Musical pacifists hit troubled times

The Biographical Tradition in Sufism - The Chishtis
May 18, 2001

These are not happy times for Sufism, at least on the Indian subcontinent. The Islamic clergy has declared itself against its syncretism, its pacifism. This, despite the fact, pointed out by Muneera Haeri in her book, The Chishtis , that it was neither the fanatical sultans nor the Koran-thumping ulema so much as the gently persuasive Sufis who were responsible for the large-scale acceptance of Islam by the common people of India. It is for this reason that the Hindu right is also intent on destroying all vestiges of the Sufi heritage and on denying the rich contribution it has made to the living culture of the people, regardless of their religion.

Of the many Sufi silsilas (families) that came into India with Islam, it was the Chishti silsila that laid the deepest roots, so deep that today it is considered an exclusively Indian phenomenon. Haeri deals with the lives of the first six Sufi shaykhs (teachers) of this family and concludes with the rather curious modern case of a Chishti shaykh in South Africa.

Haeri is a convert to Islam and is married to a practising shaykh. This often introduces a note of misty sentimentality as well as ritual self-consciousness into her writing. Of a marble screen in Lahore, she states: "A powerful energy still emanates from the spot."

Occasionally, her grasp of the Hindu side of the historical events also seems wobbly. Yet she manages to be objective and factual, and lucidly to explain the strengths that made the early Chishtis so effective in their mission. In the main, she identifies three factors: their vow of poverty that jelled with native notions of holiness; their practice of devoting their whole life to a single place, which enabled them to build a network of intimate relations with the local populace and made their support indispensable to the fly-by-night rulers; and their acceptance, despite the alleged Koranic aversion to music, of the principle that God could be approached through music. This involvement not only found an echo in the prevailing local religious practices but reshaped the subsequent development of Hindustani music. Amir Khusrau, disciple of Shaykh Nizam ad-Din Awliya, who wrote poetry in Persian/Hindi, fathered the musical form, qawwali , and is credited with inventing the sitar, in a way symbolises the complex literary-musical legacy of the Chishtis.

Haeri strikes a nice balance between celebrating her chosen tradition and the need to reach a wider audience and has produced a book of great charm and conviction.

Haeri's book harks back to an important genre in the literary tradition of Islam, the tabaqat or collections of biographies. In The Biographical Tradition in Sufism , Jawid A. Mojaddedi focuses on the six texts that form the mainstream of Sufi historiography. He points out that all tabaqat writings "share the same basic literary characteristics, in that they consist of the biographies of past representatives arranged in a predominantly chronological pattern. Within such a context, each biography serves to convey information both about its individual subject as well as about the community to which he or she belongs, whilst at the same time constituting an integral part of the linear narrative about the past of that community which is expressed by this arrangement." Thus the author of a text links himself to his past, tracing his lineage back to the Prophet, while simultaneously expressing his vision of history as well as expounding his interpretation of the doctrine.

Tabaqat works have been treated normally as sources of ready-made biographies. But these biographies are not static. As we move from one tradition to another, as well as from one period to another within a tradition, we find them changing in detail, picking up new facts, dropping old ones, but most importantly, reshaping known incidents. As Mojaddedi points out, the biographies that have had the deepest influence are also likely to have been reworked most extensively. And as forms change, so do their meanings. This inevitably raises questions about the authenticity of authorship as well as the reliability of the text. Mojaddedi brings to his texts a sophisticated hermeneutic sensibility and analyses not only the multiple layers of contexts that have produced these texts but the dynamic process that affects the contexts themselves.

Although I cannot claim to have the necessary scholarship to comment on his work, I read the book with fascination because of my interest in the role played by such literature in the religious traditions of India, and came out enlightened and stimulated.

Girish Karnad is a playwright and film-maker who has directed a documentary film on Sufism in India. He is director of the Nehru Centre, London.

The Biographical Tradition in Sufism: The Tabaqat Genre from al-Sulami to Jami

Author - Jawid A. Mojaddedi
ISBN - 0 7007 1359 X
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £45.00
Pages - 230

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