Category Archives: Sufism and Sufi poetry

Why fanatics of today would not have spared Kabir

The murders of rationalists and threats to writers, negate what was achieved through centuries of cross-cultural exchange and intellectually robust reformist movements.

  • “Friend
  • You had one life
  • And you blew it”

Encountering Kabir in Ithaca, a small town in upstate New York, was an unreal experience. The occasion was a reading of new translations of the 15th century mystic bard by the eminent Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. This slim collection entitled “Songs of Kabir” has been published by the New York Review of Books. At the homey Buffalo Street Books, Mehrotra recited some of his own powerful poems before he turned to Kabir.

This is not the first translation. For years, Tagore’s translations have been popular. In recent years,  Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, Vinay Dharwadker, and many others have attempted to interpret these poems in myriad styles. Mehrotra explained how the performers, who sing Kabir’s songs in their regional dialects and present his profound ideas for their particular audiences, inspired him. In a similar manner, he had treated Kabir’s verse as a modern poet. The result of Mehrotra’s endeavors is delightful as it retains the essence of the poetry, makes it accessible with the right level of punch for the contemporary reader. For instance, note the directness here: Continue reading

What if Bulleh Shah were alive today?

Another tragic day. A mob attacks a Christian couple after accusing them of desecration of the Holy Quran and then burn their bodies at a brick kiln where they worked. Religion, class, bigotry and exploitation all mixed up.
Reminds me of another piece that I wrote in 2012 on the burning of a blasphemy accused and the inability of law/state/police to salvage the situation.

The chilling news of a man burnt alive in Bahawalpur on alleged charges of blasphemy has escaped the national media as well as our collective conscience. Other than a token condemnation by President Asif Ali Zardari, no major political leader has bothered to talk about this ghastly incident.

After the brutal assassination of Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, we had given up the hope of even holding a debate on man-made colonial laws on blasphemy. The voices that were asking for a review of the legislation had to retreat as the majority Sunni-Barelvi interpretation captured public discourse. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri was defended by the same lawyer who viewed ‘rule of law’ as an articulation of a personalised, anti-democracy and Sharia-compliant version of justice. The fact that a former chief justice of Lahore is Qadri’s lawyer reflects the inherent biases and indoctrination that have spread in our society. If a billionaire, liberal politician could be murdered on the streets of Islamabad, what hope does a supposedly deranged man in the deep south of Punjab have?

The rise of vigilantism is also indicative of state failure. Not long ago, we witnessed the inhuman lynching of two young men in the Sialkot district where the state machinery stood by and extended tacit support to ugly scenes of dead bodies being paraded around. A few months later, I was invited to a television talk show where, to my surprise, I was surrounded by a lawyer and a so-called aalim (religious scholar). During the show, the cheerful aalim continued to find obscure and irrelevant references to justify mob-lynching as a kosher form of justice. Continue reading

Indus Valley School of Learning: The school which teaches Humanism

On Pakistan Day, I was invited by the Indus Valley School of Learning in Rawalpindi. I tweeted about my visit and the pleasant experience. There is so much about Pakistan that remains invisible – many people who are working hard to make it a plural and tolerant place. Whilst I complain about our curricula all the time, here is a school which is striving within formidable constraints to provide quality education.

But if you are happy…

When you whirl, your eye sees the room whirling, too.
If you sail in a ship over the sea,
it seems the seashore is running past.
If your heart is oppressed with struggle,
the whole atmosphere of the world feels tight;
but if you are happy as your friends would wish,
this world seems to be a garden of roses.

Rumi
Version by Camille and Kabir Helminski
“Rumi: Jewels of Remembrance”
Threshold Books, 1996