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Finding the lost meaning of Sufism

Through the book, Song of the Dervish: Nizamuddin Auliya: The Saint of Hope and Tolerance by Meher Murshed, Instep traces the often forgotten traits of Sufism.

Finding the lost meaning of Sufism

What do Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Javed Bashir, Hadiqa Kiyani, Riaz Ali Khan, Riaz Qadri, Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad, Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan, Abbas Ali Khan, Saami Brothers Qawwal, Mekaal Hasan Band, Abida Parveen, and the late Amjab Sabri, Aziz Mian Qawwal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have in common – apart from being an imperative component of music throughout the decades in Pakistan?

They have all performed kalaams by Sufi poet and composer Amir Khusro, who was the disciple of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya.

There are others who have also created and added to the genre of Sufi music, with Sufi rock most closely associated with the once formidable Junoon. In this decade, it is acts like The Sketches, Asrar and even Bollywood’s A.R. Rahman, whose music is often, if not always, inspired by Sufi ideals and saints.

But in this age of capitalism, religious intolerance, sectarian divisions and political hacks, have we forgotten the real meaning of Sufism? It is not on the artists that blame is being placed.

The story is less about placing blame rather more about understanding the lost meaning of Sufism – a necessity in this century of despair where religion, faith and politics is a cluster; a sense of belonging is fading, attacks on Sufi shrines have become a reality and the persecution of minorities based on religion has led to death, grief, imprisonment, hate, violence, and exile. Anxiety is the new norm.

The real Sufi

There is no one better to learn from than Nizamuddin Auliya himself (and his disciple Amir Khusro) and the traits they carried.

We do so through Meher Murshed’s book, the well-researched non-fiction publication, Song of the Dervish: Nizamuddin Auliya: The Saint of Hope and Tolerance, which was first published in 2017. It is a sacred work that must be celebrated for its vision, the solace it provides and the important questions it asks, the debates contained within it and not only the research.

The book travels back and forth in time and not only traipses through the time when Nizamuddin Auliya – ‘God’s Beloved’, ‘Mehboob-e-Illahi’ – as he was and is still known as, was born and lived in the 12th and 13th century and how Amir Khusro became his disciple but also gives us a series of stories of people from different religions, their different life experiences and why some of them still visit the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, India, and/or believe that he is watching over them. It traces the spiritual component that marked the beginning of Coke Studio, the relevance of Sufism in today’s world, its detractors and the birth of Qawwali.

As the author confesses in the beginning of the book, “There is fact and yet so much fiction clouding the lives of Nizamuddin and Khusro.” And “how did they lead their lives more than 700 years ago?”

The research for this book, therefore, comes from a myriad of sources, among them Dr. Bruce Lawrence, a trained historian and renowned scholar, who spent fifteen years devoting himself to translating Fawaid Al Fuad (Morals for the Heart).

As the author informs further, Fawaid Al Fuad (Morals for the Heart) was compiled by a disciple of Nizamuddin called Amir Hasan Sijzi, into a Persian book that contained Nizamuddin’s teachings.

Just as effective as the origin stories of Sufi saints are the piercing stories of certain individuals including Sanjiv Malhotra, the son of a Hindu father and a Sikh mother; Feroza, a devout Muslim; Dr. G.D Sharma, a Brahman trauma surgeon, who doesn’t go to temples, gurdwaras or mosques but serves the poorest of the poor, the musician from Pakistan, Ali Hamza, who left home in 2006 on an inner quest and Saeen Zahoor, a fakir who sings across shrines in Pakistan and many more.

We relive the lives of how Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Auliya, Amir Khusro came to meet and redefine each other’s lives and the true tenets of Sufism.

To give away the whole book would be unfair to the author. But some stories must be allowed.

Dr. Bruce Lawrence writes in the Preface, that before partition: “The chief nightingales in the rose garden of India were Sufi Saints, Muslim holy men who linked themselves to an Islamic worldview with its own cosmology, its trajectory of truth, its emissaries and its hopes.”

