Friday, March 30, 2007

Mysticism in Islam:a paradox

From the very inception of the human civilization, man has sought to find the deeper meaning of life and the truth about the relationship between himself and his creator. This very human quest has been the reason for the birth and evolution of many a religion, faith, beliefs, philosophies and sects. Throughout the course of prehistory and history, man has attempted to unravel the mystery of creation and existence and the relation between the cause and effect of various activities, both human and divine. Through the march of human civilization, we see the rise and eclipse of so many religions, faiths, principles and sects. But all along some universal truths have got established, which have to be accepted and established by almost all irrespective of their faith and belief.

In the plethora of these faiths, we see many as strict faiths and others relatively more flexible and even vague as well. In the former group, one faith or rather a religion in the strict sense of the word, with almost tight compartment theories and edicts is Islam. Islam spread in seventh century A.D. from Arabia to most of the eastern world and in the west upto southern Europe. Being one of the youngest religions with a strict code of conduct and principles, there is hardly any scope for philosophical interpretation of the edicts apart from that accepted and established during the times of Prophet Mohammed only.

Yet we see a man, a revolutionary, a real religious researcher, a loin hearted human being who inspite of being a faithful and practicing Muslim started asking awkward questions about human existence creation, creator, truth and God, and their relationship with each other. And this happened when Islam was only two and a half-century young only. This eternal revolutionary, the fearless votary of mysticism, fierce thinker and philosopher was one Hussein bin Mansoor famous as Halaaj.

Halaaj was born around 858 A.D. in a Persian city named Bezaa(In Faras province of modern Iran) in an ordinary household. After his customary primary education only, the child Hussein started asking difficult and awkward questions. To satisfy his inner urges he came into contact with many of the high priests (clergy) of the time, but nothing could satisfy him. As a youth only he started travelling far and wide meeting the scholars and clerics discussing and debating difficult issues. Finally he reached Shouster (a small city in Khuzistan of modern Iran) where he studied under a very famous cleric called Sahal-bin Abdullah Shoustari for a long time. From here he came to Baghdad the capital of Islamic kingdom and seat of Khalifa (Religious head as well as king of the kingdom). At that time most of modern day Iran was a part of Baghdad Khilafat. From here he went to Basra as well as to Arabia, but returned to Baghdad soon. In Baghdad he continued his tirade of discussions and debates with highest clerics of the day. Soon he left for a long and fruitful sojourn eastwards. He traveled to most of the big cities of Persia including Khurasan (Easternmost province of Iran), meeting all the scholars and religious heads of the time. From here he entered Indian subcontinent and traveled many parts of northern India. Here also, he continued his unsatiable quest. He is supposed to have traveled to China and Far East also though we do not have any concrete evidence to support this view.

On his return to Ahwaz, Khuzistan(southern Iran) and then to Baghdad he started preaching his principles about secrets of existence and creation. His words were unorthodox, difficult to understand and against the normal beliefs of the common people. He would declare himself in union with his lord, god and creator a very revolutionary idea for those times and places. He won very few followers and a large number of enemies. But fearlessly, soon he donned the attire of a Sufi Darvesh and startled everyone by proclaiming, “ AN-AL –HAQ” (I am the truth or God.) For majority it was simply unacceptable and to others not understandable to say the least. Most of the people branded him as an infidel, a magician or a person simply gone astray of the real path. The clergy in general denounced him as well as his utterances as anti-Islamic and thus the way was paved for his ultimate fate. But nothing could stop this fearless soul. He would declare that he is in mad love and devotion with his creator and has become one with Him—a core principle of Sufism since then; an ideology not very unlike that of mainstream Hinduism. Had Halaaj got influenced in India by Hindu thought? It is difficult to say and to me it is needless to delve in it. He is supposed to have done meditation for months together at a stretch, going without any solid food for that period. Though majority of people and clergy were against him and denouncing him as an infidel, there were still many who followed him, asked for guidance from him, respected him and loved him. He would narrate and sing out his edicts in couplets, collected afterwards by his followers into a book called “Tawasin”in Arabic. This book is replete with narrations of love, devotion, surrender, unison and ultimate detachment from worldly things, the principles he preached and practised throughout his life. This book has been translated in english by Aisha-ar-Rahman lately and is available now in various libraries.

