Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 3, Issue 40, Tuesday May 23, 2006














searching for the sufi soul

Most Americans, if asked to name their most immediate associations with Islam and the Middle East, would unhesitatingly reply with words like “terrorism”, “fundamentalism”, and “fanaticism”.

From the drama of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1978-9, to the frightful tyranny of Saddam Hossain in Iraq, to the tragic list of victims in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation – the list of negative media impressions seem endless. Yet at a time when the U.S. government has been in a sharply antagonistic relation with Iran and other Muslim countries, an unofficial cultural encounter of profound proportions has quietly been taking place.

A thirteenth-century Muslim mystic, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is now the best-selling poet in America. Not only is the poetry of Rumi finding major audiences, but additional manifestations of Sufism, such as the mystic dance of the Whirling Dervishes, and the entrancing qawwali music of Pakistani singer, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, have now had remarkable impact on Western audiences and performers.

For over a thousand years, Sufism – the mystical aspect of Islam – has been a major factor in the lives of most Muslims. For those who are accustomed to hearing only the authoritarian pronouncements of Muslim fundamentalists, this may come as a surprise.

Yet if one looks beyond the level of media debates, there are numerous examples of Sufism's influence in Muslim societies today. Whether one visits Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, China, or Indonesia, Muslims reveal their great devotion to those Sufi saints who provide a model for how one becomes close to God. Based on the Qur'anic revelation and the model of the Prophet Muhammad, Sufism became a spiritual method that deeply penetrated all levels of Muslim society.

It offered an interior vista on the practices of Islam, developed through the discipline of the Sufi orders in deepened prayer and meditation. There are literally hundreds of Sufi authors in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and other languages.

Interest in Sufism is experiencing something of a major revival today not only in the West but throughout South Asia and among the South Asian diaspora, as witnessed in a sudden spurt of publications on the subject, plays and movies produced along Sufi themes, a new range of Sufi music tapes hitting the markets, and even haute couture taking ideas from Sufism.

Muzaffar Ali, an Indian painter, filmmaker and designer with his architect wife Meera, founded their fashion label “Kotwara” in 1990, deeply inspired by Sufism, while in this year’s Lakmé India Fashion Week, renowned designer Manish Malhotra designed an all-white collection called “Freedom”, again inspired by Sufism.

Undeniably, the genre that has gained the most popularity riding the Sufism bandwagon is music. The philosophy of Sufi music is very easy to understand – it’s about life, affinity, love, reality and the ultimate search for God. And Sufi music mixed with an international sound has proved to have quite a global appeal. The sound is exotic and very different from the run-of-the-mill music that plays all over.

Is everyone exploiting the sudden interest in Sufism all for the sake of commercial breakthroughs? Is it merely another fad soon to be over-enthusiased to death? Apparently not. Luckily there are those conscientious few who do have a deeper agenda.

Salman Ahmad, best known as lead guitarist of “Junoon”, a Pakistani rock band that has sold over 25 million albums (as many as Nirvana, ZZ Top and Janet Jackson have sold in the United States), has become a pivotal figure in the war between moderate and extremist Islam by promoting interfaith understanding.

Junoon, which Ahmad formed in 1990, created a distinctive sound – electric rock braided with Pakistani folk music and lyrics that draw from the Qur'an and Sufi poets like Rumi and Baba Bullah Shah.

Ahmad is a performer whose faith-based music reaches millions of Muslims, prompting comparisons to another do-good rocker, U2's Bono. The BBC, in the documentary ‘The Rock Star and the Mullahs’, chronicled how Ahmad challenged fundamentalists to show where in the Qur'an music is forbidden.

Yahya Hendi, a Muslim imam and chaplain at Georgetown University and member of the Islamic Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Council of North America, says there is “absolutely nothing” in the Qur'an or Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that prohibits music.

On the contrary, Islam needs musicians like Ahmad, perhaps even more than it needs religious leaders, Hendi says. “Music is a universal language. Every human being connects with it. Not everyone connects with religious voices. Musicians can put out the message that Islam is a religion of love, compassion and peace better than clergy,” he said.

And now, in our own soil, we have the folk fusion band Bangla, trying to convey the same ideas through their second album, “Prottutponnomotito” where all the songs are the baul geetis of Lalon Shah, the Baulshomrat. Bangla, through their fusion renditions of Lalon geeti, wanted to reach the youth as well as the old generation, with Lalon's lyrics that oppose religious intolerance, cartelism, sectarianism, and colonialism.

All of this, in part, reflects a distaste for and a search for an alternative to an exclusivist, narrowly defined understanding of Islam that rightly repels many people – the search to replace the obscurantist and hate-spewing version of the faith championed by a range of radical Islamists who see all non-Muslims as, by definition, ‘enemies of God’.

In contrast to the latter, Sufism is presented as generously ecumenical, and as reaching out and embracing people of every caste or creed. In short, Sufism is presented as the ‘gentle’ side of Islam and for many, to whom political news is simply inadequate to handle the larger human truths of the spirit, the language to teach the soul of acceptance.

By Simin Saifuddin
To learn more about Sufism please visit http://www.ias.org/ International Association of Sufism, a non-profit organization and a DPI/NGO of the United Nations



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