Sunday, July 31, 2011
Hadie Shafdie, Iranian-born and now living in America, uses phrases and words taken from mystical Sufi poetry, incantations of sequences of the names of the divine. She handwrites and prints the devotions, usually spoken or chanted, on thousands of tiny scrolls in a broad spectrum of beguiling colours.
The paper is rolled into circles of varying sizes, with the Farsi script almost entirely hidden, and tightly packed into wall-hanging glazed wooden vitrines. The resulting two pieces – 22500 Pages and 26000 Pages, both created this year - are captivating, echoing in stasis the physical act of ecstatic recitation, expressing something of Sufism, the mystical and esoteric forms of Muslim worship. No whirling dervishes here, although they too are Sufi.
These are among the pieces in various media on exhibit from the 10 shortlisted artists and designers for the 2011 Jameel Prize, which will be announced on 12 September.
The Jameel family donated the wherewithal for the magical transformation in 2006 of the gallery housing the prize exhibits of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Islamic collection.
Two years ago they initiated a competition to take place every other year: £25,000 for an artist or designer whose work is inspired by an Islamic aesthetic. The artists themselves may come from anywhere in the world, and any ethnic or religious background. Their personal faith (or lack of it) and family is irrelevant; what is crucial is their ability creatively to reinterpret for today any aspect of the arts of Islam, and in any material.
'The V&A in the 1850s became the first museum in the world systematically and purposefully to collect Islamic material'
The shortlist is chosen from hundreds of artists nominated worldwide by a broad group of experts who each may suggest up to five names. There is a changing panel of judges, this year including Afruz Amighi, whose hauntingly beautiful hanging 1001 Pages - made from plastic of the kind used for temporary tents in refugee camps, perforated with a fascinating and mesmerising repetition of symbolic Islamic forms - won the Jameel Prize in 2009, and is now in the permanent collection of the V&A.
It is particularly appropriate that this celebration of contemporary Islamic art should be at the V&A, which in the 1850s became the first museum in the world systematically and purposefully to collect Islamic material.
The arts of Islam were seen by far-sighted scholars as a crucial part of the V&A’s mission to show the world’s finest art as examples to raise the standards of design in Britain. The systematic use of repetitive forms, and the extraordinarily imaginative exploitation of particular and at times restrictive visual vocabulary for brilliant effect - and profound impact - was indeed inspirational.
There are some witty subversions of history. Soody Shafiri’s Fashion Week (2010) digitally manipulates a large-scale photograph of a centuries-old Mughal miniature featuring a cheerfully ceremonial crowd of men and women in a palace courtyard, digitally inserting contemporary women in conventional, conservative Muslim dress on a catwalk in a palace courtyard, surrounded by the painted crowd of Mughal men and women.
Shafiri’s Frolicking Women in the Pool (2007) finds several fully clothed swimming figures added to their demure, naked counterparts from a 14th-century miniature: rather innocent shades of the Chapman brothers.
In the enormous wooden mock-ups, Migrant 1 and Migrant 8 (2010), the Iraqi Hayv Kahraman gently subverts the “archaeology-awareness” playing cards (I joke not) issued to American soldiers in the hope that irreplaceable vestiges of the cradle of civilisation (Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Hellenistic empires, anyone?) might survive yet another invasion.
Her Lion of Babylon (2011) is a richly ornamented and decorative mythical creature, spewing out folded cards each bearing a portrait - the title a reference to a type of tank used by Saddam, and the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
There are big, impressive and affecting embroidered blue-and-white banners hanging in the Jameel gallery itself, by Rachid Koraichi, from an Algerian Sufi family, using Arabic calligraphy and a host of symbols from wheels to abstracted organic shapes, stylised eyes, hands, stars, moons and crescents in blazingly impressive designs (pictured). It is an elaborate yet distilled homage to 14 masters of Sufism.
The youngest artist on view, Noor Ali Chagani, who graduated from art college in Lahore three years ago having studied Mughal painting, now uses as his material of choice miniature terracotta bricks. In Lifeline, what appears to be a textured shawl, the colour of the red earth of the subcontinent, is made up of thousands of threaded tiny bricks, flung to the ground in disciplined profusion.
Turner Prize this isn’t, with no conscious attempt to shock on view. What is fascinating is the way, however, that within the restraints of the criteria individual personality does shine through.
The restrictions seem to stimulate the possibilities of various media and message. This select group of artists, from octogenarians to twentysomethings, from North America to Iran, Tunisia to Pakistan, show in diverse ways an ability to use the past to produce original, idiosyncratic and meaningful work. They build on tradition and history – and the more you know the more you see, but I can testify to their appeal to the less informed too - to make something meaningful and new in the here and now.
The Jameel Prize at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 25 September
[Click on the title to the original article for more images (ed.)]
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Tribal security guards have foiled a bomb attack on the shrine of a Sufi poet in Pakistan's Khyber tribal area, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reports.
On July 22, Several attackers tried to plant bombs at the shrine of Pashto poet Hamza Khan Shinwari but a security guard, who told RFE/RL his name is Ikram, opened fire on them.
After an exchange of gunfire, the guard telephoned for help from the political administration. Reinforcements arrived and forced the attackers to flee.
Ikram, who is a member of the Khasadar force of tribal police, told RFE/RL the attackers threw two hand grenades that destroyed a nearby shop and damaged the wall enclosing the Hamza Khan complex.
"I saw five people who came there and asked me to surrender," Ikram said. "I refused and did not let them come in. I phoned to other [tribal police] for help. They came and there was an exchange of fire. Then the attackers threw hand grenades which damaged the shrine complex."
No one was killed or injured in the attack. Eyewitnesses said the boundary wall of the complex was damaged and the windows of the Hamza Khan Library, which is part of the shrine, were smashed.
Attacks on Sufi shrines are common in northern Pakistan and some other parts of the country. Most such attacks are thought to be carried out by radical, Salafi-minded Taliban groups.
In March 2009, attackers blew up the shrine of Sufi poet Rehman Baba in Peshawar. That attack was widely condemned across the country.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Somalia: For the first time in a quarter century, the UN has declared a famine in Africa, with nearly four million people in danger of starving to death before the end of the year. The water, and food, shortage is worst in southern Somalia, with eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya suffering to a somewhat lesser extent.
About 11 million people are in the worst hit areas, but only the Somalis cannot easily be reached by food aid.
There is a another major problem here, in that most of the worst drought areas in Somalia are controlled, or contested, by Islamic radical group al Shabaab. Over the last two years, al Shabaab has chased most foreign aid groups out of the area, mainly by demanding that the aid organizations pay a large "tax" for the right to operate in areas that al Shabaab controlled (or could threaten).
In addition, al Shabaab felt entitled to take as much food aid as they wanted. But now al Shabaab says it wants the aid organizations, and their free food, to return. At the same time, al Shabaab condemns the UN for calling the situation a famine, accusing the foreigners of trying to make the Islamic radicals look bad.
What al Shabaab really fears is a lot of the food is arriving by air and ship at Mogadishu. There, the TNG (Transitional National Government) claims to control 85 percent of the city. TNG troops, with the help of 9,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers, can use the famine relief food as an incentive for some clans and warlords to start shooting at al Shabaab.
While al Shabaab is described as "controlling" southern Somalia, they don't, at least not in the traditional sense.
There are dozens of clan militias in the south, but rarely do these clans gather a lot of their armed men for action. Al Shabaab, on the other hand, derives its power because it has a few thousand armed men on duty full time. They sustain themselves via extortion, theft and foreign donations (from hard core Islamic terrorism supporters). Thus al Shabaab can intimidate the more numerous clan gunmen with the threat of quick (before the clan get their armed men mobilized) visits by a large force of ill-tempered Islamic radicals. The drought has changed this.
The drought is also a major problem for al Shabaab because there is less to steal, and the clans are desperate enough to gather their armed men and take on the al Shabaab gunmen, despite the risk of some heavy combat losses.
Actually, this has been a growing problem for over a year, largely because the Sufi (a milder sect of Islam) clans have mobilized to oppose religious oppression by the conservative Sunni (who consider Sufis heretics) al Shabaab.
In the last few months, the Sufi militias have been defeating the al Shabaab gunmen sent to destroy them. Added to that is the growing strength of the TNG forces (trained outside the country) and the AU peacekeepers (who have shifted into more aggressive peacemaking mode).
Al Shabaab has lost control of the large parts of Mogadishu they had occupied for over a year. With the TNG offering free food aid to the starving clans in the area, al Shabaab faces a widespread rebellion.
This would confront al Shabaab with more gunmen than they can handle. As a result, some of the al Shabaab factions have agreed to let the aid groups in, without interference, as long as food aid came as well. But some al Shabaab leaders are not so flexible.
The U.S. is refusing to supply food to Somalia if there is any chance of al Shabaab being involved. That's because there is a U.S. law forbidding sending aid that is at risk of being used by terrorists. Al Shabaab has been notorious about its support for terrorism, and for stealing foreign aid. The American law has been waived in cases (like in Sudan) where the local government was able to get nearly all the food to the people it was intended for.
The United States has been supplying most of the food aid to Somalia over the last two decades. But that aid has been cut back in the last few years as al Shabaab took control of access routes to more people in southern Somalia.
