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Who’s afraid of Dara Shikoh’s ghost?

Raza Rumi (published in TFT this week)

Madeeha Gauhar
Prince Dara at the feet of his
Sufi saint
Emperor Aurangzeb
Dara Shikoh
Dara reading the Upanishads with Hindu priests
Maulana Maududi
To present a play on a prince who argued – with reason and reference – that there was little difference between the Upanishads and the tenets of mystical Islam is no ordinary feat. After all, this is a country where powerful forces within the state and society are hell bent on turning the Land of the Pure into a haven for cultural fascism
The Ahmedis are hounded on a regular basis, the Shias are being murdered and even the Barelvi majority feels unsafe given the high profile murders of their leadership
The propagation of Islam in the subcontinent was the handiwork of the Sufis who showed the path to a large number of people through the message of tolerance, harmony and reconciliation. Recognising the roots of our indigenous cultures is now the only weapon that Pakistan’s intelligentsia possesses

It is now a given that the Pakistani state is a playground for Islamism and extremism under various guises and forms. Since the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949, the state by design and sometimes by default has surrendered to the phantoms of the orthodox Islamic interpretation of the world. It is true that religion was central to the sloganeering for Pakistan, but the post-1947 architecture of the Pakistani state was meant to be secular and democratic. Whatever the proponents and apologists of a jihadi state might have to say, Jinnah’s words and deeds were clear. Iqbal’s vision, inspired by Islamic philosophy and strands of mystical thought, was also clearly anti-Mullah.

This was hardly surprising, as a majority of Indian Muslims, not unlike South Asians of today, were averse to orthodoxy. From the Bhakti movement to folk and Sufi traditions, mullahs and pundits have not enjoyed popular legitimacy, as their alliance with power was resented and rejected by the populace. It is also well known that Mr Maududi and his ilk were bitterly opposed to Pakistan and accused the Muslim League leadership of being un-Islamic. Even stranger is the fact that this essential truth is rarely discussed in the public domain, and excessive coverage and importance given to the orthodox champions of Pakistani nationalism in the media and in textbooks, betrays how the age-old nexus between Pakistani monarchs and the Mullahs has survived the test of time.

Ajoka theatre based in Lahore has been attempting to challenge the status quo. Its plays rooted in the folk and street traditions of the subcontinent have raised political themes and placed political mobilisation at the centre of any discussion for social change. Recently, its play Dara Shikoh was staged in Lahore, and this marked a watershed in our cultural and political landscape. Dara Shikoh, the elder son of Emperor Shahjehan, despite his brutal murder at the hands of his Mullahesque brother Aurangzeb, continues to represent a fault line that runs through the past and the present of South Asia, especially in Pakistan.

To present a play on a prince who argued – with reason and reference – that there was little difference between the Upanishads and the tenets of mystical Islam, is not an ordinary feat in a country where powerful forces within the state and society are hell-bent on turning the Land of the Pure into a haven for cultural fascism. Above all, Dara’s stiff resistance to a militant version of Islam and its exclusionary theological constructs is perhaps most relevant in these times.

However, Ajoka’s effort to take the play to our culturally desertified and politically bankrupt Islamabad, for a presentation at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), has been thwarted by officialdom, as it challenges the state complexion and orientation. One wishes that such a comment were merely speculation, but it seems that there is enough evidence to suggest that a female MNA from the Jamaat-e-Islami wrote to the PNCA earlier. Apparently, she believed that Ajoka was guilty of making fun of Islamic values and represented a threat to the republic of the believers and munafaqeen alike.

How ironic that this is no different from the late 1970s when a senior bureaucrat, now a media personality and scholar (of sorts), authored an article where General Zia ul Haq was compared to the austere and God-fearing Aurangzeb, and Dara was portrayed as a precursor to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The maverick civil servant argued that in the clash of ideology, Zia’s coup was symbolic of religious power. Pakistan suffered from Zia’s assumed divine right to rule in the name of Islam for eleven long years, during which intolerance, bigotry, sectarianism and dictatorship shook the foundations of this country. Intellectual voices and activist groups such as Ajoka have to constantly contend with Zia’s legacy, and the wily servants of the state are always eager to provide legitimacy to retrogression.

