Sufism: The Kinder Face of Islam
Author Raziuddin Aquil’s latest book Days in the Life of a Sufi: 101 Enchanting Stories of Wisdom comprises bite-sized stories that spread the message of love and peace. “Sufism advocates peaceful coexistence amid the wide diversity of people. This is especially important in our troubled times when narrowly defined religious boundaries and aggressive politics of religion are creating serious humanitarian crisis,” to put it in the author’s words.
The road to meet the creator isn’t the easiest, but mystics and saints have always shown the path. Citing examples from the lives of Sufi saints such as Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Khwaja Qutubuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki and many others, the book narrates how a change of heart is the key to connecting with the goodness of all that lives. These stories are real life compilations and the author begins the book with a short introduction to Sufism. There are no trying rituals or rigid ideologies in the book — the focus is on good values, some magic, miracles, principles and humane attitudes. Living austere lives, promoting harmony and brotherhood, the lives of saints aren’t free from the suspicious shackles of society and gruesome politics. In fact, the Sufis also faced resistance within their own religion. But these mystics have fought kings with their miraculous powers, become revered community healers and also integrated the arts such as dance, music and poetry in their worship. Each story takes about 2 to 5 minutes to read and acts as a bite-sized value that can be a lesson of the day, much like the quotes we now see floating on social media. In the frenzied and screaming world that we now live in, where opinions are floated in seconds on social media, where things take a tumultuous turn for no reason, a book highlighting the need to remain calm and grounded and turn to the simpler harmonious life is a welcome read.
Raziuddin Aquil is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at University of Delhi. His previous books include The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian History (2017); Lovers of God: Sufism and the Politics of Islam in Medieval India (2017) and Sufism, Culture and Politics: Afghans and Islam in Medieval North India (2007). He talks about the new book in an email interview:
Why did you choose to write this book?
With all the bad press that Islam and Muslims get today, primarily because of violence and terror in the name of religion, it is important to highlight that all is not lost insofar as Muslims are concerned. Sufism presents a kinder face of Islam. It’s about love for God and service to humanity — ideas and practices followed by Prophet Muhammad, the 7th century Arab messenger of God. There’s a lot of ignorance about all these, which need to be corrected with some emphasis, especially in our post-truth era. It is important to bring people into reading well-researched books by responsible scholars rather than getting swayed by violent emotions generated by propagandists with sinister agenda.
How would you explain Sufism to a layperson?
It’s about love for God and respect for all His creations, rising above all the distinctions of castes, creeds, gender, etc. Even animals and plants are to be respected as marvellous creations of God. Even as complete and ecstatic devotion to God is recommended, service to humanity is considered to be the best form of worship in most Sufi traditions, which claim to be following the path of the Prophet to achieve nearness to God. Worldliness and materialism are disapproved, and withdrawal from lust and desire is recommended. Since it’s about love and devotion, it’s also about matters of heart which needs to be cultivated for a person to become an evolved human being. It’s achieved through prayers, vigils, fasting, and chanting recommended formulas. Such a heart also longs for poetry and music for remembering God. Music and dance as well-crafted art forms, thus, become an important part of Sufi practice. All these, for the sake of a loving God.
All the saints mentioned are from India, Iran and neighbouring countries. Did Sufism not spread beyond the confines of these regions?Sufism has historically spread to all parts of the known world. Wherever the Sufis went, they got themselves sort of embedded in local customs and practices. They played important social and cultural roles, in shaping and transforming the society with their message of universal brotherhood, egalitarianism, tolerance and respect for difference. The focus of my research has been on the significant presence of charismatic Sufi masters of mainly Chishti tradition through the medieval and early modern eras. Later custodians of this tradition have continued to show that the shrines and tombs, mazaars and dargahs, of Sufis remain relevant in modern times.
Large majority of Muslims in India follow peace-loving Sufi-oriented Islam, and at the same time a large majority of visitors to Sufi shrines are non-Muslims! It’s about transcending politically-controlled religious boundary markers, which Sufis also defied.
How many orders of Sufis are there?
