Owaisi’s brand of Islam is dangerous — would do well to visit dargahs, revive spirit of Sufism

All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief Asaduddin Owaisi has taken offence at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples during electioneering. The last one heard, there is no offence attached to such trips. If Owaisi has a problem, it’s for him to resolve it; the nation need not lose sleep over such trivial matters. The self-styled representative of the Muslim community has decided to counter the two national leaders by resolving to follow suit — he claimed that he would, during election campaigns, pay visits to mosques and dargahs. He is welcome to do that. Indeed, it would be the least offensive thing to do for leaders of his party — him included — given that they are notorious for issuing brazen communal remarks that target the majority community. One has not forgotten the threat his brother and political colleague Akbaruddin Owaisi had issued to the Hindus when he said that his Muslim brethren would teach the latter a lesson if only the police were to be reined in for five minutes.

The senior Owaisi is a consummate politician and he often appears in television studios holding forth on his version of secularism. But his resolve to visit dargahs is especially interesting, because most such shrines across the country are dedicated to Sufi saints, whose message of inclusivity is quite opposite to the venom he and his party routinely spew. It would be nice if he would also speak of the damage to Sufism at the hands of Wahhabi and Salafi militants in that traditional cradle of Sufism in the country — Kashmir — and the need to revive the Sufi spirit. But he will not.

The ‘Kashmir for Kashmiri Muslims’ agenda, very contrary to Sufism, kicked off soon after Independence, and various mainstream players directly and indirectly helped the cause. But the devious design became known in full measure in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Kashmiri Pandits were hounded out of Kashmir valley. It marked the demise of the syncretic culture that Sufism had brought into the valley. Since then, to this date, the Sufi spirit lives only in the shrines that exist there. It is often said that the Kashmiri people are inclusive by nature and that they have been misled by militant propaganda patronised by elements from across the border. That may be so, but there is also the other truth which media reports indicate: That nobody in the streets of Kashmir really cares for Sufism today.

There have been so many Sufi saints in Kashmir that it’s difficult to even prepare a comprehensive list. Among the most revered and loved was the 14th century Shaivite woman saint Lalleshwari, popularly known as Lal Ded. She created her mystic poetry in Kashmiri language, which came to be known as Lal Vakhs. A national seminar on her life and works was held in 2000 in New Delhi and various Western academics have studied and interpreted her writings as a strong binding factor for all Kashmiris, regardless of their religion. Actor Mitsa Vashisht performed a solo play titled Lal Ded,  which has been hailed across the country and drew large audiences every time it was staged.

But the equally more important contribution of Lal Ded was her influence on many Sufi saints to come. One name that comes right on top of the list is that of Nund Rishi, who is also known as Noor-u-din Noorani. He strode the cultural canvas of Kashmir like a colossus. Indeed, he is regarded as the patron saint of Kashmiris. He wrote poetry which promoted the knowledge of the absolute and the need to reconcile all faiths in the desire for human brotherhood. And he prayed to god to give him the spiritual awakening that Lal Ded had. Noor-u-din died in Charar-e-Sharief, where for more than two centuries he has been revered.

But the generation of today, and especially those who have been led to believe in the dogmatic version of Islam, have had no time for Nund Rishi. Like his inspiration Lal Ded, Noor-u-din too became the inspiration for a host of Sufi thinkers and saints such as Hamza Makhdoom and Resh Mir Saheb. There are many other Sufi saints (Hindu and Muslim), some of whom have their shrines in Jammu & Kashmir. There is, for instance, the shrine of Baba Zain-ud-din Wali, Baba Dawood Ghoni, Hazrat Sheikh Syed Samnani and Noor Shah Baghdadi. All of them relentlessly promoted a composite culture very different to what the so-called Muslim clerics and some political leaders of Kashmir valley today offer. Surely those Sufi saints must be turning in their graves at the degradation of cultural values in their beloved land.

Sufism was not just about spiritual awakening and inclusivity — there were social messages as well. Sufi saint Bamuddin, for instance, propagated non-violence, respect for all faiths, equality for women and vegetarianism as a way to recognise the divinity in all living beings. Such was this Sufi leader’s reach among the masses, especially the rural folk, that even the Srinagar royal court was compelled to acknowledge his teachings and roll back many of its regressive measures.

Sufism has many orders, and they are spread not just in Kashmir but elsewhere in India too. The Madarriyas are members of a Sufi order that is popular in north India, Bengal — and even Bangladesh. This order revels in a syncretic approach, shuns external religious practices and focuses on internal goodness. The name derives from Sayed Badiuddin Zinda Shah Madar, whose shrine is located in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.  Then there is the Shadhiliyya order founded by Noor-u-din Abu Al Hasan Ali Ash Sadhili Razi. This order spread through saints to as far as south India — in Madurai. Of the 70 odd branches of this order, the Fassiyatush Shadhiliyya is the most widely practised in India.

It should be noted that Sufism is not just about liberal Islam but also liberal Hinduism. The Bhakti movement in the country, promoted by several bards and devotees, was essentially Sufi-oriented. We have the likes of Kabir as an example of a different kind of Bhakti — quite distinct from, say, that of Mirabai or Sant Tukaram, both of whom had a definite image and name of god in mind, and yet they were free from bigot-like tendencies. Sufi mystics from Islam too were all-encompassing. Sufi mystic, Saiyid Mohammad Ghaus Gwaliori worked to popularise Yoga among the people.

The other characteristic feature of the Sufi tradition, apart from religious inclusivity, is the influence of music. This is understandable — though not from the point of view of hardline Islamists who condemn music as un-Islamic — because music was the easiest and surest way to reach out to the masses. The qawwali is essentially a Sufi form of singing, and its popularity has seeped into the masses for centuries now. Here, one must remember the contribution of the poet Amir Khusro (late 12th-early 13th century). He was a disciple of one of the greatest Sufi saints, Nizamuddin Chisti. There was bit of pop culture here, but it caused no harm to the larger Sufi endeavour; indeed, the qawwali took sufism to new heights.

As Kashmir remains restive and the hardliners are busy spreading their distorted brand of Islam which is hateful, it is time for Sufism to rise once again and reclaim the legacy of tolerance and universal brotherhood. But this is easier said than done. There is need for governments, voluntary organisations and people at the grassroots to come together and revive the Sufi spirit. To accept love is to first disregard hate. As the 13th century Sufi poet Jamaluddin Rumi said, “What shall I say, O Muslims? I know not myself. I am neither a Christian nor a Jew nor a Zoroastrian, nor a Muslim.”