Discordant notes: A review of Sadia Dehalvi’s “The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi”
There is a sudden spurt of interest in Sufism among a section of our population that did not have such an interest a decade or two ago. Some were introduced to Sufism and its spiritual philosophical moorings through interactions with those who knew something about it, and realised that the ideas of Wahdat-ul-Wujood had parallels in the Adwait philosophy and it was this consonance that intrigued many to an extent that they got interested in exploring Sufism a little more. There were others who discovered Sufism through the west. Just as many had discovered Hindustani classical music when George Harrison began to learn the Sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar in the ’60s, there are those who discovered Rumi when there was a spurt of interest in Jalal-ud-Din Rumi in the west, particularly in the US, with several translations appearing within a short span. Rumi has been known for centuries in our parts as Maulana Room; his poetry was quoted by Persian-knowing Indians till the 1950s and early 1960s, in conversations and writings, almost as often as Mir and Ghalib are quoted by the Urduwallas. An introduction to Rumi in the last decade or so has led eventually and inevitably to Sufism and a kindling of interest in our own indigenous Sufis.
But the biggest reason for this growing interest in Sufism stems from two impulses. One is the growth of religious intolerance and a systematic attack on our tolerant traditions, which prompted those who stand by the values of harmony and tolerance to look for inspiration in our syncretic traditions. The rise of majoritarian communalism and the systematic and frenzied attacks on our secular traditions and on artists, writers, film makers, intellectuals, especially historians, led, for instance, SAHMAT to start a campaign “In Defence of Our Secular Tradition,” a series of major concerts in big and small towns woven around the Sufi Bhakti tradition with Qawwals, Bauls, Kabir Panthis, singers of Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki and other Sufi and Bhakti texts from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh that foregrounded this tradition and led to many Indians revisiting their own forgotten traditions of inclusiveness and plurality.
The second impulse leading to the increasing curiosity about the Sufis was the rising popularity of Sufi singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the almost mandatory Sufi song in each Bombay film, in some way a response to the rising interest among the enlightened youth in a tolerant stream of faith to counter the wave of intolerance that seemed determined to destroy everything of value.
Filling a gap
Many of those who were or are getting interested in Sufism have only a vague notion of what Sufism is all about. Though there is no dearth of information on Sufism, and Sufism in India has been extensively researched and written about, but most of it is in Persian and Urdu. There is some very serious and heavy stuff in English and other European languages but there is a great dearth of material on Sufi and Bhakti movements written at a popular level in any language. A large population of the young enthusiasts of Sufism has had to rely on word of mouth explanations which are not necessarily authentic or well informed.
There was an urgent need for a compendium on Sufism, a kind of carry-with-you reference handbook that could explain the basic facts about Sufism, its origins, its history in India, the major Silsilas or spiritual lineages, their specific traits, commonalities and differences and the impact of Sufism in India. One needed something that one could go back to, in order to check the meaning of particular words like Barkat, Aqeedat, Sam’a, Haal, Urs and other Sufi practices and rituals. One needed to understand why women are by and large not permitted inside shrines. One needed to know about the areas of conflict between the clergy and the Sufis and between the state and the Sufis. What kind of relations did they build with other spiritual traditions, the reasons for their popularity and their relevance today? In a Delhi specific book on Sufism one would also expect to get information on all the major Sufi shrines and little notes on the history of the Sufis, their times and their contributions. All this in one book was asking for the heavens.
The Sadia Dehlvi authored The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi, appeared like an answer to all one’s wishes. It is very well laid out, the photographs by Arjun Prasad, Omar Adam Khan, Mayank Austin Sufi and Sadia’s son Arman Ali Reza are a treat.
The narrative is easy flowing and in ‘Divine Mysteries’ describes the origins of Sufism and the four Major Sufi Silsilas found in India in an easy to comprehend manner. ‘Dargah Evenings’ tries to explain the various rituals associated with Sufi shrines, best times to visit etc, are narrated in a manner that a novice will have little difficulty in understanding the goings on. After the two introductory chapters the book becomes a kind of a guide to Sufi Shrines of Delhi with little bits of history about the places where the shrines are located also thrown in.
So you come to know about the centres that grew around Qutub Saheb (Mehrauli), Nizam-ud-Din and Chiragh Dehli, named respectively after Khwaja Syed Mohammad Qutub-ud-Din Bakhteyaar Kaaki, Nizam-ud-Din Auliya and Nasir-ud-Din Roshan Chiragh Dehli, the three Chishti Masters in Delhi. The Harper Colins publication also provides basic information about the Silsilas and individual attainments of the other Sufis, big and small, that lie buried there in mausoleums ranging from the grand, the well preserved and well looked after, to small, dilapidated, ignored and encroached upon structures. This is followed by a description of the shrines inother parts of Delhi like shahjahanabad or Old Delhi, Sadar and Connaught Place area, with an Islamic calendar, a glossary with a select bibliography and an index bringing up the end of the book.
