Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hamas Syndrome?

By Taha Özhan, *For the first time a candidate is elected in Egypt* - Hürriyet Daily News - Istanbul, Turkey; friday, May 25, 2012

For the first time a candidate is elected in Egypt

After 29 years and 120 days of Mubarak rule, Egyptians went to the polls to elect their fifth president. Egypt will embrace its fifth president since 1953, that is to say in 59 years the country has seen only four leaders, not counting Sufi Abu Talep, whose presidency lasted only eight days from Sadat’s assassination to Mubarak’s coming to power, or “acting president,” Hussain Tantawi, who took over after Mubarak was overthrown.

What’s interesting about the 2012 Egyptian presidential election is that this is the first election held without a “fixed outcome.” Not knowing who will win the elections has become more interesting than finally having a civilian as a president. That the election predictions are being analyzed around at most three – even two – names seems to have caused enough confusion. How could it not? To summarize a Wikipedia account of the last thirty years:

A referendum on Hosni Mubarak’s candidacy for president was held in Egypt on Oct. 13, 1981, following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6. Mubarak won 98.5 percent of the vote, with an 81.1 percent turnout. Another referendum was held in Egypt on Oct. 5, 1987. His candidacy was approved by 97.1 percent of votes cast, with an 88.5 percent turnout. In 1993 Mubarak’s candidacy for a third consecutive six-year term was approved by 96.3 percent of voters, with a turnout of 84.2 percent. In 1999, Mubarak was approved by 93.8 percent, with voter turnout reported to be 79.2 percent. He won a fourth consecutive six-year term in office.

The last presidential elections in Egypt took place in 2005. The 2005 presidential elections were allegedly the first contested elections in Egypt’s history. Mubarak won a fifth consecutive six-year term in office, with official results showing he won 88.6 percent of the vote while total voter turnout remained at 22 percent. Mubarak’s “victory at the polls” was evaluated by the United States as follows:

“Egypt’s presidential election represents one step in the march towards the full democracy that the Egyptian people desire and deserve,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared in a statement. She even went further and claimed that “the process that culminated in the Sep. 7 vote was characterized by free debate, increased transparency and improved access to the media, in contrast with previous polls. The practice of universal suffrage in Egypt, without limitations on gender and ethnicity, is a hopeful sign for the region.”

Considering the U.S. reaction to the 2005 presidential elections in Egypt, it would not be wrong to say that the 2012 presidential elections would be evaluated with the same “political consistency!” At the end of the first tour, if Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Morsy are the two candidates that move onto the second tour, we hope that the legitimacy of the process through which the new actors of the new Middle East and Egypt were elected will be talked about more than who was elected. In fact, the West, liberals, and the Egyptian tutelage system are already showing the symptoms of the “2006 Hamas syndrome!”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

From Public Money

By Staff Reporter, *Zardari's donation to Ajmer shrine to come from public money* - Press trust of India / NDTV - India; Friday, May 18, 2012

Zardari's donation to Ajmer shrine to come from public money

Islamabad: President Asif Ali Zardari's donation of $1million to the famous sufi shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer will be paid from Pakistan's public exchequer, his spokesman has said.

Mr Zardari announced the donation, which the shrine's administrators have described as one of the biggest in recent years, when he offered prayers at the Dargah on April 8.

The President visited the shrine in Rajasthan after meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a day-long private visit to India.

Presidential spokesman Babar told The News daily that the donation for the shrine in Ajmer will be paid from public money.

A cheque for $50,000 handed over by Mr Zardari to the administrators of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar's mausoleum in Yangon too was paid from the exchequer, Mr Babar said.

It could not immediately be ascertained when the donation would be handed over to the administrators of the shrine in Ajmer, which has been visited by several Pakistani leaders, including Mr Zardari's slain wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Embrace of a Loving God

By Kristian Lin, *Filming Mystics with Mark Hanshaw* - Forth Worth Weekly - TX, USA; Wednesday, May 25, 2012

Filming Mystics with Mark Hanshaw: A Texas Wesleyan professor travels abroad to document religious practices.

Mark Hanshaw doesn’t sound like a filmmaker. Instead of talking in sales pitches, this professor of religion at Texas Wesleyan University is happy to discuss how various religions’ mystical traditions recognize the holy spirit in each person. Yet a filmmaker he is, and an award-winning one as of last month, when his The Embrace of a Loving God: Encountering Sufism won the top award — the platinum “Remi” — at Houston’s WorldFest for best documentary short film. Pretty good for someone who’s just starting out.

The soft-spoken, 47-year-old Hanshaw hails from Oak Ridge, Tenn., but has lived in North Texas for 15 years. “It’s become my home,” he said.

After studying journalism and law at the University of Tennessee, he came to SMU to earn his doctorate in religious studies. “Religion is the foundation of all legal systems,” he said. “I found it fascinating in law school, and I wanted to pursue it.”

Texas Wesleyan contacted him about a professorship while he was still in the SMU program, and he soon found himself teaching courses in Fort Worth, including one about religion and cinema.

He became interested in making films after showing clips of movies to illustrate points in his lectures. “I saw the impact it had on my students,” he remembered. “I began exploring how to use visuals to illustrate concepts in the classroom.”

His first filmmaking effort, The Ritual of Life in India, played at WorldFest in 2011 and won a bronze Remi. “It was going to be a stand-alone effort,” he said. “But as I was piecing it together, I saw there was a great deal of potential.” That film now stands as the first of a seven-part series on religion.

The Embrace of a Loving God, which details the practices of Sufism (a more tolerant and mystical branch of Islam that includes the famous whirling Dervishes, whose dance is a form of religious ecstasy), is intended as the third chapter even though it’s his second film.

The films have been made with student crews, though Hanshaw cites the collaboration of Micah Brooks, a University of Santa Fe film graduate now studying at Wesleyan, as particularly valuable. Hanshaw’s former work as a reporter gave him some experience editing visual material and putting a story together, but learning to make films has involved “a lot of trial and error,” especially when it comes to taking students overseas.

The Embrace of a Loving God contains some breathtaking overhead shots of the city of Konya, Turkey, which were taken from a hot air balloon for tourists. He estimates the cost of making the two films at $25,000 total, and while he’s done some traditional fund-raising through private donors, he points out that he has avoided some costs by using the university’s production studio and editing facilities. “Our president and provost have been tremendous,” he said. “We enjoy great institutional support.”

Hanshaw is currently back in India working on the next installment of his series, focusing on Hindu temple worship. Future chapters will take him to China, and KERA-TV has expressed interest in airing the series after their vice presidents watched The Embrace of a Loving God. He has his eye on promoting interfaith relations, but he mainly hopes to advance our understanding of the world.

“We focus on our differences, but the more you study religion, the more you see overlap,” he said. “Our religious systems aren’t alien from one another. Religion informs so much of our lives, even if we’re not religious. I feel so privileged to bring this to these students.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

Business of the Heart

By Ibrahim Sajid Malick, *Sufism and the city* - The Express Tribune - Karachi, Pakistan; Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sufism and the city: Where else but in the world’s melting pot would you find a blend of Yoga and Sufi thought?

Completely exhausted and enervated three quarters into a 90-minute hot yoga workout, the voice of Kathryn Leary — an instructor at a Bikram Yoga facility in New York City reciting the great Sufi poet Rumi — invigorates and refreshes me. As the entire class lies on the floor focused on their breathing, Kathryn quotes from Rumi:

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor … Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Kathryn teaches more than Asanas — the physical exercise to optimise posture, endurance and strength. Like a good Sufi, she also encourages her students to open their heart to possibilities.

But before you make a mad dash to find a Sufi-Yogi hybrid, remember, she is still largely an exception! Most yoga instructors are extremely mechanical in their approach and act more like drill sergeants than mystical gurus.

With 18 million yogis spending nearly $6 billion annually, the business of meditation has undoubtedly reached an epochal moment in its deep engagement with mainstream America. Sufism, too, appears to be crossing the chasm to a more spacious public understanding of a once marginal group.

In the island of Manhattan, where I live, I can find more yoga studios than health clubs, and more people carrying yoga mats than any other sporting gear. The number of Sufi institutions has also grown — not nearly with the same pace, but nevertheless noticeably. Why is it, you may wonder, that the capital of materialism has taken to yoga? Physical and emotional health is, in my opinion, the main driver but there are a handful of yogis in New York seeking enlightenment as well.

Starting from when Parmahansa Yogananda came to America back in 1920, yoga has taken off in the United States for a variety of reasons.

In 1935, the Los Angeles Times reported on one of his lectures, saying: “The Philharmonic Auditorium presents the extraordinary spectacle of thousands … being turned away an hour before the advertised opening of a lecture with the 3,000-seat hall filled to its utmost capacity. Yogananda emphasised the underlying unity of the world’s great religions, and taught universally applicable methods for attaining direct personal experience of God.”

Since those early days, eastern mysticism has made a home for itself in the US.

Another spiritual teacher, Swami Rama, a family friend with whom I had an audience more than two decades ago, was also able to establish himself quickly in the US. Sent by his teacher who had taken him into the Himalayan Tradition of cave yogis at the age of three, Swami Rama came to the West with traditional teachings from the cave monasteries and Patanjali’s sutras. When his teacher, Bengali Baba, sent him on his mission to the West, Sri Swami Rama asked him what he was to teach Americans. “Teach them not to be afraid,” he was instructed.

Swami Rama worked with the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. The Menninger experiments were deemed significant in the scientific community because it provided powerful support to biofeedback research. Swami Rama was able to demonstrate that body functions that had formerly been considered involuntary could be controlled through training the mind.

According to the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Americans practice yoga “for a variety of health conditions including anxiety disorders or stress, asthma, high blood pressure and depression. People also use Yoga as part of a general health regimen—to achieve physical fitness and to relax.”

And it is very consistent with my informal research of yogis — and I call it informal because my primary methodology was chatting with fellow yogis in and outside of the studios. I have heard everything: yoga improves mood and sense of well-being, reduces stress, heart rate and blood pressure, increases lung capacity, improves muscle relaxation and body composition, and positively affects levels of certain brain chemicals. Very few have said they are looking for nirvana.

Compare that to Sufism — pretty much everyone claims to be searching for the higher truth — to elevate consciousness — reparation of the heart from all else but God. My fellow Sufis in New York want to travel into the presence of the Divine and purify their inner self. But of course, there are exceptions to this rule as well.

Abdul Rahim, the secretary of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, tells me that people want to get to the “core” and build a direct relationship with God. He thinks that the increasing popularity of Sufism is also due to a rejection of “dogmatic” religion.

Sheikha Fariha al Jerrahi, who leads this community of dervishes, delivers a weekly lecture after Maghrib prayers every Thursday in downtown New York at the Dergah al Farah, in which people from all religious and even non-religious backgrounds participate. Some observe the ‘Zikr’, while others simply observe — and my own personal observation is that the crowd just keeps getting larger. This order has circles throughout the US and Mexico and allows entry to “seekers and students of all religious and non-religious paths.”

I ran into two Pakistani men at a Thursday Zikr session, both of whom confirmed that it’s the ‘progressive’ nature of worship that attracts them to this Sufi order. A young woman was called on to recite the Azaan before Maghrib and men and women stood side-by-side to offer prayers. I asked these Pakistani men if they would go to a mosque in their hometown of Karachi if the call for prayer was led by a woman and the response was inconclusive and hedged at best. It’s particularly telling that they didn’t want to be identified in this article because they didn’t want to be ostracised by their families and friends.

Both of these Pakistani men had come because Thursday Zikr at this downtown dargah is open to the public and anyone can join this interesting and rather musical session.

This open and inclusive approach is just another reason Sufism seems to be gaining currency in the US.

Many Americans are now familiar with the great Sufi mystic writer Rumi. His words of wisdom are found not only on Facebook pages and on Twitter but also in the cubicles of offices in corporate America.

Elliot Miller, who writes for the Christian Research Institute, states: “The current interest in Sufism can be largely explained by pointing to the same factors which account for the popularity of several diverse Eastern mystical traditions among Westerners. These factors include a hunger for life transforming spiritual experiences, and an attraction to monistic belief systems.”

British Orientalist Martin Lings comments: “A Vendantist, a Taoist or a Buddhist can find in many aspects of Islamic mysticism, a ‘home from home’, such as he could less easily find in Christianity or Judaism.”

Oprah Winfrey recently did Sufism a favour by including it in Super Soul Sunday on her OWN Network. Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee defined Sufism and explained why it’s about love and the heart. The fact that he was sitting under the oaks at Oprah’s home in California, was the best endorsement Sufism has had thus far.

I recently had a very interesting and candid conversation with Adnan Sarhan, the 80-year-old head of the Sufi Foundation in America. Hailing from Baghdad, he now teaches in New York, London, Paris and San Francisco as well as in his 40-acre Albuquerque, New Mexico, facility. When asked what Sufism is about, he replies: “It is about breathing, movement and heart.”

When the University of New Mexico asked him to teach a course on Sufism, he agreed but requested to change the title from ‘Sufism’ to ‘Dance’. “People lined up to take this ‘dance’ class- and I showed them how to control their body by mastering breathing techniques.” Many of his students eventually took a spiritual path after this gentle introduction.

Adnan drops a Hadith here and there and a Quranic verse enter his conversation every once in a while but his discourse is not specific to Islam. Religion, he says, is a code of conduct. It’s a matter of intellect, while Sufism is the business of the heart.

But Adnan has found a more grounded and perceptible technique for those of us who demand empirical evidence — he primarily dwells in the physicality of the practice. Instead of teaching mysticism, he demonstrates to his students how to control breathing to optimise flexibility of muscles, enhance postures and unleash creative potential. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of his followers are artists and dancers hoping to find a secret key that will take them to the top of their artistic ventures.

“Taking action is critical,” says Adnan. “It is more fun to dance, play sports and engage in physical activities rather than being lazy and inactive. Dance comes from the heart and it brings spirituality and peace. Dance is the yearning of the soul for freedom.”

Many cynics and puritans frown upon people like Bikram Chaudhry or Adnan Sarhan for making mysticism a consumer product — a kind of ‘McYoga’ or ‘McSufism’ for lack of a better term. But I personally believe a consumerist approach also makes these experiences accessible to mere mortals such as myself. And once you have that access and you take a step on this particular journey, who’s to say where it will lead you?

[Visit the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Community]

[Visit the Sufi Foundation of America].

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Auspicious Occasion

By Staff Reporter, *Iran participates in “National Seminar” on Sufi Saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti (RA)* - Islamic Republic News Agency - Tehran, Iran; Saturday, May 19, 2012

Iran participates in “National Seminar” on Sufi Saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti (RA)

New Delhi: The Islamic Republic of Iran Saturday participated in the “National Seminar” held on the auspicious occasion of the 800th anniversary of globally famous Sufi Saint and Mystic Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti which kicked off in New Delhi.

Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavipour, representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in India and Syed Mahdi Nabizadeh, Ambassador of Iran to India attended the day long seminar, organized by Universal Association for Spiritual Awareness (UASA), as “Chief Guests”.

Addressing the seminar, Mahdavipour threw light on this reality that Sufis and mystics who brought the message of peace of Islam on the territory of India with most of them belonging to Iran. These historical facts prove that India and Iran hold a place of golden history of cultural and social relations in the world which cannot be forgotten.

Describing Ghareeb Nawaz as a symbol of communal harmony, he said that teachings of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti will remain relevant for all times to come.

Towing the line of Mahdavipour, Mehdi Nabizadeh said: “India has always been the cradle of the free people and thinkers of many parts of the world and the Iranians like Hazeen Lahiji, Meer Syed Ali Hamadani, Qazi Noorullah Shustri and Moinuddin Chishti chose this country for their spiritual, moral and religious activities”.

He said that the fact is the sufis have played a valuable role in the progress of social norms of the people of this country from the point of culture and Persian language.

The Iranian official noted that it is a fact that Sufism is a historical heritage of Indian culture and it is the moral duty of every Indian to promote and preserve it.

"In India the followers of different religions co-exist in peace and harmony for centuries like a bouquet respecting the religious feelings of each others. This is being the historical heritage carried by Sufis and Saints which cannot be ignored," he added.

Speaking on the occasion, Kapil Sibal, Minister of Human Resource and Development and IT expressed his view in an emotional tone that Gharib Nawaz has been the sacred symbol of Indian secular culture. He still rules the hearts of the people even after passing 8 centuries since when he came to this territory as vicegerent of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) carrying the message of peace and humanity.

Without respecting the human values peace can’t be established. The humane and spiritual teachings of Gharib Nawaz under the light of Quran and Hadith guided the humanity to live in peace and brotherhood, he added.

Sibal also announced that on this auspicious occasion the government will soon release the posting stamp on Khwaja at the spiritual capital of India, Ajmer in Rajasthan State.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Special Prayers

By Staff Reporter, *Shah Inayat Qadri’s urs starts* - Pakistan Daily Times - Lahore, Pakistan; Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shah Inayat Qadri’s Urs starts

Lahore: The three-day annual Urs of Hazrat Hafiz Muhammad Inayatllah Shah Qadri Shatari, teacher of renowned Sufi saint Bulleh Shah and popularly known as Shah Inayat Qadri, began at Queens’ Road on Friday.

Provincial Minister for Auqaf and Religious Affairs Haji Ehsanuddin Qureshi inaugurated the urs celebrations by laying a traditional chadar on the shrine.

Officers of the Auqaf Department and a large number of devotees were also present on the occasion. They also offered special prayers for the development, progress and stability of country.

The Punjab Auqaf Department had allocated Rs 66,000 for expenditures of urs and provision of Langar (free meal) for visitors and devotees. Later, a special Mehfil-e-Samaa (spiritual singing ceremony) was held at the shrine in which prominent qawwal and other folk singers participated.

Shah Inayat, generally known as Shah Inayat Qadri, was born in Kasur around three hundred years ago in an Arain family. He studied Persian and Arabic as per the tradition of local education system of the time. He was a student of a famous Sufi scholar and saint, Muhammad Ali Raza Shattari.

After he finished his studies, he was nominated a Khalifa of his teacher Hazarat Shattari. Later on he received the khilafat of seven other sub-sects of Sufi Qadri order. Soon after, he migrated to Lahore where he started his own school of Sufism. Baba Bulleh Shah was one of his prominent students.

In wake of terrorist activities and poor law and order situation across the country, local police had taken strict security measures to avoid any unpleasant incident during the urs celebrations and gathering of devotees.

The celebrations would continue for the next two days.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shower of Flowers

By Kshitiz Gaur, *Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty formally begins* - The Times of India - India; Friday, May 18, 2012

Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty formally begins

Ajmer: The 800th Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty began formally on Thursday evening though the actual rituals will begin only after the sighting of the moon tentatively on May 21.

Thousands of devotees march amid the playing of musical bands and shower of flowers and confetti towards the main Nazim gate of the dargah during the hoisting of the traditional flag brought by the Gori family from Bhiwara for the Urs. The procession of the flag started from the dargah guest house.