Lots of U.S. food aid still goes to northern Somalia (Puntland and Somaliland) and the growing TNG controlled areas. The Sufi militias have taken control of some areas along the Kenyan border, meaning they can get food as well.
This drought is so bad that over 80 percent of the livestock in southern Somalia has died. The nearly ten million sheep, cattle and other animals normally found in the south, are a major part of the economy. Now, the families that rely on animal husbandry, will need help to rebuild. The help will only come if there is some degree of peace.
Many Somalis in al Shabaab controlled areas are just leaving, usually in the night, and walking to the Kenyan border, where there are refugee camps, and food. Over half a million Somalis are in those Kenyan camps now, and where nearly 1,500 emaciated people are arriving every day. There would be more, but an increasing number of these travelers die along the way. More food aid is being sent to Kenya, not only to help hungry Kenyans, but also for the refugee camps full of Somalis.
July 21, 2011: Al Shabaab kidnapped Asha Osman Aqiil, the TNG Minister For Women And Family Affairs, and the only woman in the new cabinet. Aqiil was sworn in yesterday and was seized in Balad, a town north of the capital Mogadishu that is usually free of al Shabaab. But in Somalia, convoys of trucks and cars carrying armed men can go just about anywhere and, for a while (until local gunmen can gather) do whatever they want. In this case, the Islamic terrorists are expressing their displeasure with the TNG allowing a woman to be a government minister. Moreover, Aqiil has long been an advocate for woman's rights. Al Shabaab is particularly hostile to this. Aqiil is a 32 year old widow and her family and clan are trying to negotiate her release.
July 18, 2011: The UN has begun airlifting famine relief food into Mogadishu. Some aid was also shipped to the al Shabaab controlled port of Baidoa, where the local Islamic radicals promised not to steal all, or most, of it.
[Picture: Thousands of Somalis have fled their country to escape famine that exists in two regions of southern Somalia. Photo: UN News Centre.]
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Summer Journey 2011: Discovering a world of change and challenge in the footsteps of the 14th century explorer Ibn Battuta
Sometimes the path to spiritual awareness runs through a Turkish suq. Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I were carpet shopping at Istanbul's vast Ottoman Grand Bazaar. One salesman, a clean-shaven Muslim youth, invited us to a Sufi do — not one of the whirling-dervish performances so worshipped by tourists but a genuine prayer meeting at the home of his effendi.
Sufism holds that you can commune personally and directly with God through, among other avenues, meditative chanting. That's what we witnessed. The effendi's rooms were filled with men young and old sitting on colorful floor rugs, all repeating in rhythmic Arabic the first clause of the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith: "There is no God but Allah." Many appeared to be in a trancelike state. My wife, who is Chinese American, was the only woman present, somehow let in even without a veil. Whatever the reason, we found the experience mesmerizing, soulful and uplifting. I remember thinking, Unlike other strains of Islam, this mystical form is so cool, so mellow.
Many Muslims think differently. For centuries, Sufis have been persecuted by fellow Muslims — puritans who believe that Sufism's individuality and DIY doctrines do not sufficiently adhere to Shari'a law, the sunna (practices attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) and conventional interpretations of the Koran. This antagonism can get murderous. If Ibn Battuta, an otherwise conservative Muslim who loved to visit places holy to Sufis, had been at Lahore's venerated Data Darbar shrine a year ago, he might have gotten killed. Suicide bombers, probably Pakistani Taliban, caused scores of deaths and injuries. And it's not just the Sufis — many Muslim groups are bitterly at odds with one another. (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
The truth is that while Islam is proudly monotheistic, it is fiercely, even violently, nonmonolithic. Contemporary Islam tends to be viewed in two polar dimensions of light and darkness: a religion of peace and moderation that lives with the rest of the world, or a creed of hate and extremism that conspires to create its own world. Both exist, but the faith is also fragmented in myriad other ways. A veritable Arabic alphabet of Islamic branches and splinters abounds. Between fanatics at one end and reformers at the other lies a full spectrum of grades of belief and practice. While the West asks, Why do they hate us? Muslims could well ponder, Why do we hate one another?
The first and biggest schism in Islam — Sunnis vs. Shi'ites — originated immediately after Muhammad's passing in 632, over whether the Meccan merchant Abu Bakr or Muhammad's son-in-law Ali should succeed the Prophet. A quarter-century later, Ali's son Hussein and his small band of family and friends were pretty much annihilated by an Umayyad army at Karbala in what is today Iraq. Every year, Shi'ites ("followers of the party" of Ali) mark the terrible calamity in a paroxysm of grief and anger. The 1980 — 88 war between Sunni Iraq and Shi'ite Iran had to do largely with security and territory, and this year's incursion by a Gulf force into Bahrain, whose population is majority Shi'ite, with self-preservation and geopolitics. But in both cases, the deep root was a centuries-old mutual mistrust.
It's fair to ask, What's the big deal? Other great religions are split too. But it needn't be that way for Islam, which can, and should, be more unified. Being a Muslim is remarkably straightforward: you simply have to believe in the shahada (whose second part is "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah"). There's nothing as arcane as Christianity's Holy Trinity, as complex as Buddhism's levels of rebirth or as traumatic as Judaism's pain over which to agonize. Islam's fractures have less to do with theology than matters of leadership, interpretation and degree. "The divisions of Islam," Irish scholar Malise Ruthven wrote in his seminal work Islam in the World, "have their origins in politics rather than dogma."
Once a year, Muslims forget their differences. During the hajj, an astonishing diversity of Muslims join together in singular devotion — a breathtaking display of oneness that no other faith can match. Muslims who deny the Islam of others deny that spirit and, indeed, what the Koran itself says: "Allah invites all to the home of peace."
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Lahore: This is not the world, especially this part, which was known to Sufis like Waris Shah, who preached ‘love to all’ till they left the mundane world to meet their Creator again.
Today he has more number of followers to what he had during his worldly days, but the levels of unrest, disharmony, despondency and hatred for fellow beings are the highest ever, if these have not touched their maximums. And now it seems that even his followers have forgotten Shah’s real message, and perhaps have become mere visitors to his last resting place, at least once a year during the Urs days, which is the 213th this year.
How unsafe have become such places of people who preached peace and love for humanity, can be gauged from the very fact that the Punjab government had cancelled all the literary programmes and banned the gathering of more than 20 people in the premises of Waris Shah’s mazar, which had obviously disappointed the devotees. The question is: Can the provincial dispensation not even secure compound encompassing three acres? If it could have been done, then people could have re-enlivened the days of yore when recitations of Shah’s Heer Ranjha enthralled a many, allowed permeation of Sufi’s spirit and promoted feeling of brotherhood. But the ‘steps meant for security of people’ did not allow this to happen.
India’s celebrated writer Amrita Pretam is less known in Pakistan, even for her autobiographical ‘Raseedi Ticket’ but mostly for 16-liner tribute to Waris Shah, where she has pleaded to the Sufi to rise from his grave, and have a look at the havoc played to this land. She says:
I say to Waris Shah today, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love
Once one daughter of Punjab wept, and you wrote your long saga;
Today thousands weep, calling to you Waris Shah:
Arise, O friend of the afflicted; arise and see the state of Punjab,
Corpses strewn on fields, and the Chenab flowing with much blood.
Someone filled the five rivers with poison,
And this same water now irrigates our soil.
Where was lost the flute, where the songs of love sounded?
And all Ranjha’s brothers forgotten to play the flute.
Blood has rained on the soil, graves are oozing with blood,
The princesses of love cry their hearts out in the graveyards.
Today all the Quaido’s have become the thieves of love and beauty,
Where can we find another one like Waris Shah?
Waris Shah! I say to you, speak from your grave
And add a new page to your book of love.
(This translation is from Darshan Singh Maini’s ‘Studies in Punjabi Poetry’.)
Shah’s Heer is better known among the Punjabi speaking population of the world than Shakespeare’s Juliet, and the former’s message is far profound than the writings of the English dramatist but the literati of the sub-continent considered it a huge tribute to the ever-living Shah when he is renamed as ‘Shakespeare of the Punjabi Language’. It is an acceptance by those, who might not have understood and comprehended Shah in totality. If more Punjabi knowing people would have read or his writings would have been made compulsory part of the syllabi, then Waris Shah would have been the one of the greatest writers of the world, whose message is for believers of all shades.
To some critics, Shah’s masterpiece Heer Ranjha is apparently a story of romantic love, through which he had tried to portray the love for God, the quintessential subject of Sufis’ writings.
Someone has rightly put it, “the first poet of Punjab who sang full-throatedly about Punjab and Punjabiat and left a writing (Heer Ranjha) which is the soulful passionate expression of the Punjabi psyche, culture and aspirations.”
Through this, Waris Shah is calling out at the top of his voice – Reaching out to Him (Allah) is the finality.
This is apropos of a recent report in the press which stated that the relics of Waris Shah Hujra had been plundered. The distressing report reflects the indifferent attitude of the authorities concerned towards their responsibilities of preserving and safeguarding our cultural treasure, traditions and values.
