Sufic poetry and music

Print edition : September 06, 1997

THE crux of Sufism or Islamic mysticism lies in the notion of the soul's exile from its Maker and its longing in the face of other attractions to return and lose itself in Him. This notion makes love the essential element of the seeker's attitude towards God and the elimination (fana) of the self for merger (wisal) in God as the aim and object of that love. While these ideas originated early in Islam and reached their full maturity with the great Spanish-Arab mystic ibn al-Arabi (d.1241), it is true that, as R.A. Nicholson recognised, it was in Persian poetry that mystic sentiments found their boldest expression. Jalaluddin Rumi (d.1273), Fariduddin Attar (d.1274), and Hafiz Shirazi (d.1389) put Sufic ideas in the imagery of wine and love that belonged to earlier, purely secular, Persian poetry. The transformation of secular (majazi) into divine (haqiqi) love is already present in India's own great Persian poet Amir Khusrau (d.1325), a courtier and friend of the famous Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya, at the same time.

Naturally, then, in all Sufic poetry, the central theme is love: it overrides all other reasons why God should be obeyed. Thus Rumi:

"I made a far journey Earth's fair cities to view But like to the love's city City none I knew"

There is a response expected from God as well. This is boldly put by Hafiz as akin to "whistling from the battlement of God's throne" to the "high-gazing royal falcon" having his "nest" in "this corner of affliction city". The same idea was crisply summarised by Sadi (13th century) when he said: "My friend is in my bosom while I am separated from him."

The Sufic path of love to reach God inevitably clashed with the formalistic approach of the Ulama who, in many situations, influenced the ruling authorities to adopt a suppressive attitude towards those transgressing the rules and rituals jealously guarded by them as the essentials of Islam. Thus in Sufic poetry there emerged a spirit of defiance and self-sacrifice: "In the curtain of blood love weaves its flowers" (Rumi). In Hafiz, this tension develops into a defiant scepticism of established customs. Henceforth the preacher (shaikh or nasih) as well as the functionary responsible for enforcing morally correct behaviour in society (muhtasib) became the targets of irony and ridicule, which, at times, would cross the limits of decent discourse. Mansur al-Hallaj, executed in 922 in Baghdad for not repenting his ultimate Sufic declaration "I am God" (ana al-Haq), became a model martyr in Sufic poetry in both Persian and Urdu. Indeed, India created its own martyr, Sarmad, executed on Aurangzeb's orders in 1660. He was a mystic poet who had aspired to the crown of Mansur Hallaj, and who in turn has attained a similar position in Urdu poetry. It speaks of the deep foundations that love and pantheism had established in Sufic minds that Sarmad exclaimed to his executioner: "Come in whatever garb You choose, I recognise You well."

The tension between poet or lover on the one hand and the theologian, the shaikh, on the other, emerges in classical Urdu poetry in a heightened form. A new dimension was added to the poets' polemics against formalism by a tendency on their part to counterpoise Brahman and but (idol) and even Somnath and the Islamic symbols of Shaikh and Kaba. Mir Taqi Mir, the great 18th-century Urdu lyricist, says:

"It is the power of His beauty fills the world with light Be it the Kaba's candle or the lamp that lights Somnath."

Or, again:

"Too long the mosque and monastery have stifled you. One day at least Set out at dawn and spend the day in (the) garden where red roses grow."

Ghalib's attack on religious formalism is couched in a more sophisticated and universalist idiom:

"What is the temple, what is the Kaba? Baffled passion for Union constructing Myth and illusion, asylum of shelter, Its ardour, its hope, its dreams and despair."

The Sufic message of Persian and Urdu poetry found down-to-earth and refreshing representation in the devotional poetry of the regional dialects of North India. The occasional use of Sufic metaphors by Kabir and, more so, in Nanak is perhaps a very significant example of this phenomenon. Also to be mentioned are the 'Sufi poets' of the Punjab, Lal Husain (1539-94), Shah Abdul Latif (1680-1748), and Bhullha Shah (1680-1758), who were roving minstrels composing and singing devotional songs that carried a strong mix of bhakti and Sufism.

The origins of Sufic music, which, by the 16th century, had become intimately linked to the folk tradition of devotional music of the Punjab, Braj and Awadh, is traditionally traced to Amir Khusrau. Among the important Sufic orders of India, while Suharwirdis and Qadris objected to music (sama), the Chishtis and Shattaris as well as a host of other minor orders regarded sama as a means to achieve mystic ecstasy. Amir Khusrau is credited by tradition with the invention of the devotional form of singing called qawwali. The Sabri saint Adbul Quddus Gangohi (d.1536) was famous for his involvement with devotional music. It affected him more when the song was in the local dialect. On one occasion, at a marriage, when women started singing in Hindi, "uncover your veil, for he is twisting your arm," he was so carried away that he began to tear his clothes off. Sometimes these devotional songs would be woven round themes and symbols taken from the lilas of Lord Krishna. In the Deccan these were sometimes replaced by Saivite symbols. But it was the rustic abandon of the music played at popular festivals that affected the Sufis most. There is a story about a well-known Sufi of Kanauj: while listening to Hindus singing on Holi he would fall into a trance and follow the procession dancing all the way on the streets of the town. When the Sultan of Jaunpur issued a warning to the Sufi, he defiantly invited punishment, but refused to obey.

Sufic devotional music in the dialects acquired great popularity among the common people. Akbar, the Mughal emperor, accidentally came across in a remote place a party of qawwals singing in praise of the Sufi saint of Ajmer, Muinuddin Chishti. This chance encounter made Akbar a great patron of the Ajmer shrine. Some time later, Akbar got an opportunity to listen to Shaikh Banjhu (Baiju Bawara of popular tradition), a qawwal with Sufic leanings from Jaunpur. According to the historian Badauni, himself a fine instrumentalist, he was enchanted by Shaikh Banjhu's performance to the point of comparing him with Tansen.

The Mughal emperors, notably Akbar and Shah Jehan, were great patrons of Tansen and other masters of Indian music, which, especially in the songs of love and of Krishna and Radha, were seen as parallels to Sufic poetry, and so especially worthy of patronage. In its emphasis on love, sacrifice and scepticism with regard to existing beliefs, Sufic poetry forms a great unifying factor and is an inalienable part of Indian tradition. And, therefore, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the great qawwal of Pakistan, deserves to be claimed by both our countries.

Iqtidar Alam Khan, former Professor, Centre for Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, has been elected General President of the Indian History Congress to be held in November in Bangalore.

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