Large number of devotees from different parts of the country gathered in the dargah region to participate in the march of hosting the flag. Just after the 'Aser ki namaz', there was a celebration with musical bands playing and Qawals singing Sufi songs. Sayeed Abrar Ahemad led the Sufi Qawalis procession and the devotees were eagerly touching the Urs flag.

As per the tradition, Fakhruddin Gori held the flag and marched towards the main gate of dargah. The whole route was crowded with devotees. The procession went thorugh Mustafa market, Phool gali, and reached Nizam gate where the flag was hosted at Buland darwaza.

With the formal beginning of Urs, the timing of dargah will change from Friday for devotees, "There will be no prayers in afternoon as it will be offered at 8 in the evening. After the moon sighting, the rituals of Urs will start," said Kutubdin Sakhi, a khadim. He added that from the next day of moon sighting, the 'jannati darwaza' will be open for devotees.

Considering the large number of devotees coming to attend the Urs, the district administration has started implementing its plan for elaborate security arrangements. About 4,000 extra police force will be deployed in the region during Urs. Four circles are also defined for security reasons. "About 19 ASP, 45 DySP and 23 Inspector rank officials are called from the police headquarters for the Urs" an official said. Besides, police force from the police lines is also deputed.

There will be 36 CCTV actively capturing activities both inside and outside the dargah to catch suspicious moves during the Urs. Police are also checking guest houses and hotels to verify people lodged there. The district magistrate deputed a zonal magistrate in the region to maintain law and order.

Railways has also started six Urs special trains connecting Barauni, New Jalpaigudi, Satragachi, Hyderabad and other places to Ajmer. The state roadways are also looking for the good business during the Urs.

On other hand, devotees from different part of the country came here through private buses and were staying at Pushkar and Kayar Vishram Sthalis. "Drinking water and sanitation are the main facilities which we are providing on these places for devotees," a municipal official said. Parking facilities for about 3,000 vehicles are made on different vishram stalis for the devotees coming to attend the Urs.

[Picture: Inside Dargah Sharif. Photo: Wiki.]

Monday, May 21, 2012

Another Way of Seeing


By Keri Rursch, *Augustana professor authors book on Sufi poetry* - Augustana College - Rock Island, IL, USA; Friday, May 18, 2012

Augustana professor authors book on Sufi poetry: Professor's book helps clear up misunderstandings about Muslim poetry

Rock Island, Ill. – University of South Carolina Press has published Dr. Cyrus Zargar's book Sufi Aesthetics: Beauty, Love, and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn 'Arabi and 'Iraqi.

Dr. Zargar, an assistant professor of religion at Augustana, offers an approach to understanding Muslim mystics and perceiving divine beauty and human beauty as one reality.

Dr. Zargar specializes in Islamic studies. His new book helps readers better interpret the love poetry of classical Muslim society. In fact, he wrote this book as a response to misunderstandings of Sufi love poetry.

According to Dr. Zargar, Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam that has been far more popular and influential historically than most people think. Despite the popularity of Sufi love poets such as Rumi, the poetic expressions of Sufi's have often been misunderstood as allegorical or a system of codes waiting to be translated.

"I hope that people who read this book can appreciate another way of seeing the physical world; physical beauty, including the beauty of human beings, can have divine meaning," said Dr. Zargar. "It is not about codes. Rather, it is about seeing the divine in things themselves."

For Dr. Zargar, the appeal of Sufi poetry stems from the fact that it never loses relevance. "If you can take pleasure in thinking deeply about God, the soul or the relationship between the two, then you will find much in Sufi writings," he said. "Sufi writings can be like rooms filled with treasures for thought."

Dr. Zargar received his bachelor's from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and his doctorate from the University of California Berkeley. He has had articles published in the Journal of Arabic Literature and the Encyclopedia Iranica.

For more information, please contact Keri Rursch, director of public relations, at kerirursch@augustana.edu or (309) 794-7721.

Image from Amazon.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Peace Is the Precondition

By TCN News, *MSO holds annual meet in Ajmer, vows to work for peace in society* - Two Circles Net - Cambridge, MA, USA; Thursday, May 17, 2012

MSO holds annual meet in Ajmer, vows to work for peace in society

Ajmer: Muslim Students Organization of India MSO, an apex body of Sufi oriented Muslim youths organised its annual general meeting at Ajmer Shareef where various burning Muslim issues including education, employment, Terrorism, Extremism were discussed.

The Meeting was attended by various dignitaries of national level and from Dargah Ajmer Shareef.

The two-day convention started on 16th May. The State committees of almost all the states of the country participated in which Babar Ashraf, National Secretary of All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board gave a brief description of the current scenario of Sufism which is “facing threat because of the intolerant, extremist infamous Wahabi ideology which is getting a space among peaceful traditional Indian Muslims indoctrinating wrong beliefs which is against the beliefs of Sunni Sufi Community who represents majority of Muslims in India.”

He further emphasized that it’s the need of hour especially “to the young to come forward and strive hard to combat Wahabi menace and contribute to deliver the true and peaceful message of Islam so that the coming generation may play a vital role to form a Peaceful developing nation as Peace is the precondition for development.”

Director of Sunni Markaz, Calicut, Kerala Dr. Abdul Hakeem Azhari asked the youths to first learn and develop character to serve mankind. In all the societies, Islam must be preached in most tolerant manner. “Our duty is to spread this message of Islam to save humanity from darkness.”

They decided that MSO and SSF (Sunni Students Federation) will strive hard to spread this message among the youths in Universities and colleges from July across the country.

MSO National president Syed Muhammad Quadri conducted special class on Purification of the heart. He told the youths that our heart must be clear from all evils and self egos. Our services should be without self interest. Today society needs peace of mind and humane touch. We can win the heart of society through selfless and love based services. To serve humankind is true message of Islam.

Dr. Sarwar Razwi Alig from Allahabaad, Shahnawaz Warsi, Gen Secretary of MSO, Shujaat Ali Quadri, National Secretary, Er Abdul Raoof, SSF Convener Banglore, Zuhairuddin Noorani from West Bengal also spoke on the occasion.

The Meet was inaugurated by Dr. Wahid Hussain Chishti, Secretary of Dargah Committee. Mohammad Habeeb Khan Member of Rajastahn Public Service Commission also encouraged the youths to work hard in their education.

Picture: Syed Dr. Wahid Chishti Sahi (Secretary of Dargah Ajmer Shareef) inaugurating the National delegates conference.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not Because We Worship It

By Hadeel Al Shalchi, *With state weak, Libyans look to God for help* - Reuters - U.S.A./Libya; Wednesday, May 16, 2012

With state weak, Libyans look to God for help

Mohamed Salem believes it was divine intervention that saved the Muslim holy site where he works from being destroyed.



In early March, word reached the keepers of the ornate shrine, the most important of its kind in Libya, that ultra-conservative Salafis were on their way to destroy it as part of a campaign to wipe out any symbols they see as idolatrous.

The curators sent for help. Volunteer militia units came from nearby towns. They surrounded the shrine complex - which houses the tomb of the 15th-century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar - with pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons, and waited to repel the attack.

Then a sandstorm, rare at that time of year, whipped up and shrouded the mosque from view. The attack never came.

"The dust was so thick and the wind so strong you couldn't see your hand in front of you," said Salem, a caretaker and religious teacher at the complex. "God protected the grave of this scholarly man and protected us from harm."

Since last year's revolt ended Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule over Libya, people have grown used to looking to their own resources, or to God, to help them out, because they feel they cannot count on their government.

The struggle over this shrine in Zlitan, about 160 km (90 miles) west of the Libyan capital, is the story of Libya as it struggles to re-shape itself after Gaddafi's rule.

It is the story of the battle for the right to define what it means to be a Muslim in Libya, of theological arguments being settled by weapons, and of an interim government that is so weak that it cannot impose its authority over opposing factions.

The ending has not yet been written.

The conflict over the al-Asmar tomb and hundreds of other shrines like it has not been resolved. Instead, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has postponed a decision by ordering that all the shrines be closed until it decided on a way out.

"We are keeping this subject on hold," said NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Harizy. "We have other subjects which are more important than the graves right now."

HOLY BOOK

One afternoon in March, Salem unlocked and pushed open the door to the shrine, at the centre of the complex which also includes a school and a mosque.

A burst of incense and musk greeted him as he slipped off his slippers and muttered a short prayer before entering the cool room.

The coffin of al-Asmar stood inside, covered with Turkish rugs and surrounded by intricate blue and white mosaic patterns on the wall.

Students from all over Libya come to study Islamic law and to memorize the Islamic holy book, the Koran, at the university and school built around the shrine. Now, numbers are down.

In the school halls, the voices of young boys and girls echo in unison.

"We usually have 600 girls a day come to memorize Koran, but the parents are now afraid the Salafis will attack so only 100 show up," said teacher Wafa al-Ati.

Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam, dates back to the faith's early days. Apart from the standard prayers, Sufi devotions include singing hymns, chanting the names of God or dancing to heighten awareness of the divine.

Sufis also build shrines to revered holy men and scholars and make pilgrimages to them. There are hundreds of the shrines all over Libya. Even Gaddafi, with his ambivalent attitude to religion, did not try to interfere in a practice that is so deep-seated in Libyan culture.

But since the end of Gaddafi's rule, a new trend has emerged to challenge Sufi traditions.

Under Gaddafi's rule, many Salafis were jailed for their beliefs and those not imprisoned spent years avoiding any outward manifestation of their beliefs.

Files from Gaddafi's internal security agency, seen by Reuters after the revolt, show there was a special department set up to track hardline Islamists. Anyone suspected of affiliation was denied the right to travel abroad, enroll in university or take public sector jobs.

Since that system of repression collapsed, Salafis have become emboldened. Some have acquired weapons and used them to enforce their ultra-purist view of Islam.

The Salafis believe Islam should be followed in the simple, ascetic form practiced by the Prophet Mohammed and his disciples. Any later additions to the faith -- including tombs or lavish grave markings - are viewed by them as idolatry.

They have alarmed many secularist Libyans by trying to enforce their strict moral code. The Salafis have burned down halls were parties are held and harassed women who do not cover their heads.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, organizers of a rap concert featuring a famous Tunisian artist were forced to cancel the event after being threatened by a Salafi brigade called Libya's Shield.

Worried that the Salafis would attack their joyful annual parades to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad's birthday in February, Sufi mosques sought safety in numbers and held a joint procession in Tripoli's walled old city. The event, which Salafis also consider idolatrous, went off without incident.

The main front in their campaign has been their attacks on Sufi shrines, which are a traditional part of Libyan Islam. Dozens have been demolished all around the country and the bodies of their holy men dug up and dumped elsewhere.

The defenders of the shrine in Zlitan believe a Salafi militia, called the Thalath Salafi brigade, was behind the aborted attack on the complex.

The brigade is stationed in a former military base in the nearby town of Khoms. Commanders declined an interview with Reuters but in March, a spokesman addressed an angry crowd calling for their departure from the town.

"Having any sign or tomb marking a grave is a form of infidelity and must be removed," said the spokesman for the brigade, Jalal al-Gheit. "We prefer to call it a reorganization of the graves."

The evidence of the Salafi campaign can be seen at what remains of the Sidi Gibran shrine, also in Zlitan.

Large concrete pieces attached to metal wires dangle from where the roof used to be. A hole filled with rubble remains where the grave of the holy man, after whom the shrine is named, was dug up.

The shrine's caretaker, who lives nearby, said he witnessed the desecration one afternoon when he heard the rumble of a tractor outside his house.

"I walked out and was surprised to see 16 bearded Salafis carrying Kalashnikovs, and breaking the tomb using a Caterpillar tractor," said Faraj al-Shimi. "They all ran away when I threatened to call the police."

He said that the complaint he filed four months ago was still pending.

MUDDLE AND INDECISION

The NTC has a lot on its plate trying to run a country that, since Gaddafi's downfall, has been floating on a wave of hope and optimism but at the same time often seems close to slipping into chaos.

It is only beginning to build a state army and police force. There are still armed militias that answer only to their own commanders and refuse to disarm. It is trying to organize the country's first election next month.

That may partly explain why the official response to the crisis has been characterized by muddle and indecision. There is also confusion at the top of the religious hierarchy, where some officials seem to be theologically closer to the Salafis than Libya's traditional Sufi-inspired Islam.

Back in November last year, Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani, Libya's highest ranking Islamic scholar, who carries the NTC's endorsement, issued a religious decree declaring that it was forbidden to desecrate graves.

But he was also reported to have remarked that the time for such action was not ripe, a comment nervous Sufis took as a sign his defense of shrines might not be as strong as it might seem.

In March, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil met the mufti and representatives of Libya's Sufi and Salafi camps. Salem, the curator of Zlitan's al-Asmar shrine, was at the meeting. He said he asked for security for the complex.

Instead, the issue was fudged. Salem said he left the meeting with an order from Abdel Jalil to shutter the tomb and wait for further notice. "We received no security," he said.

Since then, official institutions have been passing the buck. The NTC said it is waiting for the mufti to make a decision on the religious legality of the grave sites. And the mufti's office told Reuters it is waiting for the NTC to make a final decision.

Harizy, the NTC spokesman, said the quarrel was all part of a natural evolution for Libya.

"Libyan people are used to working in secret, so no one knows who's who," Harizy said. "So we have to open the door for everybody to express his opinion and to try to bring the Islam which is moderate."

In the meantime, caretakers at the al-Asmar shrine have the more immediate concern of how to stop the complex from being destroyed by Salafis, without help from the state.

For the past few weeks, the complex has organized an armed brigade of 30 to 40 volunteers from Zlitan who stand guard at the tomb.

"We are not protecting this tomb because we worship it," said Salem. "We protect it because it is a part of our heritage and culture."

(Additional Reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla; Editing by Christian Lowe, Tom Heneghan and Sonya Hepinstall).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Innocent Pawns

By Sohail Hashmi, *Heritage encroached* - The Hindu -India; Saturday, May 12, 2012

Heritage encroached: The controversy over the camping of Myanmar refugees in a protected area in Delhi has several dimensions, the most important being that the land is home to a 13th Century mausoleum for Altamash's son, the second to be built in the Indian subcontinent.

The first monumental mausoleum built in the Indian subcontinent belongs to Qutub-ud-Din Aibak, built in 1210, it is to be found at the bustling Anarkali Bazar in Lahore. The second, the Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi

Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood was governor of Bengal, then known as Lakhnauti, and was killed there, his body was brought to Delhi and Altamash started building the mausoleum to his beloved son. What stands today is an incomplete structure because the octagonal platform atop the grave was clearly meant to be built over. Had Altamash not died within five years of his son's death a dome would probably have come up above the platform with a cenotaph as is the pattern repeated in all monumental mausoleums.

The structure that looks like a small fortress with its four bastions, one at each corner, is popularly known as Sultan Garhi. This is a corruption of the original Sultan-e-Ghaari (the king of the cave) so called because the original grave is located in a kind of a crypt that one has to climb into.

Over the centuries the mausoleum has come to be venerated by the local population as the shrine of a Sufi or Peer. This conversion of a dead prince into a Sufi is strangely responsible for the preservation of this remarkable structure and is now the cause of its encroachment and this is the dilemma that conservationists face in preserving what are known as living monuments.

The graves of Nasir-ud-Din's brothers Ruknuddin Feroze Shah and Muizzudin Bahram Shah, a stone inscription that mentions the building of a water tank in 1361 and a mosque probably dating to the time of Firoze Tughlaq and the ruins of an old village that was inhabited till 1947 are other structures that lie scattered about this 30 acre piece of land under the protection of the ASI.

The village that grew around the mausoleum was a Muslim majority village and those that lived in the ruins that lie scattered were either consumed by the madness of the times or those who were lucky escaped, virtually by the skin of their teeth. The mausoleum remained because it had come to be venerated, both by the Hindus and the Muslims.

Post 1947 the locals, now almost exclusively Hindus, continued to flock here every Thursday, gradually as things settled down some Muslims too started coming here and so an ASI protected monument, recently preserved through ASI-INTACH joint effort, was gradually being turned into the shrine of a non-existent Sufi. Some had even begun to present the joint ownership as a fine example of communal harmony

It would have continued to lead its obscure existence, probably one day quietly turning into a shrine just as many other monuments have in Delhi, turning into temples or mosques or Sufi shrines with local politicians lending support to encroachers and conservationists eventually reconciling to losing one more part of a heritage that no one seems to be too worried about. This well established routine has however been disrupted through the intervention of a new player, the arrival of more than a 1000 refugees from Myanmar, the erstwhile Burma.

Why the refugees from Myanmar are camping here is a strange story of callousness and apathy that this city exhibits on a fairly regular basis. The Myanmar refugees were initially camping in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Vasant Vihar. They were demanding that they be recognized as refugees and be given that status, the UNHCR was taking his time, such bodies always do.

Meanwhile, the residents of Vasant Vihar, who did not like so many hungry and ill clad people crowding their neighbourhood complained. The voices of the complainants were heard with alacrity. Such voices are always heard with alacrity. Had the same alacrity been shown to solve the problems of the refugees they would have been taken to a place where they would not be exposed to the elements, but the idea was to remove them from Vasant Vihar and then when they were out of sight things could go back to routine.

Unfortunately things show no signs of going back to normal, the villagers who venerate the non-existent Sufi have threatened action if these people are not moved out by May 15 and they have been promised results by that date. Meanwhile, an uneasy peace prevails with a police picket in position keeping the curious away and no one seems to be asking the questions that need to be asked.

Who told the Myanmar refugees about this place, who told them that they could shift there, who arranged the shift, who gave the permission. Did anyone bother to ask the ASI or the National Heritage Commission? Is this another encroachment being orchestrated with the poor refugees being innocent pawns, just as poor migrants have been used on earlier occasions in other parts of the city.

Picture: The Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi. Photo: V. V. Krishnan.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Dream Still Exists

By Terry Gross/WHYY, *Creating A New Vision Of Islam In America* - Vermont Public Radio - USA; Thursday, May 10, 2012

Creating a New Vision of Islam in America

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading moderate Muslim leader in the U.S., was once the lead cleric associated with the proposed Islamic community center some critics called the "ground zero mosque."

In late 2010, a debate over the location of the community center, now called the Cordoba House, became a contentious issue during the midterm elections.

During the debate, Rauf was called a "radical Muslim" and a "militant Islamist" by critics of the proposed community center. He was accused of sympathizing with the Sept. 11 hijackers and having connections to Hamas.

"For those who actually know or have worked with the imam, the descriptions are frighteningly — indeed, depressingly — unhinged from reality," political reporter Sam Stein wrote last August for The Huffington Post. "The Feisal Abdul Rauf they know spent the past decade fighting against the very same cultural divisiveness and religious-based paranoia that currently surrounds him."

In his new book, Moving the Mountain, Rauf details the events in his own life that have shaped his religious philosophy. He also recounts the struggle to build the Lower Manhattan community center, which was designed to bring together Muslims with people from other religions.

"That was my goal," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "because the world needs that today. Now, what happened at that time clearly wasn't the perfect solution, and what happened did not reflect my dream or my purpose in the right way. But the dream still exists and continues to exist."

