Sufism, an offshoot of Islam, is concerned with the personal and mystical experience of god. conveyed through dance, music, poetry, and a passionate yearning for the beloved, this lyrical path is captivating the attention of new age gurus and seekers alike…
‘Sufism talks about love of God. It is poetry, music, dance and God as the Beloved. That is what makes me Sufi. Yes! I am Sufi,’ says Gurumaa Anandmurti.
She’s the singing, swinging guru of the 21st century, and the people around her are enchanted by her rhythms, touched to the core of their being by what she says and the way she says it. She’s modern, conscious of herself as a woman; she’s universal. She talks and teaches with healing nuances, more and more, about Sufism!
‘One who is drunk in the divine love is a Sufi,’ she says, adding, ‘I was in Turkey for one month, last year. I was greeted with great love and accepted by the people, and they shared with me their secret methods from the sema. I was the first one, where no woman has ever entered…’.
I too feel strongly drawn to the path of the Sufi, and so do many others I know, as we set the mind to rest and let the heart do the talking; or rather, let the mind dance to the tunes of the heart.
Humanity responds to the healing touch of Sufi consciousness, torn asunder and bereft of simple human values by the sharp and divisive ideologies and violent struggles of the 20th century that have almost set up soul against soul. Human civilization lies battered and brutalized in the harsh glare of I against you, mine is bigger, better, more uplifting than yours…the warp and woof of the cosmic grab cuts to the bone as a major part of ‘civilization’ lies shriveled and curled up, while there’s some who ride the trip to bigger, faster, higher, better.
More and more of us turn away from what we see out there; there’s no words to express the tears shed within. It’s gotten too hot out here, Maan, I wanna go home!
the sea says something to me in the dark, waiting on the edges, blurring, its gentle rushing in my ear; it beckons, i want to crawl in a hole, sleep…salty sea, misty, warm, enveloping, giving…
The fog rolls in, healing, with the haunting aroma of pine and cedar on the air, giving a respite from the glare and the nerve-sapping heat of the sun. It covers the shards. There’s a subtle shift, some movement upon the air. There’s something gentle flowing, and it is not animal or human blood.
The sounds of the reed begin to play, almost inaudible at first. The spirit moves, it is a healing drift, a gentle blowing upon the air… a quiescence, at first, and then the lilt of the Turkish ney (flute).
Someone’s saying a prayer, for all humanity, for mercy and compassion. Bodies and minds that appeared deadened, numb, incapable of life or love, begin to sway to the soft, gentle tune. There’s more movement as the fog moves, casting its misty aura that makes things look ethereal and somehow, more human. Heads turn, eyes look skywards in supplication, and then to the chest, inviting a descent into the heart…
Arms begin to link, and the spirit of dance and music, of rapt engrossment, discipline and responsibility, and yet, of joy in togetherness, of the mind and body unity, of harmony and celebration of God consciousness begins to touch more and more, drawing and encompassing all together in a loving swirl.
Shapes and hues are mystically dissolved in the one, pure and white. A whirlpool of longing and invocation, of hope and faith… round and round, imitating the great cosmic choreography, speeding up without respite, until the sky bends down to kiss the earth and all life itself seems to merge on the horizon in a single spiral of ecstasy. There is magic and enchantment, self-discovery and self-forgetting, to learn the lesson of oneness and compassion… the forgotten message of the prophet. This is how the dance happens…
Sufi Dervish Dance
Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
The spirit of Shams and his disciple, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi lives on in the dance of the dervish, as cherished spiritual heritage preserved in its pure form in Turkey. Rumi is the spirit of the dance and Rumi’s is the breath upon the pines that calls the sufi upon the path, through poetry and love, expressing longing for the beloved, the one and only, who serves to give meaning to the path.
Dr. Zeenat Shaukat Ali teaches Islamic Studies at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai, and serves on the committees of many important institutions in the city. Zeenat, who recently visited Turkey, went to a mausoleum in Istanbul to observe the ritual of the dance of dervishes, describing the scene to me in an evocative, visual manner.
