The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Sufi Islam: An interview with Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi

By Shafeeq Muhammed

The World Sufi Forum, an All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) initiative, was organized to bring together spiritually inclined scholars, luminaries and visionaries of all faiths and traditions from different parts of the world to strengthen and spread the message of Peace, Tolerance, and Unconditional Love. The first world Sufi conference was held in New Delhi, India, from 17 to 20 March 2016. The World Sufi Forum was inaugurated in New Delhi by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 17 March 2016.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is the Editor-in-Chief of an independent online journal, Word for Peace and media co-coordinator of The World Sufi Forum. In this interview, Dehlvi speaks to Shafeeq Muhammed.  

Shafeeq Muhammed: Despite its long history of Islamic mysticism when it gave up its neutral role as a non-political, contemplative theology and actively joined political fights both on individual and collective level, Sufism has been often overlooked. Why is there an underestimation of the role played by Sufism in modern politics?

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi: In fact, Sufis have indeed played a vital role in all walks of life, including religious, social, economic, ethical, and spiritual aspects.

As for political activism of Shaikh Sir Hindi, Shah Waliullah Dehlvi, Shaikh Suharwardi and the closeness of Naqshbandi Sufi order to the political establishments of their times, it was a necessity of time and a needful thing. But their prime concern was ethical reform, spiritual enlightenment, and moral regeneration of society.

SM: But there is a traditional notion in Islam that Sufism is somewhat based on asceticism.

GRD: Sufism or Islamic mysticism is not asceticism. Therefore, getting cut off from the world affairs is not integral to Sufism. Certain Sufis, who were also Ulama, engaged in political activism. Nearly all Sufis, who were proactive in political realm, too were Ulama, Qazis, jurists and Muftis. Therefore they had to engage in it for unavoidable reasons. Sheikh Sir Hindi, Shah Waliullah Dehlvi and others were sober Sufis and renowned Ulama at the same time.

SM: Muhammad Iqbal, a well known poet, who was so inspired by Sufism that he called Jalaluddin Rumi as his guide on the paths to truth, however, remarked that the medieval mysticism was a cause of social stagnation for Muslims. How did Sufism and Sufis overcome this handicap?

GRD: There was a logical and gradual progression in the thought of Allama Iqbal. This was his view in his earlier days. But later on he changed his perception. Initially, he considered Sufism antithetical to Islam. However, he developed a progressive view on Sufism in his later days. Therefore, he ardently praised Attar, Rumi, Ghazali, Shams Tabrezi, and Pioneers of Sufism in their ages. Nevertheless, if Sufism is shorn of its spiritual and universal values, and is contaminated with medieval era stagnation, it cannot augur well.

SM: It seems to be more important than ever that the Muslim world must search serious challenges of the so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. Sufism is considered as an alternative to fundamentalism. Can Sufism rescue Islam from Islamic fundamentalism?

GRD: Religious Extremism in not a recent phenomenon that emerged in the Muslim community. Erroneous interpretations of Islamic doctrines and cherry-picking the Qur’anic verses have long been playing out in the Islamic history, causing sectarian strife and communitarian conflicts. The nefarious killing of Hazrat Ali, the 4th Caliph of Islam, by Ibn Muljim was the worst and foremost evidence of that. Sufism, which was strengthened by Hazrat Ali R.A., has always been an antidote to extremism. In the entire history of Islam, this spiritually inclined mainline Islamic path has been rescuing Muslims from all forms of extremist tendencies. However, pseudo-Sufis have done great damage to the core values of Islamic essential spirituality.

SM: There are some other aspects of Sufism which make its teachings attractive to the contemporary world. As Rumi said,
“By loving wisdom doth the soul know life?
What has it got to do with senseless strife?
Of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Turk?”
What is the contemporary relevance of mystical teachings to secularism? 

GRD: Sufi saints disseminated their pluralistic messages at a time when the idea of secularism or religious tolerance was not even debated in a large part of Western Europe. They laid greater emphasis on the broader Qur’anic notion of wasatiyyah (moderation in life), maintaining a moderate narrative of Islam. It exhorts man not to transgress the limits determined by God. Since the Sufi saints practiced this spiritual Islamic principle in its entirety, they shunned all forms of extremism (tatarruf), harshness (tanattu), violence (tashaddud) and exaggeration (ghuloow) not only in matters of faith, but in all walks of life. They believed that spirituality is a luminous and universal body of truths that wins the hearts. However, they strongly disagreed with the practices of subjecting spirituality to any narrow interpretation of religion. They rather advocated the universal values of religion that reach the minds and the hearts of people beyond man-made distinctions. Thus, they found the solution to human problems both of material and spiritual nature, in the spiritual and mystical teachings of Islam. Of course, the intellectual Sufi efforts on de-radicalization came at a time when the mainstream Indian Muslims seemed to be mentally responsive to countering extremist and hardcore philosophies of sorts.

