Dr Tanvir Anjum

Dr Tanvir Anjum
Published On: 05-Oct-2021

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How do we contrast between Sufism and mysticism?

The word mysticism is derived from the Greek language, which means mystery. All religions have their own mystical or esoteric traditions, which are termed differently. Mysticism is an umbrella term to refer to all such mystical traditions in varied religions. For instance, this mystical tradition in Judaism is termed as Kabbalah, in Hinduism it is called Vedanta, in Buddhism, it is called Zen, while in Islamic context it is termed as tasawwuff, or Sufism, which is an Anglicized term coined in 1821 by a German Professor of Divinity.


Why don't we get to witness any Sufis today?

         There are Sufis in present times. The contemporary sufis include big names like Prof. Ahmad Rafiq Akhtar and Sarfraz A. Shah. Actually, we are still stuck in medievalism, we can’t think outside the box, and are not willing to see things in modern perspective. It’s more about expectations, we only expect or take a Sufi for someone who is tarik-ud-dunia (lives in solitude or the one who renounces the world), wearing a worn-out green jubba (robe), who lives in a kothri (hut), with a ghara (eastern water cooler) beside him. We cannot even imagine a Sufi in a pair of jeans and t-shirt. You may find contemporary sufis in jeans and t-shirt instead of robe, working on important positions in their workplaces.


 In modern times, there’s been over glorification of Sufism, in the art and entertainment industry: what’s your take on it?

No doubt, art has an important place in Sufism, if you look at Sufi poetry, or even dhamal, raqs, or samaa culture: (South Asian Sufi culture). Many Sufi schools of thought have incorporated art in their practices, which, however is, still debatable. In fact, every society has appropriated elements from their relevant art and culture in their Sufi practices. It’s more about marketing and viewership, in terms of media and entertainment industry: such content is well-received. However, there’s more to content and less to intent. But we cannot judge the viewers. I don’t personally consider it vile or over-glorification of tasawwuff, though it needs a better direction in my opinion.


 The primary objective of Sufis was social reforms, in your opinion: why the societies couldn’t get reformed?

In addition to the mystic or Sufis, Prophets and Messengers were sent to this world. And for that specific interval, the world got better, change occurred in the society. Then again, the people and the society reverted back to the old ways after the demise of the Prophets. Such is the case, it’s not entirely the job of the Sufis, or the Prophets, or the Messengers to change the World. They are just assigned their duties and roles by the Almighty. The struggle between good and bad, God and Devil, will continue till the end of times, as it is indeed the will of God. Moreover, not everyone gets faiz (enlightenment and benediction) from the Sufis, only a few individuals change, and certainly not the whole society. The purpose of tasawwuff is to help us transcend and negate the negative traits in ourselves, tame the beast in us, and recognize the divine within our own selves.


Can you please shed some light on the importance of Sufi philosophy in our curriculum?

One of the dimensions of tasawwuff is philosophy. It is very important to understand that not everyone is interested in Sufism, or philosophy, and not everyone is destined for it. Sufism is not a ‘thoroughfare’, as it is meant for a select few, who are intellectually sophisticated. However, there is another dimension to Sufism, i.e., “Sufi Ethics” which is more relevant for the common people, and I believe if the Sufi values are incorporated in our curriculum, then the society could get transformed. Sufism is bi-dimensional in goals: the first goal is to strengthen the connection of a human being with God through self-enlightenment, while the other is the service of humankind. In a nutshell, the broader relevance of Sufism for a society is to purify the hearts and ethical well-being of the society, and its incorporation in curriculum is very important for the society.


As a layperson, I never got to hear or learn about female Sufis, why were mostly Sufis men and less (or no) women?


I’m so sorry to learn that (laughing). It could be your limited knowledge on the subject. The root-cause is the idea which has dominated the South Asian region: the very idea that abstains aurat (women) from wilayat (wali= God’s friend). It is indeed our misfortune that we were not told about women Sufis. There’s a book titled Early Sufi Women by Abdur Rehman As-Sulami from the 11th century. More than 80 women Sufis (from 9th to 11th centuries) have been mentioned in this book. Remember, in medieval times Sufism was considered the only realm of society in which women could excel men. Historically, the presence of women sufis is a veiled tradition as it has existed, yet not acknowledged fully due to the patriarchal structure of society. There have been many examples, for instance, Nizamuddin Aulia has clearly credited Bibi Fatima Sa’am for spiritually enlightening him. Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti Ajmeri had 40 khalifas (spiritual successors), and one of them was his daughter named Bibi Hafiza Jamal. Baba Farid’s daughter, Bibi Sharif excelled all the men in spirituality, and Baba Farid also acknowledged it.


Do you think rebellion and social reforms go together with reference to Sufism?


Firstly, it is a mistaken assumption that Sufism is essentially characterized with political quietism. As a matter of fact, many Sufis actively challenged state authority, and raised their voice against oppression and injustice. Naqshbandi sufi, Imam Shamil (d. 1871) fought against the government in Russia. Similarly, Shah Inayat of Jhok in Sindh (d. 1718) was a Sufi activist, who fought against the local landlords as well as the Kalhora rulers of Sindh.

Secondly, changes can both be revolutionary and evolutionary. Remember, revolution can be reversed, evolutionary changes are long-lasting as compared to revolution. Evolutionary change is deep-rooted, it is gradual, changes at a relatively slower pace. It takes ages to change the heart. Generally, the approach of Sufis was not to bring about an overnight change, as it is not long-lasting. Their approach was more of a silent revolution and had to do more with heart and soul.

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