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Archive for November, 2012

The recent news of 14 year old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen, had shaken the world. But life goes on, Malala is recovering and I got distracted to a Sufi music ensemble. For the “first time in Midwest” said the advertisement while describing the event as “mystical fusion and mesmerizing Sufi songs.” Star performers were Ustad Hidayat Hussain Khan (son of legendary late Ustad Vilayat Khan) on Sitar and vocals, and the Grammy winner, Steve Gorn on flute. But what has Sufi music to do with terrorism?

Power of music can be calming and inspiring, it can be furious too. Raag Deepak, they say, is capable of igniting fire and can set forests ablaze; Raag Malhar can come to the rescue by bringing in rains. Legend and the film have it that Akbar the great Mughal emperor tested if it could also melt rocks. He ordered a competition between Tansen, one of his nau-ratans (nine gems) and Baijnath Mishra, a young obscure musician. And he let his anxious courtiers witness the supernatural spectacle.

In reality, however, Akbar believed in the powers of the saints and had walked barefoot to the shrine of Saleem Chishti to beg the great saint for the birth of a son. (watch the first scene of Mughal-e-Azam).The miracle did happen, Akbar was blessed with a son, he named him Saleem after the saint; Saleem the Moghul is popularly known as Jehangir.

Sufis and music go together. Sufi songs are hymns to the divine and odes to the beloved saints; set to music these can stir hysteria. Some of the Sufi saints have been poets and some of their disciples have written devotional verses that are still recited around their shrines and beyond. When Ustad Hidayat recited Amir Khusro’s evergreen “chaap tilak sub cheen lee mujh say naina milaikay” (here is a recording from one of his earlier concerts) it mesmerized a versatile crowd mainly consisting of Indians, Pakistanis and Americans. If music is the universal language it can be the binding force between nations, we can turn the pages of history to confirm this.

Sufism is a phenomenon of the vast and diverse non-Arab Muslim World. South Asian Sufism is immersed in poetry, music and dance, and nowhere it has been as effective as in India where it made Islam thrive in a climate of religious pluralism and where Sufis came to be venerated by non-Muslims. Even today the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer, attracts both Hindu and Muslim pilgrims from all over the country. The age old mystique continues in Pakistan where shrines such as of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Sindh are equally revered by the Hindus of Pakistan. Let’s not forget that Sufi saints themselves lived above religious and ethnic prejudices. Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, is known to have practiced yoga and meditation. Shah Abdul Latif of Sindh, traveled with the yogis to perform pilgrimage to Hinglaj Mata, the western most holy place of the Hindus. Sufi saints of Kashmir are even confused with Vedic rishis.  The legacy of tolerance continues as the musicians from India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Trinidad and United States ended their concert in Columbus, Ohio, by paying tribute to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Pakistan. And this reminds me of Runa Laila, a Bengali singer, singing the same song in the seventies of Pakistan.

The concert was a fundraiser for Asha Ray of Hope, a non-profit organization that protects women against domestic violence. Sufi music ensemble was just the appropriate choice as shrines had always been sanctuaries for women in South and West Asia. In their hours of anguish they often wail at the shrines and invoke dead saints through songs and dance. Women can even rise to sainthood in Sufi Islam, Rabia may be the most known women saints of the Muslim World but there are obscure women scions of ordinary saintly houses in rural Pakistan who are symbols of comfort to the many distressed women of their neighboring villages. Militant Islamist groups are certainly against this brand of Islam. In 2009 few days before bombing the shrine of Rehman Baba in Peshawar, they had warned the custodians to stop women from visiting the shrine. Three years later they have stooped to the level of targeting young girls who advocate education. Talibans eventually destroyed the Rehman Baba shrine, the grief and anger bought Afghanistan a step closer to Pakistan as the Afghan government responded by bearing the costs of reconstruction of the shrine. Rehman Baba is revered in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the tribal belt between the two countries; his poetry echoes in the Pashtun land.

Sufi saints continue to keep the countries united even in the worst of times. Sufi bondage between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is worth recognition by the foreign policymakers of these countries. Perhaps this can be one of the strong pillars of the Afpak policy of Obama administration. Sufi music is equally evolving, it has the power of conquering the youth as it adjusts to the new trends and even creeps in the contemporary non-religious realm. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan has set the trend. And here is the Bollywood version, enjoy.

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