Sunday, 11 October 2015

Debating Sufism and Urdu Literature

Sufism might have theological critiques but literature provides its strongest support and in a way helps dissolve much of now mostly outdated theological critiques of Sufism.

Thanks to Urdu Department CUK and Sahityya Academy we had, after much time, a seminar on Sufism and Urdu Literature.
Some points that emerged in the papers and discussions may be summed up in the following propositions:
  • Urdu literature from Khusrow till date is informed by Sufi sensibility.
  • No great name in Urdu literature is anti-Sufi and all are to certain extent indebted to Sufism.
  • The world could be saved by better engagement with the mystical or Sufi and especially what is called Quranic Sufism or Ihsan centric narrative.
  • Sufism should be taken as synonymous with spirituality and that is the essence or core of religions. If Sufism becomes philosophy divested from practice and indulges in anti-social and ideologically complicit actions, it should be resisted.
  • Sufism needs to be purged of extraneous influences.
  • Sufism has been misused by pseudo Sufis and shrine management in many cases.
  • We need to be on guard regarding politics of seminars on Sufism ( there might be interest in Neocolonial powers to dilute element of resistance in Islam through such activities).
  • Kashmir’s Urdu poets too have appropriated Sufi influences.
  • We can revisit Urdu Sufi poetry to explore possibility of dialogue with postmodern thought.
A few remarks on the debate in seminar: 
      Salafi and other theologico-legalistic critiques of Sufism are best put in perspective or “dissolved” in literary writings. Almost all great poetry in Persian, Urdu, Kashmiri and many other languages and cultures written in past 700 years is informed by Ibn Arabi or wujoodi sensibility. No theological critique, no political ideology, no sermonizing campaigns can neutralize the force of such a literary heritage or make us disown its message. There are colossal minds of Islamic history that are all wujoodi or almost wujoodi . Intellectually wujoodi position is the most attractive and spiritually the most sublime. Wujoodi position is simply Being is one/ Reality is one and those who find problems with it commit the basic methodological error of misidentifying theology with Metaphysics, Personal God and Being. If we are poets in whatever tradition, we are wujoodis. Shuhudi metaphysics too doesn’t contest the statement Being/ Reality is one.
      Sufism might have theological critiques but literature provides its strongest support and in a way helps dissolve much of now mostly outdated theological critiques of Sufism. Any person with an eye for arts or poetry is bound to be pro-Sufi in a sense if one meditates on close relation between artistic or aesthetic and mystical impulses and sees how shyr and shuyoor are integrally connected and notes that all first rate names from Dard to Mir to Ghalib to Iqbal to Faiz had something to do with Sufism in theory or practice and were attracted to its worldview or at least attitude. We have poets as philosophers if not orthodox practitioners of Sufism.
      All great names in Islamic history including Ibn Taymiyyah and his illustrious students were positively disposed towards Sufism that didn’t lead itself to antinomian anti-Quranic appropriation. No great name in the history of Islam advocated lock, stock and barrel rejection of Sufis of all hues ( which include generally admired early ascetics, sober Sufis headed by Junaid and popular saintly figures such as Abdul Qadir Jeelani and Shuhudi Sufis). Who can afford to reject Islam’s spiritual and intellectual content with which Sufism claims allegiance? We are all Sufis or Sufis in the making or seekers or to striving for Ihsan ( use non controversial term) to little or greater extent. While one can criticize any particular Sufi thinker on philosophical grounds or tendency of reduction of spiritual to philosophical or certain antinomian tendencies in some Sufis, we can’t step outside the Paradigm of Ihsan and Perfection of Ethics that Sufism has been invoking. That explains why critiques of Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim and the like don’t question Sufism as an expression of Islamic spirituality or condemn all Sufis but certain perceived deviations in some of them. They too invoke “ Sufi” paradigm of a sort. There is thus no escaping from Sufism. One can at the most push for certain “ reformed” version of Sufism.