The place where our great Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah composed his masterpiece ‘Heer Ranjha’, considered one of the quintessential works of Punjabi classical literature, is abandoned and left to rot with little regard to its historical value, immense cultural significance attached to it and extreme devotion of thousands of lovers of Punjabi poetry and their love for this great Sufi poet of our country.
While the energetic efforts of our government to promote Sufism gain momentum with every passing day, such utter disregard for the historical places of Sufi poets does not augur well and may prove detrimental to the untiring efforts to disseminate the message of love, peace, unity and brotherhood.
Never was a greater need to promote Sufism than now when we witness, to our utter dismay and frustration, lawlessness, terrorism, extremism and violence of all kinds with no regard to the sufferings of our fellow beings. However, it’s good to see that our government also believes that Sufism is the panacea of all ills and troubles we are enmeshed with. What we need most is tolerance and unity to foil the evil designs of our enemies.
Given this scenario, we endorse the demands made by Mian Zakir to the president of Anjuman Waris Shah, to the Punjab government and the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture to declare Waris Shah Mosque a historical monument and release funds for its renovation and preservation. The encroached land of the mosque may also be retrieved from local occupants.
All these steps are needed to be taken on an urgent basis to preserve this cultural heritage of ours. We hope the Punjab government will take immediate action to further the noble cause of promoting the message of Sufis all over the country and the world as well.
Pakistan is a land of saints and Sufis. The more we love them and promote their messages, the more we succeed in bringing to our country the peace and stability we badly need in these turbulent times we are passing through.
[Picture of Waris Shah from All Poetry.]
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Devotees of Sufism, the spiritual interpretation of Islam, face problems wherever they are found. In the West, many self-styled Sufis have never become Muslim, know little of the religious background of the Sufi way, and give Sufism a reputation as simply another flavor of New-Age, "weekend" mysticism. In Muslim lands, especially in the Arab core countries, classic Sufi authors may be praised while living Sufi teachers are derided as un-Islamic charlatans. And in some places, Sufis are imprisoned and murdered.
As a Muslim Sufi adherent, however, I am troubled especially by another expression of contempt very widely cast against Sufism by Islam-hating amateur experts in the West. That is the claim of Sufi irrelevance. Since the horror of Sept. 11, now almost a decade past, the identification of a moderate and contemplative form of Islam, which can oppose radical and fundamentalist doctrines, has seemed of considerable importance both for the moral health of Muslim believers and for the security of non-Muslims and Muslims alike. But the Sufi alternative to Islamist extremism is neglected or even disparaged, typically, by Muslim and non-Muslim commentators.
Western misperception of the importance of Sufis in Islamic life is complicated by lack of clarity as to who and what Sufis are. Sufis often enjoy great prestige with the mass of Muslims, based on Sufi examples of personal humility in fervor for God and Sufi preaching of love for humanity. But Sufis are not, mainly, other-worldly, exotic individuals or groups that spend all their time absorbed in semah (ecstatic turning on one foot and other forms of dance).
Some Sufis withdraw from the daily affairs of society, but others pursue satisfaction of the Creator by seeking social justice through improvement of popular education and services to the needy, such as housing of the homeless and free distribution of food. Rather than disappearing in a misty aura of meditation, numerous Sufis around the Muslim world contribute actively to defense of the victims of oppression.
Sufis may also take on the risky challenge of overt political engagement. This has been seen most strikingly in Turkish developments over the past two decades. Turkish Sufis were suppressed by the secularist regime established in the 1920s, but flourished in clandestinity, and have now emerged to lead Islamist parties and to assume positions in government. How the relations between Turkish Islamist politicians and Turkish and Kurdish Sufis will evolve remains to be seen.
Essential principles shared by most Muslim Sufis include emphasis on commonalities with other faiths and traditions, which has contributed to improved relations between Muslims and Jews, Christians, Buddhists and other non-Islamic believers. Commentators concerned to denigrate Islam altogether have asserted that Sufis, even if they embody moderation and mutual respect among people of religion, comprise no more than 5 percent of the world's Muslims. Since the importance of Sufism stands, in the minds of many Westerners, on demographic measurement, let us therefore ask: How many Sufis are found in the Muslim world?
I would first observe that Sufis are present, persistently, in every Muslim population, including those where they were persecuted the longest: Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi kingdom prohibited and punished possession of Sufi books and the practice of Sufi observances, the country always possessed a thriving Sufi underground with access to the heights of power. Before his elevation to the throne in 2005, then-Saudi Crown Prince, and now King Abdullah, who favored Sufis, gained them the right to hold zikr (remembrance of God by vocal or silent chanting, singing and bodily movements) in their homes.
In some countries Sufism is praised as an item of a proud heritage while it is repressed in daily life. The most obvious such example is that of Iran. The clerical regime established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could not act easily against Sufis, since so many famous Sufis -- such as Jalaladdin Rumi, the 13th century author believed by many to be, currently, the most widely read poet in the West -- wrote in Persian, and Sufi texts became the national literature of the Iranians.
But while the Tehran clerics honor the Sufis of the past, they repress Sufis in the present. Sufis have most often functioned as an alternative to clerical authority in Islam, and widely represented Iranian Sufi bodies like the Nimatullahi-Gonabadi dervish order and the "hidden," Kurdish-speaking Ahl-e Haqq or "people of truth" have sustained a difficult challenge to the Iranian authorities. Iranian Sufis have been arrested and disappeared into the obscurity of the prisons, with some doubtless dealt a fatal destiny.
As certain Islamic countries are ambivalent about Sufism, in other Muslim societies we see variations in the intensity of Sufi "activism." Analyzing Islamic Sufism, I have generally divided Muslim territories between those in which Sufism has a deep but informal influence in local Islam, in contrast with those where it has a well-established institutional presence.
In the great Eurasian expanses, Islam is widely permeated by Sufi teachings and customs. From my travels, observation and participation in Muslim life, I have seen and experienced that Sufi-oriented Islam is prevalent among Slavic and Russian Turkic Muslims, dominant in Central Asia, and widely-represented in South Asia and in Southeast Asia. Across this heartland, Sufi authors are studied and throngs of pilgrims visit Sufi shrines or otherwise commemorate the lives of Sufi saints.
Elsewhere the spiritual heritage is maintained by powerful, organized orders, sometimes called "brotherhoods" although they typically include female disciples. These are prominent in North Africa, French-speaking West Africa, East Africa, the Albanian lands, plus Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Iran.
In Turkey, most Muslims are Sufi either by identification with the normative Sunnism subsidized by the state, which exalted Sufis and places the works of Rumi in all Turkish mosques, or by participation in Sufi orders as well as widespread, part-time study circles and other voluntary communities that teach an esoteric Islam. Others are involved in more singular phenomena like the Turkish-Kurdish, Shia-Sufi-shamanist Alevi movement. As a different variant in the Sufi continuum, Indonesia possesses a Sufi civic movement of national scope -- the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) organization. Returning to South Asia, organized Sufism there is enacted with a backdrop of a broader, "cultural" Sufism and is under bloody attack by radicals.
Aggregating Sufi-influenced Muslims with active Muslim Sufis from Senegal to Singapore, I believe it is realistic to claim a large plurality, at least, of the world's 1.3-plus billion Muslims. This should be a source of optimism for those who seek conciliation, rather than confrontation, between the world's religions, affecting positively both the direction of Islam and the image of Islam among non-Muslims. For these reasons, more concentrated attention on the Sufis by social-science investigators and other experts would be welcome.
[Picture: Logo of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, of which the Author is Executive Director.]
Monday, July 25, 2011
Ustad Noor Mohammad, an experienced and skilled artisan, was busy writing a verse, which was to be placed on one of the walls of the shrine of Laki Shah Saddar in Jamshoro. He and his team had been working on the renovation of the tomb for the last three months.
Noor Mohammed had 10-years long experience in re-designing and beautifying ancient tombs, shrines and mosques. He had worked with different teams and gradually developed his own group of young artists. “This work needs passion and commitment. Earning money is not an issue in our understanding. We work on the beautification of the mosques, ancient tombs, redesign some places and earn love of the people, who frequently visit these worship places and shrines to pay homage to the Sufi saints,” he said.
“We do not paint figures at walls but build pieces with textures and then put the same at proper places. We inscribe verses through pieces instead of writing with a brush. It is more creative that is why caretakers of the shrines and relevant government departments call us for doing this work,” he added.
He said that they could read scripts in Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi and Arabic languages. Noor Mohammed stated that hundreds of devotees and followers of the Sufi saints visit the shrines on a daily basis. He said that many times, while working on different shrines, people gathered around him and watched anxiously, while he was inscribing verses and making textures. “We are paid Rs300 per foot, while officials arrange raw materials for this work,” he said.
Mohammed Mushahid, son of Ghulam Shabir, was one of the members of a team of traditional artists, who had been working on the renovation of Laki Shah Saddar tomb.
Sitting under a shed in the shrine premises, he was busy in cutting glass and plastic sheets into pieces, designing verses of Holy Qura’an, poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and flowery items, which the other artists were placing inside and outside of the tomb.
Belonging to Multan, Mushahid left education after completing primary schooling. “One day Ustad Noor Mohammed asked me to learn this specific artwork so that I could earn some money and support my family. Following his advice, I joined his team and learned this unique art. I have visited several places in Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh provinces, where we designed tombs and mosques with this particular artwork,” he said.