For those interested in exploring the little known corners of this city, that has history buried under every cobblestone, this book will come in very handy, though one wishes that the directions to many of the shrines or other structures were clearer than they are. This is something that can be easily remedied if the directions are given a relook, before the next reprint, from the point of view of someone unfamiliar familiar with the city.
There are however a few disquieting features that cannot be as easily corrected as the directions to the Sufi shrines.
One notices a tendency to Arabize terms that have been in use for centuries in, by and large, the form in which they arrived from Central Asia to us. It is possible that in Arabia they are used in the form that the book uses them in, but to the best of one’s limited knowledge and exposure we did not get these terms directly from Arabia, in fact the lineage of the so called Islamic culture, Islamic architecture, Islamic attire etc., that most Indian Muslims are identified through is more of Persian, Tajik, Uzbek, Turkish, Afghan and Pakhtoon, rather than of an Arabic extraction.
The form of Islam practiced in India is an amalgam of Islam as it evolved in its journey from Arabia across what the Arabs called Ajam, and of the influences it absorbed in India. Sufism is a major part of that amalgam. Moin Ud Din Chishti, who introduced the Chishti Silsila to India, was born in Sistan in Afghanistan. The Silsila gets its name from Chisht near Herat in Afghanistan. The Founder of the Qadri Silsila, Syed Abdul Qadir Jeelani was born in Mazandaran in Iran. Burhan-ud-Din Naqshband after whom the Naqshbandi Silsilah is named was born at Bokhara in Uzbekistan and the Suhrawardiya Silsila too has deep roots in Iran.
The fascination with the Arabic One Minar mosque, the Hijab and Allah Hafiz instead of Khuda Hafiz, are all recent imports into the practices of Indian Muslims. Unfortunately all this has come with the increasing influence of Wahabism and one finds it rather disturbing that someone claiming such close affinity with Sufism fails to notice this connection between Arabization and Wahabism. Fortunately those who value the traditions of the Sufis in India have by and large been free of these imitations and that is why terms like the Arabic Hijrah instead of the Persian and Urdu Hijrat, Bayah instead of Bait, Hadith instead of Hadees, Muhaddhith instead of Muhaddis, Ziyarah instead of Ziyarat, Barakah instead of Barkat and Qayamah instead of Qayamat not only strike a discordant note they are a distinct distraction.
This is not a matter of semantics alone. It is important to remember the Persian link. An overwhelming majority of our Sufi texts are written in Persian, most of the Sufi poetry that we have is in Persian. Hindavi or Zaban-e-Dehli, the mother of both Urdu and Hindi that grew in the khanqahs of the Sufis and the Akharas of the Bhakti poets as also in the bazaars, in army camps and in the caravan serais, owes much more to this Persian, Turkish, Tajik, Uzbek, Aghan, Pashto, Dari connection than it does to Arabic.
There are other issues, for example the debate whether Sufism predates Islam or whether it is a stream born out of Islam has not yet been conclusively settled in favour of the latter argument. For The Sufi Courtyard this is a closed chapter because the author firmly identifies Sufism as a stream born within the lifetime of the Prophet, in fact virtually in his courtyard. One of the greatest contributions of the Sufis has been their insistence that one does not know everything, that other possibilities exist, that other interpretations of truth are possible. It is this that creates spaces for questioning, for doubt, for tolerance. Certitude in matters spiritual leads to intolerance and one must exercise caution while insisting on certainty in matters of faith, for that is a path that the Sufi would shun.
The insistence that only a Muslim can be a Sufi sounds a little strange, especially in the context in which Sufism is placed today. Sufism has been practiced in India for more than 7 centuries. We must learn to distinguish between the role that Sufism played between the 13th to 18th century and the role that Sufi thought plays now in the context of a clash between the ideology of religious intolerance and the ideas of tolerance, inclusion and plurality. Sufi thought today has to be seen in the context of the present and not in the context of a time that ceased to be centuries ago.
On page 98 there is a quote from Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din and it runs along these lines: The sheikh maintained that ‘although many paths lead to God, none was more effective than bringing happiness to the human heart’. He emphasized that ‘looking after the destitute had greater value than formal religious practices’.