There are many Sufi orders, spiritual lineages or silsilas, of which Chishtis, Qadiris, Suhrawardis and Naqshbandis, and their sub-branches are well-known in India and abroad. These primarily came to the subcontinent from the Middle East, Iraq, Iran and Central Asia through the medieval period. In the modern period, in the last couple of centuries or more, Indian Sufism has travelled worldwide to spread in parts of Africa, Europe and North America.
Do we have records of any Sufi saints in Central and South India?
There are many records and several studies relating to Sufism in central and southern India. In fact, in current research, some of the finest works on Sufism in India are about Sufi traditions and practices in the Deccan region since the 14th century. Scholars such as Richard Eaton, Carl Ernst, Nile Green and Scott Kugle have published their significant new research on various important dimensions, both mystical and social, related to vibrant Sufi traditions located at such historic centres as Aurangabad and Khuldabad, Bijapur, Gulbarga and Hyderabad. Burhanpur was also a major Sufi centre since the arrival of Islam and Sufis in those parts in the thirteenth century. Similarly, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have a long tradition of Sufi-centric popular religiosities, the origins of which can be traced back to their contacts with medieval Arab world, though some strands of North Indian Sufism also travelled Southwards through the medieval period. Along with these, Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east complete the sacred geography of Sufism in the subcontinent.
How is Sufism’s relevant in today’s times?
As I said earlier, Sufism advocates for peaceful coexistence of all the wide diversity of people. This is especially important in our troubled times when narrowly defined religious boundaries and aggressive politics of religion are creating serious humanitarian crisis. Politicians and other interested parties who thrive on violence are creating fault lines between communities of people and pitting them against one another in the name of religion and community. Sufi message of peace with all offers an alternative for hope.
Are there any Sufis alive? Or are there just keepers of the traditions now?If there are Sufis, they should be hiding somewhere in the Himalayas and engaging themselves in their mystical practices, praying and remembering God, away from the demands of the bad new world we inhabit. Sufis are not supposed to wear a langota and live in a forest, away from the excruciating pressures from the wretched world; and yet withdrawal, renunciation with bare minimum creature comfort is the advice to friends and lovers of God, charting the mystic path. They can come down to set things right, correct some wrongs. Meanwhile, traditions associated with dargahs continue to be relevant, attracting large crowds which defy communal boundaries and reformist slurs.
Choosing to focus on the tales of miracles and good human values, you think Sufism will again become popular in the sub-continent?
Sufism remains a popular spiritual movement. It has defied fundamentalist pressures from within Islam and it attracts large crowds of non-Muslims, who otherwise may dislike and even hate violence and terror in the name of Islam. They make a distinction between Sufi humanism on one hand and brutalities of terrorists on the other, even though both strands of Islam might be invoking the same God.
Which Sufi principles can we adopt in our daily lives to lead a peaceful life, find unity in diversity?
Sufi emphasis on patience, tolerance, peaceful coexistence, respect for both human beings and animals, charity and humanism are significant features which can make people better and kind human beings. Its recommendation for continuous soul-searching, for cleansing one’s heart of all evil, and proper conduct even in the most atrocious situations are virtues worth adopting for a life lived with grace.
As the Sufis loved qawwalis, any recommendations that everyone would love to hear?
Qawwalis attributed to Amir Khusrau, who was a close disciple of Delhi’s foremost Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and a much respected father figure in classical Hindustani musical tradition, can still touch the heart of people with a zauq, or taste for spiritual pleasure. The qawwali performance by such modern stalwarts as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Zila Khan and Sanam Marvi, among many other practitioners, entertain devoted connoisseurs and also cater to popular tastes. Besides blessings and benediction for which large numbers of people throng at Sufi shrines, it is the powerful and melodious renditions of the qawwals which have kept the belief in Sufi traditions alive. They have continued to sing songs of love even in times and places full of hate. In doing so, they win many converts, if not for religion for sheer pleasure of music devoted to love for God. As the tradition goes, even a donkey has a sense of music! Human beings are supposed to behave better. This is what Sufism teaches us, become a good, perfect human being.
Publisher: Pan Macmillan India
Price: INR 399