FEW places exude the kind of syncretism that the Ajmer Sharif dargah does. Home to Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, also known as Gharib Nawaz to thousands of devotees, the way spirituality collides with the sea of humanity here, often makes for an engaging narrative. Pakistani journalist and writer Reema Abbasi has chronicled the legacy of one of the foremost saints and founders of the Chishti order in India. Abbasi comes off the back of her last book, Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience where she documented Hindu shrines and pilgrimage sites in Pakistan through photographs. Her second book, Ajmer Sharif: Awakening of Sufism in South Asia, traces the history of the revered saint. Excerpts from an interview:
The title of your book has ‘awakening’ in it, which hints towards a belief that’s maybe, dormant. Can you explain your choice of the word?
I feel it needs to ‘awaken’ in a way where it’s a more forceful counter-narrative to our radical times. And it can be, because it doesn’t speak of divisions or faith.
How did you research for the book?
I went to Aligarh Muslim University — they have very old manuscripts and scholars who’ve worked on a range of relevant issues. Then I went to Lahore where you have the Data Darbar and other shrines. The scholars there, too, helped.
What aspects of the research did you struggle with?
There’s a lot of folklore around these things, so one needs to sift through it to get to the actual facts. These were times when narratives weren’t recorded. Thankfully, Gharib Nawaz had a great disciple in Hamiduddin Nagori who kept track, especially of the saint’s passion for music and how he brought qawwali with him.
Religious spaces are also often gendered. What’s been your experience specific to dargah spaces in India and Pakistan?
Sufi dargah spaces aren’t supposed to be segregated at all. What’s beautiful about Muinuddin Chishti’s space is that it follows the exact Sufi tradition — the sanctum sanctorum has no segregation. To others that I went to, including Nizamuddin, there is segregation, much like in a number of shrines in Pakistan, though not in Pakpattan Sharif.
Last year, Pakistani qawwal Amjad Sabri was gunned down. The shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was recently bombed. Are you apprehensive about this project?
I am accused of being a heathen and asked how I can be considered a Muslim. When you speak out, you aren’t a right fit. But if you’re scared then nobody will end up speaking. I think fear should never be a choice.
Many attackers are found to belong to the Saudi-Wahhabi sect. What do you think they feel most outraged by?
I think what they can’t take is the power of unifying people. No matter how many bombs they throw, there’s no stemming the tide of humanity over there. The philosophy they want — of austere domination — is far from Sufism, which is neither austere, nor does it dominate; it assimilates.
These days you have Sufi rock and Sufi pop. How far do these cultural appropriations dilute the essence of Sufism?
Whether it’s Khwaja mere khwaja, Kun faya kun, Bulleya, or Sufi rock, they are important ways to take it forward to the next generation. The current generation is growing up in times of oppression, terror and when history is being turned to fiction. These popculture influences can help Sufism stay more relevant to the youth who can at least enquire at some level. Before Kun faya kun, how many knew its meaning?
Indian politicians sometimes try to appropriate Sufism as a way to create the narrative of the acceptable good Muslim vs the unacceptable other.
Some people on both sides of the border don’t know any better. So they feel that it’s something different or ‘acceptable’ but they need to understand, where does it spring from? It is rooted in the philosophy of Muhammad. The first Sufi on earth was the Prophet— the way of life the saints eventually followed has been inspired by the Prophet’s life.