Ustad Noor Mohammad’s team started work on the tomb of Laki Shah Saddar some three months back and the renovation work was expected to be completed in the next six months. The team was awarded a contract by the Sindh auqaf department.
The shrine was equally popular among the Muslims and Hindus, who visit the tomb frequently to pay homage to the saint.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Islamabad: Tunes of the Sufi song “dam-a-dam-mast-qallandar” instantly set a lady on dhamal, a traditional Sufi dance. She was an onlooker to a recreational programme for children at Edhi Home.
The shy lady was standing at the verandah of her shelter home yards away from the stage where children and some of their families were being entertained with music, dances, painting competitions, magic shows and gymnastics.
The Edhi Home inhabitants had never seen all of this before and it was brought to them by Asro, a non-profit organisation formed by a group of young girls and boys, most of them teenagers. Asro, a Sindhi word meaning “ray of hope”, was conceived by A-levels students Sindhu Javed and Sahil Fayyaz.
Palwasha Qaisar, Omar Jafri, Sundus Javed and others joined in later. They chose working for deprived and underprivileged children as their aim. Edhi Home, they said, was their first stop over in their journey.
“We thought these children deserved more than just charity,” said a visibly excited Sindhu. She struck upon the idea to bring colour, fun and entertainment in the otherwise mundane lives of the more than 60 children and their families at the shelter.
They set upon the mission to collect funds and arrange for the function. “Many people we talked to were forthcoming while some were not. We managed [to find] a sponsor and some friends also contributed,” said Palwasha.
Wearing white Asro shirts, the boys and girls remained on their tip-toes while playing games with children at a specially set up tent and stage, and serving meals.
Shireen and Farhad
Excited at the response to the show of compassion and love the young Asro girls and boys perhaps failed to gauge the essence of their effort. But there was a couple among their target audience that did it.
They were Edhi’s Shireen and Farhad. They were perhaps the oldest inhabitants of Edhi Home Islamabad. Their respective fate had brought them to this shelter home way back in 1991. Both were deaf-mute and were aged seven or eight then.
“Despite efforts their families could not be traced and they themselves could not speak,” said Javed Niazi, a caretaker at the shelter. Abdul Sattar Edhi gave them the names of Shireen and Farhad and their common muteness brought them into wedlock in 2004. They had their third child just a few months ago, all normal.
Farhad was dropped at Azad Kashmir Edhi centre by someone. “Perhaps his poor family could not keep a deaf and dumb child, so they abandoned him,” said Niazi adding that Shireen had a similar story.
Farhad is now a security guard at the shelter. The couple was given a separate room.
Shireen could not stay long at the function as she had to take her baby indoors but Farhad saw their elder son playing, eating and dancing to the tunes of songs sung by a local singer among other children.
The Asro youth served the children and their mothers meals at their seats under the tent. Drinking mineral water was a new taste for most children. They spent over three hours in the tent watching magic shows, listening to music and participating in other activities before moving on to the play-ground set up in the nearby lawn.
The young philanthropists had pre-arranged for collecting litter in special bags they had brought with them.
Like any other uptown bash, the party at Edhi Home went on till late into the night. Farhad had gone indoors to his family by then as he is used to sleeping early. Sindhu and friends left the contented Edhi children with the passion to bring more merry days to their lives.
[Visit Edhi Home; Read about the epic poem of Shireen and Farhad.]
Picture: A-Levels’ students organise a funfair for children at Edhi Home. Photo: SXC.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Waterloo: At their core, humans everywhere are the same.
"We have the same mind, the same body. The only thing that divides us is the way we think," said Shiv Talwar, president of the Waterloo-based Spiritual Heritage Education Network.
This weekend, a conference at the University of Waterloo will examine the concept of spirituality that is at the core of all faith traditions and appreciated by believers and non-believers alike.
“We will look at spirituality as a unifying part of religion,’’ said Talwar, a retired Conestoga College civil engineering professor.
More than 80 participants are expected to attend the second annual conference - Education to Globalize the Human Mind - at the Ron Eydt Village at the Waterloo university campus.
Humera Javed, one of the organizers of the conference, said the focus of the event is spirituality, not religiosity.
“Spirituality stands to reason, faith does not,’’ she said. “Everyone can connect with some spirituality.’’
Six presentations will be held Saturday and Sunday.
Sandy Westin, North American co-ordinator for the United Religions Initiative and based in Johnson City, Tennessee, said she will speak at the conference, focusing on fostering a sense of mutual respect among all faith backgrounds.
“When we let go of our idea of artificial separation and we discover our common ground then those artificial barriers dissolve and then we have a sense of we,’’ she said.
United Religions Initiative is an international interfaith network where people of different religious backgrounds work together for the good of their communities.
Presenter Rory Dickson, a PhD student at Wilfrid Laurier University, will speak about philosopher and mystic Ibn 'Arabi and Sufism.
A tradition from Islam, Sufism is often described as the mystic and spiritual part of the Islamic faith.
Dickson said one aspect of the philosophy of Sufism acknowledges and appreciates religious diversity and pluralism.
“The deeper you go into the spiritual core of the tradition, the more universal elements you find, resources you find that unify people across borders of religious culture and identity,’’ he said.
Sufism still plays a role in the daily lives of Muslims in Morocco and some areas of Pakistan, but there is also a growing view against Sufis, claiming they corrupt the religion, Dickson said.
For more information on the conference, go to www.spiritualeducation.org
Friday, July 22, 2011
Hisham Rifa’i’s sensitive and brilliant translation of Al-Ansari’s masterpiece Sufi teaching manual is now available for the English speaking reader in a simple and elegant edition from Raqim Foundation through Albouraq Diffusion Distribution.
Brief and excellent introductory sections provide background and point the interested reader to further resources and neglected dimensions of this justly famous figure in Sufi thought. The treatise speaks as a prayer of many perspectives in the ancient and ingenious way it was intended by the famous Pir of Herat. Unencumbered by copious footnotes and freed in meaning within the garment of the impeccable translation well-poised on its meanings, the ancient Master approaches each heart like a tuning fork fitted to the spiritual state of diverse readers.
If the reader returns to it from the vantage of greater experience, its meaning inflects, refracts and guides more deeply into the prism of Al-Ansari’s words, as intended by the Pir’s unique teaching devices both practical and soaring aimed at three levels of seeker in 100 poetical chapters, a treatise in verse form for all persons studying, entering or journeying on the Path to Unity.
The translation is a commendable first in many ways. It is the first complete translation into English, and the first in English, making it finally accessible to the English-speaking world. The Stations, dictated by the blind Pir in 1082 CE (475H) in his declining years, distills the Master’s unique teaching style integrating multiple perspectives on every meaning sufficient to illustrate and clarify applications ranging from ethics to the psychological and spiritual stages along the mystical Way.
The manuscript adds significantly to the important world Collection of Sufi manuscripts. The naturally metaphorical Arabic appears on facing pages, facilitating easy comparative access to meaning.
Al-Ansari is recognizable for a rational clarity and observation from every direction bearing on each concept he introduces without sacrificing the mystical meaning of Bliss in the Annihilation in mystical Unity. Form and content unite.
The manual, like the Holy Qur’an, is remarkably memorizable and musical. Al-Ansari, great teacher that he was, selected verses from the Qur’an to introduce each of 100 chapters, each poised to expand and explode meaning, giving ethical, psychological, metaphysical and spiritual context for the Pir’s lessons. In form and content, the 100 translated chapters converge on the 100th Name of Allah residing in the Void.
Dr. Barbara Amodio teaches Comparative Eastern-Western Philosophy at Fairfield University, CT.
You can purchase the book directly by visiting the Rumi Bookstore website.
Price: $20.00. Proceeds from the sale of this book will help Raqim Foundation alleviate poverty in Afghanistan. Raqim Foundation is a 501 c3 non-profit organization.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Ibn Arabi, a great Sufi master, once said: “My heart became an image of every picture; it is the place for a Dervish to dance; it is a monastery for a monk to learn.
“It is a house for all or none to worship. It is a Ka’ba to make the pilgrimage. It is the ten commitments of Thora, it is the holy Koran — my religion is the religion of love. Wherever I direct my face it is love to God.”
Yunus Emre, a Sufi teacher in 13th-century Turkey, also taught: “Love is like the shining sun; a heart without love is nothing more than a stone.”
“Love to all, malice to none,” Mu’inuddin Chisti (1141-1230), the celebrated Sufi saint from India, advised his students.
Only through that way, according to the founder of the Chisti Sufi order, can we “develop river-like generosity, sun-like affection and earth-like hospitality”.
These Sufi words are not only inspiring, they are everlastingly fragrant, heaven-sent, and represent the force of moderation and tolerance in Islam.
Very popular in the past, such inspiring words can scarcely be heard in the public sphere of the contemporary Islamic world, however.
The stage of the contemporary Islamic world, dominated by an increasing influence of Wahhabism, is currently more preoccupied with hedonism, politics, legalism and outer forms of Islam.
The Islamic world is lessened and engulfed by the struggle to enforce Islamic law; fatwas from ulema institutions; challenges to local practices as being anti-Islamic; and attempts to prove other Muslims as blasphemous or non-Muslims as non-believers.
