DAWN, Sept 24, 2012
â€˜Message of Sufis relevant todayâ€™
WASHINGTON, Sept 23: Pakistanâ€™s Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman told an American audience on Saturday night that Sufism embraced the spirit of tolerance and inclusion and that its message was increasingly relevant in â€œthis age of competing ideologiesâ€.
She was speaking at the Smithsonian Institute, where popular singer Sanam Marvi gave a scintillating performance that was attended by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, new US ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson, senior American officials and a large number of Pakistani and American music and poetry enthusiasts.
In her remarks, Ambassador Rehman made it clear that Sufism was not a separate sect of Muslims. â€œIts practice encapsulates the very essence of our faith,â€ she remarked.
â€œFor over a decade now,â€ she said, â€œwe have seen the marketplace of global ideas being distorted by new walls of hatred and prejudiceâ€¦ This negativity causes many to lose hope in the peace projects.â€
She said that Pakistanâ€™s founding father, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, actively advocated plurality, asserting that all citizens should enjoy the same rights and privileges, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Ms Rehman said that â€œbeing grounded in the mystical connection between the individual and the divine, Sufism embraces the spirit of tolerance and inclusion in both its discourse and practiceâ€.
This was one of the reasons why Sufi saints played a central role in the spread of Islam, especially in South Asia, making it the second biggest and the most practised religion in the world, she added.
â€œThe Sufi doctrine is simple and universal, that the light of God abides in the heart of each person. The Sufi â€˜tareeqaâ€™ or the Sufiâ€™s way guides us to the roads of the inner journey towards discovering the self, for the ultimate goal of reaching the divine light and wisdom that each one of us carries withinâ€.
â€œWhat could, indeed, be a more appropriate time to think about and reflect upon the message of unity, peace, togetherness and patience as exemplified by the lives and teachings of the Sufi saints?â€â€”APP
Remarks by Ambassador Sherry Rehman at the Smithsonian Sufi Symposium
â€œPakistani Sufi Saints and Their Discourseâ€
Ladies and gentleman,
I am greatly honored to be speaking here at the Smithsonian this evening, and privileged to have Pakistanâ€™s Foreign Minister here with us tonight. My compliments also to the director of this extraordinary symposium, Ms Kumar.
My talk today focuses on â€œPakistani Sufi Saints and their discourseâ€ a genre both personally of interest to me, and I believe of relevance to the world today as it grapples with a multitude of identities defined often by religion.
As someone born and raised in Sindh, where the map of its cultural compass resonates with the Sufi heartbeat, my own relationship with the dynamics and emotive power of the Sufi experience as a whole is coloured by the many nights spent at the â€œUrsâ€™, or birthday of our adopted family mystic, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai at his tomb in Hala.
Ladies and Gentlemen
The complex and strong spiritual pull that Sufi saints and their shrines exert all over Pakistan is demonstrated by their remarkably inclusive identity. They have become rooted in the colors of their soil, embracing the local folk inflection and, their shrines, as places of devotional celebration and prayer, continue to exercise a powerful appeal across the board to men and women alike.
The continued relevance and centrality of the Sufi shrine in Pakistan, is a telling index of the importance of the mystical narrative in religious practice in South Asia even today.
Certainly in the Pakistani imagination, Sindh and Multanâ€™s saints and their shrines have become the sites of a great collective celebration of devotional expression, as well as a quest for self-knowledge, and of course, the ultimate search for the divine in all its manifestations. The gravitational pull that the poetry, practice and tombs of these saints exercise is enormous. In almost all of the shrines, the vulnerable and the marginal hold the center, but it is remarkable how elites too beat a path to these doors.
As a potent example of the discourse that resonates in postmodern cultural expression in Pakistani music and art today, let me cite the homage to tolerance and diversity that one of our greatest Sufi poets brings to the millions of devotees and itinerants alike. I quote, Baba Bulleh Shahâ€™s intrinsically Sufi message; that one who knows his Self, knows his Lord.
Bulleh Shah says:
â€œYou have learnt so much
And read a thousand books.
Have you ever read your Self?
You have gone to mosque and temple.
Have you ever visited your soul?
You are busy fighting Satan.
Have you ever fought your ego?
You have reached into the skies,
But you havenâ€™t reached the One
Who lives in your heart!â€™
The Sufi doctrine is simple and universal, that the light of God abides in the heart of each person. The Sufi tariqa or the Sufi way guides us on the roads of the inner journey towards discovering the self, for the ultimate goal of reaching the divine light and wisdom that each one of us carries within.
This message has attracted people of all faiths. Being grounded in the mystical connection between the individual and the divine, Sufism embraces the spirit of tolerance and inclusion in both its discourse and practice. This is one of the reasons why Sufi saints and mendicants played a central role in the spread of Islam, especially in South Asia, making it the second biggest and the most practiced religion in the world. Certainly in Pakistan, all historical accounts, both the grand narrative as well as the more subaltern, grassroots history of South Asia today, suggest that Islam found root and mass appeal in my part of the world through the twin instrument of practice and preaching: the humility of the Sufi preacher and the egalitarianism of his message was what converted hundreds of thousands to Islam in a society stratified by class and caste.
Pakistanis have traditionally followed one of four Sufi orders: the Chistiya, the Naqshbandiyah, the Qadriya and the Suahrawardiya. These orders were extensions of the many Sufi saints who migrated to the Indo-Pak sub-continent during the 10th and 11th centuries from the Middle East and Central Asia. Their humility and humanity contributed to the development of a spiritual movement advocating love instead of ritual, essence instead of form. They urged people to seek the truth directly, rather than through mere conformity to tradition.
