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.