SADIA DEHLVI is an Indian author and activist. Her most recent book is ‘The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi’. Her first book was ‘Sufism: The Heart of Islam’. In a telephonic interview with Inam Abidi Amrohvi, Muslims Today, Sadia speaks on Sufism, women’s rights and Indian Muslims in general.
How satisfied are you with the progress of Indian Muslims during the last 20 years or so?
Well that’s a very tough question because lot has happened during the last two decades, and I think Muslims have progressed a lot.
When I was growing up, I remember, there was hardly a Muslim middle-class. Just after the partition when we had the landed elites and the poor, you never came across Muslims who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, young politicians, etc. I distinctly remember, I had gone to boarding school in Shimla and I was the only Muslim girl there.
When I look now, I see that things have changed a lot for the better. Today, you see a whole new generation of Indian Muslims who are educated and empowered in the true sense. They are engaged in sports, film industry, media, legal, arts and medical profession. So there has been a tremendous growth during the last twenty years, undoubtedly. But, on the other hand it’s not good enough. We should have progressed much further and become a bigger part of India’s growth story. A lot needs to be done at the grassroot level. You know there are many issues at stake. I find that there is a tremendous thirst for knowledge, to work and be financially independent, in the poor people I work with in the Muslim community, especially amongst the women. So there is a tremendous change in their mental attitudes which is a good sign. They want to progress and are looking for opportunities. Unfortunately the opportunities are not enough.
Most people see Sufism as a tolerant and all encompassing offshoot of Islam. How do you see it in the broader context?
I don’t see Sufism as an offshoot rather it is Tasawuff (Arabic for the Sufi path). As a matter of fact, Prophet Adam was the first Sufi, which means a friend of Allah. Sufis are the heirs of the finest human being, Prophet Mohammad [PBUH]. I see Sufism as classical Islam. This is not something new but the way the Prophet taught us to lead our lives, the way to Allah through kindness, compassion and the emphasis on refining one’s character. The Prophet said, “I have come to perfect character.” Sufism teaches us ways to reach Allah, connecting us all the way to Him through the Prophet. It is about sincerity in worship, with an emphasis on prayer, reflection and service to mankind.
In the sub-continent barring a few who came as traders during the Prophet’s time, most of us are all Muslims because of the Sufis. Islam in the subcontinent did not spread through the sword, but because of the Sufis’s message of the One God, love, brotherhood and harmony. We embraced Islam on their hands. The coming of Islam, in this part of the world, can be linked to Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz. People in Punjab are Muslims because of Baba Farid. In Multan, the Muslims owe it to the Sufis of the Suharwardi silsila. My own family embraced Islam (several centuries ago) on the hands of a Sufi called Shams Tabrez whose dargah is in Multan. There they met this Sufi and that’s how the whole mercantile community from Multan became Muslims, later settling in Delhi.
I see Salafi Islam as something new. In the early days of Islam, there was a legal school, which produced jurists, and those who taught the spiritual path, the ‘tariqa’ who were Sufis. But, unfortunately after Abdul Wahab and the wahabisation of Saudi Arabia, they uprooted Sufism from Saudi Arabia.
History bears witness to the massacres, exploitation, rape, and murder done by the tribals of Najd under Abdul Wahab to wipe out Sufis from the Arab region, especially Medina which was a great Sufi centre. Under the present regime, you cannot sing naat even though listening to naats is a sunnah of the Prophet. Thirty-five companions of the prophet were Naatkhwan. Hasan bin Thabit was our Prophet’s personal naatkhawan. Reciting naat is now declared ‘haraam’. Is this not an innovation?
Sufism is certainly not an innovation but as a classical tradition of Islam, connects us all the way to our religious predecessors through various Sufi linkages. It’s the Takfiri ideology, which is a dangerous new phenomenon, that is spreading amongst Muslims. The act of Takfir, is a disturbing trend where certain groups declare Shias and those of us who visit dargahs as non-Muslims and believe that their interpretation of Islam is the only right one. These are the extremists who forget that the Prophet said, “Beware of extremism because extremism destroyed the people before you”.
Scholars like Dr Zakir Naik hold an entirely opposite view of your ideology. It seems to be harming the very image of tolerant Islam. What efforts can be made to overcome all this?
This whole idea of who is a Muslim and who is not, is harming the Muslim ummah. We have to be more tolerant and accepting of each other even if there are differences. Instead of pronouncing judgement on each other, we should be more accepting of difference of opinion. I think people like Dr. Zakir Naik promote an extreme ideology that is radicalising our youth. He teaches that even saying “Merry Christmas” to Christian friends is blasphemous. Muslims are allowed to marry Christian and Jewish women, how can wishing your friends or your Christian wives on Christmas be blasphemy.
