Well-tempered tones

A celebration of Sufi sounds in Rajasthan offers much to treasure

Jonathan Gaisman

Islamophobia is a contentious word in British politics. Those who object to its over-broad use are concerned that it is deployed as a pretext for closing down criticism of any aspect of Muslim religion and politics, and that Islam thus enjoys a protection not conferred on any other religion. The facile equation of Islamophobia and antisemitism is also problematical, for in this country at least the latter is primarily directed at people and is therefore ipso facto unacceptable, whereas much negative coverage of Islam purports to focus on the precepts of the religion itself, and the consequences in practical terms of those precepts. In principle at least, this type of exercise cannot be censured in a free society.

The devout sceptic (Standpoint, September 2018) seeks what good he may find in each of the world’s great religions. Although the antonym Islamophilia is often used in contemporary media as a derogatory term implying unquestioning, even slavish acceptance of all Muslim values, it must be a healthy exercise for open-minded non-Muslims to identify and examine those aspects of Islam which invite their particular admiration or respect.

This is especially so because there are some parts of the world where to be a Muslim is to be less than a second-class citizen, and where Islamophobia does closely resemble antisemitism. Remarkably, the worst of these cases is India. This is despite the fact that it has a Muslim population of 200 million; only Indonesia and probably Pakistan have a larger number of Muslims. It is also despite the fact that the original tragedy of partition in 1947 was mitigated by the adoption in 1950 of an Indian constitution that strongly and explicitly embraced secular values, promising equality between the practitioners of all faiths and decreeing that there was to be no state religion.

This laudable state of affairs remained broadly in place, whatever other difficulties India may have experienced, until the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has always had close ideological and other links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a long-standing right-wing nationalist, Hindu supremacist, paramilitary organisation. The RSS opposed the 1950 constitution; it refused to accept the Indian tricolour, promoting a saffron flag (the colour associated with Hinduism). One of its former members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Gandhi because he was too
favourably disposed towards Indian Muslims. One must be careful about lazy or inaccurate use of the term, but the RSS truly deserves to be labelled fascist.

The BJP won its first general election in 1998, but it is under the present BJP prime minister Narendra Modi, who has been in power since 2014 and who has long been a member of the RSS, that the situation has deteriorated catastrophically. As Nabanita Sircar wrote in the previous issue of Standpoint, “Today, the country is providing a home for masculine nationalism and religious intolerance, which are becoming a serious threat to democracy.” A recent correspondent to The Times referred to the RSS and Modi’s core mission of “tearing India away from the secular, inclusive policies that it adopted at independence and turning it into a Hindu nation”. The home affairs minister, Amit Shah, exemplifies this: during a campaign in 2019, he described undocumented migrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh as “termites”. At least tens of thousands of Muslims are now imprisoned in Indian detention camps. Some observers even fear that the country is sleepwalking towards its own Holocaust.

As Hindu nationalism swells across India, statues and temples are being raised in Godse’s honour. The state government of Uttar Pradesh, led by a Hindu monk, has proposed changing the name of the city of Meerut, where the 1857 Mutiny first broke out, to Godse Nagar, so paying tribute to the murderer of a man whose image is still on every Indian bank-note. Communal riots in Delhi have killed dozens (on both sides) in the last weeks. Extremist Hindus call for Muslims to be expunged from the capital—from Delhi, of all places, where over 800 years of Muslim supremacy produced the Qutb Minar, Humayun’s tomb, and the Red Fort and great Friday mosque built by Shah Jahan himself.

India would therefore seem a suitable place in which the devout sceptic might concentrate attention on all that is treasurable in Islam. The country is celebrated for its architectural marvels built by Muslims: the Taj Mahal even merited a few minutes of Donald Trump’s time during the US president’s visit in February 2020 (the principal apparent purpose of which was to receive the vacuous adulation of a large crowd gathered in an Ahmedabad cricket stadium alongside a gratified, fawning Modi). Less well-known than this mausoleum, described by Rabindranath Tagore as a tear-drop on the cheek of time, is a fort in the desert city of Nagaur, about 300 miles west of Agra, and which also was known to Shah Jahan. It is here that an annual festival takes place in celebration of Sufism—the mystical dimension of Islam which in its way beautifies the Muslim religion quite as much as any of its exquisite mosques or tombs.

The western mind, particularly in its orientalist cast, has always had a soft spot for Sufism. It associates it with the devotional worship of, and a longing for union with, a transcendent God; earthly love as a metaphor for love of the divine; music and dance (especially whirling dervishes) as means to that end, and the inspiration of a corpus of sensual poetry some parts of which have found their way into English anthologies. (The most famous example of a Sufi poem known in the west is the Rubbáiyát of Omar Khayyám, although FitzGerald’s free translation tells us more about him than about the 11th century Omar the tent-maker, and the identification of Omar as a Sufi is contested.)