The dance is a very formal thing, to be performed in a strictly choreographed manner, as the shaykh of the religious order leads his shagirds (disciples) into the ritual of the sema.
It is a dance that begins with a prayer, in the community setting. Paradoxically, as with all things spiritual, the dividing lines blur once the spirit begins to move, and discipline and responsibility give way to freedom and bliss.
Voices rise in a crescendo in zikr, the holy name, until the prayer and chant merges and fuses with the spirit in motion, attuned to the motion of the spheres in universal rhythm. The dance itself begins to be expressed as a prayer of yearning for the mystic divine in fusion with the music of the ney. Index fingers of the right hand raised high twirl heavenwards around a circular axis, while those of the other hand point to the earth. The dancers seem to encompass within their beings the entire universe.
Round and round they go… individual and the cosmic leading and following each other in an indistinguishable unity. Waves of divine passion and rhythm carry afloat the dancers and onlookers into a unity of being and essence towards purging, exaltation and unfoldment in a formal, disciplined and stylistic form of self-expression.
Sounds and invocations merge into a single word, Allahu~Allahu~Allahu~ in what is a totally overwhelming experience. It embraces the community as prayer becomes dance and dance becomes spirit, rising upwards into the ether.
The path of the sufi began with the Prophet, the young mystic who wore the rough, patched robe of the mendicant.
He lost himself in the mountains, in solitude, in contemplation and meditation and bathed in the descent of light, until the spirit learnt to move with angels and the speaker, the messenger and the message, all merged together into a single, spiraling whole…
But the message of the mystic faded away for a while, in the din of dogma and doctrine, until the times were changing, and others, moved by suffering and the ecstasy of union, made their voices felt. A Persian poet wrote,
I am happy even before I have a reason.
I am full of Light even before the sky
Can greet the sun or the moon.
We have been in love with God
For so very, very long.
What can Hafiz now do but Forever
And there were many who heard the Call, raising their heads in the fog, following the One in spirit, in dance, music, prayer and healing, through troubled times. Ibn Arabi, Al Ghazzali, Saadi, Attar, Sanai, Umar Khayyam. So many of the wanderers, touched by the spirit of oneness, spread out like the gentle seas to give the message of the sufi silsila, its spiritual lineage continuing from master to disciple through many centuries and cultures.
This is how the dance of oneness began…
The Dance Began With Rumi
Rumi (1207-1273 CE) founded the order of dervishes, in his later hometown of Konia in Turkey. Where the previous sufis were the seas of mysticism, love and compassion, Rumi was oceanic in the universal sweep and depth of his vision and inspiration.
Like many other sufis, Rumi was destined to be a wanderer, from the diffuse boundaries of northwestern Ind in what is now Afghanistan, to Persia and Turkey, to escape the scythe of violence and hatred, traveling across many lands in the course of a remarkable life, speaking many languages. He declared that the whole world was his homeland.
the sea plays upon the strings of my heart passionate music i want to give the sea all my love life body and soul
He was dervish, scholar, philosopher, poet and mystic, and his genius fused body, mind and spirit together as the instrument of divine inspiration, bringing in the community in prayer. Rumi was the first in a long time, to speak of finding God through service to humanity. He also taught to love the saints, as Perfect Men. And the Sufi was to be recognized by the purity of heart! Rumi, who was modest and humble to the core, had suffered under intolerance and bigotry from the beginning, and he decried fanaticism, intolerance and zealotry.
Like most sufis before and after, Rumi spoke the holy word of Quran, dedicated his life to zikr, repeating the holy name until it merged with the living breath, said the prayers and observed the fasts, following the faith of the One and none other!
And yet, Rumi fashioned words that also spoke of advaita and the gospel, avesta, and the talmud, so that all the streams and rivers and seas merged into the vast ocean of human understanding, faith and experience of God, in a celebration of the spirit. Rumi also gave the world parables in Persian, and many of these had origins in the Panchatantra of ancient India, like the story of the elephant and the blind men.
