Why Criticizing Islam is Not Islamophobia

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Written by Randeep Singh

Writing in the wake of Charlie Hebdo in Al-Jazeera, Abdullah Al-Arian argues that Islam has been “unfairly criticized and ridiculed” by the West for centuries. Such a history, he writes, has prejudiced the West into into painting Islam as illiberal and intolerant.

Islamophobia is a reality. So too are problems within Islam and the Muslim world. Islamophobia should be condemned; but not criticizing or questioning Islam or Muslim societies.

If I criticize Islam for engendering patriarchy, the persecution of minority groups and its smug, supremacist view of itself, it’s because I have criticized Christianity for the same reasons. I oppose Christian organizations for their homophobia, without hating Christianity. I criticize Israel without hating Jews. I criticize Islam without hating it. I am not hating or fearing anyone: I am striving for equality, inclusion and justice regardless of who or what we are.

The fight for freedom of expression is not a clash between civilizations. It has been happening within the Muslim world for centuries. Mansur Al-Hallaj (856-922) became a martyr for proclaiming “I am the Truth (God).” Sarmad (1590-1661) too was martyred for his “heretical” views. Bulleh Shah (1680-1757) challenged the mullah for his sectarian views. In modern times, Nazim Hikmat (1902-1963), Saadat Hassan Manto (1912-1955) Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984) and Naghuib Mahfouz (1911-2006) have all been imprisoned, exiled or censured for their art and political views.

Criticism of the Muslim world as illiberal and intolerant today is likewise vindicated. Just ask Raif Badwai, the blogger who recently received 50 lashes in Saudia Arabia. Or ask Aasiya Bibi, the Christian women who languishes in prison on charges of blasphemy in Pakistan. Or how about Salman Rushdie?

Without change, the Muslim world will become progressively more intolerant and creatively barren. Denying any criticism of Islam produces a culture which is afraid to ask questions and unable to find answers.

The Sufi Legacy in South Asia

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Written by Randeep Singh

On September 13, 2014, the Hari Sharma Foundation in association with a number of arts and cultural groups, presented the conference, “Spirituality, Humanity and the Marginalized: The Sufi Legacy in South Asia” and a musical concert “Songs of Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Kabir, Lalon Fakir and Rabindranath Tagore.”

One of the musical highlights was the husband-wife team from Bangladesh, Farida Parveen (on voice and harmonium) and Ghazi Abdul Hakim (on flute). Ghazi on the bamboo flute turned music into poetry, filling the concert hall with the colour of Bengal, taking us beyond the streams and paddy fields.

Farida Parveen sang the songs of Lalon Fakir with a gusto and a tenderness in her earthy tones. The concert also featured Enakshi Chatterjee from Calcutta who opened with songs of Tagore and Madan Gopal Singh from Delhi who sang songs of Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah and others.

The highlight of the conference was Dr. Nile Green (UCLA) and the ensuing discussion. Green’s presentation, “Mazaars for the Marginalized” underlined the pluralistic, cosmopolitan dimensions of Sufism, of its journey across trade routes by caravans from Khurasan eastwards to Turkey and southwards through the Khyber Pass into Hindustan.

That plural and cosmopolitan spirit, Green spoke, is heard in the tradition of Sufi poetry and music which filtered into India from Khurason. It is in words like “Auliya” (Arabic), “Pir” (Persian) and “Baba”(Turkish), epiphets for Sufi masters and in the shajars (genealogical trees) of Sufis tracing their ancestry to Samarkand or the Hejaz. Sufi shrines included Greek Christians in Turkey as they did Hindus in India.

The appeal of Sufism to the marginalized according to Green was in its creation of a space where social power was redistributed more evenly. Sufis also acted as important intermediaries between the ruler and the common man in economic, political and legal matters and Sufi institutions provided food and medical care to the poor.

The piety and inclusiveness of the Sufi was questioned during the discussion period. Sunera Thobani mentioned how the Sufi pirs themselves had vast estates and wealth, whereas Habiba Zaman pointed out how Sufi spaces often clearly excluded women. Green himself pointed out today how Sufis became kings of Libya upon that country’s independence or how those of Sufi lineage sit in parliament in Pakistan. Green also reminded us of the hierarchy within Sufi orders, no where more uncompromising than in the relationship between the murshid and the pir.