Inner enlightenment and growth of conscience are suppressed in the name of religious authenticity and textualism. The world needs the wisdom of the Sufi.
Sufism is more concerned with the unity of being, the oneness of humanity and oneness within the “Light of the Divine”, rather than with political unity.
Sufism emphasizes the contents rather than the cloth, communitarianism rather than individualism, humanity rather than identity, love rather than hatred.
“The Sufis’ main goal,” according to Syaikh Hisyam Kabbani, a Sufi teacher in America, “was never to become the leaders of a country but rather to become its social workers.”
Within the deep thirst for spiritual enlightenment, it is very pleasing that the wisdom of Sufism, with its fragrance of the ancients, will scent Jakarta this month. Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, will host an international Sufi meeting July 15-17, 2011.
From this meeting, we hope there is something we can do to counter the emptiness, violence, ecological destruction, greed and corruption that currently work hand-in-hand to destroy the planet. It is also to be hoped that an alternative will be offered to the practice of public Islam, which is currently trapped in the authoritarian concept of religion.
The public expression of Islam not only fails to enlighten people but also impoverishes people from their humanness. Public Islam lacks tender-heartedness and fails to respect the sacredness of life. Public Islam also fails to prevent people from becoming corrupt.
Islam, as expressed in the public sphere, is left only as a form, without substance. It is within such a spiritual vacuum that hatred, suspicion and fundamentalism escalate.
The loving message of Sufism can offer freshness to the Islamic world and the current world order. Sufism, defined as the esoteric form of Islam, is the core of Islam. Its essence is self-purification, the training of the heart so that it is able to experience, feel and listen to the Divine presence.
At the core of Sufi teaching is the belief that God is ever-present in everything. This understanding makes a Sufi respect the sacredness of every life form on earth. Sufis believe that only from a steady connection with the Divine — not thought — can the self grow and achieve enlightenment.
As Rumi, a great Sufi master, once described: the Divine is like the Ocean and the self is like used water. Only through entering the Ocean, can used water be purified.
Nowadays in the Islamic world, the used water has become disconnected from the Ocean and is continually reused. Be aware, therefore, that behind the noisiness of the current Islamic resurgence is spiritual emptiness; separated from Divine presence, Islam is left merely skin-deep.
Sufism invites us to fullness and meaningfulness. Through training our hearts, it allows our spiritual connection to love and consciousness flourish.
Far from the principles of Sufism, the oil-rich Islamic countries indulge in hedonistic lifestyles. They show little solidarity toward the rest of the Islamic world and the problems facing humanity.
They think that they can perform Islam formally and abandon the connection to the Divine. In the separation of self from the Divine, ego rules.
Four crises are facing the contemporary world: a lack of inner peace and meaningfulness of life; ecological destruction; protracted conflicts and wars; and corruption. All four are created by greed and the tyranny of the ego.
In the effort to reconnect to the Divine, Wahhabism offers nothing except dry doctrine. Mouth mentions God, but heart worships worldliness. It cannot offer a solution because it puts thought, blanketed with scriptural quotations, on everything.
It fails to nurture love and respect toward those living “outside the fence”. In contrast, Sufism uses wisdom of thought to awaken the wisdom of the interior, and uses that interior wisdom to feel the Divine presence.
Feeling the Divine presence, one can discover his ability of awareness, creativity and love beyond the ability of the intellect.
Unfortunately, Wahhabism, once popularized by colonialism, continues to have influence over the Islamic world. There are at least three reasons for this. First, the Saudi regime, the primary advocate of Wahhabism, controls the most important Muslim sites in the Islamic world: Mecca and Medina.
Second, the Saudis have petrodollars to support the internationalization of this religious ideology and so reach isolated places.
Third, the US often ends up working together with radicals, as we see currently in many parts of Islamic world, such as Libya and Afghanistan in the past.
In general, Sufi groups get less support from the current world order. For world peace and the
advancement of humanity, the forces of moderation and humanity in the world should work together to support the Sufis so that they can give more to the world. Peace in people’s hearts will create peace in the world.
As Kabir Helminski, an inspiring Sufi writer in the US puts it: “A school of love is a corrective to both the authoritarian concept of religion, lacking in Mercy and a materialist ethic that indulges human ego.”
The writer, former member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s Executive Board of Australia and New Zealand special branches, is a lecturer at the Semarang State University.
[Picture: Ibn 'Arabi. Photo: Wiki.]
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Noorpur Thal (Lahore): The message and teachings of Sufism are universal and timeless. With the message of love, unity, tolerance and brotherhood, Sufism unifies people irrespective of their caste, culture and creed. It gets humanity together in a cohesive bond of love and purity of thoughts. Pakistan is a land of saints and Sufis.
Two days annual Urs celebrations of a man well known as Baba Sakhi Syedan Shah in Thal, addressed lovingly as Baba Sakhi Shah have concluded.
The Urs of the great saint is held from July 12 to 13 every year with great devotion. It is an important religious occasion in Thal.
There were thousands of people present at the shrine of Baba Syedan Shah during the Urs ceremonies.
They remembered the spiritual glory of Baba Jee. They often wept when they felt the spiritual greatness of the saint.
There was a sea of people all around the shrine of Baba Jee. It was very difficult for many to reach the shrine.
There were different kinds of shops of sweets, fruits and flowers outside the Baba’s shrine. Everyone was buying things from these shops to offer their homage at the shrine. Quite a few rich people were distributing food, clothes and money among the poor.
The Auqaf Department had also made some special arrangements to provide food to the poor at very cheap rates or free of cost.
The devotees celebrated the Urs with great pomp and show. The shrine of Baba Jee was illuminated during the Urs days. On July 12 after Fajr prayers, the Urs was inaugurated with “Chadar Poshi” of shrine.
Mutwali of Darbar Baba Syedan Shah, Maulana Muhammad Ismail Sialvi, Assistant Commissioner Mehboob Ahmad, TMO Raja Zahoor Ahmad, TOR Haji Atta Ullah Tiwana, TOI Haji Ehsan Ahmad, TOF Hamid Jaleel, SDPO Mehr Khadim Hussain Malooka and several other prominent persons from every walk of life were also present on the occasion.
At night Mehfil-i-Samaa and Qawali was also held.
On the second day of the Urs a seminar was held regarding the personality and teachings of Baba Syedan Shah in which Ulema-i-Karam including Maulana Mohammad Hameedud Din Sialvi, Maulana Mohammad Shamsur Reman, Allama Sher Mohammad Sialvi, Allama Arshad Naveed Haidri, Maulana Mohammad Ramzan, Maulana Qari Asad Ullah Khan and other speakers highlighted the life and teachings of Baba Sakhi Syedan Shah.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
A painting on the arch-door of the 17th century tomb of Sufi saint Syed Mohammad Madni in Srinagar is the “first firm record” of a supernova sighting in India, claim researchers.
The mural, which shows two archers, a representation of the Sagittarius constellation, depicts the celestial event dating back to 1604, according to researchers from Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and University of Kashmir.
German astronomer Johannes Kepler [d. 1630] observed the supernova — a spectacular explosion of a massive star — and described it as an archer in his book *De Stella nova in pede Serpentarii*. The supernova, the last in our galaxy, was subsequently named Kepler’s Supernova after him.
The mural at Madni’s tomb depicts the same celestial event. The tomb, however, was built 15 years after the event.
“Our research suggests that India also saw the supernova in 1604. It was winter in Kashmir and the sky was bright for weeks,” said Aijaz Banday, an archaeologist at Kashmir university’s department of Central Asian studies.
According to Banday, who has also written a paper on the arch-door of Madni’s tomb, although Shah Jahan became Mughal emperor in 1627, he frequented the tomb as a prince as well. “The door on which the painting was done has a Persian inscription which indicates it was constructed by Shah Jahan, when he was still a prince.”
“The door was painted with two Sagittarius figures, which we believe was a record of the image of the supernova that was etched in the minds of the people who saw it,” said Banday.
The blazed tiles with the original mural have been removed from the arch-door and are on display at the Srinagar Museum. A specimen of the painting is at the University of Kashmir.
[Picture: Leaf from Kepler's *De Stella Nova in pede Serpentarii*. Photo: The New York Society Library.]
Monday, July 18, 2011
Hyderabad, India: It was a scorching day in June when sun spews fire and people look for shades and wait for sunset but not this gathering of about 150 people.
Braving the scorching heat, they are huddled together in a veranda of the shrine of great Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, held spellbound, listen to a group of eight Faqirs, all clad in black, and singing stanzas from Sur Samoondi.
Besides their message of love and harmony, Shah’s poetry and music compositions have always been popular among Sindh’s old and young.
The tradition of Faqirs singing at the shrine is 300-year old. They sing Shah’s verses to the accompaniment of Tambooro (a variation of an Arabic stringed instrument, invented by Shah Latif) almost round the clock.
There are 80 Faqirs who sing in 14 groups with each group assigned a day or a night.
Anwar Khaskheli, the lead singer of his group, said he belonged to a family of singers. His father Gul Mohammad was an Ustad and his grandfather also sang at the shrine.
There is no fixed number of Faqirs in a group and no age bar to be a member. Some groups have four members and others have up to 12.