Rumi spoke straight from the heart, using the language of love, nature and the world around him in the mystical verse of Divan-i-Shams-i-Tabriz and the voluminous Mathnavi.
His work was centered in love; to him, music was the highest expression of love, and dance the highest expression of music. Dance and music are inseparable from the sufi personality. Ultimately, he came to be recognized as ‘humanity’s most passionate poet!’
In the words of Sunita Jain of Mumbai, who pines for kindred souls equally ‘immersed in the universal Rumi consciousness': ‘What more visually beautiful words could there be.. a breath of divinity.. an inflamed rapture.. touching the abandonment in Rumi’s words nourishes our souls.. the unadorned release satiating it.. joy dances inside our hearts as these words enter within, making us feel the music in our veins..’.
Sufis, Rishis and Miracle-Workers
About 8th century onwards there arose the many Sufi saints with a pure heart and compassionate vision that drew to them not only the faithful, but also those, through the touch of miracle and healing, who willingly chose to embrace the fold of Islam. Many things of beauty, love and unity, were of the Sufi spirit, expressed in calligraphy, pottery, hand-woven textiles, poetry, music and dance.
In Basra there lived a saint like none other, born in poverty and suffering, the humble woman Rabia Al Adawwiya (714-801 ce), who carved her own niche among Sufi saints of the world. She wrote,
I swear that ever since the first day you
brought me back to life, The day you became my friend,
I have not slept-
And even if you drive me from your door,
I swear again that we will never again
Because you are alive in my heart.
The fragrance of her communion with divinity spread far and wide, and they came to see her, to learn from her the loving surrender and wisdom of the pure heart, to be blessed by the grace of her presence.
It is said that once the holy stone of Ka’aba walked halfway to meet her on the pilgrimage to Mecca. And in the once gentle land of Kashmir grew a strange heterodox culture of universal harmony, where the Sufi was addressed as rishi, and the naked woman of faith, Lalla Yogishwari, also became Lal Ded, the sufi!
In the words of Braj B. Kachru (An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri), ‘Some people consider her a poet, some consider her a holy woman and some consider her a Sufi, a yogi, or a devotee of Shiva. Some even consider her an avtar. But every Kashmiri considers her a wise woman. Every Kashmiri has some sayings of Lalla on the tip of his tongue. The Kashmiri language is full of her sayings.’
One Soul in Two Bodies, Bhakti and Sufism
When music called to the universal spirit, the silsilas expanded to encompass all humanity. The dance mutated, transformed, and spread to other cultures, other lands, touching kindred spirits that cried with the same yearning for the beloved, suffering the pangs of separation and sorrow, finding the self and losing it once again, in the company of kindred spirits. The 11th century poet Hakim Sanai wrote,
If you were really a lover
you’d see that faith and infidelity
When love arose in the spirit of dance and merged with the beloved and lover to become one, the outcome was transcendence and illumination. It was not enough for the Sufi to be drunken in love for the divine; once the divine had merged with the spirit, and space and time had coalesced in the person of the hazrat, the aulia, he became the teacher of teachers, the pir-o-murshid and also healer, a granter of boons. In his person, was the authority to intercede with the divine on behalf of the suffering. The fragrance of the divine in the person of the Sufi mystic spread far and wide and the troubled people, men and women, came in droves, across all divides of class, caste and creed.
That is how Akbar walked barefoot to the residence of Salim Chisti, in supplication for the gift of an heir. Blessed by the saint, a son was born to him, named Salim, who later came to rule India as Moghul emperor Jehangir. And far in the Deccan, Malojiraje Bhonsle similarly prayed to Pir Shah Sharif of Ahmednagar and sired two sons who were named Shahaji and Sharifji. Shahaji was the father of Shivaji.
Legends of the miracle workers grew and the shrines multiplied, across the length and breadth of India, as strains of bhakti and Sufism wove and knotted parallel strands that merged together in saints like Kabir, or in the Sufi shrines, so that it became hard to tell which was which, for it spoke the same language of music and dance, of oneness, love and compassion.