Ajoka’s earlier play Burqvaganza explored another explosive subject, that of purdah, and its literal interpretation at the expense of the metaphorical and spiritual meaning. The female MNA referred to above, who also happens to be the daughter of the former Amir of the Jamaat, even raised the issue in the National Assembly and protested that Ajoka’s legitimate questions about the burqa were tantamount to demeaning Islam. History and politics move in cycles, and this outcry in the Parliament was not different from the earlier assaults on the secular vision of Pakistan. All our rulers, except perhaps Ayub Khan, pandered to the orthodox lobby. Under General Zia ul Haq, Islamisation became an official policy and its instruments the un-uniformed part of the national security apparatus.

A small theatre group therefore is pitted against far larger forces of orthodoxy and regressive medievalism. This is shameful, given that an elected government is ruling Pakistan, and the ruling party has been hostile to the ideology of Zia ul Haq. But Zia seems to be alive as much as his nemesis Bhutto. Whilst the jiyalas may chant zinda hai Bhutto, the institutions are pretty smug and happy to articulate zinda hai Zia. Small wonder that JI, whose lack of electoral worth has time and again been exposed, has the audacity to become a guardian of our faith and nationalism.

When Ajoka’s executive director Madeeha Gauhar called the other day to share the recent phase of her ‘struggle’ in the democratic era, she was obviously disturbed. And given her penchant for speaking the truth she was also not too charitable about the Mullah brigade. While she was talking on the phone, her voice faded and a recording of a Hamd (a eulogy for the Almighty) emerged from nowhere. This was amusing, yet quite unnerving. Our Constitution and laws prohibit anyone to monitor citizens’ expression and speech in the public and private spheres. And, to experience this intrusion was not pleasant at all.

Interestingly, the minions of Big Brother played a popular Hamd, that begins with the verse Koi tau haye jo nizam-e-hasti challa raha haye. Muzaffar Warsi, who apparently was Zia ul Haq’s favourite poet, had composed these verses. In view of his special place in the Zia kingdom, he was accorded with various state honours and also a cushy state job. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan later rendered this piece in his magical voice.

I clearly remember a discussion that took place in the presence of the late Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, a twentieth century literary giant. Many senior poets critiqued this Hamd for being a problematic hymn for God Almighty, since it did not express absolute belief in God but worked through an inference: there must be Someone who was managing the universe! Thus the element of doubt marred a believer’s chant in praise of his Creator.

More importantly, the bugged phone line sent a clear message: that la-deen (irreligious as secularism is understood by the clerics) Madeeha Gauhar had to be ‘censored’ even in a private conversation, and reminded that there is a God. And, the chosen, self-appointed representatives were managing the show in His name.

This is not limited to the minions of the state apparatus. Such attitudes are now embedded in our curricula, modes of instruction, thousands of madrassas and more dangerously, elements of the media who were trying to convince us of the glories of the Taliban until the Pakistan Army valiantly took on the miscreants.

A journey that commenced with the Right’s struggle to capture political space in the 1940s, and with the state’s cynical support, has culminated in capitulation to such forces. The gradual erosion of Jinnah’s Pakistan has also led to the ascendancy of all that Pakistan was not supposed to represent. The Ahmedis are hounded on a regular basis, the Shias are being murdered, and even the Barelvi majority feels unsafe given the high-profile murders of their leadership. What we have is a curious mix of a Wahabi-Salafi variant of Islamism with several local offshoots, which are not averse to using violence and butchery as weapons.

The propagation of Islam in the subcontinent was the handiwork of Sufis and sages who showed the path to a large number of people through the message of tolerance, harmony and reconciliation. Violence simply did not deliver in this part of the Islamic world.

This is why recognising the roots of our indigenous cultures is important. It is now the only weapon that Pakistan’s intelligentsia possesses. To encourage the airing of alternative messages and interpretations such as Dara’s worldview, and challenging the burqa’s form […]

Aurangzeb as he was according to Mughal Records

Found these amazing images on a deeply problematic exhibition on the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb here
Exhibit No. 2: Prince Dara Shukoh translating the Upanishads.