With the rising opposition from clergy and general people the Khalifa of the time Al-Muqtadar-Bi-Alah ordered him to be imprisoned for one year. But still some of his followers would throng the prison to take his advice and guidance. This further infuriated Khalifa and he banned all the visitors to him for five months. There are numerous stories of mysteries and miracles about him of those days. It is recorded that on the first night in Baghdad prison he was not seen anywhere in the prison, and on the second night neither he nor the prison could be located, while on the third night he was in the prison as expected. When asked about this phenomenon, he is supposed to have said,” On first night I went to see my lord, thus I was not here; second night He came to see me, thus you could not see me; (i.e. when man gets absorbed in God he is invisible.) and on the third night I am here to respect the Shariat (worldly principles of religion), And now you do your job.” Again there is a story when he made three hundred of his co- prisoners free by unlocking their chains and remained himself chained as usual. When asked about this secret he is supposed to have said,”I have a secret to divulge and that can be done at the altar of crucifixion only and not by fleeing.”

In 921A.D. (309 H.Q.) he was asked to apologise by Khalifa for his infidelity and insane dictates. For this purposes an important religious head by the name of Ibn- Atta and Abu Abdullah Khalif Shirazi were deputed to prevail upon him, but the fearless Sufi could not be influenced and the whole deed failed. Later on he was tried formally in royal court for the charges of infidelity and contempt of prophet and religion. The court proceedings lasted few months. The court debates and discussions make very interesting reading and spiritual sense, but can not be accommodated here in this article. Since Hussein did not show any signs of remorse or mellowing and repeated his mantra of An-al Haq, he was ultimately sentenced to flogging to death. But once flogging started it is said that with every flog a voice would appear from some where saying,”Do not fear O, son of Mansoor!” Infuriated by these incidents Khalifa had no choice but to order his execution in the most brutal manner.

On the day of his execution thousands gathered in the ground, some merely to witness the event and some to mourn and interact with their master. One Darvesh asked him,”What is Devotion”. He replied, “You will see it today, tomorrow and day after.” When his servant asked him for the will, he said.” Keep your heart busy with something worth doing (Dharam) otherwise it will involve you in exactly the opposite. (Adharam). His son also asked a similar question and the reply was,”Never work for interests, do work for Knowledge of Truth.” Then he was taken to the gallows. People noticed his graceful gait and mild smile even though he was chained heavily (13 of them in all). When asked about the reason for this unwarranted happiness he said,” I am going to the sacrificial ghat”. And composed a couplet which can be roughly translated as follows :

My rival and not enemy is not a non entity;
He nourished me, as a guest would serve the other guest;
Since we drifted, he sided with sword and arms;
Now this should be the punishment of somebody who
Lives and partakes with the pythons in the pit.

Once near the gallows people asked him as what you have to say for those who agree with you and for those who do not and shall stone you right now? His reply was, ”Those who shall stone me will be bestowed with twice the blessings than those who will not; because you simply want to agree with me, while as the others are having full faith in Shariat and are acting accordingly.” Soon after people started stoning him. With each stone Hussein would only grin. A very famous and learned cleric by the name of Shabli was also present at that time. When he threw a small clayball only towards Hussein he sighed a little. When asked for the reason of this reaction he said,”Those who do not know can be accepted and excused while as those who know, can not be excused or accepted.”

Next day he was fixed on the gallows and his hands were cut and he laughed. When asked for the reason he said,” It is very easy to cut the hands of a chained person. Can you cut the hand which connects me to my God?” Again when his legs were cut he laughed and said,” By virtue of these legs I would walk on this earth but now I have to walk down only two steps to reach my lord and can you severe those legs from me.?” Then he raised his bleeding arms and smeared the blood on his face and forearms and smiled again. When asked for the reason he said, “ I know a lot of blood has got drained from body and my face must be pale by now. I smeared my face red with blood so that nobody thinks that pallor is due to fear of death.” Then somebody asked but why to smear blood on forearms? To this he replied,” I am taking Wazu (Ablutions taken before offering Namaz. Faithful have to wash face and forearms with water before offering every namaz). He added in love and devotion wazu with water only does not suffice, it has to be performed with blood." After that his eyes were gouged out and still he maintained his calm, but when his tongue was to be severed as a last act of brutality he pleaded,” Hold for a minute, I am to say some thing.” Then he looked towards the sky and prayed,” Oh God allow these people to witness (enjoy) this whole event”. After that his last words are said to be ‘” One who is in love with his creator, getting absorbed in Him is the ultimate goal”. In the evening he was beheaded. It is said that all the severed parts were crying :An-al-Haq:.