The spirit of ecstasy, the fana or self-annihilation in the love of God sought by the dervish coalesced with the Hindustani alaap and raagdari, to be transformed into the sama of Indian qawwali, to transport the community of singers and listeners upward through the ringing tones of zikr and improvised bhakti lyrics.
They sang the language of Ishq and Mohabbat, using the metaphor of love for the unattainable beloved, the veiled beauty, expressing sorrow and deep yearning for the formless divine. This was similar in tone and tenor to the bhajans that used the nama in chorus and reiterated the theme of Haribhakti in a rising crescendo, following the lead singer’s taans and alaaps.
It is thus that the qawwalis of Amir Khusrau sang in the idiom of bhakti, bahut kathin hain dagar panghat ki, kaise mein bhar laaun madhva se matki…the path to the source is full of perils, how am to fetch my pitcher of water?… Or again, the holi festival dyes coloring the pure white veil of honor, expressed as rang de chuneriya were transformed in the longing expressed by Khusrao for his friend and guide Nizamuddin Aulia, asking to be hued in the colors of Mehboob-e-Ilahi, the saint who was beloved of the Almighty.
So also did the Hindvi dohas (Indian couplets) and the dosukhnay or riddles of Amir Khusrau derive from the folklore of the north. Imbued with the same spirit of sufi expression using quintessentially Indian idiom, the basant panchami or the festival of spring began to be celebrated in the khaneqah (monastery) and dargah of the Chistia saint!
Dr. Gholam Sarwar, Persian Studies scholar in the University of Calcutta, describes the sufis as missionaries of Islam. He interestingly describes how the Muslim Bauls, the wandering minstrels of Bengal, use the form and style of the Vaishnav saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to sing the verses of Rumi. And the latter was himself influenced by ancient Indian thought, including the idea of rebirth.
In a fine exposition of the influence of bhakti and vedanta, dvait and advait on the sufi philosophy, Prof. Sabar J. Havewalla, Persian Studies expert of the JNU, New Delhi, evocatively expresses the sufi progression from knowledge of God, seeing God, to finally being in the presence of God. She uses the popular bhakti lyrics of Meera to make her point. Thus in the first state, it is akin to – pag ghunghroo bandh Meera nachi re (Meera danced with bells on her anklets); in the second state, is the pain of awareness of separation – yeh ankhiya kaha nahi mane, nadiya bahe jaise sawanki (these eyes overflow unheeding, like the river in the rains); and finally, comes the ecstasy of union – payoji maine, Ram ratan dhan payo! (Listen, the precious Soul treasure now belongs to me)!,
Call of the Dargah
This is how there came to be the most famous dargah in India, that of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer. The saint had chosen to work his spiritual gifts amidst the people of this ancient land, learning its languages, at home in its diverse culture, moved by its spirit of tolerance and love; the love was reciprocated. Places the saint resided in or visited were imbued with divine energy for all time.
Zeenat Shaukat Ali confides that through her personal pain, she is being guided through the process of lifting successive ‘veils’, so that she now finds herself beginning to tread the path of the sufi, as a part of the caravan across the vast desert of human misery. She reminisces about her visit to the Gharib Nawaz dargah in Ajmer:
‘As I waited in the courtyard, there was this old man to whom I asked, ‘Are the saints born the way they are, or is their exaltation the result of a lifetime of effort?’ The old man smiled, and gently replied, ‘Look at this mud; observe its constituents. It has silica, grit and there are stones in it. There are rocks that bear water, and it may even contain precious stones, diamonds. Nobody can make diamonds. They are there, whether you see them or not. It is up to you to remove the veils (of illusion) separating yourself from God-consciousness. Once you do that, whether you are a diamond, a pearl or in humble service, the light begins to shine upon you, by the grace of God’.’