A discussion of the Sufis of Sindh is not complete without mentioning Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, whose mysticism is legendary. The root of his faith and spirituality was widely seen as expansive, inclusive and welcoming, made room for Muslims, Hindus and many other faiths alike. In his own words, and I quote
â€œA message came from the Lord: A full moon shone Darkness disappeared A new message came from the Lord: It does not matter what caste you are Who-ever comes, is accepted.â€
In Pakistan, Sufi saints are still revered in all corners; whether the seekers seek blessings in Multan from Hazrat Baha-ud-din Zikrya and Shah Alam, in Sehwan from Lal Shahbaz Qalander, in Islamabad from Bari Imam or in Lahore from Data Ganj Bakhsh. For the people of Pakistan, they are the faith healers, the guides to inner peace, and the authors of many wisdoms.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is one thing I need to make clear:
Sufism is not a sect of Islam. Its practice encapsulates the very essence of our faith.
In this age of competing ideologies, the universality of the Sufi message is increasingly relevant; both within and outside. For over a decade now, we have seen the marketplace of global ideas distorted by new walls of hatred and prejudice. Our television screen brings home to us the scorching fires of intolerance and religious division that cause so much violence and heartbreak today. This negativity causes many to lose hope in the project of peaceful civilisations, that instead of clashing, nurture the best in humanity. The founding father of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, actively advocated a plural model of citizenship, asserting that all Pakistani citizens shall enjoy the same rights and privileges, regardless of their religious affiliation.
What could, indeed, be a more appropriate and opportune time to think and reflect about the message of unity, peace, togetherness and patience exemplified by the life and teachings of Sufi saints and their philosophy of life?
Over the past decade, the emergence of ideological terrorism and its narrative of hate has cast a long and dark shadow on the picture of Islam as it has been practiced for centuries, as it is still practiced today. This tiny percentage has virtually hijacked the religion of Islam and distorted it as a religion of exclusivity and violence. In fact, allow me to say, that those who dominate international media discourse have strayed far from the teachings of Sufi masters who were the votaries of love, from the â€œmaktab i ishqâ€ or school of love; aligning themselves with an increasingly apocalyptic creed that promotes exclusion of all those who disagree with their narrow interpretation of faith.
Let there be no mistake that the essence of Islam advocates peace above all else.
As Baba Farid ud Din Ganj Shakar says:
â€œDo not speak a hurtful word, for in everyone lives the true Lord. Do not break anyone’s heart, for each heart is a priceless pearl.â€
The loving words of great Sufi Baba Farid, spread far beyond the borders of the subcontinent. The founder of Sikhism, Baba Guru Nanak was so deeply influenced by him that he included Baba Faridâ€™s poetry in â€œGuru Garanth Sahibâ€ the holy book of the Sikh religion.
For Pakistan, Sufi music is often seen as a path to spiritual growth, and a medium through which the human soul may approach the Divine. Sufi music is usually qualified as â€œsoul musicâ€ for Muslim mystics. The marriage of divine love to the written word, and its expression through music, can be understood by all; whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian. Sufi literature and poetry has been utilized and remains an inspirational tool for many contemporary progressive and liberal movements in Pakistan even today.
For thousands of years, Sufism has enriched our poetry and music. The shrines of these great Sufis are hubs of local culture and festivity, embodying rich traditions of music, literature; of art and architecture. Their followers sing their kalaam or poetry and dance to the rhythm of drums showing their adoration. In fact, these shrines continue to function as a rich talent pool of grassroots musicians, both male and female.
Now, before I introduce to you the talented star vocalist performing today, I want to share with you some lesser known attributes of Sufi music and the power and role of the female voice in Sufi culture in Pakistan. Despite the strong gender component of Sufi ritual discourse throughout South Asia and the Middle East, the role of women in Sufism, has received little scholarly attention and goes largely unnoticed here in the West. In Pakistan, where an entirely new genre of sufi rock and pop music has created a huge market for a new industry in television music channels and fusion music bands, the female voice plays a more central role in purist Sufi-ritual, especially in the singing of devotional poetry, than in almost any area of Muslim culture, apart from the genre of Qawwali.
Even at the shrines in Pakistan, womenâ€™s participation in singing Sufi Kalam, mystical Islamic poetry, is very high. Womenâ€™s roles as repositories and chroniclers of cultural memory has also gone largely un-noticed. Women have been preservers and guardians of Sufi discourse in lore. At Sindhi shrines particularly, women as singers, musicians and participants in Sufi musical expression are often called â€œfaqiriani.â€
Ladies and gentlemen, now I would like to introduce a big voice, a young female voice, that can carry you through the ethnological breadth of the Sufi landscape of Pakistan.
Sanam Marvi sings from the inspiring poetry of Sufi masters like Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Baba Farid. She has been trained in the Sufi tradition of music and her voice reflects the purity, depth and devotion, that is so unique to mystical Sufi kalam. She has performed in many parts of the world and I hope that on this stage tonight, she can recreate a spark of the ecstasy experienced by devotees at Sufi shrines.
Last, but not the least, I would like to extend my special thanks to Pakistan International Airlines for helping us to arrange this wonderful performance tonight.
Thank you and enjoy.
Washington DC September 22, 2012