There was a long-felt need for an overhaul in the Indian Muslim society to sustain peace, pluralism, inclusiveness, moderation, reason and rationality. Let us hope this Sufi movement led by Sufi scholars as well as the spiritual luminaries ushers in a new era of peace, pluralism and composite culture in the country and abroad. If this Sufi event aspires to tackle the continued violent extremism by the Islamist cults, candidly exposing their brazen violation of human rights, this is also welcome. We do need such community response against violent extremism, not only in Indian Muslim community but across the Muslim world.

SM: The World Sufi Conference, held in New Delhi, India, from 17 to 20 March 2016, dominated media discourse because it was inaugurated by the so-called Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Is there any contradiction in this?

GRD: Since India’s PM spoke so highly of Islam and Sufism at the World Sufi Forum, the rest of the world got the message that it should utilise the Sufi counter-extremist ideas to fight global terrorism. As for the common Indian Muslims imbued in the mainstream Rishi-Sufi tradition of the country, they are now taking a careful look at the agenda and declaration of the World Sufi Forum focusing on the essentials of their religion. They are eager to learn how best they can survive in these volatile times. Apparently, non-Muslim communities have developed better expectations. They hope this Indian Sufi narrative, guided by the essential universal values and based on categorical denouncement of the extremist ideology, will usher in a new era of peace and pluralism.

It would be interesting to include in this discussion a few quotes from the Prime Minister’s speech that was addressed to the Indian Muslims in general and Islamic scholars in particular:

A belief in harmony with the message of Holy Quran that mankind was one community, and then they differed among themselves, a creed echoed in the words of the great Persian Sufi poet Saadi, written in the United Nations, that human beings come from the same source: We are one family…

At a time when the dark shadow of violence is becoming longer, you are the Noor, or the light of hope. When young laughter is silenced by guns on the streets, you are the voice that heals…In a world that struggles to assemble for peace and justice, this is an assembly of those whose life itself is a message of peace, tolerance and love. And, you represent the rich diversity of the Islamic civilization that stands on the solid bedrock of a great religion. It is a civilization that reached great heights by the 15th century in science, medicine, literature, art, architecture and commerce…

It drew on the immense talents of its people and also Islam’s engagement with diverse civilizations – ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Africa, the Persian, Central Asian and Caucasian lands, and the region of East Asia…It set, once again, an enduring lesson of human history: it is through openness and enquiry, engagement and accommodation, and respect for diversity that humanity advances, nation’s progress and the world prosper…

And, this is the message of Sufism, one of the greatest contributions of Islam to this world…

SM: Can you elucidate some of the initiatives of the World Sufi Forum in India?

GRD: The contemporary Sufi Islamic scholars, Ulama and Mashaikh, Imams and muftis from India to Arabian, African and western countries, particularly Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia, Malaysia, Chechnya, Pakistan, UAE and war-torn Syria, have come together at the World Sufi Forum. They built a strong consensus to contain the menace of radical thoughts and religious extremism. They have produced profound, truly unique and immaculate Islamic spiritual theories, which can enlarge the ambit of modern approaches to peace, non-violence and counter-terrorism. Interestingly, Sufis are not social scientists but their blends of ideas are highly significant for peace and counter-extremism. They have been speaking emphatically about importance of peace, reconciliation, and counter-extremism. Now, they should begin to explore new paradigms to respond to the imperatives of modern contexts. Given their enormous faith in the synergistic role of the diverse streams of Islamic spiritually for the purpose of peace, their proactive role and support is vital to foster peace and pluralism and curb extremism, religious bigotry and hatred, or intolerance in the name of Islam.

Shafeeque Muhammed is enrolled in a special intensive programme in classical Islamic studies at Madeenathunnoor College of Islamic Science, Kozhikode, Kerala, India. His areas of interest are Quranic science, translation, theology, jurisprudence, and contemporary Islamic thought.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Beat and the Hungry generation: When losing became hip’, edited by Goirick Brahmachari, poet & Abhimanyu Kumar, poet/journalist, New Delhi, India.


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