Television channels are also routinely airing programmes on Sufism.
In Tunisia, north Africa, where Salafists have been regularly attacking the Sufi shrines and mausoleums, especially after the 2011 Arab Spring, there is an attempt to neutralise the “dark forces” by routinely spreading the pluralistic and liberal Sufi ethic. At the shrine of Sidi Belhassen al-Chedly in Tunisia, Sufi women perform hadra, a ritual of singing songs, not a common scene until a few years ago. Tourism is being promoted around every village or town located near or around a Sufi shrine and youth are being systematically drafted in to keep them away from Salafism. “Efforts are on to convey the message of forbearance, love, and mercy,” says Mazen Cherif, president of Arab Maghreb Union for Sufism, a conglomerate of representative from five Arab countries of north Africa.
In Morocco, where many are turning to the puritanical form of Islam, Wahhabism, there have been government initiatives to promote Sufism. In 2012, Ahmad al-Tawfiq, a prominent figure of the moderate Bushishiya order of Sufism, was appointed minister of endowments and Islamic affairs. The music festival in the northeastern city of Fez, a celebration of the country’s unique Sufi heritage has become a huge draw. “It all helps to combat radical Islam and promote an image of Moroccan Islam as moderate, pluralistic and peaceful,” says Moroccan Sufi scholar Aziz el Kobaiti Idrissi.
Initiatives to promote Sufism are in full swing in Pakistan as well. Literary festivals and “mushairas” or poetic symposiums have been organised. In recent times, a group of factory workers in Lahore came together to form Laal Theatre. The group uses the idiom of Sufi poetry to convey ideas of equality. A Bulleh Shah sangat, named after the famous Sufi poet, is trying to promote Sufi festivals in “mohallas” in Lahore, Sheikhupura and Kasur. “We are trying to speak in a language which more people would understand,” says Taimur Rahman, a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Studies. Rahman runs a Sufi band called Laal.
But the path of peace never did run smooth. Even as Sufism struggles to retain, develop and exhibit the face of benevolent Islam to the world, elements within the fold try and undo the good work.
In Pakistan, a section of Sufis have developed a radical edge. In 2011, Mumtaz Qadri, a Bareilvi Sufi, killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for his reformist stance on the country’s blasphemy laws. Qadri was hanged to death last year. In India, Sufis invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the World Sufi Forum in 2016, an action, which experts say betrayed an un-Sufi like hunger to be in proximity to those in power.
“False claimants of the peaceful Sufi ideology are emerging. They have become overtly ritualistic pirs (priests), dynastic gaddi nasheens (custodians of the shrines) and self-serving and rapacious mujawirins (shrine keepers),” says Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, classical Islamic Scholar and researcher in Media & Communication Studies at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia.
 
Clearly, some sections of Sufis have forgotten these words of Rumi. “If you want money more than anything, you will be bought and sold.”
Source: Telegraph India

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