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NON-FICTION: THE CALL OF THE SUFI

April 22, 2018

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Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

In a world beset by controversial debate about the status of music in the larger spiritual context, Meher Murshed’s Song of the Dervish: Nizamuddin Auliya, the Saint of Hope and Tolerance comes as a solace, advocating the hypothesis that song, and perhaps also dance, is an entity beyond religious belief, a definite ethereal linkage to the divinity of the Sufi saints.

Murshed tightly packages together true stories of ordinary humans — having different religious beliefs — who have been drawn to song as the universal symphony capable of providing peace by paving the way to the Divine. His book circumambulates the spirituality of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya, one of the four Chishtiya order lights who have dominated the search in the subcontinent for inner peace and succour from worldly tribulation. The personality of the Sheikh, whose veneration of music as an article of faith reverberates to this day, and whose affection for his disciple Amir Khusro defies logical thinking, becomes an overwhelming presence in the text.

How Murshed — born the son of a Sunni Muslim father and a goddess Kali-worshipping mother, educated at a convent run by Jesuit priests and married to a Syrian Christian — was drawn into an exploratory journey to unravel the magnetic aura of a Sufi saint now resting in downtown Delhi, appears to be an act of Divine intervention. “It was qawwali, ‘Man Kunto Maula’” he writes in the acknowledgements, “that stayed lodged in my head when I first heard it as a five-year-old boy…” Thereafter, hearing variations of the same song over the years, he began to research. His book is a riveting account of how the power of music becomes a story of love, tolerance, compassion and hope, especially when the symphony is the song of a dervish.

True stories of people across the religious divide, who all found solace in Nizamuddin Auliya

It all began with a teasing question that haunted the writer again and again: why, even after 700 years, do people across religious divides go to Nizamuddin’s shrine? Why do millions find comfort sitting by Nizamuddin’s side? Why does the religious divide cease to matter once you enter the shrine? Murshed was soon to unravel the mystery, the eternal lesson spread from the saintly pulpit that, although the paths to the Divine may vary, all that matters is faith. In the case of the stories in his book, the focus is that — whatever your faith — the dervish Nizamuddin hears your call.

Sanjeev Malhotra, a Hindu, struck by a gangster’s knife, lay dying in a train compartment. In a daze he saw a bearded man, bathed in shining white light and wearing flowing robes, come to him. “Hold on, hold on,” the man said. The refrain led Malhotra to Nizamuddin; he was convinced it was the saint he saw in that near-death moment. Feroza, a Muslim, plagued by a disturbing childhood, felt her life was falling apart as she went through court proceedings against the man who raped her after promising to marry her. She needed to talk. She needed someone to listen and Nizamuddin listened. One night as she sat at the shrine, “someone listened to her fears, assuring her that good would come and that she should go back in peace.” Kanwal Nain Sharma’s mother’s health condition defied all allopathic diagnoses; although all her vital parameters functioned normally, she was like a dead body. Resigned to the fates, Sharma, a Brahmin, as one last attempt fed his mother a rose petal picked up from Nizamuddin’s grave. “His mother lived a normal life for the next 60 years.” Frail and gaunt Prakash Arora carried the trauma of his mother’s attempt at suicide for years. Then he was directed to Nizamuddin and “here he found truth, love, tolerance.”

All these people continue their devotion to the saint, as have countless others down the centuries. Historically speaking, these and earlier devotees have vouched for the centripetal power of Nizamuddin’s dargah [tomb] which is seen and experienced as the focal point of cohesion and integration amongst diverse communities.

Sama, or the musical rendition of devotional poetry, was central to the Sheikh’s ideology, but the music was not entertainment; it was meditation, a goad to remember the Unseen. It is against this backdrop that the author pits his research. He delineates upon the politics of those treacherous times when the avaricious sultans of Delhi felt unduly threatened by the Sheikh’s rising spiritual charisma, of court intrigues, the cut-throat competition for wealth and empire and the orgies of violence, greed and lust. Murshed explores the unique relationship between the Sheikh, compassionate in abject poverty and Amir Khusro, the affluent court poet who was designated to sing daily praises of corrupt rulers. Khusro was wealth-focused and a lover of wine. Nizamuddin would give away his last morsel, and abstained totally. How did the two become one? Because, by Murshed’s findings, the dervish had called and Khusro, restless and craving cerebral thought, sought the Sheikh in order to soothe the tumult in his conscience. The road to Divine love led him to the Sheikh who was himself the epitome, a living, breathing manifestation of that song.

Reading through Song of the Dervish is like walking into the portal of the Sheikh’s dargah in a time machine that defies parameters. Moving back and forth in time, often repeating swatches of the same words in different sections of the book, Murshed superimposes Sheikh Nizamuddin’s birth, education, rearing and the evolution and manifestation of his spirituality upon historical detail. This unusual, and sometimes baffling, technique somehow grants an authenticity to the account, besides reinforcing the hypothesis that music — devotional music, that is — is a vehicle towards spiritual solace both in the worldly and the other-worldly sense.

Song of the Dervish is indeed a very sweet ode to the Sufi saint of Delhi. Written with deep affection and love, Murshed’s work promises to be an abiding acknowledgement to Dr Bruce Lawrence’s testimony that “Nizamuddin is alive for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to feel and above all else, a will to live in both worlds. They will hear the Song of the Dervish!” Whether one is into Sufism or just a bystander on the path, the book is highly recommended. Furthermore, it should serve to dispel the many conflicting theories about the kosher-ness of music in its many formats.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development

Song of the Dervish:
Nizamuddin Auliya, the Saint
of Hope and Tolerance
By Meher Murshed
Bloomsbury, India
ISBN: 978-9386349019
242pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 22nd, 2018