Saturday, November 29, 2008

REFLECTION: Letters from Ajmer

There is Islam. And then there is Indian folk Islam.

Indian folk Islam is a secular faith. Secular in the sense that Indians of all faiths participate. It is practised at the mazhaar (also known as the dargah), the tomb or shrine of a wali (saint).

The saints are believed to provide faiz (spiritual radiation) which benefits all who visit the saint's grave. Perhaps India's most famous and revered saint is Shaykh Muinuddin Chishti, whose tomb is located in Ajmer. At the bottom of this blog page, you will find a video slide-show of various scenes of the tomb of Shaykh Chishti. Accompanying that video is a song performed by India's musical maestro Allah-Rakka Rahman in honour of the saint.

Each year, My family has received letters from one Moallam Syed Azizur Rahman Burraqui, who claims to have some link to the saint's tomb. The letter announces the Urs Mubarak, a special function that runs for a number of days and is devoted to prayers and the performance of qawwali devotional songs sung in Urdu in praise of God, the Prophet Muhammad and the Shaykh.

This year, the Urs of Shaykh Muinuddin Chishti (referred to in Mr Burraqui's letter using a plethora of labels - "Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty Sanjari Summa Ajmer, honoured as Ata-e-Rasool") was held on 5-13 July 2008. Excerpts from the letter are worth reproducing if only for the rather over-the-top language used in religious and devotional correspondence and the mixture of English and Urdu-ised Arabic present (not to mention grammatical and spelling errors).

Dear Devotee,

Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty Sanjari Summa Ajmer (R.A.) honoured as Ata-e-Rasool (S.A.W.) was born early in the morning on Monday the 14th Rajan of 535 Hijri, He served and remained under the training of Shaikh O. Murshid Tariqat Hazrat Khwaja Usman Harooni (R.A.) for the period of complete twenty years. He learned Elm-E-Batin and how to control consciousness and heartfelt desire. He came to Ajmer India via Macca Mukarrama, Madina Munawarra, Baghdad Sharif, Asfahan, Multan, Lahore and Delhi. He selected soil of Ajmer for place of rest permanently and spent hos whole life for preaching of Doctrines of Islam through love and peace and serving human being. He left this temporary world at the age of 97the on Friday the 6th Rajab of 633 Hijri. Since his demise on this auspicious day an annual Urs Mubarak is celebrated every year as a mark of reverence and homage.

That's the biographical stuff out of the way. Now time for some good old fashioned Indian hospitality ...

I am giving to you an auspicious news that the Urs Mubarak of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Hassan Sanjary Chishti Summa Ajmeri Known as Ghareeb Nawaz (R.A.) will be held from 1st Rajab to 9th Rajab.i.e. 5th July to 13 July 2008.

If you or any of your relatives and friends intend to visit the Ajmer to participate in Holy Urs Mubarak, please inform me before your departure about your complete programme by my Telephone No. [number] #Mobile [number], so that I can make all necessary arrangement for your lodging and boarding at my Guest House just opposite the main Gate of Dargah Sharif. I will receive you at Delhi Air port and bring you with me through a car to avoid any difficulties to reach Ajmer.
If even after such a gracious invitation you insist on doing a no-show, you can always obtain some faiz of your own. At a price, of course.

In case you are unable to join Urs personally please let me know your innder hearty desire and send the amount for Nazar-O-Niaz and Fateha by Britisg Postal Order, Bank Draft, Cheque or in the shape of currency note of your country through registered post only because ordinary letter are missdelivered and no surity of reaching your contribution safely to me.

Yours Ever Prayerfully

Don't you just love Indian English? Over the page is the same message in chaste Urdu. I can't read it, though I do intend learning to read Urdu one day (speaking it isn't too great an issue).

Many of my allegedly more orthodox brothers and sisters will regard all this as bidah (evil innovation in worship) and shirk (associating partners with God). My mother would probably agree with them. So many of her relatives wasted their loves away hanging out with a commercial pir (spiritual teacher) in Ajmer.

I've visited many a mazhaar and dargah in my time when visiting the Indian sub-Continent. Each time I visit Lahore, I feel obliged to visit the tomb of Hazrat Data Ganj Bukhsh, whose proper name is Sayyid Ali Hujwiri. Thousands visit the tomb, known as Data Darbaar, many uneducated and/or poor people who come to make offerings and seek blessings. Their manner of devotion is without doubt often heterodox (to say the least!) and yet they feel this love and yearning for the man buried there.