A Moderate Voice In America

Rauf was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents and spent his early childhood in Malaysia. At 16, he moved with his parents to New York City, where his father had been asked to establish an Islamic center of worship. It was the middle of the 1960s, when the counterculture was in full swing and the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states had created a growing divide between Jews and Muslims.

Rauf, who was attending Columbia University at the time, recalls it being a difficult time for young Arabs in New York City.

"Many of my schoolmates at Columbia were Jewish. I made many good friends among them, but we had moments of difficulty in those discussions," he says. "And [it made me realize] how the politics in the Middle East had poisoned and continued to poison, to this day, the relationship between Muslims and Jews. It was a painful aspect of that period of my life, but it also shaped it in important ways in terms of wanting to understand it and seeing how we can be a factor for positive change."

After leaving Columbia, Rauf became a public high school teacher in the New York City school system for several years. But he couldn't shake the thought that he was missing his calling.

"I even knew, when I was coming on the ship from Egypt to the United States — I had this interior voice in my heart telling me that my role would be to introduce Islam to America in an American vernacular, in an American vocabulary," he says.

Rauf served as the imam of the al-Farah mosque in New York City from 1983 to 2009. For the past two decades, he has argued that Islam supports both religious tolerance and equality for women, and has worked to strengthen moderate voices with the Muslim world.

"I believe we are part of a growing global chorus," he says. "And I know for a fact that moderates exist everywhere, in every tradition and in every political environment. There are moderates in Israel. There are moderates in Iran, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party. And what we need to do is link all of these moderates together and figure out a way that this coalition can speak to important issues to marginalize the voice of the extremists."


[Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America
Publisher: Free Press (May 8, 2012)
Click HERE to look Inside the book]

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Burying the Hatchets

By Ruslan Kurbanov, *Dagestani Muslims: From Confrontation to Peace* - OnIslam.net - Egypt - Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dagestani Muslims: From Confrontation to Peace

Dagestan is the most unique region of Russia located between Caspian sea and Chechnya. Beginning from the moment of its being part of Russia 200 years ago till now, it has continued to impact very seriously on social and political processes of all Caucasian region. During all this period Dagestani Muslims have been trendsetters for their neighbors in the matters of Islam, Shariah, war and peace.

Religious and Ethnic Structure

First of all, Dagestan, with its 3 million population, is the most Islamized region of Russia. The process of spreading Islam has begun here since 642 AD, in the period of Caliph Umar, when the Muslim army occupied Derbent (or Bab aul-Abwab) - the biggest Dagestan city of that time.

Throughout its Muslim history, Dagestan has turned to be a center of Islamic knowledge, science and enlightenment. But in the Soviet period all Islamic heritage and potential of Dagestan to a great extent has been terminated. Nevertheless, the booming process of Islamic revival in Dagestan started immediately after the collapse of the USSR

Second, Dagestan, being the biggest Caucasian region within Russia, has the most complicated ethnic structure. According to the specialists, about 40 native indigenous tribes live in Dagestan: Avars, Dargins, Lezgis, Kumyks, Laks, Tabasarans, Noghays, Rutuls, Aghuls and others. The biggest Dagestani tribe is Avars (about 800 thousand people). The population of smallest tribes like Archis, Gunzibs, Ginukhs consist only of one village (about 500 people).

Third, the Muslim society of Dagestan is extremely heterogeneous. Among Dagestani Muslim communities with longest history can be named Sufis, Salafis and Fuqaha of Imam ash-Shafi’i Madhab. The community of Islamic reformers who follow the ideas of Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Abduh appeared here about a hundred years ago.

Today the number of new Muslim communities is continuing to grow. They include jamaats of Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen, Hizb ut-Tahrir, at-Tabligh, Said Nursi and so on. But the most influential communities till now are Sufis and Salyafis. Yet even these two communities are not homogeneous too.

As for Sufi community, there are three Tariqahs in Dagestan – Naqshbandiyah, Qadiriya and Shaziliyah. Every big Dagestan tribe has its own Sufi sheikhs, but with no recognition for each other. The main groups within Salafi community are Salafiya al-Jihadiya and Salafiya ad-Da’wiya.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Dagestan Muslims have gained wide freedom in organizing their religious activity, building Mosques, going for Hajj or traveling abroad for Islamic education. But some kinds of religious activities in Dagestan still remain restricted, such as the idea of establishing political Islamic parties or establishing alternative spiritual boards on Muslim affairs.

It’s worthwhile to say that the Sufi community has managed to control the official spiritual board of Dagestani Muslims during post-Soviet period, and has worked very close with the government. As for the Salafi community, on the contrary, it has been oppressed. In Dagestani constitution till now there is a law which prohibits “the Wahhabism and other extremist activity”.

Ideological struggle

The key moment in understanding the Dagestani realities is that during last 20 years after the collapse of the USSR the ideological struggle between Sufi and Salafi communities, according to some experts, has led Dagestan to the brink of latent civil war.

During the 20 years of confrontation between two communities many spiritual and political leaders of Dagestan have been killed, like Dagestani Mufti Sayyid Muhammad Abubakarov, first Russian to have obtained PhD in Shariah Murtaza, Ali Muhammadov, deputies to the Mufti, Ahmad Tagaev and Kura-Muhammad Ramazanov, Interior Minister Adilghirey Muhammad, Tahirov, two ministers for national and religious affairs Muhammad Salih Gusaev and Zahir Arukhov, hundreds of Imams, policemen and secret service officers.

The direct consequence of this conflict was the appearance of militant Jihadi groups which aim to destroy the secular political system of Dagestan and to establish an Islamic emirate on the territory of Northern Caucasus. Everyday clashes between these groups and police result in series of suicide bombing attacks in Dagestan and even in Moscow, in addition to kidnappings and executions of Muslim leaders, which has become a usual practice in the region.

In the heat of this struggle the two communities have blamed each other and accused each other of kufr (disbelief) bidaat (heresy) and “spoiling the pure Islam”. During these years the Dagestani officials, NGO’s leaders and some representatives of both communities have tried to bring the parties to the negotiating table. But all these previous attempts have failed.

Last two years the Salafi community has rapidly grown and intensified its activity. For example the leaders of Salyafi community have established an Association of Ahlu s-Sunnah wa l-Jamaah Ulama, taken part in organizing three protests which attracted thousands of people to denounce the extra-judicial prosecution of Salafi Muslims by the authorities. The community has also prepared a set of requirements to authorities including abrogation of “anti-Wahhaby law”, permission to Salafi community to establish their own mosques, madrasahs, university and media.

The way to peace

Everyday clashes between these groups and police result in series of suicide bombing attacks in Dagestan and even in Moscow

During these two last years Dagestan government has made several serious steps aimed to put an end to this tension, as well as meeting some of the requirements put forward by the Salafi community.. In addition the Dagestani Mufti Ahmad Abdullaev has appealed to all Dagestani Muslims to stop “pining labels on each others”

“Everyone who obeys the Shariah should follow as-Salaf as-Saliheen, should consider himself from Ahlu s-Sunnah and be a Murid in the way of serving Allah,” said Mufti.

Moreover the Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims has liquidated its department on religious expertise of Islamic books, audio and videos production which during last years has cracked dow on what it termed as Wahhaby propaganda”. In addition to that, at the end of April, 2012 the leaders of Salafi and Sufi communities of Dagestan have met in the Central Mosque of Dagestan capital, Makhachkala, for burying the hatchets.

This meeting can be described as historical because of the past 20- year ideological struggle and tension between the two communities. At this meeting the Salafi and Sufi communities’ leaders managed to reach an agreement on stopping the ideological confrontation.

In his opening address at the meeting, Dagestani Mufti Ahmad Abdullaev declared: “Today’s meeting proves that Dagestan is the land of Allah’s grace. Our ancestry always had courage to fight for Islam and now we should have courage to sit around negotiating table and remove disagreements between Muslim communities of Dagestan”.

At the end of the meeting the leaders of two communities adopted a common resolution presented by the Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims and Association of Ahlu s-Sunnah wa l-Jamaah Ulama. Highly featuring in this document are the phrases like “compliance with the Qur’an and Sunnah”, “following the four Imams of Muslim Ummah – Abu Hanifa, Malik, ash-Shafi’i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal”.

The leader of the Association of Ahlu s-Sunnah wa l-Jamaah Ulama Halil-Rahman Shamatov believes that “the results of this meeting will appear in the nearest future”. “We have outlined the complex of problems and we’ll solve them step by step,” said Shamatov.

The Imam of the Central Mosque of Makhachkala Muhammad-Rasul Saaduev thinks that “this meeting will help to overcome existing disagreement between Dagestani Muslims”. “We have agreed to work together in order to bring peace, stability and prosperity to Dagestan,” he said.

As for Dagestani Minister for National and Religious Affairs Bekmurza Bekmurzaev at the end of that meeting he expressed assurance that “Dagestani Muslims will come to the accord”. The President of Dagestan Magomed-Salam Magomedov also supports this peacemaking process. “We need in joint efforts of all social, ethnic and social groups to defeat an evil, - he said, - Only by this way we can ensure peace and order in Dagestan”.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Great Female Scholars

By Evelyn Osagie, *Northern women scholars in pre-colonial Nigeria*- The Nation - Matori, Mushin, Lagos State, Nigeria; Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Northern women scholars in pre-colonial Nigeria

Many Nigerian women contributed to the socio-political and economic development of the country. Sadly, oftentimes, while celebrating achievers, these women are scarcely mentioned, women rights advocates have said.

They argue that historians and scholars must start exposing women contributions in our historical milieu.

One good way to go about it, according to them, is to bring to the fore the contributions of women, especially those from the north. A major northern women’s advocate is Mallam Futuhu. He urged historians to celebrate the achievement of women scholars in pre-colonial northern Nigeria.

His view on the issue, published online, are currently igniting debates at intellectual circles within and outside the country. According to him, evidences abound of great women scholars who have made historical strides.

Historians, he said, have not done justice to women from the northern part of the country, adding that they have been relegated in historical works.

Futuhu said: "Northern women’s contribution in scholarship is usually relegated, neglected and, oftentimes, reduced to footnote in most intellectual history I have come across. ADH Vibar and Mervin Hiskett, whose works in the 60s was on Northern Nigerian intellectual history, did not mention any great woman scholar, either in Yandoto, Gobarau, Danranko or Madabo schools, despite the fact that, there are many.

"It was only John Hunwick’s and Hamid Bobboyi’s work: Arabic literary tradition in Northern Nigeria, that gave us a little glimpse of some great female scholars."

To further explain his point, he named 10 great women scholars of pre-colonial Northern Nigeria whose works are notable among the northern scholars. However, he said, the list may not mean his list is absolute. "Anyone can come up with his own list," he said.

First on his list is Fatima Dukku. According to him, "She was among the entourage of Wangarawa who arrived in Kano, during the reign of Muhammad Rumfa in 15th Century circa."
Dukku (sometime Tukku) was said to be a great scholar. Some sources said she was a saint (waliyya). For more on her vide, there are some notes on Wangarawa coming to Kano, by Love and Joy. Asl al Wangariyun, by M A Alhaj, Hausawa da Makwabtansu, by Dokaji Abubakar, and I'ilan bi Tarikh Kano, by Malam Adamu na Ma'aji," he wrote.

Next is Ruqayya Fallatiya. "Hunwick made mention of her as the author of the famous song; Ummul Yatim (aka; Alkarimun Yaqbal). Some historians also said she was the author of famous Qawa'idi. She was the wife of Muhammad Fodio al Akbar (not the father of Usman Danfodio, probably the great grandfather, and teacher of Alkashnawi and Muhammad Na wali). She may have lived in 16th Century and died in the early 17th Century," according to him.

Raliya, whose surname was not mentioned, is next on the list. According to him, "She is one of the few women who thrive in Yandoto School. She is said to have authored some poems and a book on epistemology. Her works are not extent; this might be as a result of conquest of Yandoto, by Muhammad Bello (Sultan), in the early 19th century."

Nana Asma'u bint Fodio, he noted, is the most famous scholar among all the female scholars of central Sudan. "She authored 38 works in her life time. Her works include poetry and prose, on grammar, syntax, spiritualism, wa'az, medicine, among others. Her outstanding contribution was on her Yantaru School initiative, where less privilege and slave women were educated.

Many illiterate women, benefited from her mass literacy programme. Vide; One Woman Jihad by B Mark and Jean boyd. See also Some collected works of Nana Asma'u, by B Marks," he stated.
Amina Bint Adeh, according to him, is a great scholar and Sufist. "She was said to be the liaison officer of Usman Danfodio in the spiritual palace of Sidi Abdulqadir Jelani. Nana Asma'u made mention of her in her Tawassali ga mata masu albarka. Hunwick also, in Arabic literary tradition.

Goggo Zaituna is next. He noted that she was born in Adamawa at the time of Lamido Zubayr. "She was said to be a great islamic jurist. In her time, she trained many reknown Qadhis in Adamawa."

Maimunatu Binta Qadhi Bazarin, according to him, was a jurist, grammarian and sufist. Born in Jibiya, Katsina State, she died in 1906, at the age of 80. "She authored some books, both in prose and poetry. She was the founder of famous Jibiya Islamiyya School, which is noted for teaching the children and women."

Sheikh al Qariyya, he observed, was an Algerian, who resided in Kano, at the end of the 19th Century. "Qariyya's original name was Rakiyya, she was called Qarriyya, because it was believed there is no door of the degree of Suffism that she did not knock and open. She was the teacher and initiator of many Kano Sufi scholars, including: al Qalansuwi (Shehu mai hula), Malam Ibrahim Natsugunne, the father of Sheikh Nasiru Kabara, Malam Bako Sufi, and Malam Tijjani Zangon bare-bari. She later went to Medina and died there."

Fatuhu also named Hajiya Hassana Sufi, an educationist and Arabicist of her own right, who died last year, "she was the headmistress of Hassana sufi women Islamiyya School in Kankarofi quarters, Kano. Hajiya Hassana was the author of many books."

Miriam bint al Sheikh is last on the list. She is popularly known as Shekara, according to some historians. "She was the originator of Gidan Sarki Islamiyya School. A daughter of Usman Danfodio and wife of Ibrahim Dabo (second Fulani Emir of Kano). Her famous works, which is still Wasiqa ila Amir Kano, Min amr Mahdi. She seems to outlive most of her sisters. Waziri Bukhari made mention of her in his famous poem Wakar Buhari, as a Saint.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Music Beneath the Words

By H. Talat Halman, *Book Review: “Celebrating Divine Presence: Journeys into God” (Laurent Weichberger, ed.)* - The American Muslim - Bridgeton, MO, USA - Sunday, May 6, 2012

“Celebrating Divine Presence: Journeys into God”: A Happy Blending of the Head and the Heart

“Celebrating Divine Presence” is a book that aims to—and in so many ways succeeds at—revitalizing our experience of all religions by bringing them together as “beads on one string,” to quote the words of the twentieth-century spiritual master Meher Baba. In these chapters, the authors, all practitioners, and many scholarly, invite you into their personal faith journeys. The tone of this book is personal and conversational, while also featuring in-depth studies of ten religious traditions. This book represents a happy balance of the heart (personal experience and autobiographical narrative) and the mind (rigor in fidelity and creativity in insight).

“Celebrating Divine Presence” begins with an excellent chapter on listening, a fulfillment of Martin Buber’s ideal of the “Life of Dialogue.” This is a book born of the “Beads on One String” project to create an Interfaith context for dialogue. Brilliantly, Laurent Weichberger shows us how the great religious founders are “exemplars of listening.” (And of course. The Jewish creed is called, and begins with, the word “Listen!” [*Shema*] And listening involves learning to appreciate others’ differences.) Rumi began his great *Mathnawi* with the word “Listen,” and similarly, this is a book to be listened to for the music beneath the words.

Foundational exemplars of listening appear throughout this book’s pages in different contexts—a dynamic which enlivens the book. This is a book with insights into (the elsewhere grossly understudied) Zoroaster, as well as Abraham, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, St. Catherine, Muhammad, and Meher Baba. Each of these figures are treated in detail and with feeling. (Along the way we are even granted the rare experience of reading a Zoroastrian prayer. [p. 41]) In a number of chapters, we glean perspectives also on contemporary seminal spiritual teachers, especially: Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Meher Baba. One of the great strengths of this book is that it exquisitely and precisely articulates an understanding of the much over-used and little-understood—though perhaps James Cameron’s film has helped—archetype of the Avatar. Levels of sainthood and God-Realization are clearly explained. A very beautiful interlude section describes what I take to be a one-page answer to the question, “What would Saint Francis do—in this day and age?”

This book teaches us how we can stop derogating religions and stop exercising prejudice toward people of other faiths, by showing the commonalities of the “one string” among all people and all faiths. In Laurent Weichberger’s chapter on “Ancient Mysticism,” he creates a new paradigm for thinking about the differences and interrelationships between various religious traditions and he diagrams his creative insights brilliantly in three dynamic charts. This chapter is a wonderful orientation to the World’s Religions and their interrelationships.

The chapter on Sufism is a masterpiece. Written by a practicing Sufi with deep and extensive personal, community, and global experience, Karl Moeller, surveys the vast range of types of Sufism as well as the vast ranges of phenomena and traditions—both in Islamic Sufism and in Universalist Sufism. Moeller clearly explains Sufism’s roots in the Prophet Muhammad’s mission and his teachings and practices. It includes sufficient information on the foundations of the Prophet’s example and the Qur’an for the novice to proceed into this survey of Sufism. Passages from Qur’an and hadith have been deftly selected. Moeller discusses the relationship of Sufism to Islam. He explains the model of spiritual psychological transformation, the seven levels of the soul. Moeller explains the role of saints (*Wali*) and of Axial Saints (*Qutb*. The chapter also explains the attributed spiritual blessing-power (*baraka*) that saints are sought out for. Moeller explains the practice of seeking intercession through saints. The very popular, wide-spread practice of visiting (*ziyara*) saints’ tombs is discussed and described. A beautiful feature of this chapter is the explanation of the dynamics of lineage and the samples of actual lineage-succession lists (*silsila*). The teacher-student or master disciple relationship, so central to Sufism, receives extensive analysis. Sufi meditational practices (*zikr*) and the spirituality of listening (*sema*) to sacred music are discussed. A great number of Sufi-lineage traditions (*tariqa*) are discussed in depth and others are listed. Moeller also comprehensively surveys contemporary expressions of Sufism, both globally and in Europe and America. Delightfully, Moeller includes the Sufi wisdom-humor stories of Mulla Nasruddin Hoja. There is even a sort of “FAQ” included. Copious quotes from Sufis, including Rumi, appear.

The Judaism chapter rang true for me when I saw that its author Yaakov Weintraub immediately highlights the Friday-dusk-to-Saturday-nightfall Shabbat that for many Jews defines or sets a standard for being Jewish. Its topics include God, Torah, the Holocaust, Halakha (“the Law”), and the Chaggaim, the holidays. This chapter’s exposition is enriched by personal narrative and poetry.