One member of the audience asked whether Sufism or “Islam-lite” was a way of making Islam more acceptable and congenial to a post-911 West. Whether it is remains a topic for further discussion. But what Green reminded us is that Sufism has always had an appeal beyond just Muslims and the shariat and the importance of its role in shaping culture, Islamic or otherwise.

An Evening with Saeen Zahoor

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Written by Randeep Singh

On May 31, 2014, Pakistani Sufi singer Saeen Zahoor performed at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, sending the audience into trance, dance and inspiring reverence throughout.

The evening brought together local Indian and Pakistani performers, organizers and audience members. Indo-Pakistani band Naqsh IPB opened the evening with their blend of modern Sufi, rock, classical and filmi musical stylings. Through clashing drums, pulsating guitar riffs and the soaring vocals of Daksh Kubba, Naqsh warmed up the crowd for Saeen.

He entered in his long black kurta embroidered in yellow, ghungroo bells jingling around his ankles, carrying his colourfully decorated ektaara (one-string instrument). “I am not an artist,” he began, “I am a dervish who recites the name of His Master.”

Saeen didn’t just sing: he performed in every sense of the word. The spirit of Bulleh Shah poured through Saeen, his songs, his dance, his story-telling. His two hours on the stage was a musical theatre on the life and poetry of Bulleh Shah.

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After declaring his devotion to Bulleh Shah in “Ni Mai Kamli Haan” (‘Crazy I Am!’), Saeen sang “Aukhen Painde Lambiyaan Raavan” (‘Hard and Long are the Paths’), of how Bulleh Shah journeyed for miles in search of his teacher. On meeting his teacher, Shah Inayat, Bulleh Shah asks: “how does one find God.” Shah Inayat, planting spring onions, replies: “what do you want to find God for? Just uproot this from here and plant it there.”

Saeen then broke out ecstatically into “Nachna Painda Ae” (‘Dance One Must’) swirling on the stage in his ghunghroo bells just as Bulleh Shah had once for Shah Inayat.

Saeen also sang on Bulleh Shah’s rebukes to legalistic Muslim clerics in “Bas Kare O Yaara Ilm” (‘Enough of Learning, My Friend’). Saeen tells us, Bulleh Shah gave up the shariah for the way of Love just as Heer refused to marry another man according to the shariah because she had been wedded spiritually to her Beloved. On love’s path, Saeen sings “let’s go Bulleh to that place where everyone is blind” in “Chal Bulleha Uthe Chale.”

From his stepping onto the stage, the audience became disciples of Saeen. He sang with abandon, he whirled with frenzy and he ended the night to the boom of the dhol drum bringing the audience to its feet. The air was filled with passion, energy and devotion. People went up to the stage and paid their respects by touching their heads to the stage or folding their hands in reverence: the theatre became a Sufi shrine, a dargah.

Above all, Saeen ensured Bulleh Shah will live on as a shared heritage. His spirit and art were the spirit of love and unity. Says Saeen: “humanity is to love one another.”

A Short History of Punjabi Literature

Punjabi literature refers to literary works written in the Punjabi language particularly by peoples from the historical Punjab region of India and Pakistan including the Punjabi diaspora. The language is written in several different scripts, of which the Shahmukhi, the Gurmukhī scripts are the most commonly used.

Early Punjabi Literature (11-15th centuries)

Although the earliest Punjabi literature is found in the fragments of writings of the eleventh century yogis Gorakshanath and Charpatnah, the Punjabi literary tradition is popularly seen to commence with Fariduddin Ganjshakar (1173–1266) whose Sufi poetry was compiled after his death in the Adi Granth.

The Janamsakhis, stories on the life and legend of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), are early examples of Punjabi prose literature. Nanak’s own poetry was fused Punjabi, Khari Boli and Braj Bhasha, with vocabulary from Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian as was much of the literature of the later Sikh Gurus.

Mughal and Sikh Periods (16th century to 1857)

Punjabi poetry developed through Shah Hussain (1538–1599) and the Sufi tradition of Sultan Bahu (1628–1691), Shah Sharaf (1640–1724), Ali Haider (1690–1785), and Bulleh Shah (1680–1757). In contrast to Persian poets, who had preferred the ghazal for poetic expression, Punjabi Sufi poets tended to compose in the Kafi.