It was towards the middle of the seventh century that Islam expanded beyond the borders of Arabia into the empires of the Middle East. The caliphs became heir to the lands of the Hebrews, the Byzantines, the Persians and the Greeks. The conquerors reached the south of France in the west, and the valley of the Indus in the east. It was to the centres of learning in these vast areas of Muslim domination that Arab mystics came, who believed that there was an essential unity among the teachings of all faiths. Like John the Baptist, they wore camels’ wool, and according to tradition were known as Sufis—people of wool. Their teachings passed into each of the lore and practice of Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. This diffusion of Sufi thought occurred principally during the period AD 700-1500, and it was during this era that the classical masters of Sufism lived and taught. So relates Idries Shah, who wrote many books on the subject and counted among his admirers Robert Graves and Doris Lessing. He goes on to explain that formal religion for the Sufi is a shell: once human consciousness has penetrated beyond the mere social framework, the real meaning of religion can be understood. As a matter of logic, there could thus be no conflict between Sufism and Islam (at least in its pre-modern form); many Sufi masters regarded themselves as orthodox Muslims, who revered them in turn.

Sadly, contemporary puritan Salafism adopts a far more antagonistic approach. Yet no amount of anathematisation by Muslim fundamentalists can alter the fact that a core element of Sufism is its religious syncretism. The essence of this truth is captured, as so often in Sufism, by a story. It is not surprising that Sufism adopted the older and well-known Hindu tale of six blind men confronted by and touching different parts of an elephant, and concluding that they had all encountered different animals. Less well-known is the story of four men of different nationalities who were standing in a village street. They were travelling companions making for some distant place, but at this moment they were arguing over how to spend a single piece of money which was all that they had between them. Each of them wanted to buy something, which he named in his own language. A passer-by told them to give him the coin, and undertook to satisfy the conflicting desires of each of them. He bought four small bunches of grapes. It transpired that each of them had been demanding that the money be spent on grapes, but in his own tongue. The story has this further element. The travellers wanted grapes and grapes they were given, but the essence of the fruit, and its real treasure, was wine. Shah writes that the passer-by is the Sufi, “who shows the travellers that the basis of their religions is the same. He does not, however, offer them wine, the essence, which is the inner doctrine waiting to be used in mysticism, a field far more developed than mere organised religion.”

The basic Sufi averment is that it is not a religion; it is religion. This claim is inherently attractive to those who regard religions as man-made expressions of human striving towards the Deity rather than as dictated by Him, and it bears emphasising that there lies within Islam to this day a strain of belief which asserts unity amid plurality and the consequent necessity for mutual religious acceptance. Historically, this recognition was not confined to Sufism. The greatest of the Indian Mughal emperors, Akhbar, concluded from his discussions with wise men of many faiths that no single religion could claim a monopoly of truth; this inspired him in 1582 to create a combined faith, drawing principally on Hinduism and Islam, but also other religions. The most beautiful building in Fatehpur Sikri, the city which he founded, is a tomb to the Sufi saint Salim Chisti, and in many places in Northern India—Delhi, Ajmer and Nagaur—the burial sites of Sufi divines remain places of pilgrimage and veneration, despite a contemporary climate of Muslim hostility to Sufism.

Much controversy surrounds the degree of influence which Sufism may be said to have had on the medieval and modern western worlds. Among the practices which can arguably be traced back to Sufi sources are the chivalric tradition of courtly love, the Garter ceremony, freemasonry and alchemy (misunderstood in the west as a literal rather a symbolic process). There are those who see the writings of Farīd ud-Dīn ‘Aṭṭār (1145-1221) echoed in Chaucer and Bunyan; and there is no doubt that Oscar Wilde’s story “The Nightingale and the Rose” is a direct lift from ‘Aṭṭār’s Parliament of Birds. Dante’s debt to Islam, originally posited in Professor Miguel Asín’s Muslim Eschatology in the Divine Comedy (1919), has previously been discussed at length in Standpoint (by Ian Thomson; September 2018). Influences on Dante may include one of the greatest of all Sufi mystics, ibn ‘Arabī (1165-1240), whose symbolist poetry is enlightened (unusually) by a commentary of his own authorship. Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273), the most anthologised Sufi poet in English and described by Professor Arthur Arberry as “the greatest mystical poet in the history of mankind”, was a firm religious pluralist, who asked “When will you cease to worship the pitcher? When will you begin to look for the water?” His writings emphasise the unknowability of God, and that the way to approach him is through love alone, utterances which correspond to the 14th-century English text, The Cloud of Unknowing. Many other thinkers, such as Aquinas, Goethe and Jung, may also reasonably be said to bear the Sufi imprint.

