A discussion around Sufis and Sufism must have Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi at its heart. The Persian origin poet, scholar, philosopher from 13th century, Rumi’s writings, teachings are one of the most translated literary works even today.
For starters Rumi’s mystical stories have influenced generations, travelled from Greater Khorasan to Turkey while he was around, stayed alive over centuries, finally percolating into the current times, in a globalised yet ever divisive world of 21st century.
Today quotes of Rumi have dovetailed into humongous source of content generation across social media with countless Facebook, Tumbler pages and ever mushrooming Instagram handles who put together their feed from the readily available translations of the Sufi Master.
A closer look into these accounts reveal their wide appeal to users across class, faith and nationalities mostly from the global south, though many of them do not have an in-depth understanding of mysticism that sets the premise of Sufi masterly works.
Swaying multicultural crowds
Years ago at a summer concert in Harvard University, the last song that Pakistani—American singer Ali Sethi had belted out was Dama Dum Mast Qalandar, a dedicated Sufi number in memory of Lal Shah Baaz Qalandar, a 13th century Sufi saint whose shrine stands today at Sehwan Sharif in southeastern Pakistan. That night Sethi’s rendition swayed multicultural crowd to their rhythmic best.
The phenomenal artist whose musical works are oft played transborder from Pakistan to Canada from Middle East to Africa has acknowledged the contribution of Sufism time and again to his deeply nuanced music.
On the other end of this musical arc are the unmatched positioning of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Abida Parveen whose trailblazing eternal Sufi music, is posed for posterity.
To that there are best-seller books basing themselves on accessible and living history of Sufism in the region and historical romantic fiction woven through times when Sufism, was a philosophy and belief system dominant across Asia.
Sufism’s syncretic understandings
How exactly has the belief system, originating centuries earlier, operating in a different world order re-emerged as a current ‘go to’ path of healing for tired souls of South Asia, often living a life of grind. For me this resurgence is a plausible revival of Sufism beyond its spiritual expressions and quest, reinvented in a more populistic manner.
A random click on YouTube videos of Ali Sethi reveal startling numbers ranging to millions of views. Sethi’s Pasoori (meaning hot mess in Panjabi) was the second most searched song on Google at the turn of the year. The musician who is currently on a North America tour, dropped his latest number Ghazab Kiya Tere Vaade pe Aitabaar Kiya right at the beginning of the new year
One has more instances how big city dwellers have been taking refuge in Sufism’s syncretic understandings — a source of reduced triggers and enhanced mindfulness and healing. A handy example would be wide acceptance of historian Rana Safvi’s recent book ‘In the Search of Divine, Living Histories of Sufism in India’ in a polarised India.
The book unplugs her documentation of Sufi shrines of India. Safvi who considers Sufism as a living philosophy propelling brotherhood of mankind is firm on its longevity and lively rejuvenation.
She believes Sufism holds the magic key to pluralism, whose “seekers are syncretic at heart and nothing can stop them from visiting a Sufi shrine”. Safvi actually isn’t off the mark. Ever since her book was released in September last year, it has been a best-seller for weeks on Amazon under the category of mysticism.
Others found their soul food in historical romantic fiction like ‘The Lost Fragrance of Infinity’ by Moin Mir, set at the backdrop of premodern India with a protagonist aligned towards Sufi values of mortal and divine love.
Mir’s novel originally published as a hardback a year earlier than Safvi’s has met with adulation and is already back in its paperback avatar with the potential of a wider outreach.
Adding to the above, seeking minds, have been reliant on their ‘must check’ Instagram handles offering daily doses of Shams Tabrizi and Rumi.
The rising number of the followers on these handles reflect on their ability to momentarily calm down the racing minds of incessant South Asian netizens living in a complicated geopolitical region, often lashed by natural disasters, complex living conditions, financial, social imbalances not always in that order though.
Traditional torchbearers of Sufism
At a more visible level recent news reportage across India covered the overwhelming attendance of thousands at Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine in New Delhi to celebrate Basant or the ushering of Spring.
The tradition which has continued since the spiritual master’s time was first initiated by his favourite disciple Hazrat Amir Khusro who had written a lyrical poem describing the beauty of blooming mustard flowers, a sign of hope and love.
Till today millions of devotees congregate the dargah shedding aside their customary identity, of the affluent or the poor, the Hindu, or the Muslim, the Sikh, or the Christian only to immerse themselves in a belief of system centring around love and let love.
Fascinatingly, Basant is the only day when all Sufi singers or Qawaals of the shrine enter the sanctorum to sing the original song of the mustard blossoms. Imaginably the atmosphere is curative and impactful.
I am yet to touch upon the traditional torchbearers of Sufism the most favourite musical names of the subcontinent like Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Farid Ayaaz, Abu Mohammad, Arif Lohar, Sabri and Wadali Brothers.
Their popularity has never ceased. They continue to be heard even via those hurriedly remixed TikTok reels — indicating the longevity of Sufism and its revival, even though the puritans may frown at these reels.
And if in all of these South Asian hustlers cannot find their remedial potion, they have the never-to-be-closed gateway of restoration, healing — a deep dive into Urdu poetry and yes Ghalib is still the ultimate alchemist!
Nilosree is an author, filmmaker