A singing session usually starts with Sur Kalyan, opening chapter of Shah jo Risalo, the anthology of Shah Latif, flowed by other Surs, according to time of the day and season.
In monsoon, Sur Sarang (the rain raga) is sung and on the 14th night of a lunar month, Sur Khambhat is sung. Shah addresses moon in Sur Khambhat as he praises the beauty of his beloved and narrates the pain of separation.
In the middle of the session comes Sur Suhni with a particular prayer called Suhni ji Dua.
The popular Sur Rano is sung at late night and the session comes ends with Sur Marui early in the morning.
The culture department, according to officials, pays a meagre amount of Rs30,000 [U$D 662.--] a year to each Faqir.
But everyone does not get this amount. Anwar Khaskheli, who has been singing at the shrine for 32 years, said that only 60 of the 80 Faqirs were receiving the stipend, often not paid on time.
Anwar Faqir said that there were around 15 people who were learning Bhitai’s Raag. There was no effective arrangement by the government for the promotion of the Raag, he said.
Although the provincial culture department has set up the Shah Abdul Latif Music School in Bhit Shah it lacks facilities and has only two teachers.
Mostly, etiquettes of Raag and musical techniques are taught by the Faqirs out of the school.
Juman Shah, the most prominent among the singers who also teaches at the school, said that Sur Samoondi (seaman) was easy to sing. Therefore, they start the first lesson with this Sur.
“Initially, a Sur (raga) and its Baits (form based on an Arabic genre) is taught to students; then comes the teaching of Waee (lyric),” he said.
Juman Faqir Lanjwani, leader of Monday`s group, said: “Singing Waee is more difficult. One has to undergo continuous practice (Riaz) for hours on end to perfect grip over Waee.”
The Faqirs’ love for Bhitai’s Raag is evident from the fact that they are transferring the art to their children. Miral Shah, a fresh graduate in Information Technology, has learnt the art from his father Jumman Shah and sings with him at the shrine.
Anyone can join a group and start learning Shah’s music. The only condition is his knowledge of Sindhi language.
Jumman Faqir said anyone could join them and learn music. One needs resolve, burning passion and commitment to step into Sufi music and it takes around five years to master the art.
Faqir Talib Hussain, custodian of Tamar Faqir’s shrine, the senior most disciple of Bhitai, says that singing runs in family and it is their ancestral profession.
He complained that there was no facility for treatment and the yearly stipend was meagre. But in spite of that they continued to spread Bhitai’s message to as many people as possible.
Lanjwani Faqir said Tambooro was prepared also in Bhit Shah but good quality instrument was made by Abdul Haq alias Adli of Ali Sher Leghari village near Shahdadpur. Tambooro is made from four kinds of wood, including black wood of Talhi and Babool.
Jumman Shah, who has performed in over 22 countries, said that Faqirs’ style of singing had not changed over the past 300 years and it was still attracting more and more people.
People come in droves to the shrine to listen to this music that illuminates one’s soul, raises it from the ground.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
The history of Islam, especially in the whole Indian Ocean littoral, and the entire Islamization process of the eastern frontiers for at least last one Millennium, is inseparably mixed with the Arabs from Hadhramawt of Yemen. Hadrami Arabs - Sayyids, scholars, Sufis, traders, commoners – created a trans-cultural space of Islamic acumen as they traversed and settled in the trans-oceanic world that stretched from Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa to Timor at the limit of the Malay Archipelago. In fact, they played the major role in the spread and evolution of Islamic culture, religious ethos and social formation in all these regions. Consequently, studies on Hadhrami Arabs, patterns of their migration, the depth and breadth of their influence across the Indian Ocean littoral has nowadays become a major sub-section of Indian Ocean studies, and there have been a number of rigorous academic works on Hadramis and Hadrami Diaspora in various Indian Ocean regions.
However, despite being part of this Indian Ocean world, the presence, spread and contributions of Hadrami Arabs in southern coasts of India, especially Malabar in Kerala, where Hadrami notables earned immense influence and played multiple roles, has received scant attention in these global studies on Hadrami Diaspora. Though rich resource is available in various hagiographies, chronologies, genealogies and mawlids that provide enormous information about Hadramis in Kerala, no methodologically sound attempts were made to analyze and explore these primary sources into a fruitful research. This paper is an attempt to fill some gaps in this regard as it calls to look to the role of Hadrami Arabs, especially Sayyid families among them, in the Islamic life and Muslim culture of Kerala.
Starting with a brief introduction to the existing studies on Hadrami Diasporas developed in different places and the expansion of Hadrami diasporic networks into diverse regions from East Africa to East Indies and from modern gulf states to western countries, the initial part of this paper would try to trace the migratory movements of Hadrami Sayyids and to apprise diverse Hadrami communities that developed into distinct diasporas in different regions of world. The second part tries to depict the exuberance of literature produced by these Hadrami people which could be taken as primary materials like genealogies, mawlids, hagiographies, historiographies, chronologies and etc.,. It will also sketch out the important research materials and current researches in the study of Hadrami community at homeland and abroad. From this backdrop, the paper would look in to the emergence and development of Hadrami Sayyids in Kerala and their imprints in socio-cultural aspects of later Muslim community of Malabar. The main objective of this paper is a humble call on researchers to give serious attention towards intensive research on various socio-cultural dynamics of Hadramis especially Hadrami Sayyids in Malabar.
The Hadrami Diaspora: Time and Space
The migratory movements among religious communities especially Muslims have to be dealt with through both sacred and profane realms. The travels like for Hajj, Rihla Talab al ilm (travels seeking knowledge), Ziyara and Sufi wanderings are considered with religious notions. The Hadrami travels often have been accompanied by culture, religion and traditions. In fact, migratory movements among Sayyids or descendants of Prophet can be replicated with the historical movement of Hijra by Prophet. His descendants and his followers imitated this model by migrating into far lands with the message of God. For Hadhrami Alawi Sayyids, migration was part of their life. Founder of Sayyid line in Hadramat, Ahmad bin Isa al Muhajir (The Migrant), a 9th-generation descendant of Prophet, entered Hadramawt, travelling from Iraq through Hijaz and Yemen. Muhammad bin Ali, Sahib Mirbat (d 1161 in Oman), is the ancestor in whom all Hadhrami Sayyid genealogical ascent lines meet. His grandson, Muhammad b Ali the First Jurist (al Faqih al Muqaddam, d 1255), is the initiator of the Sayyid, Sufi Alawi way. Sahib Mirbat's son Alawi b Muhammad is called Uncle of the Jurist (Amm al Faqih). Al Hadhrami Sayyids trace their ancestry to one of these two men – Muhammad bin Ali (Al Faqih al Muqaddam) and Alawi bin Muhammad (‘Amm al Faqih). More than two centuries after the death of the First Jurist, Abu Bakar Hydarus al Adani became the first among the Alawi Sayyids who trans-located the typical Sayyid-Sufi complex of Alawis outside Tarim. He migrated to Aden from Hadramawt in 1484, when the city was a burgeoning port hosting trans-regional trade between Europe and Asia, and the commercial activity was accompanied by heightened religious activity in the region. Adeni travelled around the region, and he is credited with converting communities of Ethiopians to Islam. Adeni's migration was followed by other members of his lineage as they migrated across the Indian Ocean, to East Africa, western India, and Southeast Asia. Throughout this region, the graves of members of this lineage have become pilgrimage destinations. They are explicitly connected to each other by elaborate genealogical books.
There are various opinions about when Hadhramis started their ventures in the Indian Ocean and what all were the reasons that induced their travels. According to B. G. Martin, Hadhrami migrations were certainly taking place before the time of Muhammad (s), and during the Muslim period they continued for many centuries. The push factor of poverty in the province, abundant opportunities in far-flung areas, missionary activities and easily acceptable legitimacy by the Prophet’s family lineage, made the movement urgent or easier for them. The lack of research (Hartwig) and problems in periodization of Hadrami historiography (al Atas 1997, 29) makes it difficult to know when a clearly constituted Diaspora has emerged. The vague generalization on centuries and decades often in primary Hadrami literatures also would be a great difficulty in fixing the exact time period (Pkm 2010, 43). Therefore, it’s very problematic to fix out clearly the exact time which urged the movement, of Hadramis in general and Hadrami Sayyids in particular, out of their homeland.
Even though the earlier movements would stretches back to pre-Islamic period, Hadhramis emerged as a distinct diaspora during the modern era, which can be taken to have begun when Europeans progressed from naval to territorial expansion in the Indian Ocean around 1750 (Chaudhuri, 1985). Likewise, Dale argues that “the tradition of Hadrami emigration from Southern Arabia is thought to have become well established in the sixteenth century, as they moved from their impoverished homeland along the well established trade routes to East Africa, India and Southeast Asia” (Dale 1990,168). The recorded history of Malabar explicates the first arrival of a Hadrami Sayyid in 1766, as Zamorin of Calicut warmly welcomed Sayyid Sheikh Jifry. In East African case, Coppens sees that two distinct periods become more auspicious for Hadrami migration the first from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries and second from the eighteenth to the beginning of twentieth century (1989, 185). However, the period after eighteenth century has witnessed the development of particular Hadrami diaspora in diverse regions of the world.