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Punjabi Sufi poetry also influenced the Punjabi Qissa, a genre of romantic tragedy which also derived inspiration from Indic, Persian and Quranic sources. The Qissa of Heer Ranjha by Waris Shah (1706–1798) is among the most popular of Punjabi qisse. Other popular stories include Sohni Mahiwal by Fazal Shah, Mirza Sahiba by Hafiz Barkhudar (1658–1707), Sassi Punnun by Hashim Shah (1735?–1843?), and Qissa Puran Bhagat by Qadaryar (1802–1892).

Heroic ballads known as Vaar enjoy a old oral tradition in Punjabi. Prominent examples of heroic or epic poetry include Guru Gobind Singh‘s in Chandi di Var (1666–1708). The semi-historical Nadir Shah Di Vaar by Najabat describes the invasion of India by Nadir Shah in 1739. The Jangnama, or ‘War Chronicle,’ was introduced into Punjabi literature during the Mughal period; the Punjabi Jangnama of Shah Mohammad (1780–1862) recounts the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845–46.

 The Colonial Period (1858-1947)

The Victorian novel, Elizabethan drama, free verse and Modernism entered Punjabi literature through the introduction of British education during the Raj. The first Punjabi printing press (using Gurmukhi) was established through a Christian mission at Ludhiana in 1835, and the first Punjabi dictionary was published by Reverend J. Newton in 1854.

The Punjabi novel developed through Nanak Singh (1897–1971) and Vir Singh. Starting off as a pamphleteer and as part of the Singh Sabha Movement, Vir Singh wrote historical romance through such novels as Sundari, Satwant Kaur and Baba Naudh Singh, whereas Nanak Singh helped link the novel to the story telling traditions of Qissa and oral tradition as well as to questions of social reform.

The novels, short stories and poetry of Amrita Pritam (1919–2005) highlighted, among other themes, the experience of women, and the Partition of India. Punjabi poetry during the British Raj moreover began to explore more the experiences of the common man and the poor through the work of Puran Singh (1881–1931). Other poets such as Dhani Ram Chatrik (1876–1957), Diwan Singh (1897–1944) and Ustad Daman (1911–1984), explored and expressed nationalism in their poetry during India’s freedom movement.

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Modernism was also introduced into Punjabi poetry by Prof. Mohan Singh (1905–78) and Shareef Kunjahi. The Punjabi diaspora also began to emerge during the Raj and also produced poetry whose theme was revolt against British rule in Ghadar di Gunj (Echoes of Mutiny).

Post-Independence literature (1947- )

West Punjab (Pakistan)

Najm Hossein Syed, Fakhar Zaman and Afzal Ahsan Randhawa are some of the more prominent names in West Punjabi literature produced in Pakistan since 1947. Literary criticism in Punjabi has also emerged through the efforts of West Punjabi scholars and poets, Shafqat Tanvir Mirza (b. 1932), Ahmad Salim, and Najm Hosain Syed (b. 1936). The work of Zaman and Randhawa often treats the rediscovery of Punjabi identity and language in Pakistan since 1947.

Urdu poets of the Punjab have also written Punjabi poetry including Munir Niazi (1928–2006).

East Punjab (India)

Amrita Pritam (1919–2005), Shiv Kumar Batalvi (1936–1973), Surjit Paatar (1944–) and Pash (1950–1988) are some of the more prominent poets and writers of East Punjab (India). Pritam’s Sunehe (Messages) received the Sahitya Akademi in 1982. In it, Pritam explores the impact of social morality on women. Kumar’s epic Luna (a dramatic retelling of the legend of Puran Bhagat) won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1965.

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Socialist themes of revolution meanwhile influenced writers like Pash whose work demonstrates the influence of Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. Meanwhile, modern drama developed through Ishwar Nanda’s Ibsen-influenced Suhag in 1913, Gursharan Singh who helped popularize the genre through live theatre in Punjabi villages and Kartar Singh Duggal, and Balwant Gargi.

Diaspora Punjabi literature

Punjabi diaspora literature has developed through writers in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States, as well as writers in Africa such as Ajaib Kamal, born in 1932 in Kenya. Themes explored by diaspora writers include the cross-cultural experience of Punjabi migrants, racial discrimination, exclusion, and assimilation, the experience of women in the diaspora, and spirituality in the modern world. Second generation writers of Punjabi ancestry such as Rupinderpal Singh Dhillon (Roop Dhillon) have explored the relationship between British Punjabis and their immigrant parents as well as experiment with surrealism, science-fiction and crime-fiction.

* First published by me in Wikipedia under “Punjabi literature”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punjabi_literature