Prince Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, was like his great ancestor Akbar, a very liberal and enlightened Musalman and a true seeker of truth. Akbar respected all religions – Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc., and gave their votaries complete religious freedom. He was ever keen to discuss and understand their religious beliefs, practices and philosophy and, in order to make the Musalmans familiar with the culture, and universal values, philosophy and traditions of India, he had the great epics of India – Ramayana and Mahabharat – translated into Persian. He also arranged for the translation of the Atharvaveda. […]
August 16th, 2008|Arts & Culture, History, South Asian Art|12 Comments

The invisibility of the Mughal princesses

My piece published by the Himal Magazine 

zeb-un-nisa Zebunisa

The limitations of Southasia’s historical record can be seen in the indifference towards two notable Mughal princesses, Jahanara and Zebunnissa.

History – that mosaic of tales and fables that is generally, though not entirely, agreed upon – will always be contested and debated, often in the blood-lined bazaars of power. Indian history, which serves as the broad banner for the histories of Southasia, is certainly no exception in this. After all, Indian history has largely been one of power laced with the force of religion. In addition, during the course of this history, the rulers, ministers, clerics and soldiers have, with rare exceptions, all been male. Indeed, the annals of the sultanate and Mughal history, both medieval and modern, are largely tales of powerful and quarrelsome men vying for power and patronage. The local patriarchal society, influenced by the zeal of West Asian Islam, ensured the almost complete invisibility of women.

The brief reign of Razia Sultan (1236-1240) was an exception, though her ascension to the Delhi sultanate throne and subsequent dethronement and exile, as well as the continuous resistance of clergy and nobles to her political persona, only reinforced the predominance to patriarchy. Other than Razia Sultan and Queen Nur Jahan, who both gave up purdah and participated in the brutal politics of men, rarely did a woman rise to a position of authority or influence. For her part, Nur Jahan (1577-1645) experienced particular success, but her precedent was not the norm – she was Persian, after all, and was considered a particularly wily player of power politics. And Nur Jahan is demonised as a power-hungry monster, who supposedly subjugated the masculinity of her emperor husband to assume charge of the Mughal Empire. Indeed, in the words of that husband, Jahangir, the kingdom had been ‘sold’ to his wife for a cup of wine and a bowl of soup. Nur Jahan has also been accused of misdeeds that were common to powerful men of that age: bribery, nepotism and the weaving of court intrigues. Such faint praise aside, all the while her lasting contributions to the Mughal court – the cuisine, lifestyle and trends of that age – have been largely overlooked, to appear as little more than ‘feminine’ footnotes in the main narrative of Southasian power.

Lahore is where Nur Jahan and Jahangir married, and where they established their royal home. As a Lahorite, the childhood memories of this writer are inextricably mixed with those of many visits to Jahangir’s tomb. But the name of this much-celebrated monument is also particularly symbolic: it is not just the final resting place of Jahangir, but also that of the queen who lovingly designed the buildings and surrounding gardens, to their very last detail. Many of the architecturally significant additions made to the Lahore Fort, such as the zenana (female) quarters, have never been attributed to her. The irony, of course, is that Nur Jahan was the only queen who actually spent the majority of her royal life in Lahore. Other Mughal Emperors and Empresses lived in Agra or Delhi, save a few years of Akbar’s sojourn in Lahore. However, the histories of Lahore inevitably reduce Nur Jahan’s era to a brief footnote or an unread appendix.

But there is more to this story of the neglected women of the Mughal court than Razia Sultan and Nur Jahan. Buried within the folds of history is the tale of two princesses who have always remained well out of sight of the mainstream historical narratives of the Mughals. In recent decades, historians and novelists have indeed begun to explore the lives of princesses Jahanara and Zebunnissa, but the scanty primary sources available have largely thwarted these endeavours. Nonetheless, the stories of these extraordinary Mughal women dazzle through the mists of time, and their central paradox cannot be overlooked: the princesses were royal, and hence noteworthy, and yet they are almost completely invisible in what Southasians know as ‘history’. […]

July 18th, 2008|History, Published in Himal Magazine|37 Comments

Journeying into mysticism (noted as one the best articles of 2007)

Indian Muslims Blog is now two years old. The IM team have compiled the best articles published at the blog in 2007. Shameless as it sounds, one of my guest articles – Journeying into Mysticism is included in the category. As the editor Mohib, said the “colorful downloadable pdf file is worth reading for the diversity of views and opinions. IM blog team has been most kind to allow me to occasionally contribute to the space. In the process I have learnt a lot about the country and its Muslim population. But most importantly, I have found a few good friends from Lucknow, Kakori, Bhopal, and Bihar among other places. wah wah, kiya kehnay blogosphere ke…

To blow my own little trumpet in this seamless and infinite blogosphere, here is my piece for those readers who may not have read it earlier.