In one sense, this is all rather tragic. Men like Shaykhs Chishti and Hujwiri came to preach the message of God's unity and to eliminate the worship of all other beings. Now their rombs have become places of worship. Yet much of this heterodoxy is built on orthodox foundations.

Furthermore, many turn upto these places to obtain food and shelter which mainstream mosques and other religious institutions fail to provide. The tradition of feeding and hospitality is common to other Indian faiths, especially Sikhism.

Finally there is the music, the pulsating rhythms of qawwali affecting even those unable to quite understand the words. Yet regardless of the words, the message is usually the same - yearning for God, immersing one's self in God's love and paying respect to those whom God loves, including the Prophet Muhammad and his spiritual successors.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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BOOKS: Big Islam for a Small Planet

On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today by Farid Esack (1999) Oneworld Publications, Oxford.

We know there is Allah. We know there is Shaytan, the devil. We know the devil is our enemy. We know about heaven and hell. And we know that as Muslims we have to strive for justice. We have read of struggles among the early companions themselves: the struggles between Uthman and Abu Dharr, between Ali and Aisha, and then between Ali and Muawiya.

I will not expand on these examples. Why? Firstly, I do not wish to get into a historical polemic. Secondly, I don't want my Deobandi teachers and my Naqshbandi gurus to think I have gone all soft and non-sunni on them. Most of all, I would rather not have any of my family in PakiLand murdered by thugs from either Sipah-i-Sahaba or Sipah-i-Muhammadi factions! Funerals cost big money, even in Pakistan!

The point is that all these historical struggles and wars and debates and arguments were about justice, about standing up for what is right. About recognizing evil for what it is and taking a stand against it.

These and many other noble motherhood statements that fill the pages of those Islamic books churned out by hundreds of graduates of various madrasas and Islamic universities. Many of us know the titles and the authors. But how many of us know how to live all this? And how many of us understand how to live all this in the modern world of economic insecurity, cultural and religious pluralism, family break-ups, nervous breakdowns and a planet that seems to be getting smaller and smaller?

More importantly, how do we live all this without turning into self-righteous pseudo-spiritual lunatics who condemn our brother for not having a beard but are offended when anyone dares mention that Iqbal or Said Nursi or Syed Qutb were often clean-shaven around the chin?

Farid Esack has given us some pointers on how to live Islam in a way that avoids self-righteousness, moral inconsistency and hypocrisy. His book is fresh in its approach. Esack is not scared to talk about the hypocrisy of many allegedly religious people in Muslim communities. He tackles some of the tough questions of living Islam in countries like Canada, Australia and South Africa: How can we justify excluding women from the management of mosques? Should Muslims living in a Western country form their own political party? Should Muslims involve themselves in social activism with non-Muslims?

Everything about the book is refreshing. In its writing style, On Being Muslim reads more like an informal pep talk than a scholarly dissertation. But Esack is no mere talker. He has enough scholarly credentials to impress anyone. For some 10 years Esack did undergraduate studies in Karachi at some of the finest institutions in the Muslim world. He graduated from Jami'ah Alimiyyah al-Islamia with a Bachelor's Degree in Islamic Law & Theology. He went on to do post-graduate research in Qur'anic Studies at Jami'ah Abu Bakr (also in Karachi) and completed a doctoral degree in Qur'anic Hermeneutics at University of Birmingham (UK). In 1994-95 he was a Research Fellow in Biblical Hermeneutics at some place in Germany that I will probably spell incorrectly but I will have a go at it anyway: Philosophische Theologische Hochschule, Sankt Georgen, Frankfurt am Main.

As such, Esack is not only a traditional alim (itself an amazing achievement) but an accomplished scholar. But he was not content with mere scholarly pursuits. Esack took an active role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, at a time when many Muslims were beneficiaries of the apartheid system. There are even incidents of some Indian Muslims who did not allow their black brethren from praying in the same mosques or in the same rows.

One of the main organizations fighting against apartheid was the United Democratic Front. The UDF organized a large number of marches and other resistance activities, including an economic boycott which saw millions of blacks refusing to buy from white shopkeepers. The boycott crippled the apartheid-based economy and forced white businessmen to lobby the government in support of the UDF. Amongst the star recruits was Maulana Esack.

