With Sufism being viewed as a counter narrative to radical Islam, there is a renewe interest in this mystical aspect of Islam, particularly of Sufi traditions in the subcontinent. These three books published recently highlight the cultural, historical and spiritual legacies of important Sufis in the subcontinent.
Shaykh Usman Ali Hujwiri is popularly known as Data Ganj Baksh. Beginning with Data Sahib’s arrival in Lahore from Ghazna in the eleventh century, Sufi philosophy began to impact both the intellectual and social life of Muslim communities. Data Sahib’s book Kashful Mahjub is widely acknowledged as the first treatise on Sufism in the Persian language. It has been translated in many languages and continues to inspire scholars of Sufism. It is still cited as an authority on questions regarding the rightfulness of certain religious practices. A towering Sufi scholar, eight of other books written by Data Sahib are lost.
Later, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, cities such as Delhi and Sindh became important centers for Islamic studies on the global stage. Of Data Sahab, Strothmann writes, ‘Having lived within the very small historical time frame between the arrival of Islam in the subcontinent and the establishment of Sufi orders, Hujwiri is the only saint in South Asia that can be connected to the golden age of Sufism. The fact that he is not associated with any particular Sufi order, has the additional effect that there are no religious authorities that claim to represent his views and teachings, making it easy for anyone to appropriate it for themselves.’
Apart from a small section on the life of Data Sahab The Shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh is more about a public religious space used both by common devotees and politicians, its state control, its income and expenditure, economic, security and welfare dimensions. The narrative details the political appropriation of the sacred space, its expansion and the far-reaching effects in various dimensions including the social and economic development of the area around the shrine.
The recent and on-going conflict between the Wahabi Salafists and popular Sufi Islam saw many shrines in Pakistan being the victim of terror. The book details the twin suicide bombings at Data Durbar in 2010 that left forty-seven devotees dead and over a hundred injured.
One section of the book deals with the aspect of the relationship between politics and religion, the move from ‘ shrine to mosque’, from diversity to religious practices, to homogeneity and towards an orthodoxy that is away from true spiritual quest. The fact that bitter rivals, both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto on their return from exiles first went to the iconic shrine before going elsewhere are examples of the political importance of the shrine. The author places the expansion design and changes in relation to Pakistan’s specific problem of ‘nation building’.
Strothmann provides an amazing detailing of everything and anything about the Data Shrine, from its history to its modernization to its nationalization. It records the structure of the shoe keeping areas, ablution areas, its mosque and courtyards. It highlights the shrine’s day-to-day decision making, langar distribution along with its libraries and welfare centers. The book is easy to read and a significant academic contribution to understanding the layered complexities of shrines in the subcontinent.
Ernst is a reputed scholar of Islamic studies with numerous books to his name. His latest offering is a continuation of writings on the histories of Sufism in South Asia. Refractions of Islam in India is divided into two sections. The first part taps on forgotten sources of Islam in India with a focus on the Sufi martyrs of the Delhi Sultanate, the life of Sufi scholar Ahmed Sirhindi, the Shattari Sufi order and Islam in South Asia from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century.
Ernst records how the execution of the intoxicated tenth century mystic Mansur Hallaj served as a model of the martyr. Hallaj occupied an important role in the high literary traditions of Persian writing in India. This influenced a number of Sufis who were put to death by local authorities. They saw themselves as seeking death before law as a sacrifice to the divine beloved. In the opening chapter on the controversial subject of Islamic martyrology, Ernst writes in great detail about Masud Bak, a Sufi put to death in the fourteenth century by Firuz Shah Tughlaq.
Ernst’s writings demonstrate how the concept of sainthood in Islamic history is one of the fundamental religious categories that has guided the development and structure of Muslim societies. The hagiographies of Sufis have been the most prominent form of Islamic literature. The book explores medieval hagiographic texts such as the writings of Sayyid Muhammad ibn Jafar al Makki and the controversial Sufi Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi. The latter had played the role of the defender of Islam against the heresies of Emperor Akbar’s new faith Deen e Elahi. Its narrative also draws from Dara Shikoh’s book on Sufis called The Ship of the Saints.