It will be very interesting to trace the geographical dispersal of Hadramis in to diverse regions as Richard Burton, the famous historian did observe that “it’s generally said that the sun doesn’t rise upon a land that does not contain a man from Hadhramawt” (Burton 1966, p. 58). Smith attributes this extension as he says that Hadhramis pushed further afield settling beyond Dutch and British. To the North, they went to Thailand, Cambodia and Southern Vietnam. To the east, they reached Portuguese Timor and New Guinea. To western Indian Ocean, they extended to Suez, Comoro Islands. In south western India, they occupied Malabar (Smith, 2002). The West Indies, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore were mentioned as the main migrant destinations before the Second World War, that can be explained by religious reasons, traditions as well as by existing family ties.
Generally speaking, throughout the last Millennium there was Hadhrami migration through Indian Ocean and they had settled as far as beyond the Malay-Indonesian archipelago in Mindanao and Vietnam. However, patterns become identifiable in the fifteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries respectively with the specific migratory movements of Arabs from the Hadramaut. Groups landed in Sumatra and Java in the fifteenth century to perform the tasks of syahbandar (port captains), engage in trade, and proselytise Islam, thereby assuming a place of importance in the royal courts. Hadhrami were dominant in Aceh after 1699 and assimilated into the ruling elites of Perlis, Siak and Jambi in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Sumit K Mandal, 2004) One can see the same history from the Malabar coasts where Hadhrami Arabs arrived and performed all kind of the mentioned works.
There was a large scale migration from Hadhramawt in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it was mostly due to demographic pressures at home, a bad climate, famines and floods, or political upheavals. However, many of them were Sayyids, Sufis or scholars, often all at the same time, and they took up high religious and juridical posts. There are a continuous set of records provided by the Hadhrami Diaspora, tracing of which will give clearer idea about the Hadhrami migration patterns in the Indian Ocean. Rare manuscript in Arabic and local languages with valuable narratives are available at different parts of the ocean, such as Zanzibar, Makkah, Hadramawt, Surat and Malabar in India, and the Malay Archipelago. It would give more light and solutions in the ongoing discourses on Indian Ocean.
Scholars have tried to understand why the Hadhrami Arabs, especially Sayyids, gained enormous prestige and influence and the role of cultural mediators and facilitators in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Indian Ocean world, before, during and after the era of European colonialism. Though meant trade and business as well as religious propagations through their frequent travels at length and breadth of Indian Ocean, 'the Hadhramis differed from their European counterparts in how they engaged the area. Their enterprises overseas were not backed by an equally mobile, armed state. The Portuguese, Dutch, and English in the Indian Ocean were strange new traders who brought their states with them. They created militarized trading post empire in the Indian Ocean, and did business at the point of a gun. However, rather than elbowing their way in, Hadramis comported themselves to local arrangements wherever they went. They settled and sojourned in towns big and small and entered into relations with locals that were more intimate, sticky and prolonged than the Europeans could countenance. They were there before the Portuguese arrived and remained after the British left’.
Many across the Indian Ocean invited them for permanent settlements. Engseng Ho says that it was due to kings and Sultanates across the Indian Ocean littoral who needed to show that they were now civilized and their abodes are comfortable places for the peaceful pursuit of profit and they needed to advertise their maturity. ‘Few better ways existed to achieve such objectives than installing a resident Muslim jurist to refashion a grim pirates haven as a new sphere of civilian concourse, boasting a Friday congregational mosque, a court of Justice, and a school’. Hadhrami Arabs wielded immense prestige and influence throughout the vast Indian Ocean. The history of their migrations across this region has compelled Western writers like Richard Burton (1856) and Snouck Hurgronje (1906) to explain with a mixture of awe and resentment. They wondered seeing the apparent ease with which foreign Hadhrami Sayyids, descendants of the Prophet, entered the ruling echelons of native society in these very different places. Also, they were the only party in all these negotiations that never overtly posed a threat to any other. The Sayyids had a history of cooperative relations with most of these groups. With rulers they had served as counselors and administrators, with slave elites such as the Ethiopians they had been Muslim cultural mentors, with the merchants they were familiar as judges and arbitrators in commercial disputes. Europeans often found that the Sayyids could help or hinder their dealings.
Also, they were the only party in all these negotiations that never overtly posed a threat to any other. The Sayyids had a history of cooperative relations with most of these groups. With rulers they had served as counselors and administrators, with slave elites such as the Ethiopians they had been Muslim cultural mentors, with the merchants they were familiar as judges and arbitrators in commercial disputes. Europeans often found that the Sayyids could help or hinder their dealings.
Hadrami Sayyids in Literature
Hadramis themselves have produced rich literature which has played greatly in making their cultural adaptation easier in receiving societies. Along with their migratory movements, Hadrami Sayyids have carried genealogical texts that mobilize genealogy toward many narrative ends. Genealogy combines with poetry, biography, history, law, novels, and prayers in the Diaspora (Ho 2006). The movement of lineage through genealogical texts enabled them easy and improved trans-cultural occurrences, through marriages often with nobles, kings and people of high cultural spectrum whom they selected as wives from the host societies. There are hagiographical works also on forefathers like Bustan al Qulub al Jawahir by Abd al Rahaman al Khatib contains five hundred stories of preternatural instances from late Sayyids (Ho, Engsang, 2006, p. 46).
Besides Mawlids and Ansabs, there we will find historiographies written on the religious and social services rendered to the community. Sayyids in Diaspora possess huge collections of Hadrami literatures that would substantiate the greatness of their lineage and would link them into the large Sayyid family. Mawlids remind the young generations the hagiographic qualities of the late fathers, which also helps in maintaining the prestigious position of Sayyids. These huge collections have indeed worked in making sound researches on Hadrami traditions possible and much easier.
Besides these collections, thoroughly researched works have been produced in the genealogies of Hadrami Sayyids like Shams al- d’ahira fi nasab ahl al bayt min Bani Alawi Furu’ Fatwima al-Zahira wa Amir al Mu’minin H`ali radiya Allah anhu by al-Mashhur (1911), Al Muhjam al Lateef Li asbab il alqabi wal kuni li qabai’l wa butwuni al sadati Bani Alawi by al-Shatwiri (1986), and ‘Kawkab al-Durriyya fi nasab al-Sada aal Ba Alawi (the brilliant stars concerning the pedigree of the Alawi Saada), a book on Sayyid genealogy by Sayyid Shaykh al Jifri (d 1807). The hagiographies like al Mashrah` al- rawi fi manaqib al sada al kiram Al Abi Alawi, Iqd al Jawahir wa al durar fi akhbar al qarn al hadi ashar both by al-Shilli, (1989, 2009) and Rihlat al ashwaq al qawiyya ila mawatin al sada al Alawiyya by Ba Kathir al Kindi (1985) Iqd al Yawaqit al jawhariyya wa simt al ayn al dhahabiyya bi dhikri tariq sadatil alawiya by al Hibshi (1900), also provide a clear hagiographic descriptioin of Hadrami Sayyids especially Alawis.
Having a lot of socio-cultural and religious importance Sayyids have been matter of serious academic concern for scholars of different disciplines. The seminal work of R.B. Sergeant ‘Sayyids of Hadramawt’ details not only diverse Sayyid families but also provides a historical sketch of the Wadi Hadramawt. With its Islamic Sufi heritage and religious learning centres, Hadramawt indeed represents a medieval Islamic land which produced one of world’s largest Diaspora. Bujra’s (1971) ‘The Politics of Stratification: A Study of Political Change in a South Arabian Town’, outlines the social scenario prevailed in Hadramawt and how this social hierarchy controls the political turnings. Hadramawt’s old learning centres and scholarly linkages with other Islamic centres was exposed through Frietag’s (1999, 2002) works ‘Hadhramaut: A Religious Centre for the Indian Ocean in the late 19th and early 20th century’ and ‘Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean’. Coppens (1989, 1997) has provided the Hadrami tradition and settlement in the East African region and the socio-cultural integration in the indigenous community. Martin’s (1971) article ‘Migrations from Hadramawt to East Africa and Indonesia c. 1200-1900’, depicts the emergence and development of Diaspora in both East Africa and Indonesia. Ingram’s ‘Zanzibar: Its History and its Peoples’, Berg’s (1887) Hadhramut and the Arab Colonies in the Indian Archipelago, Al Atas’ (1994) ‘The Twareeqat al Alawiyya and the Emergence of the Shi'i School in Indonesia and Malaysia’ also describe Hadrami diasporas from Zanzibar, Dutch East Indies, to Indonesia and Malaysia. Ann K Bang’s work ‘Sufis and Scholars of Sea: Family Networks in East Africa 1860-1925’ has drawn the family sufi scholarly linkages of a East African and in this meticulous study Bang talks about one of the most influential Hadhrami-East African scholars of the period, Ahmad b Abi Bakr b Sumayt (1861-1925). The socio political presence of Hadrami Sayyids in India except Kerala has been put by Omar Khalidi (1997) in his The Hadhrami Role in the Politics and Society of Colonial India, 1750-1950s Stephen Dale’s (1997) article ‘The Hadhrami Diaspora in South Western India: The Role of the Sayyids of the Malabar Coast’ represents the lone work on Hadrami Diaspora in Malabar.