Two chapters on Hinduism treat all the basics of the family of Hindu traditions: Veda, Vedanta (in its varieties), meditation (and brain research on its effects), and all the yogas of devotion (*bhakti*), knowledge (*jnana*), action (*karma*), and topics such as liberation (*moksha*), or God-Realization (*jivanmukta*). Spiritual paragons, their lives and teachings are also discussed: Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekanada, Swami Shantananda. Worship of the Mother Goddesses, idols (*vigraha*), and Avatars are also explained. Detailed instructions are provided for practice of each of the four major forms of yoga.

A beautiful “Images” section extends the beauty of this book. Other chapters survey Jainism in detail, Tibetan Buddhism in a way that brings to life the Budddha’s teaching, Christianity in full scope. Through a combination of personal witness and diligent scholarship, Mary Esther Stewart makes Jesus Christ very real and relevant. She provides creative analogies for the Trinity. She explains liturgy, sacraments, saints, monastic orders and Church hierarchies. In the course of a personal narrative, she gives a beautiful summary of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of “world justice, dialogue, and peace” (p. 293) and explains Vatican II. She then creates a moving portrait of Saint Francis. Then follows “If Saint Francis Were Here,” a wonderful one-page summary of what Saint Francis would say and do today, with a beautiful illustration of Saint Francis.

The Punjabi-based Sikh religion (*Khalsa*) is also beautifully explained with wonderful quotes from its founder Guru Nanak’s prayers, its rich tradition of Hindu and Muslim devotional poetry. Guru Nanak comes to life in these pages.

Then editor and coordinator of the “Beads on One String” project, Laurent Weichberger then proceeds to survey “Modern Mysticism.” Here he discusses Sri Ramakrishna, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Rabia Martin, and Avatar Meher Baba. Meher Baba’s life and teachings—at least in terms of a 32-page summary—are given extremely insightful, detailed, extensive, and expert treatment. Weichberger even succeeds in explaining in accessible terms one of Meher Baba’s most elusive of paradigms, the “Ten States of God,” from Meher Baba’s magnum opus, “God Speaks.” Weichberger describes these in a down-to-earth way that complement the more formal explanations of Meher Baba and many of his interpreters. In these pages Weichberger shares many important Meher Baba quotes and presents Meher Baba’s Universal Prayer, the O Parvardigar prayer, laid out in a poetic verse form that is the easiest to read of any printed version I have seen. Weichberger follows with a section on “Sacred Places,” detailing all the various holy sites of all the world’s religions featured in the book that Meher Baba himself visited, made pigrimage to, or at which he meditated.