Journeying into mysticism

I turn my face towards the monsoon breeze and lament that I’m in Delhi for work. How will I manage the sightseeing agenda? The faint scent of champa flowers seems hauntingly familiar and I am reminded of Lahore. Despite my efforts, visa hassles and my non-Indo-Pak-peace-brigade status have prevented this journey from materialising for years. Driving through Delhi at night, I almost start the litany of superficial judgments but stop for fear of falling into the abyss of cliches. Nevertheless, I cannot help but notice the images of exotic India, or the official Incredible India. Yes, incredible is the word.

The Maurya Sheraton hotel is a haven of comfort totally removed from the real Delhi world. This is what I resent about luxury hotels in developing countries: the sense of disconnectedness, the ultimate denial of what lies beneath. Maurya is packed with party-hoppers as there is a huge weekend bash at the hotel. The Delhi party-goers are far more free-spirited than the Pakistani lot. They appear at ease with what they wear and do, and conduct themselves in a remarkably unselfconscious manner. The hotel driver, Uttam Ram, warned me that the ‘real’ India is different, that this crowd is too Westernised and the influence of Bollywood is to be blamed. . . but how can I agree? I live on Bollywood myself. The journey has been too long and that first night in Delhi, I crash on the huge four-poster bed. I am not a party boy after all!

Sunday morning passes in work – yes, I work on Sundays and have often thought of killing myself for accepting such terms in my mortal life. After an afternoon nap, I wake up to a sense of regret for having wasted a day in Dilli. I get in touch with Sadia Dehalvi, hoping for her company during my visit to Nizamuddin Auliya’s tomb. She is already planning to go there and we plan to meet a little before sunset.

I reach Mathura Road in an hour and soon find myself wading through its distinctly medieval ambience: labyrinthine alleys, crowds of beggars and street-vendors, a bazaar mood. To my delight, I spot a sign pointing towards Ghalib’s mazaar . This is a traditionally Muslim area: there are several signs offering Umra packages and most signs are in Urdu. The stereotype of suffering Indian Muslims gains currency here. I try not to notice all that and walk around until I find Ghalib’s mazaar . Having being fixated on Ghalib and his poetry for the better part of my life, I am a little disappointed by the matter-of-factness of the place. Even though the tomb has recently been renovated after a court order, it is quite low-key. Nevertheless, the area retains a unique atmosphere and the building itself is somewhat alluring. Near it is the Ghalib Academy, but I rush to Nizamuddin’s dargah and follow the scent of desi roses until I find my way to the tomb. […]

January 15th, 2008|India, India-Pakistan History, South Asian Literature, Sufism|6 Comments

Mughal Princess Zebunnissa – Lady of the age

Mughal history ignores women of the empire, including Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-Nissa: patron of the arts, poet, and a keeper of several lovers – according to rumours. The eldest daughter, she was Aurangzeb’s close companion for several years. She was born in 1638 to Dilras Bano of the Persian Safavid dynasty. Loved by Aurangzeb, she was named carefully to reflect his station.

A favourite, she was exposed to the affairs of the Mughal court. With a sound education in the arts, languages, astronomy and sciences of the day, Zeb-un-Nissa turned into an aware and sensitive princess. She never married and kept herself occupied by poetry and a spiritual Sufi quest.

This is the irony – Aurangzeb’s daughter was an antithesis of her father’s persona and politics. Zeb-un-Nissa was both a Sufi and a gifted poet. The Divan-i-Makhfi – a major divan – is credited to her name. Given her father’s dislike for poetry, she could only be makhfi – the invisible.

There was subversion too – like all rebels she attended and participated in the literary and cultural events of her age, dressed in her veil.

Unlike her puritanical father, Zeb-un-Nissa did not share her father’s orthodox views on religion and society. Steeped in mystic thought, her ghazals sang of love, freedom and inner experience: […]

The invisible Princess Zebunnisa

A lesser known character from the Mughal Empire is princess Zebunnisa, the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb. Unlike her puritanical father, Zebunnisa was a Sufi poet and did not share her father’s orthodoxy. Here is a translated version of her beautiful verses:

`Things of Love’

Though I am Laila of Persian […]