The fort at Nagaur: A synthesis of Mughal and Rajput architectural styles, perfectly designed for musical gatherings (© Jonathan Gaisman)

Nagaur is situated roughly equidistant between Bikaner and Jodhpur in northern Rajasthan. At its heart, and surrounded by a massive enceinte whose walls date back to the 4th century, is the Ahichhatragarh fort, (“the fort of the hooded cobra”). Rebuilt in the 12th century, it was further developed by Akbar and Shah Jahan, and in the 17th century became part of the kingdom of Jodhpur. Later palaces were constructed, in particular by Bakhat Singh, who lived at Nagaur between 1720 and 1740 before succeeding his brother to the Jodhpur gaddi (throne). The result is an agreeable synthesis of Mughal and Rajput—Muslim and Hindu—architectural styles, which happens to reflect Akhbar’s own syncretic beliefs. Moreover, Rajasthan is a state where the two religions live peaceably side by side, and in general (unlike neighbouring Gujarat) have always done so. The fort was taken over by the Indian Border Security Force in 1947 to patrol the new frontier with Pakistan, and fell into disrepair. In 1973, it was returned to the present Maharaja, who with particular support from the Getty Foundation and the Helen Hamlyn Trust achieved a remarkable work of recuperation. The external walls, previously raided for building materials, are now reinstated; visitors may make a circuit of the ramparts and visit the temples of Ganesh or Krishna incorporated within them, while the sound of the muezzin drifts up from the city’s mosques at sunset. Inside the fort, the pavilions, pleasure gardens, reservoirs, loggias and fount-ains have all been repaired. The frescoes in the palaces too have been painstakingly restored (by a team from the Courtauld Institute); trees, vases of flowers, elephants and dancing girls enliven the walls once more.

The fruits of this cultural resurrection may be enjoyed by the traveller, for the Nagaur fort is now a hotel. Outside the central part of the fort are ten stone havelis, each originally built for one of Bakhat Singh’s queens and her servants. These too have been rebuilt and converted into 27 guest rooms; the hotel is called the Ranvas, the abode of queens. It is a peaceful place, and for most of the time the garden, dining pavilion and shaded swimming pool are shared only with red-vented and white-eared bulbuls, whose constant carolling is one of the most characteristic sounds of rural India.

During every February since 2008, however, the fort takes on a very different atmosphere, for it is then host to a three-day celebration of Sufi music, the World Sacred Spirit Festival. To those who have experienced the fort in its sleepier aspect, it now becomes clear that the whole place is perfectly designed for such an occasion. A previously ignored daïs in the Diwan-i-Am (hall of audience) is transformed into the ideal platform on which Rakesh Chaurasia may evoke an India as old as the Upanishads with the sounds of the ancient bansuri flute. A spreading peelu tree (salvadora persica, the mustard tree of the New Testament) provides shade for the songs of Madan Gopal Singh, a Sikh professor of English literature when not a Sufi musician, whose chosen accompanists are a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim. Recesses in the walls of the ordinarily deserted Dipak Mahal are filled with hundreds of oil lamps for a late night qawwali concert given by local Rajasthani
musicians. There can be no better place than Nagaur in which to immerse oneself in the performative aspects of Sufism. The audience is limited to 250, most of whom are accommodated in comfortable tents (with reassuring plumbing) installed for the
occasion. Perhaps a majority of those who attend are Indian; certainly a significant minority are not. The Maharaja is unobtrusively present; others less so—for one of the lesser pleasures of the festival is in observing the numerous and conspicuous daily changes of clothes with which the more narcissistic European spectators take time to adorn themselves.

Listeners whose knowledge is confined to western classical music will find that the three-day experience elicits the recognition of almost total ignorance, and also stimulates a process of learning. Both are welcome, for it is humbling to encounter for the first time musicians who are in fact internationally famous, and the thought arises that it is sometimes better to open a new chamber in the mind by grappling with the unfamiliar modes and quarter-tones of Sufi music than to listen yet again to a familiar Viennese concerto, however much admired. This year, the shock-haired Walid ben Salim from Morocco, who sang from the poems of ibn ‘Arabī in his native tongue, and was accompanied on the guzhang or Chinese lute by Jiang Nan, so haunted the audience with the range and concentration of his singing that he was called upon to give not one but two further unscheduled concerts. Mohammad Motamedi, an Iranian traditional vocalist and ney (flute) player, has an electrifying voice and technique which are unforgettable once heard, and his recordings of Persian classic-al song are easily accessible online, had one but previously known it. From all corners of the Muslim world, from Oman to Senegal, performers come to Nagaur and make music from morning till late into the night. After three days, the festival transfers to Jodhpur itself for a further two days of concerts, albeit given to larger audiences and in a less intimate setting.

Madan Gopal Singh, a professor of English literature when not a Sufi musician, at the World Sacred Spirit Festival (© Mehrangarh Museum Trust)

There is a limit to the knowledge which a British participant can acquire from immersion in three days of Sufi performance —however carefully he may have read in advance the excellent Penguin Classics collection of Islamic Mystical Poetry edited by Mahmood Jamal, or attempted to weigh the ambitious claims made on behalf of Sufism by Idries Shah. Yet the World Sacred Spirit Festival cannot but enhance admiration for one of the profoundest productions of a religion which, despite the antagonising abrasions of modern Wahhabism, has much to offer the disinterested non-devotee. Nagaur is one place in India where Modi’s writ fortunately does not run, where Islamophobia and prejudice seem a world away, and where people of every creed and none can satisfy their curiosity in the relaxed and unselfconscious appreciation of a jewel in the Islamic crown.

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