“Celebrating Divine Presence: Journeys into God” is an invigorating, inspiring, instructive read and also a great research resource. I salute Laurent Weichberger and the “Beads on One String” project for this ripe fruit of their seminars, dialogues, and communion. This book is a model for Interfaith dialogue, global citizenship, and the study of World Religions. This comprehensive and insightful book on 10 spiritual traditions helps to address Islamophobia—and other less pronounced phobias—by contributing to an experience and understanding of spiritual sharing, commonality, and kinship among the *people* who practice the religions, and even, ultimately extending to a kinship among all the faiths themselves brought “together as beads on one string.”

~~~ H. Talat Halman, Assistant Professor, Religion, Central Michigan University, U.S.A. ~~~

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Junooni Time

By Staff Correspondent, *Salman Ahmad performs at Ajmer Sharif* - The Express Tribune - Karachi, Pakistan; Saturday, May 5, 2012

Salman Ahmad performs at Ajmer Sharif

Karachi: Sufi rock star Salman Ahmad may have performed in various places around the world but his most recent stop was a unique one. The Junoon member got the rare chance of performing at the Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty in Ajmer Sharif, India.

“It was an honour to pay tribute to Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty in Ajmer Sharif,” said Ahmad via e-mail. “This is the 800th year of Khawaja Gharib Nawaz’s urs celebration. Thousands of people flocked to the Dargah Sharif and they were in a state of fana while listening to the Sufi songs of love and devotion,” added the Sufi musician.

Ahmad was invited to the memorable event by Syed Salman Chishty, who is also the Gaddi Nashin (heir apparent), Khadim-i-Khawaja sahib (Khwaja’s servant) and the Director of Chishty Foundation.

“It was really nice to have Junoon here in Ajmer Sharif,” Chishty said about Ahmad’s visit.

Ahmad has now joined the league of Pakistani Sufi musicians Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen who have also had the privilege to perform at Ajmer Sharif.

Recently, Ahmad made headlines when he announced that he will be making his Bollywood debut in Vicky Kumar’s musical love story Rhythm, according to timesofindia.com.

Hindustan Times reports that Ahmad’s Indian fan following started strengthening from 1997, when his song “Sayonee” created a rage in India.

Currently, Junoon, spearheaded by Ahmad, are in India, for a series of concerts in different cities of the country. Their next performance will be at the Bluefrog in Delhi on May 10.

“A Junooni time is guaranteed for all,” Ahmad tweeted. Junoon’s last concert in India was on February 6, 2010.

Picture: Salman Ahmad has now joined the league of Pakistani Sufi musicians Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen who have also performed at Ajmer Sharif. Photo: PUBLICITY.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Heart of Timbuktu

By the CNN Wire Staff with Katarina Hoije, *Rebels burn Timbuktu tomb listed as U.N. World Heritage site* - CNN Africa; USA/Africa; Monday, May 7, 2012

Rebels burn Timbuktu tomb listed as U.N. World Heritage site

Bamako, Mali: Elderly men were keeping watch Saturday over Timbuktu's main library after Islamists burned a tomb listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The attacks Friday were blamed on Ansar Dine, a militant group that seeks to impose strict Sharia law.

The ancient city in Mali was captured by at least two separatist Tuareg rebel groups -- one of which is Ansar Dine -- in an anti-government uprising in the northern part of the country that began in January.

The rebels burned the tomb of a Sufi saint where people come to pray, said Sankoum Sissoko, a tour guide familiar with the place. He said the library and other heritage sites remained under threat.

Baba Haidara, a member of the National Assembly, called for UNESCO and the greater international community's help restoring the shrine and freeing the city.

"They attacked the grave, broke the doors and windows and ripped and burned pieces of white clothing that surrounded the tomb of the saint in front of everyone," said Haidara, who is from the central Mali city.

"With their attack, the militants touched the heart of Timbuktu. They picked Friday because they know many people visit the shrines on this day."

Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam, and Islamists believe Sufi shrines are sacrilegious. As such, they have mounted attacks against Sufi sites in several nations.

Sissoko said the attackers were dressed in signature Ansar Dine black robes and turbans. Timbuktu residents, he said, were ready to take up arms against the rebels, who have been linked to al Qaeda.

Religious leader Baba Cheick Sekou said the occupying rebel groups have no respect for Timbuktu's religious and historic importance.

Sekou said he feared for the protection of the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and ancient manuscripts that are kept there, as well as other tombs and mosques of historic significance.

"All Muslims know the tomb is a holy place," he said. "It's not something you attack and destroy. It's anti-Islamic. People in the community are angry."

Haidara described the shrine situation as bad.

"The young people of Timbuktu have started training to resist the militants, and I fear people will seek revenge," he said.

Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle said the attackers tore down windows and wooden gates at the grave sites and burned them. Tensions were high in the city, he said.

"People are angry, and for a good reason," Halle said.

"So far there's been no response from the central government condemning the attack," he said. "I'm still waiting for them to give a declaration. That's what they would have done if it happened in (Mali's capital city of) Bamako."

To many, Timbuktu conjures a distant and exotic place due its location on the southern edge of the vast Sahara and accounts of great material and scholarly wealth.

Known as the "city of 333 saints" for the Sufi imams, sheiks and scholars buried there, Timbuktu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. UNESCO is a United Nations cultural organization.

After the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, armed Tuaregs who had been fighting in Libya streamed back across the border into Mali. In March, the ongoing Tuareg revolt sparked a military coup against Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure by officers unhappy with the government's handling of the rebellion.

The rebels capitalized on the chaos in Bamako, in southern Mali, and usurped large swaths of territory in the north. UNESCO grew gravely concerned about the protection of heritage sites.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova has called for all groups to respect and protect the city's history.

"Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia must be safeguarded," she said.
"Along with the sites' 16 cemeteries and mausolea, they are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage."

Islamists destroyed another world heritage site in 2001 when the Taliban used dynamite to blow up two giant 6th century statues of Buddha carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused the Tuareg rebels of war crimes, including rape, use of child soldiers, summary executions and pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies and government buildings.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Archaeology and Sufi Shrines

By Jini Reddy, *Saints and singers in Pakistan's Punjab* - The Guardian - London, UK; Friday, May 4, 2012

Saints and singers in Pakistan's Punjab: A new tour of Pakistan's Punjab province offers mystical culture, amazing food and friendly homestays

"Come to Islam," says 16-year-old Mohammed Irfan, as I enter the courtyard of the exquisite blue-tiled Eidgah mosque in Multan, a hot, dusty town in Pakistan's Punjab province, known – or rather, barely known – as the City of Saints.

"I come here and pray for wealth, a long life, so that we're able to eat, and for good results in school. I've been coming for a long time, and as a result, I've come first in my class in my exams," he beams, his smile as dazzling as the mirror mosaics that adorn the shrine to Sufi saint Ahmad Saeed Kazmi, a scholar and spiritual teacher.

Sufism is the mystical arm of Islam, and the Punjab is the Sufi heartland of Pakistan. The scene of centuries of cultural invasions, it's also the country's wealthiest and greenest province (despite the blistering expanses of the Cholistan desert, on its south-eastern edge), stretches from Sindh province in the south to the foothills of the Himalayas in the north, and is home to more than half of Pakistan's population.

Alas, the few tourists who make it here usually shoot up the Karakoram Highway to the rugged, frontier northern districts. Understandably so, as Pakistan's mountains are unendingly beautiful, but the Punjab, with its Mughal and pre-Mughal architecture, jewel-like shrines and mosques, desert dunes and farmland, and ancient towns and cities, begs to be explored, too.

Which is how I come to travel five hours south from Lahore to the 4,000-year-old city of Multan. It's a traffic warden's nightmare, with mopeds, autorickshaws and donkey carts doing battle on the streets. I'm with a small group, led by Sohail Azhar, the British-Pakistani founder of London-based tour operator TravelPak, chatting to a group of schoolboys in the mosque. They, like everyone I meet in the Punjab, are balm to the soul: warm-hearted, jolly, and politely curious about the visitors in their midst.

The Eidgah mosque aside, Multan has its share of must-see monuments, (including the stunning mausoleum of Sufi saint Shah Rukn-e-Alam, and the lovely, if unimaginatively titled, Institute of Blue Pottery Development – great for watching the artists at work, and buying gifts ) but it is also our base for an excursion to the small town of Uch Sharif.

Once controlled by Alexander the Great, and one of the oldest centres of learning in Pakistan (the name means "holy high place"), the town is about three hours' drive to the south of Multan. It's on the edge of the Cholistan desert, a vast, thorny acacia-dotted landscape, with nomadic herders leading camels and goats to water holes. The bastions of the derelict Derawar Fort are visible for miles. Every year in February and March, pilgrims flock to this part of the desert to pay their respects at the shrine of the "sand dune saint", Channan Pir, a child abandoned in the desert, according to legend.

As I climb the steps to Uch's exquisite blue-tiled shrine to the (tongue-twisting) saint Jalaluddin Surkh-posh Bukhari, I'm intercepted by a stocky fellow in a red hat, who places his hand on my forehead and mutters a few words, before shuffling away. Have I been blessed by a Pir, a Sufi religious leader-cum-faith healer?

"Genuine Pirs are thought to have inherited their spiritual powers," Sohail had said on the way here. "People consult them on anything from religious matters to medical problems like infertility – or even family relationships." Sadly, my benediction is a false one: a small boy sidles up, points to the man in the hat, and makes a "crazy" sign.

I pass a handful of devotees in the courtyard and at the entrance to the darkened shrine, a guardian leads me to the saint's tomb, which is wreathed in velvet drapes. My head is placed under the fabric, and muffled blessings for health, wealth and prosperity wash over me. It's a long, disorienting moment, but also a comforting one.

There are more poetic incantations later that night, when we walk over to the mausoleum of Baha-ud-Din Zakaia to listen to a Qawwali singer. Qawwalis, or devotional songs, are at the heart of Sufi religious practice – the aim of the music is to lead listeners into a state of spiritual ecstasy. There is certainly a mystical quality to it, and the complex is thick with incense, candles and the shapes of followers quietly padding about barefoot.

"The poet Rumi likened a Qawwali to listening to the divine creaking of the gates of heaven," says Sohail.

Later we enjoy sustenance of a different nature, in the village of Daultala, four hours north-west of Lahore, when Sohail whisks us off to the home his late father had built shortly before his retirement. Expecting modest quarters, I'm taken aback when we reach a three-storey compound, behind high gates and surrounded by meadows.

Within, I count 10 bedrooms, most with en suite bathrooms. The welcoming committee – Sohail's aunt, Hala, lives here, as do various cousins, nieces and other members of his extended family – is as large as it is gracious. Within minutes of arriving there's a home-cooked meal on the table: lamb curry, rice, patties made from meat and chickpeas, a kind of raita with vegetables, chapatis and rice pudding. It's utterly delicious, and my attempt to express my thanks, shukriya in Urdu, feels woefully inadequate.

"Are you married?" 23-year-old Huma, the glossy-haired wife of one of Sohail's cousins, wants to know. It's a question I'm asked over and over in Pakistan. And the reaction to my response – an embarrassed shake of the head (I'm no spring chicken) – is always the deepest, sweetest sympathy.

After dinner, I head up to the roof and, in the fading light, survey a pastoral scene that would be timeless – blossoming flowers, fragrant air, kids playing cricket in the fields, flat-roofed and pastel-coloured houses, the silhouettes of villagers bent over their crops – were it not for the rather incongruous sight of a ferris wheel in the distance. Yes, the funfair has come to Daultala, and we are going.

Butterflies and passersby flit around us as we stroll along the country lanes. Foreigners are a rarity and special fascination is reserved for Ryan, the young American in our group. "Now I know how Madonna feels," he quips.

The funfair rides would make a health and safety officer shudder – they're rickety, rusty and divinely antiquated. Still, the merry-go-round doesn't collapse under my weight, and how often does one get to ride one surrounded by a mesmerised 20-deep crowd of grown men?

Later, we weave past colourful food and fabric stalls to the gurdwara, or Sikh temple. It's a crumbling ruin – the Sikhs left after Partition in 1947, explains Sohail, and the gurdwara was used as a school until it was damaged in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake – but my torch illuminates stone pillars, balconies and delicate lattice-work.

The walk back to the village in the cool of the evening feels like a strange dream. One of Sohail's nieces takes my hand and begins to sing. The tune sounds familiar: it's Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. Not in Urdu though. Or English. But Mandarin Chinese. "I learnt it at school," she says casually. I'm startled, but perhaps ought not to be – the friendship between the two countries is an enduring one.

We wind up our Punjab tour in the city of Lahore, the cultural and artistic mecca of Pakistan. A former Mughal capital, it's home to the sublime Badshahi Mosque, its creamy marble domes and sandstone minarets much more than the sum of its parts. Opposite it, and adjacent to the walled Old City, is the Lahore Fort, containing a maze of gardens, halls and palaces. My favourite, the Palace of Mirrors, filled with glittering, multicoloured mosaics, was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It's not known whether she saw it before she died in childbirth – and her grief-stricken husband had the Taj Mahal built in her honour.

The best views of the mosque and fort – all soft and rose-tinted at sunset – are from the roof of Cooco's Den, a restaurant in the Heera Mandi, or red-light district, in the Old City. It's a stylish, if kitsch, restored haveli (mansion) and the owner, Iqbal Hussain, is a painter. His pictures of Lahore's voluptuous Nautch dancers – descendants of the city's fabled royal courtesans – adorn the walls. The home-style Pakistani fare, heavy on grills and kebabs, and once sampled by the likes of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, isn't bad either.

One night, we check out Lollywood, Pakistan's answer to Tinseltown. A few weeks before, outside a mosque in Chitral, up in the mountains, I'd bumped into a film producer/actor (or "Hero", as leading men here like to be known). On hearing that we'd be in Lahore, he'd invited us to a shoot.

I'm not sure what we'd been expecting: lashings of glamour – and perhaps a contraband mini-skirt or two – however, but the forlorn complex in a back lot that our driver Rachid, nearly cannot find is anything but. Shan, our minder and as luvvy as they come, tells us that Shahid Khan, a star of Pashto-language films, is on set right now. When the cameras whirr, neither he nor his leading lady can deliver more than two words of dialogue, before the director screams "cut". Stifling our giggles, we leave them to it.

The next night Javed, a guide, English teacher and friend of Sohail, takes me to his home he shares with his wife and children, in the red-light district. We wander down narrow streets, ablaze with neon. There are vendors hawking savoury fried snacks, sweets and paan, dozens of dhabas (informal food joints).

The Phajja Paye restaurant is famous for its sticky goats' trotters, although tongue, brain and jawbone are also on the menu. "It's the best known restaurant in all of Lahore,'' says Javed. "Men are drawn here like bees to honey." It's not just for the food. The air is thick with anticipation, but the ladies of the night, so vividly rendered in Cooco's Den, won't be putting in an appearance until the wee hours of the morning, he tells me.

We veer off sharply, down an alley that is momentarily plunged into darkness, thanks to nightly electricity shortages. Javed flicks on his lighter, and I follow him through a narrow entrance and up a cramped staircase, into the tiny, immaculate flat. Waiting to greet us are his wife, Selma, and three young children. I'm ushered into the living room, which also doubles as the bedroom.

After a little chit-chat, Selma produces a dinner of barbecued chicken, even though I've only come for tea, and the household has eaten. The family watch me tuck in, and when I've finished licking my fingers, Javed, who is also a poet, reads from his work.

It's an exalted moment – the flickering flame, the haunting verse. I don't need Qawwalis or Sufi holy men to experience a communion with the divine – it is right here, around the hearth of a warm and open-hearted Lahori family.

Way to go

The trip was provided by TravelPak (08445 558855, travelpak.co.uk). The firm runs two tours which feature the Punjab – Pakistan's Cities: 5,000 Years of History and Culture (13 days, from £1,445 excluding flights) and Pakistan's Archaeology and Sufi Shrines (14 days, from £1,495, excluding flights). Both tours run October–May.

International flights were provided by Oman Air (08444 822309, omanair.com) which flies from Heathrow to Lahore from £625 return

Picture: Ornate family tombs near Derawar Fort, Uch Sharif, Pakistan. Photo: The Guardian.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hamas Syndrome?
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By Taha Özhan, *For the first time a candidate is elected in Egypt* - Hürriyet Daily News - Istanbul, Turkey; friday, May 25, 2012

For the first time a candidate is elected in Egypt

After 29 years and 120 days of Mubarak rule, Egyptians went to the polls to elect their fifth president. Egypt will embrace its fifth president since 1953, that is to say in 59 years the country has seen only four leaders, not counting Sufi Abu Talep, whose presidency lasted only eight days from Sadat’s assassination to Mubarak’s coming to power, or “acting president,” Hussain Tantawi, who took over after Mubarak was overthrown.

What’s interesting about the 2012 Egyptian presidential election is that this is the first election held without a “fixed outcome.” Not knowing who will win the elections has become more interesting than finally having a civilian as a president. That the election predictions are being analyzed around at most three – even two – names seems to have caused enough confusion. How could it not? To summarize a Wikipedia account of the last thirty years:

A referendum on Hosni Mubarak’s candidacy for president was held in Egypt on Oct. 13, 1981, following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6. Mubarak won 98.5 percent of the vote, with an 81.1 percent turnout. Another referendum was held in Egypt on Oct. 5, 1987. His candidacy was approved by 97.1 percent of votes cast, with an 88.5 percent turnout. In 1993 Mubarak’s candidacy for a third consecutive six-year term was approved by 96.3 percent of voters, with a turnout of 84.2 percent. In 1999, Mubarak was approved by 93.8 percent, with voter turnout reported to be 79.2 percent. He won a fourth consecutive six-year term in office.

The last presidential elections in Egypt took place in 2005. The 2005 presidential elections were allegedly the first contested elections in Egypt’s history. Mubarak won a fifth consecutive six-year term in office, with official results showing he won 88.6 percent of the vote while total voter turnout remained at 22 percent. Mubarak’s “victory at the polls” was evaluated by the United States as follows:

“Egypt’s presidential election represents one step in the march towards the full democracy that the Egyptian people desire and deserve,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared in a statement. She even went further and claimed that “the process that culminated in the Sep. 7 vote was characterized by free debate, increased transparency and improved access to the media, in contrast with previous polls. The practice of universal suffrage in Egypt, without limitations on gender and ethnicity, is a hopeful sign for the region.”

Considering the U.S. reaction to the 2005 presidential elections in Egypt, it would not be wrong to say that the 2012 presidential elections would be evaluated with the same “political consistency!” At the end of the first tour, if Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Morsy are the two candidates that move onto the second tour, we hope that the legitimacy of the process through which the new actors of the new Middle East and Egypt were elected will be talked about more than who was elected. In fact, the West, liberals, and the Egyptian tutelage system are already showing the symptoms of the “2006 Hamas syndrome!”
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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

From Public Money
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By Staff Reporter, *Zardari's donation to Ajmer shrine to come from public money* - Press trust of India / NDTV - India; Friday, May 18, 2012

Zardari's donation to Ajmer shrine to come from public money

Islamabad: President Asif Ali Zardari's donation of $1million to the famous sufi shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer will be paid from Pakistan's public exchequer, his spokesman has said.

Mr Zardari announced the donation, which the shrine's administrators have described as one of the biggest in recent years, when he offered prayers at the Dargah on April 8.

The President visited the shrine in Rajasthan after meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a day-long private visit to India.

Presidential spokesman Babar told The News daily that the donation for the shrine in Ajmer will be paid from public money.

A cheque for $50,000 handed over by Mr Zardari to the administrators of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar's mausoleum in Yangon too was paid from the exchequer, Mr Babar said.

It could not immediately be ascertained when the donation would be handed over to the administrators of the shrine in Ajmer, which has been visited by several Pakistani leaders, including Mr Zardari's slain wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto.
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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Embrace of a Loving God
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By Kristian Lin, *Filming Mystics with Mark Hanshaw* - Forth Worth Weekly - TX, USA; Wednesday, May 25, 2012

Filming Mystics with Mark Hanshaw: A Texas Wesleyan professor travels abroad to document religious practices.

Mark Hanshaw doesn’t sound like a filmmaker. Instead of talking in sales pitches, this professor of religion at Texas Wesleyan University is happy to discuss how various religions’ mystical traditions recognize the holy spirit in each person. Yet a filmmaker he is, and an award-winning one as of last month, when his The Embrace of a Loving God: Encountering Sufism won the top award — the platinum “Remi” — at Houston’s WorldFest for best documentary short film. Pretty good for someone who’s just starting out.

The soft-spoken, 47-year-old Hanshaw hails from Oak Ridge, Tenn., but has lived in North Texas for 15 years. “It’s become my home,” he said.

After studying journalism and law at the University of Tennessee, he came to SMU to earn his doctorate in religious studies. “Religion is the foundation of all legal systems,” he said. “I found it fascinating in law school, and I wanted to pursue it.”

Texas Wesleyan contacted him about a professorship while he was still in the SMU program, and he soon found himself teaching courses in Fort Worth, including one about religion and cinema.

He became interested in making films after showing clips of movies to illustrate points in his lectures. “I saw the impact it had on my students,” he remembered. “I began exploring how to use visuals to illustrate concepts in the classroom.”

His first filmmaking effort, The Ritual of Life in India, played at WorldFest in 2011 and won a bronze Remi. “It was going to be a stand-alone effort,” he said. “But as I was piecing it together, I saw there was a great deal of potential.” That film now stands as the first of a seven-part series on religion.

The Embrace of a Loving God, which details the practices of Sufism (a more tolerant and mystical branch of Islam that includes the famous whirling Dervishes, whose dance is a form of religious ecstasy), is intended as the third chapter even though it’s his second film.

The films have been made with student crews, though Hanshaw cites the collaboration of Micah Brooks, a University of Santa Fe film graduate now studying at Wesleyan, as particularly valuable. Hanshaw’s former work as a reporter gave him some experience editing visual material and putting a story together, but learning to make films has involved “a lot of trial and error,” especially when it comes to taking students overseas.

The Embrace of a Loving God contains some breathtaking overhead shots of the city of Konya, Turkey, which were taken from a hot air balloon for tourists. He estimates the cost of making the two films at $25,000 total, and while he’s done some traditional fund-raising through private donors, he points out that he has avoided some costs by using the university’s production studio and editing facilities. “Our president and provost have been tremendous,” he said. “We enjoy great institutional support.”

Hanshaw is currently back in India working on the next installment of his series, focusing on Hindu temple worship. Future chapters will take him to China, and KERA-TV has expressed interest in airing the series after their vice presidents watched The Embrace of a Loving God. He has his eye on promoting interfaith relations, but he mainly hopes to advance our understanding of the world.

“We focus on our differences, but the more you study religion, the more you see overlap,” he said. “Our religious systems aren’t alien from one another. Religion informs so much of our lives, even if we’re not religious. I feel so privileged to bring this to these students.”
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Friday, May 25, 2012

Business of the Heart
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By Ibrahim Sajid Malick, *Sufism and the city* - The Express Tribune - Karachi, Pakistan; Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sufism and the city: Where else but in the world’s melting pot would you find a blend of Yoga and Sufi thought?

Completely exhausted and enervated three quarters into a 90-minute hot yoga workout, the voice of Kathryn Leary — an instructor at a Bikram Yoga facility in New York City reciting the great Sufi poet Rumi — invigorates and refreshes me. As the entire class lies on the floor focused on their breathing, Kathryn quotes from Rumi:

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor … Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Kathryn teaches more than Asanas — the physical exercise to optimise posture, endurance and strength. Like a good Sufi, she also encourages her students to open their heart to possibilities.

But before you make a mad dash to find a Sufi-Yogi hybrid, remember, she is still largely an exception! Most yoga instructors are extremely mechanical in their approach and act more like drill sergeants than mystical gurus.

With 18 million yogis spending nearly $6 billion annually, the business of meditation has undoubtedly reached an epochal moment in its deep engagement with mainstream America. Sufism, too, appears to be crossing the chasm to a more spacious public understanding of a once marginal group.

In the island of Manhattan, where I live, I can find more yoga studios than health clubs, and more people carrying yoga mats than any other sporting gear. The number of Sufi institutions has also grown — not nearly with the same pace, but nevertheless noticeably. Why is it, you may wonder, that the capital of materialism has taken to yoga? Physical and emotional health is, in my opinion, the main driver but there are a handful of yogis in New York seeking enlightenment as well.

Starting from when Parmahansa Yogananda came to America back in 1920, yoga has taken off in the United States for a variety of reasons.

In 1935, the Los Angeles Times reported on one of his lectures, saying: “The Philharmonic Auditorium presents the extraordinary spectacle of thousands … being turned away an hour before the advertised opening of a lecture with the 3,000-seat hall filled to its utmost capacity. Yogananda emphasised the underlying unity of the world’s great religions, and taught universally applicable methods for attaining direct personal experience of God.”

Since those early days, eastern mysticism has made a home for itself in the US.

Another spiritual teacher, Swami Rama, a family friend with whom I had an audience more than two decades ago, was also able to establish himself quickly in the US. Sent by his teacher who had taken him into the Himalayan Tradition of cave yogis at the age of three, Swami Rama came to the West with traditional teachings from the cave monasteries and Patanjali’s sutras. When his teacher, Bengali Baba, sent him on his mission to the West, Sri Swami Rama asked him what he was to teach Americans. “Teach them not to be afraid,” he was instructed.

Swami Rama worked with the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas. The Menninger experiments were deemed significant in the scientific community because it provided powerful support to biofeedback research. Swami Rama was able to demonstrate that body functions that had formerly been considered involuntary could be controlled through training the mind.