Given the modern-day debate on enforcing yoga in schools by the present government and the clerical Muslim opposition to the move, the second part of Ernst’s book that deals with Sufism, Yoga and Religions, is particularly interesting and informative. The research on Sufi texts aware of yoga and its integration into Sufi practices is commendable. He writes extensively on the old Sanskrit text Amrtakunda or ‘Pool of Nectar’ and its translations into Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. These present the most unusual examples of cross-cultural encounters in religious studies. Ernst clearly establishes how yoga came to be integrated into the spectrum of Sufi practices. There are whole chapters dedicated to Persian accounts of breath control and on the Vedanta Philosophy.
Ernst’s chapter on the Ellora temples as viewed by Muslim authors offers a new perspective, defeating the stereotype view of Muslim conquerors. He writes, ‘The problem arises when modern interpretations of Muslim iconoclasm deduce Muslim attitudes from an essential definition of Islam rather than historical documentation of the historical significance that particular Muslims attached to Hindu temples. Attempts to describe Muslim as essentially prone to idol smashing are confounded by the historical record, which indicates that Muslims who wrote about “idol temples” had complex reactions based as much on aesthetic, and political considerations as on religion. The concept of unchanging and monolithic Muslim identity accordingly needs to undergo serious revision.’
To illustrate this position, Ernst analyses the text of Rafi al Din Shirazi, a seventeenth century author who was delighted with the magnificence of the Ellora temples and saw it as amongst the wonders of the world. Another unusual admirer of Ellora that the book highlights is the much-maligned Emperor Aurangzeb, refuting the claim that temple destruction was an essential characteristic of Aurangzeb.
Boivin’s Historical Dictionary is a comprehensive study of the Sufi culture of Sindh, locating it within mainstream Sufism. The chronology begins with Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh in 711 CE and ends with Pakistani Minister for Culture Sharmila Faruqi organizing a two-day Sufi conference in Karachi.
Boivin explores the language of Sufism in Sindhi culture as a separately identifiable culture. Sufi poetry in Sindh developed specific themes and new literary forms. With the spread of Sufism in medieval Indus valley, the narrative traces Sindhi mystics such as Haji Turabi whose shrine is in the ancient town of Banbhore. It is said to date back to 787 CE, seventy-five years after the Arab conquest of Sindh.
The second oldest monument is on a small island of Bhakkar in Southern Sindh devoted to Khwaja Khizr, known as the patron saint of sailors and guardian of the fountain of life. Interestingly, the same shrine is venerated by the name of Zinda Pir by the Hindus, believed to be a form of the Indus River god, Udero Lal. The date of the tomb is 952 CE.
Introduced by Bahauddin Zakariya, the Suharwardi Sufi made Sindh its center from the thirteenth century onwards. The Qadris and Naqshbandi Sufi orders arrived in the region during the fifteenth century, dominating the areas of Bhakkar, Sehwan, Nasarpur and Thatta.
The most famous Sindhi Sufi poet is Shah Abdul Latif of the seventeenth century who penned Shah Jo Risalo. Boivin writes on Latif’s life, poetry and the cult status it continues to enjoy. Believing music to be the foundation of devotion to God, Shah composed each chapter of his work in a raga called ‘sur’ in Sindhi. He invented the Tanburo, a new musical instrument. These melodies are still performed every evening at shrines.
The author writes how the main characters in Shah’s poetry are usually women. The legendary romance between Sasui and Punhun has been immortalized in Shah’s poetry that uses female characters to symbolize the human soul in search of the divine Beloved. The introductory chapter manages to give a fairly thorough history of Sufism in Sindh to the modern scenario with scholarly references to major works on the subject.
The dictionary does not limit itself to Sindh, but sheds light on words and terms used in the Sufi discourse. While it lightly touches on some words, it has details on Sindhi Sufi such as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the most famous of them all and one who is revered by Hindus and Muslims alike.
The dictionary includes historical names that are associated with Islamic and subcontinental history. This language is the unifying thread between Sindhi Sufi culture and the neighbouring regions of India. Alphabetically arranged, it is a thorough chronological chart of important events that shaped Islam in the subcontinent.
All three books are well researched and a must read for those interested in Islam in South Asia in general and Sufism in particular.
Sadia Dehlvi is a Delhi-based media person, activist, writer and a columnist.