He notes ahead: “Theirs was a complimentary rather than a competitive form of Islamic loyalty…. The best-known order, the Chishtiya, had five epigones: Moinuddin, Qutbuddin, Fariduddin, Nizamuddin, and Naseeruddin.”

Nizamuddin shared, he confesses, with other Chishti saints many traits but was also different from them because of his devotion to listening to music (sama).

What was the order known for? In the words of a Nizamuddin disciple, the book tells us, “love and compassion.”

Why is the author, Meher Murshed, so drawn to Nizamuddin you may wonder? He tells us: “It was his core – religious tolerance – that was deeply precious to me and music, he believed, is prayer.”

The relationship between Nizamuddin Auliya, Amir Khusro, Baba Farid, and the time of the sultans

Born in 1924 to Bibi Zuleika and Khwaja Ahmed, Nizamuddin, the book tells us, went hungry most nights. His mother, his anchor, taught him on those hungry nights: “We are the guests of God.” His teacher, Allauddin Usli, who taught Islamic Law, ingrained in him “humanity”.

Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad belong to the Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana of Delhi. Trained in classical music by Ustad Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Khan Qawwal, their roots can be traced to the disciples of Amir Khusro.

Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad belong to the Qawwal Bachchon Ka Gharana of Delhi. Trained in classical music by Ustad Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Khan Qawwal, their roots can be traced to the disciples of Amir Khusro.

While Nizamuddin was born in poverty, around 1253 in Patiala, Saifuddin Shamsi and Daulat Naz had a son called Abul Hassan Yashmeen Al Deen in a world defined by political intrigue and deceit.

“Abul Hasan would grow up to be known as Amir Khusro – the master poet and musician; the confidante of sultan and oddly enough the favourite disciple of Nizamuddin – the dervish who despised politics, who shunned sultans.”

As Nizamuddin arrived in Delhi at the age of sixteen with his mother and sister, he found refuge in one of the homes of the army’s minister; Amir Khusro, on the other hand, was being brought up by Imad ul Mulk, son-in-law of his father Saifuddin Shamsi, who had been killed in a battle.

“Nizamuddin and Khusro lived in the same house.”

But it was poverty living next to opulence and as the author notes, “Nizamuddin saw both worlds.”

Nizamuddin’s wish as a boy was to meet Baba Farid, “the Sufi dervish who lived in Ajodhan…”

The book also traces the history of Baba Farid, who was known as Ganj-e-Shakar as well as “the great saint of Ajmer, Moinuddin Chishti, who introduced the Subcontinent to Chishti Sufism”.

As for Amir Khusro, it was his “magic with wordplay” that earned him the name Amir Khusro from an early age. He would sing praises of the sultans as was the norm.

The book notes that it was Nizamuddin who told “the young Khusro” who presented the former with his poems, “to compose poems in the style of Ishfanis – love poetry.”

Over the course of years, their relationship evolved, Khusro had captured Nizamuddin’s heart and had access like no one else.

Upon the death of his nephew, as Nizamuddin fell into depression, the book recalls, Khusro, inspired by women celebrating basant, “dressed up like a woman in yellow and went dancing and singing to his master. Nizamuddin smiled.”

Basant is, therefore, marked every year at Nizamuddin’s shrine as it was the day when the disciple got his teacher to smile.

We learn through the book that if meeting Baba Farid changed Nizamuddin’s life, meeting Nizamuddin ultimately changed Amir Khusro’s life. It was Nizamuddin who had a strong influence on Khusro; a prodigious child whose compositions put people listening in rapture. He loved Delhi but as the times changed further, his mind could only be calmed by Nizamuddin, not the machinations of the courts. The excessive violence, the author notes, did get to Khusro. It was the beginning of his transformation into a real Sufi. And overcome with the Divine, he wrote verses, yearning for his maker just like his teacher, Nizamuddin, kneeling before him in supplication. It draws a picture of the relationship between Amir Khusro and Nizamuddin in great depth.

Ali Hamza (Noori, left) and Saeen Zahoor who joined forces on ‘Aik Alif’ in the second season of Coke Studio, are also quoted in the book and speak of their respective journeys.