The authorities of the time did not dare to bury his mortal remains, lest the people erect a temple at the site of his burial.
Thus next day his remains were burnt down and his ashes thrown into the river Tigris (an end he would have probably longed for). But by the evening a fierce tide arose in Tigris flooding the neighboring areas and only when his servant brought Hussien’s gown (Khirqah) and touched the waters and waters started receding and people heaved a sigh of relief.
Thus finishes or rather starts a legacy of philosophy of devotion in Islam. This heralded the advent of Sufism as we know it today. Sufism is no religion. It has the shadows of Islam, but it is not Islamic religion. It may be safely said that Sufism is the inner mystical or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam. Complete detachment from thing material plus mad devotion with the God’s name is the corner stone of Sufism. The word Sufi has may meanings and sources. A Persian word “Tasawuf’ meaning being one with God seems directly related to word Sufi. In Arabia to the west of Kaaba there used to be a hillock called ‘Safa’. In pre-Islamic and early Islamic times people would go atop the place for meditation without any consideration for hunger, thirst, pain or other material things. These people were called Sufis. Sufis advocate “Mahaba” mode of worship (the love and devotion route) in contrast to ‘Maarfa’ (the route of Knowledge) mode. Mahaba can be translated in Hindi or Sanskrit as ‘Bhakhti or Bhagti’.
Halaaj was executed in most brutal way but his legacy did not die with him. No doubt his followers had to remain in-cognito in the society to avoid persecution and execution for a long time. These followers called Darveshes or Sufis had to hide in eastern Iran mostly and many from there reached the safe havens of Indian subcontinent. From Iran we have many names but the brightest star among them is Maulana Jalal-ud-din al-Rumi. He was born in 1207 A.D. He is the celebrated author of ‘Masnavi Maanavi’, a huge collection of apparently short stories in verse form, but is full of spirituality and deeper thought.

Many of these followers flourished in Northern India for centuries and facilitated the spread of moderate Islam throughout the region. Khawaja Moin-ud-din Chisti, Nizamudin Aulia and Amir Khusroo, to name a few bright stars among them. There are millions of followers of these sufis till today among all the faiths. Some of these very sufis, almost by accident, reached Kashmir valley in early fourteenth century and by sheer dint of destiny and the disparaging condition of the kings (Hindu) of Kashmir at that particular time, they could usurp the throne of Kashmir 1339A.D. But still there were a few who did not get lured to spoils of durbars and kingdom and continued with their traditions of Sufism. In Kashmir, due to the strong Rishi Tradition these people were called by the common people as Rishis. These Rishis had followers from both, hindu and muslim faiths till recently. Most respected and revered among these are Shiekh Noor-ud-din Wali(Chrar-I-Sharief), Reshi Mol(Anantnag),Bab Shukardin (Watlab) and Baba Farid (Kishtwar). The often quoted term of Kashmiriat in today’s politics in Kashmir has the roots in this rishi tradition only, though unfortunately these very roots have been hollowed by the vested interests.
More than eleven hundred years back Halaaj lighted a candle in the darkness of fundamentalism, and we need this light more than ever today, every where in our modern world. The geopolitical problems of our world admixed with religious frenzy and fundamentalism with its fatal and brutal results has benumbed the humanity all over the globe. I dare to see a speck of light at the end of this dark tunnel.

We have five hundred million muslims living in the south asian region, more than all the muslims in the Arab world. These south asian muslims have been reared in sufism and have evolved in an ancient pre-islamic civilisational cradle. There is a lot of possibility of moderating these muslims because of their roots and if they are moderated, it can become a powerful engine to moderate muslims worldwide. Amen!