There was another such precious pearl, who came all the way from Afghanistan to find succor under a neem tree in the British cantonment town of Pune. Many were the people who recognized her for what she was. For this was no ordinary woman; she was Hazrat Babajan, the guru of Meher Baba.
She was in mystic contact with the many saints of her time, including Sai Baba of Shirdi and Swami Samarth of Akkalkot, in what was a community of Self unique to those times! Babajan lived to the ripe old age of 129 and when she passed away in the early 20th century, there were thousands milling around at her funeral procession for a last darshan.
Confluence of Faiths
A large framed print of a photograph depicting the sea of humanity accompanying her last journey, hangs on the wall behind her cenotaph. It evokes ‘the marriage night’ of the sufi saint, an occasion of celebration because the saint has at last achieved what she passionately yearned for throughout her life, a union with the Beloved. This is why the passing away of the sufi saint is always celebrated in the urs as an occasion of great joy!
I recently visited the off-shore dargah of Haji Ali, a major landmark in Mumbai. The palm trees nestling within the walls of the beautiful white monument swayed to the cold sea breeze under an inky sky, adding to its other-worldly dimension. I made my devout offerings at the majhar, and the attendant swished my aura with waves of a stick bearing peacock feathers, to my great delight as usual. And when I sat to meditate next to the cenotaph, the power of the place throbbed vibrantly through my frame as the pir and my exalted guru merged together in a heartfelt prayer.
Sorab Irani, Mumbai-based international film-maker, was inspired while watching sunset ‘a timeless day’ on the rocks behind the Haji Ali dargah. He says, ‘A sufi is a realised being who has actualised his true Self as pure potentiality – pure power.
‘The realised person is a permanent source of power based on knowledge of the self. This power draws people to itself; it also attracts things that are needed; it magnetises people, situations and circumstances to support the desires of human beings, putting them in the state of grace.
‘The sufi often chose to remain anonymous; out of deep compassion, he concentrated his energy and charged a place so that divine love constantly manifested itself there.’
Sufism thus came to represent a curious confluence of faiths in sharp relief against the background of divisive ideologies driven by greed and aggrandisement.
Both sufism and bhakti represented universal themes of shared experience and ecstasy through union with the beloved. At the confluence of these two streams arose not just tolerance, but deep acceptance and love, of the kind that is possible when poetry, music and dance are the message of the heart in recognition of soul love.
I meet Babasaheb Afzal Warsi, a sufi master from Indore. He tells me to remember that the sufi talks only of the madhura aspect of bhakti, of knowing god as the beloved. He points to the similarity of doctrines, in the sufi statement of ana-l-haq (in reality, a phrase used by the Prophet to mean that he was a part of the Creator) and the aham brahmasmi (I am That) of vedanta. ‘The bhakti influence is strong in sufism, and it is the influence of mantra that prevails, rather than tantra,’ he says.
‘Roza (fasting), namaz (prayer), zakat (charity), hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and zikr (repetition of the names of Allah) are elements of Islam that are important to the sufi,’ he says. ‘Sufism is about surrender, self-sacrifice and self-annihilation for the love of God.’
How to recognise a sufi? ‘Identify him, who talks little, eats little, sleeps little; and whose tongue is empowered (with truth). The sufi is one who is closest to God; and he is ahead of all in remembering Allah.’
Adds Babasaheb, ‘Sufism is nothing but ekeshwarvad (belief in one god) of vedanta; with emphasis on mohabbat, love for the niranjan nirakar, the pure and the formless, calling for supreme surrender!’
There were other steps dancing to the tunes of the spirit, Idries Shah, Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan, Gurdjieff, Osho, Deepak Chopra and the young seekers, and now more and more, men and women in different cultures, different lands, all speaking the same language, moving to the same rhythm and ecstasy of spirit.