He spent most of the 1980s struggling for inter-religious solidarity in the struggle against apartheid. This saw him being actively involved in numerous organizations such as the UDF, The Call of Islam, the Organisation of People Against Sexism, the Cape Against Racism and the World Conference on Religion & Peace. He has been a regular political columnist for the Cape Times (weekly), Beeld and Burger (fortnightly) and other mainstream newspapers and publications in South Africa.

Esack was also involved in work within the Muslim communities of South Africa. He was a socio-religious columnist for Al Qalam, a South African Muslim monthly newspaper. He continues to write for Islamica, a British Muslim quarterly and Assalaamu Alaikum, a New York based Muslim quarterly.

Esack is one of the few articulate voices who can speak the language of a new generation of Muslims whilst not offending any but the most islamophobic non-Muslims. He is controversial. Even in his own country and within the South African Muslim communities, many regard Esack as a renegade. Regardless of (or perhaps because of) his reputation, the book is even more worth reading.

Most of the conservative Deobandi South African Memon Indian expatriates I have spoken to are full of criticism for Maulana Esack. They tell me that he supports women leading namaz (i.e. salat or 5-times daily worship). They tell me he is a communist. They tell me he hangs around with Christians. They told me all this when he was touring Australia and was getting ready to give a lecture at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Many sent me a copy of an article written by the learned English scholar Abdal Hakim Murad. In fact, this article kept cyberspace in Sydney busy for some time. The irony of Shaykh Murad's article is that it largely brands Esack as being guilty by association. And me being a controversialist, I just could not help myself. So I publicly replied that people in glass houses should not throw stones. I sent a whole heap of evidence linking Shaykh Murad to a certain infamous neo-Con shaykh who sits on the same speakers' bureau panel as other neo-Cons, an interesting dude who loves telling the State Department that we (who refuse to accept the leadership of his Islamic Supreme Council of America) are all a bunch of Wahhabis and terrorists and extremists simply because, well, simply because he feels like it!

And so when Maulana Esack did appear, half the lecture theatre was filled with Turks. All from orthodox Turkish Sufi Muslim groups that have about as much regard for the neo-Con shaykh (and his Cypriot master) as they do for the winner of the World Idol contest. Maulana Esack came out to speak and probably could not believe his luck! A theatre packed with ladies looking like something out of the Merve Kavakci Appreciation Society. Why were they there? Simple. Anyone who is criticized by a friend of a friend of neo-Cons must be worth listening to!

All this happened back in February or March 2003. The memory is still strong. And for good measure, I purchased a copy of Maulana Esack's book on the Qur'an that Shaykh Murad found somewhat distasteful. I still have not read it. But I had read On Being Muslim, and I thoroughly recommend it.

I have to say that I do find some of Maulana Esack's views on "Islamic liberation theology" a bit too creative for my liking. I cannot see how much further we can liberate that most refreshing and liberating theology of Qur'an and Sunna. Yes, we can rescue it from being hijacked by the followers of the Islaaam of double and triple vowels. And perhaps my Deobandi brethren could stop trying to please the Saudi religious officialdom and remember that their educational movement was founded by the leader of the Chishtiyya-Sabiriyya-Imdadiyya school of Sufism. Maybe the dudes who run our mosques could let ladies enter instead of pushing them up the road to the local nightspots. And one day the Mufti of Australia will learn to speak English.

People like Maulana Esack are living proof that Islam is big enough to handle the challenges of a planet that seems to be getting smaller all the time.

First published in the now-defunct e-zine on 8 February 2004.

Words © 2004-08 Irfan Yusuf

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REFLECTION: Funky Maulana Down Under - Farid Esack's Refreshing Speaking Tour in Australia

Yes, this is a very poor title. An atrociously-worded name for an article about an Islamic scholar. And I am using this title because it reflects the atrocious and awful experiences that I and so many of my Muslim Sydney-siders have to put up with as we struggle to learn and understand our faith.

The poor Muslims of Sydney have to put up with so much nonsense. They have a mufti who, after almost a decade in Australia, still cannot speak English. And most of them do not even know that he is their mufti.

Most of their other imams find speaking English a bit too much to handle. Most mosques belong to particular ethnic groups, and the ones that don't will tend to belong to any one of the 10,000 different permutations or combinations of do-it-yourself salafi literalism.

And until Timothy Winter (Abdul Hakim Murad), Nuh Keller and Feisal Abdul Rauf graced our shores some months back, the closest we had to some real scholarship was a few Indian and Bangladeshi Maulanas in lungis looking like Muslim Mahatma Gandhis and walking hundreds of kilometers with those wonderfully harmless people known as the Tablighi Jamaat. Oh, and there was my late Shaykh Esad also.

