Sufism’s message of tolerance, inclusion, love has universal relevance : Sherry Rehman

By Ali Imran

WASHINGTON, Sept 23 : Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman told an American audience at a cultural event Saturday night that Sufism embraces the spirit of tolerance and inclusion, and its message is increasingly relevant in this age of competing ideologies.

She was speaking at the Smithsonian Institute, where popular Pakistani Sufi singer Sanam Marvi gave a mesmerizing performance, attended by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

The new US ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson, senior American officials and a large number of Pakistani and American followers of the mystic poetry and music attended the performance by the acclaimed singer.

In her remarks, Ambassador Rehman made it clear that Sufism is not a sect of Islam.

“Its practice encapsulates the very essence of our faith,” the Pakistani envoy said.

“For over a decade now,” Ambassador Rehman said, “we have seen the marketplace of global ideas distorted by new walls of hatred and prejudice… This negativity causes many to lose hope in the project of peaceful civilizations, that instead of clashing, nurture the best in humanity.

She told the audience that Pakistan’s founding father, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, actively advocated a plural model of citizenship, asserting that all Pakistani citizens shall enjoy the same rights and privileges, regardless of their religious affiliation.”

Ms Rehman explained to the attentive audience the  message of Sufism as she observed that “being grounded in the mystical connection between the individual and the divine, Sufism embraces the spirit of tolerance and inclusion in both its discourse and practice.”

This is one of the reasons why Sufi saints played a central role in the spread of Islam, especially in South Asia, making it the second biggest and the most practiced religion in the world, she added.

“The Sufi doctrine is simple and universal, that the light of God abides in the heart of each person. The Sufi ‘tariqa’ or the Sufi way guides us on the roads of the inner journey towards discovering the self, for the ultimate goal of reaching the divine light and wisdom that each one of us carries within.”

“What could, indeed, be a more appropriate and opportune time to think and reflect about the message of unity, peace, togetherness and patience exemplified by the life and teachings of Sufi saints and their philosophy of life?” Ambassador Rehman stressed.

Sanam Marv is a highly talented Pakistan, who has risen to fame in a matter of few years. Shei sings from the inspiring poetry of Sufi masters like Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Baba Farid. Trained in the Sufi tradition of music, Marvi’s  voice reflects the purity, depth and devotion, that is so unique to mystical Sufi kalam.

She has performed in many parts of the world,  recreating a spark of the ecstasy experienced by devotees at Sufi shrines.

The Pakistani envoy shared some thought-stimulating details about Sufism and its message of peaceful life, love and strong bonds int he society.

The strong spiritual pull that Sufi saints and their shrines exert all over Pakistan is demonstrated by their remarkably inclusive identity. They have become rooted in the colors of their soil, embracing the local folk inflection and, their shrines, as places of devotional celebration and prayer, continue to exercise a powerful appeal across the board to men and women alike.

The continued relevance and centrality of the Sufi shrine in Pakistan, is a telling index of the importance of the mystical narrative in religious practice in South Asia even today.

Certainly in the Pakistani imagination, Sindh and Multan’s saints and their shrines have become the sites of a great collective celebration of devotional expression, as well as a quest for self-knowledge, and of course, the ultimate search for the divine in all its manifestations. The gravitational pull that the poetry, practice and tombs of these saints exercise is enormous. In almost all of the shrines, the vulnerable and the marginal hold the center, but it is remarkable how elites too beat a path to these doors.

As a potent example of the discourse that resonates in postmodern cultural expression in Pakistani music and art today, let me cite the homage to tolerance and diversity that one of our greatest Sufi poets brings to the millions of devotees and itinerants alike. I quote, Baba Bulleh Shah’s intrinsically Sufi message; that one who knows his Self, knows his Lord.

Bulleh Shah says:

Sufi Saint Baba Bulleh Shah

Sufi Saint Baba Bulleh Shah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You have learnt so much

And read a thousand books.

Have you ever read your Self?

You have gone to mosque and temple.

Have you ever visited your soul?

You are busy fighting Satan.

Have you ever fought your ego?

You have reached into the skies,

But you haven’t reached the One

Who lives in your heart!’

The Sufi doctrine is simple and universal, that the light of God abides in the heart of each person. The Sufi tariqa or the Sufi way guides us on the roads of the inner journey towards discovering the self, for the ultimate goal of reaching the divine light and wisdom that each one of us carries within.

This message has attracted people of all faiths. Being grounded in the mystical connection between the individual and the divine, Sufism embraces the spirit of tolerance and inclusion in both its discourse and practice. This is one of the reasons why Sufi saints and mendicants played a central role in the spread of Islam, especially in South Asia, making it the second biggest and the most practiced religion in the world. Certainly in Pakistan, all historical accounts, both the grand narrative as well as the more subaltern, grassroots history of South Asia today, suggest that Islam found root and mass appeal in my part of the world through the twin instrument of practice and preaching: the humility of the Sufi preacher and the egalitarianism of his message was what converted hundreds of thousands to Islam in a society stratified by class and caste.

Pakistanis have traditionally followed one of four Sufi orders: the Chistiya, the Naqshbandiyah, the Qadriya and the Suahrawardiya. These orders were extensions of the many Sufi saints who migrated to the Indo-Pak sub-continent during the 10th and 11th centuries from the Middle East and Central Asia. Their humility and humanity contributed to the development of a spiritual movement advocating love instead of ritual, essence instead of form. They urged people to seek the truth directly, rather than through mere conformity to tradition.

A discussion of the Sufis of Sindh is not complete without mentioning Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, whose mysticism is legendary. The root of his faith and spirituality was widely seen as expansive, inclusive and welcoming, made room for Muslims, Hindus and many other faiths alike. In his own words, and I quote

English: Painting of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai ...

English: Painting of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shah_Abdul_Latif_Bhittai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“A message came from the Lord:
A full moon shone
Darkness disappeared
A new message came from the Lord:
It does not matter what caste you are
Who-ever comes, is accepted.”

In Pakistan, Sufi saints are still revered in all corners; whether the seekers seek blessings in Multan from Hazrat Baha-ud-din Zikrya and Shah Alam, in Sehwan from Lal Shahbaz Qalander, in Islamabad from Bari Imam or in Lahore from Data Ganj Bakhsh. For the people of Pakistan, they are the faith healers, the guides to inner peace, and the authors of many wisdoms.

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Categories: Arts and Life, Inter-faith

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