According to the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Americans practice yoga “for a variety of health conditions including anxiety disorders or stress, asthma, high blood pressure and depression. People also use Yoga as part of a general health regimen—to achieve physical fitness and to relax.”

And it is very consistent with my informal research of yogis — and I call it informal because my primary methodology was chatting with fellow yogis in and outside of the studios. I have heard everything: yoga improves mood and sense of well-being, reduces stress, heart rate and blood pressure, increases lung capacity, improves muscle relaxation and body composition, and positively affects levels of certain brain chemicals. Very few have said they are looking for nirvana.

Compare that to Sufism — pretty much everyone claims to be searching for the higher truth — to elevate consciousness — reparation of the heart from all else but God. My fellow Sufis in New York want to travel into the presence of the Divine and purify their inner self. But of course, there are exceptions to this rule as well.

Abdul Rahim, the secretary of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, tells me that people want to get to the “core” and build a direct relationship with God. He thinks that the increasing popularity of Sufism is also due to a rejection of “dogmatic” religion.

Sheikha Fariha al Jerrahi, who leads this community of dervishes, delivers a weekly lecture after Maghrib prayers every Thursday in downtown New York at the Dergah al Farah, in which people from all religious and even non-religious backgrounds participate. Some observe the ‘Zikr’, while others simply observe — and my own personal observation is that the crowd just keeps getting larger. This order has circles throughout the US and Mexico and allows entry to “seekers and students of all religious and non-religious paths.”

I ran into two Pakistani men at a Thursday Zikr session, both of whom confirmed that it’s the ‘progressive’ nature of worship that attracts them to this Sufi order. A young woman was called on to recite the Azaan before Maghrib and men and women stood side-by-side to offer prayers. I asked these Pakistani men if they would go to a mosque in their hometown of Karachi if the call for prayer was led by a woman and the response was inconclusive and hedged at best. It’s particularly telling that they didn’t want to be identified in this article because they didn’t want to be ostracised by their families and friends.

Both of these Pakistani men had come because Thursday Zikr at this downtown dargah is open to the public and anyone can join this interesting and rather musical session.

This open and inclusive approach is just another reason Sufism seems to be gaining currency in the US.

Many Americans are now familiar with the great Sufi mystic writer Rumi. His words of wisdom are found not only on Facebook pages and on Twitter but also in the cubicles of offices in corporate America.

Elliot Miller, who writes for the Christian Research Institute, states: “The current interest in Sufism can be largely explained by pointing to the same factors which account for the popularity of several diverse Eastern mystical traditions among Westerners. These factors include a hunger for life transforming spiritual experiences, and an attraction to monistic belief systems.”

British Orientalist Martin Lings comments: “A Vendantist, a Taoist or a Buddhist can find in many aspects of Islamic mysticism, a ‘home from home’, such as he could less easily find in Christianity or Judaism.”

Oprah Winfrey recently did Sufism a favour by including it in Super Soul Sunday on her OWN Network. Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee defined Sufism and explained why it’s about love and the heart. The fact that he was sitting under the oaks at Oprah’s home in California, was the best endorsement Sufism has had thus far.

I recently had a very interesting and candid conversation with Adnan Sarhan, the 80-year-old head of the Sufi Foundation in America. Hailing from Baghdad, he now teaches in New York, London, Paris and San Francisco as well as in his 40-acre Albuquerque, New Mexico, facility. When asked what Sufism is about, he replies: “It is about breathing, movement and heart.”

When the University of New Mexico asked him to teach a course on Sufism, he agreed but requested to change the title from ‘Sufism’ to ‘Dance’. “People lined up to take this ‘dance’ class- and I showed them how to control their body by mastering breathing techniques.” Many of his students eventually took a spiritual path after this gentle introduction.

Adnan drops a Hadith here and there and a Quranic verse enter his conversation every once in a while but his discourse is not specific to Islam. Religion, he says, is a code of conduct. It’s a matter of intellect, while Sufism is the business of the heart.

But Adnan has found a more grounded and perceptible technique for those of us who demand empirical evidence — he primarily dwells in the physicality of the practice. Instead of teaching mysticism, he demonstrates to his students how to control breathing to optimise flexibility of muscles, enhance postures and unleash creative potential. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of his followers are artists and dancers hoping to find a secret key that will take them to the top of their artistic ventures.

“Taking action is critical,” says Adnan. “It is more fun to dance, play sports and engage in physical activities rather than being lazy and inactive. Dance comes from the heart and it brings spirituality and peace. Dance is the yearning of the soul for freedom.”

Many cynics and puritans frown upon people like Bikram Chaudhry or Adnan Sarhan for making mysticism a consumer product — a kind of ‘McYoga’ or ‘McSufism’ for lack of a better term. But I personally believe a consumerist approach also makes these experiences accessible to mere mortals such as myself. And once you have that access and you take a step on this particular journey, who’s to say where it will lead you?

[Visit the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Community]

[Visit the Sufi Foundation of America].
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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Auspicious Occasion
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By Staff Reporter, *Iran participates in “National Seminar” on Sufi Saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti (RA)* - Islamic Republic News Agency - Tehran, Iran; Saturday, May 19, 2012

Iran participates in “National Seminar” on Sufi Saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti (RA)

New Delhi: The Islamic Republic of Iran Saturday participated in the “National Seminar” held on the auspicious occasion of the 800th anniversary of globally famous Sufi Saint and Mystic Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti which kicked off in New Delhi.

Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavipour, representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in India and Syed Mahdi Nabizadeh, Ambassador of Iran to India attended the day long seminar, organized by Universal Association for Spiritual Awareness (UASA), as “Chief Guests”.

Addressing the seminar, Mahdavipour threw light on this reality that Sufis and mystics who brought the message of peace of Islam on the territory of India with most of them belonging to Iran. These historical facts prove that India and Iran hold a place of golden history of cultural and social relations in the world which cannot be forgotten.

Describing Ghareeb Nawaz as a symbol of communal harmony, he said that teachings of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti will remain relevant for all times to come.

Towing the line of Mahdavipour, Mehdi Nabizadeh said: “India has always been the cradle of the free people and thinkers of many parts of the world and the Iranians like Hazeen Lahiji, Meer Syed Ali Hamadani, Qazi Noorullah Shustri and Moinuddin Chishti chose this country for their spiritual, moral and religious activities”.

He said that the fact is the sufis have played a valuable role in the progress of social norms of the people of this country from the point of culture and Persian language.

The Iranian official noted that it is a fact that Sufism is a historical heritage of Indian culture and it is the moral duty of every Indian to promote and preserve it.

"In India the followers of different religions co-exist in peace and harmony for centuries like a bouquet respecting the religious feelings of each others. This is being the historical heritage carried by Sufis and Saints which cannot be ignored," he added.

Speaking on the occasion, Kapil Sibal, Minister of Human Resource and Development and IT expressed his view in an emotional tone that Gharib Nawaz has been the sacred symbol of Indian secular culture. He still rules the hearts of the people even after passing 8 centuries since when he came to this territory as vicegerent of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) carrying the message of peace and humanity.

Without respecting the human values peace can’t be established. The humane and spiritual teachings of Gharib Nawaz under the light of Quran and Hadith guided the humanity to live in peace and brotherhood, he added.

Sibal also announced that on this auspicious occasion the government will soon release the posting stamp on Khwaja at the spiritual capital of India, Ajmer in Rajasthan State.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Special Prayers
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By Staff Reporter, *Shah Inayat Qadri’s urs starts* - Pakistan Daily Times - Lahore, Pakistan; Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shah Inayat Qadri’s Urs starts

Lahore: The three-day annual Urs of Hazrat Hafiz Muhammad Inayatllah Shah Qadri Shatari, teacher of renowned Sufi saint Bulleh Shah and popularly known as Shah Inayat Qadri, began at Queens’ Road on Friday.

Provincial Minister for Auqaf and Religious Affairs Haji Ehsanuddin Qureshi inaugurated the urs celebrations by laying a traditional chadar on the shrine.

Officers of the Auqaf Department and a large number of devotees were also present on the occasion. They also offered special prayers for the development, progress and stability of country.

The Punjab Auqaf Department had allocated Rs 66,000 for expenditures of urs and provision of Langar (free meal) for visitors and devotees. Later, a special Mehfil-e-Samaa (spiritual singing ceremony) was held at the shrine in which prominent qawwal and other folk singers participated.

Shah Inayat, generally known as Shah Inayat Qadri, was born in Kasur around three hundred years ago in an Arain family. He studied Persian and Arabic as per the tradition of local education system of the time. He was a student of a famous Sufi scholar and saint, Muhammad Ali Raza Shattari.

After he finished his studies, he was nominated a Khalifa of his teacher Hazarat Shattari. Later on he received the khilafat of seven other sub-sects of Sufi Qadri order. Soon after, he migrated to Lahore where he started his own school of Sufism. Baba Bulleh Shah was one of his prominent students.

In wake of terrorist activities and poor law and order situation across the country, local police had taken strict security measures to avoid any unpleasant incident during the urs celebrations and gathering of devotees.

The celebrations would continue for the next two days.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shower of Flowers
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By Kshitiz Gaur, *Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty formally begins* - The Times of India - India; Friday, May 18, 2012

Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty formally begins

Ajmer: The 800th Urs of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty began formally on Thursday evening though the actual rituals will begin only after the sighting of the moon tentatively on May 21.

Thousands of devotees march amid the playing of musical bands and shower of flowers and confetti towards the main Nazim gate of the dargah during the hoisting of the traditional flag brought by the Gori family from Bhiwara for the Urs. The procession of the flag started from the dargah guest house.

Large number of devotees from different parts of the country gathered in the dargah region to participate in the march of hosting the flag. Just after the 'Aser ki namaz', there was a celebration with musical bands playing and Qawals singing Sufi songs. Sayeed Abrar Ahemad led the Sufi Qawalis procession and the devotees were eagerly touching the Urs flag.

As per the tradition, Fakhruddin Gori held the flag and marched towards the main gate of dargah. The whole route was crowded with devotees. The procession went thorugh Mustafa market, Phool gali, and reached Nizam gate where the flag was hosted at Buland darwaza.

With the formal beginning of Urs, the timing of dargah will change from Friday for devotees, "There will be no prayers in afternoon as it will be offered at 8 in the evening. After the moon sighting, the rituals of Urs will start," said Kutubdin Sakhi, a khadim. He added that from the next day of moon sighting, the 'jannati darwaza' will be open for devotees.

Considering the large number of devotees coming to attend the Urs, the district administration has started implementing its plan for elaborate security arrangements. About 4,000 extra police force will be deployed in the region during Urs. Four circles are also defined for security reasons. "About 19 ASP, 45 DySP and 23 Inspector rank officials are called from the police headquarters for the Urs" an official said. Besides, police force from the police lines is also deputed.

There will be 36 CCTV actively capturing activities both inside and outside the dargah to catch suspicious moves during the Urs. Police are also checking guest houses and hotels to verify people lodged there. The district magistrate deputed a zonal magistrate in the region to maintain law and order.

Railways has also started six Urs special trains connecting Barauni, New Jalpaigudi, Satragachi, Hyderabad and other places to Ajmer. The state roadways are also looking for the good business during the Urs.

On other hand, devotees from different part of the country came here through private buses and were staying at Pushkar and Kayar Vishram Sthalis. "Drinking water and sanitation are the main facilities which we are providing on these places for devotees," a municipal official said. Parking facilities for about 3,000 vehicles are made on different vishram stalis for the devotees coming to attend the Urs.

[Picture: Inside Dargah Sharif. Photo: Wiki.]
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Monday, May 21, 2012

Another Way of Seeing
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By Keri Rursch, *Augustana professor authors book on Sufi poetry* - Augustana College - Rock Island, IL, USA; Friday, May 18, 2012

Augustana professor authors book on Sufi poetry: Professor's book helps clear up misunderstandings about Muslim poetry

Rock Island, Ill. – University of South Carolina Press has published Dr. Cyrus Zargar's book Sufi Aesthetics: Beauty, Love, and the Human Form in the Writings of Ibn 'Arabi and 'Iraqi.

Dr. Zargar, an assistant professor of religion at Augustana, offers an approach to understanding Muslim mystics and perceiving divine beauty and human beauty as one reality.

Dr. Zargar specializes in Islamic studies. His new book helps readers better interpret the love poetry of classical Muslim society. In fact, he wrote this book as a response to misunderstandings of Sufi love poetry.

According to Dr. Zargar, Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam that has been far more popular and influential historically than most people think. Despite the popularity of Sufi love poets such as Rumi, the poetic expressions of Sufi's have often been misunderstood as allegorical or a system of codes waiting to be translated.

"I hope that people who read this book can appreciate another way of seeing the physical world; physical beauty, including the beauty of human beings, can have divine meaning," said Dr. Zargar. "It is not about codes. Rather, it is about seeing the divine in things themselves."

For Dr. Zargar, the appeal of Sufi poetry stems from the fact that it never loses relevance. "If you can take pleasure in thinking deeply about God, the soul or the relationship between the two, then you will find much in Sufi writings," he said. "Sufi writings can be like rooms filled with treasures for thought."

Dr. Zargar received his bachelor's from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and his doctorate from the University of California Berkeley. He has had articles published in the Journal of Arabic Literature and the Encyclopedia Iranica.

For more information, please contact Keri Rursch, director of public relations, at kerirursch@augustana.edu or (309) 794-7721.

Image from Amazon.
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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Peace Is the Precondition
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By TCN News, *MSO holds annual meet in Ajmer, vows to work for peace in society* - Two Circles Net - Cambridge, MA, USA; Thursday, May 17, 2012

MSO holds annual meet in Ajmer, vows to work for peace in society

Ajmer: Muslim Students Organization of India MSO, an apex body of Sufi oriented Muslim youths organised its annual general meeting at Ajmer Shareef where various burning Muslim issues including education, employment, Terrorism, Extremism were discussed.

The Meeting was attended by various dignitaries of national level and from Dargah Ajmer Shareef.

The two-day convention started on 16th May. The State committees of almost all the states of the country participated in which Babar Ashraf, National Secretary of All India Ulema and Mashaikh Board gave a brief description of the current scenario of Sufism which is “facing threat because of the intolerant, extremist infamous Wahabi ideology which is getting a space among peaceful traditional Indian Muslims indoctrinating wrong beliefs which is against the beliefs of Sunni Sufi Community who represents majority of Muslims in India.”

He further emphasized that it’s the need of hour especially “to the young to come forward and strive hard to combat Wahabi menace and contribute to deliver the true and peaceful message of Islam so that the coming generation may play a vital role to form a Peaceful developing nation as Peace is the precondition for development.”

Director of Sunni Markaz, Calicut, Kerala Dr. Abdul Hakeem Azhari asked the youths to first learn and develop character to serve mankind. In all the societies, Islam must be preached in most tolerant manner. “Our duty is to spread this message of Islam to save humanity from darkness.”

They decided that MSO and SSF (Sunni Students Federation) will strive hard to spread this message among the youths in Universities and colleges from July across the country.

MSO National president Syed Muhammad Quadri conducted special class on Purification of the heart. He told the youths that our heart must be clear from all evils and self egos. Our services should be without self interest. Today society needs peace of mind and humane touch. We can win the heart of society through selfless and love based services. To serve humankind is true message of Islam.

Dr. Sarwar Razwi Alig from Allahabaad, Shahnawaz Warsi, Gen Secretary of MSO, Shujaat Ali Quadri, National Secretary, Er Abdul Raoof, SSF Convener Banglore, Zuhairuddin Noorani from West Bengal also spoke on the occasion.

The Meet was inaugurated by Dr. Wahid Hussain Chishti, Secretary of Dargah Committee. Mohammad Habeeb Khan Member of Rajastahn Public Service Commission also encouraged the youths to work hard in their education.

Picture: Syed Dr. Wahid Chishti Sahi (Secretary of Dargah Ajmer Shareef) inaugurating the National delegates conference.
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Not Because We Worship It
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By Hadeel Al Shalchi, *With state weak, Libyans look to God for help* - Reuters - U.S.A./Libya; Wednesday, May 16, 2012

With state weak, Libyans look to God for help

Mohamed Salem believes it was divine intervention that saved the Muslim holy site where he works from being destroyed.



In early March, word reached the keepers of the ornate shrine, the most important of its kind in Libya, that ultra-conservative Salafis were on their way to destroy it as part of a campaign to wipe out any symbols they see as idolatrous.

The curators sent for help. Volunteer militia units came from nearby towns. They surrounded the shrine complex - which houses the tomb of the 15th-century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar - with pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft weapons, and waited to repel the attack.

Then a sandstorm, rare at that time of year, whipped up and shrouded the mosque from view. The attack never came.

"The dust was so thick and the wind so strong you couldn't see your hand in front of you," said Salem, a caretaker and religious teacher at the complex. "God protected the grave of this scholarly man and protected us from harm."

Since last year's revolt ended Muammar Gaddafi's 42-year rule over Libya, people have grown used to looking to their own resources, or to God, to help them out, because they feel they cannot count on their government.

The struggle over this shrine in Zlitan, about 160 km (90 miles) west of the Libyan capital, is the story of Libya as it struggles to re-shape itself after Gaddafi's rule.

It is the story of the battle for the right to define what it means to be a Muslim in Libya, of theological arguments being settled by weapons, and of an interim government that is so weak that it cannot impose its authority over opposing factions.

The ending has not yet been written.

The conflict over the al-Asmar tomb and hundreds of other shrines like it has not been resolved. Instead, the National Transitional Council (NTC) has postponed a decision by ordering that all the shrines be closed until it decided on a way out.

"We are keeping this subject on hold," said NTC spokesman Mohammed al-Harizy. "We have other subjects which are more important than the graves right now."

HOLY BOOK

One afternoon in March, Salem unlocked and pushed open the door to the shrine, at the centre of the complex which also includes a school and a mosque.

A burst of incense and musk greeted him as he slipped off his slippers and muttered a short prayer before entering the cool room.

The coffin of al-Asmar stood inside, covered with Turkish rugs and surrounded by intricate blue and white mosaic patterns on the wall.

Students from all over Libya come to study Islamic law and to memorize the Islamic holy book, the Koran, at the university and school built around the shrine. Now, numbers are down.

In the school halls, the voices of young boys and girls echo in unison.

"We usually have 600 girls a day come to memorize Koran, but the parents are now afraid the Salafis will attack so only 100 show up," said teacher Wafa al-Ati.

Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam, dates back to the faith's early days. Apart from the standard prayers, Sufi devotions include singing hymns, chanting the names of God or dancing to heighten awareness of the divine.

Sufis also build shrines to revered holy men and scholars and make pilgrimages to them. There are hundreds of the shrines all over Libya. Even Gaddafi, with his ambivalent attitude to religion, did not try to interfere in a practice that is so deep-seated in Libyan culture.

But since the end of Gaddafi's rule, a new trend has emerged to challenge Sufi traditions.

Under Gaddafi's rule, many Salafis were jailed for their beliefs and those not imprisoned spent years avoiding any outward manifestation of their beliefs.

Files from Gaddafi's internal security agency, seen by Reuters after the revolt, show there was a special department set up to track hardline Islamists. Anyone suspected of affiliation was denied the right to travel abroad, enroll in university or take public sector jobs.

Since that system of repression collapsed, Salafis have become emboldened. Some have acquired weapons and used them to enforce their ultra-purist view of Islam.

The Salafis believe Islam should be followed in the simple, ascetic form practiced by the Prophet Mohammed and his disciples. Any later additions to the faith -- including tombs or lavish grave markings - are viewed by them as idolatry.

They have alarmed many secularist Libyans by trying to enforce their strict moral code. The Salafis have burned down halls were parties are held and harassed women who do not cover their heads.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, organizers of a rap concert featuring a famous Tunisian artist were forced to cancel the event after being threatened by a Salafi brigade called Libya's Shield.

Worried that the Salafis would attack their joyful annual parades to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad's birthday in February, Sufi mosques sought safety in numbers and held a joint procession in Tripoli's walled old city. The event, which Salafis also consider idolatrous, went off without incident.

The main front in their campaign has been their attacks on Sufi shrines, which are a traditional part of Libyan Islam. Dozens have been demolished all around the country and the bodies of their holy men dug up and dumped elsewhere.

The defenders of the shrine in Zlitan believe a Salafi militia, called the Thalath Salafi brigade, was behind the aborted attack on the complex.

The brigade is stationed in a former military base in the nearby town of Khoms. Commanders declined an interview with Reuters but in March, a spokesman addressed an angry crowd calling for their departure from the town.

"Having any sign or tomb marking a grave is a form of infidelity and must be removed," said the spokesman for the brigade, Jalal al-Gheit. "We prefer to call it a reorganization of the graves."

The evidence of the Salafi campaign can be seen at what remains of the Sidi Gibran shrine, also in Zlitan.

Large concrete pieces attached to metal wires dangle from where the roof used to be. A hole filled with rubble remains where the grave of the holy man, after whom the shrine is named, was dug up.

The shrine's caretaker, who lives nearby, said he witnessed the desecration one afternoon when he heard the rumble of a tractor outside his house.

"I walked out and was surprised to see 16 bearded Salafis carrying Kalashnikovs, and breaking the tomb using a Caterpillar tractor," said Faraj al-Shimi. "They all ran away when I threatened to call the police."

He said that the complaint he filed four months ago was still pending.

MUDDLE AND INDECISION

The NTC has a lot on its plate trying to run a country that, since Gaddafi's downfall, has been floating on a wave of hope and optimism but at the same time often seems close to slipping into chaos.

It is only beginning to build a state army and police force. There are still armed militias that answer only to their own commanders and refuse to disarm. It is trying to organize the country's first election next month.

That may partly explain why the official response to the crisis has been characterized by muddle and indecision. There is also confusion at the top of the religious hierarchy, where some officials seem to be theologically closer to the Salafis than Libya's traditional Sufi-inspired Islam.

Back in November last year, Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani, Libya's highest ranking Islamic scholar, who carries the NTC's endorsement, issued a religious decree declaring that it was forbidden to desecrate graves.

But he was also reported to have remarked that the time for such action was not ripe, a comment nervous Sufis took as a sign his defense of shrines might not be as strong as it might seem.

In March, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil met the mufti and representatives of Libya's Sufi and Salafi camps. Salem, the curator of Zlitan's al-Asmar shrine, was at the meeting. He said he asked for security for the complex.

Instead, the issue was fudged. Salem said he left the meeting with an order from Abdel Jalil to shutter the tomb and wait for further notice. "We received no security," he said.

Since then, official institutions have been passing the buck. The NTC said it is waiting for the mufti to make a decision on the religious legality of the grave sites. And the mufti's office told Reuters it is waiting for the NTC to make a final decision.

Harizy, the NTC spokesman, said the quarrel was all part of a natural evolution for Libya.

"Libyan people are used to working in secret, so no one knows who's who," Harizy said. "So we have to open the door for everybody to express his opinion and to try to bring the Islam which is moderate."

In the meantime, caretakers at the al-Asmar shrine have the more immediate concern of how to stop the complex from being destroyed by Salafis, without help from the state.

For the past few weeks, the complex has organized an armed brigade of 30 to 40 volunteers from Zlitan who stand guard at the tomb.

"We are not protecting this tomb because we worship it," said Salem. "We protect it because it is a part of our heritage and culture."

(Additional Reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla; Editing by Christian Lowe, Tom Heneghan and Sonya Hepinstall).
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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Innocent Pawns
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By Sohail Hashmi, *Heritage encroached* - The Hindu -India; Saturday, May 12, 2012

Heritage encroached: The controversy over the camping of Myanmar refugees in a protected area in Delhi has several dimensions, the most important being that the land is home to a 13th Century mausoleum for Altamash's son, the second to be built in the Indian subcontinent.

The first monumental mausoleum built in the Indian subcontinent belongs to Qutub-ud-Din Aibak, built in 1210, it is to be found at the bustling Anarkali Bazar in Lahore. The second, the Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi

Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood was governor of Bengal, then known as Lakhnauti, and was killed there, his body was brought to Delhi and Altamash started building the mausoleum to his beloved son. What stands today is an incomplete structure because the octagonal platform atop the grave was clearly meant to be built over. Had Altamash not died within five years of his son's death a dome would probably have come up above the platform with a cenotaph as is the pattern repeated in all monumental mausoleums.

The structure that looks like a small fortress with its four bastions, one at each corner, is popularly known as Sultan Garhi. This is a corruption of the original Sultan-e-Ghaari (the king of the cave) so called because the original grave is located in a kind of a crypt that one has to climb into.

Over the centuries the mausoleum has come to be venerated by the local population as the shrine of a Sufi or Peer. This conversion of a dead prince into a Sufi is strangely responsible for the preservation of this remarkable structure and is now the cause of its encroachment and this is the dilemma that conservationists face in preserving what are known as living monuments.