Ali Hamza (Noori, left) and Saeen Zahoor who joined forces on ‘Aik Alif’ in the second season of Coke Studio, are also quoted in the book and speak of their respective journeys.

Khusro knew music. “He could put words to music. Nizamuddin would weep and dance to Khusro’s sama as he went into Wajd where he found the Divine.”

Nizamuddin, the book notes, “sought neither power nor fame, just informed to the Beyond.”

Amir Khusro, a court poet, who had seen grandeur, is “credited with transforming sama into qawwali and forming Qawwal Bachchon whose descendants sing Khusro’s compositions even today.”

At one point, the book observes the question: “What do Tahir Qawwal, Saeen Zahoor, Hamza and Ali Noor have in common with Nizamuddin and Amir Khusro?” and answers further: “Music – therein lies the Divine.”

It is faith, not religion that takes people to Nizamuddin’s shrine and real faith “knows no religion”.

Nizamuddin – who lived in a treacherous age – also believed that “society does have its effect.”

The politics, deceit and intrigue in the courts of Delhi as well as the sultans who existed during that period, are also written about as is Albert Einstein, and much more, making the book a universal experience than you expect it to be. It also quotes Dr. Bruce Lawrence extensively and speaks of the question whether God is personal. Which, in this case, is not a bad case.

The book takes you through the delicate histories of Nizamuddin and his relationship to Baba Farid, which to be fair to the author, must be read fully to be understood at a greater level. It also addresses other saints and also refers to the school of thought that holds the belief that Sufism is not Islam.

The learnings

If there are any learnings from these saints in the context of this book, it’s that the maker resides within.

As Dr. Bruce Lawrence interprets Sufism: “We are children of the same God, at once vigilant and generous, instructive and forgiving. Those who claim only religion are dutiful but blind….”

In the words of Saeen Zahoor, a fakir: “The world needs humanity. We need peace. We need someone to share our pain and sorrow. Why did Hindus, Muslims and Christians flock to Moinuddin Chishti, Qutbuddin Kaki, Baba Farid and Nizamuddin Auliya? It is because they hurt no one’s sentiments. Everyone was equal in their eyes. Religion did not matter. Humanity did.”

Baba Farid believed that he served his maker by serving the needy. “His religion was bringing happiness to the human heart.”

Nizamuddin learned through example. And what were those examples? As Baba Farid once told him a couplet, when Farid and his disciples including Nizamuddin lived in poverty (to tell another): “You are not my travelling companion. Seek your own path. Get along. May prosperity be your portion in life and misfortune mine.”

Ego is not something to be celebrated since a true Sufi has no arrogance.

Gluttony is not something to embrace. For the true Sufi is so strong that he eats frugally and doesn’t save food. “Storing food proves you have no trust in your Maker.”

Repeated more than once is that it “is bringing happiness to the human heart” that is most important.

Another tenet of Chishti Sufism by which the mystic Moinuddin Chishti lived: “Be as generous as the river, warm as the Sun and as hospitable as the earth.”

A creed, almost impossible for us to even conceive in the modern age, was “to conquer your primal fears”.

As the author writes: “There was nothing. And in that nothingness, there was God because there was trust. There was resignation to his will – a creed so simple that it defies human instinct.”

Yet another creed, which Nizamuddin followed, is recited as a verse: “If you have faults, but find none, you are good. If bad but speak no ill, then too you’re good.”

Honesty and sincerity is another trait that should be valued. The Sufi way of life includes kindness as well to all. No division, but rather unity.

To conclude this discussion about Sufism and to quote the book: “There are as many paths as there are grains of sands. What difference does it make which grain you choose?”

– Watch out for the second part of this story in Instep.

Maheen Sabeeh

2 comments

  • This was indeed a worth read review. You have a valuable information about the teachings of Chishti Sufis I must say you can explore more and and continue writing on Sufism

  • I think here its typing mistake “of 1924. Born in 1924 to Bibi Zuleika and Khwaja Ahmed, Nizamuddin——

    ——- on those hungry nights: “We are the guests of God.” These words are really very precious

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