Hadrami Sayyid Diaspora in Malabar
Dale (1997) concludes his article on Hadhrami Diaspora in Malabar Coast asserting the scope of intense research on this scantly attended area of Malabar. Kerala provides amazing stories of Sayyid families being received and respected. Still, in the 21st century, the pious and religious descendents of Sayyid families wield religious and political leadership of the community. Across the state, especially in the contemporary Malabar, a number of notable graves of reputed Sayyid personalities are widely respected, and are abode of many religious activities, a typical tradition of Hadhramawt, where the graves of pious ancestors play an important symbolic role in the religious and social lives of Hadhramis.
Around 30 Sayyed Qabilas have reached Kerala from different parts of the Islamic world, and most of them were from Yemen, precisely Hadramouth, and from Central Asian regions like Bukhara. Malabar Muslims as well as non-Muslim rulers of Kerala received them happily and in most cases, they were gifted lands and houses. Many rose to the fame through their leadership qualities as many of them were big scholars, sheikhs or Mureeds of Sufi thareeqas, or influential and pious umara. Jifri Qabila was major Hadrami Sayyed family arrived and inhabited in the state taking important roles in religious leadership. Sheik Jifri, who landed to a warm welcome in Calicut in 1159 AH, was a great scholar and a sheikh of Qadiriyaa Sufi silsilah.
Mamburam Sayyed Alawi and his son Sayyed Fadhl were two of the most important figures descended from this family, both of whom were famous for their role in defending the region against British colonisers. The former, who was born in Thareem of Yemen in 1166 AH and who is famous by the name of Mamburam Thangal, was a big reformer who spent his whole life for social service and to save the society from the clutches of British cruelty. He and his son, who was later exiled to Arabia due to his anti-British attitudes, set up many mosques and religious institutions in Muslim villages and played a leading role in awakening the community against the colonisers and in reviving their deteriorating religiosity and piety. Other families like, Bafaqeeh, Ba a’lwi, Saqaf, Jamalullail, Haddad etc have also contributed to the religious growth, social formation and educational developments of Kerala Muslims. Still Mappilas respect scholarly and pious members from Sayyid families, and the first leadership of almost all traditionalist organisations and educational institutions in the state lay in their safe hands.
The importance of Hadhrami Sayyids and scholars is evident in the nature of Islamic life and culture they spread in the regions they settled in. It starts in the common tradition of following Shafi’i school of jurisprudence, but it becomes more apparent in the healthy and creative synthesis of Islamic scholarship (‘Ilm) and Tasawwuf (which is called Islamic Mysticism or Sufism by western scholars of Islam). Shafi’is legal school, the Ash’ari school of theology and the purified or reconciliatory form of Tasawwuf or Sufi orders and practices (which is called neo-Sufism by Fazlur Rahman) are the common traditions imparted by Hadhrami Diaspora in their host societies.
Sayyids often have been called in indigenous language of Malayalam as Thangals , as the term literally assumes the honour to the people with this sacred lineage from Prophet. This sacred lineage along with Sufi preternatural activities indeed gained them honour and they were linked to high or ruling echelons of the society. This could be experienced from the arrival of Sheikh Jifry whom Zamorin of Calicut received with reverence. Preternatural activities of Karamaths and pro-poor policies attributed to them have also etched a significant position in the minds of Mappila Muslims till today. The sacred lineage of Prophet and perternatural actions along with healing traditions gives them a charisma to which the community is attracted. The political and religious leadership of Shihab family of Panakkad can be read in this charismatic individuality exposed by Weber.
Sayyid, Sufi Sheikh and ‘Aalim or the religious scholar – these are the three major religious notables, who emerged from the Hadhrami Diaspora that lived in the Indian Ocean littoral. A Sufi sheikh was respected and received by the majority only when he become a religious scholar as well, or at least totally lived in the way of Shari’a. Also, mostly the influential Sayyids will be sheikh or member of a Sufi order, in the Hadhrami case the Alawiyya order, and scholar of Shari’a.
The theoretical base of Hadhrami Sufi tradition lies on the ideas of Imam Gazali, Ibn al Arabi and Abu Madyan; A broad understanding of Arabi's 'true saint is prophet's inheritor' in genealogical terms, and Abu Madyan's notion who combines knowledge and action (‘Ilm wa amal), and of Gazali who engages both religious and mundane world (deen wa dunya). Their social and scholarly engagements mark it clearly, and from this tradition Alawi Sayyids form a core and provide leadership that is not aloof but participates in society at large. The common spiritual origin serves to explain the strong doctrinal connection between the ethics literature of the Shadhiliyya and the Alawiyya. In the centuries after Faqih al Muqaddam, both Alawis and Shadhilies continue much emphasis on such classical works as Ghazzali and Zuhrawardi. Both of them coupled mysticism with a strong emphasis on the Shari’a, both as the science of jurisprudence and as a way of life. While some spiritual seekers flee from the mundane world and others reach God, the full saint is one who, having attained such spiritual heights, then returns to the mundane world to act within it.
The focus on Ghazali-inspired Tasawwuf, Nawawi-inspired Shafi’i legal texts, Ashari-inspired theology and the more moralistic-ethical Hadith collections in the schooling curricula of scholars becomes clearer from the make-up and careers of almost all religious specialists sprout from Hadhrami-influenced centers of learning, be it in South Arabia or in any of the Indian Ocean territories.
Visiting the graves of respected ancestors in both familial lineage and Tariqa isnad, in order to seek baraka and keep a roohi contact (spiritual attachment) with them, is one of the characteristics of Hadhrami Sayyids and scholars; a legacy widely followed in Hadrami-inspired regions. ‘Collective visits of graves were commonplace among the Hadhrami ‘Ulama . The public demonstration of piety and respect for the forefathers, the charity, hospitality, communal visits of graves and the exchanges of Ijazas were, of course, more than just accidental manifestations of individual behaviors’. (Freitag, 2003) Other than visiting the graves, (a) seeking baraka or blessing from the remains of the pious ones and (b) kissing the hands of respected Sayyids, Sheikhs, Sufis, scholars, and even all respected elders like parents, are two Hadhrami-Sufi-scholarly traditions spread in these region.
Learning the life of pious ancestors is a key area of Hadhrami scholastic tradition. Officially or unofficially they learn and understand the biography of their ancestors and their religious and spiritual qualities. Along with the family lineage, they will have their Tariqa Isnad and ‘Ilmi Isnad, and often both become same. This shows an unbroken chain of pious and God-fearing transmitters reaching all the way to the Prophet. The aim of learning about the life of ancestors was not only to adopt a clear and pure spiritual root to the Prophet, but also to emulate their praiseworthy characters, ethics, piety and etiquettes and behaviors in the life. In Alawi manuals the lives of the pious forefathers are held forth as brilliant examples, flawless individuals embodying the essence of the prophet. Fadl B Alawi b Sahl asked his followers to know the forefathers, to study them, follow their path and increase the core of their group. Ibnu Sumayt, the East African Hadhrami scholar advices his son, 'you should have the full knowledge of the way of the forefathers, their doings. These are collected and written for the purpose of being noble examples, so that those blessed by god to succeed may succeed through them".
Yet another Hadhrami tradition common in South India and Southeast Asia is the importance being given to esoteric rituals of reciting Mawlid s and Ratibs in groups. The famous Ratib al-Haddad, composed by the Hadhrami Alawi poet and Sufi sheikh Abdullah b. Alawi al-Haddad (1634-1719), is very much common and popular among Kerala Muslims. Almost all traditional mosques have the habit of reciting it collectively every day after Magrib or Isha prayer. Many of Mappilas still keep the tradition of reciting it at their homes every evening. Anne Bang is presently heading a project aimed at tracing distinct local variations of Ratib al-Haddad in space and time. (Haddad Ratib is common in South Africa, Southeast Asia and South India. As the Hadhrami tradition spread, it was not only those joined in the Sufi orders and took the oath (bai’at) who participated in these rituals, but along with learned sheikhs and devout members, non-members also took part in a popular expression of faith, and this has been vehicle for islamization and social reorganisations in many places.
The socio-cultural integration of this diaspora into the local culture of Malabar would be very explicit as they have almost integrated in the indegenous style of dressing, cuisine, etc. The Hadrami influence defined the dynamism of entire Islamic culture, the modes of thoughts, the individual and social behaviors, rites and rituals, the nature of scholars and their students, and the entire modifications until the effect of a larger globalization.
Hadhramis were invited by resident kings to station in their places in order to take up multiple roles in their relocated places like resident scholars, traders, statesmen, and arbitrators. Kings and rulers in both the places encouraged the settlement of leading figures and families from Hadhramout to boost their trade and to show that they were now civilized and their abodes are comfortable places for the peaceful pursuit of profit, and in this way they advertised their maturity.
Thus, the Hadrami Diaspora of Malabar indeed offers wide scope to link with international Hadrami studies.
Zubair Hudawi is associated with Darul Huda Islamic University. This paper was presented in Shihab Tangal International Seminar held in Calicut on July 9, 2011.
Picture: A model of Malabari boat. Photo: TCN.