But recently, Sydney was abuzz with news that a fresh face was arriving to take the student-and/or-revert dawah-circuit by storm.

This was not the first time Maulana Farid Esack had visited Sydney. Usually, his presence had been sponsored by an inter-faith or human rights group. Some 12 months before his current visit, he had given one address to students, activists and a whole bunch of orthodox Turkish Sufi sistas who were keen to see how a scholar could be regarded as genuinely progressive without having to go to the US State Department and tell everyone that the rest of us were a bunch of extremists and terrorists and wahhabists.

Maulana Esack showed himself to be a man of good humor, irreverence and self-deprecation, a modern Nasruddin Hojja with plenty of stories to tell. Esack was full of amazing and humorous anecdotes that at times left us with our sides splitting (not a nice experience when it happens after dinner).

Here was Maulana Esack being invited to Sydney for the first time (I think) in his capacity as an Islamic scholar and by a Muslim organization (a Sydney-based think tank known as the al-Ghazzali Institute for Islamic Studies and Human Development). And here was a new generation of young bright-eyed Muslim types watching Maulana Esack for the first time.

This was the same crowd that would normally have to put up with blank-check fatwas from Wahhabi weirdos telling young Muslim girls that it was haraam (religiously forbidden) to attend college and university, thus implying that it was fard (religiously mandatory) for at least 51% of the Muslim community (and 100% of their mothers) to remain uneducated.

This same crowd was still wondering why a former American rap star who adopted salafi literalism had decided to tell a packed auditorium in Melbourne that the great work of Imam Abu Hamid Ghazzali was worth "less than a mosquito wing" and contained "kufr and shirk" (unbelief and polytheism).

Instead of offending and dividing his audience, or boring them with rulings and judgments he was unqualified to make, Maulana Esack entertained us with stories of his travels to Bolivia as part of a multi-faith delegation to celebrate an indigenous Bolivian festival. He told us that it was his first time, and he was asked to bring a gift. He therefore purchased a beautiful sajjada (prayer rug) and a wonderfully carved wooden piece of Qur'anic calligraphy. As the sun rose, a huge bonfire was lit. The hosts then invited Maulana Esack to present his gifts and throw them into the fire as an offering to the sun!!

What was he to do? How would Maulana Esack get out of this situation?

Um ... er ... you see, my friends, these things are not the gifts I meant to bring. My actual gifts are back at the hotel room. I can go and get them if you like.

Then there was the story of his visit to a building in Germany that contained 4 separate mosques for 4 separate nationalities. Yet when he spoke to them, each did not even seem to know of the existence of the others.

If there is one word that cannot be used to describe Maulana Esack, it would have to be pompous. Don't expect the large turban and all the trappings of the usual scholarly uniform. Here is a man who wears a funky colorful South African shirt, ordinary trousers, is clean-shaven (unless, like many Malays, he cannot grow much hair on his face), and wears a trendy Cape cap.

Maulana Esack's absence of uniform and facial hair appeared to trouble some of the young guns from the local salafi youth centre. I thought I'd overheard one remark: "What sort of scholar would wear a cap and trousers?" It reminded me of a time when I saw a Bosnian Imam reciting Qur'an at an interfaith prayer service following September 11. After he finished, a Muslim approached him and said: "Brother, that was nice, but why are you wearing a European suit?" The Bosnian imam looked at his interrogator and answered calmly, "Because I am European," before walking off.

So why was Farid Esack wearing such funky gear? Simple - he is a funky mullah from South Africa!

I could write much more about the tour. But I would rather read my copy of his introductory book on the Qur'an and what it means to Muslims. And I urge the rest of you to go and buy (or borrow from your local library) his other books, one of which has been reviewed elsewhere). Maulana Esack has a message to tell that is seriously and desperately needed to be told to persons of all faiths, even if he does deliver it with good humor and a mischievous smile.

Irfan Yusuf, 34, lives in Australia. When he is not appearing before courts as an industrial and employment lawyer, Yusuf is a freelance writer whose interests include law, gender issues, international relations, spirituality and conservative politics. His favorite food is nihaari (with lots of chilli) and his favorite musician is the Australian folk singer Paul Kelly. This article was first published in the virtually-defunct website on 14 July 2004.

Words © 2004-08 Irfan Yusuf

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