Such narratives send out a distorted and wrong message of Islam. It’s very important that we reclaim our classical traditions and spread the message of the Sufis, which is the message of the Prophet. The majority of Muslims the world over follow the Sufi traditions be it Egypt, Morocco, China, Central Asia, Tunisia, Jordan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and Turkey. Except for the Arab belt, the majority of Muslims follow the Sufi way.
You wrote a definite account of Sufism in your book ‘The Heart of Islam’. Did the dargah culture met any resistance post 1990 or off late with foreign money influencing Islamic scholars and institutions in India?
No I don’t think it has met any resistance. You go to any dargah and you’ll see how crowded these places are. I’ve just been to Ghareeb Nawaz in Ajmer. It has not made any difference to people who love the Aulia. Yes, there are some negative influences that make young people very confused. But Haq, the truth, will always prevail.
You’ve been an ardent supporter and promoter of women’s rights in Islam. Part of the problem lies in that all seminal work in Islamic history or the commentaries on Quran are male accounts? There’s not enough female outlook on the subject.
I believe that the Prophet and God have accorded a wonderfully high rank to women. We had hadith that like, ‘paradise lies at the feet of the mother’. Islam was the first religion to give women a share in the property. Unfortunately, immediately after the Prophet, there was this takeover of old male chauvinistic values in Muslim communities. They tried to suppress women voices and somewhat succeeded in doing so.
Now, if you look at some interpretations, which are being done by women, they are certainly more gender sensitive. I don’t want to go into the details here, maybe some other time. I think Muslim men have not been the perfect example of how the Prophet would have liked them to treat their women.
How satisfying was your journey while working on ‘The Sufi Courtyard’?
I felt guided and blessed by the Sufis whose life and teaching I documented. It was an enormous task to check every detail. I even tried to record all the people that are buried in certain compounds like that of Khwaja Qutub’s and Nizamuddin Aulia’s dargahs. The names of these people are known through oral traditions and some generations later, the names would have been lost. So I felt it was very important to document Muslim sacred places and their historical and cultural significance.
This has been a very rewarding and enlightening journey for me. I feel very happy when I meet people, lot of them non-Muslims, carrying my book. It gives me a lot of hope and satisfaction. I’m very grateful to God for having been a vehicle through which people discover all these places.
It’s said that charity begins at home. So what’s wrong with Muslims taking up Muslim specific problems (post Godhra, etc)! Isn’t that in national interest?
Muslims definitely need to work for their community because nobody else is working for them. I feel more people from the community need to get involved in helping the less fortunate amongst us, whether its education, health, housing and jobs. I know there are many NGOs working in the area. I run a small trust, Shama e Ilm Foundation, in the Nizamuddin Basti, where we impart free computer education to children of marginalised communities, who happen to be largely Muslim.
There is a big responsibility on people who are doing well, and I think not enough of them have come forward in terms of philanthropy and creating institutions like schools, colleges and hospitals. If we used the Waqf money and land well, the Muslims need not have depended on anyone else. The Waqf board is inefficient and corrupt and Muslims themselves are to blame. We rely on Government but we have to also become self reliant.
Do you feel Indian democracy is so weak that one man (read Modi) can threaten its basis?
I don’t think one man can threaten the whole secular fabric of the country. But what is dangerous, is that a man like Narendra Modi, coming from the RSS ideology, which indoctrinates hatred towards Muslims from childhood, can inject communalism into the polity. So there is a danger of having people with communal biases in key positions in various departments like the historical research, cultural bodies, and other key institutions. That bias can filter into the veins of the country. It’s not about one man, but what he can do is what is scary!
As a seeker of God trying to walk the Sufi path, I try not to be agitated. I believe nothing happens without God’s will and try to resign myself to His will. However, we should not loose faith in our country and be prepared to fight for our rights. Ultimately, truth will always triumph. That is for sure!
Are you working on any new project?
I’ve just completed a 13 part documentary series of half an hour, each called ‘Sufiyon ka Aangan’ for Doordarshan. It was a two year project where I have covered Ajmer Sharif, Khawaja Qutub Bakhtiar Kaki, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Hazrat Amir Khusro along with five dargahs in Kashmir. They include Nund Rishi of Charar-e-Sharif, Shah-e-Hamdaan of Srinagar, Baba Rishi of Tanmarg, Makhdoom Sahib of Srinagar, and Zain-ud-din Rishi of Aishmaqam near Pahalgam. I have also worked on three dargahs in Gujarat including Shah-e-Alam, Qutab-e-Alam and Shaykh Ahmad Khattau. I hope to extend my work to include the dargahs in Deccan, Bengal and South India.
Since more people watch television than read books, I feel the message of Islam as taught by the Prophet and the Sufis will spread more. Inshallah, the series should be telecast soon. Apart from this I’m also writing a book on Delhi, which tells the story of the city through the history of my family. I love the city of Delhi, and this will my tribute to this great city.