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A matter of faith

September 10, 2009 A day after the Taliban blew up the shrine of 17th century Sufi poet Rehman Baba at Peshawar in Pakistan on March 5, the muted out

September 10, 2009india today

A day after the Taliban blew up the shrine of 17th century Sufi poet Rehman Baba at Peshawar in Pakistan
on March 5, the muted outcry at a Khanqah (spiritual retreat) in the walled city of Bhopal could barely be
heard in the narrow alleyways. But the message sent out by the gathering of devout Sufis in Tila Jamalpura
locality of the Madhya Pradesh capital was loud and clear: they were reclaiming their space amid the tide of
militant Islamism, willing Allah to reform hardliners, or destroy them.
The next Jumerat (Thursday), it was business as usual in the Khanqah. An assorted gathering of Muslim
Chishtiyas and their Hindu neighbours was back singing a quaint hymn that blends, as they claim, the best of
the Vedas with the Quran. Harilal Sahu, a practicing Hindu neighbour aware of the practice says, “I wish
more Muslims would follow the lead of the Chishtiyas.” He need not fret over the perceived trend of rising
Wahabism or Talibanisation of Indian Muslims. The Sufi sect, or the Chishtiya Silsila as they like to call
themselves, is making a strong comeback in these parts, with more than a little help from ordinary Hindus.
In Bhopal, the sharply declining water level of the Upper Lake came a godsend for the Chishtiyas. The
dwindling water opened up a land route to the shrine of Hazrat Shah Ali Shah Data Chishti on an island.
Walking to the shrine with the Chishtiya Muslims during the Urs were cashrich Hindus Sarafa businessmen
who lingered at the shrine till dawn.
Last year, some Muslim hardliners tried to disrupt a chadar ceremony at the Dargah of Hazrat Roshan Ali
Shah at Chandan Nagar in Indore. Local Hindus gathered in force and made them beat a hasty retreat. During
the annual Urs at the same shrine about seven months back, another attempt was similarly thwarted by the
administration. A spate of such incidents is slowly turning Indore into a communal tinderbox.
From small towns in Malwa like Burhanpur and Dhar to Gwalior and places like Sagar in Bundelkhand and
Rewa in Baghelkhand, the Chishtiya sect is becoming more visible. The Urs at the dargahs of prominent Sufi
saints are becoming louder and more colourful and the qawwali is returning with a vengeance despite the
pronouncements of orthodox outfits. The district administration of Raisen estimates that the six-day Urs at the
shrine of Peer Fatehullah Shah in April attracted four lakh devotees.
Most of the Chishtiyas draw their following from the Sunni Muslim sect and thus bear the brunt of rising
hardline Islam the most. “There was a trend of rising extremism among youths till about four years back. That
is now on the wane,” says Rashid Khanooni, the Sajjadanashin of the prominent Dargah of Hazrat Khwaja
Khanoon Saheb in Gwalior. His efforts and stature stymied an effort by some Wahabi hardliners to hold an
Ijtimalike religious congregation at Gwalior in 2007 as the locals refused to be a part of the event, says
Khanooni’s aide Rambabu Katare, a Brahmin.
A London-trained lawyer who gave up his Supreme Court practice to take up the seat, Khanooni is the
vicepresident of the National Sufi Board, an organisation of prominent heads of Sufi shrines across the
country. The Board itself is a platform for Chishtiyas to run an outreach programme through seminars andsymposia. During the Urs at the Dargah in Gwalior last year, the seminar attracted wide attention with
speakers like Sufi Asgar Ali from Indore.
There are others as well. Delhibased Jamiyat-us-Sufiya, Hardoibased Sufi Sant Samaj and Hyderabad-based
Jamiyat-ul-Madaar are working on similar lines to preserve their brand of Islam. While other prominent
Muslim sects like Shias and even Sunni sub-sects like Deobandis, Barelvis or Nadvis work through
well-defined and organised institutions, Sufis have traditionally been allied to their dargahs. Nationwide
organisations are helping them overcome the lack of a framework to propagate their message.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Muslim Tehwar Committee has never buckled under the pressure of hardliners,
organising rambunctious, night-long functions for festivals like Shab-e-Baraat, something that the puritans
abhor. Its event in May-end at the Dargah of Baba Fareed in Bhopal saw prominent Sikhs from the local
Gurudwara Prabandhak Samiti lending a helping hand. Says the committee’s president Ausaaf Shahmeeri
Khurram, “We simply cannot allow our traditions to be transformed.” But transforming they are. Whereas
thirty years ago a prominent Sufi figure might have laughed off questions on religious identity, even the likes
of Khanooni and Khurram are having to painstakingly explain that their devotion at a Sufi shrine is Ehteraam,
not Ibadat, as the latter is reserved solely for the Almighty. Likewise, under the pressure of assault on their
very identity as Muslims, they have set out lucid dos and don’ts on issues like idol-worship, one reason why
even many Chishtiyas among Muslims don’t visit the shrine of Sai Baba in Shirdi any more.
That bolsters the critique that even Sufism is a one-way street, sufficiently diluted to suit the palate of other
communities but unwilling to assimilate their strands. While the Chishtiya ideology is slowly reclaiming its
space in its community, even a section of Hindus cast a suspicious eye on them. Prominent western
Indologists as well as Indian scholars have attributed conversions in India to Islam over the centuries in large
part to the drawing power of the Sufis. Says Kusumlata Kedia, a prominent voice on interfaith relations in the
extended saffron brotherhood, “It is not quite the melting pot it is made out to be.” Clearly, Sufism still has a
long way to go before it becomes the great equaliser.