      Misuse of any idea is no argument against the idea. If Islam has been misappropriated by many sectarian and ideologically motivated Muslims that doesn’t prove any accusation against Islam per se . Politics in sponsoring seminars on Sufism granted but the possibility that anti- Sufi ideologies might constitute more sinister politics and have been more easy targets for appropriation at the hands of war mongers and those who sponsor sectarianism was not given due attention.
      What really constitutes an extraneous influence is so hard to determine. Tasbih we almost universally use today in zikr is said to be of Buddhist origin. Vedanta expresses nondualism that Sufism independently upheld. Such things as Meditation/ Muraqaba/ Mujahada/ Fasting/ Itikaaf or seclusion practices/ rituals of initiation/ wazeefa of kam khord, kam khawb, kam guftar / zikr/ mantra recitation all have been overlapping in form or spirit across traditions. If at esoteric or metaphysical plane Sufism converges with other forms of mysticism, how come we maintain too sharp a distinction between Islamic and other mysticisms or feel shy of calling Sufism Islamic mysticism. If Quran appropriates or invokes other scriptures, how come we have an anxiety to project exclusively or distinctively Quranic Sufism?
      Some comments on negative relation between postmodernism and mysticism were made although neither any postmodern philosopher or postmodern theologian or mystical philosopher had been read or referred to by the speaker. Seminars should have moderators not presidents as open ended academics is incompatible with imposed closure by any authority and pulpit like sermonizing to which most presidents are addicted as they are supposed to speak the last word. Let us do away with presidents in seminars or have presidents who are indeed authorities – or the best available scholars – on subjects.
      We have scholars here living in 1900s or 1950s as they haven’t heard that most of the debates and questions they indulge in have been settled or reframed since decades. They don’t know, for instance, that the charge of foreign origin of Sufism or foreign influences on Sufism is now considered obsolete by the best scholars in the field. They don’t know that Ibn Arabi as a spokesperson of Metaphysics can’t be refuted and can only be misunderstood. They haven’t heard of likes of Chittick, Corbin, Burckhardt and Lings who have punctured the balloon of criticism of wujoodi position containing various charges including charges of pantheism and suspension of ethics/ sha’ria attributed to Ibn Arabi. They don’t know that Iqbal’s critical remarks on Sufism don’t make him anti-Sufi as his thought is first and foremost Sufi in orientation and his mature writings including his Madras Lectures are quite close to the spirit of Mansur and Ibn Arabi. Likes of Yusuf Saleem Chisti have no difficulty in showing how later Iqbal had returned to wujoodi position. He was through and through a Sufi though his metaphysics was individualist. He called himself a Qalander. His Pir Rumi was wujoodi Sufi as were Bedil, Shah- i Hamdan and many other great names in both mysticism and philosophy he invoked. He wrote about a medieval Sufi “Khizr-o-Maseeh sae uncha maqam tera” and made it a point to visit shrines and there are incontrovertible biographical evidences to show his connection to Sufis (both living and dead). We have scholars as diverse as Maekesh Akber Abadi and Schimmel and Nicholson agreeing on his characterization in essentially Sufi terms. Almost all his important critiques of certain formulations of Sufi thought and practice have been almost conclusively shown to be either misreading or misinformation on his part ( some of which he corrected later).
      Given such a scenario one can’t expect any path breaking paper in seminars on Sufism conducted here. We don’t have a good library on Sufism despite a resourceful Awkaaf ! Nevertheless in the seminar we found good presentations that focused on close reading of Urdu texts. However we saw lot of conceptual confusions and methodological anomalies and loose usage of terms when speakers focused on either theological critiques of Sufism or history of reception of Sufism. Sufism is best approached in metaphysical instead of philosophical or theological or religious terms and attention to this aspect was almost absent. More than Urdu literature it was theology and history of Sufism and that too often in badly framed terms and repeating old and sometimes outdated scholarship or easily accessible information that received much of attention.Despite these things one can’t but thank organizers for selecting such an unfashionable theme in suffocating times and attracting noted professors from outside the State for the same.

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