The graves of Nasir-ud-Din's brothers Ruknuddin Feroze Shah and Muizzudin Bahram Shah, a stone inscription that mentions the building of a water tank in 1361 and a mosque probably dating to the time of Firoze Tughlaq and the ruins of an old village that was inhabited till 1947 are other structures that lie scattered about this 30 acre piece of land under the protection of the ASI.

The village that grew around the mausoleum was a Muslim majority village and those that lived in the ruins that lie scattered were either consumed by the madness of the times or those who were lucky escaped, virtually by the skin of their teeth. The mausoleum remained because it had come to be venerated, both by the Hindus and the Muslims.

Post 1947 the locals, now almost exclusively Hindus, continued to flock here every Thursday, gradually as things settled down some Muslims too started coming here and so an ASI protected monument, recently preserved through ASI-INTACH joint effort, was gradually being turned into the shrine of a non-existent Sufi. Some had even begun to present the joint ownership as a fine example of communal harmony

It would have continued to lead its obscure existence, probably one day quietly turning into a shrine just as many other monuments have in Delhi, turning into temples or mosques or Sufi shrines with local politicians lending support to encroachers and conservationists eventually reconciling to losing one more part of a heritage that no one seems to be too worried about. This well established routine has however been disrupted through the intervention of a new player, the arrival of more than a 1000 refugees from Myanmar, the erstwhile Burma.

Why the refugees from Myanmar are camping here is a strange story of callousness and apathy that this city exhibits on a fairly regular basis. The Myanmar refugees were initially camping in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Vasant Vihar. They were demanding that they be recognized as refugees and be given that status, the UNHCR was taking his time, such bodies always do.

Meanwhile, the residents of Vasant Vihar, who did not like so many hungry and ill clad people crowding their neighbourhood complained. The voices of the complainants were heard with alacrity. Such voices are always heard with alacrity. Had the same alacrity been shown to solve the problems of the refugees they would have been taken to a place where they would not be exposed to the elements, but the idea was to remove them from Vasant Vihar and then when they were out of sight things could go back to routine.

Unfortunately things show no signs of going back to normal, the villagers who venerate the non-existent Sufi have threatened action if these people are not moved out by May 15 and they have been promised results by that date. Meanwhile, an uneasy peace prevails with a police picket in position keeping the curious away and no one seems to be asking the questions that need to be asked.

Who told the Myanmar refugees about this place, who told them that they could shift there, who arranged the shift, who gave the permission. Did anyone bother to ask the ASI or the National Heritage Commission? Is this another encroachment being orchestrated with the poor refugees being innocent pawns, just as poor migrants have been used on earlier occasions in other parts of the city.

Picture: The Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi. Photo: V. V. Krishnan.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Dream Still Exists
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By Terry Gross/WHYY, *Creating A New Vision Of Islam In America* - Vermont Public Radio - USA; Thursday, May 10, 2012

Creating a New Vision of Islam in America

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading moderate Muslim leader in the U.S., was once the lead cleric associated with the proposed Islamic community center some critics called the "ground zero mosque."

In late 2010, a debate over the location of the community center, now called the Cordoba House, became a contentious issue during the midterm elections.

During the debate, Rauf was called a "radical Muslim" and a "militant Islamist" by critics of the proposed community center. He was accused of sympathizing with the Sept. 11 hijackers and having connections to Hamas.

"For those who actually know or have worked with the imam, the descriptions are frighteningly — indeed, depressingly — unhinged from reality," political reporter Sam Stein wrote last August for The Huffington Post. "The Feisal Abdul Rauf they know spent the past decade fighting against the very same cultural divisiveness and religious-based paranoia that currently surrounds him."

In his new book, Moving the Mountain, Rauf details the events in his own life that have shaped his religious philosophy. He also recounts the struggle to build the Lower Manhattan community center, which was designed to bring together Muslims with people from other religions.

"That was my goal," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "because the world needs that today. Now, what happened at that time clearly wasn't the perfect solution, and what happened did not reflect my dream or my purpose in the right way. But the dream still exists and continues to exist."

A Moderate Voice In America

Rauf was born in Kuwait to Egyptian parents and spent his early childhood in Malaysia. At 16, he moved with his parents to New York City, where his father had been asked to establish an Islamic center of worship. It was the middle of the 1960s, when the counterculture was in full swing and the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states had created a growing divide between Jews and Muslims.

Rauf, who was attending Columbia University at the time, recalls it being a difficult time for young Arabs in New York City.

"Many of my schoolmates at Columbia were Jewish. I made many good friends among them, but we had moments of difficulty in those discussions," he says. "And [it made me realize] how the politics in the Middle East had poisoned and continued to poison, to this day, the relationship between Muslims and Jews. It was a painful aspect of that period of my life, but it also shaped it in important ways in terms of wanting to understand it and seeing how we can be a factor for positive change."

After leaving Columbia, Rauf became a public high school teacher in the New York City school system for several years. But he couldn't shake the thought that he was missing his calling.

"I even knew, when I was coming on the ship from Egypt to the United States — I had this interior voice in my heart telling me that my role would be to introduce Islam to America in an American vernacular, in an American vocabulary," he says.

Rauf served as the imam of the al-Farah mosque in New York City from 1983 to 2009. For the past two decades, he has argued that Islam supports both religious tolerance and equality for women, and has worked to strengthen moderate voices with the Muslim world.

"I believe we are part of a growing global chorus," he says. "And I know for a fact that moderates exist everywhere, in every tradition and in every political environment. There are moderates in Israel. There are moderates in Iran, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party. And what we need to do is link all of these moderates together and figure out a way that this coalition can speak to important issues to marginalize the voice of the extremists."


[Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America
Publisher: Free Press (May 8, 2012)
Click HERE to look Inside the book]
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Burying the Hatchets
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By Ruslan Kurbanov, *Dagestani Muslims: From Confrontation to Peace* - OnIslam.net - Egypt - Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dagestani Muslims: From Confrontation to Peace

Dagestan is the most unique region of Russia located between Caspian sea and Chechnya. Beginning from the moment of its being part of Russia 200 years ago till now, it has continued to impact very seriously on social and political processes of all Caucasian region. During all this period Dagestani Muslims have been trendsetters for their neighbors in the matters of Islam, Shariah, war and peace.

Religious and Ethnic Structure

First of all, Dagestan, with its 3 million population, is the most Islamized region of Russia. The process of spreading Islam has begun here since 642 AD, in the period of Caliph Umar, when the Muslim army occupied Derbent (or Bab aul-Abwab) - the biggest Dagestan city of that time.

Throughout its Muslim history, Dagestan has turned to be a center of Islamic knowledge, science and enlightenment. But in the Soviet period all Islamic heritage and potential of Dagestan to a great extent has been terminated. Nevertheless, the booming process of Islamic revival in Dagestan started immediately after the collapse of the USSR

Second, Dagestan, being the biggest Caucasian region within Russia, has the most complicated ethnic structure. According to the specialists, about 40 native indigenous tribes live in Dagestan: Avars, Dargins, Lezgis, Kumyks, Laks, Tabasarans, Noghays, Rutuls, Aghuls and others. The biggest Dagestani tribe is Avars (about 800 thousand people). The population of smallest tribes like Archis, Gunzibs, Ginukhs consist only of one village (about 500 people).

Third, the Muslim society of Dagestan is extremely heterogeneous. Among Dagestani Muslim communities with longest history can be named Sufis, Salafis and Fuqaha of Imam ash-Shafi’i Madhab. The community of Islamic reformers who follow the ideas of Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Rashid Rida, Muhammad Abduh appeared here about a hundred years ago.

Today the number of new Muslim communities is continuing to grow. They include jamaats of Ikhwan ul-Muslimeen, Hizb ut-Tahrir, at-Tabligh, Said Nursi and so on. But the most influential communities till now are Sufis and Salyafis. Yet even these two communities are not homogeneous too.

As for Sufi community, there are three Tariqahs in Dagestan – Naqshbandiyah, Qadiriya and Shaziliyah. Every big Dagestan tribe has its own Sufi sheikhs, but with no recognition for each other. The main groups within Salafi community are Salafiya al-Jihadiya and Salafiya ad-Da’wiya.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Dagestan Muslims have gained wide freedom in organizing their religious activity, building Mosques, going for Hajj or traveling abroad for Islamic education. But some kinds of religious activities in Dagestan still remain restricted, such as the idea of establishing political Islamic parties or establishing alternative spiritual boards on Muslim affairs.

It’s worthwhile to say that the Sufi community has managed to control the official spiritual board of Dagestani Muslims during post-Soviet period, and has worked very close with the government. As for the Salafi community, on the contrary, it has been oppressed. In Dagestani constitution till now there is a law which prohibits “the Wahhabism and other extremist activity”.

Ideological struggle

The key moment in understanding the Dagestani realities is that during last 20 years after the collapse of the USSR the ideological struggle between Sufi and Salafi communities, according to some experts, has led Dagestan to the brink of latent civil war.

During the 20 years of confrontation between two communities many spiritual and political leaders of Dagestan have been killed, like Dagestani Mufti Sayyid Muhammad Abubakarov, first Russian to have obtained PhD in Shariah Murtaza, Ali Muhammadov, deputies to the Mufti, Ahmad Tagaev and Kura-Muhammad Ramazanov, Interior Minister Adilghirey Muhammad, Tahirov, two ministers for national and religious affairs Muhammad Salih Gusaev and Zahir Arukhov, hundreds of Imams, policemen and secret service officers.

The direct consequence of this conflict was the appearance of militant Jihadi groups which aim to destroy the secular political system of Dagestan and to establish an Islamic emirate on the territory of Northern Caucasus. Everyday clashes between these groups and police result in series of suicide bombing attacks in Dagestan and even in Moscow, in addition to kidnappings and executions of Muslim leaders, which has become a usual practice in the region.

In the heat of this struggle the two communities have blamed each other and accused each other of kufr (disbelief) bidaat (heresy) and “spoiling the pure Islam”. During these years the Dagestani officials, NGO’s leaders and some representatives of both communities have tried to bring the parties to the negotiating table. But all these previous attempts have failed.

Last two years the Salafi community has rapidly grown and intensified its activity. For example the leaders of Salyafi community have established an Association of Ahlu s-Sunnah wa l-Jamaah Ulama, taken part in organizing three protests which attracted thousands of people to denounce the extra-judicial prosecution of Salafi Muslims by the authorities. The community has also prepared a set of requirements to authorities including abrogation of “anti-Wahhaby law”, permission to Salafi community to establish their own mosques, madrasahs, university and media.

The way to peace

Everyday clashes between these groups and police result in series of suicide bombing attacks in Dagestan and even in Moscow

During these two last years Dagestan government has made several serious steps aimed to put an end to this tension, as well as meeting some of the requirements put forward by the Salafi community.. In addition the Dagestani Mufti Ahmad Abdullaev has appealed to all Dagestani Muslims to stop “pining labels on each others”

“Everyone who obeys the Shariah should follow as-Salaf as-Saliheen, should consider himself from Ahlu s-Sunnah and be a Murid in the way of serving Allah,” said Mufti.

Moreover the Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims has liquidated its department on religious expertise of Islamic books, audio and videos production which during last years has cracked dow on what it termed as Wahhaby propaganda”. In addition to that, at the end of April, 2012 the leaders of Salafi and Sufi communities of Dagestan have met in the Central Mosque of Dagestan capital, Makhachkala, for burying the hatchets.

This meeting can be described as historical because of the past 20- year ideological struggle and tension between the two communities. At this meeting the Salafi and Sufi communities’ leaders managed to reach an agreement on stopping the ideological confrontation.

In his opening address at the meeting, Dagestani Mufti Ahmad Abdullaev declared: “Today’s meeting proves that Dagestan is the land of Allah’s grace. Our ancestry always had courage to fight for Islam and now we should have courage to sit around negotiating table and remove disagreements between Muslim communities of Dagestan”.

At the end of the meeting the leaders of two communities adopted a common resolution presented by the Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims and Association of Ahlu s-Sunnah wa l-Jamaah Ulama. Highly featuring in this document are the phrases like “compliance with the Qur’an and Sunnah”, “following the four Imams of Muslim Ummah – Abu Hanifa, Malik, ash-Shafi’i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal”.

The leader of the Association of Ahlu s-Sunnah wa l-Jamaah Ulama Halil-Rahman Shamatov believes that “the results of this meeting will appear in the nearest future”. “We have outlined the complex of problems and we’ll solve them step by step,” said Shamatov.

The Imam of the Central Mosque of Makhachkala Muhammad-Rasul Saaduev thinks that “this meeting will help to overcome existing disagreement between Dagestani Muslims”. “We have agreed to work together in order to bring peace, stability and prosperity to Dagestan,” he said.

As for Dagestani Minister for National and Religious Affairs Bekmurza Bekmurzaev at the end of that meeting he expressed assurance that “Dagestani Muslims will come to the accord”. The President of Dagestan Magomed-Salam Magomedov also supports this peacemaking process. “We need in joint efforts of all social, ethnic and social groups to defeat an evil, - he said, - Only by this way we can ensure peace and order in Dagestan”.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Great Female Scholars
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By Evelyn Osagie, *Northern women scholars in pre-colonial Nigeria*- The Nation - Matori, Mushin, Lagos State, Nigeria; Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Northern women scholars in pre-colonial Nigeria

Many Nigerian women contributed to the socio-political and economic development of the country. Sadly, oftentimes, while celebrating achievers, these women are scarcely mentioned, women rights advocates have said.

They argue that historians and scholars must start exposing women contributions in our historical milieu.

One good way to go about it, according to them, is to bring to the fore the contributions of women, especially those from the north. A major northern women’s advocate is Mallam Futuhu. He urged historians to celebrate the achievement of women scholars in pre-colonial northern Nigeria.

His view on the issue, published online, are currently igniting debates at intellectual circles within and outside the country. According to him, evidences abound of great women scholars who have made historical strides.

Historians, he said, have not done justice to women from the northern part of the country, adding that they have been relegated in historical works.

Futuhu said: "Northern women’s contribution in scholarship is usually relegated, neglected and, oftentimes, reduced to footnote in most intellectual history I have come across. ADH Vibar and Mervin Hiskett, whose works in the 60s was on Northern Nigerian intellectual history, did not mention any great woman scholar, either in Yandoto, Gobarau, Danranko or Madabo schools, despite the fact that, there are many.

"It was only John Hunwick’s and Hamid Bobboyi’s work: Arabic literary tradition in Northern Nigeria, that gave us a little glimpse of some great female scholars."

To further explain his point, he named 10 great women scholars of pre-colonial Northern Nigeria whose works are notable among the northern scholars. However, he said, the list may not mean his list is absolute. "Anyone can come up with his own list," he said.

First on his list is Fatima Dukku. According to him, "She was among the entourage of Wangarawa who arrived in Kano, during the reign of Muhammad Rumfa in 15th Century circa."
Dukku (sometime Tukku) was said to be a great scholar. Some sources said she was a saint (waliyya). For more on her vide, there are some notes on Wangarawa coming to Kano, by Love and Joy. Asl al Wangariyun, by M A Alhaj, Hausawa da Makwabtansu, by Dokaji Abubakar, and I'ilan bi Tarikh Kano, by Malam Adamu na Ma'aji," he wrote.

Next is Ruqayya Fallatiya. "Hunwick made mention of her as the author of the famous song; Ummul Yatim (aka; Alkarimun Yaqbal). Some historians also said she was the author of famous Qawa'idi. She was the wife of Muhammad Fodio al Akbar (not the father of Usman Danfodio, probably the great grandfather, and teacher of Alkashnawi and Muhammad Na wali). She may have lived in 16th Century and died in the early 17th Century," according to him.

Raliya, whose surname was not mentioned, is next on the list. According to him, "She is one of the few women who thrive in Yandoto School. She is said to have authored some poems and a book on epistemology. Her works are not extent; this might be as a result of conquest of Yandoto, by Muhammad Bello (Sultan), in the early 19th century."

Nana Asma'u bint Fodio, he noted, is the most famous scholar among all the female scholars of central Sudan. "She authored 38 works in her life time. Her works include poetry and prose, on grammar, syntax, spiritualism, wa'az, medicine, among others. Her outstanding contribution was on her Yantaru School initiative, where less privilege and slave women were educated.

Many illiterate women, benefited from her mass literacy programme. Vide; One Woman Jihad by B Mark and Jean boyd. See also Some collected works of Nana Asma'u, by B Marks," he stated.
Amina Bint Adeh, according to him, is a great scholar and Sufist. "She was said to be the liaison officer of Usman Danfodio in the spiritual palace of Sidi Abdulqadir Jelani. Nana Asma'u made mention of her in her Tawassali ga mata masu albarka. Hunwick also, in Arabic literary tradition.

Goggo Zaituna is next. He noted that she was born in Adamawa at the time of Lamido Zubayr. "She was said to be a great islamic jurist. In her time, she trained many reknown Qadhis in Adamawa."

Maimunatu Binta Qadhi Bazarin, according to him, was a jurist, grammarian and sufist. Born in Jibiya, Katsina State, she died in 1906, at the age of 80. "She authored some books, both in prose and poetry. She was the founder of famous Jibiya Islamiyya School, which is noted for teaching the children and women."

Sheikh al Qariyya, he observed, was an Algerian, who resided in Kano, at the end of the 19th Century. "Qariyya's original name was Rakiyya, she was called Qarriyya, because it was believed there is no door of the degree of Suffism that she did not knock and open. She was the teacher and initiator of many Kano Sufi scholars, including: al Qalansuwi (Shehu mai hula), Malam Ibrahim Natsugunne, the father of Sheikh Nasiru Kabara, Malam Bako Sufi, and Malam Tijjani Zangon bare-bari. She later went to Medina and died there."

Fatuhu also named Hajiya Hassana Sufi, an educationist and Arabicist of her own right, who died last year, "she was the headmistress of Hassana sufi women Islamiyya School in Kankarofi quarters, Kano. Hajiya Hassana was the author of many books."

Miriam bint al Sheikh is last on the list. She is popularly known as Shekara, according to some historians. "She was the originator of Gidan Sarki Islamiyya School. A daughter of Usman Danfodio and wife of Ibrahim Dabo (second Fulani Emir of Kano). Her famous works, which is still Wasiqa ila Amir Kano, Min amr Mahdi. She seems to outlive most of her sisters. Waziri Bukhari made mention of her in his famous poem Wakar Buhari, as a Saint.
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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Music Beneath the Words
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By H. Talat Halman, *Book Review: “Celebrating Divine Presence: Journeys into God” (Laurent Weichberger, ed.)* - The American Muslim - Bridgeton, MO, USA - Sunday, May 6, 2012

“Celebrating Divine Presence: Journeys into God”: A Happy Blending of the Head and the Heart

“Celebrating Divine Presence” is a book that aims to—and in so many ways succeeds at—revitalizing our experience of all religions by bringing them together as “beads on one string,” to quote the words of the twentieth-century spiritual master Meher Baba. In these chapters, the authors, all practitioners, and many scholarly, invite you into their personal faith journeys. The tone of this book is personal and conversational, while also featuring in-depth studies of ten religious traditions. This book represents a happy balance of the heart (personal experience and autobiographical narrative) and the mind (rigor in fidelity and creativity in insight).

“Celebrating Divine Presence” begins with an excellent chapter on listening, a fulfillment of Martin Buber’s ideal of the “Life of Dialogue.” This is a book born of the “Beads on One String” project to create an Interfaith context for dialogue. Brilliantly, Laurent Weichberger shows us how the great religious founders are “exemplars of listening.” (And of course. The Jewish creed is called, and begins with, the word “Listen!” [*Shema*] And listening involves learning to appreciate others’ differences.) Rumi began his great *Mathnawi* with the word “Listen,” and similarly, this is a book to be listened to for the music beneath the words.

Foundational exemplars of listening appear throughout this book’s pages in different contexts—a dynamic which enlivens the book. This is a book with insights into (the elsewhere grossly understudied) Zoroaster, as well as Abraham, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, St. Catherine, Muhammad, and Meher Baba. Each of these figures are treated in detail and with feeling. (Along the way we are even granted the rare experience of reading a Zoroastrian prayer. [p. 41]) In a number of chapters, we glean perspectives also on contemporary seminal spiritual teachers, especially: Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Meher Baba. One of the great strengths of this book is that it exquisitely and precisely articulates an understanding of the much over-used and little-understood—though perhaps James Cameron’s film has helped—archetype of the Avatar. Levels of sainthood and God-Realization are clearly explained. A very beautiful interlude section describes what I take to be a one-page answer to the question, “What would Saint Francis do—in this day and age?”

This book teaches us how we can stop derogating religions and stop exercising prejudice toward people of other faiths, by showing the commonalities of the “one string” among all people and all faiths. In Laurent Weichberger’s chapter on “Ancient Mysticism,” he creates a new paradigm for thinking about the differences and interrelationships between various religious traditions and he diagrams his creative insights brilliantly in three dynamic charts. This chapter is a wonderful orientation to the World’s Religions and their interrelationships.

The chapter on Sufism is a masterpiece. Written by a practicing Sufi with deep and extensive personal, community, and global experience, Karl Moeller, surveys the vast range of types of Sufism as well as the vast ranges of phenomena and traditions—both in Islamic Sufism and in Universalist Sufism. Moeller clearly explains Sufism’s roots in the Prophet Muhammad’s mission and his teachings and practices. It includes sufficient information on the foundations of the Prophet’s example and the Qur’an for the novice to proceed into this survey of Sufism. Passages from Qur’an and hadith have been deftly selected. Moeller discusses the relationship of Sufism to Islam. He explains the model of spiritual psychological transformation, the seven levels of the soul. Moeller explains the role of saints (*Wali*) and of Axial Saints (*Qutb*. The chapter also explains the attributed spiritual blessing-power (*baraka*) that saints are sought out for. Moeller explains the practice of seeking intercession through saints. The very popular, wide-spread practice of visiting (*ziyara*) saints’ tombs is discussed and described. A beautiful feature of this chapter is the explanation of the dynamics of lineage and the samples of actual lineage-succession lists (*silsila*). The teacher-student or master disciple relationship, so central to Sufism, receives extensive analysis. Sufi meditational practices (*zikr*) and the spirituality of listening (*sema*) to sacred music are discussed. A great number of Sufi-lineage traditions (*tariqa*) are discussed in depth and others are listed. Moeller also comprehensively surveys contemporary expressions of Sufism, both globally and in Europe and America. Delightfully, Moeller includes the Sufi wisdom-humor stories of Mulla Nasruddin Hoja. There is even a sort of “FAQ” included. Copious quotes from Sufis, including Rumi, appear.

The Judaism chapter rang true for me when I saw that its author Yaakov Weintraub immediately highlights the Friday-dusk-to-Saturday-nightfall Shabbat that for many Jews defines or sets a standard for being Jewish. Its topics include God, Torah, the Holocaust, Halakha (“the Law”), and the Chaggaim, the holidays. This chapter’s exposition is enriched by personal narrative and poetry.

Two chapters on Hinduism treat all the basics of the family of Hindu traditions: Veda, Vedanta (in its varieties), meditation (and brain research on its effects), and all the yogas of devotion (*bhakti*), knowledge (*jnana*), action (*karma*), and topics such as liberation (*moksha*), or God-Realization (*jivanmukta*). Spiritual paragons, their lives and teachings are also discussed: Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekanada, Swami Shantananda. Worship of the Mother Goddesses, idols (*vigraha*), and Avatars are also explained. Detailed instructions are provided for practice of each of the four major forms of yoga.

A beautiful “Images” section extends the beauty of this book. Other chapters survey Jainism in detail, Tibetan Buddhism in a way that brings to life the Budddha’s teaching, Christianity in full scope. Through a combination of personal witness and diligent scholarship, Mary Esther Stewart makes Jesus Christ very real and relevant. She provides creative analogies for the Trinity. She explains liturgy, sacraments, saints, monastic orders and Church hierarchies. In the course of a personal narrative, she gives a beautiful summary of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of “world justice, dialogue, and peace” (p. 293) and explains Vatican II. She then creates a moving portrait of Saint Francis. Then follows “If Saint Francis Were Here,” a wonderful one-page summary of what Saint Francis would say and do today, with a beautiful illustration of Saint Francis.

The Punjabi-based Sikh religion (*Khalsa*) is also beautifully explained with wonderful quotes from its founder Guru Nanak’s prayers, its rich tradition of Hindu and Muslim devotional poetry. Guru Nanak comes to life in these pages.

Then editor and coordinator of the “Beads on One String” project, Laurent Weichberger then proceeds to survey “Modern Mysticism.” Here he discusses Sri Ramakrishna, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Rabia Martin, and Avatar Meher Baba. Meher Baba’s life and teachings—at least in terms of a 32-page summary—are given extremely insightful, detailed, extensive, and expert treatment. Weichberger even succeeds in explaining in accessible terms one of Meher Baba’s most elusive of paradigms, the “Ten States of God,” from Meher Baba’s magnum opus, “God Speaks.” Weichberger describes these in a down-to-earth way that complement the more formal explanations of Meher Baba and many of his interpreters. In these pages Weichberger shares many important Meher Baba quotes and presents Meher Baba’s Universal Prayer, the O Parvardigar prayer, laid out in a poetic verse form that is the easiest to read of any printed version I have seen. Weichberger follows with a section on “Sacred Places,” detailing all the various holy sites of all the world’s religions featured in the book that Meher Baba himself visited, made pigrimage to, or at which he meditated.

“Celebrating Divine Presence: Journeys into God” is an invigorating, inspiring, instructive read and also a great research resource. I salute Laurent Weichberger and the “Beads on One String” project for this ripe fruit of their seminars, dialogues, and communion. This book is a model for Interfaith dialogue, global citizenship, and the study of World Religions. This comprehensive and insightful book on 10 spiritual traditions helps to address Islamophobia—and other less pronounced phobias—by contributing to an experience and understanding of spiritual sharing, commonality, and kinship among the *people* who practice the religions, and even, ultimately extending to a kinship among all the faiths themselves brought “together as beads on one string.”

