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Sufism and new-age nonsense

November 08, 2012

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KARACHI, Nov 7: An interesting, albeit short, lecture on Sufism and Sufi music was delivered by German writer and musician Peter Pannke at the Goethe Institut Karachi on Wednesday. The talk was part of the ongoing German cultural weeks.

Peter Pannke began by suggesting that instead of being labelled a German or a Pakistani (he has been coming to Pakistan for the past four decades) he would like to be called a Eurasian because Europe was actually a peninsula attached to the Asian continent. He formally started his talk by speaking on music. He said in Europe music was defined in terms of scales and rhythm, and notations were identified by frequency and movement of upper and lower scales. He opined that music was not merely that — it was musical sounds or entities moving in space. This led him to talk about Indian musicologists’ take on the subject which was spiritually inclined.

Mr Pannke said before getting to know about Sufi music it was important to know what Sufism meant. He quoted a British scholar who had argued that today a lot of people were writing books on Sufism claiming they had answers to all sorts of questions regarding Sufism. It was nothing but rubbish and nonsense. Mr Pannke then mentioned the Sufi saint Ali Hajveri also known as Hazrat Data Ganjh Baksh. He said the saint’s book ‘Kashful Mahjoob’ (the unveiling of the veiled) was the first textbook on Sufism. In that treatise the saint had rejected the notion that the word Sufi, which came from the word soof meaning wool, had anything to do with the old ascetics who wore woollen clothes.

Mr Pannke said the word Sufism was coined by a German scholar in 1824. This was the time when a great many ‘isms’ were also being introduced — socialism, communism, etc, and ‘ism’ basically implied a system of thought. But, Mr Pannke remarked, Sufism was a continuous method of questioning yourself under the assumption whether the pinnacle of human evolution was achieved or not. He said the 12th and 13th centuries saw the peak of Sufism and after which a decline was witnessed because no serious attempt was made to study the subject. “What we saw,” he said, “was new-age nonsense.”

With regard to European scholars’ interest in Sufis music he said there were close meeting points between European and North-West Asian and South Asian traditions. He pointed out that the 11th and 12th centuries were the time periods when popular music was born in Europe. When he (Pannke) first came to Pakistan in 1970, he heard some Sindhi Sufi musicians sing.

Their music was similar to the music of the troubadours of Sicily because the troubadours’ music had Arab influences, so there were connections between the two traditions. He took forward the argument and informed the audience that in the first German novel on the quest for the Holy Grail the stepbrother of the hero Parzival had a dark-skinned mother. Also, the port city of Deebul was mentioned in the book.

Mr Pannke then briefly talked about how Sufism was treated in different ages. He rounded off his lecture by showing a snippet from a film Sufi Soul in which Turkish Sufi musician Kudsi Erguner was seen cutting a bamboo and making a flute (one of Sufi musical instruments) out of it. Noted British historian William Dalrymple was also in the film.

Prior to the talk Goethe Institut director Dr Manuel Negwar introduced Mr Pannke to the audience. The consul general of Germany, Dr Tilo Klinner, also spoke and said Mr Pannke’s talk was a German reflection of the Pakistani culture and spiritual tradition.