How does one reconcile this with the author’s insistence on adhering to formal Islam especially in the context of the present?
There are statements like, ‘He (Qutub-ud-Din Aibak) built the Qutub Minar and named it after Khwaja Qutub (Qutub–Ud-Din Bakhtyaar Kaaki)’ – parenthesis mine. This is patently wrong on several counts. The Qutub Minar is a victory tower, Qutub-ud-Din Aibak had started its construction but it was completed by the second Mumluk king Altamash (Iltutmish). One is not sure whether it was named Qutub Minar by Aibak, by Altamash or by the residents of Mehrauli and then became a commonly accepted name. The area of Mehrauli came to be called Qutub Saheb because of the association of Khwaja Bakhtyaar Kaaki with this area, just as Ghyas Pura became Nizam-ud-Din and the settlement where Khwaja Nasir-ud-Din built his Khanqaah came to be known as Chiragh Dehli after the sobriquet Roshan Chiragh-e-Dehli bestowed upon him by his preceptor Nizam-ud-Din Auliya.
In this context it will be good to remember that Khwaja Syed Muhammad Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaaki came to Delhi in the reign of Iltutmish and not during the reign of Aibak.
It has been claimed (page 64) that Sheikh Burhanuddin Mahmud Balkhi (d. 1288) loved the Sitar. In fact the sitar did not exist at the time and did not exist till as late as the time of Akbar.
The photograph purportedly depicting the mausoleum of Shah Turkman Bayabani in fact shows a fairly recent claimant to that exalted title, the mausoleum of Shams-ul-Arifeen Shah Turkman Bayabani (d. 1240), a contemporary of Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyaar Kaaki, is located well inside Mohalla Qabristan about 300 meters from Turkmam Gate to the left, down the narrow street leading to Chitli Qabar.
One does not like to go on listing oversights and mistakes in a book that is written with great amount of dedication and good intentions but unless these are pointed out there is a strong possibility that they would not be corrected in subsequent editions. I am certain that there will be subsequent additions not only because the book looks good but because it carries the name of Harper Collins, India Today and Sadia Dehlvi, and so in the interest of history it is essential that ahistorical and factually incorrect material be removed.
A book about Sufis and Sufism today would have perhaps served a larger cause if it had focused more on the foresight and strength of the ideas of tolerance, celebration of plurality and rejection of intolerance and bigotry that defined the lives and ideals of the Sufis. Lives that became examples, that tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands were inspired by. The stories of miracles make interesting reading and for the believer in miracles they may have a place higher than the contribution of Sufis to medieval philosophical thought, but in a book on Sufis in the 21st century the recounting of miracles appears a little overstated, but that is a matter of faith and the author’s prerogative. And yet without words of caution one runs the risk of turning these unsubstantiated claims into statements of fact. Statements that those who are getting interested in Sufism now may believe as History, and that will be a great disservice to the youth and one would be failing in one’s duty to the Great Masters.
The Sufis were nothing if they were not humble, the entire idea of bekhudi hinged on the premise that even an iota of ego, Ana in Urdu and Persian and Ahankaar in Sanskrit and Hindi, destroyed years of penance and prayers and so when one places oneself on the path of tasawwuf one does this with extreme humility. One places oneself at the feet of the master and tries to reduce one’s being – the very idea of self-into-nothingness. For only when there is no self can one merge into the Supreme Being, become one with the beloved. Given this general attitude to life that was eventually to become a creed of humility one finds it a little difficult to accept the attempt by the author to raise day to day mundane experiences to a level where they are placed on a footing equal to the experiences of the great masters of Sufism.
One does not, for example, expect that a reference, in the initial few pages of the book, to the important role that Hijrat or migration has played in the development of the Sufi discourse, and the importance of sufferings caused by this constant state of being unsettled and homeless, would conclude by comparing the experience of the Hijrat of the Sufis to the ‘trauma’ experienced by the author in having to vacate a house acquired by grandparents in Chanakya Puri and the discomfort of shifting into East Nizam-ud-Din. To compare this change of residence (from posh diplomatic enclave to East Nizam-ud-Din, a preserve of up-market Dilliwalas) with the homelessness of the great Sufis, who spent entire lives in small hovels or worse still, in the wilderness, is a little too far-fetched. Humility, a better idea of one’s own station and a sense of proportion would have been more appropriate.
This book could have become the kind of ready reference to Sufism and to Sufi shrines of Delhi that is so urgently needed at present, unfortunately it has failed to come up to the promise it had held up.
(A slightly different version first appeared in appeared in Volume XXXVI No.7 July 2012 issue of The Book Review).