~~~ H. Talat Halman, Assistant Professor, Religion, Central Michigan University, U.S.A. ~~~
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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Junooni Time
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By Staff Correspondent, *Salman Ahmad performs at Ajmer Sharif* - The Express Tribune - Karachi, Pakistan; Saturday, May 5, 2012

Salman Ahmad performs at Ajmer Sharif

Karachi: Sufi rock star Salman Ahmad may have performed in various places around the world but his most recent stop was a unique one. The Junoon member got the rare chance of performing at the Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty in Ajmer Sharif, India.

“It was an honour to pay tribute to Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishty in Ajmer Sharif,” said Ahmad via e-mail. “This is the 800th year of Khawaja Gharib Nawaz’s urs celebration. Thousands of people flocked to the Dargah Sharif and they were in a state of fana while listening to the Sufi songs of love and devotion,” added the Sufi musician.

Ahmad was invited to the memorable event by Syed Salman Chishty, who is also the Gaddi Nashin (heir apparent), Khadim-i-Khawaja sahib (Khwaja’s servant) and the Director of Chishty Foundation.

“It was really nice to have Junoon here in Ajmer Sharif,” Chishty said about Ahmad’s visit.

Ahmad has now joined the league of Pakistani Sufi musicians Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen who have also had the privilege to perform at Ajmer Sharif.

Recently, Ahmad made headlines when he announced that he will be making his Bollywood debut in Vicky Kumar’s musical love story Rhythm, according to timesofindia.com.

Hindustan Times reports that Ahmad’s Indian fan following started strengthening from 1997, when his song “Sayonee” created a rage in India.

Currently, Junoon, spearheaded by Ahmad, are in India, for a series of concerts in different cities of the country. Their next performance will be at the Bluefrog in Delhi on May 10.

“A Junooni time is guaranteed for all,” Ahmad tweeted. Junoon’s last concert in India was on February 6, 2010.

Picture: Salman Ahmad has now joined the league of Pakistani Sufi musicians Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen who have also performed at Ajmer Sharif. Photo: PUBLICITY.
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Friday, May 11, 2012

The Heart of Timbuktu
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By the CNN Wire Staff with Katarina Hoije, *Rebels burn Timbuktu tomb listed as U.N. World Heritage site* - CNN Africa; USA/Africa; Monday, May 7, 2012

Rebels burn Timbuktu tomb listed as U.N. World Heritage site

Bamako, Mali: Elderly men were keeping watch Saturday over Timbuktu's main library after Islamists burned a tomb listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The attacks Friday were blamed on Ansar Dine, a militant group that seeks to impose strict Sharia law.

The ancient city in Mali was captured by at least two separatist Tuareg rebel groups -- one of which is Ansar Dine -- in an anti-government uprising in the northern part of the country that began in January.

The rebels burned the tomb of a Sufi saint where people come to pray, said Sankoum Sissoko, a tour guide familiar with the place. He said the library and other heritage sites remained under threat.

Baba Haidara, a member of the National Assembly, called for UNESCO and the greater international community's help restoring the shrine and freeing the city.

"They attacked the grave, broke the doors and windows and ripped and burned pieces of white clothing that surrounded the tomb of the saint in front of everyone," said Haidara, who is from the central Mali city.

"With their attack, the militants touched the heart of Timbuktu. They picked Friday because they know many people visit the shrines on this day."

Sufism is a mystical dimension of Islam, and Islamists believe Sufi shrines are sacrilegious. As such, they have mounted attacks against Sufi sites in several nations.

Sissoko said the attackers were dressed in signature Ansar Dine black robes and turbans. Timbuktu residents, he said, were ready to take up arms against the rebels, who have been linked to al Qaeda.

Religious leader Baba Cheick Sekou said the occupying rebel groups have no respect for Timbuktu's religious and historic importance.

Sekou said he feared for the protection of the prestigious Koranic Sankore University and ancient manuscripts that are kept there, as well as other tombs and mosques of historic significance.

"All Muslims know the tomb is a holy place," he said. "It's not something you attack and destroy. It's anti-Islamic. People in the community are angry."

Haidara described the shrine situation as bad.

"The young people of Timbuktu have started training to resist the militants, and I fear people will seek revenge," he said.

Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle said the attackers tore down windows and wooden gates at the grave sites and burned them. Tensions were high in the city, he said.

"People are angry, and for a good reason," Halle said.

"So far there's been no response from the central government condemning the attack," he said. "I'm still waiting for them to give a declaration. That's what they would have done if it happened in (Mali's capital city of) Bamako."

To many, Timbuktu conjures a distant and exotic place due its location on the southern edge of the vast Sahara and accounts of great material and scholarly wealth.

Known as the "city of 333 saints" for the Sufi imams, sheiks and scholars buried there, Timbuktu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. UNESCO is a United Nations cultural organization.

After the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, armed Tuaregs who had been fighting in Libya streamed back across the border into Mali. In March, the ongoing Tuareg revolt sparked a military coup against Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure by officers unhappy with the government's handling of the rebellion.

The rebels capitalized on the chaos in Bamako, in southern Mali, and usurped large swaths of territory in the north. UNESCO grew gravely concerned about the protection of heritage sites.

UNESCO chief Irina Bokova has called for all groups to respect and protect the city's history.

"Timbuktu's outstanding earthen architectural wonders that are the great mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia must be safeguarded," she said.
"Along with the sites' 16 cemeteries and mausolea, they are essential to the preservation of the identity of the people of Mali and of our universal heritage."

Islamists destroyed another world heritage site in 2001 when the Taliban used dynamite to blow up two giant 6th century statues of Buddha carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused the Tuareg rebels of war crimes, including rape, use of child soldiers, summary executions and pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies and government buildings.
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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Archaeology and Sufi Shrines
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By Jini Reddy, *Saints and singers in Pakistan's Punjab* - The Guardian - London, UK; Friday, May 4, 2012

Saints and singers in Pakistan's Punjab: A new tour of Pakistan's Punjab province offers mystical culture, amazing food and friendly homestays

"Come to Islam," says 16-year-old Mohammed Irfan, as I enter the courtyard of the exquisite blue-tiled Eidgah mosque in Multan, a hot, dusty town in Pakistan's Punjab province, known – or rather, barely known – as the City of Saints.

"I come here and pray for wealth, a long life, so that we're able to eat, and for good results in school. I've been coming for a long time, and as a result, I've come first in my class in my exams," he beams, his smile as dazzling as the mirror mosaics that adorn the shrine to Sufi saint Ahmad Saeed Kazmi, a scholar and spiritual teacher.

Sufism is the mystical arm of Islam, and the Punjab is the Sufi heartland of Pakistan. The scene of centuries of cultural invasions, it's also the country's wealthiest and greenest province (despite the blistering expanses of the Cholistan desert, on its south-eastern edge), stretches from Sindh province in the south to the foothills of the Himalayas in the north, and is home to more than half of Pakistan's population.

Alas, the few tourists who make it here usually shoot up the Karakoram Highway to the rugged, frontier northern districts. Understandably so, as Pakistan's mountains are unendingly beautiful, but the Punjab, with its Mughal and pre-Mughal architecture, jewel-like shrines and mosques, desert dunes and farmland, and ancient towns and cities, begs to be explored, too.

Which is how I come to travel five hours south from Lahore to the 4,000-year-old city of Multan. It's a traffic warden's nightmare, with mopeds, autorickshaws and donkey carts doing battle on the streets. I'm with a small group, led by Sohail Azhar, the British-Pakistani founder of London-based tour operator TravelPak, chatting to a group of schoolboys in the mosque. They, like everyone I meet in the Punjab, are balm to the soul: warm-hearted, jolly, and politely curious about the visitors in their midst.

The Eidgah mosque aside, Multan has its share of must-see monuments, (including the stunning mausoleum of Sufi saint Shah Rukn-e-Alam, and the lovely, if unimaginatively titled, Institute of Blue Pottery Development – great for watching the artists at work, and buying gifts ) but it is also our base for an excursion to the small town of Uch Sharif.

Once controlled by Alexander the Great, and one of the oldest centres of learning in Pakistan (the name means "holy high place"), the town is about three hours' drive to the south of Multan. It's on the edge of the Cholistan desert, a vast, thorny acacia-dotted landscape, with nomadic herders leading camels and goats to water holes. The bastions of the derelict Derawar Fort are visible for miles. Every year in February and March, pilgrims flock to this part of the desert to pay their respects at the shrine of the "sand dune saint", Channan Pir, a child abandoned in the desert, according to legend.

As I climb the steps to Uch's exquisite blue-tiled shrine to the (tongue-twisting) saint Jalaluddin Surkh-posh Bukhari, I'm intercepted by a stocky fellow in a red hat, who places his hand on my forehead and mutters a few words, before shuffling away. Have I been blessed by a Pir, a Sufi religious leader-cum-faith healer?

"Genuine Pirs are thought to have inherited their spiritual powers," Sohail had said on the way here. "People consult them on anything from religious matters to medical problems like infertility – or even family relationships." Sadly, my benediction is a false one: a small boy sidles up, points to the man in the hat, and makes a "crazy" sign.

I pass a handful of devotees in the courtyard and at the entrance to the darkened shrine, a guardian leads me to the saint's tomb, which is wreathed in velvet drapes. My head is placed under the fabric, and muffled blessings for health, wealth and prosperity wash over me. It's a long, disorienting moment, but also a comforting one.

There are more poetic incantations later that night, when we walk over to the mausoleum of Baha-ud-Din Zakaia to listen to a Qawwali singer. Qawwalis, or devotional songs, are at the heart of Sufi religious practice – the aim of the music is to lead listeners into a state of spiritual ecstasy. There is certainly a mystical quality to it, and the complex is thick with incense, candles and the shapes of followers quietly padding about barefoot.

"The poet Rumi likened a Qawwali to listening to the divine creaking of the gates of heaven," says Sohail.

Later we enjoy sustenance of a different nature, in the village of Daultala, four hours north-west of Lahore, when Sohail whisks us off to the home his late father had built shortly before his retirement. Expecting modest quarters, I'm taken aback when we reach a three-storey compound, behind high gates and surrounded by meadows.

Within, I count 10 bedrooms, most with en suite bathrooms. The welcoming committee – Sohail's aunt, Hala, lives here, as do various cousins, nieces and other members of his extended family – is as large as it is gracious. Within minutes of arriving there's a home-cooked meal on the table: lamb curry, rice, patties made from meat and chickpeas, a kind of raita with vegetables, chapatis and rice pudding. It's utterly delicious, and my attempt to express my thanks, shukriya in Urdu, feels woefully inadequate.

"Are you married?" 23-year-old Huma, the glossy-haired wife of one of Sohail's cousins, wants to know. It's a question I'm asked over and over in Pakistan. And the reaction to my response – an embarrassed shake of the head (I'm no spring chicken) – is always the deepest, sweetest sympathy.

After dinner, I head up to the roof and, in the fading light, survey a pastoral scene that would be timeless – blossoming flowers, fragrant air, kids playing cricket in the fields, flat-roofed and pastel-coloured houses, the silhouettes of villagers bent over their crops – were it not for the rather incongruous sight of a ferris wheel in the distance. Yes, the funfair has come to Daultala, and we are going.

Butterflies and passersby flit around us as we stroll along the country lanes. Foreigners are a rarity and special fascination is reserved for Ryan, the young American in our group. "Now I know how Madonna feels," he quips.

The funfair rides would make a health and safety officer shudder – they're rickety, rusty and divinely antiquated. Still, the merry-go-round doesn't collapse under my weight, and how often does one get to ride one surrounded by a mesmerised 20-deep crowd of grown men?

Later, we weave past colourful food and fabric stalls to the gurdwara, or Sikh temple. It's a crumbling ruin – the Sikhs left after Partition in 1947, explains Sohail, and the gurdwara was used as a school until it was damaged in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake – but my torch illuminates stone pillars, balconies and delicate lattice-work.

The walk back to the village in the cool of the evening feels like a strange dream. One of Sohail's nieces takes my hand and begins to sing. The tune sounds familiar: it's Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. Not in Urdu though. Or English. But Mandarin Chinese. "I learnt it at school," she says casually. I'm startled, but perhaps ought not to be – the friendship between the two countries is an enduring one.

We wind up our Punjab tour in the city of Lahore, the cultural and artistic mecca of Pakistan. A former Mughal capital, it's home to the sublime Badshahi Mosque, its creamy marble domes and sandstone minarets much more than the sum of its parts. Opposite it, and adjacent to the walled Old City, is the Lahore Fort, containing a maze of gardens, halls and palaces. My favourite, the Palace of Mirrors, filled with glittering, multicoloured mosaics, was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It's not known whether she saw it before she died in childbirth – and her grief-stricken husband had the Taj Mahal built in her honour.

The best views of the mosque and fort – all soft and rose-tinted at sunset – are from the roof of Cooco's Den, a restaurant in the Heera Mandi, or red-light district, in the Old City. It's a stylish, if kitsch, restored haveli (mansion) and the owner, Iqbal Hussain, is a painter. His pictures of Lahore's voluptuous Nautch dancers – descendants of the city's fabled royal courtesans – adorn the walls. The home-style Pakistani fare, heavy on grills and kebabs, and once sampled by the likes of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, isn't bad either.

One night, we check out Lollywood, Pakistan's answer to Tinseltown. A few weeks before, outside a mosque in Chitral, up in the mountains, I'd bumped into a film producer/actor (or "Hero", as leading men here like to be known). On hearing that we'd be in Lahore, he'd invited us to a shoot.

I'm not sure what we'd been expecting: lashings of glamour – and perhaps a contraband mini-skirt or two – however, but the forlorn complex in a back lot that our driver Rachid, nearly cannot find is anything but. Shan, our minder and as luvvy as they come, tells us that Shahid Khan, a star of Pashto-language films, is on set right now. When the cameras whirr, neither he nor his leading lady can deliver more than two words of dialogue, before the director screams "cut". Stifling our giggles, we leave them to it.

The next night Javed, a guide, English teacher and friend of Sohail, takes me to his home he shares with his wife and children, in the red-light district. We wander down narrow streets, ablaze with neon. There are vendors hawking savoury fried snacks, sweets and paan, dozens of dhabas (informal food joints).

The Phajja Paye restaurant is famous for its sticky goats' trotters, although tongue, brain and jawbone are also on the menu. "It's the best known restaurant in all of Lahore,'' says Javed. "Men are drawn here like bees to honey." It's not just for the food. The air is thick with anticipation, but the ladies of the night, so vividly rendered in Cooco's Den, won't be putting in an appearance until the wee hours of the morning, he tells me.

We veer off sharply, down an alley that is momentarily plunged into darkness, thanks to nightly electricity shortages. Javed flicks on his lighter, and I follow him through a narrow entrance and up a cramped staircase, into the tiny, immaculate flat. Waiting to greet us are his wife, Selma, and three young children. I'm ushered into the living room, which also doubles as the bedroom.

After a little chit-chat, Selma produces a dinner of barbecued chicken, even though I've only come for tea, and the household has eaten. The family watch me tuck in, and when I've finished licking my fingers, Javed, who is also a poet, reads from his work.

It's an exalted moment – the flickering flame, the haunting verse. I don't need Qawwalis or Sufi holy men to experience a communion with the divine – it is right here, around the hearth of a warm and open-hearted Lahori family.

Way to go

The trip was provided by TravelPak (08445 558855, travelpak.co.uk). The firm runs two tours which feature the Punjab – Pakistan's Cities: 5,000 Years of History and Culture (13 days, from £1,445 excluding flights) and Pakistan's Archaeology and Sufi Shrines (14 days, from £1,495, excluding flights). Both tours run October–May.

International flights were provided by Oman Air (08444 822309, omanair.com) which flies from Heathrow to Lahore from £625 return

Picture: Ornate family tombs near Derawar Fort, Uch Sharif, Pakistan. Photo: The Guardian.
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