Nandini Mahesh has now for many years organised an annual sufi cultural event of folk dance, folk music and qawwali called Ruhaniyat, in Mumbai. She talks of Baba Bulleshah and mystics like Kabir, whose words have the power to affect her very deeply. She tells of the Hindi kalams of Rajasthan, bringing together the sufi spirit and the saguna bhakti of Meera.She says, ‘I have this interest in sufism, the whole idea of freedom. This is the path to follow, for me. It makes light of whatever that you have to work upon, while treading the spiritual path. I feel more connected to sufism and its creative self-expression. It leads me away from unyielding dogma, the rigidity of watertight compartments, and hierarchy. I feel drawn to its unique sort of connection with the Almighty.’
R. K. Munir is a film-maker in Mumbai, who first started out with a whole lot of questions. It led him to some passages in the Upanishads that spoke of the ultimate reality as God. That whetted his interest and he began to delve into the Bhagavad Gita, which led him to Buddhism, Christianity and the life of Jesus Christ. In the end, he came a full circle, to the Holy Quran and Islam.
He says, ‘The reality of Islam are the core tenets that show how to uplift and elevate human consciousness. The Quran teaches how to control your nafs, the defilements of kaam (desire), krodh (anger), lobh (greed), moha (covetousness) and ahankar (egotism). This is the essence of the inner aspect of Islam. Saliq is the traveler on the path, and sulooq is the process of self-purification.
‘And when the Hadith Qutsi quotes the words of Allah, ‘The entire humanity is my family, and whosoever is good to humanity is good to me’, that in effect, is the crux of sufism.’ He says that sufism derives inspiration from the compassionate side of the Prophet. He is himself also greatly inspired by sufis like Rumi, Sirhind, Abdul Qadir Jeelani and Iqbal.
‘The mystic consciousness is a product of the personal quest, and the grace of God,’ he says, adding, ‘God is all around us, out of his concern for life. The greatness of sufism lies in its affirming this experience of divinity through creative works and through service to humanity.’
Dr. Ali Ansari is a Hyderabad -based mechanical engineer who leads the Indian chapter of ‘Engineers Without Borders'; he is also the author of Sufism and Beyond. He says, ‘One of my ‘sufi’ teachers once said: anyone who ‘claims’ to be a sufi cannot be one. Like ‘Reality’ itself, sufism is amorphous. No one can represent it or speak for it. Trying to define it is like the four blind persons touching and perceiving an elephant as four disparate objects. The sufis believe ‘reality’ is like that, as this verse (translated from Urdu) marvellously puts it:
Lau shama-e-haqeeqat kee
Apnee hi jageh par hai
Fanoos ki gardish se
Kya kya nazar aata hai
‘Faceless, the flame of Reality stands,
Still in its place,
Round and round the chandelier turns,
And shows many a face.
‘We live in a world peopled by ‘man’ – a world full of chaos, destruction, war, ethnic passions and naked greed. But, in the midst of all this, a powerful force beckons each of us to become more than man. That Call is what sufism is about, as is Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Yoga, Hinduism, Christianity, or Sikhism.’
Uncannily, the words of Ali Ansari coalesce with the thoughts expressed by Gurumaa Anandmurti, who says, ‘Sufi is not a name given to any person; it wholly means love – pure love for the divine.’The sufi is just pure love and all those who have a heart full of pure love belong to sufism. That makes sufi a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Yehudi or a Zen. A sufi is all these because in reality he is none of these!
‘When someone tries to be something or somebody he is limited to being that somebody but when one feels that he is nobody, he has actually reached a stage where now he is everybody. He grows beyond the boundaries of religion, caste, region and sex; he identifies himself with everybody he meets. There is a certain quality of melting and merging. You become one with the universal life force that permeates the entire living and non-living creation.’
She concludes with a touching insight into the dance of the sema: ‘The heart of a sufi yearns for the beloved divine; it is but natural that he keeps his hand on his heart. It is as simple as one touching the stomach when it aches, the head when there is a headache or the eye when it hurts. So when the heart is aching for ‘beloved divine’, it is natural that the sufi touches the place where the heart is and then bows a little. That is the sufi way of greeting, slightly bowing down with one hand on the heart. When one is in love, one cannot but help touch his aching heart.
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